Last Friday I was lucky enough to enter to rarified world of the RHS’s Wisely herbarium. A group organised by the British Iris Society we gathered for a talk by the Head of the Herbarium, Chris .
The Herbarium is a rather recent affair, not what one expects to hear from the RHS which to my mind has been in existence forever (actually only 144 years!). The original herbarium was auctioned off, along with parts of the Library, (true) in 1856 to help settle debts. in 1917 the gathering of specimens resumed with plants from the garden at Wisely. There have been large donations from other herbarium along the way but in 1960 Christopher Brickell started a co-ordinated effort to collect and expand the Herbarium. In the late 80′s more storage space allowed for a rapid increase in size. There are in excess of 64,000 specimens, 34,000+ photographs and 3,300+ paintings, which seems like a huge number until you discover that the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew holds more than 7 million specimens.
The contents are dried and pressed plant specimens mostly post 1917 but one as early as 1731 (now THAT is old). Their focus is on ornamental plants in the UK as opposed to those that collect mainly native and wild plants. Specimens can contain leaves, flowers, sepals, tepals, calyx, stems, shoots and sometimes whole roots! They are actively building the collection and are most grateful for contributions especially from breeders (the best source of all) followed by National Collection holders, reliable nurseries, botanic gardens, museums and other reputable plant material sources. I say reputable because they need to know that what is being supplied is what it says it is!
The breeder submissions are called standards and have a special coloured strip on their folder to denote their status. It is assumed that the breeder knows what she/he is sending! After hearing some stories of the condition (chaos) some samples may arrive in it is easy to see why things can get confused.
I recall as a child having a small flower press and was slightly surprised to find that nothing has changed much in that presses consist of blotting paper, corrugated cardboard, foam and block of wood, though these are pressed together with slim luggage straps rather than looooong screws with butterfly nuts.
There is a project underway, worldwide to digitally record these herbarium samples. About 200 herbarium are taking part, including Kew and Wisely. Once a specimen is scanned and entered the participating herbarium can access the information imagery, manipulating it into extraordinarily enlarged sizes to enable identification using the tiniest of details, even to the point of being able to measure, exactly, the dimensions of parts of the sample.
Interesting to note is what is being scanned in. Alongside the Standard specimens are ferns. Ferns because the fern society have funded this part of the project. Money talks.
We also saw some wonderful illustrations and paintings, including several by Elise Katherine Dykes, wife William Dykes of, Dykes Medal re-known. These days it is rare for Irises to be painted although we were all interested to hear that the Orchid societies top medal winners are painted every year……
What is clear is that if a genus has a wealthy patron, or society behind it that it gets more attention. Understandable but slightly surprising it is a good reminder that this is a charity not a public body.
A wonderful snapshot into the world of the herbarium botanist and the dedicated team the the RHS who are maintaining and developing the resource, not to mention being a source of encouragement for this Collection Holder to get on with supplying some of the specimens they are lacking from my specialty!
Not having been to this RHS showbefore I was delighted to find out it was free to members, I knew that membership card would come in handy one day. Half term is not the best time to be schlepping down to the Big Smoke on the first ‘off peak’ train but beggars can’t be choosers I suppose. The London gridlock was much much worse than I recall, according to our cabbie it’s all in preparation for the July Olympics. Seriously Boris? isn’t this a bit ‘day late $ dollar short?’
We made it through the traffic and arrived at the packed show which is located on two sites close together. It works quite well, the hubbub of the jostling plant sales hall versus the slightly more silent and serious hum of the design rooms. Starting in the plant hall I was immediately floored by the rows and rows of gorgeous spring plants that are available and had to put my purse firmly at the bottom of my bag.
The show could feasibly be renamed, the Galanthus and Hellebore show for indeed these varieties were being shown off to their full capacity with block after block of delicate bloom tempting one and all. Avon Bulbs, Ashwood. Foxgrove Plants and Broadleigh Gardensto name a few of the participating nurseries. It was fun to get up close and personal with one or two of the Galanthus without having to grovel about on the muddy ground. I will admit to something along the lines of galanthophile envy at the range and clump size displayed.
The Design Hall was awash with colleges vying for new students and industry bodies selling their expertises. The SGD hosted a HUGE stand offering a showcase of MSGD’s work and offering quick, free garden design consults to all comers. It was exciting to see the photoshopped illustrations of the upcoming Chelsea Gardens and it looks to be another good year in 2012. Personal favourites were Laurent Perrier Garden by Arne Maynard. Is that a brown or purple pleached alle we are going to see I wonder? and The Telegraph Garden by Sarah Price of Olympic Park renown.
A fine lunch followed at the Blanche eatery, not a stones throw along Horseferry Road from the Channel 4 building and a quick jaunt around the British Museum foyer, due to the Grayson Perry exhibition being entirely sold out!
The RHS process a diverse range of seeds from plants cultivated in their gardens. The list is extensive, i.e pages and pages and pages long and has all manner of things from simple Bidens to magnificent Betula (yes of the tree variety!)
A couple of years ago I bought about 20 packets completely forgot about them, on the whole and on finding them this spring grew the host that had not dried up beyond recognition. Forgetting what you have ordered is part of the fun so there were some rewarding surprises, Coreopsis grandiflora being one of the and Water iris another, the peony has yet to produce anything but I am patient. The Rosa chinesis went in and out of the airing cupboard and fridge so many times I lost count and it probably forgot how to germinate, I have abandoned that one.
The 2012 list was published on 1st November and of course you have to be a member to be able to benefit from the stash of fabulous seed matter.
Well worth a look through.
Today I initiated my lovely nephew and his mate in the finer arts of the single dug trench and although I am not certain they appreciated the finer points, they made stirling efforts to at least look interested and to follow instructions relatively closely.
Some of you may be wondering what the hell is ‘single digging’ ? Well the first trench is dug a ‘spit’ down and a ‘spit’ across. A spit being approximately a standard spade depth. This soil is placed in a barrow and the next trench dug throwing the soil into the first trench. At the final trench the soil from the first trench is used to backfill. Simple. Double digging simply roughs up a second spit’s depth of soil and usually adds some organic matter before replacing the topsoil.
We added plenty of gravel and some well rotted farm yard manure, minded all the sticky, slippery worms
wiggling their way through the slabs of ‘soon to be concrete’ like clay and pulled out the worst of the grass clumps, last winters phacelia went in with the grit and manure.
Progress was slow, it’s hard work, even if you’re 17 and solid muscle, this is hard graft. But the lads are grafters, they’ll be back next week for another couple of hours of digging.
This time I am setting out, we’re not wasting time on digging over what will be paths, just the new Iris beds.
Week 3 and we’ll be onto the vegetable beds, might even get a fine tilth seed bed ready, by the time spring frosts are past of course.