Botanical Britain: Herbaria

2a Hookeria flavenscens

Specimen of Hookeria flavescens with watercolor drawings by Robert Kaye Greville, Herbarium at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

To me travel provides the opportunity to visit herbaria.  I walked past Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace at the opposite ends of what’s called Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, and it was great to see their very different architectures, as well as the wonderful architecture in between, including the modern Scottish Parliament Building and many structures dating to the 17th and 18th centuries.  But it was the herbarium at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) where I saw truly amazing sights.  I will go into this in more detail in subsequent posts, here I’m just going to hit the high points of what I saw at RBGE and several other herbaria I visited on my recent trip to Britain (see last post).  A few years ago, RBGE published a book called Botanical Treasures (Atkins et al., 2014) with photographs and descriptions of objects from its herbarium and library, so I had a guide to some of the collections.  Sally Rae, assistant herbarium curator, took out specimens prepared by Robert Kaye Greville, an expert in mosses, who sometimes painted watercolors of specimens on the sheets (see photo above).  In the library, Graham Hardy showed me a copy of Greville’s Flora Edinensis Cryptogamia with blank pages interleafed where Greville added notes and watercolors on new species.  This is just one example of the riches of these collections and how library and herbarium interrelate.  Others were shown me by Henry Noltie, a noted researcher in Indian botany and the history of its botanical illustrations (2002, 2016, 2017).

At the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Mark Nesbitt, curator of the Economic Botany Collection, gave me a tour of its storage facility for over 100,000 specimens.  In 1847 Kew was the first to open an economic botany museum and while its museum building has now been converted into a restaurant (see photo below), with a few of the displays retained (see photo below), the collection is intact.  Nesbitt is working with colleagues at Kew and Royal Holloway to track the many items that Kew distributed to other institutions over the years in a project called the Mobile Museum. He and Carine Cornish (2016) have documented how, as interest in economic botany declined in the 1950s, specimens from such collections were disbursed to herbaria and botanical collections, while the artifacts made from plant material—everything from palm mats to barkcloth jackets—found their way into world culture or ethnographic collections.  As interest in both types of assemblages is now growing, Nesbitt has worked with a group of colleagues to create a guide on Curating Biocultural Collections: A Handbook (Salick, Konchar & Nesbitt, 2014).

2b Kew Cafe

Display case with wax orchid models at The Botanical restaurant at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

I went to Oxford University Herbarium to see portions of the William Sherard (1659-1728) collection.  In my exploration of pre-Linnaean botany, his name kept coming up in a number of contexts:  he studied with Joseph Pitton de Tournefort in Paris and Paul Hermann in Leiden, helped finance Mark Catesby’s trip to the Carolinas, collaborated with John Ray and other leading botanists of his day, served as advisor to the noted horticulturalist Mary Somerset, Duchess of Beaufort, and did extensive research on a revision of Caspar Bauhin’s Pinax Theatri Botanici.  Oxford has one of the great historical herbarium collections as well as an extensive modern collection.  The Druce Curator of the herbarium, Stephen Harris, has written extensively on what it contains (2007, 2015, 2018) and showed me some of the large of boxes of notes for the Pinax revision that Sherard and his later collaborators, Johann Jacob Dillenius and Humphry Sipthorp kept, though it was never published.  Also, Sherard had obtained a portion of Paul Hermann’s plant collection and manuscripts, and these included the class lists from Hermann’s courses at Leiden (see photo below).  Leiden was such an important center of medical education at the time, in large part because it was one of the few institutions open to religious dissenters who flocked there from the British Isles, France, and Germany (Stearn, 1962).  These lists bear this out.

2c Sherard

Pages from one of William Sherard’s notebooks for his unfinished revision of Caspar Bauhin’s Pinax Theatri Botanici, University of Oxford Herbarium.

I switched gears and saw a much more recent collection in the Royal Horticultural Society RHS herbarium at Wisley that has a different character than that of most herbaria.  There is an obvious emphasis on cultivated plants; even the way the sheets are prepared is somewhat different.  As the Keeper of the Herbarium Yvette Harvey explained, the collection was begun in the early 20th century with student collections.  Each horticultural student was expected to prepare 200 specimens during their course of study.  This practice remained until the 1980s, when the number was down to 10 per student.  Now the collection is continually enlarged as specimens are prepared from plants growing in RHS gardens often as a result of research projects.  For many years it was the practice to paint watercolors of prize-winning plants on the specimen sheets in order to provide a color record.  Now instead, labels record colors matched with the RHS numbered color cards to provide a consistent system for indicating color.  Also the sheets display dissected flower parts as well as intact blooms.

2d Beaufort p8

Page from Volume 131 of the Sloane Herbarium with specimens from Mary Somerset, Duchess of Beaufort at the Natural History Museum, London.

The last herbarium I visited was in a sense the daddy of them all, that of Hans Sloane at the Natural History Museum, London.  There are 265 volumes housed in a purpose-built facility.  All I can manage here is a brief introduction to what I saw and learned there.  I was guided by Fred Rumsey, senior curator in charge of the historical plant collections.  Sloane himself gathered many of the plants in the first seven volumes, which include those from his stay in Jamaica.  However, he acquired many more botanical specimens through purchase and trade, just as he acquired coins, books, works of art, ethnographic materials, etc., etc.  Among these were specimens prepared for Mary Somerset.  In one of her volumes, it says on the first page that these specimens were prepared “by order of Mary, Duchess of Beaufort.”  It seems that she demanded care in the process (see photo above).  The pages are large and each specimen is folded in its own piece of paper which is then attached, along with a number of others, to a page.  Unfortunately, there was so much to see, I didn’t get past the first volume of her plants, but it was enough to make me want another trip to London ASAP.  I also learned a great deal from my conversation with Rumsey and with Mark Carine, principle curator for plants.

References

Atkins, H., & et al. (2014). Botanical Treasures: Objects from the Herbarium and Library of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. Edinburgh, UK: Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

Harris, S. (2007). The Magnificent Flora Graeca: How the Mediterranean Came to the English Garden. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Harris, S. A. (2015). William Sherard: His herbarium and his Pinax. Oxford Plant Systematics, 21, 13–15.

Harris, S. A. (2018). Seventeenth-century plant lists and herbarium collections: A case study from the Oxford Physic Garden. Journal of the History of Collections, 30(1), 1–14.

Nesbitt, M., & Cornish, C. (2016). Seeds of industry and empire: economic botany collections between nature and culture. Journal of Museum Ethnography, 29, 53–70.

Noltie, H. J (2002). The Dapuri Drawings: Alexander Gibson and the Bombay Botanic Gardens. Edinburgh, UK: Antique Collectors’ Club.

Noltie, H. J. (2016). Indian Forester, Scottish Laird: The Botanical Lives of Hugh Cleghorn of Stravithie. Edinburgh, UK: Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

Noltie, H. J. (2017). Botanical Art from India: the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh Collection. Edinburgh, UK: Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

Salick, J., Konchar, K., & Nesbitt, M. (2014). Curating Biocultural Collections. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Stearn, W. T. (1962). The influence of Leyden on Botany in the 17th and 18th centuries. The British Journal for the History of Science, 1(2), 137–158.

Note: I would like to thank Henry Noltie, Sally Rae, and Graham Hardy at the RBGE, Mark Nesbitt at Kew, Stephen Harris at Oxford, Yvette Harvey at Wisley, and Fred Rumsey and Mark Carine at NHM for their warm welcome and generous help.

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Botanical Britain: Gardens

1a Botanic cottage

Botanic Cottage, Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh

I’ve just spent a week in Edinburgh followed by one in London and needless to say, visiting herbaria was among my aims.  In future series, I’ll describe some of what I learned, but this series will be more general, about the experience of being in a land that cherishes plants.  Admittedly, autumn is not the best time to visit British gardens especially in a year with record heat and drought.  Still, I saw a number of them that looked wonderful despite these travails.  I was particularly thrilled to be in the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE), since I had read about it and followed its Twitter feed for some time.  I knew about the rebuilding of the Botanic Cottage and couldn’t wait to see it.  The cottage, completed on May 10, 1766, stood at the entrance to the former site of the RBGE in Leith Walk about a mile from the present garden (see photo above).  When it was threatened with demolition a few years ago, it was moved to the present site with reconstruction completed last year.  My timing again was off, the cottage wasn’t open on the days I was there so I had to settle for seeing it from the outside.  This building adds a great deal to the garden’s atmosphere and made me realize that though we go to gardens to see plants, the structures there can impact experience.

1b Bonsai

Malus bonsai tree at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

The same thought struck me a few days later at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.  I had visited before, but still it was great to see its pagoda, newly refurbished Temperate Plant House, and Kew Palace, where George III and Queen Charlotte lived during the summer months.  I also discovered a hot house of Bonsai trees including a profusely blooming apple (see photo above).  The long flower beds lining what is called the Broad Walk were spectacular, though more with seed pods than flowers.  My favorite experience was walking through wooded areas of Kew to Queen Charlotte’s Cottage, where she would retreat for quiet time.  It wasn’t open on the day I visited but sitting, looking at its Tudor brick and lumber work and thatched roof was wonderful for someone who only sees later reproduction Tudor architecture at home (see photo below).

1c Charlotte

Queen Charlotte’s Cottage at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Two days later, I was at another famous British garden with a long history, Chelsea Physic Garden.  While Kew has a lot of real estate and can spread out its collections creating long vistas, Chelsea is quite literally stuffed with plants, but in the most engaging way.  It was founded by apothecaries in 1673 as a resource for the profession, and its future was secured by the support of the physician Hans Sloane, who bought the property and permanently leased it to the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London for an annual payment of £5.  For 75 years, the society also contributed, at Sloane’s request, 50 herbarium specimens a year (Stungo, 1993).  This herbarium-as-rent was considered evidence that the garden was still being used as originally intended, to grow medicinal plants.  The buildings I found most memorable here were the small hothouses with their brick foundations; these too are full of plants.  Because of its scale, visitors are more apparent at Chelsea than at Kew so there is a more social flavor to the garden giving it a festive touch, especially on a sunny Sunday afternoon as when I visited.

1d Danby

Danby Gate at the University of Oxford Botanic Garden (taken by the author in January, 2014)

The next day I was at the University of Oxford Botanic Garden, founded as a physic garden in 1621.  Its most imposing architectural feature is the entry gate (see photo above), named in honor of the Earl of Danby, Edward Danvers whose funded the botanical garden, the oldest in Britain (Harris, 2017).  At the moment, the gate is completely covered in scaffolding, but the rest of the garden is flourishing, with over 8,000 species in a mere 4.5 acres.  Because of its old walls and position on the River Cherwell, it is easy to imagine Jacob Bobart, the elder and the younger, working here.  They were early superintendents of the garden and the younger also taught botany at Oxford, where the herbarium houses his specimens and manuscripts.

1e Wisley

RHS laboratory building at Wisley Garden.

The final garden I saw in Britain is one of four belonging to the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS).  Wisley is also where the RHS has its herbarium, which I’ll touch on in the next post.  I was lucky enough to have the keeper of the herbarium, Yvette Harvey, lead me to a Franklinia alatamaha in bloom because she thought I would like to see an American plant that had been discovered by John Bartram.  She also pointed out that Wisley is not a botanic garden so it has a different flavor, with more emphasis put on cultivars rather than on systematic botany.  While Kew and Oxford are magnificent, Wisley has a slightly different feel; it seems more about beauty and pleasure.  Yes, the plants are labeled, but the way the garden is laid out to lure visitors further and further into its depths to see more and more extraordinary plants.  There is also great architecture here as well, with the centerpiece being an Arts-and-Crafts style building from the early 20th century that, at least for an American, is a perfect fit for the surrounding garden’s massive herbaceous borders, trellised paths, and a rock garden (see photo above).  In the gardens I was lucky enough to visit, I got at least some hint of why the British are so in love with flowers and how they express that love so beautifully.

References

Harris, S. A. (2017). Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum: A Brief History. Oxford, UK: Bodleian Library.

Stungo, R. (1993). The Royal Society specimens from the Chelsea Physic Garden 1722-1799. Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 47(2), 213-224.