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Colombian curiosities in the Directors' Correspondence at Kew

Virginia Mills
1 February 2010

Read about Robert Blake White's travels in Colombia, the ancient artefacts he collected and the ideas he picked up about gardening in synchronisation with the phases of the moon.

Here is another little taste of what we have come across in our work digitising Kew's Directors' Correspondence collection. Robert Blake White is an interesting character who wrote to Kew Gardens c.1868 to 1899. His letters concern such diverse subjects as the collection of native Colombian artefacts, or 'grave goods', to his own forthright opinions on gardening in synch with the phases of the moon.

Grave Goods

White went to work in Colombia in South America as an engineer and he writes of his travels throughout the country, the things he saw and the collection of artefacts he made on his way. His letters mention chisels, clay whistles, earthenware musical instruments and pottery goods, which he offers to send to Kew, along with interesting plants he found. Many of the fruits and seeds White collected are in Kew's Economic Botany and Herbarium collections, and some of the artefacts mentioned by White in the Directors' Correspondence were later transferred to the British Museum.



Sketches of some of the antiquities White has seen; two pottery jars and the heads of two gigantic stone figures at San Augustin, Colombia.  

Gardening by the Moon

White's letters also reveal that it wasn't just plants and artefacts he picked up in Colombia, he also adopted some of the local ideas about farming and cultivation. A letter White wrote from Palmira in 1896 explains his belief that the moon has a profound effect on both the flora and fauna of the tropics, where the seasons are less distinct. His theory is that plants grow under the influence of the new moon and rest for the remainder of the lunar period. He gives a list of 13 practical rules for lunar planting. White believed all these rules should be followed by horticulturists and arboriculturalists, for example: tree resin should be collected at the new moon for a greater yield and medicinal plants should be harvested after the full moon to benefit from their full potency.

'Gardening by the moon' has a long tradition. The ancient Roman scholar Pliny observed in around AD77 that: "it is a point most religiously observed to insert the graft during the moon's increase" [Naturalis Historia 17.24 trans John Bostock and H.T. Riley]. White's letters to Kew, hundreds of years later, give the very same advice. Some gardeners to this day hold to the practice of lunar planting and farmers' almanacs have an established tradition of using lunar cycles to guide their calendars.

What do you think?

White's botanical practices may seem to be founded purely in tradition but his letters do display an effort to ground his theory with scientific reasoning and he bases it not only on inherited wisdom and superstition but on his own observations during the thirty years he spent in Colombia. Perhaps those of you with green fingers or veggie patches have your own planting traditions? We're interested to hear what you think, so please leave a comment below if you have an opinion on lunar planting, or just tell us about what you get up to in your gardens...

- Ginny -


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15 February 2010
Thanks for commenting, we are always glad to hear from fellow friends of the rainforest! Especially institutions whose interests overlap with our project. The Latin American digitisation project is however only a very small part of the Kew organisation so we can't personally organise any events on behalf of Kew, however we have passed on your suggestion to the Kew Friends & PR offices. We would also like to post a link to your website on our future blog posts and hopefully help to spread the word to as many researchers and interested people as possible. With kind regards from the whole team.
10 February 2010
Hi! Happy New Year 2010 - MMX! Canning House, No. 2 Belgrave Square has nice reading facilities and a basement library for students of Latin American matters. The house is open most of the time and needs more volunteers to man the facilities and put on more parties! It has a new and go ahead director, open to ideas and good suggestions. Maybe a central london garden party for friends of Kew, and friends of the rainforests of the world? Best Regards Stef
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