When is a book not a book? The bound volumes and exsiccatae in the herbarium at the Natural History Museum | Curator of Botany

The botany curation team have recently completed cataloguing some of the more unusual items in their care, the bound volumes and exsiccatae. A dataset listing those collections has been published on the Museum’s data portal. In this blog, Jo Wilbraham, Norbert Holstein and Mark Carine, discuss some of the treasures to be found among the Museum’s extensive collection of botanical bound volumes and exsiccatae. 

Bound volumes in the collection of Sir Hans Sloane. © Natural History Museum.

The vast majority of the Natural History Museum’s 5.25 million herbarium specimens are dried specimens mounted onto herbarium sheets or stored in packets that are filed in a taxonomic order in cabinets. It is a very practical way of managing a botanical collection. Organised in this way, you can easily find all of the specimens belonging to a particular species and if our understanding of species and their classification changes, the collection can be re-curated to reflect our developing knowledge of the natural world.  

Not all collections are curated in this way, however, and recently the botany curation team have completed cataloguing an unusual set of collections – the bound volumes and exsiccatae – and have published a dataset listing all of those collections on the Museum’s data portal that you can access here.  

Bound volumes comprise specimens that are mounted on sheets bound into volumes. The use of bound volumes as a method for the preservation of botanical specimens has a long history. The de facto foundation collection of the Natural History Museum’s herbarium is the herbarium of Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753) which comprises an estimated 150,000 specimens bound into 263 volumes. Those volumes are listed in the dataset.  

The oldest specimens in the collection, collected around Lake Constance by Johann Spiegler and dating from 1603, are also in a bound volume (BM013862141).  The specimens in this work are supplemented with paintings of missing features or of the habitat.

Poppy specimens in the collection made by Johann Spiegler around Lake Constance in 1603 (BM013862141). The specimens are supplemented with additions that have been painted in. © Natural History Museum.

Exsiccatae are sets of dried plant specimens that were made by one or many different collectors and distributed by an editor, typically accompanied by printed labels. They were often meant to be used as standards for comparison, to help identify other material. In many cases, they were bound together, although sometimes they were distributed as specimens on loose folios that were preserved as sets. Later exsiccatae were often distributed as loose specimens that were incorporated into our main herbarium but many of the earlier exsiccate in the collection are preserved as distinct sets. 

The title page of volume 1 of Algae Danmonienses (BM013818727) and an example page with pressed specimen and printed label. This is typical of the exsiccatae we hold, comprising sets of preserved specimens accompanied by printed labels.

The collections included in the bound volumes and exsiccatae at the Natural History Museum span the breadth of organisms we look after in the botanical collections team with Lichens, Algae, Bryophytes, Ferns and Seed Plants all represented. Among some of the older collections there are also zoological specimens: colonial animals such as bryozoans, some pressed insects, and even a pressed frog and a woodpecker’s head. 

In a few cases, all of the specimens included within a volume have already been databased. These include the 17th century specimens in the herbarium of Paul Hermann, the earliest collections from Sri Lanka, and the specimens in the first seven volumes of Sloane’s monumental herbarium that he collected on his voyage to the Caribbean in 1687-88.

Images of the specimens included in the volume of plants collected by Englebert Kaempfer (BM013862015) can be found here. Among them is a specimen of Gingko biloba, the maidenhair tree. Cultivated in Asia for centuries, the single leaf preserved in Kaempfer’s collection represents the first record of Europeans encountering this species. It was collected by Kaempfer from a Japanese temple garden.  

A woodpecker’s head in H.S.59 (BM013846900), one of the 263 volumes that make up Hans Sloane’s Herbarium. ©Natural History Museum

The dataset also includes volumes of plants collected during voyages to discover the Northwest Passage by Captain William Edward Parry from 1819 to 1825. Britain’s trade and imperial interests were expanding in the early 19th century but travel was long and cumbersome, especially to the Pacific which required circumnavigation of the southern tip of South America. It was therefore of great interest to explore the possibility of reaching East Asia not around the south but through the Arctic.

The exploration of the North-West Passage was a major focus, and Captain Parry was a key person in its history. Between 1819 and 1825, he led three expeditions to navigate through the islands north of Canada. Although Parry ultimately failed to find safe route, he explored the area, learned essential skills to survive the arctic winter from the Inuit peoples, and he collected many data and natural objects. Plant collections from Parry’s expeditions are bound in small books ready to be taken on board in other travels. They are both documentation of the arctic flora 200 years ago and testimony of the history of arctic exploration. 

The hand crafted cover of W. N. Griffith’s Flora of Melville Island compiled during one of Parry’s explorations of the Northwest Passage (BM013845549)

Whilst many scientific pursuits were closed to women in the 19th century, women nevertheless made huge contributions to the field, and this was particularly evident in the pursuit of collecting and studying seaweeds on the coast, something that was deemed an acceptable female pastime by the Victorian patriarchy. Our collection includes beautiful seaweed pamphlets made by Harriet Fothergill (nee Curtis) who moved to Jersey in the 1850s with her father Samuel Curtis, the famous botanist.  Harriet’s interest in seaweed pressing coincided with the Victorian craze for ‘seaweeding’.   

Seaweed specimens collected by Harriet Fothergill (BM000711530)

In some cases interests in botany were turned into a commercial concern. Among our exsiccatae is a copy of Algae Danmonienses (figured above), a set of algae specimens that were ‘Prepared and sold by Mary Wyatt dealer in shells’. Mary made these books of pressed seaweeds in the 1830s to sell in her Torquay seaside shop of natural curios. Created to generate an income during the popular wave of seaweed enthusiasm, these are also serious works which would help amateur enthusiasts identifying their own specimens.  Wyatt collaborated in her seaweed work with her companion and mentor Amelia Warren Griffiths; a skilled phycologist who made a significant contribution to the study of seaweeds and corresponded widely with seaweed experts of the time.  

The production of sets of specimens to satisfy the curious was not restricted to Britain.  Tourists became a growing source of income by the mid 19th century for people in the Alps, a traditionally poor area, dependent on agriculture and the occasional travellers who transported goods. Mountain lodges developed, e.g., on Mount Rigi, the Faulhorn, the Wengernalp and our collection includes several books featuring flowers from those areas of the alps, such as edelweiss or gentians, that were sold to tourists. These books not only show us the flora of the Alps but also document the early era of mass tourism that shaped the region until today. 

A decorative arrangement of alpine flowers with their determinations in the Flora des Berninagebietes (BM013845497).

A small volume in the collection produced by William Gardner in the 1830s, a reference set of British ‘Hypnum’ mosses, was intended as a very early field guide (BM013818555). Having the real dried specimens glued to each page with their printed names would have helped budding bryologists identify plants from this difficult group.  At this time many pleuorcarpous mosses now classified within various genera were named under the genus Hypnum, which is nowadays more narrowly defined.

Gardner’s small ‘Hypnum’ book and an example page showing the specimen pressed to the page and labelled (BM013818555)

In some cases, we can see evidence of how the bound volumes and exsiccatae were being used by their owners. Drummond published his exsiccatae of American mosses in 1828, based on the collections he made during his time employed as expedition naturalist to the second overland Arctic expedition led by Sir John Franklin. This work comprises a published set of bryophyte specimens with printed labels accompanying each specimen. Multiple copies of these volumes were produced. The NHM holds the copy belonging to British bryologist William Wilson who was involved in the identification and preparation of these specimens. it is heavily annotated by Wilson and includes his own drawings revealing how he continued to use the finished work in its bound state for his research.

Wilson’s personal copy of volume 1 Musci Americani (BM013818664): title page and ‘specimen 32’, Splachnum rubrum, showing his extensive annotations typical throughout the volume. 

Collected over a period of more than 420 years, the specimens included in the Museum’s bound volumes and exsiccatae, are a unique source of data about change – change in the distributions of plants and change in our uses of plants.   

The two-volume collection of seaweeds compiled in the 1790s by astronomer Edward Pigott includes some of the oldest specimens in the algal herbarium and they are unusual for this time period as they have very detailed annotations about when and where they were found; essential data for biodiversity research today. The specimens are mainly from southern England but the individual specimen data has not yet been transcribed. 

Pages of pressed specimens with extensive annotations in the bound herbarium of Edward Pigott.  This volume contains an estimated 350 specimens (BM013818710). 

Samuel Browne was an East India Company Surgeon in Fort St George (now Chennai, India) in the late 1690s. He made a collection of plants, now bound in two volumes that he sent to his employees in London. It was passed to the Royal Society and eventually came into our possession in the late 1700s. It is a remarkable collection, recording the local names in Tamil on fragments of palm leaf and also the uses of the plants. Museum curator Ranee Prakash is researching the specimens in these volumes to understand how the names and uses of plants change across space and time. 

One of two volumes that make up the herbarium of Samuel Browne. Browne’s specimen of ‘Cherry-Mango’ (Buchanania cochininensis) is accompanied by his original hand written notes, the published version of those, and the Tamil name inscribed on the palm leaf fragment (BM013862143). ©Natural History Museum

Valuable as these books of specimens are, we do need to be careful not always to judge them by their covers. Sometimes those covers can be positively misleading and new research can provide insights into the provenance and significance of those volumes. Writing in 1921, Museum botanist James Britten (1846-1924) wrote that ‘The herbarium of Thomas Walter, author of Flora Caroliniana is one of the most interesting collections in the Department of Botany.’ Research on this volume (BM013862163), published in a paper by Daniel Ward nearly a century later, however, revealed that, despite the title ‘Walter herbarium’ appearing on the spine, the specimens were actually gathered by John Fraser and are not original material for Walter’s Flora Caroliniana, published in 1788, as was once thought.  

There is still much to be done to fully understand the bound volumes and exsiccatae in the Natural History Herbarium and their significance for understanding our changing world. This new dataset is a first step in making those collections more accessible.

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