Guttied by the hunger for Sapotaceae

It has been dubbed “the most important plant family you’ve never heard of” and from Saturday, March 19 to Sunday, July 24 visitors to the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) can discover just how much we have relied upon the pantropical Sapotaceae for everything from golf balls to intercontinental communication and continue to exploit it with advancements in skin care and miracle sweeteners. Even the iconic hornbill bird has a place in Nature Mother of Invention, the major exhibition in the John Hope Gateway.

With an underlying premise that creativity and invention do not flourish in isolation, the exhibition uses Sapotaceae to explore the ongoing fascination for life enhancing – and life-sustaining – products that have influenced the world since Victorian times. The main vehicle for this fun and informative excursion is the “gutty” or, to be accurate, several pairs of gutties as remembered particularly, if not fondly, by individuals who had the cheap plimsolls forced upon them as young children.

This is an exhibition brimming over with “human” stories to engage all ages, as RBGE tropical botanist and Sapotaceae expert Dr Peter Wilkie explained: “This is a large family of trees and shrubs, first brought to the attention of Europeans in the mid-17thcentury and the latex produced by these plants is a good example of the innovation and - the implications – that come from exploitation (and over exploitation) of nature. The basis of the ‘gutty’ was not the natural rubber of today but gutta-percha, the latex produced by trees of the genus Palaquium, from the family Sapotaceae. Unlike the elastic natural rubber, gutta-percha is malleable when heated and retains its shape when cooled.

“As a result it has been useful for a wealth of objects both ornamental and utilitarian – from the aforementioned plimsoll to dental filler and jewellery. However, probably the greatest impact on the modern world has been as the basis for under-sea telegraph cables laid from 1857 to allow intercontinental telecommunications and, more recently, the internet.

Other members of the Spapotaceae family featuring in the exhibition range from Shea butter from the Vitellaria paradoxa tree to Argan oil from kernels of the argan tree, endemic to Morocco and miracle berry - Synsepalum dulcificum – the fruit that, when eaten, causes sour foods such as lemons and limes to taste sweet. Interactive piece include an invitation to try your hand at Morse code.

The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh is a charity (registration number SC007983)