The University of Edinburgh is one of the founding institutions that created the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh herbarium – a globally important collection of plant specimens that today includes nearly two-thirds of the world’s species. Edinburgh botanists helped create this unique resource and now continue its pioneering work. Silke Currie opens the cabinet doors.

For at least 500 years, the ambition to study biodiversity has taken botanists on expeditions to collect and preserve plants. Their dried discoveries are stored in herbaria, systematically organised plant collections that are used for scientific research.

“[A herbarium] is a dictionary, a library, an encyclopaedia. It’s all those things in one,” says University of Edinburgh PhD student Alan Elliott, who works at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) herbarium. “As well as having all the specimens, you have got the experts here as well. It is very much living.”

With more than 3 million dried specimens, the RBGE herbarium has nearly two-thirds of the world’s flora species, making it a globally important research facility. Scientists travel to Edinburgh from across the world to study its contents, and specimens are sent out on loan to countries far and wide. Every week new species are discovered among its plants, both the historical specimens and those collected recently. Specimens are also used for DNA research, including evolutionary studies, and RBGE scientists are among those pioneering new DNA sequencing methods.

“We are a very active, large international herbarium,” says curator Dr David Harris. “There is an active number of people who study the plants based here, people coming in and specimens being requested.”

In 2014, the RBGE herbarium celebrated 50 years in its current, purpose-built home on Inverleith Row. Its origin, however, dates back to 1840, when the collections of the University of Edinburgh and the Botanical Society of Edinburgh were combined. Modern herbaria, which typically combine several collections previously held by private individuals, are an invention of the 19th century.

The RBGE herbarium has been continually growing ever since its creation. Over the years, numerous private collections and permanent loans from other British universities have been added, including historic collections from George Forrest, John Hutton Balfour and George Walker Arnott. The latter includes specimens collected by Charles Darwin, who studied at the University of Edinburgh between 1825 and 1827, during his Beagle voyage. Collections created since the early 20th century have been mostly acquired by RBGE staff and reflect modern research interests. Around 11,000 specimens are added to the collection each year.

One of RBGE’s most distinguished plant collectors was Peter Hadland Davis (1918–1992), who was both a student and a professor at the University of Edinburgh. His monumental lifetime achievement is the Flora of Turkey and the East Aegean Islands, a 10-volume book series, describing the entire plant world of its title. Davis took part in numerous field trips around the world and went on at least 10 expeditions to Turkey, resulting in an outstanding collection of Turkish plants at the RBGE herbarium.

Celebrated for his extraordinary achievements, he received a plethora of awards, including the Royal Society of Edinburgh Neill Medal, the Gold Medal of the Linnean Society and the Certificate of Merit from the Turkish Minister of State.

The herbarium seen within the botanic garden.

The herbarium seen within the botanic garden. ©RBGE

Specimens in the herbarium cabinets.

Specimens in the herbarium cabinets. ©RBGE

Two of Davis’s fellow travellers, the internationally renowned botanists Ian Hedge (BSc Botany 1951) and Dr James Ratter, still work at RGBE today.

“Peter was a great botanist,” Mr Hedge says. “Over his life time, he collected more than 70,000 specimens, which in a global context is enormous.”

Davis’s passion for plants was evoked by an apprenticeship at Ingwersen’s Alpine Plant Nursery in East Grinstead, West Sussex, in 1937, at the age of 19. The following year, he went on a self-initiated amateur expedition to western Anatolia, Turkey, to explore the local flora. Deeply fascinated by the countryside and plant diversity, Davis decided to become a botanist. He committed to an enormous undertaking: to collect and describe the entire native plant life of Turkey.

The outbreak of the Second World War put his plans on hold and he served in the armed forces until 1945, but immediately after the war, he took the first step towards his dream of becoming a plant collector. He joined the University of Edinburgh to study botany and graduated with first class honours in 1949. The University appointed him lecturer of botany, even before completion of his PhD on the Taxonomy of Middle East Flora in 1952. Moving through the academic ranks, he eventually held a Personal Chair in Plant Taxonomy from 1979.

Supported by six research assistants, Davis and his collaborators completed the Flora of Turkey over 20 years. “Part of his success was in the assistants he had,” Dr Ratter remembers. “The first two were absolutely exceptional – James Cullen and Mark Coode. They did a magnificent job, though with a considerable amount of arguing with Peter! He tended to have rather romantic ideas about things and they used to bring him down to earth.”

Davis’s colleagues have fond memories. “He had a considerable sense of humour,” Dr Ratter recalls. “He’d tell a joke and then giggle for a long time after it – with his mouth making all sorts of performances. It’s a pity it’s not on film.”

Both Mr Hedge and Dr Ratter also recall that Davis was a challenging character. “He was an impatient person in some ways [and] he was very insistent,” Dr Ratter says. “He always wanted things to be done instantly.”

Mr Hedge, who contributed significant accounts to the Flora, accompanied Davis on an adventurous seven-month expedition to Turkey in 1957.

“He really was obsessed with collecting – we collected in huge quantities,” Mr Hedge says. “It was tough going: I got jaundice and lost a stone.”

Davis’s legacy is kept alive by the Turkish botanists his work inspired and the ongoing research his estate facilitates at RBGE. “When the first volume of Flora of Turkey was published in 1965, only three Turkish botanists contributed,” Mr Hedge says. “But now, there are scores and scores of very confident Turkish botanists. And what contributed to that? The Flora of Turkey.”

When Davis died in 1992, he left one-third of his estate to fund research at RBGE, and the remainder founded the Davis Expedition Fund, to provide University of Edinburgh students with travelling grants for field trips to non-European countries.

“It gives you a whole different perspective on your research.”

Alan ElliottPhD Student

Dr Greg Kenicer (BSc Biological Sciences 1998, PhD Cell & Molecular Biology 2007), Head of Education at RBGE, says: “All the trips that students go on under the Davis fund are invaluable to them. It just lets them see how research is done.”

Alan Elliott, who secured two Davis grants for field studies in Nepal as part of his PhD studies, explains: “Peter Davis believed that students needed to experience field work. Looking at dead bits of plant is all well and good, but you don’t get a handle on how they grow and where they grow from reading – you need to experience that.”

The aim of Mr Elliott’s recent expeditions was to collect plants for the RBGE Flora of Nepal project and his own research on the evolution of plants in the Himalayas. “I came back with a much better understanding of the mountains and the sheer diversity of plants,” he says. “It gives you a whole different perspective on your research.”

His latest trip was reminiscent of Davis’s demanding expeditions of decades earlier. Mr Elliott’s team crossed the Himalayas into the Trans-Himalayas, travelling mostly on foot. “We did about 200km in the 21 days,” Mr Elliott says.

Expedition days start around 6am in the “drying tent”. The team has to assess each morning whether previously collected plants are sufficiently dry or require further pressing. They then start walking for the day, collecting interesting plants along the trail.

Before collecting a plant, Mr Elliott takes photographs and assigns it a number. He notes GPS coordinates and details about the specimen’s habitat in his field book. The plant goes into a field press and the Flora of Nepal database is updated. On returning to camp, Mr Elliott’s team transfers all collections into secure presses to dry on kerosene stoves. As is common on such trips, many of the specimens are dried and pressed between the pages of local newspapers.

Back at the RBGE herbarium, Mr Elliott is currently analysing the collected specimens. “The expedition was a success for me,” he says. Among his findings is a new species of clematis.

The contents of the RBGE herbarium are currently being digitised, which is an enormous undertaking. Specimens are photographed in very high resolution, enabling researchers to see details as if they were using a hand lens. Curator David Harris says: “We have already got a quarter of a million specimens digitalised, with very high quality images available on our website for anyone in the world to see.”

It is thanks to the work of Peter Davis and those following in his footsteps that there will be quite so much to see.

Silke Currie (MSc Biomedical Sciences 2010) is studying for a PhD at the University of Edinburgh/MRC Centre for Inflammation Research. She has previously served as Editor in Chief of the University science magazine EuSci.

Abies koreana.

Abies koreana. Robert McNeill

Papaver, June poppy.

Papaver, June poppy. Fiona Strickland

Artists Fiona Strickland and Robert McNeill.
Artists Fiona Strickland and Robert McNeill.

In a Fresh

After fulfilling teaching careers, Edinburgh College of Art graduates Fiona Strickland and Robert McNeill reinvented themselves as award-winning botanical artists. Silke Currie speaks to them about their forthcoming joint project in collaboration with the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh herbarium.

Silke Currie: What intrigues you about portraying plants?

Fiona Strickland: It’s a visual intrigue that excites you as an artist. The aspect of discovering a plant when you find it particularly beautiful, be it in bud or in decay, has to do with the visual elements, the colour, tone and line. That is essential to the way we enjoy portraying plants.

SC: Could you describe your approaches to botanical art?

FS: We work in different ways in terms of recording the object. One may be to have the object in front of you and the other to take photographs, notes, and drawings. We build up transparent watercolor washes and build up layers, so that each layer has an effect on the layer above or below, so we have really strong, intense color.

Robert McNeill: I’m very interested in light, and the way the plant is engulfed in light. I like to explore the possibilities of light and shade in terms of shadows, whether they interfere with the flow of a particular leaf or stem, and explore the possibilities of showing the form and how the light interplays with it.

FS: [My paintings] differ from traditional botanical art in that they have a different viewpoint and the scale may be different. They are totally unexpected in terms of what people would have as a preconceived idea of botanical art.

SC: Tell us about your upcoming project.

FS: We’ll be working through the seasons, recording plants at different times as well as in different environments. [The project] will take notice of the traditional way of working in botanical art, in that it will record all aspects of the plant. The herbarium will be interesting to use in terms of research. We intend to make a film, do drawings, paintings and documenting notes, take lots of photographs [and] work at the herbarium. We are really excited about it. We are not going to be working on the same piece of work, but we’ll be working in similar environments. I may be more interested in aspects of colour, scale or structure, whereas Robert might be more interested in the effects of light and form.

RMcN: We have ideas about how the [project] will be shown. We want to show the process of gathering the information and recording it, as well as having some final pieces of work. We want to get away from the traditional ways of showing.

FS: We’ve had a little experiment and went on expedition. We made lots of drawings in the field and measurements and we took some films. It was great to look back at the films. The viewer can relate to the piece of work and see the environment in which it was created.

Silke Currie speaks to Fiona Strickland and Robert McNeill about their forthcoming joint project in collaboration with the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh herbarium.

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