Economic Botany blog
Follow Mark's blog and discover Kew's historic plant artefact collection. This fascinating global collection includes around 85,000 artefacts including herbal medicines, food and fibres. The collection illustrates the extent of human use of plants around the world and the huge variety of objects range from paper to weapons and clothing to medicines.
Currently on display at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art are these striking models of apples and pears from the Economic Botany Collection.
The pear models at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art
The London International Exhibition 1862
They form part of a collection of 200 models of apples and pears, made of plaster or wax, which were donated to the Kew Museum by the Australian states of Tasmania and Victoria after the 1862 International Exhibition. This exhibition was held at South Kensington in London on the site of the current Natural History Museum. Such exhibitions were a means for countries to secure export markets for their natural resources, their crops, and their finished goods. They also served to inform prospective emigrants of the social and working opportunities they could offer.
A stereoscopic image from the London International Exhibition 1862 (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
The cost of the models was borne by fruit growers in the two Australian states. They were produced by various artists, most of whom are not identified. However, certain of the models from Victoria were made by Thomas McMillan, who also created natural history models for the Industrial & Technological Museum in Melbourne. Every detail of the various fruit varieties has been accurately adhered to. Even insect bore-holes are included!
Model of a Mannington Pearmain apple, showing insect bore-hole
The apple models chosen for display represent both traditional ‘old world’ varieties such as the ‘Bramley Seedling’, as well as newer colonial varieties like ‘Wolf River’. Others reflect more patriotic inclinations, for example ‘Prince Albert’ and ‘Royal Jubilee’. Amongst the pears, names such as ‘Duchesse d’Angouleme’ and ‘Nouvelle Merveille’ are indicative of French and Belgian endeavours in this branch of horticulture, commonly referred to in the nineteenth century as ‘pomology’.
But why models? Why not illustrations or actual specimens? With the advent of the public museum in the nineteenth century, museums were faced with the problem of how to display plants in permanent exhibits. Herbarium sheets were of use primarily to the scientist. With their pressed, dried specimens, they did not make very interesting display objects for a more general public. Models presented the ideal solution in their ability to show the scale, colour, texture, and form of plants, both externally and internally. Charles Darwin’s mentor at Cambridge University, Professor John Stevens Henslow, was one of many men of science who advocated the use of models in museums. He helped William Hooker arrange the first museum here at Kew in 1847 and he said:
'Dried plants from the Herbarium cannot be advantageously displayed in glass cases. The following method may be adopted for the typical epitome:- a few wax models of flowers with figures of such parts as require to be magnified; but especially entire fruits, with dissections exposing the seed and embryo.'
Once at Kew, the models were displayed on the middle floor of Museum No. 1 alongside other specimens and objects related to the Rosaceae family.
Museum No. 1 c. 1900
Since the closure of the Museum of Economic Botany in 1987, they have resided in the Economic Botany Collection store in the Banks Building where, like the whole of the Collection, they are available for study by researchers and for loan to other museums.
- Caroline -
Visit 'Botanicals - Environmental Expressions in Art'
- Venue - The Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art, Kew Gardens (how to find us)
- Dates - Saturday 19 October 2013 - Sunday 19 January 2014
- Price - FREE with admission to the Gardens (See detailed ticket information)
- More information - Contact the gallery on 0208 332 3622 or via email at email@example.com.
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Letters I found in Kew’s archives show that the items came from the Japan-British Exhibition held in London in 1910. This was a huge event supported by the British and Japanese governments, showcasing everything from art to military arms, and from horticulture to imperial influence.
At the end of the exhibition, many of the displays came to Kew, not least the replica Chokushi-Mon (Gateway of the Imperial Messenger), still visible near the Pagoda in the gardens at Kew. The models came to Kew via Sir Thomas Henry Elliott KCB, who was involved in the organisation of the Exhibition, and knew Kew well having served as permanent under-secretary of the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries, Kew’s governing body from 1903.
The Japan-British Exhibition
Unlike an exhibition today, which we would expect to find in a single gallery space, this exhibition was held at the ‘Great White City,’ in Shepherd’s Bush, covering 140 acres. Attractions included the ‘Japanese Garden of Peace’, lakes, railways, fun fair rides, cafes and restaurants, and even its own stadium. The ‘exhibition’ was comparable to a theme park today in terms of scale and variety of exhibits.
Cover of Japan-British Exhibition Shepherd’s Bush London 1910, Official Guide. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The Exhibition grounds, shown in The Official Report: Japan British Exhibition (London, 1910, page 120. Credit: Library, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew).
The exhibition took place around the time of the renewal of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance in 1905 and 1911, and was a means for Japan to showcase itself as a suitable partner in terms of cultural, military and agricultural ambition.
The items themselves are small and fragile and made predominantly of wood, with metal and wicker on some of the models. Some of the more easily identifiable items, such as the rake, the basket and the plough (in the lower of the pictures below) can clearly be recognized. To the untrained eye, other models of agricultural implements are more difficult to name.
Models of Japanese agricultural implements, repacked into acid-free tissue (EBC 37954).
Winnowing machine, height 13 cm. It is used to remove impurities from grain, by producing a strong air current with a revolving fan. Traditionally the winnowing affect could be achieved by throwing the mixture in the air so the wind would remove the lighter impurities.
Here are some other traditional agricultural implements that have proven difficult to identify – any further insights into what these may be are very welcome!
The models on display
The models of Japanese agricultural implements were likely to have been displayed in the ‘Palace of the Orient’ part of the exhibition, which showed examples of Japan’s influence in Korea and other countries and colonies. In an enlarged image of the photograph below, it is possible to distinguish a ‘Model of Korea’ sign above the central glass cabinets, where it is likely the models were displayed.
Korean Section, shown inThe Official Report: Japan British Exhibition, page 288. (Credit: Library, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew).
The exhibition on Korea included a display of porcelain, metalwork, armour, and bows and arrows, as well as agricultural products and implements that Japan introduced into Korea. The exhibition coincided with the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty in 1910, which confirmed Japanese rule in Korea. In a typical rationalisation of empire during that period, the official report to the Exhibition emphasised the good work Japan had done for Korea:
'She has awakened Korea out of her long sleep, and improved her country and condition of her people. She has built roads, established industries, and introduced improved agricultural methods’.
Looking at the political and cultural context of the Japan-British exhibition, it is clear that the agricultural models were intended as more than curiosities. Instead, they signified a technologically modern, expanding empire, in a way that would surely have had resonance for British visitors.
- Anna Hamilton-
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Kew's Grass Garden has a comprehensive display of cereals from around the world - grains such as wheat, barley, sorghum and millet - and now is the best time to come and see them.
Like many botanic gardens, Kew has long had a tradition of a specialist cereals bed. Just three cereals, wheat, rice and maize provide 60% of the world's food energy, so it is an important story to tell. Today the cereal bed is located in the Grass Garden, behind Hamo Thornycroft's statue of The Sower. As part of the IncrEdibles Festival, the display has been refreshed and new interpretation boards erected.
The cereal beds in Kew's Grass Garden (Photo: Mark Nesbitt)
What is a cereal?
It's the term for grasses that bear edible grains. These are so important because the cereal grain is the ideal food package, with starch wrapped in bran and husks, giving good protection from storage pests. As the grains are dry they keep well and are easy to transport. Although humans find it hard to digest raw starch it can easily be turned into a food by cooking or malting. It's not surprising that the development of ancient civilisations around the world is usually closely linked to the development of cereal cultivation.
The challenge of displaying cereals
The cereal beds are a special challenge for my colleague Michelle Cleave, who looks after the Grass Garden. To maintain such a comprehensive display (dare I say the fullest of any botanic garden?) seeds have to be collected all year round. Cereals hybridise easily, so there is a limit to how long seeds can be saved and replanted. The cereals can look very similar, especially when young, so very careful attention must be given to labels when planting out.
If the Spring is dry the cereals don't thrive; if (as this year) it is wet, the cereals grow too tall and fall over. This is not helped by visits from birds and badgers. Most botanic gardens enclose their cereals in a netted cage, but some people find this unattractive in a garden context. Nonetheless, we persevere!
Perhaps the greatest challenge in presenting cereals is how to capture such a variety of rich and fascinating stories without a forest of information panels. Museums are using touchscreens and one day we might see these in outdoor environments. For the time being, I'll just highlight some cereals to look for.
Part of the wheat display, showing one of the new interpretation panels (Photo: Mark Nesbitt)
Cereals' wild ancestors
Wherever possible we show the wild ancestor of the cereal next to the cultivated, domesticated form. Some of the differences between wild and cultivated forms are hard to see in our cereal beds: for example, the cultivated forms usually have larger grains. But one difference is easy to see in wheat and barley. In the wild forms, the cereal ear breaks up as it ripens, scattering the packets of grain onto the ground. While that is good for seed dispersal in the wild, it is not so ideal for the farmer. So in cultivated forms, the ear stays intact through to harvest. The image below shows wild einkorn wheat on the right, and you can see the ear is no longer complete.
Knowing about the wild ancestor is important to archaeologists who want to understand the processes by which agriculture first developed. It is also vital for the plant breeder as wild relatives are often a source of genes for characters such as disease resistance and adaptation to climate change. My colleagues at the Millennium Seed Bank are currently working on the Crop Wild Relatives Project, identifying parts of the world where wild relatives have not yet been sufficiently collected.
Einkorn wheat (Triticum monococcum). Domesticated form on the left, wild on the right (Photo: Mark Nesbitt)
As well as the major commercial wheats, bread wheat (Triticum aestivum) and macaroni wheat (T. durum), we showcase many obscure wheats that were once locally important. Some of these are seeing revived cultivation owing to the interest in traditional foods: for example farro (T. dicoccum) in Italy, and spelt wheat (T. spelta) in many countries including the United Kingdom. While not suitable for making modern highly processed breads, they offer a far tastier alternative, whether as bread, pasta or porridge.
Miracle wheat, shown below, has attracted much interest over the years. It is a form of rivet wheat (T. turgidum) with branched ears. It is also known as mummy wheat, although it has nothing to do with ancient Egyptian farmers (who only grew emmer wheat). Although miracle wheat looks amazingly prolific, sadly its yield by area is less than that of unbranched wheats. Normal rivet wheat is increasingly cultivated in Britain (after virtually disappearing) because its long straw makes it suitable for thatching. Modern wheats are bred to have short stems so they do not fall over when given heavy inputs of fertiliser.
As well as the wheats, the temperate cereal bed contains barley, oats and rye.
Miracle wheat (Triticum turgidum var. pseudocervinum)
Tropical cereals on the way
By the end of July, the temperate cereals will be in poor condition and attention will switch to the tropical cereals in the bed behind. These will look good until October. These cereals originate in Africa and Asia; we can no longer grow maize owing to animal damage and rice is grown inside the Water Lily House.
The tropical cereals bed, with sorghum plants at this end.
The tropical cereals, such as sorghum and the many different millets, are important because they grow well on poor soils and dry climates. While the amounts cultivated are small compared to wheat, maize and rice, they play a vitally important role in areas not reached by the Green Revolution that has hugely increased cereal yields in more accessible places.
- Mark -
- Find out more about cereals at Kew's IncrEdibles Festival
- "Les meilleurs blés" (The best wheats) - a beautiful illustrated guide from 1880
- Wheat - the Big Picture
Buy tickets for the IncrEdibles at Kew Gardens
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When William Hooker set up Kew's Museum of Economic Botany (what we would call useful plants) in 1847, he described the ideal display as:
"the raw material (and, to a certain extent, also the manufactured or prepared article... correctly named, and accompanied by some account of its origin, history, native country, etc., either attached to the specimens or recorded in a popular catalogue."
What did these displays actually look like? Kew's Illustrations collection has several wide-angle views giving a good impression of the overall layout, but revealing little useful detail as to the contents of individual cases.
Museum No. 2; late 19th century (photograph by E. J. Wallis)
However, this was to change with the donation in 2011 of a series of photographs from the Naturalis Biodiversity Centre at Leiden in the Netherlands, courtesy of Gerard Thijsse. The five photographs were taken by botanist Johannes Paulus Lotsy (1867-1931) on a visit to Kew in 1902 and indicate not only Lotsy’s interest in particular species of palms and other plants, but also quite clearly the methods used to display them in Kew’s museums.
‘Economic Museum Hortus Kew. Fam: Palmae. Maximiliana regia (Demerara) Maripa Palm’; Museum No. 2; 1902 (photograph by Johannes Lotsy)
Of particular value was an image taken in Museum No. 2 of Case 67, dedicated to the maripa palm. Here for the first time we had a close-up of a display in the old museums. By cross-referencing it with the entry in the Kew guide-book, we were able to find out more. The case was dominated by the male and female spadices of the palm now known as Attalea maripa, sent by colonial resident E. G, Boughton from Demerara in 1848. Further information was given through the use of photographs in the case; these were sent from British Guyana by Everard im Thurn in 1885. And at the back of the case is a botanical illustration taken from Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, in which Joseph Hooker renamed the species Scheelea kewensis. Fruits of the palm were displayed in jars adjacent to the photographs. And on the shelf beneath the ‘raw material’ were examples of the ‘manufactured or prepared article’ – a blank length of palm wood, and immediately below it, the finished goods – a walking stick and sunshade handle donated by leading manufacturer Henry Howell & Co. in 1888.
As Hooker had argued, the information assembled in the museums was of interest, not only to the "scientific botanist", but also to "the merchant, the manufacturer, the physician, the chemist, the druggist, the dyer, the carpenter and cabinet-maker, and artisans of every description".
‘Fam: Gnetaceae. Welwitschia mirabilis’; Museum No. 1; 1902; (Johannes Lotsy)
This year Leiden have sent three further photographs taken by Lotsy on the same visit, this time all of the intriguing Welwitschia mirabilis which was then on display in Museum No. 1. In particular, this one gives a real sense of the experience of being in the Museum, peering into the glass case whilst the portrait busts of John Henslow and William Hooker stare back from behind the exhibit.
We would love to hear from anyone who is aware of other photographs, films or illustrations of the interior of the Kew Museums (Economic Botany Collection contact details). Such images help us understand the Museum from the visitor’s point of view, information which is often lacking when conducting historical studies of museums and similar sites. And, needless to say, any images featuring actual visitors would be a real breakthrough.
Many evocative pictures from Kew's photograph collections can be seen in a recently published book, The Story of Kew Gardens in Photographs.
- Caroline -
- Blog post: "Reliving Kew’s Museum of Economic Botany"
- Article: "Thinking about museums and photographs"
- Economic Botany Collection main page
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Alfred Russel Wallace is very much on our minds at Kew at the moment, and not just because the centenary of his death is being marked this year. We’ve recently completed a project to conserve a set of remarkable palm specimens sent to Kew’s first great Victorian Director, William Jackson Hooker, in 1848. They were collected by the young Wallace (with Henry Bates), during his formative South American expedition to the Amazon. They are all the more precious because almost all of Wallace's Amazon collections was destroyed when his ship caught fire on his homeward journey in 1852; only some drawings survived from his 'considerable collection of birds, insects, reptiles and fishes, and a large quantity of miscellaneous articles, consisting of about twenty cases and packages'.
Kew holds rather fewer specimens from Wallace’s more famous Malay Archipelago explorations, but among these is a box of small, starchy, wedge-shaped blocks – sago cakes collected in Ceram, an island in the Moluccas off west New Guinea. Sago is the staple source of carbohydrate for many lowlanders in New Guinea and the Moluccas. It is extracted as a starch flour from the trunk of the sago palm, Metroxylon sagu.
Sago washing in Ceram, wood engraving based on a drawing by Wallace (Fig. 31, The Malay Archipelago, 1869).
Wallace describes the process thus:
'[The pounded pith] is carried away (in baskets made of the sheathing bases of the leaves) to the nearest water, where a washing-machine is put up, which is composed almost entirely of the sago-tree itself. The large sheathing bases of the leaves form the troughs, and the fibrous covering from the leaf-stalks of the young cocoa-nut the strainer. Water is poured on the mass of pith, which is kneaded and pressed against the strainer till the starch is all dissolved and has passed through, when the fibrous refuse is thrown away, and a fresh basketful put in its place. The water charged with sago starch passes on to a trough, with a depression in the centre, where the sediment is deposited... When the trough is nearly full, the mass of starch, which has a slight reddish tinge, is made into cylinders of about thirty pounds' weight, and neatly covered with sago leaves, and in this state is sold as raw sago.'
Wallace’s description remains accurate to this day – sago is still made in this way in New Guinea and the Moluccas.
Sago cakes old...
Wallace’s sago cakes appear to have been made by forcing a sago paste into moulds, and then allowing them to bake or dry into hard blocks. He noted that 'Four cakes are said to serve as a day's food. The price is about 10 shillings per thousand'.
Sago cakes collected by Wallace in the Moluccas (now known as the Maluku Islands) and sent to Kew in 1858. EBC 35908
Wallace was a fan:
'The hot cakes are very nice with butter, and when made with the addition of a little sugar and grated cocoa-nut are quite a delicacy. They are soft, and something like corn-flour cakes, but have a slight characteristic flavor which is lost in the refined sago we use in this country. When not wanted for immediate use, they are dried for several days in the sun, and tied up in bundles of twenty. They will then keep for years; they are very hard, and very rough and dry; but the people are used to them from infancy, and little children may be seen gnawing at them as contentedly as ours with their bread and butter. If dipped in water and then toasted, they become almost as good as when fresh baked; and thus treated, they were my daily substitute for bread with my coffee.'
In January this year, I followed in Wallace’s footsteps with a team of Kew botanists visiting New Guinea on a plant collecting expedition. Our trip began in Manokwari (or Dorey, as Wallace knew it) opposite the idyllic Mansinam Island, where Wallace made his first landfall in New Guinea and was welcomed by two Germans missionaries (read all about it in Wallace's The Malay Archipelago). From Manokwari, we travelled to Sorong on the western tip of New Guinea, from where we would start our fieldwork. We spent hours in Sorong’s hectic market, provisioning our expedition from colourful stalls piled high with betel nut, fruit and veg, clothes and every conceivable form of hardware.
Sago cakes on sale in Sorong, 2013.
In the middle of all the action, I was distracted by a dingy stall, apparently unique in the wares it was selling – sago cakes, identical to those in the Economic Botany collections at Kew. It was if Wallace himself had only just stopped by to pick up a packet. It was a strange moment, of feeling unexpectedly close to this amazing man and of wonder that such a traditional product was still being manufactured in an identical way more than 150 years later. The cakes on the stall came in two different colours, white and pink, the latter possibly dyed. The pink ones, I was informed, were made of sago, whereas the white were of cassava. Kew’s sago cakes are white – are they then cassava, rather than sago cakes? We cannot answer that yet, but I can tell you that, unlike Wallace, Kew's palm team found that neither makes particularly good eating and that no amount of dunking in sweet, Indonesian tea made them any more palatable!
Wallacemania in 2013
The towering genius of Charles Darwin has tended to overshadow the work of other great Victorian naturalists such as Alfred Russel Wallace. Thanks to the energy and persuasive powers of George Beccaloni at the Natural History Museum, this is changing. The centenary of Wallace's death sees an extensive programme of events, including a major exhibition at the National Museum of Wales this autumn (to which Kew is lending three of the Amazon palms), lectures at the Natural History Museum, a symposium at the Royal Society, and a small exhibition in Kew's Library (featuring Wallace's sago cakes, to 20 May 2013). For a comprehensive overview, visit the Wallace 100 web site.
- Bill Baker -
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About Mark Nesbitt
Mark Nesbitt is curator of the Economic Botany Collection at Kew. After studying agricultural botany at Reading University, Mark moved onto the archaeology of plants via a doctorate at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. After 15 years of research in the Near East, he joined Kew in 1999 as a specialist in useful plants both past and present.
At the core of Mark's work is caring for the Collection: adding new specimens (about 800 a year), monitoring environmental conditions, lending to exhibitions, upgrading the Collection database and rehousing specimens. Mark hosts around 500 visitors each year, from many different disciplines, organises conservation, teaching and research projects with collaborators, and carries out research into the history of plant fibres, medicine and colonial botany. A team of 5-6 volunteers, placement students and interns play a vital role in keeping everything going.
Mark's aims are both to ensure the Collection is cared for to modern museum standards, and to help the fascinating stories told by its 85,000 artefacts reach the widest possible audience.
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Summer cereals at Kew: I like this article and the pictures that accompany it because I am from the West Coast of the U.S. ... by: Christabel Behr
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