Provenance, Provenance, Provenance

Written by Yvette Harvey, Keeper of the Herbarium, Royal Horticultural Society, RHS Garden Wisley, Surrey.

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).

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Stories from Pressed Plant Books in the Botany Collections

Written by Katherine Slade, Curator: Botany (Lower Plants), Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales (AC-NMW)

This article was first published as a blog for AC-NMW, 17 May 2019.

Within Amgueddfa Cymru’s botany collections are books of dried plant specimens created by scientists and enthusiasts. Each specimen has been carefully dried and pressed, before being added to the books, sometimes with handwritten or printed notes alongside. The books are of enormous importance both in terms of modern scientific research into climate change and biodiversity, and as a way to see first hand the history of botanical exploration.

You can now look through a catalogue of the 36 books that contain non-flowering plants, fungi, lichens and seaweeds. You can read about a few of the stories surrounding these books below. For more detailed information about each book, please visit the website.

These books show the changes in how we collect, classify and name plants over two centuries from 1800 to present day. An old volume which probably dates from the 19th century entitled “New Zealand Mosses”, contains more than just mosses. Lichens, algae and even some pressed hydrozoans (tiny marine animals) have been included by the unknown collector who chose to group these superficially similar ‘moss-like’ specimens together. This donation entered the Museum’s collections after its Royal Charter was received and before work had begun on the present Cathays Park building.

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“My Work Is What Will Survive”

Written by Mandeep Matharu, Yvette Harvey & Matthew Biggs.

These were the words of one of the pioneering plant cytologists, E. K. Janaki Ammal, who worked at the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) Garden Wisley from 1946-51, and was their first female scientist. She studied the chromosomes of a wide variety of plants from magnolias to eggplants and sugarcane in addition to medicinal plants, leaving numerous scientific papers, herbarium specimens, and a large number of small, round-headed Magnolia on Wisley’s Battleston hill (Gardiner, 2012), including one bearing the name M. kobus ‘Janaki Ammal’, a vigorous, multi-stemmed tree, over 6m tall and wide, producing masses of white flowers over several weeks of Spring (Biggs, 2018).

Although Janaki’s life is documented within a small number of articles about her and her work, very little has been reported about her years at the RHS and we attempt to rectify that here.

Magnolia kobus at the RHS ©RHS

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The Most Natural Science Positive Film of Recent Times?

holmes-bee

Hollywood hasn’t always portrayed the natural sciences in the best light. From the entomology nerds in Silence of the Lambs to the evil taxidermist in Paddington, the people who live it daily don’t often come off looking good. Even when museums are the star of the show, it is the night watchmen, not the curators and conservators, who steal the glory. Where, then, is cinema’s role in encouraging the next generation to pursue a career in the natural sciences? Some have said they watched the original Jurassic Park and that sparked their interest in genetics. Did you watch a film and think “that’s the life for me?” If so I’d love to hear from you. Nature inspires movies all the time. It behoves the film industry to keep this passion alive.

Enter a new film into the UK top ten (no, we aren’t talking about Jurassic World). Mr. Holmes is the latest adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective. Set in war-ravaged Sussex, Sherlock Holmes is an old man, retired and trying to cope with the changes in his life. I won’t give away the plot for you but I will say this: The plot depends upon an accurate  understanding of the natural world, specifically botanical and entomological. The film is filled with beautiful species and fascinating facts about nature. I can quite easily see someone leaving the cinema thinking “I want to know more about this world”. Holmes’ personal collection is lovely and I want to know whose skull that is on his desk.

Further refreshing news, if you’re as sick of explosions and CGI as I am right now, this film has the fewest special effects of any new film I’ve seen for a long time. Less definitely is more in Mr. Holmes. The performances are superb – not just Sir Ian McKellen but I don’t think there’s a bad actor in the entire movie. I’d highly recommend you go and see this.