A mine of information

Mark Spencer uses an evocative phrase when describing the research potential of the Herbarium at the Natural History Museum – he refers to mining for information – and when you see the size of the collection it becomes an exact term for what is needed.  Mark had entranced the Surrey group when he visited to talk about the collection and the return visit was arranged to see some of the wonders.


Members of the Surrey group meet by the dinosaur

The Herbarium is housed in the Angela Marmot Centre for UK Biodiversity, part of the Darwin Centre in the new Cocoon extension at the Natural History Museum.


Mark had laid out some specimens of rare Surrey wild plants, now found in fewer places due to agriculture and high nitrate pollution.


Teucrium botrys, a specimen from Box Hill in Surrey, collected in 1875.


Apparently Surrey has more than its fair share of botanists, so at this point Mark advised the potential collectors in the group that the most important information to record on a specimen is not the name of the plant, but the ‘where’ and the ‘when’ – the ‘what’ can always be added later.  You can’t get more specific than the label on this Persicaria

By the sink that runs from the Crown? Dunghill into the field? August 1755


In the past chemicals such as mercuric chloride were used on the specimens to prevent damage from insects feeding on the fish or bone glue used to anchor the specimens.  Now temperature (17oC), humidity (40%) and freezing new material are used to limit insect problems, so there was a cool and clinical atmosphere in the herbarium stacks.


This is the collection of Mentha and gives an indication of the vast number of specimens  held on this corridor of cabinets.


Then we were taken to the historic heart of the herbarium, the Sir Hans Sloane Collection, housed under the curved roof of the Cocoon.

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Sloane (1660-1753) ‘amassed one of the greatest ever private collections of plants, animals, antiquities, coins and other curios and this became  the founding core of the British Museum and later the Natural History Museum’.


Originally made up of over 110,000 items, many of the animal specimens were destroyed or dispersed to regional museums, but the botanical collection is more intact – his volume of Plants Gathered by Sir Hans Sloane in Jamaica

IMG_0206complete with drawings of the specimens


The type specimen for Cocoa.

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Reverend Adam Buddle (1662–1715) an authority on bryophytes,  compiled a new English Flora, completed in 1708.  It was never published and is preserved at the NHM – here a page of mosses and liverworts.


The Duchess of Beaufort’s Collections are particularly beautiful


A wealthy lady, each plant is protected with its own paper cover


The Dutch East India company was responsible for bringing many exotics back to Europe and the Herman Boerhaave (1668-1738) collection from Leiden was given to Sloane and is kept at the NHM.  The shaped labels – called Clifford pots after George Clifford are wonderfully ornate.

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The Croconuts in the group were delighted to see a specimen of Iris susiana

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There are also drawers full of specimens which are being catalogued by a PhD student – Sloane’s original numbers can still be seen on the boxes.

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The seams of information held in these collections have already provided data on the flowering times of plants, used as evidence of climate change and how the density of stoma on leaves is related to the concentration of CO2.

A truly engrossing visit – if you get the chance to visit don’t turn it down.  Thank you Mark for taking us into your world and showing us its wonders.


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2 Responses to A mine of information

  1. barbarariley says:

    Thank you for sharing your visit with us in such detail. Fascinating!

  2. What a fascinating subject, thanks for writing such an interesting blog. You might enjoy reading ‘The Brother Gardeners’ by Andrea Wulf which is all about some of the most influential early plant hunters and botanists. It’s a great read. Helen (gardener)

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