When all is quiet, the crowds have long-gone home and the lights have been dimmed, the back rooms come alive for the curators who have long finished their official hours. For it is the time for tracking down rogue specimens, delving into the past or anticipating the future. What I am trying to say is that it is the time for research and the inevitable Miss Marple style adventures to be discovered when finding details to add to the current knowledge of a historic specimen. I say current because invariably details will have been lost or not even deemed worthy to have been recorded on labels, or written in a language so obscure as to not be recognised by the modern eye.
Perhaps lost details are just a phenomenon of the botanical world, but I suspect not, and I will explain what I am alluding to above using just a couple of examples of specimens made by a single collector, John Forbes, who undertook a voyage from 1822 until his death in 1823, almost 200 years ago.
John Forbes was one of the Horticultural Society of London’s (now the Royal Horticultural Society) early plant collectors. Head-hunted from the Liverpool Botanical Garden for his horticultural skills, he was employed to travel to Southern Africa to bring back plants to introduce to British gardens. He sailed with Captain Owen on the HMS Leven, a voyage tasked with making a survey of the east coast of Africa, visiting (in the following order): Madeira, Tenerife, Santa Cruz, Cape Verde Islands, Brazil, South Africa, Mozambique (Forbes is noted as the second botanist to collect there (Exell & Hayes: 130)), Madagascar, Comoros, Mozambique, South Africa and finally Mozambique (where Forbes died, 16th August 1823).
As a priority he was tasked with sending home live plants and seeds along with dried herbarium specimens to aid the process of identifying and naming the new plants. The ‘RHS’ stipulated in his instructions that he should also keep a journal during his travels. This was later used by Capt. Owen and informed his well-received adventurous tale of the voyage (W. F. W. Owen (1833): Narrative of Voyages to Explore the Shores of Africa, Arabia and …, Volume 1). Forbes was very conscientious and even kept collecting books, numbering his specimens at each location, adding dates, habitat and habit details (including symbols and unfamiliar words). With each record he included a note about the soil that each of the plants grew in to ensure that they would have similar growing media back in the RHS’s Chiswick garden. Forbes’s journals, note books, lists and letters are all to be found in the RHS’s Lindley Library.
So why, with all of the information presented in his collecting books and journals, are his specimens so scantily labelled? And what do some of the symbols and unfamiliar words present in his later collecting books mean?
When I first encountered the type specimen of Leonotis intermedia, all I knew was that it was made by Forbes in Algoa Bay, 1822, and described by John Lindley in Botanical Register 10: t. 850 (1824). Regrettably, the only bit of information about its collecting locality mentioned by Lindley was that it was sent from Delagoa Bay, in southern Africa – leading the reader to erroneously believe that it was from Mozambique. However. with all the to-ing and fro-ing it is hardly surprising that mistakes were made back in the UK. Forbes made a few collections of this ‘number’, the top set of which is in the collection at the Natural History Museum. His notebook for plants collected in Delagoa Bay, 1822 does not include a Leonotis.It was only 20 years later that I discovered about the existence of Forbes’s collecting books and journals in the RHS’s Lindley Library. From his collecting book for Algoa Bay in 1822, we can see the following information:
“Collected 16th September 1822. No. 62, 14, Gymnospermia, Leonotis. Vallies – fls scarlet orange.”
At each place that the boat visited Forbes started his numbering sequence at 1, our Leonotis is collection no. 62. Fourteen refers to Class no. 14: Didynamia (flowers with four stamens, two long and two short) in Linnaeus’s system. Gymnospermia is an Order within this class (see Species Plantarum, vol. 1 and vol. 2).
No. 62 is referred to in Forbes’s journal entry for 16th September where he tells us that he collected it on his second excursion of the day, found in ‘the valley’. The HMS Leven had landed in Port Elizabeth, Algoa Bay. The city was very much in its infancy and Forbes notes that there were only 30 houses present. At this time, boats were landed very close to where the Campanile is situated, so we can assume that the valley is that of the Baakens River. By the end of his collecting trip he had made it c. 2 miles up the valley. Owing to the habitat requirements needed by this taxon, it can be assumed that it was probably collected close to the eastern end of the Settlers Park Local Authority Nature Reserve. Although no. 62 appears in both his collecting book and the journal it has not been transcribed on the labels made for both top collection and the duplicates found at herbaria in Kew and Meise. Almost certainly the number was only used to identify the seed when the parcel arrived in the UK– and to unite it with its soil information for growing (seen earlier in the notes of another taxon: sandy soil).
By 1823, Forbes was also including medieval planetary symbols in his descriptions used in Alchemy and Botany, symbols introduced to save space and time. These were in commonplace use at the time and included the Sun (annual), Saturn (woody), Jupiter (perennial), Mars (male), Mercury (hermaphrodite) and Venus (female). That they are now very difficult to find within ‘Symbols’ in a standard Microsoft Word package speaks volumes about their current usage.So, can we conclude that to an early 19th century botanist, collecting details were only of importance in constructing a description of the plant? And that the plant itself was the important thing, namely its shape and form, and similarities and differences from its closest relatives? The 21st century botanist prefers to future proof and provide as much as possible on the label. To us the specific locality is needed to work out the Extent of Occurence and Area of Occupancy and its frequency in a location are vital pieces of information in formulating conservation ratings; dates of flowering/fruiting are vital for phenology, a useful tool when studying climate change; colour, size and smell are needed to add to a description. It is a great pity to think that this information, although recorded at the time of collection, was lost to the scientific world for 197 years.
Adding the collecting notes to the specimen adds far more than just data. This specimen can now be the spring board for informing our audiences about early plant collecting, mapping, naval life, give snippets of information about what life was like in the early settlements and far more besides.
I am now left with thoughts about numerous other older data deficient specimens housed in herbaria around the world. Will the digitisation and subsequent exposure of archives bring the journals and collecting books of others into the public arena, finally giving us the data that we didn’t know to be available? And my final thought is that perhaps, by labelling our new specimens as fully as possible, are we depriving future curators of the joy of later discovery?
With thanks to the RHS’s archivist, Liz Taylor, for giving access to Forbes’s notes and to the Lindley Library for kindly giving permission to reproduce my images of the books here; to Norbert Holstein of the Natural History Museum for taking the time to search for no. 62, and for allowing me to reproduce their digitised image of the specimen here; and to the curators of Kew and Meise for imaging their duplicates (available on JSTOR plants) and here (Kew, Meise).
Exell, A.W. & Hayes, G.A. (1960-1961). Henry Salt and John Forbes. In Kirkia 1: 130-137.