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.

Jul 142016

This Blog post was written by Olivia Nippe, a PhD intern who spent three months working in the RBGE Herbarium:

The RBGE herbarium contains over 3 million pressed plant specimens that are systematically filed according to evolutionary relationships. Such an establishment enables researchers to access vast amounts of material that could not possibly be studied in the field at any one time and place. Comparative studies are thus made possible over not only large geographical areas, but ecological time spans of up to 200-300 years, and even with now-extinct species. The collection is added to every year by field expeditions carried out by botanists worldwide.

When an expedition comes to an end the discoveries need not. So what happens to the plant specimens that a botanist collects in the wild, over the course of a lifetime, and just how important is it that we preserve these specimens for the years to come?

The answer to this question is of course synonymous with that of another: How do we process newly collected specimens that are sent to the Herbarium in order to make them accessible to our researchers, and how can such specimens be used in the future? There are many steps to be taken before the specimens that we receive at the Royal Botanic Gardens here in Edinburgh make it to the herbarium cabinets. As a volunteer at RBGE I have spent my time working through the extensive collection of renowned plant taxonomist Brian ‘Bill’ Burtt, obtained during his expeditions to Sarawak on the island of Borneo. The samples have been carefully dried and preserved between pages of newspaper by their collector and possess a wealth of information both about the physical characteristics of the plant, and in its DNA which will remain intact for many years to come.



Olivia looking at a Bill Burtt specimen and collection information on the collectors label. To the right is a bundle of specimens in newspaper waiting to be processed.


When collecting in the field, a collector will make several duplicate specimens for each plant and these will be distributed to different institutes, including a herbarium in the country of collection. It can sometimes take some time for this to happen and this project worked through one such collection. From the plant material available we select a specimen to mount to show the diagnostic characters, and where possible save extra leaf material, flowers and/or fruit in an accompanying paper envelope, or ‘capsule’.



Selecting material for the capsule which will be mounted alongside the specimen.


This ensures that not only are researchers able to get the best possible impression of the plant’s morphological features, but that they have access to sufficient material to extract and analyse its DNA for use in studies of plant phylogeny, the study of evolutionary relationships between species. Intact fruit may be dissected and flowers can be rehydrated from a sample in the capsule to provide further indication of plant structure, as such characteristics can prove to be essential when determining species identity. When mounted it will be securely taped, glued and/or stitched to a durable card backing (to learn more about mounting herbarium specimens click here) and placed into the herbarium cabinets.All of the material we use to affix the specimens is of archival quality and will enable the preservation of our specimens for hundreds of years.

While the herbarium serves as a historical reference library, the increasing ease of whole-genome sequencing means that these specimens also have the potential to offer new insight to evolutionary branching patterns. With even textbook examples of interspecies phylogeny such as those of Darwin’s finches being revised in light of new sequencing data, these plant specimens have much more to tell us long after they have been discovered.

Whilst working on this project Olivia processed 852 specimens from 101 different plant families. The specimens were collected in Sarawak, Bolivia, Namibia and South Africa. 374 of the specimens will be mounted and incorporated into the RBGE herbarium . 478 will be distributed to the following organisations: Sarawak Forest Department (SAR), Research Centre for Biology, Indonesia (BO), Brunei Forestry Centre (BRUN), Naturalis, Netherlands (L), Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (K), Singapore Botanic Gardens (SING), Forest Research Institute, Malaysia (KEP) and the South African National Biodiversity Institute (PRE).

Aug 112014

In a few days time the Flora of Nepal project are about to leave for an expedition to Mid-West of the country. Leading the expedition is Dr Colin Pendry from Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh; also going are Dr. Patrick Kuss from the Institute of Systematic Botany, University of Zurich;  Alan Elliott a PhD researcher at Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and the University of Edinburgh. We’ll also be joined by two members of staff from Nepal’s Department of Plant Resources once we get there.

Proposed route for fieldwork

Proposed route for fieldwork

The primary aims of the fieldwork are:

  • to collect herbarium specimens and associated data used to prepare the Flora of Nepal
  • to train two Nepalese staff members at the National Herbarium of Nepal (KATH) in fieldwork and herbarium techniques
  • to contribute plant occurrence data to the inventory of Dhorpatan Hunting Reserve and Shey Phoksundo National Park.

The expedition will be exploring the botanical diversity of the Rukum, Baglung and Dolpa districts in Mid-west of Nepal. These districts have been identified through the Flora of Nepal project as lacking records necessary for the project. We will be collecting, pressing and processing plants to become herbarium specimens and also collecting leaf material to be stored in silica gel for later DNA extraction.

Each record will have associated data captured at the time of collection:

  • Latitude and Longitude
  • Altitude
  • Locality notes
  • Habitat notes
  • Morphological characters likely to be lost by being pressed and dried
  • and a range of digital images of the the plant prior to pressing

All these data will be entered into a laptop containing a copy the Flora of Nepal database once we reach camp each evening. We take a portable generator and fuel so we can have a few hours of electricity each evening to work.

The route will start in the mid-hills south of the main range of the Himalaya where the road runs out beyond Burtiwang. From there we”l be walking  northwards up and over the main range of the Himalaya. The highest pass we’ll cross is roughly 5200m (17,000ft) and then descending towards Dunai and into the Trans-Himalaya. From Dunai we’ll continue north to Phoksundo before retracing our steps and heading to Juphal to fly back to Kathmandu.

The effectively linear route will allow us to collect along a transect running through vegetation types from wet sub-tropical and temperate forests on the south face into the alpine zone and then to the drier vegetation types of the Trans-Himalaya. We estimate we’ll cover about 160km from start to finish all on foot.

We’ll update before we set off and when we finish the expedition once back in Kathmandu.

Dr. Colin Pendry on fieldwork in Api Himal, Nepal 2012.

Dr. Colin Pendry on fieldwork in Api Himal, Nepal 2012.

Dr Patrick Kuss in the Alps on fieldwork.

Dr. Patrick Kuss in the Alps on fieldwork.

Alan Elliott on fieldwork in the Api Himal, Nepal  in 2012

Alan Elliott on fieldwork in the Api Himal, Nepal in 2012


May 202014

AFCyanotype_08 low res

Join the artist of the Sea Flora exhibition, Sara Dodd and RBGE Plant Specimen Preparer, Kate Eden, for a conversation exploring the rich history of seaweed collecting in Scotland and abroad. Becoming a popular pastime at the beginning of the nineteenth century, seaweed collecting has been largely forgotten since enthusiastic Victorians painstakingly collected, dried and mounted specimens into decorative scrapbooks. Referencing examples from the RBGE collections, the talk will look at recent work with seaweed specimens undertaken at the RBGE, as well as significant personal collections, including those of Amelia Griffiths, Anna Atkins and Margaret Gatty.

3pm, Friday 13 June, Patrick Geddes Room, John Hope Gateway, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

Sara Dodd: Sea Flora is open daily until Sunday 15 June.  10am – 5.45pm | Admission free.

Tel: 0131 248 2909

Image taken from originals held in the collections of the RBGE Library and Archives.