What Is That Spiny Thing?

Written by Ranee Om Prakash, Senior Curator – General Herbarium IV, Algae, Fungi and Plants Division, Department of Life Sciences, Natural History Museum

The Natural History Museum (NHM) holds over 80 million specimens and every single specimen tells a story.

Amongst these 80 million objects, one such object is a specimen (Fig. 1) that the museum acquired from Mexico over 2 decades ago. This object excites curiosity amongst novices, students and the general public alike. Whenever anyone looks at this, the first thing they ask is what is that? A pineapple? A furry cat? Is it a sponge? The imaginations are limitless….

Fig. 1. Flower of Melocactus (© The Trustees, Natural History Museum, London)

This is the flower of Melocactus Link & Otto, also known as the Turk’s Cap Cactus or Melon Cactus. This is how it looks in the wild (Fig 2).

Fig. 2. Melocactus azureus in wild (picture by Pierre Braun, own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35738382

As per the Plant List (2018), this genus has over 40 species. This plant is a native of the Caribbean Islands and is found from the Bahamas, Mexico to North East Brazil below.

Fig. 3. Distribution of Melocactus (source: http://www.plants of the worldonline.org link: http://www.plantsoftheworldonline.org/taxon/urn:lsid:ipni.org:names:331763-2.)

In 1753, Carl Linnaeus named the first species as Cactus melocatus. However, this name was rejected and the correct name for this genus is now Melocactus.

The plant has a phylloclade (modified stem that functions as a leaf, aids in photosynthesis and helps to reduce the rate of transpiration) and is easily recognizable by a woolly, bristle-coated structure at the apex of the plant, containing a mass of areoles from which the small flowers grow. At first glance, the dried flower looks like a furry cat, some people even think of it as a pineapple due to its spines and hexagonal structures on the flower. The fruits of this plant are edible. The juice of the plant is used to quench thirst and the plant is also used for medicinal purposes across many parts of the World.

Whenever we get a chance to talk about this mystery specimen, we do. It has been displayed at various events at the museum such as the World’s Plants Fascination Day (celebrated in the month of May) and the Science Uncovered event in the month of September. It a well-known fact that people like to touch, feel and describe the object and increasingly over the years, museums have engaged with audiences in this way as object handling is an excellent way to learn and be inspired. There are several other collections behind the scenes which are equally inspiring, but this Melocactus is one of my favourite specimens. I wonder if there is an object or a specimen that has inspired you too?

If you would like to come and see this and other interesting collections, our department is open Monday- Friday 10.00 a.m. to 5.00 p.m. You can drop us an email to book an appointment.

I would like to end this article with a quote from the World Collections Report (2019):

The objects in museums’ collections tell stories about people, places, nature and thought. It is only possible to understand the world around us if we understand its past, both natural and man-made. The stories told by these objects, brought to life by study and display, help more easily to explore common themes and threads through history and relate those to the present day. Some of the most comprehensive and internationally important collections of natural history, ethnography, technology, art, literature and design are held by UK museums – and so these world collections tell world stories.

Acknowledgement

I am grateful to Jonathan Jackson – Photography Studio Manager at the Natural History Museum for kindly imaging the object.

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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Brendel Plant Model Survey

Written by Donna Young, Curator of Herbarium, World Museum, National Museums Liverpool

Inspired by the project led by the Corning Museum of Glass, which looked at holdings of Blaschka models, I am embarking on a project to map and document collections of Brendel botanical models worldwide.

The objective of this project is not only to provide a useful resource to be used in the curation of anatomical models, but to document their past and present use – promoting and bringing awareness of these collections to new audiences.

Brendel model Papaver rhoeas
© National Museums Liverpool, World Museum

Anatomical Models

The nineteenth century was the golden age of scientific discovery, and as the century progressed, the teaching of science in schools, academies and museums evolved to reach a new mass public audience. Science was no longer the exclusive preserve of an elite few.

Changing teaching techniques promoted this transformation and pedagogical inquiry was seen as a constructive and involved way of learning. The written and spoken word was supported by the use of visually instructive wall charts and classroom demonstrations. The introduction of interactive teaching models encouraged audiences to understand nature using new and original perspectives.

Botanical models were used to illustrate and demonstrate plant anatomy. Unlike living material, their use was not restricted by seasonal availability and they were ideal for demonstrating small or ephemeral details which are difficult to preserve.

In 1827 Louis Auzoux established his workshop in France, manufacturing human and veterinary anatomical models from papier-mâché. The company also produced botanical models, which were widely distributed to universities and schools in France, particularly to support the expansion in teaching agricultural science.

Brendel model Centaurea cyanus ‘dissected’
© National Museums Liverpool, World Museum

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Review of ‘John Scouler (c. 1804 – 1871) Scottish Naturalist: A life, with two voyages’

 Published by the Glasgow Natural History Society

Cover of the journal 'John Scouler (c. 1804 - 1871) Scottish Naturalist:

John Scouler was a naturalist whose contribution to his field was highly respected, despite few publications. He was a collector, a lecturer, and in his working life was Professor of Mineralogy at the Andersonian University (and curator of the Museum) in Glasgow (1829 – 1834), and later at the Royal Dublin Society (1834 – 1854). John Scouler was held in high regard by his peers, yet his story, like many other naturalists during the 19th century, is relatively unknown outside of the world-renowned voyages made by Charles Darwin, Joseph Banks, and Alfred Russell Wallace.

Painting of the interior of The Andersonian Museum, which was curated by Scouler (by John Alexander Gilfillan, 1831)

The Andersonian Museum, which was curated by Scouler (by John Alexander Gilfillan, 1831)

The publication begins with the discovery of some ‘dusty plant specimens, dried and mounted on dustier sheets of paper’ found in the biological department of the Royal Technical College, Glasgow. Professor Blodwen Lloyd Binns is charged with the challenge of resolving the mystery of this forgotten herbarium. The Prologue and Introduction are in fact written in her own words, from a draft of a book entitled ‘Round the World in a herbarium’ that she had started in the 1960s. Binns then assesses Scouler based on his contribution to ‘his science’, the scientific thought of the day, and his collections -significantly his herbarium. The author of the journal, Charles Nelson, uses these three areas to portray an accurate and systematic account of Scouler’s legacy with prose that is engaging, erudite, and succeeds in fleshing out the uncertainty around Scouler’s second voyage to India.

Scouler held a strong passion for collecting and an interest in botany. He studied anatomy at Edinburgh University and wished to pursue a career as a surgeon, but had been greatly influenced by Professor William Jackson Hooker, who became his lifelong friend and teacher. It was Hooker (who would later become Director of Kew) who recommended Scouler as ship’s surgeon on his first ‘voyage of discovery’ on the William and Ann to the Galapagos and North West Pacific coast (1824 – 1826), along with another of Hooker’s capable botanists, David Douglas.

Map of the voyage of the Hudson Bay’s Company William & Ann, 1824-1826, based on the readings recorded in the ship’s log (red outward voyage 1824-1825; blue return voyage, 1825-1826)

Voyage of the Hudson Bay’s Company William & Ann, 1824-1826, based on the readings recorded in the ship’s log (red outward voyage 1824-1825; blue return voyage, 1825-1826)

Scouler was the first botanist to explore Oregon and bring back specimens hitherto unknown to science. Scouler reached Canada in June 1825, making new discoveries and descriptions of plants. In Hooker’s ‘Flora’ he honours a new plant collected by Scouler – Phyllospadix scouleri or Scouler’s surf-grass – which belongs to a new genus entirely. This marine flowering plant, unique to the coast, was found at Observatory Inlet, where over 30 species of plants including Scouleri aquatica were found and ascribed to Scouler by Hooker. Scouler’s specimens contributed greatly to Hooker’s great botanical work ‘Flora boreali-americana’ and in some cases still survive in Kew’s collections today.

Scouler’s salmon, Salmo scouleri, from John Richardson’s Fauna boreali-americana

Scouler’s salmon, Salmo scouleri, from John Richardson’s Fauna boreali-Americana

In conclusion, the journal beautifully articulates the life of Scouler using diaries, journals, illustrations from monographs, images, shipping logs, and his own surviving specimens, along with secondary sources such as museum catalogues. It is clear, accessible and enjoyable to read, and is comprehensively referenced. I also like the addition of coloured plates of the species discovered by and named in Scouler’s honour. Charles Nelson succeeds in accurately assessing Scouler’s legacy against the criteria set out by Professor Binns, and extends our knowledge of Scouler’s later life. It tells me that John Scouler was indeed a man dedicated to ‘his science’, without a desire for self-promotion or critical acclaim.

Anthony Roach
Science Educator, Natural History Museum

 

All images reproduced from John Scouler (c. 1804 – 1871) Scottish Naturalist: A life, with two voyages, published by the Glasgow Natural History Society.