Jan 202017

Surely one of the most moving thanks ever penned for an act of botanical patronage was that written by Archibald Menzies from his surgeon’s post on HMS Assistance, from Halifax, Nova Scotia (known to the French as Acadia) on 30 May 1784. It was addressed to John Hope who had recognised the talents of a Perthshire boy, trained him as a gardener in the Leith Walk incarnation of RBGE, and paid for a medical training that allowed a profitable medical career, initially with the Royal Navy. Here is what Menzies wrote:

List of plants sent by Menzies to Hope in November 1784.

In this situation the tears trinkled down my cheeks in gratitude to you Sir, who first taught me to enjoy those pleasures which providence has so conspicuously placed before my eyes, accept of them as the only mark a grateful heart can at present offer.

This first ‘mark’ of young Menzies’s thanks was botanical, in the form of a collection of seeds collected in the West Indies and near New York. Sent with his next letter, of 2 November 1784, were seeds and dried specimens collected in Nova Scotia, with an accompanying list of the specimens. Nobody knew that any of these had survived, as Hope’s herbarium has generally been taken to have disappeared.

On Wednesday Deborah Reid asked to see me about the Canadian herbarium of Christian Broun Dalhousie, one of those discussed in her fascinating recent PhD dissertation on Scottish women gardeners and collectors. Lady Dalhousie was wife of the 9th Earl, a soldier and administrator who was Governor of Nova Scotia from 1816 to 1820 and Governor General of British North America from 1820 to 1828. She gave her later Indian collections to the Botanical Society of Edinburgh and these, with their enigmatic ‘CBD’ labels, are a well-known element of the RBGE herbarium. Much less is known about her Canadian specimens, but it emerges that she must have sent these to the Edinburgh University Museum shortly after 1824. Given that our collections are arranged taxonomically, the only way to find specimens made by a particular collector is to think of a species they might have gathered and visit the appropriate cabinet: my favourite sport of herbarium angling. I thought of an obvious genus – the ladies slipper orchid Cypripedium  –  we went to the ‘Area 13’ (North America)  cover in the family Orchidaceae, and within minutes had found a Dalhousie specimen of C. acaule.

Interesting enough, like two Desmond Morris biomorphs engaged in conversation, but what really set my heart racing was the sheet next to it. An exquisite specimen collected by Menzies, with two detailed manuscript descriptions in his beautiful copperplate hand. This led me to the copies of Hope’s papers in our archive (the originals are in the National Archives of Scotland), and I found not only three letters that Menzies wrote to Hope in 1784 and 1785, but the list of accompanying specimens. Hope had recently sent out to Menzies a copy of the 12th edition of Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae, from which he concluded that seven of the 41 specimens (5 cryptogams, 36 flowering plants), were new and undescribed species. Conditions for a scientist were terrible and Menzies told Hope he had

examined & described [the specimens] with candle light in the centre of a noisy cockpit which is my station on board.

The new ones were marked on the list ‘nost.’ (nostri = ‘ours’). With the list in hand, I went to the various cabinets, and was able to find specimens not only ALL the supposed novelties, but five of the others on the list, and four previously unknown specimens from Menzies’ next expedition of 1786–9 to the Pacific North-West. When Menzies died in 1842 (aged 88) he left his own herbarium of monocots and cryptogams to Edinburgh University, and I also unearthed a duplicate of one of the 1784 Nova Scotian specimens in his own collection, still unidentified after 230 years.

The interest of these specimens is huge, not least as they show what an acute botanist Menzies was, despite the grimness of his botanical laboratory. Of the seven supposed novelties only one had already been described (for this Menzies had looked in the wrong genus: it was a Houstonia rather than a Hedyotis, already described by Linnaeus in Species Plantarum as Houstonia caerulea), and if Hope had been a better taxonomist, a more prolific author, or generally quicker off the mark, he could have described six new species on his pupil’s behalf. What Menzies proposed to call Cypripedium bifolium, Eriophorum acadiense, Kalmia tenuifolia, Potentilla tridentata, Vaccinium viscosum and V. acadiense, were named by later authors respectively, as: Cypripedium acaule (by the Kew gardener William Aiton in 1789), Eriophorum tenellum (by the American Thomas Nuttall, but not until 1818), Kalmia polifolia (by the German Friedrich von Wangenheim in 1788), Potentilla tridentata (by Banks’s librarian Daniel Solander in 1789), Andromeda (now Gaylussacia) baccata (Wagenheim, 1787) and Vaccinium macrocarpon (Aiton, 1789).

The plants themselves were not only of purely botanical interest, the last one being the edible cranberry (that has been improved by cultivation). But the final significance of the specimens is that they confirm my suspicion as to the fate of Hope’s herbarium. The collection was Hope’s private property and accordingly removed with all his books and papers following his death in 1786. The specimens, however, were later returned to RBGE by his son Thomas Charles Hope, after which they went ‘missing’. The present RBGE herbarium dates from the mid-19th century, the result of the combination and recuration of the old University collections (which included the Dalhousie Canadian specimens) with that of the Botanical Society of Edinburgh (largely British, but including Lady Dalhousie’s Indian plants), and which was housed at RBGE by about 1860. By finding the occasional Hope specimen on sheets assembled in the mid-19th century (usually with specimens from later collectors and localities – it was the SPECIES that was important rather than its provenance), I had come to realise that most of Hope’s specimens had probably been discarded in the re-organisation – perhaps they had been badly chewed by insects or suffered from damp; and the British species would have been duplicated in large numbers by better and more modern material. These Menzies specimens prove that this is indeed what happened, many of them being mounted on sheets along with later specimens – the backing sheets are various: two have a watermark of 1848, and two of 1860. Hope’s herbarium sadly does not sit languishing in a closet or loft awaiting rediscovery. Small as this Menzies collection is, it represents one of the largest surviving fragments of Hope’s herbarium, along with a much more extensive set of specimens sent to him by Adam Freer from Aleppo (but that is for another Botanics Story).


Lady Dalhousie’s specimen of Cypripedium acaule, probably collected in Nova Scotia, c. 1824.

Archibald Menzies’ specimen of Cypripedium acaule, collected in woods near Halifax, 1784. Finding it not to be treated in the 12th edition of Linnaeus’ Systema Naturae he (then correctly) believed it to be a new species, for which he proposed the name C. bifolium, but this was never published.

Composite herbarium sheet of Viola lanceolata, showing Archibald Menzies’ collection from ‘Acadia N[orth] A[merica]’ top left, remounted with three later collections (Texas, Thomas Drummond, c. 1833; Pennsylvania, Joseph Barratt, 1834; North Carolina, Ferdinand Rugel,1841).

Jun 212016

DSC_0002-LR Inverleith House is celebrating three decades of contemporary art and botanical exhibitions at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh with a presentation of rarely seen posters and invitation cards presented in the John Hope Gateway’s Gateway Gallery. Representing over 150 exhibitions and encompassing many more events, this exhibition demonstrates the significance both internationally and in Scotland of  ‘the most ideal gallery in Britain’.

This display preceeds I still believe in miracles an exhibition celebrating 30 years of Inverleith House which opens on Saturday 23 July. The exhibition takes its title from a work by Douglas Gordon from his 2005 solo show at Inverleith House and will feature more than forty artists including Karla Black, Louise Bourgeois, Marc Camille Chaimowicz, Dan Colen, Douglas Gordon, William Eggleston, Cerith Wyn Evans, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Luke Fowler, Isa Genzken, Philip Guston, Richard Hamilton, Andy Hope 1930, Roni Horn, Thomas Houseago, Raoul De Keyser, Andrew Kerr, Melissa Kretschmer, Jim Lambie, Mark Leckey, John McCracken, Victoria Morton, Nicolas Party, Ciara Phillips, Ed Ruscha, Robert Ryman, Tony Swain, Corin Sworn, Juergen Teller, Hayley Tompkins, Sue Tompkins, Richard Tuttle, herman de vries, Andy Warhol, Cathy Wilkes and Richard Wright as well as botanical drawings by John Hope (1725-1786) and Hugh Cleghorn (1820-1895) from the Garden’s archives and paintings of Nepalese plants by Francis Buchanan-Hamilton (1762-1829) on loan from the Linnaean Society of London.

Many of these unique posters are available for purchase at a special exhibition price for a limited time only.


Mar 252015


IMG_0718This week bags of coffee beans have been arriving by post in preparation for the Coffee with a Shot of Science event on 4 April, part of this year’s Edinburgh International Science Festival programme. The first beans to arrive were ‘Ethiopian wild coffee’ collected from indigenous coffee bushes from the ancestral home of all Coffea arabica – the mountain forests of Ethiopia. Coffee beans were originally chewed as a stimulant but a method of toasting and grinding the ‘beans’ and infusing the grounds with boiling water also began in Ethiopia. The tradition remains part of the cultural life of people from the region today.

The coffee habit spread beyond the natural distribution of the coffee plant at some time in the 15th century century, becoming established in Yemen where the chewing of another stimulant khat (Catha edulis) leaves was already widespread. It then travelled north through the Middle-East and to Turkey and into Europe. The first Edinburgh coffee houses opened in Parliament Square in 1673. Intriguingly we know that coffee was one of the exotic plants growing in the hot houses of John Hope’s botanic garden on Leith Walk in the middle of the 18th century although we do not know how living coffee plants first arrived here.

The first coffee bushes to be grown in British Central Africa (now Malawi) in the 1880s came from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, via Dr John Kirk’s garden in Zanzibar. It seems quite conceivable that these were descendants of the Leith Walk plants as many mature plants were transferred from the glasshouses of the old garden to the new site at Inverleith. They were received in Central Africa by John Buchanan who was keen to establish coffee plantations in Zomba but his enterprise was not a great success. The 3 coffee plants survived the journey from Edinburgh back to Africa would have had limited genetic diversity and have been vulnerable to pests and disease. Coffee production in the Shire Highlands was also plagued by poor soils, a series of droughts (I once ran a tree nursery in Zomba and can appreciate the difficulties). It also suffered competition with South American coffee plantations.

IMG_0719However the story does not end here. My second delivery of coffee beans was from Mzuzu in the North of Malawi, approximately 500km north of Zomba and 3000km south of the wild Ethiopian homelands. After coffee growing was taken north in the 1930s it fared much better in the more reliable rainfall of the Nikya and Viphya plateaux. Now coffee is well established as an export crop in Malawi and the ‘Scottish connection’ continues. The Scotland Malawi Partnership has adopted Traidcraft Fair Trade Mzuzu coffee as product to promote and is encouraging Scottish supermarkets and cafes to offer it to their customers. In Malawi the story of the first coffee plants coming from Edinburgh and arriving in Mzuzu via Zomba and Zanzibar is well known and it is just possible a little bit of genetic material in the beans that arrived in my office this week can be traced back to John Hope’s hothouse!

Find out more about the story coffee at Coffee with a Shot of Science in the Real Life Science Studio at 3pm on 4 April  but book quickly as tickets are limited. To find out more about Traidcraft Malawian Coffee from the Mzuzu Cooperative see Scotland-Malawi Partnership website.

Jan 272014

John Williamson plaqueAt 4 o’clock in the morning on the 23rd of September 1780, a brutal assault took place on Princes Street. A group of armed smugglers ‘beat and wounded’ John Williamson, a customs officer, after he gave chase that fateful morning, presumably having caught them red handed. Soon after, this plaque (see image) was erected at the long lost Leith Walk incarnation of the Royal Botanic Garden, commemorating the life of this man… but why?

Well, John Williamson was not only a customs officer, but also the head gardener at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh for twenty years, and responsible for carrying out Regius Keeper John Hope’s grand plan to amalgamate the two historic sites of the Royal Botanic Garden at Holyrood and what is now Waverley Station, in a new garden on Leith Walk. Williamson was the first person to live in Botanic Cottage, a building designed to act as a home for the head gardener, as well as a teaching space for the Regius Keeper. Hope was so affected by the shocking way that Williamson – who was so dedicated, skilled and successful in his job at the Botanic Garden – had died, that he commissioned a plaque to be carved in his honour. It is thought that it was designed by one of the most eminent architects of the day, James Craig, at a cost of £2 17s 8d. Whilst we cannot be certain, all evidence points to the plaque having been placed on the building which was once Williamson’s home: Botanic Cottage.

It is notable that when the Botanics moved to their current site in Inverleith, this memorial was taken and re-erected in the present garden. It is hoped that when Botanic Cottage is rebuilt, the plaque will be returned to the front of this building, the home of John Williamson.

You can find out more about John Williamson in Alan G. Morton’s memoir of John Hope, revised by H.J. Noltie in 2011.