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!