Seen at The Festival of the Tree

...if you would be happy all your life, plant a garden - Chinese proverb

Friday, 13 February 2009

Blogging for Darwin: Kew Herbarium


I spotted this blog swarm (yes, it's new to me too) over at Emma's yesterday and having invited the man of the moment to my fantasy dinner party last Saturday, I just had to take part.

In the mid 1990's I decided to career change out of computing, did a masters degree in freshwater biology and ended up working at an environmental charity in Oxford. There I wore many hats, one of which was arranging an annual programme of volunteer weekends. Having started out as a volunteer on a number of these myself, it was a joy to be involved at the opposite end of things.

In the spring we'd have three weekends based at the herbarium at Kew, where the task was to help catalogue the ferns - the first such computerisation of part of the plant collection. The herbarium isn't usually open to the public, so it was great to have a peep behind the scenes. It's enormous - a vast room full of cupboards, yet still managing to be light and airy. Inside each cupboard are stacks of folders, just like those you might use in an office, but each of these contain a precious sample of plant material either collected by Kew staff or sent to them to add to their records. The amount of plant material there is mind bogglingly huge.

Inside each folder would be a plant, pressed and dried carefully, then mounted onto backing paper. In some instances a plant would have more than one folder to its name - specimens showing characteristics such as flowering that might not be there in the others, or it might have been collected from another country. Larger items like seed pods form a separate part of the herbarium collection. I'd previously dismissed ferns as being rather boring, but going through them folder by folder, I soon started to appreciate their diversity and differences in form.

Beside each specimen were all the details needed for the database - ID down to species level, when and where collected and by whom. This information often needed quite a bit of deciphering as they were usually handwritten and over 100 years old - handwriting has changed significantly in that time! Luckily we had experts on hand to confirm we had the correct details, particularly species name. Occasionally we'd alight on a very special folder - one with the pages edged with orange when opened. This denoted a type specimen - the plant used to describe a species discovered for the first time. We'd all crowd round to have a look at these pieces of botanical history whenever one came to light.

I was getting a little fed up. Everyone had found a type specimen in the cupboard they were cataloguing, but not me. Our weekend's stint was nearing its end and we were about to go on our behind the scenes tour. I collected my last folder from the cupboard, opened it and there at last was a type specimen. I started to type in the species details and collection information. Then my hands started to shake. Charles Darwin had collected this plant. He had plucked it fresh in the wild, preserved it for transportation back to Kew and maybe even described and named it. Now I was holding it in my hand - on my birthday. That's one hell of a present.

Do go over to Blog For Darwin - there's tons of blog posts and information there about him. It'll be a fantastic resource to dip into both now and in the future.

13 comments:

  1. Doesn't get any better than that VP. I'm very, very envious.

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  2. My goodness, VP, you must have been on cloud nine the rest of the day! I wonder if that document is still hidden away in the folder or if it's now under lock and key somewhere.

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  3. not only has handwriting changed, so has spelling! chaucer (literally) hurt to read. holding darwind--gave me goosebumps just to read it.

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  4. opps--'darwin' ! my bad *shakes her head in embarassment*

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  5. Great story, when I was younger I went to the herbarium (and library) at Kew several times - fantastic place. Each sheet is history in your hands.

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  6. I visited the Blog for Darwin site -- what a wonderful resource that will be.

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  7. TS - I relived the moment all over again just writing about it :)

    Rose - it got put back in the cupboard with the others as the herbarium is used for research, plant identification etc.

    Petoskystone - I got goosebumps again just writing it!

    Hermes - history in your hands - that's it exactly

    Nancy - it's going to be fantastic.

    Have a great weekend everyone!

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  8. That's a brilliant story. And that sort of thrill is exactly why I became an archivist - that feeling of having a direct link to the people of the past when you handle their letters and papers.

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  9. VP, That was a great story.....gail

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  10. Amanda - oh how interesting! Will you be telling us more sometime?

    Gail - thanks :)

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  11. What a wonderful birthday experience VP and hard to top. It must have been fate :)

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  12. that's a very nice story, I can imagine you having a competition to see who would find the most type-specimens. Sounds like a lot of fun!

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  13. Anna - thanks, I think so too :)

    Tony - welcome and thanks for leaving a comment! You're right, there was quite a bit of rivalry on who got the most type specimens!

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