Robyn Drinkwater

Feb 122017
Charles Darwin, aged 51

Charles Darwin, aged 51

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin was born on 12 February 1809 (208 years ago this week), and died on 19 April 1882. Although he studied for a short time in Edinburgh, it was through his close friend and botany professor in Cambridge John Stevens Henslow that he was invited to join Captain Robert FitzRoy as naturalist on HMS Beagle for a round-the-world voyage which began on 27 December 1831 and lasted almost five years until 1836. On the voyage Darwin spent as much time as possible on land investigating geology and making natural history collections including dried plant specimens, while the Beagle surveyed and charted coasts. As is well-known, the voyage took Darwin first to the east coast of South America, round Cape Horn and north to the Galapagos Islands, then to New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Brazil and home.

Darwin’s Beagle Plants

In studies of the ‘top set’ of Darwin’s plant specimens in the Cambridge University herbarium, Duncan Porter has catalogued the 248 vascular plants which include 16 species of ferns, 35 of monocotyledons and 166 of dicotyledons. These specimens had been entrusted to Henslow to deal with, but the latter’s lack of time and expertise caused him to turn to William Hooker in Glasgow for help. Henslow numbered all the specimens before sending as complete a set as possible to Glasgow, where Hooker in turn enlisted the help of George Walker Arnott. Together they published many vascular plants new to science in the following years. Amongst these were some important novelties such as Berberis darwinii collected by Darwin on Chiloe Island in Chile in 1834 and now a familiar garden plant in Britain.

Darwin’s Bryophytes

Darwin apparently collected relatively few bryophytes, and very little has been published on them. A short list of eight from the Galapagos Islands was published by Hooker’s son Joseph in 1847 following study by the English bryologist William Wilson and these specimens are now in Hooker’s bryophyte herbarium in the Natural History Museum in London. Few of those from other parts of South America have been documented except for Dendroligotrichum dendroides (collected as Polytrichum dendroides) from Tierra del Fuego illustrated and described by William Hooker in his Icones Plantarum in 1836. Duplicates of this specimen, and two other Darwin bryophytes, were found in Arnott’s herbarium in Edinburgh several years ago.

Newly-found Darwin mosses in Edinburgh

In an important new discovery, made in the course of searching for specimens collected by Alexander von Humboldt in Arnott’s herbarium, two unexpected new discoveries have been made of Darwin bryophytes, bearing Henslow’s numbers 436 and 464.

436. Polytrichum magellanicum Hedw., now Polytrichadelphus magellanicus (Hedw.) Mitt., labelled ‘Straits of Terra del Fuego, Darwin per Henslow No. 436’. (E00826655, herb. Arnott). This specimen was collected by Darwin probably in January or February 1833. However, it had been first described by Johannes Hedwig in his Species Muscorum in 1801, based on a collection from the Straits of Magellan made by the French explorer Philibert Commerson in 1767. Remarkably, a duplicate of Commerson’s original specimen is also present in Arnott’s herbarium in E.

Polytrichadelphus magellanicus

Polytrichadelphus magellanicus

Polytrichadelphus magellanicus, Tierra del Fuego(Photo David Long)

Polytrichadelphus magellanicus, Tierra del Fuego(Photo David Long)










464. Hypnum arbuscula Brid., now Dendrohypopterygium arbuscula (Brid.) Kruijer, labelled ‘Chonos archipelago, Darwin per Revd. J.S. Henslow, No. 464.’ (E00826690, herb. Arnott). This specimen was collected by Darwin when he visited the Chonos Archipelago in Chile in December 1834. As with Darwin’s Polytrichum, this species was also first discovered by Commerson on the Straits of Magellan in 1767, and a duplicate of his specimen is also present in Arnott’s herbarium in E.

Dendrohypopterygium arbuscula is something of a controversial moss as it has recently been moved to a brand new genus Arbusculohypopterygium distinguished primarily on DNA sequences, perhaps the first example of such a genus. It remains to be seen if this will become generally accepted.

Dendrohypopterygium arbuscula

Dendrohypopterygium arbuscula

Hypopterygium arbuscula in Chile (photo Oliver Whaley)

Dendrohypopterygium arbuscula in Chile (photo Oliver Whaley)










How did some of Darwin’s mosses get to Edinburgh?

At the time of the Beagle voyage in the early 1830’s Scotland was one of the world’s leading centres of cryptogamic botany. This was brought about by the appointment of William Jackson Hooker (later Sir William Hooker, Director of Kew) to the Chair of Botany in Glasgow University in 1820 where for 21 years he led the study of mosses, liverworts, ferns and algae, along with his Scottish colleagues Robert Kaye Greville in Edinburgh and George Walker Arnott based in Edinburgh, Fife and Paris. They published extensively and formed a formidable cryptogamic team. All three acquired large herbaria, both from their own field work in Britain and France, and more importantly through gifts and exchange of specimens with botanists and plant collectors worldwide. When Hooker left Glasgow in 1840 he took his very large herbarium with him to Kew, but Greville’s herbarium remained in Edinburgh, and Arnott’s in Glasgow. Fortunately, Hooker was extremely generous with his specimens and gave many duplicates to his friends Arnott and Greville. At later dates Arnott’s herbarium (except for his British collections which went to the Kelvingrove Museum) came to the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh. Through their efforts, and also through the very important acquisition of the herbarium of the Scottish botanist/ explorer Archibald Menzies, Edinburgh now has one of the world’s best historic cryptogamic collections from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Arnott in particular seems to have been especially well-connected with other botanists through his work in Paris where he obtained large numbers of specimens from leading contemporary continental botanists and explorers such as Jean Baptiste Bory de Saint-Vincent, Adolphe-Théodore Brongniart, Jules Paul Benjamin Delessert, Alexander von Humboldt, Adrien-Henri de Jussieu and Carl Sigismund Kunth. It was through Hooker and Arnott’s contact with Henslow in Cambridge that a set of Darwin’s Beagle plants came to Glasgow and later some of these moved to Edinburgh. The Edinburgh collections are still being catalogued, and though much fewer in number than the approximately 250 collections housed in Cambridge, nevertheless duplicates of around one third of the Beagle vascular plants are present in Edinburgh. The two new ‘finds’ of mosses show that this cataloguing may not be complete and more Darwin specimens may yet come to light at RBGE.

David Long

Feb 012017

On 1st February 2017 an exhibition opens in the Library Foyer at RBGE displaying work which was produced through association between RBGE and Edinburgh College of Art and inspired by our research collections.  This exhibition will run until the first week of March. 


In October 2016, the Edinburgh College of Art 2nd year Illustration course, were assigned a 5 week project based on the Herbarium, Library, Archives and Living Collections here at Edinburgh.  This collaboration is part of a concerted effort by RBGE in seeking new audiences for our collections, in addition to the traditional taxonomic researchers and was valuable for strengthening the relationship between organisations.


As we curate such a potentially overwhelming amount of material to choose from, we decided on a geographical focus, based on some of the scientific projects that are currently active at RBGE.   The students were divided into groups and allocated one of the countries highlighted on the map.

Each student group was given a tour of our research collections and a session with one of our taxonomists who specialises in the flora of their designated country.  These experts gave the students an overview of their current research, including anecdotes from their fieldwork emphasising the need for habitat conservation and showed them herbarium specimens and living material to be inspired by.


The work displayed was chosen from all the material submitted by the students.  We have included the sketchbooks to illustrate the research that is such a significant part of the artistic process and to give the viewer an insight into how each student created the final artwork.  The herbarium specimen and living collection images seek to put the work into the context of the RBGE collections.

You can view a small selection in our archive cabinet in The John Hope Gateway at the West Gate of the Botanics and the main exhibition is in the Library Foyer of the Balfour Building (10am-4pm).  There is directional signage in the Garden.

Directions map

@rbge_herbarium                                                                  #rbge_eca

Oct 182016
Harry Powell

The RBGE Herbarium is frequently gifted plant specimens from individual collectors. In recent years we have received material from

  • T. Powell (seaweeds)
  • F. Dobremez (flora of Nepal)
  • C. Townsend (mosses)
  • C.R. Fraser-Jenkins (ferns)

Often the culmination of a lifetime’s collecting and botanical expertise, these gifts are of enormous importance to the Herbarium.

However, some specimens require a considerable amount of preparatory work before they can be incorporated into the collection. Following an initial condition assessment, tasks may include:

  • Cataloguing ancillary material eg photos, drawings, collecting books
  • Sending duplicate specimens to other Herbaria
  • Producing or photocopying labels
  • Databasing & imaging
  • Mounting or remounting
  • Laying away [filing specimens in herbarium cabinets]

This preparation is vital if the specimens are to be maintained in the best possible condition and made fully accessible to future researchers. It may take weeks, months or years.

Volunteers play a vital and much appreciated role in assisting Herbarium staff with this work. Some are featured here, but to all we would like to say a huge Thank You!


The gifted herbaria and the volunteers who work on them:

Harry Powell

Harry Powell

Collector: Harry T. Powell (1925-2016)

Background: Henry Powell (known as Harry) had a lifelong career with the Scottish Marine Biological Association (SMBA), later the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS).  He carried out seaweed surveys all around the Scottish coast, publishing several significant papers, and conducted important studies on Fucus species (wracks). He was an active member of his workplace union branch and a chairman of Connel Community Council.

Collection: Over 500 hundred dried pressed seaweed specimens, and papers, photographs, films and collecting equipment. He also rescued a variety of items when the SMBA relocated from Millport to Oban in 1967. These included 19th century pressed specimens and nature prints.


Clare Scanlan

Clare Scanlan

Volunteer:  Clare Scanlan

Background: Recently retired from the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) – Senior Marine Specialist (marine plants). Long-term interest in seaweeds.

Project: Sorting and cataloguing the collection bequeathed by the late Harry T. Powell.

Likes: Working with seaweeds, and on a collection that is both interesting and useful.



Professor Jean Francois Dobremez

Professor Jean Francois Dobremez

Collector: Jean Francois Dobremez (1941-2009)

Background: A professor at the University of Grenoble, Dobremez was the ecologist who mapped Nepal. His vegetation types are still used in official documents in Nepal.

Collection: Over 9000 herbarium sheets, mainly specimens collected by Dobremez and his colleagues in the 1960s and 70s, but supplemented by other botanists collecting in Nepal around the same time. They are a valuable resource for RBGEs Flora of Nepal research.

Jean Keeling

Jean Keeling

Volunteer:  Jean Keeling

Background: Consultant pathologist, former allotment holder, always into walking and cooking.

Project:  Preparing pressed specimens from the Dobremez collection for remounting by herbarium technicians.

Likes: Stepping into the Herbarium, a haven of tranquillity. Meeting people from a variety of backgrounds, both staff and other volunteers is a bonus.

Dislikes: Visitors who don’t replace the microscope covers and haven’t discovered how to turn off their mobiles!




Clifford Charles Townsend

Collector: Clifford Charles Townsend (b.1926)

Background: Townsend was a member of staff at Kew Botanical Gardens, where his main area of research was the production of the Flora of Iraq. Collecting bryophytes [mosses] was just a very prolific hobby.

Collection: He gifted around 11 000 specimens to RBGE in 2001 and a further 14 000 in 2012! The gift of 2012 had to be collected at very short notice, as he gave an ultimatum that the Natural History Museum, London, could have them unless we collected them within a week or so!




Margaret Johnson

Margaret Johnson

Volunteer:  Margaret Johnson

Background: Worked in drawing offices producing geographical/architectural plans, and records of utilities. Has always been interested in plants, gardens and plant collectors, and loves travelling.

Project:  Preparing C. C. Townsend specimens for mounting (mosses are stored in paper packets glued on to herbarium sheets). Checking for duplicates to send to other Herbaria.

Likes: The staff, Friends and volunteers are very friendly which makes an enjoyable atmosphere in which to be able to help out in the Garden.


Christopher Fraser Jenkins

Christopher Fraser Jenkins

Collector: Christopher R. Fraser-Jenkins (b.1948)

Background: He began collecting in April 1957 at the age of 9, and went on to make thousands of wild fern collections from Europe, Russia, the Middle East, Southern Asia, North (incl. USA, Hawaii and Mexico) and Central America, Jamaica, Réunion and Africa.

Collection: His collection came to us from the Welsh National Herbarium in 2011, and includes over 32 300 accessions as well as correspondence, field books and hard drives of photographs. Further collections are held at the Natural History Museum, London.



Sheila Rennie

Sheila Rennie

Volunteer:  Sheila Rennie

Background: Administrative/managerial position with Scottish Certification Authority (SQA). Interests include cinema, books, tennis, golf, skiing and travel.

Project:  Preparing archival quality labels for specimen collections. Previously worked on transcribing information from C. R. Fraser-Jenkins collection books into the RBGE Herbarium database.

Likes: The stress-free working environment and interacting with other volunteers – tea breaks and lunchtimes are pleasant social occasions.


Bridget Laue

Bridget Laue

Volunteer:  Bridget Laue

Background: An active member of the British Pteridological Society (BPS), I have a very strong fondness for ferns.  So when the RBGE needed someone to help with ferns in the herbarium, it seemed an ideal project to pursue in my retirement.

Project: Processing the unmounted specimens, preparing them for mounting, and then barcoding and laying away the mounted specimens.

Likes: The fern specimens are lovely and I have learned so much from dealing with them.  But besides this, I have really enjoyed getting to know other members of the herbarium team, as well as visiting researchers.  Everyone has their own peculiar area of interest and expertise.  I also like the flexibility; I can work away on my own at the times that work well for me.  My supervisor, Sally King, is great about giving me clear instructions and having material ready for me.

Dislikes: Okay, really the only downside of working in the herbarium is finding myself working indoors on the occasional dry, sunny, Scottish day.

May 312016
St Brigid anemone

‘I like to plant something every day!’

Ruby Collett was in her eighties when she made this remark to a younger neighbour.  A student probationer gardener at RBGE in the 1920s, Ruby was a force of nature and I’d like to share some of her experiences with plants.   During her time at RBGE she would learn much about propagating and tending new and established species.  This practical learning period no doubt helped develop this very formidable plantswoman.

Ruby Collett application

Ruby Collett Probationer Gardener Application Form

456 individuals were taken on as probationer gardeners at RBGE between 1889 and 1939. Only seven of that group (1.5 %) were women.

You can see a list of all of these probationers here.

The student probationer scheme was established in 1892 by Professor Isaac Bayley Balfour, Regius Keeper, to provide free courses of instruction in practical scientific horticulture and forestry over a period of 2½ years.  Applicants had to be aged 25 or under with at least three years working experience in gardening or forestry. In return for full time work in the garden, pay was fixed at £1 1 shilling per week with extra pay for Sunday work.  Courses of instruction were provided through evening classes taught by RBGE staff and external specialists, and on-the-job practical work.

Ruby was the seventh woman gardener to be accepted as a student probationer.  In case you are wondering here is the list of the six women who preceded her at RBGE, with their years of training. Their stories all have interest, and may appear in future blogposts.

  • Constance Ida Hay Currie (1873-1952). 1897. Eventually emigrated to British Columbia where she lived with her husband E. G. Beaumont on the remote Discovery Island.
  • [Jane Torr] Lina Barker (1866-1929). 1897 to 1899. In 1900 established the first school of gardening for women in Scotland with her fellow probationer Annie Morrison as co-Principal.
  • Annie Morison (1870-1948). 1898 to 1899.
  • Amelia Jean Scott (1903-1925). 1919 to 1921. Lived within sight of RBGE and started as a probationer straight from school. Sadly died from peritonitis at a very young age.
  • Mary Ord (1895-   ) 1920 to 1923. Came to RBGE from Darlington where she had been in charge of the Alpine and Herbaceous Department at Kent & Brydon, a well-established firm of nursery and seedsmen.  Returned to Darlington, where she married A. F. T. Ord.
  • Edith Cairns (1898-   ) 1922 to 1924. Married fellow probationer William P. Dodghson in 1926 in Alberta, Canada.

Ruby’s full name was Ruby Sarah Martha Collett. She was born on a large mixed farm at Abbot’s Ripton, Huntingdonshire in 1900. Prior to arriving at RBGE in August 1924 she garnered 5 years’ practical experience working in private and collegiate gardens.

From 1919 to early 1922 Ruby worked as a gardener at Reading University and Loughborough College. During this time she gained the R.H.S. Senior Certificate – 1st Class.  At Loughborough she managed the garden and grounds of five student hostels and supervised a team of assistant lady gardeners.

J.F. Driver, Works Manager at Loughborough College gave Ruby a recommendation for her application to RBGE in which he states:

‘Besides being a good practical gardener Miss Collett has high theoretical qualifications, and has had excellent experience.’  J. F. Driver

In 1923 Ruby started as gardener in a private garden at Pampisford, Cambridgeshire, where she worked under glass and outdoors.  Her employer was Mrs Annie Hudson, the widow of P R Hudson, a significant brewer in Cambridgeshire.

She took up her place at RBGE in the August of 1924 coming from a postion at Anstey Hall, Cambridgeshire, where she was working in the glasshouses.  We know from a personal letter that she roared around Edinburgh on a motorcycle.  Ruby  excelled academically, never receiving a mark below 75 per cent and in two subjects (Systematic Botany and Meteorology) passing with full marks. When she left RBGE in February 1927, Sir William Wright Smith, Regius Keeper, noted in the certificate he issued that:

‘Her work in the Royal Botanic Garden has been performed carefully, skilfully and intelligently and her conduct has been in every respect satisfactory.’

On leaving RBGE Ruby was the first woman to gain a position with the Ministry of Agriculture as an Assistant Inspector of Horticulture. She worked primarily among the orchards in Worcestershire.

In 1933 she re-located to Cornwall, having amassed sufficient capital to purchase a farm of eight small fields covering approximately 12 acres and two cob-walled cottages, to become a producer of good quality flowers and fruit, a long held ambition of hers.  The farm was located at Quenchwell, Perranwell, halfway between Truro and Falmouth.  In March 1934 seed of forty-five shrubs and herbaceous plants, including Lilium regale, Ceanothus veitchianus, Spiraea douglasii  and Meconopsis wallichii, were sent to Ruby from RBGE.

Ruby wrote about her experiences during the first six years’ of her flower farm in an article published in the August 1939 issue of The Journal of the Ministry of Agriculture.

Before Ruby purchased her farm she was advised to make sure the farm was saleable in the event of her failing to make good. Undaunted, she set to work, but with a plan that every endeavour had to be made to make both buildings and equipment serve more than one purpose.  She also improved her farm by building a cottage for her foreman, improving her own cottage and building additional storage and picking sheds, a garage and water tanks.

As well as working on her farm herself, Ruby employed a small staff of three and took on horticultural students and employed seasonal workers for flower harvesting.  One of the first things she tried to assess was whether mechanical or horse power was the best way of powering work on the farm. A rototiller won out over the horses, after some trying experiences. By 1939 the rototiller had more than paid for itself. Ruby continued using the rototiller for four years after which she purchased a tractor for ploughing, rolling and harrowing.

St Brigid anemone

St Brigid anemone

By 1939 the crops cultivated included over an acre of anemones, the same of daffodils and 2 acres of strawberries, with smaller areas of violets, raspberries, blackberries and gooseberries. In the early years of the farm the number of strawberry plants sold was between 50,000 to 70,000 per year and the number of viola plants sold was between 20,000 and 50,000.

Here are a few of Ruby’s observations from her article:

‘I have worked up a connection for plants of high quality, which are despatched to all parts of Great Britain.’

‘I aim at the best; there is no stinting where manures and cultivators are concerned.’

‘I would like to emphasize the great importance of introducing the very best strains and stocks for the initial plantings.’

‘Any success I have achieved I attribute to the experience which comes from being born on a large mixed farm, to having had a horticultural training followed by a varied practical experience, to having enjoyed good health and to the possession of a large capacity for hard work.’

Sometime in the late 1940s Ruby re-located within Cornwall moving to Rosmergy, in the Parish of St. Agnes, in the Wheal Lawrence Valley, a former centre of Cornish copper-mining.  Here she established another flower farm from five fields. Ruby’s enthusiasm for plants meant that she was a very hard worker who expected more of her employees than was perhaps the norm. Someone who worked for her for a short period recalled her as a ‘hard taskmaster.’  One thing that Ruby grew commercially at Rosmergy was shrubs including Pittosporum. Amongst the seeds sent from RBGE in 1934 were seeds of P. crassifolium and P. divaricatumP. crassifolium, a native of New Zealand, was particularly suited to the climate of the south-west and has naturalised in some places in Cornwall.

Pittosporum crassifolium

Pittosporum crassifolium

In a letter, Mrs Isobel Burrows, whose mother was a friend of Ruby’s, describes the beauty of the garden Ruby created around her cottage situated only half a mile from the sea. Ruby planted a protective shelter belt of pines, olearia, griselinia and elaeagnus, within which she grew single specimen trees such as Cornus kousa, eucalyptus and copper beech.  In front of the cottage were a tree paeony and a flowering cherry.  Fuchsia magellanica provided an edging on one side of the drive up to the cottage. The garden was particularly attractive in winter when camellias and Rhododendron ‘Christmas Cheer’ flowered.  Gunnera planted by Ruby is remarked on by walkers in the area to this day.

A keen golfer, Ruby played the game well into her eighties. She created a practice green on part of her land, and tended it with  a particular pride, offering sixpence to any child who could discover a dandelion growing on it.

Ruby reached the age of 90 but sadly died in her garden, in tragic circumstances, on Boxing Day 1990.

Anne Meredith looks in more detail at Miss Collett’s experiences in her thesis ‘Middle class women and horticultural education, 1890-1939’ Ph.D. University of Sussex (2001). [EThOS ID:]

My thanks are due to Mr Tom Thompson (St Agnes Museum (, Mrs Isobel Burrows, and Mr & Mrs John Branfield for providing information about Miss Collett and her garden and nursery at Rosmergy.

Written by Graham Hardy, May 2016

Apr 262016
David Harris

Herbarium Curator

DavidMy favourite thing in the Herbarium is the labels on the cabinets. They tell us what is in the cabinet and where we are in the taxonomic sequence. When visiting other herbaria I always look at the labels – they are never, ever, as clear, as consistent or as informative, as they are back home in Edinburgh. It is just another example of the amount of careful thought that went into the design of this herbarium in the years leading up to its opening in 1964.





Erzsebet Gyongy

Herbarium Assistant

LizzieMy favourite object in the Herbarium is the tablet. I do loads of laying away [putting specimens away in correct taxonomic order in the cabinets], and the tablet helps me do this more efficiently. I can carry it with me and use it to check specimen details right at the cabinet: I don’t have to go back and forth to another computer. I can see on the tablet if a specimen needs to be imaged or not and can also catch mistakes and avoid mislaying specimens. It is a handy little tool for my job!





Jenny McCutcheon

Herbarium Technician – Plant Specimen Preparation


My favourite thing in the Herbarium is my sponge stippler. This fantastic little tool is perfect for applying archival glue to fragile specimens and for getting good glue coverage on the larger ones without getting messy, gluey fingers!

With the stippler you can control the pressure applied to each specimen and also use a rolling technique to release the glue which really helps to preserve the vast number of varied specimens which arrive in the mounting room.




Kate Eden

Herbarium Technician – Plant Specimen Preparation


My favourite thing in the Herbarium is this photo of a woman mounting plant specimens while her cat sleeps! I have it on the wall behind my desk. I think it captures the quiet, methodical nature of the job, not to mention the sheer volume of work (all those piles of specimens …) At RBGE we aim to mount plant specimens for the Herbarium as soon as possible; those that have to go into a backlog are safely and systematically stored, in boxes recorded in a spreadsheet.





Lesley Scott

Assistant Herbarium Curator Loans

LesleyMy favourite thing in the Herbarium is the large spirit bottle containing the Camomile specimen which has suffered from fasciation (it has a swollen stem due to abnormal growth activity).  It is suspended in a beautiful old jar and has turned the spirit solution a lovely warm yellow colour and we use it for tours of the Herbarium.  It is recognisable as Camomile showing all the flower heads, but most of all I love the fact that it looks like a mutant plant from another world.





Lorna Glancy

Herbarium Technician – Plant Specimen Preparation

LornaMy favourite thing in the Herbarium is my tweezers. I would be lost without them. My job is to mount dried plant material onto archival board to make herbarium specimens. The tweezers are a versatile mounting tool:  they are useful for picking up fragile and brittle plant material, and both the pointed and flat ends are perfect for manipulating the fine paper tapes used to secure the plant material to the sheet.  A lot of effort has gone into collecting these plant specimens from around the globe, and my tweezers help me to handle them with the care they deserve!




Robyn Drinkwater

Digitisation Officer/Technical Developer

RobynMy favourite things in the Herbarium are the barcodes, in particular the long empty strip you get when doing minimal data entry. It’s satisfying to see (and rip off) at the end of a day’s databasing. Each long empty strip shows that several hundred more specimens are ready to be imaged and made available online. Currently around 750,000 (25%) of specimens have been databased.





Sally King

Digitisation Officer/Herbarium Volunteer Coordinator


Choosing a favourite thing from the Herbarium was impossible because it’s such a treasure trove! I chose a sentimental object, my wee Mexican tortoise, a gift from a digitisation team member at Kew Herbarium, where I used to work. He puts a smile on my face and reminds me of where I’ve come from. Without my time at Kew I wouldn’t be working here. I’m so happy to be working at the best Botanic Garden in the UK ;) The world map in the photo is marked out into the geographical regions the herbarium specimens are filed under: Mexico is in Area 14.




Sally Rae

Assistant Curator Bryophytes

SallyRMy favourite thing in the Herbarium is my glue spatula. Rather than being mounted like other plant specimens the small, fragile bryophytes [mosses] are stored in archival paper packets which I glue to the appropriate herbarium sheet at the cabinets. I have used the same spatula for the last 30 odd years. If I find someone using it I will always ask if I can change it for the spare on my trolley which is much stiffer and does not feel right to me. I only have 2 spares and as they are not made any more; when they are gone I will have to retire! (A fact I tell visitors and volunteers when I let them use the spare.)I am very possessive about my spatula!!




Suzanne Cubey

Deputy Herbarium Curator

SuzanneMy favourite thing the Herbarium is my ‘box of tricks’.  It contains all the essentials I need to prepare a specimen for mounting or to annotate a specimen that has been used for research purposes.  I can’t remember where the box came from, I’ve had it so long but it contains secateurs, dissection kit, capsules, and my precious 10 very old, different sized black and white carpological boxes with glass lids to keep all my important labels in.  The Cultivated labels are for the specimens made from plants growing in our truly amazing Living Collection. I like the function of labels  – labels on the herbarium specimen are as equally as important as the plant material itself.



Terry Gilmour

Herbarium Cleaning Operative

TerryMy favourite thing in the Herbarium is the job of cleaning and buffing the floors. It’s a calm, almost meditative job, but an important one. Without regular cleaning dust and plant debris from specimens can build up and provide a hiding place for herbarium beetles which damage the specimens. I report any beetles or larvae I find to Herbarium staff so they can record them and take action if necessary.





Elspeth Haston

Deputy Herbarium Curator

ElspethMy favourite thing in the Herbarium is Grumpy, a herbarium trolley that saw a lot of service in 2006 when we reorganised the three million specimens in the collection. It took us nine weeks, thanks to a team of people and a set of seven trolleys. When moving specimens from one cabinet to another between two floors, the characters of the trolleys became evident and so we named them. Happy was the favourite – running smoothly and turning nicely. Grumpy needed more effort to manoeuvre, but I grew very fond of it! The RGBE Herbarium was the first large herbarium to be organised according to the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group classification, a system now adopted by many other large herbaria. Grumpy is still in the herbarium, helping us to recurate some of the larger families.

Mar 312016
Mary Gibby and Heather McHaffie

Protection of the habitat is a perhaps the most effective method of conservation of plant diversity, yet this alone cannot guarantee the survival of some of our most threatened species. Changing climate, the introduction of new predators or diseases, and many other factors can affect the survival of a small population. To best achieve success in conservation, knowledge of the plants’ biology, its life cycle and population structure together with information on the reason’s for decline of a population are all essential ingredients for the maintenance of a population. A strategy for conservation for one species may differ considerably from that of another species.

Two fern species have been the subject of conservation programmes by two of our Research Associates, Mary Gibby and Heather McHaffie. What they share in common is the reason for their past decline; both were targets of enthusiastic collectors, especially during the second half of the nineteenth century, when the Victorian fern craze – so-called “Pteridomania” – was at its height. The ferns were sought out for private collections of pressed specimens or for cultivation, often in glazed Wardian cases, to ornament elegant drawing rooms.

Mary Gibby and Heather McHaffie

Mary Gibby – First female Director of Science at RBGE (left)
Heather McHaffie– former Scottish Plants Officer at RBGE

We have good documentary evidence of the decline of the two species, preserved for posterity in the herbarium at RBGE. Although RBGE was founded in 1670, the establishment of the herbarium dates from 1873 when the collections of the Botanical Society of Edinburgh (B.S.E., now the Botanical Society of Scotland) were donated to the Garden.  Amongst the plants collected by members of this august society is small specimen of the Killarney Fern, Trichomanes speciosum, the first record of this plant from Scotland. It was discovered in 1863 by Robert Douglas, the ‘walking postman’ of Arran. His find was confirmed by the Edinburgh naturalist W. B. Simpson, who suggested that Douglas should keep the information secret. Douglas, however, showed the site to George Coombe of Glasgow, who returned and stripped the site almost bare. The annotated herbarium sheet (Figure 1) with two small fronds includes a letter from George Coombe.

Trichomanes speciosum Killarney Fern

Figure 1: Trichomanes speciosum (Killarney Fern)

The decline of Oblong Woodsia, Woodsia ilvensis, is linked closely to the opening up of the railways. A major centre of the distribution of this little plant was the hills around Moffat, in southern Scotland, and fern enthusiasts were so keen to acquire specimens that a trade in the plant grew up for visiting tourists at Moffat station. In a report of a plant hunting trip by a few friends from the B.S.E., they describe after a very long search finding five plants of the Woodsia, four of which they collected, leaving one behind as “an egg in the nest”! Two large pressed whole plants from this expedition are on the sheet in Figure 2.

Woodsia ilvensis Oblong Woodsia

Figure 2: Woodsia ilvensis (Oblong Woodsia)


Both ferns are of conservation concern in the UK, and the Killarney Fern is included in the EU Habitats Directive. In Species Action Plans developed in the 1990s, it was proposed that for both species conservation action through restoration should be considered. Study of the biology of the Killarney Fern has shown that the fern has two distinct and long-lived forms to its life cycle; the normal spore bearing fern (sporophyte) with a creeping rhizome is confined to very humid, shady conditions usually below 50m altitude, whilst the gametophyte generation, with a green filamentous structure that bears the sex organs, thrives in deep crevices, and under very low light conditions. Whilst the distribution of the fern is extremely limited, being confined mostly to a few sites in western Britain and Ireland, the gametophyte is much more widespread, on the north, south east and west coasts of the UK, and the gametophyte populations carry much more genetic diversity that that remaining in the few sporophyte populations. The gametophytes are a living spore-bank that has the potential to give rise to further sporophyte populations under warmer and wetter conditions. Re-introductions have been deemed inappropriate for this species.

There are now fewer than 100 plants of Oblong Woodsia in the UK. One population near Moffat has been seen to decline from c. 25 plants down to only three in the last forty years, and with the exception of a population of over 60 plants in England, many of the Scottish and Welsh populations are limited to less than six plants. It is still unclear why the species continues to decline, and why new plants are failing to establish. Andrew Ensoll has had great success in establishing a very large ex-situ collection at RBGE of the species from spores collected under licence from throughout the species’ range. With the support of Scottish Natural Heritage and Natural England several new populations have been established in areas where the species has been lost, and these continue to be monitored. There has been fairly good survival of these re-introductions, but despite some having been established for 15 years, there is still no evidence of natural regeneration in the wild.

One of the few plants left of Woodsia ilvensis growing wild in Scotland

One of the few plants left of Woodsia ilvensis growing wild in Scotland

The next generation of females in science takes this work forward – Nadia Russell, a PhD student based at the Garden, is carrying out further research on the genetics of the species to see whether genetic rescue is feasible.



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Mar 232016
Rusty paperclips in need of replacment


A rolling condition survey of mounted herbarium specimens was recommended in the 2010 RBGE Synthesys Self-Assessment Collections Care Report. An initial pilot survey was carried out in 2011-12, when 8,302 specimens in the Zingiberaceae family were assessed, and where necessary given preventative care by digitisation staff, or referred for remedial conservation treatments. The survey method was subsequently used to record the condition of specimens in the Gesneriaceae family; specimens from the Middle East, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Australia; and for selected collectors e.g.Erich Werdermann (1892-1959) and Robert Brown (1773-1858).

The pilot survey demonstrated that it is possible to integrate a basic level of systematic condition assessment of herbarium specimens into a digitisation workflow, making good use of limited staff time, and raising awareness of preservation issues and it is now a standard part of the imaging workflow.

Collections Care Priorities

Condition survey spreadsheet

Condition survey spreadsheet

The pilot survey was developed around RBGE’s primary collections care priorities:

  • to preserve the valuable information present in the specimens for future researchers: preservation = access
  • to make this information more widely available through digitisation

Therefore survey priorities were to record:

  • actual or potential loss of plant material and/or label data requiring immediate remedial treatment
  • handling issues requiring preventative measures
  • potential degradation of plant material and/or label data requiring future assessment
  • specimens with cellophane or polythene coverings which would hinder clear imaging.


The survey is carried out whilst staff are imaging or databasing the specimens, to reduce unnecessary additional handling of specimens, with barcodes of specimens being recorded in an Excel spreadsheet under the relevant ‘reporting categories’. These barcodes are subsequently linked to the herbarium database to gather additional information about the specimens.

There are 7 categories that staff record:

  • Non-archival material e.g. cellophane or polythene
  • Paper problems e.g. too flimsy to handle
  • Risk of damage or loss e.g. loose attachment or material
  • Insect damage
  • Sent for repair (specimen sent for remedial conservation treatment by trained herbarium technician)
  • Surface dirt e.g. soot, dirt
  • Stained sheet e.g. insecticide residue
Sooty specimen

Sooty specimen

Loose specimen in need of remedial conservation treatment

Loose specimen in need of remedial conservation treatment

Cellophanne packet on specimen

Cellophanne packet on specimen











The first 4 of these generally result in the specimen being sent for repair, although in some cases digitisation staff are able to place fragile specimens in archival paper folders with backing boards, or bulky specimens in archival card boxes for to reduce pressure points. Paper clips and pins are removed and where necessary replaced with archival brass paper clips. Insect damage is also referred to staff responsible for Integrated Pest Management (IPM) to ensure that appropriate action (eg freezing specimens and cleaning cabinets) is taken where necessary.

Rusty paperclips in need of replacment

Rusty paperclips in need of replacment

Herbarium technicians and digitisation staff meet regularly and provide feedback to each other, and this is important  for the consistency and accuracy of the survey process.

Mar 082016

Bertha Chandler (1885-1961)

Bertha Chandler

Photograph of Bertha Chandler published in Transactions Royal Scottish Society of Arts, 24 (1), October 1939. (Reproduced with permission of RSSA)

In 1901 did Andrew Carnegie know, by donating $10 million to create the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland, that his legacy would assist pioneering women science graduates and researchers, like RBGE’s own Bertha Chandler? Carnegie’s gift came less than ten years after the Scottish universities had begun to admit women as students on the same terms as men, following the passage of the Universities (Scotland) Act, 1889.

Bertha was born in India, whilst her father was in the Army serving overseas. The family moved to Edinburgh in 1900 where Bertha and her sister Edith Kate Chandler (Dawson) were pupils at the Edinburgh Ladies’ College, latterly known as The Mary Erskine School. Edith gained her medical degrees from Edinburgh in 1921 and went on to be an internationally recognised pathologist, whose papers are now held at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.

On leaving school Bertha competed for and gained a Heriot Bursary to assist with the cost of her studies at the University of Edinburgh. There were a number of Heriot Bursaries, including two for women students.

Bertha undertook a joint Arts/Science course of studies and in 1907 graduated with an MA. In July 1908 she also gained a Bachelor of Science (BSc), with special distinction in Botany. Studies in Chemistry and Geology also formed part of Bertha’s joint degree. When Bertha studied at the University of Edinburgh, the Botany Department was based at RBGE and the Professor of Botany, Dr Isaac Bayley Balfour, was also the Regius Keeper of RBGE.

Botany class photo

The RBGE Archive contains this photograph of the Advanced Botany Class, Winter 1907-08, University of Edinburgh. Professor Bayley Balfour is seated in the front row centre, and Bertha is on his left [RBGE Archive]

Sporophyte from notebook

Drawing of ‘Sporophyte’ from Bertha’s Practical Botany Class notebook for the Practical Botany class 1907-08 [RBGE Archive]











From 1908 Bertha worked at RBGE supervised by Bayley Balfour. During that time she undertook the research and experiments that would lead to her obtaining the degree of Doctor of Science (DSc) from the University of Edinburgh in 1913. Bayley Balfour had been the first Edinburgh University student to gain this postgraduate degree. Bertha made Scottish academic history as the first female graduate to attain it.

Bertha’s thesis is on ‘The Theory and Practice of Vegetative Propagation in Flowering Plants.’ A copy of the thesis, with Bertha’s handwritten and signed declaration that the work submitted was done by her, is held in RBGE Archive. The thesis covers dicotyledons, monocotyledons and conifers in turn, and examines stem-cuttings, leaf cuttings and root cuttings as means of vegetative propagation for each group. The thesis is heavily illustrated with diagrams drawn by Bertha, also photographs taken by her and her RBGE colleague Robert Moyes Adam.

Acanthus montana

Photographs in Bertha’s D.Sc. showing ‘Leaf cuttings of Acanthus montana.’ [RBGE Archive]

Bertha was appointed a Carnegie Research Scholar in 1909, thus directly benefitting from Andrew Carnegie’s generosity. The same year she was proposed as a member of the Scottish Horticultural Association. For a number of years Bertha was a member of the SHA’s Scientific Committee.

In 1910 Bertha gained the Anderson-Henry Prize. This prize was awarded for the best and approved essay on a botanical subject proposed by the Professor of Botany, the Curator of the Royal Botanic Garden, and the President of the Botanical Society of Edinburgh.

From 1904-1914 Bayley Balfour re-organised the management of the RBGE collections, creating four Assistant posts, with responsibility for the daily running of the Library, the Museum, the Studio, and the Laboratories. In the period 1912-13 Bertha became the first Assistant in Charge of the Laboratories at RBGE.

RBGE elevation

Section of architectural plan of Laboratory Building, RBGE. [RBGE Archive]

Bertha stopped working at RBGE after her marriage in 1913, and in 1914 gave birth to a daughter, Doris; but did not give up on practical and research based science. Her husband Charles Norman Kemp (1883-1975) had graduated with a B.Sc. (Edinburgh) in 1906, his scientific interests lay more in the area of physics and chemistry than biology. He developed a specific interest in the new field of X-rays, particularly their use in industry but also as applied to medicine.

X-rays entered Bertha’s life at this point also, as during the First World War she worked at the Second General Military Hospital at Craigleith, Edinburgh, operating X-ray equipment. She later gave illustrated lectures on the topic ‘X-Rays in a Military Hospital.’ In 1919 Bertha was elected a member of the Röntgen Society (founded 1897), which in 1927 amalgamated with the British Institute of Radiology.

Another area that Bertha studied was bio-luminescence. Her earliest published paper on ‘Luminosity in Plants’, was published in the Transactions and Proceedings of the Botanical Society of Edinburgh, volume 23 in 1908. Bertha continued to deliver illustrated lectures on this subject during the 1920s and 1930s. Frustratingly the RBGE Archive contains only part of the manuscript of one of these lectures, donated by Bertha’s daughter.

The Royal Scottish Society of Arts was founded in 1821 (and still active today) to promote and encourage the useful arts in Scotland. The ‘useful arts’ covers all areas of applied science, technology, engineering and manufacture. In 1921 Bertha applied to the Council of the RSSA for a grant from the Keith Bequest to undertake ‘Investigations in the Applications of X-rays to the examination of Materials, with special reference to the radiographic appearances of abnormal conditions in Timber.’

Bertha reviewed the literature and started some experiments but in 1922 submitted a progress report which notes that her research:

‘was interrupted for some time by the transference of attention to the X-Ray examination of coal … This field of investigation also was found to have been almost entirely neglected, and was soon seen to have important and far-reaching possibilities’

Bertha does not appear to have undertaken research after this date, however, she did continue to give illustrated lectures and attend scientific symposia. She also served on the Council of the RSSA for two periods, 1926-1929 and 1938-1943. Bertha died on 23 November 1961.

It is fitting that we celebrate and acknowledge her contribution to RBGE and her practical research across a variety of scientific disciplines through the first decades of women science graduates in Edinburgh.


Written by Graham Hardy, Serials Librarian, RBGE

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Dec 162015

Two of our herbarium specimens from the 19th Century are in the new exhibition entitled  PLAGUE!  at the National Library of Scotland on George IV Bridge.  They make up part of the Folklore section and represent plants which were tried as herbal cures.  It’s a comprehensive and fascinating exhibition and is on until the end of May.  Well worth a visit.

Petasites hybridus (Butterbur)

Petasites hybridus (Butterbur)

Persicaria bistorta

Persicaria bistorta (bistort)


Oct 122015
Plants from the Woods and Forests of Chile
Plants from the Woods and Forests of Chile

Plants from the Woods and Forests of Chile

To tie in with the launch of ‘Plants from the Woods and Forests of Chile’, we wanted to look at some of the material from our herbarium and living collections that are linked to the stunning illustrations and the work done by the scientists behind the book.

The paintings used in the book and on display in the John Hope Gateway were all prepared from plants growing in UK gardens or native habitats in Chile. Many of the plants used are growing in one of RBGEs four gardens, from seeds or plants collected during expeditions to Chile over many years.

Below is information from our herbarium and living collection catalogues. The information from the herbarium is primarily for material that was collected in the wild, although we often have a herbarium specimen from the plant growing in cultivation at one of our four gardens. The information from the living collection covers all plants which share the same accession number (these are distinguished by a letter), and gives the location where that plant is growing in one of our gardens or an external site.

Ercilla volubilis A.Juss.

RBGE Herbarium Specimen Factsheet
Scientific Name:Ercilla volubilis A.Juss.
Collector:Instituto de Investigaciónes Ecológicas Chiloé (IIECH) and Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh
Origin:Temperate South America:Región VIII [Biobío]:Prov. de Arauco:Río Laraquate
 Location: -37.171944,-73.180833
RBGE Living Collections Accession Factsheet
Accession Number:19961035
Scientific Name:Ercilla volubilis A.Juss.
Collector:Instituto de Investigaciónes Ecológicas Chiloé (IIECH) and Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (1996)
Origin:Región VIII [Biobío]:Prov. de Arauco:Río Laraquate
Location:/Living Collections/External/XHA
Location:/Living Collections/Unplaced
Location:/Living Collections/External/XLA
Location:/Living Collections/Unplaced
Location:/Living Collections/Inverleith/T26/0120
Location:/Living Collections/External/XTO
Location:/Living Collections/External/XTO
Location:/Living Collections/Inverleith/T26/0480
Location:/Living Collections/External/XLA
Location:/Living Collections/External/XHA
Location:/Living Collections/External/XHA
Location:/Living Collections/External/XFA
Location:/Living Collections/Inverleith/T27/0700
Location:/Living Collections/Unplaced
Location:/Living Collections/Unplaced
Location:/Living Collections/External/XFA
Location:/Living Collections/External/XFA
Location:/Living Collections/External/XTO
19961035 CLOSE UP.JPG
19961035_Q (2).JPG
19961035 Ercilla volubilis (3).jpg
19961035 Ercilla volubilis (5).jpg
19961035_Q (1).JPG
19961035_Q (3).JPG
19961035 Ercilla volubilis (1).jpg
19961035 Ercilla volubilis (2).jpg
19961035 Ercilla volubilis (4).jpg
19961035 Ercilla volubilis (1).jpg
19961035 Ercilla volubilis (2).jpg
19961035 Ercilla volubilis (3).jpg
 Location: -37.171944,-73.180833

Griselinia jodinifolia (Griseb.) Taub.

RBGE Herbarium Specimen Factsheet
Scientific Name:Griselinia jodinifolia (Griseb.) Taub.
Collector:Darwin Chilean Initiative (2002 - 2005)
Origin:Temperate South America:Región VIII [Biobío]:Provincia de Arauco:Road from Antiguala to San Alfonso (km 18), near the Río Caramávida
JPEG image file: E00158705.jpg
 Location: -37.679167,-73.227222
RBGE Living Collections Accession Factsheet
Accession Number:20030110
Scientific Name:Griselinia jodinifolia (Griseb.) Taub.
Collector:Darwin Chilean Initiative (2002 - 2005)
Location:/Living Collections/Inverleith/T27/S/0420
Location:/Living Collections/External/XGV
Location:/Living Collections/External/XGY
Location:/Living Collections/External/XKI
Location:/Living Collections/Unplaced
Location:/Living Collections/Logan/Z25
Location:/Living Collections/External/XNY
Location:/Living Collections/Benmore/YU3
Location:/Living Collections/Benmore/YU2
Location:/Living Collections/External/XGA
Location:/Living Collections/External/XMS
Location:/Living Collections/Benmore/YY0
 Location: 55.966752661,-3.207738662


The exhibition is on in the John Hope Gateway and runs Sat 10 Oct 2015 — Sun 6 Mar 2016. More information about the exhibition is available on our website: