Flora Explorer: Opening the Cabinets at Portsmouth Museums.

Written by Violet Nicholls, Assistant Curator (Herbarium), Portsmouth Museums.

Plants, lichens and fungi have captured the interests of collectors, scientists and artists for centuries, and I have discovered something about them for myself. As time passes from them being found in the field, they don’t get any less complicated, any less fascinating or any less beautiful. I am about 6 months into a two-year project working on the Guermonprez Herbarium called “Flora Explorer”, which is funded by the Headley Trust.

Image of lichen specimens in open trays
Fig. 1. Drawer of colourful specimens from the lichen cabinet.

The Herbarium

I have been cataloguing and studying the plant, fungi and lichen collections at Portsmouth Museums, and am learning a huge amount about past collecting practices, as well as taxonomy and the collectors themselves. There were so many! Sixty-two different names have cropped up whilst cataloguing the herbarium, with nearly 1000 plant specimens recorded on the database so far. There are around 10,000 plants in the Guermonprez Herbarium in total. How many more names will appear?

Henry Leopold Foster Guermonprez (1858-1924) was a taxidermist, ornithologist and “a botanist who should have been better known”.1 The herbarium is made up of plants collected by Guermonprez and members of his family, plants that were sent to him, and others that were purchased. The large collection was transferred from Bognor Regis Museum to Portsmouth Museum in the 1970’s. Many specimens were collected from West Sussex, where I have lived for most of my life.

“Flora Explorer” builds on work carried out during the “Wild about Portsmouth” project, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. The herbarium is organised into taxonomic order, stored in sealed herbarium cabinets, and the specimens are being catalogued using the relational database used by over 650 museums in the UK, Modes Complete. Digitising the collection has many benefits as it increases access for researchers, and for people who may need the data but can only obtain it remotely. Through the process I have also been updating the taxonomy where necessary, which adds further value to the collection.

Image of herbarium cabinets at Portsmouth City Museum
Fig. 2. Herbarium cabinets at Portsmouth City Museum, containing plant specimens arranged into taxonomic order.

This exercise is the main task of the project, to unravel the Victorian handwriting and record the data that accompanies the specimens, which will allow future researchers to investigate its significance. I am currently working through the large Daisy family (Asteraceae). During the recording process, the specimens are re-mounted if necessary, using acid-free self-adhesive linen hinging tape.

Image of a herbarium sheet with a dried specimen of broad-leaved ragwort, Senecio saracenicus.
Fig. 3. A specimen of broad-leaved ragwort, Senecio saracenicus, that has been re-mounted using the strapping method on acid-free paper.

It has been said that “one man’s weed is another man’s herbarium specimen”2, which was probably a feeling shared by the many members of the various different botanical clubs and societies of the time. Recently a link has been made between 6 specimens in the herbarium and the Botanical Exchange Club and Society of the British Isles (BEC), of 1913 and 1920. This was thanks to the purple ink stamp left with the plants.

Image showing a purple ink stamp which appears with 6 herbarium specimens, linking them to the BEC reports of 1913 and 1920.
Fig. 4. The purple ink stamp left with 6 herbarium specimens, linking them to the BEC reports of 1913 and 1920.

The entries found in the BEC reports match the specimens in the herbarium, providing more data, and they put the plants into better context. The reports can offer better locality information when it is lacking on the original label, and they provide an insight into the networks between the different botanists of the time.

There are also many watercolour paintings associated with the herbarium, that were produced by Henry Guermonprez, his sister, Harriet, and his aunt, Harriet Foster. These add further depth to the collection as some match up to dried specimens, providing more information about the plants’ life habits, colours and structure. They are also rather beautiful, with some extra comments such as, “smells of bugs”, and “Clara says it is a peacock”!

8 images of paintings of plants from the collection
Fig. 5. Paintings from the collection with some bearing the initials of Harriet, Henry Guermonprez’s sister, with detailed notes and illustrations.
Watercolour painting of a crab apple with a second pencil drawn diagram of a peacock at the bottom left
Fig. 6. A watercolour painting of a crab apple, with note (bottom left), “Clara says it is a peacock”.

There is an embossed stamp of the Prince of Wales’s feathers on some pages, and a faint watermark can be seen when the paper is held up to the light, which reads, “JOYNSON 1860”. This suggests the paper was likely produced by William Joynson’s paper mill, once located at St. Mary Cray, Southeast London, where there is now hardly any trace of one.3

A watercolour paining of a white flowering plant showing a faint watermark stating "JOYNSON".
Fig. 7. A page of a watercolour, held up to the light to reveal the faint watermark, “JOYNSON”.

The mill has been described as one of the largest and most complete paper mills in Great Britain, producing paper known for its high quality and finish4, and Joynson was internationally famous as a papermaker.3 Making this connection between the mill and the artwork put the collection into more context, and I now find myself checking for other watermarks, hunting for clues.

The Fungi

Whilst cataloguing the fungi specimens, now 132 records, I have also been cleaning them gently with a brush, rehousing them and updating the taxonomy. The curious specimens have been collected from six different counties in the UK, and one of my favourites is some dry rot, Serpula lacrymans, which has come from a Mr Newton’s Store in Bognor Regis. In another instance the collector has been struck by some pinmould growing on a cold boiled potato and has drawn them on a small label.

Picture of envelope with writing and small diagram, containing fungi specimens
Fig. 8. Pinmould, Ascophora mucedo, now Mucor mucedo, “full size”, found on a cold boiled potato.

The collection also includes some insects that have met a grisly end, with one specimen from a curios dealer in New Zealand. Mummified caterpillars that had succumbed to the fungus, Ophiocordyceps robertsii, or Vegetable Caterpillar, were often sold to tourists in the early 20th century. This fungus was the first to be named in New Zealand.5

Picture of dried caterpillar of Pūriri moth, Aenetus virescens, with fungus, Ophiocordyceps robertsii, appearing as a thin brown stem with a club-shaped end, with accompanying letter from a curios dealer from New Zealand.
Fig. 9. Caterpillar of Pūriri moth, Aenetus virescens, with fungus, Ophiocordyceps robertsii, appearing as a thin brown stem with a club-shaped end, with accompanying letter from a curios dealer from New Zealand.

The data associated with many of the specimens provides useful context for them and their environment of growth, while some of the boxes and tins they are stored in reveal the kind of products in circulation at the time.

Boxes and tins that would have been home to candles, cigarettes and tobacco, later used to store fungi specimens, including Young's Silver Night Lights, W.D. & H.O. Wills' Honey Dew cigarettes, Harlequin Flake Tobacco and Nations' Patent Night-Lights.
Fig. 10. Boxes and tins that would have been home to candles, cigarettes and tobacco, later used to store fungi specimens, including Young’s Silver Night Lights (A), W.D. & H.O. Wills’ Honey Dew cigarettes (B), Harlequin Flake Tobacco (C) and Nations’ Patent Night-Lights (D).

The Lichens

The lichen collection is a real treasure trove. To date I have catalogued the contents of five drawers out of 18 in the lichen cabinet, finding many interesting and important specimens. In the cabinet there are at least 232 specimens collected by Reverend William Allport Leighton (1805-1889) alone, and the number increases as I analyse the drawers more closely.

Herbarium sheet showing specimen of Tree Moss (Evernia furfuracea)
Fig. 11. Tree Moss (Evernia furfuracea), collected by W.A. Leighton, from drawer two of the lichen cabinet.

Leighton was a schoolfellow of Charles Darwin’s and became a clergyman and lichenologist6, and was regarded as, “…the representative and father of lichenology and lichenologists in Britain”.7 Some of his material is also kept at the Natural History Museum (London) where it represents an important historical collection. There are also collector’s names in the cabinet that appear in the British Collections at Kew Royal Botanical Gardens, where a lot of important early material is housed.

There are beautiful and colourful specimens in the drawers, such as the vibrant Green Specklebelly lichen, which is now critically endangered.8 There are also species that are considered extinct now in Britain, such as Bryoria implexa and Vulpicida juniperinus. This makes the collection even more important. However, I lack the expertise to identify these lichens precisely, and would appreciate it very much if someone out there could help. These specimens could be holding key data associated with rare and extinct species of British lichens.

Dried herbarium specimen of Green Specklebelly lichen collected from from Bryher, Isles of Scilly, Cornwall.
Fig. 12. Green Specklebelly lichen from Drawer Four of the lichen cabinet, collected from Bryher, Isles of Scilly, Cornwall.

I have been sharing some of the latest findings from all three collections in a blog on the Cumberland House Museum website (Blog – Cumberland House Natural History Museum (portsmouthnaturalhistory.co.uk)). Inspired by the herbarium we also held a leaf-rubbing event last autumn, built a Floral Folklore display, and created a Winter Berries Trail which ran over Christmas. With further plans for events involving the herbarium for 2023, the upcoming year feels really exciting – what will be discovered in the collection next?


1. Sturt, N. (1.1997). Retrieved from Sussex Botanical Recording Society website: Henry Leopold Foster Guermonprez 1858-1924 – Sussex Botanical Recording Society (sussexflora.org.uk)

2. Calow, P.P. (1998). The Encyclopedia of Ecology and Environmental Management. Oxford: Blackwell Science Ltd.

3. Heinecke, P. (1991). St. Mary Cray Paper Mills. Bromley Borough local History, 9.

4. The History of St. Mary Cray. (n.d.). Retrieved from: The History of St Mary Cray (rootsweb.com)

5.  Relph, D. (1991). Caterpillar Killer [Blog post]. Retrieved from: Caterpillar killer | New Zealand Geographic (nzgeo.com)

6. Wyhe, J. V. (2022, April 30). The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online. Retrieved from: Leighton, William Allport. c. 1886. [Recollections of Charles Darwin]. CUL-DAR112.B94-B98 (darwin-online.org.uk)

7. Lindsay, W. (1871). The Lichen-Flora of Great Britain, Ireland, and the Channel Islands. Nature, 4, 482-484.

8. Crocodia aurata. (n.d.). Retrieved from The British Lichen Society website: Crocodia aurata | The British Lichen Society

2 thoughts on “Flora Explorer: Opening the Cabinets at Portsmouth Museums.

  1. Pingback: NatSCA Digital Digest – February 2023 | NatSCA

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