Introducing an exciting new three-year project.
A room in the Botanic Garden’s Science Centre houses our Herbarium – a collection of around 30,000 pressed plants.
‘Herbaria’ are botanical archives. They have been used for centuries to document and study the diversity of plants around the world. Each preserved specimen acts as a permanent record, labelled with the plant’s name, where and when it was collected, and by whom.
Many of the Botanic Garden’s herbarium specimens relate to our scientific research, having been used to extract DNA. New specimens from Wales are also being added each year through our conservation seed bank work.
As well as modern specimens, our herbarium also houses a significant number of historic specimens from Britain and Ireland that are between one and two hundred years old, including plants, mosses, seaweeds and lichens. Kindly donated in 2011 by Harrow School, this collection was accumulated by James Cosmo Melvill (1845-1929).
The sensitive nature of herbarium specimens means that they are stored carefully in cabinets to keep them safe from degradation and pest damage. However, modern-day imaging technology now allows specimens to be recorded and stored digitally to complement physical collections. This means that not only can the information held on these delicate, often fragile specimens be preserved more effectively, but that everyone can enjoy and benefit from the digitised collections, which can be made publicly available online.
Funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund’s Dynamic Collections initiative, our new ‘Plants Past, Present and Future’ project will digitise a large proportion of the Botanic Garden’s herbarium. Working with volunteers, high-quality photos of each specimen will be taken, the label information typed up, and made available on an open-access online database.
Exploring the collections will provide new insights into the cultural history around plant collecting – a common hobby in the 19th century – brought to life by the discovery of occasional handwritten exchanges between collectors.
Some of the species we hold are also likely to have disappeared in the areas they were collected from all those years ago. Until recent decades, natural history collecting was often insensitive towards the conservation of species – for some species in Wales, such as Wild Cotoneaster Cotoneaster cambricus that our horticulturists are growing, historical over-collecting is one of the reasons they are now threatened.
James Cosmo Melvill was an avid natural history collector, not only of plants from around the world, but also of molluscs and butterflies, wasps, flies, and dragonflies. Natural history collecting was a favourite pursuit of the wealthy and privileged in the 1800s. James Cosmo Melvill typified this sector of 19th-century society – he worked as a director of a cotton merchant for many years, with wider family ties to colonial rule in India. His father, of the same name, was Under-Secretary of State for India, whilst his grandfather, also his namesake, was Chief Secretary of the East India Company.
However, in some places, plant collecting in the 1800s was also a pursuit of the less privileged in society. Bruce Langridge, the Botanic Garden’s Head of Interpretation, previously worked in a museum in Oldham and recalls that many local working-class weavers of the time were keen botanists and collectors and local herbaria include specimens collected by these ‘weaver-botanists’. The naturalist journals of the area detail their collecting trips and their meetings were, by necessity, held in pubs as their own houses were too small to congregate.
In the present day, herbaria are an important scientific resource and we know that exploring the collections will provide us with interesting stories, insights and will highlight new research opportunities. The collections will be a fascinating source of inspiration for engagement about our natural and cultural heritage, linking through to the Botanic Garden’s current work to conserve Welsh plants and habitats.
Throughout this exciting new project, we will be bringing to life the journey with taster workshops, behind-the-scenes tours, school visits, blogs, social media posts and public events. An exciting weekend-long public ‘Bioblitz’, where we record biodiversity on the Botanic Garden’s nature reserve, will inspire people’s interest and help to grow new skills in natural history. In the project’s third and final year, we will be adding a new digital interpretation station at the Botanic Garden so that visitors can explore the specimens digitised so far, and learn more about the work we do to conserve the flora and habitats of Wales.
The Plants Past, Present and Future project is funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund Dynamic Collections initiative, made possible thanks to National Lottery players, running through to June 2026.
For enquiries, please contact: Kevin.McGinn@gardenofwales.org.uk
Kevin McGinn, Curator of Seed Bank and Herbarium
Helen Whitear, Heritage Officer