Victorian Botany: Conservatories

This series of posts is on plants and plant technologies that were popular in Victorian Britain and its spheres of influence, which means just about everywhere.  What started me on this topic was coming upon several books that fitted the theme including Kate Teltscher’s (2020) Palace of Palms: Tropical Dreams and the Making of Kew.  It deals with the transformation of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew from a failing establishment to the hub of a horticulture empire in the mid-19th century.  She begins with the botanical politics involved in rescuing Kew in the 1830s.  At that point it was composed of 11 acres that abutted the much larger Royal Pleasure Grounds.  It was directed by William Aiton who had been there for years and who wouldn’t share plants with other botanical gardens and even refused to label plants after several prized specimens had been stolen. 

It seemed to many that Kew was not worth saving, but there was push back and a commission was formed to investigate the situation.  It was comprised of John Lindley from the Royal Horticultural Society, Joseph Paxton gardener for the Duke of Devonshire, and John Wilson, gardener for the Earl of Surrey.  While the first two were well-known and respected in botanical and horticultural circles, Wilson was a political appointee.  With much behind-the-scenes maneuvering, the commission recommended that the garden be saved and converted from royal to governmental control.  The next step was finding someone to direct it, with Aiton staying on as director of the pleasure grounds.  Lindley wanted the job, but it ultimately went to William Jackson Hooker, professor of botany at the University of Glasgow.  He brought with him a library and a herbarium of over a million specimens, the largest in Britain at the time.

Teltscher does a great job of describing how Hooker set about improving Kew’s reputation in the botanical and horticultural communities.  He sent John Smith, the curator of living collections, on a tour of gardens throughout the United Kingdom to learn about novel practices, pick up design ideas, and let it be known that Kew was interested in sharing its duplicate stock with gardens that could reciprocate.  Smith returned with a feeling of accomplishment and a greater willingness to work with Hooker, who had gotten the job Smith  thought he should have.  Relatively early in this new regime, plans began for a new palm house, since Kew’s palms were pushing through the roof of their greenhouse.  A new glass and iron conservatory was modeled on the one that Paxton had designed for the Duke of Devonshire’s estate at Chatsworth.  I had known of Paxton’s involvement, but I knew nothing of the role played by Richard Turner, an engineer with a foundry in Dublin.  He devised a new type of iron framework for the glass panes and also designed a heating and ventilation system.  Just as in describing Kew’s rescue, Teltscher is good at laying out the intricacies involved in building this massive structure that covered over half an acre.

When the Palm House was completed in 1848, it fell to Smith to fill the vast space.  Massive palms had to be moved from their old venue and from several other greenhouses.  Still, this left the side aisles bare in the early days, as fast-growing species were nurtured in the emptied structures.  However, the public was thrilled with what they saw, and visitors to Kew increased as did its reputation in horticultural circles.  The garden now had a focal point, a symbol of its botanical wealth and reputation.  Meanwhile, Hooker was building the garden in other ways.  Aiton had retired in 1845 and Hooker was given control over the pleasure grounds, which meant that Kew had grown from 11 acres to over 200.  Plant exchanges continued to enrich the garden’s variety of plants, as Kew was encouraging donations not only from other botanic gardens but from those who traveled widely.  Hooker also maintained correspondence with botanists and plant collectors who sent him specimens from around the world.  Vast collections came from botanists working in gardens in India, Australia, and other British colonies.  Kew became a hub for the global transfer of plants including, of course, palms. 

Palms were sources of fruits like dates and coconuts, as well as oil, building materials, and fiber for ropes, baskets, and even cloth.  Though Aiton had stored economic botany materials that Joseph Banks had sent to Kew as evidence of the financial potential of exotic species, the materials had never been organized or catalogued until John Smith employed his son to do the job.  Eventually Alexander Smith became curator of the collection and in charge of the Museum of Vegetable Products opened in 1847.  This was soon renamed the Museum of Economic Botany and eventually grew to spread over four buildings in its heyday (Nesbitt & Cornish, 2016). 

Despite all this garden administration, Hooker still found time to continue his studies on ferns and produce a multi-volume work.  In addition, he nurtured the botanical career of his son, Joseph Dalton Hooker.  The Hooker family was not wealthy, so Joseph had to earn a living.  His father engineered his appointment to an expedition to India, and later Joseph became assistant director at Kew.  At his father’s death, Joseph was named director, and after some negotiations, William Hooker’s herbarium and library were sold to Kew, thus providing Joseph with a modest inheritance and Kew with solid scientific resources.  This is essentially where Teltscher’s story ends, though Kew continued to move from strength to strength, always with the Palm House as its symbol.


Teltscher, K. (2020). The Palace of Palms: Tropical Dreams and the Making of Kew. London: Picador.

Cataloguing Biodiversity

This series of posts deals with threats to biodiversity from a botanical perspective.  There is no lack of evidence for climate change and it’s easy to become overwhelmed and pessimistic.  But the only way forward is to learn more about what is happening and why, and then to take action based on that knowledge.  One example of the botanical community’s efforts is a report published by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, with contributions from a global roster of researchers.  State of the World’s Plants and Fungi 2020 is a useful blend of optimism and caution, presenting how biodiversity is catalogued, what is being learned about it, and how it can be preserved and also used into the future.  This latest report is supplemented with articles in a special issue of Plants, People, Planet as well as with a virtual symposium.  Earlier, Kew had published separate reports on plants and on fungi, but it made sense to combine them since this is how they are found in the world. 

It’s no surprise that Kew would have a leadership role in biodiversity research with its impressive staff and the world’s largest herbarium.  It also has a long history of studying plant diversity in developing nations, though granted, for a good portion of this history Kew’s efforts were on behalf of the world’s largest colonial power.  Garden administrators directed far-flung collectors, who relied on the expertise and labor of countless indigenous assistants and enslaved persons in finding plants that often proved economically important to the British (Brockway, 1979).  The past and future are intertwined at Kew in complex ways in its living and preserved plant collections.  Kew sponsored a symposium on the recent work of digitizing its collection of Miscellaneous Reports that colonial botanic gardens sent to Kew.  It is an important step in decolonizing its collection and was a fascinating look into how plants and plant products moved throughout the British Empire.

The present Kew report notes that 1942 new vascular plant species were described in 2019.  Many new finds were recently collected, but herbaria harbor plants awaiting identification and in some cases discovery as new species.  There is no solid estimate of the earth’s total plant diversity, of how many different plants exist.  The best record of known plants runs to around 350,000, with 325,000 of them flowering plants.  The situation with fungi is cloudier.  Almost 150,000 fungal species have been named and described; 1,886 were added in 2019.  With much research now being done on fungi, greater diversity is becoming apparent, and estimates of the number of fungal species now range from over two to nearly four million.  To me this is one of the most fascinating aspects of the report:  how the power of the fungal world is finally coming to be appreciated.  Two books that have done much for fungal publicity are Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees (2016) on how fungi support plant life and Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life (2020) on how fungi influence so much of the living world. 

The Kew report notes that the great biodiversity in tropical areas means some countries, though explored for centuries, are still yielding many discoveries.  Brazil, Madagascar, India, and South Africa have been collection areas from the sixteenth century on.  There have been a number of projects where these sites have been revisited, with older collections used in planning surveys.  The new work may recollect the same specimens, which can be used in genetic comparisons with the older plants.  Not finding some species points to changes in the habitat due to climate change or other factors, and not surprisingly there may be new species found as well.

Island ecosystems are particularly rich in endemic species found nowhere else:  83% of Madagascar’s 11,138 native plant species are limited to this island, making learning about and protecting its flora especially important.  A recent study in New Guinea reports that it has the world’s richest island flora with 13,634 species, 68% endemic (Cámara-Leret et al., 2020).  This is the first comprehensive plant list for the island, and the study could be a model for future work in other areas, though it may still be quite incomplete.  There are 3,962 tree species on the list, which seems impressive, but the number found in an inventory of the Amazon region was over 10,000.  In South America, researchers surveyed all the plants in almost 2000 study plots, a time-consuming and labor-intensive cataloguing job particularly under difficult conditions.  In New Guinea, only 300 plots were surveyed, which may explain the lower tree species count.  This suggests that discovering biodiversity is both hard work and not near its end, while these species-rich areas are under increasing threat from development (Novotny & Molem, 2020).

There are many factors involved in estimating biodiversity.  It is not just the density of sampling, but where the sampling is done.  Studies of the geographic locations on herbarium specimens has uncovered many collection biases because botanists, being human, tend to collect relatively close to home and even during exploration, find some areas easier to access than others.  For former colonies, the regions around botanic gardens were often well studied, or were along supply routes, or near seaports or other urban areas.  Species-rich regions of South Africa were explored from the 17th century (see image above), but there were no collections in some areas until the end of the 19th century when they were opened to agriculture (Cowell, 2020).  Few collections were made in highly diverse portions of Cameroon until they were surveyed over a decade beginning in 2004; 2240 plant species were found with about a tenth under threat of extinction (Demissew, 2015).


Brockway, L. B. (1979). Science and Colonial Expansion: The Role of the British Royal Botanic Gardens. Interdisciplinary Anthropology, 6(3), 449–465.

Cámara-Leret, R., Frodin, D. G., Adema, F., Anderson, C., Appelhans, M. S., Argent, G., Arias Guerrero, S., Ashton, P., Baker, W. J., Barfod, A. S., Barrington, D., Borosova, R., Bramley, G. L. C., Briggs, M., Buerki, S., Cahen, D., Callmander, M. W., Cheek, M., Chen, C.-W., … van Welzen, P. C. (2020). New Guinea has the world’s richest island flora. Nature, 584(7822), 579–583.

Cowell, C. R., Anderson, P. M. L., & Annecke, W. A. (2020). Historic herbarium specimens as biocultural assets: An examination of herbarium specimens and their in situ plant communities of the Agulhas National Park, South Africa. People and Nature, 2(2), 483–494.

Demissew, S., Beentje, H., Cheek, M., & Friis, I. (2015). Sub-Saharan botanical collections: Taxonomic research and impediments. In I. Friis & H. Balslev (Eds.), Tropical Plant Collections: Legacies from the Past? Essential Tools for the Future? (pp. 97–114). Stockholm: Scientia Danica.

Novotny, V., & Molem, K. (2020). An inventory of plants for the land of the unexpected. Nature, 584(7822), 531–533.

Sheldrake, M. (2020). Entangled Life. London: Bodley Head.

Wohlleben, P. (2016). The Hidden Life of Trees. London: Harper Collins.

Where the Herbaria Are: Botanical Gardens

1 Kew

Staircase in the first building of the herbarium of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

All herbaria are basically the same.  They all have cabinets filled with folders, each with specimens attached to thick sheets of white paper that are almost the same size.  They may have other types of collections, but the sense you get when you enter an herbarium is usually of ranks of cabinets.  However, on my visits to herbaria I have also been struck by how different they can be:  in size, in collection strategies, in ancillary collections, and in their position within larger institutions.  So in this series of posts, I’m going to explore some of the cultural differences among plant collections that are dependent on their institutional environments.  I’ll begin with what is one of the largest categories, those affiliated with botanic gardens.

It’s probably more than coincidence that the first botanic garden, founded in 1543 in Pisa, was begun by the Italian botanist Luca Ghini who is also believed to be the originator of the herbarium somewhat earlier.  Both were used to support Ghini’s teaching of materia medica at the Pisan medical school.  He would take students out to the garden after class, pointing out the plants he had just described in lecture; sometimes he would show them the pressed specimen as well, so they could appreciate how drying changed a plant’s appearance.  The herbarium also served as a teaching aid during the winter months.  Around the time this garden was founded, Leonhart Fuchs (1542) published one of the first printed herbals with accurate plant illustrations, to supplement the information available in gardens and herbaria.  These three innovations were essential to the development of early modern botany, and it’s not surprising that they are still often found together today.

Great botanical gardens usually have great herbaria and great libraries.  This is true of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, New York Botanical Garden (NYBG), Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne, and many others.  From the very beginning, specimens have been supported by text; an unlabeled specimen is virtually useless.  But as botany developed, sources such as Fuchs were cited as ways to link name and plant description.  Books became vital references, and needed to be close at hand.  The fact that the Pisa garden was attached to a university is also important.  This was an institution where knowledge was passed on and generated, with specimens playing a role in both endeavors.  In my next post, I’ll discuss the relationship between herbaria and education, but for now, I’ll continue with the botanic garden thread.

Many of the major botanic gardens are so large that their functions are segregated into different departments, with a library director and a herbarium director being separate functions, though there is close collaboration especially because they are often housed in the same or adjacent buildings.  This is true in New York, Missouri, Kew, and Melbourne.  It is a wonderful luxury to be able to go just a few steps to check a reference or to find an illustration, either in a book or in botanical art collection also housed in these libraries.  The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and Kew have huge collections of illustrations done by native Indian artists under the direction of botanists and physicians working for the East India Company.  Such art was considered so important to systematics that these sheets were stored with the specimens.  This situation is changing, and the art has been moved to the libraries, cross-referenced with the plant name and that of the artist.

But in botanical gardens, it’s the relationship between the living and preserved collections that seems to me to be most important, and in some cases closely tied to national identity.  I felt this most keenly in Australia, where digitization of the national herbarium collections was first focused on Australian plants, where efforts to prevent the spread of invasive species are particularly rigorous, and where botanical artists often focus on native plants.  Celia Rosser did magnificent watercolors of all the species of the quintessentially Australian genus, Banksia; vouchers made from the specimens she used are housed in several of the country’s national herbaria.  There is also a sense of local pride when a garden manages to bring a particularly fussy plant into flower.  Right now, corpse flowers (Amorphophallus titanum) seem to be all the rage because of their size and the awful odor the bloom exudes.  Making specimens is difficult because of the flower’s size and bulk.  Daniel Atha at NYBG did such a good job that the multiple sheets he created were used in an exhibit on the herbarium.  More importantly, NYBG keeps a significant collection of specimens recording the cultivated plants growing in the garden, not just the celebrities.

Unfortunately, I am going to end on a sour note.  NYBG’s sister garden, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, was also linked to a magnificent library and herbarium, all three founded at the beginning of the 20th century.  However, in  2013 the garden’s director summarily closed the herbarium and downsized the library’s footprint at the same time.  The collection’s 300,000 specimens are now on “temporary” loan to NYBG, the library is still trying to wrestle with its lack of space, and the active environmental community in Brooklyn is left without an important resource.  The links that were forged in the 16th century by Ghini and his fellow botanists have been severed.  The only consolation is that these connections remain strong at many other institutions.

Note:  I would like to thank all the people at the institutions I’ve visited for sharing their expertise with me.

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.


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.

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.


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.

Herbaria and Art: Rachel Pedder-Smith


Herbarium Specimen Painting, Part 5 by Rachel Pedder-Smith

In continuing with the theme of art related to plant specimen collections, I’d like to discuss an ambitious endeavor.  The herbarium at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew was the site for this long-term student art project. Created by Rachel Pedder-Smith as part of her doctoral project at the Royal College of Art in London, a massive botanical illustration depicts 703 specimens from 505 families. (Pedder-Smith, 2011). The watercolors are arranged on seven large sheets of paper, and when placed end-to-end, the painting measures 18 feet long. This work, called Herbarium Specimen Painting, required 766 days of painting, with an average of seven hours work a day. Pedder-Smith chose to use herbarium specimens rather than living material because she wanted to interweave history into the work. Many of the specimens were collected by important names in botany including Joseph Banks, Charles Darwin, and Joseph Dalton Hooker. There is also history included in the arrangement of specimens, which uses the latest taxonomic classification based on DNA evidence, and thus on evolutionary history.

While the specimens aren’t labeled, but simply spread out as an amazing botanical carpet, there is a detailed key to each of the seven sheets. The specimens are numbered in the key so they can be easily found within the dizzying variety of the display. In the dissertation Pedder-Smith (2011) wrote to accompany the painting, she not only describes her process, but uses material culture theory to explore other examples of artists employing herbarium specimens in their work. She quotes James Deetz’s (1977) definition of material culture as “that sector of our physical environment that we modify through culturally determined behavior” (p. 35). It might seem odd to discuss herbaria in terms of culture, but at the very least, that culture has changed over time. Just look at the amount of information on labels for newly collected specimens compared to those from the 19th century. She also quotes the geologist Fortey (2008) who described herbarium specimens as a tactile link to intellectual forebears. It is this history that made the specimens so attractive to Pedder-Smith as a subject for her painting. But there was also a more practical reason for the choice: even a botanic garden as distinguished as Kew would not have easily accessible living material from 505 different plant families, particularly reproductive material, which often has the most distinctive species characteristics.

After a general discussion of material culture, Pedder-Smith uses this analysis to examine the work of several other artists who have employed herbarium specimens in their work. One striking example is the Australian artist Greg Pryor’s Flora Nullius. While on an art residency in Vienna, he studied the Australian botanical specimens at the herbarium of the Natural History Museum there. He photographed and traced specimens of about 200 Western Australian plants, many of which were collected in the 19th century. At the herbarium, he also collected old mounting sheets that had been discarded when specimens were remounted. When he returned to Australia, he took pieces of corrugated board used in pressing specimens and made labels from the old mounting paper for each of the specimens he had traced. He also attached old envelopes or capsules used to hold pieces of specimen. But there was no trace of the specimen itself, only tape to show where it would be attached. This work symbolizes not only the colonial thrust of plant collection—with specimens leaving the country of origin—but also the disappearance of plant populations as humans take over and develop sites where these species had grown in the past. The following year, Pryor undertook an even larger project called Black Solander, referencing Daniel Solander the Swedish botanist who collected on one of Captain Cook’s voyages. He worked in the Western Australian Herbarium in Perth, Australia and made small drawings of every one of the approximately 10,500 plant species known in Western Australia. These were done in black ink on black sugar paper. Again, there is the suggestion of disappearance, of something preserved and at the same time fading away. Here is yet another, though very different take on memory, fragility, and timelessness.

Peddar-Smith also presents the work of two photographers who have published books with images of herbarium specimens. One is a volume called simply Herbarium with photographs of specimens at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney by Robyn Stacey and text by Ashley Hay (2004). This book’s aim is to raise the profile of this herbarium by presenting full-page images of specimens that have been digitally cleaned so that the wear and tear on the sheets isn’t evident. The accompanying text provides a history of the collection including stories about the hair-raising adventures of collectors. An earlier photographic work that focused even more on the aesthetics of specimens was created by Nick Knight with descriptions of the plants by Sandy Knapp (1997). Here the sheets were not only cleaned, but the labels removed, so the plants are presented as aesthetic objects, these contrast with the botanical information given in the descriptions. As Knapp notes in the introduction, the idea for this project arose from photographic work in the herbarium that Knight was doing at the Natural History Museum, London, where Knapp is a taxonomist. Knight opened Knapp’s eyes to the beauty hidden in this collection, and it was the aim of the book to present that beauty to a wider audience.


Crowe, V., & Ingram, D. (2007). A discussion and illustrated lecture on the exhibition Plant Memory.
Deetz, J. (1977). In small things forgotten: the archaeology of early American life. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
Fortey, R. (2008). Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum. New York, NY: Knopf.
Knight, N., & Knapp, S. (1997). Flora. Munich, Germany: Schirmer/Mosel.
Macmillan, D. (2012). Victoria Crowe. Woodbridge, UK: Antique Collectors’ Club.
Stacey, R., & Hay, A. (2004). Herbarium. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.