Shelf Life

What is Shelf Life?

Our ‘Shelf Life’ project is a collection of plants growing in the corresponding packaging of foods, drinks, cosmetics and medicines and is a reminder of our reliance upon nature and prompts you to ask the question:

How many plants have I used today?

These plants can be seen just outside our education building and include wheat growing in a bread tin, potato in a crisp packet, an olive tree in a tin of olive oil and a peanut plant in a jar of peanut butter, amongst many others.

Shelf Life was devised by Chelsea Physic Garden’s Education Department to illustrate the diversity of the plant kingdom and to make the link between our everyday products and their plant origins. It works very well as a visual educational tool. It is carrying on a long tradition at Chelsea Physic Garden of showing ways in which plants are essential to our lives.

If you’d like some tips on how to grow some plants for your own Shelf Life display, a selection of species, as well as some other facts are mentioned in a document entitled ’Grow your ownShelf Life exhibit‘ (Word.doc/78Kb)

your own Shelf Life

Many of the younger visitors to Chelsea Physic Garden (2500 per year) are very surprised – and often quite disgusted – that their meals may have come from plants. When (during an educational workshop) they see tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, beans and spearmint growing out of the shop-bought bottles, tins, bags and jars, the message sinks in.

We hope that Shelf Life will encourage you to consider the number of plant-based products you use from day to day.

Back in 2004, we exhibited a selection of 92 plants growing in the relevant packaging,at the 2004 RHS Chelsea Flower Show which earned us an RHS Silver Gilt Medal in the Lindley medal range (exhibits of special educational or scientific interest). Pictured below.

Shelf Life -3

Some educational offshoots of Shelf Life:

  • Biodiversity and Taxonomy – demonstrating the similarities of and differences between plant species and their respective families
  • Geography and Multiculturalism – the origins of these plants are as varied as their traditional cultural uses
  • Horticulture and basic Botany – through seed saving and propagation
  • Education for Sustainability – it instantly gives ‘rubbish’ a new lease of life
  • Nutrition – the values of different food types and the benefits of a healthy and balanced diet

The bigger picture – some plant and environmentally-related facts:

  • There are 270,000 named plant species on our planet
  • 34,000 of these are globally threatened with extinction
  • The incredible variety of plant-based products on sale increases to suit our ‘needs’ and changeable lifestyles
  • Over 50,000 plants in the world are reported to be edible
  • Over 80% of the world’s food is derived from plants
  • British shoppers spend one sixth of their annual food budgets on packaging
  • 5 billion plastic bags are used per year in U.K.
  • It is estimated that by 2030, 60% of the world’s population will be living in cities – predictions such as these will undoubtedly alter our relationships with nature
  • There are currently 2,404 botanic gardens worldwide – offering refuges for plants as well as nurturing and increasing our knowledge and understanding.
  • Botanic gardens form a vital network, working together to meet the targets set down in the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation by 2010; these include promoting awareness of plant diversity as well as its sustainable use
  • In the South-East of England, residential gardens – acting as ‘green corridors’ for plants and wildlife – cover 7.5% of the total land area
  • We can all make a difference to the world through a new approach to the 3R’s:
    Reduce your consumption of unnecessary packaging
    Reuse what you can – including seeds from the kitchen, bags and packaging
    Recycle as much as possible (visit to find out where your local facilities are)

Some facts from our shelves

1. Tea – Camellia sinensis
Indigenous to parts of Asia, this evergreen shrub is enjoyed by half the world’s population. The world’s biggest exporter of tea is Sri Lanka where 1 in 20 workers are employed by the tea industry. Tea bushes produce new tip growth every 7-10 days; these are then arduously collected by hand. The British drink 70 billion cups of tea each year.

2. Soy bean – Glycine max
Soya beans can also be used in the manufacture of paints and plastics. Containing 30-50% protein, they are present in approximately 60% of our processed foods and are widely used to feed cattle. Our ‘Shelf Life’ leaflet (available upon request) was printed using Linseed and Soya based inks.

3. Foxglove – Digitalis purpurea
The dried leaves of this native British species contain powerful cardiac glycosides which if ingested can be fatal. A correct dosage has been found to slow down and strengthen a rapid, irregular heart beat. This was discovered by William Withering, a physician, in the 1780’s and was a turning point away from herbal medicine and a major step towards pharmacology.

4. Cotton – Gossypium spp.
The raw material used to make 40% of our textiles; cotton has a long history of cultivation. Archaeological findings of seeds and fabrics from 4500 and 6000 years ago have been reported from Peru to India, respectively.
Each cotton fibre is an individual cell 3000 times longer than it is wide.

5. Vanilla – Vanilla planifolia
A native of Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, this tropical climbing orchid is the second most expensive spice after saffron. It takes 1.5 – 3 years before a cutting produces flowers. When grown commercially, these have to be pollinated by hand.

Resources relating to the Shelf Life project

Plants For People – Anna Lewington; Eden Project Books, 2003; ISBN: 1-903-91908-8 (highlighting the many ways plants relate to our lives)

The Pip Book – Keith Mossman; Penguin Books, 1973; ISBN: 0-14-046.255-4 (out of print, but well worth the search this book explains how to grow many varieties of seed otherwise destined for the bin)

Plants For A Future – Ken Fern; Permanent Publications, 1997; ISBN: 1-85623-011-2 (facts and practical growing tips about edible and useful plants for a healthier world)

Guns, Germs and Steel – A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years – Jared Diamond; Rhône-Poulenc, 1997; ISBN: 0-224-03809-5 (charting the evolution of agriculture and technology)

Botanic Gardens Conservation International – includes ways in which you can get involved in plant conservation –

Farming And Countryside Education – bringing the countryside into the heart of the classroom – or +44(0)247 685 8261

The Soil Association – the charity at the heart of the organic food and farming movement – or +44(0)117 929 0661

Garden Organic– dedicated to researching and promoting organic gardening, farming and food – or +44(0)247 630 3517

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