Elspeth Haston

Apr 212017

Martin Gardner with the Darwin specimen in the Herbarium.

The Herbarium of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh dates back over 150 years to the mid-19th century and there are new and exciting specimens still to be discovered among the three million specimens. Two years ago Martin Gardner, one of the botanists at RBGE, unexpectedly came across two specimens of the borage family (Boraginaceae) collected by Charles Darwin during his visit to the Galapagos Islands in 1835. These specimens were later studied by Darwin’s close colleague Joseph Dalton Hooker who discovered that both of these plants were new species. He called this one Galapagoa darwinii in celebration of the Ecuadorian islands and Charles Darwin. Commonly known as ‘crinklemat’ it is now recognised as Tiquilia darwinii.

The original Darwin specimen of Tiquilia darwinii collected in the Galapagos Islands

Charles Darwin was sixteen when he came to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh in 1825. But he lasted only two years, finding the anatomical dissections so abhorrent that he ran out of one class. However, he did enjoy studying the coastal marine life with Robert Grant, and became immersed in the scientific development and the geological observations of James Hutton – which helped form his theory of Evolution.

At the beginning of the Beagle’s voyage, Darwin’s preference for geology and zoology meant that his plant collecting was less enthusiastically carried out. However, following a letter from his mentor and friend, Professor Henslow of Cambridge, in which Henslow stressed his desire to receive plant specimens, he began to pay more attention to the vegetation he came across. Therefore, when he reached the Galapagos Islands, he managed to collect 173 different plants in six weeks which is nearly a quarter of the islands’ flora known today.

Find out about some of the moss specimens collected by Darwin in this Botanics Story.

Working with specimens in the Herbarium


Porter, D. M. 1980. Charles Darwin’s plant collections from the voyage of the Beagle. Journal of the Society for the Bibliography of Natural History 9: 515-525. PDF A879#


Apr 102017

The Backhouse family is more widely known for their nursery based in the north of England. However, several members of the family also collected herbarium specimens which are now held in herbaria in Edinburgh, London, Melbourne and Missouri. To date we have found and databased nearly 250 specimens in the RBGE Herbarium and these can be found on our online Herbarium Catalogue here.

Three specimens have been selected to be on show at the launch of the new The Backhouse Heritage & Education Centre at the Rossie Estate.

  1. Ranunculus arvensis L. (http://data.rbge.org.uk/herb/E00431055)

This Ranunculus species was included by Linnaeus in his ground-breaking “Species Plantarum” in 1753, now considered as the starting point for the modern system of naming plants.

This specimen of Ranunculus arvensis, from near Darlington, was collected in 1810 by William Backhouse. William’s herbarium was believed to have been destroyed by a fire at Thirsk in 1864, but fortunately some specimens were included in at least two other collections and these are now held at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and the Natural History Museum in London.

The E.B. on the specimen refers to  James Sowerby’s ‘English Botany’ (a major publication of British plants, issued between 1790 and 1813).

The Backhouse Herbarium was purchased by the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh in 1908, but no further information about this purchase has yet been uncovered.

2. Saxifraga stellaris L. subspecies stellaris (http://data.rbge.org.uk/herb/E00740300)

This specimen was collected by William’s cousin, James Backhouse senior (1794-1869). James had been inspired to start studying plants from the age of nine when he inherited his brother Nathan’s herbarium. This specimen was collected in 1810 when James would have been about 16 years old. The writing on the specimen says “Gathered on J.B. Senior’s first journey into Teesdale. 1810. Middleton Teesdale 1810. Bog in the angle of Maize Beck and the Tees. Locality shown to J.B. by John Binks.” John Binks (1766-1817) was a Durham lead miner who is credited with finding many rare plants in the area and who was a big influence in James’ life.

Later in his life James travelled to South Africa and Australia, where his botanising resulted in a new genus, Backhousia, being named after him by William Hooker and William Harvey in 1845.


3. Hieracium insigne Backh.f. (http://data.rbge.org.uk/herb/E00031652)

This was a new species described by James Backhouse junior (1825-1890) in 1853. The name was published in the minutes of the Botanical Society of Edinburgh (in The Phytologist: a popular botanical miscellany). The meeting had been held on Thursday, December 9, 1852 and was chaired by Professor Balfour who was the President of the Society as well as the Professor of Botany at the University of Edinburgh and the Regius Keeper of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. As well as discussing the alarming effect of swallowing a quarter of a seed of poison nut by Professor Christison, the group looked over a range of donations to the Society.

These included over 40 Hieracium specimens collected by Backhouse. They had been collected from across Scotland and northern England. In the minutes is was noted “Mr Backhouse thinks that H. chrysanthum, H. globosum, H. alpestre, and H. argenteum will prove to be good species, but that there is some doubt regarding H. affine, H. gracilentum, and H. insigne.” However, Hieracium insigne is still recognised as a species today.

The original specimen that was presented at that meeting can be seen here, over 150 years later. It is the type specimen of Hieracium insigne. A type specimen, along with the original description, defines the name of a species and becomes the permanent reference for that name. It is usually the specimen that the author was looking at when describing the species, and is therefore critical for taxonomic research.



In selecting these specimens for the launch of the Backhouse Heritage and Education Centre it has become clear that there is considerable confusion in assigning many of the specimens to the correct member of the Backhouse family. Additional research will be needed to disentangle the individual collecting histories, localities and dates.



Welch, B. (1958). The Herbarium of James I’Anson of Darlington. Proc. BSBI. 3, 39-40; pdf

Proceedings of the Botanical Society of Edinburgh, (1853). The Phytologist: a popular botanical miscellany, Vol. 4, 803-812 (http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/55356#page/853/mode/1up)


Jan 012016
Arthur Conan Doyle's signature in the 1877 Botany Class Roll held at RBGE.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s signature in the 1877 Botany Class Roll held at RBGE.

In amongst the institutional archives of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh are items relating to the teaching of botany here, including lists of students going back to 1798.  It occurred to me that it should be possible to find amongst these lists the name, and perhaps even a signature, of someone still in the public eye today, someone who had studied botany in the past, perhaps as part of a medical degree.  These flights of fancy are usually fruitless, but this time it wasn’t long before I actually did spot a name still familiar to everyone, especially now that his stories about the detective Sherlock Holmes are enjoying a popular resurgence – that of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  His signature can be found in two of our Class Roll books, showing that he attended lectures here in medical botany and vegetable histology in 1877.

Library volunteer Diana Wilkinson has looked at Doyle’s early life and his time at Edinburgh University and has written the following post for Botanics Stories:

Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle was born in 1859 at 11 Picardy Place, Edinburgh (aerial photo, monuments) the eldest son and third of nine children of Charles Doyle, an artist and draughtsmen and his wife Mary. In 1867 the Doyle family moved to an overcrowded tenement flat at 3 Sciennes Place, Edinburgh, where Arthur headed a local street gang of boys. Funded by wealthy uncles he attended Hodder preparatory school from 1868 to 1870 and Stoneyhurst College from 1870 to 1875, then spending his final year of schooling in Feldkirch, Austria. In 1876 Conan Doyle entered Edinburgh University Medical School.
While at medical school Conan Doyle started writing and his first published story ‘The Mystery of Sarassa Valley’ appeared in Chamber’s Edinburgh Journal in September 1879. In the same month he published his first non-fictional article Gelseminum as a poison in the British Medical Journal. His university studies were interrupted by work as a doctor’s assistant in Birmingham and service as a ship’s doctor on a Greenland whaler and he graduated MB CM in 1881 (alumni entry). He added his MD, also from Edinburgh, in 1885 (title page of thesis).

Conan Doyle built a successful medical practice in Portsmouth and in 1885 married Louisa Hawkins. His literary career progressed apace, developing the short story format from the examples of Guy de Maupassant and the Edinburgh medical journal articles. The first Sherlock Holmes and Dr.Watson story ‘A Study in Scarlet’ was published in 1887 in Beeton’s Christmas Annual.
In 1891 Conan Doyle moved with his family to London and in that year the Holmes and Watson stories began appearing regularly in the newly founded Strand magazine. Because Conan Doyle feared he would only be known for his detective stories he killed Holmes off in ‘The Final Problem’ in December 1893 and turned his attention to historical fiction (though Holmes was resurrected in 1903). He continued to have some involvement with the University of Edinburgh, establishing a scholarship for a student in the Faculty of Medicine in 1902. His wife Louise died in 1906 and the following year he married Jean Leckie with whom he had 3 children. He continued writing and in his later years developed a strong interest in spirituality. Conan Doyle died at his home in Sussex in 1930 (letter written from his home in Sussex).

Connection with the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh

In order to graduate with a degree in medicine from the University of Edinburgh at that time, students were required to have undertaken 4 years of education and, in each year, to have attended two six month courses of lectures or one of six and two three month ones. In practice (according to his memoirs) Conan Doyle compressed his classes into half a year in order that he could earn money to support his studies and his family working variously as an outpatient clerk to the influential Dr. Joseph Bell (portrait), as a medical assistant in Birmingham and on board the Greenland whaler SS Hope from February to August 1880.
Botany was a compulsory subject and medical students attended a three month course of lectures at the Royal Botanic Garden (RBGE) for every year of their studies, totalling no less than 50 lectures. Botany was then examined as part of their Professional examinations along with subjects such as anatomy, chemistry, Institutes of Medicine, Surgery, etc. Botany exams, as far as possible, were conducted by demonstrations of objects placed before the candidates and through written and oral examinations.

The 1877 Botany Class Roll showing Conan Doyle taking two classes off due to illness.

The 1877 Botany Class Roll showing Conan Doyle taking two classes off due to illness.

As part of his degree Conan Doyle completed a summer course on Vegetable Histology and Practical Biology at the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh, attending lectures on 4 days a week from May to July 1877. At that time he was living at 2 Argyle Park Terrace, listed in the Post Office Directory as possibly a lodging house run by a Mrs. Burnside with one female and four male residents including Conan Doyle.

John Hutton Balfour in his University robes, 1879.

John Hutton Balfour in his University robes, 1879.

According to his own ‘Memories and Adventures’ published in 1924, Conan Doyle did not enjoy his medical training describing it as ‘one long weary grind at botany, chemistry, anatomy, physiology and a whole list of compulsory subjects many of which have a very indirect bearing on the art of curing’. In these recollections he describes his various professors including Professor J. Hutton Balfour who was Regius Keeper of the Botanic Garden between 1845 and 1879, as well as Professor of Botany at the University. “Balfour, with the face and manner of John Knox, a hard, rugged old man who harried his students in their exams, and was, in consequence, harried by them for the rest of the year”.

Plan in the RBGE Archives showing the classroom layout in the 1880-90s. This is now our conference room.

Plan in the RBGE Archives showing the classroom layout in the 1880-90s. This is now our conference room.

At that time those studying botany at the Botanic Gardens did so in some discomfort. The Regius Keeper’s Report for 1877 notes the lack of funding to run the gardens and particularly the poor state of accommodation for students. He comments that the class room could accommodate a maximum of 230 students yet numbers attending were 389 (students of medicine, science and pharmacy as well as general students) and that he was compelled to lecture in “an over-crowded room, the vitiated air of which is injurious to the health of the lecturer and his pupils”.  Students regularly petitioned the Office of Works and the Regius Keeper as well as the University and in 1878 provided details of the severity of the overcrowding; “Every possible means have been taken for getting accommodation by filling the passage with stools and forms, occupying the platform where the Professor lectures, removing an important table for holding the plants for demonstration, and by filling the outer lobby with seats”. There is no record of Conan Doyle attending lectures at the Botanic Gardens after 1877 as far as we know, but despite the conditions, botany was the only subject within his degree course which Conan Doyle was known to have excelled.

Certificate issued by John Hutton Balfour in 1876 at the end of the Botany course - presumably Conan Doyle would have received a similar one the year after.

Certificate issued by John Hutton Balfour in 1876 at the end of the Botany course – presumably Conan Doyle would have received a similar one the year after.

Conan Doyle draws on his experiences in his partly autobiographical thriller ‘The Firm of Girdlestone’ published in 1890. One of the minor characters, Tom Dimsdale, is a medical student at Edinburgh University. In Chapter 9, entitled ‘A Nasty Cropper’ there is a detailed description of Tom’s botany exams and his examiner. “This venerable teacher of botany, though naturally a kind-hearted man, was well known as one of the most malignant species of examiners, one of the school which considers such an ordeal in the light of a trial of strength between their pupils and themselves”, which sounds rather like his description of Balfour in his memoirs.
Conan Doyle clearly draws on his medical knowledge including botany and the use of plants as poisons in his Sherlock Holmes stories. Dr. Watson ‘Knowledge of Botany: Variable. Well up in belladonna, opium, and poisons generally. Knows nothing of practical gardening’ as one of Holmes’ 12 strengths and weaknesses and refers to his knowledge of botany in other contexts e.g. in ‘The Study in Scarlet’.

Credit goes to Diana Wilkinson for writing this Botanics Story, which although about Conan Doyle has actually shed some light on Hutton Balfour as a teacher which I found particularly interesting. Diana received a little help from Lorna Stoddart who is working on a PhD on Balfour, and myself, and I’m grateful to Elspeth Haston and staff at the National Galleries of Scotland, Historic Environment Scotland and the Edinburgh University Library for working on linking this Story with other collections across Edinburgh.  The collection of student class roll books is currently being listed by library volunteer Anne Taylor.


Leonie Paterson, Archivist at RBGE

Aug 282015


Close up of capsule from George Forrest herbarium specimen of Rhododendron forrestii

Close up of capsule from George Forrest herbarium specimen of Rhododendron forrestii

In the Autumn of 1914, George Forrest was travelling in China. His letters written at the time mention the difficulties he was facing in getting permission to cross the river into the Mekong-Salwin divide. He also describes the difficult weather conditions. In August he wrote:

‘The whole country is under water, the hills and mountains bathed in dank mist, every 48 hours we have a thunderstorm of several hours’ duration by way of breaking the moist monotony! Most of the neighbouring provinces are worse off than we. Canton especially has suffered severely, nearly, or over one million people having lost their lives through the floods.’

This was only a few months after Britain had declared war on Germany and his letters show the early belief that the war would be over by Christmas:

‘Poor Germany cannot stand long against so many and such powerful enemies.’

A later letter, dated 30 September 1914, shows that he did, in fact, manage to cross the river and was collecting plants in the Mekong-Salwin divide and in this letter he describes some of the new collections and encloses small quantities of seed. One of the plants he collected at this time was Rhododendron forrestii, a species which had been named after Forrest by the German botanist, Friedrich Diels in 1912 from a specimen that Forrest had collected on his first expedition in 1905. It is likely that the seeds mentioned in the letter included this plant, whilst the herbarium specimen would have been sent back later.

The plant was grown on at RBGE in Edinburgh, where the collection is still growing in the Rock Garden. The flowers are displayed in the spring and are a vividly rich, waxy red. The collection is also important as it is one of the specimens drawn by Lilian Snelling, during her time working for Sir Isaac Bayley Balfour, Keeper of the Botanic Garden, and the drawing now forms part of the extensive botanical art collections within the RBGE Archives.

The specimens shown here are both the original collection made in 1914, as well as a later specimen which was made from the plant growing in the Rock Garden in 2006.

Herbarium specimens of Rhododendron forrestii Forrest 13259

Herbarium specimens of Rhododendron forrestii

Aug 042014

4th August 1914 – collections on the day that war was declared between Britain and Germany

On the 4th August 1914 the tension was building during the day as the British Government awaited the response to their ultimatum to Germany. They had asked for assurances that the German Government would respect Belgian neutrality. The response came at 11pm, midnight in Germany, which resulted in the statement from the British Foreign Office that “His Majesty’s Government has declared to the German Government that a state of war exists between Great Britain and Germany as from 11pm on August 4th.” Eight days later, war was also declared on Germany’s ally, Austria-Hungary.

On the 4th August, a world away from the tensions in Europe, Handel-Mazzetti (Austrian), R.E. Cooper (British) and R.J. Farrer (British) were exploring and plant-collecting in China and Bhutan.

Specimen of Quercus cocciferoides

Quercus cocciferoides, collected by Handel-Mazzetti on 4th August 1914


Heinrich Raphael Eduard Freiherr von Handel-Mazzetti was born in Vienna in 1882 and he had been on several expeditions in Europe, Mesopotamia and Kurdistan before travelling to Yunnan in 1914. On 4th August he was high in the mountains in North-west Yunnan at 2,500m, where he collected several specimens, including Quercus cocciferoides (right), Strobilanthes hygrophioides and Bryum turbinatoides.

Specimen of Meconopsis henrici

Meconopsis henrici, collected by Farrer on 4th August 1914


Reginald John Farrer, travelling with William Purdom, was in the far North-west of China, in the Kansu Province and Tibet. On the 4th August in the high alpine turf he found a specimen of Meconopsis (left), later identified as Meconopsis henrici.


Specimen of Dasiphora fruticosa

Dasiphora fruticosa, collected by Cooper on 4th August 1914

Meanwhile, over the border in Bhutan, Roland Edgar Cooper was collecting plants for A.K. Bulley of Ness Gardens, near Liverpool. Born in England and brought up in Scotland with his mother’s half-sister and her husband, the future Regius Keeper of RBGE, William Wright Smith, Cooper had travelled extensively in Sikkim before travelling to Bhutan in 1914. On the 4th August, he collected specimens of Dasiphora fruticosa (right, formerly Potentilla) and Megacodon stylophorus, in the mountains at 13,000ft.

Jun 112013

There are nearly 3 million specimens being held in the herbarium at RBGE. We are working to digitise these specimens to make them available to people around the world, but if we want to complete this task in our lifetime then we need to find faster ways to enter the data and capture the images. Here we look at one of the ways we are using to speed up data capture.

Traditional data capture processes for biological collections have created a specimen record and then entered data associated with that specimen into the record (eg, collector, date, place of collection, etc). Database designers have investigated processes to improve speed and accuracy of the data entry and these can include look-up tables and data copy mechanisms.

An alternative process is to enter the curatorial data (eg, filing name and geographical region) which are constant for a batch of specimens within a folder, and then to create the individual specimen records, each with a barcode as a unique identifier. This process allows the very rapid creation of specimen records with a minimal amount of data entered for each specimen.

Data capture

Left: Traditional method of data capture
Right: Alternative method of data capture

This process also means that curatorial data such as the filing name of the specimen, which may not be written on the specimen itself, can be captured from the folders and cabinets. The data being capture, although minimal, does result in an accurate cataloguing of the collections. In addition, these preliminary records can be used to link images and other information. They also be expanded using a range of data entry methods including Optical Character Recognition.

Feb 222013

The geographical collecting locality of the types reflect both current and historical geographical areas of interest of RBGE research. Historical areas of focus are China (20%), India (8%) and Brasil (4%) and Arabia. More recent areas of research have been in Turkey (4%), Nepal, Chile and SE Asia.

The map below shows where all the types were collected and the geographical strengths can be clearly seen as well as the geographical breadth of the collections. The colour of the marker shows the number of types from each country.

Where the types at RBGE were collected

Map showing where the types in the herbarium at RBGE were collected


All stories about Type Specimens



Feb 222013

The oldest specimen in the herbarium at Edinburgh was collected in 1697. The oldest type specimen was collected in 1730. There have been several peaks during the time since then when large numbers of specimens were collected and subsequently became types. The most singular peak was in 1802 and represents the work of Robert Brown as he explored the flora of Australia.

When the types were collected

Graph showing when the types in the herbarium at RBGE were collected

The peak era when type specimens were collected was in the first half of the 20th century when a third of the types were collected. More than 20% of the types were collected in the first 15 years of the 20th century alone. The collection of specimens which become types is still continuing and the herbarium at Edinburgh holds 369 type specimens which were collected since 2000.

All stories about Type Specimens


Feb 222013

The type specimens held at RBGE were included in an analysis of plant collectors by Bebber et al. (2012) which showed that 50% of the type specimens were collected by only 2% of the collectors. These collectors were considered to be the “Big Hitters”. The RBGE data alone show an even more marked result – 50% of the type specimens were collected by 1.35% of the collectors. The top ten collectors between them account for 28% of the type specimens in red folders.

Who collected the types at RBGE

Graph showing the top ten collectors of types in the herbarium at RBGE


All stories about Type Specimens




Feb 222013

Since 2004, we have been digitising the type specimens* held in the herbarium at RBGE. This work has been funded by the Andrew W Mellon Foundation through the Global Plants Project (http://plants.jstor.org/). All the types in red folders have now been digitised and we are starting to look more closely at the specimen information to get an overall picture of what specimens we have, who collected them, when they were collected and from which countries.

Nearly 82% of the type specimens held at RBGE are flowering plants. However, RBGE also has significant type collections within the bryophytes (8%), the fungi (6%) and other major groups. As taxonomic research continues in all major groups more types are being found by RBGE staff and visiting researchers. Additional digitisation projects at RBGE aimed at digitising the whole herbarium are also helping in the discovery of types within the collections.

As we continue to research the collections at RBGE we are finding additional historical type specimens. The herbarium collections also continue to expand through the work of RBGE staff and international exchange resulting in new species and consequently new type specimens.

What types

* Type specimens are the specimens to which plant names are attached and they are some of the most important specimens for botanists.

All stories about Type Specimens