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).

Jun 172016

Ancient Ash in Clackmannanshire, with Judy Dowling (Regional Verifier for the Ancient Tree Inventory)

It is estimated that about 70% of Europe’s oldest trees are to be found in the UK. The Woodland Trust and Tree Register of the British Isles, have been compiling a database of ancient, veteran and notable trees within the British Isles and over 150,000 records have now been made, and most have been verified as accurate. Recorded to date are 12452 ‘ancient’ trees (very old/large for the species and/or possessing many ancient features, such as hollow stems or branches) 93437 ‘veteran’ trees (not yet ancient, but possessing some of the features associated with ancient trees) and 40896 ‘notable’ trees (can sometimes be veteran, and may be significant in a local/historical context). So far, 1133 ancient ash, 6480 veteran ash and 2372 notable ash have been recorded, of which 65 ancient ash, 282 veteran ash and 176 notable ash are in Scotland.

Ancient and veteran trees provide invaluable habitats for invertebrates, birds and mammals. 1700 species (6% of UK total) of invertebrates depend on decaying wood for completing their life cycles. 400 0f the 447 macrofungi on the British Red Data List, derive from ancient woodland and lowland pasture woods. Many birds and bats nest in cavities in ancient and veteran trees, and rely on them for food sources too.

The main threats to ancient and veteran trees are from felling, changes in land use and competition from surrounding trees. Increasingly, new pests and diseases (such as ash dieback) and problems related to climate change, pose a real threat to our oldest trees. There have been some recent developments in increasing protection for this valuable resource, which is encouraging.

This ancient ash provided an invaluable habitat for the author to take lunch in

This ancient ash provided an invaluable habitat for the author to take lunch in

“10,000 oaks of 100 years are not a substitute for one 500 year old oak” – Oliver Rackham (conservation author and historian)

“Ancient trees are precious. There is little else on Earth that plays host to such a rich community of life within a single living organism” –  Sir David Attenborough





Mar 162016
Photo: Ancient Pollarded Ash near Killin (and the Author)

Photo: Ancient Pollarded Ash near Killin (and the Author)

Archaeological studies have shown that, ‘Biochar’, or at least a similar product, was used by ancient Amazonians to add to the soil to help with their food growing. Today, an advanced form of Biochar is made from the slow charring of waste woody biomass, using a restricted oxygen supply (a process known as pyrolysis). A stable form of carbon is produced and one tonne of carbon locked into biochar, is equivalent to removing three tonnes of atmospheric carbon. Adding it to the soil around trees and food crops, enhances soil nutrition and improves soil structure and drainage – and hence plant growth rates, without the need for further artificial fertilisers.

Biochar has a honeycomb-like microscopic structure, which makes it an ideal habitat for beneficial soil microrganisms, like mycorrhizal fungi. It also aids with the retention of water in soil, reducing irrigation requirements.

Biochar was applied to the soil around ash trees, to assess effects on growth. During the trial many of the trees on the experimental site became infected with Hymenoscyphus fraxineus, leading to Ash Dieback. Surprisingly enough, not a single ash tree treated with the Biochar, showed any signs of the disease, whilst many adjacent trees were badly affected. A PhD study into the potential for use of Biochar to prevent Ash Dieback, has now been commissioned – another potential sprig of hope for the UK’s 126 million ash trees! The link given below takes the reader to a video about the original findings.

Video Outlining Potential for Biochar to Reduce Ash Dieback Infection Rates

Jan 302015
Flora of Nepal BRD expedition 2014. Rukum District, Nepal

Meconopsis horridula. BRD A163. Photo Alan Elliott

It has now been over  4 months since we returned to Edinburgh after the successful botancial exploration of Baglung, Rukum and Dolpa districts for the Flora of Nepal Project.

As well as our normal day-to-day tasks we’ve been busily writing fieldwork reports to funding bodies, working to identify our collections as well as databasing information and images to get the data online.

Full collection data for the 453 collections are available by searching for the BRD expedition under Specimens in Nepal and if latitudes, longitudes and habitat descriptions aren’t your thing there are 3309 field images of the plants collections to look at instead.

Here are some of my favourite plants and images from the expedition.

BRD B107. Photo Dr. Patrick Kuss

Pedicularis trichoglossa BRD B107. Photo Dr. Patrick Kuss

Ajuga lupulina. BRD A193. Photo Alan Elliott

Ajuga lupulina. BRD A193. Photo Alan Elliott











Parnassia wightiana. BRD A47. Photo Dr Colin Pendry

Parnassia wightiana. BRD A47. Photo Alan Elliott


Rhododendron lepidotum. Field Note. Photo Dr Colin Pendry

Rhododendron lepidotum. Field Note. Photo Dr Colin Pendry










Dr. Patrick Kuss working in a monsoon cloud

Dr. Patrick Kuss working in a monsoon cloud

Dr Colin Pendry adhering to strict H&S when it comes to collecting the Giant Himalayan Nettle (Girardinia diversifolia).

Dr Colin Pendry adhering to strict H&S when it comes to collecting the Giant Himalayan Nettle (Girardinia diversifolia).









No explanation needed.

Me and please dont ask.

Previous Posts about the BRD expedition

Flora of Nepal Expedition 2014

Flora of Nepal expedition 2014 – update

Flora of Nepal expedition 2014 – update

Flora of Nepal Expedition 2014. Impatiens glandulifera (Himalayan Balsam).


Sep 062013

As part of a PhD programme in the School of Biological Sciences at Edinburgh University students are expected to create and present a poster at the end of their 2nd year. The poster session, as well as being as assessed piece of work, is chance for other students and research staff who might not ordinarily engage with your project to get a glimpse at what you’ve been doing and what you’ve found so far. It also helps provide valuable evidence that you haven’t spent the best part of 24 months drinking coffee and swanning about.

As well at the obvious need to pass the hope is that fresh eyes and ideas may point you to new avenues of research and possibly lead to collaborative opportunities in the future. It’s also meant to give us the chance to show what skills we’ve acquired, what our research interests are and hopefully how capable we are becoming. All too important as there might be some senior researchers lurking around who might employ us when it’s time to start looking for an elusive postdoc.

The three RBGE students contribution this year were:

Eugenio_ValderramaExplaining the differences in African and South American species richness by comparing diversifications rates: The Andean orogeny hypothesis.

Eugenuio Valderrama

The Neotropics are considered one of the most diverse regions of the already diverse tropical forests. I aim to test whether high neotropical species richenss can be explained by higher (relative to other regions) phylogenetic diversification rates associated with speciation during uplift of the tropical Andes of the last ca. 25my, and particularly the last 10my. We estimate and compare diversification rates of the Andean-centred genus Renealmia in the Neotropics and Aftrica using a multi-locus phylogeny, and address the uncertainty inherent to estimation of diversification rates.

Origin of Amazonian White-Sand Forests: A distributional and Molecular Approach.poster-roosevelt-garcia-final

Roosevelt Garcia Villacorta

Amazonian white-sand forests harbor a specialised and endemic flora distributed as habitat-islands. The origin and contribution of this flora to present-day plant biodiversity in the Amazon is not well understood. I am using a geographical distribution analysis of white-sand species to understand its current relationships with other regions in tropical America. To gain insights into the historical evolution of these forests, a selected set of taxa from white-sand forests are being investigated using molecular phylogenetic approaches. I present here preliminary results from both analyses and interpret them under the light of current and historical development of the Amazon flora.

Find out more about about Roosevelt


Phylogeography and the Dynamics of Speciation in the Himalaya.Aelliott 2nd yr poster2

Alan Elliott

Investigations into the phylogeography of the Himalaya are in their infancy with a limited number of studies focusing on Himalayan groups and a number of other studies with limited Himlayan representation.  This is in marked contrast to the Andes where meta-analysis of more fifty dated phylogenies has given important insights into the assemblages of the biota of this other region of mega diversity.

The poster is based on initial results of the current study into the diversity of Clematis L. and on Elliott and Adhikari (in press), a review of available literature, to draw insights into the role of the Himalayan uplift in generating diversity.