Kew’s Herbarium is a power-house of international botanical research and conservation. The building houses teams of scientists specialising in diverse geographical regions and important plant groups. With over eight million dried plant specimens and counting, it is among the world’s most important scientific collections.
Teams of curators keep the specimens in good condition and order, providing a vital resource for biologists around the world. This blog allows you the chance to learn more about what goes on behind-the-scenes.
January 2014 heralded the publication of Kew’s latest contribution to our knowledge of the Brazilian flora: a full-colour manual to the plants of the Northwest sector of the Serra do Cipó. The product of a four-year collaborative project with the University of São Paulo and a number of other Brazilian botanical institutions, this stunning 312-page Portuguese-language production features illustrated descriptions of all the principal vegetation types in the region, and portraits of over 1,000 species, a great many of which have never been photographed before.
Cover page spread showing Encholirium agavoides, a new species of Bromeliaceae discovered by the project.
The book, designed to be accessible and informative for specialists, lay readers and ecotourists alike, includes vegetation maps, comprehensive indices, and useful information regarding each of the species featured, such as altitudinal range, flower colours, and type of leaves, to assist the reader to correctly identify the plants.
This field guide is one of the principal products of Kew’s Toucan Cipó Project which, over a period of three years, conducted several plant-collecting expeditions to the northwest of the Serra do Cipó. The project, supported by a generous donation from the Rufford Foundation, aimed to support conservation planning in an area of great importance for its botanical diversity, while adding to our scientific knowledge of the Brazilian flora and communicating this to a wide range of stakeholders.
In addition to the immediate project area, the guide can be used to understand the habitats and plants from two important protected areas that lie further to the southeast: the Parque Nacional da Serra do Cipó and the Parque Estadual da Serra do Intendente.
Species portraits: over 1,000 species are illustrated in the book.
The region and its flora
The highland locality of Brazil known as Serra do Cipó has all the necessary elements of a dreamland. Its remarkable landscapes and unpolluted rivers and waterfalls support well over 1,200 different species of plants (roughly equivalent to the whole flora of Britain!). Campo rupestre vegetation - natural rocky fields where grasses and sedges share their space with everlasting flowers (Eriocaulaceae) and extraordinary daisies - occupies the higher points of the ranges, reaching 1,400m above sea level.
Typical view of Campo rupestre vegetation
Rugged rock outcrops are bordered by orchids, cacti and many flowering shrubs, among which the most iconic are the canelas-de-ema belonging to the family Velloziaceae. Meanwhile the lowland is home to lush woods carpeted by ferns bordering the river Cipó, and broad expanses of tree savanna (known locally as Cerrado). The word cipó means 'liana', and gives the name to the local river either because it is an old river that meanders in the plain resembling a liana when seen from above, or because of the abundance of lianas growing in the woods found along the river margin.
Barbacenia plantaginea, one of the many beautiful species of Velloziaceae found in the region.
The sheer diversity is difficult to grasp at first, but staff involved in this project systematically collected and photographed all the plants encountered during three years of fieldwork covering the rainy and the dry seasons. A surprising number of new species (over 15) were found, and others that were thought to be lost or extinct were rediscovered by the project.
Fieldwork in the Serra do Cipó
Preparing the guide
The extraordinary biodiversity of the region provided the main challenge in compiling this work. To guarantee the accurate identification of the plants featured in the photographs, herbarium specimens for all the species were prepared, identified by specialists and carefully cross-referenced with the images. Systematic photography of plant specimens in the field is relatively new to Kew’s work, and has been greatly facilitated by digital cameras. Over 12,000 photos were taken in the course of our fieldwork, each of which had to be databased and checked.
Langsdorffia hypogaea, named for the 19th Century botanical explorer Langsdorff (and one of the weirdest plants encountered during the project).
In the course of this process we occasionally found differences, obvious in life but less so in the dried herbarium specimens, which led us to take a closer look at, and in some cases re-identify the species concerned.It is interesting to compare our work methods in the digital era with the plant collections made by earlier botanists such as Riedel and von Martius, who travelled in that region of Brazil and discovered and described a large part of the local flora.
While their challenges were primarily linked to transport, survival in remote regions, language difficulties and losses of shipments, our recently-gained ability to record plant data in a much more precise manner (including GPS coordinates, images, databases etc.) creates a proportionally much larger volume of information. The old botanists had a collecting book and perhaps a travel diary, while we are now laptop-dependent expeditioners. But when faced with these amazing plants, we get every bit as excited as they did 200 years ago.
- Daniela Zappi and William Milliken -
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The Kew student sandwich course
Over the last year I have been lucky enough to be working at Kew on the Student Sandwich scheme (so called as it’s normally ‘sandwiched’ between second and third year of your undergraduate degree!). This placement allows students to take a year out from university and get experience in a research environment. At Kew, students can work in the Jodrell laboratory, the Herbarium or at the Seedbank at Wakehurst Place. I was based in the Herbarium and was involved in the eMonocot project.
The eMonocot project
This project aims to create a web-based resource of all monocot plants, allowing researchers to identify, classify and explore monocotyledons from across the world.
During my year at Kew, one of my routine jobs was to gather content for eMonocot. This included taxon descriptions, images and geographical data. After gathering this content I then had to upload it to a Scratchpad. Scratchpads are online working platforms which allow researchers to manage, share and publish their taxonomic research online. (Find out more on the Scratchpad website.) After the eMonocot team has populated a Scratchpad with content, the Scratchpad is harvested to the eMonocot portal, creating a unified interface which can be accessed and used by all communities.
The Carex key
As well as helping with day-to-day data collection for eMonocot, I also had two independent projects to work on. My first project involved creating an identification key to European species of Carex, which is a type of sedge (Cyperaceae). For this project I collaborated with a researcher from North America. To create the key I collected data on several morphological characters (e.g length of leaf blade, width of nutlet) from literature and from over 300 herbarium specimens of Carex. Then, with the help of LUCID, I was able to transform this raw data into a working identification key, which was then uploaded to the eMonocot site. Currently there are over 15 identification keys on the eMonocot portal, and one of the great things about putting them online is that they are now accessible to everyone - no matter where they're from or who they are. So go and check them out now for yourself!
Screenshot of the Carex key in the eMonocot portal
Describing a new species
For my second project, I was given the opportunity to describe a new species of Cyperus (another type of Sedge) from Tropical East Africa. This project was particularly exciting for me as, after doing the initial research and analysis on a group of specimens, I was able to write up my findings and submit a paper to Kew Bulletin (Kew’s international peer-reviewed journal for the taxonomy, systematics and conservation of vascular plants and fungi). This type of opportunity isn’t normally offered to undergraduates at university, so it was a great experience to actually write a scientific paper and go through the review process myself.
One of the specimens I studied turned out to be a new species. I named it Cyperus beentjei Gardner & Weber in honour of Henk Beentje who was one of the final editors for the Flora of Tropical East Africa and contributed to the Cyperus account.
Dried specimen of Cyperus beentjei Gardner & Weber
Thanks to Kew
Overall my year at Kew has been fantastic. In particular I’d like to thank Odile Weber, Dave Simpson and the eMonocot team for making the year so enjoyable.
The eMonocot team and workshop participants at a recent training event.
If any students are reading I would definitely encourage you to apply for Kew's Student Sandwich Scheme - it’s a year you won’t forget!
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Tim in Cuando Cubango Province
Angola is a large country. Its land area is over 1 million square kilometers. As a result of its vast size and its particular history, plants have been poorly documented scientifically over much of the country. I recently visited the valleys of two major rivers in the south of the country, in Cuando Cubango Province. While there have been some recent scientifically documented surveys in other parts of Angola, the last major scientific plant collecting expedition to Cuando Cubango Province was in 1899, when Pieter van der Kellen led the ‘Cunene-Zambezi Expedition’ during which the plant collector Hugo Baum made over 1000 collections of pressed plants.
Periods of arid climate thousands of years ago have resulted in the landscape in southern Angola being covered in sand, sometimes to a considerable depth. The most common type of vegetation in this southern part of Angola is woodland.
A pause in the shade as the research convoy travels up the Cuito river valley (Photo: Tim Harris)
The focus of the expedition I was involved with in Cuando Cubango Province was to document the biodiversity seen in and around the large rivers in this province. These rivers flow into other countries, and especially into the popular tourist destination of the Okavango delta in Botswana. So the conservation status of the species around these rivers has implications for conservation in surrounding countries. The expedition was coordinated by the Southern African Regional Environment Program.
Rapids in a river from a grassy river bank. The river contains white flowers of water lilies (Photo: Tim Harris)
The authorities in Angola have recently designated an area in the south-east corner of the country as a national park. They have been investigating whether other sites across Angola would be suitable for designation as national parks in the future. The fieldwork that I was involved in will establish a baseline checklist of the plant species seen in potential national park sites that could be used to inform the decision process. Along with other botanists at Kew, I have been identifying the specimens that we shipped to Kew. We identify specimens by examining Floras and other literature and comparing the specimens to the collections that Kew holds in its Herbarium. Some of the plants that I collected in Angola have not been recorded from Angola before.
David on the shores of Lagoa Carumbo
Meanwhile, almost 1000 km to the north of this survey area, my colleague David was busy compiling species inventories for each of the habitats in an area around the largest freshwater lake in the country – Lagoa Carumbo. David travelled and worked alongside another Kew colleague, Iain Darbyshire.
Map showing Angola and its position between the Atlantic Ocean, Namibia in the south and Democratic Republic of Congo in the north. Carumbo is labelled in the north of Angola, Cuando-Cubango is labelled in the south of Angola. (Photo: David Goyder)
As a near-pristine environment, untainted by sedimentation of the rivers caused by small-scale illegal diamond mining that blights neighbouring river valleys, this is another area for which the Ministry of the Environment needs evidence before formally proposing it as a protected area for conservation.
People from the Angolan Environment Ministry sitting on the forest floor and pressing plants between sheets of newspaper (Photo: David Goyder)
Like the south-east of Angola, the Carumbo area is also overlain by deep deposits of Kalahari sand. But as the rainfall in this part of the country is high (c. 1400 mm per year), the vegetation is very different. Seasonally burned savanna grasslands extend across the plateau as far as the eye can see, and where the rivers have cut down to the base of the deposits, there are fingers of pure Congo rainforest and associated wetlands – a unique mosaic of habitats. Already the team has documented around 60 species not formerly recorded from the country, and identified 13 species that are possibly new to science.
View of the large lake Lagoa Carumbo and tropical forest beyond (Photo: David Goyder)
David and colleagues from the Ministry were able to visit the regional museum in Dundo, set up in the early 20th century, which is famous for its enthnographic and biological collections. And in a nearby park, they managed to relocate a statue of Kew-trained Swiss botanist John Gossweiler who had worked in the area in the late 1940s.
Statue of John Gossweiler, portrayed as wearing a wide brimmed hat and writing in a notebook (Photo: David Goyder)
After Friedrich Welwitsch, famous of course for the living fossil bearing his name, Gossweiler was the most significant figure in Angolan botany, and is portrayed entering plant collection details into his botanical notebook, just as we were doing ourselves earlier in the trip.
- Tim Harris -
- Online checklist of plants for Angola
- Assessing Plant Conservation Priorities in Angola
- Botanical survey doubles the known flora of Lunda Norte, Angola
for plant collectors who have worked in Angola:
Collector: Grandvaux Barbosa
Lobin, W. (1984). L.A. Grandvaux Barbosa (1914-1983). Courier Forschungsinstitiut Senckenberg 68: 201-203.
Figueiredo, E., Soares, M., Siebert, G., Smith, G.F. & Faden, R.B. (2009). The botany of the Cuneni-Zambezi Expedition with notes on Hugo Baum (1867-1950). Bothalia 39: 185-211.
Warburg, O. (1903). Kunene-Sambesi-Expedition. Kolonial-Wirtschaftliches Komitee. Berlin.
Polhill, R.M. (1980). Helen Faulkner (1888-1979). Kew Bull. 34: 619.
Exell, A.W. (1952). John Gossweiler. Taxon 1: 93-94.
Fernandes, A. (1954). John Gossweiler (1873-1952). Vegetatio 4: 334-335.
Martins, E.S. (1994). John Gossweiler. Contribuiçâo da sua obra para o conhecimento da flora angolana. Garcia de Orta, Sér. Botânica 12: 39-68.
Hoffmann, O. (1880). Plantae Mechowianae. Linnaea 43: B9
Hiern, W.P. (1896-1901). Catalogue of the African plants collected by Dr Friedrich Welwitsch in 1853-1861. British Museum (Natural History). London.
Rendle, A.B. (1899). Catalogue of the African plants collected by Dr Friedrich Welwitsch in 1853-1861. Vol. 2(1). British Museum (Natural History). London.
Stearn, W.T. (1973). Catalogue of the African plants collected by Dr Friedrich Welwitsch (1853-1861) and his litigous background. Garcia de Orta, Sér. Botânica 1: 101-104.
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The purpose of the two-week course is to introduce participants to around 70 of the main tropical plant families, and describe their key characteristics and means of identifying them. This year I was on that course.
I will preface this by mentioning I don’t come from a botanical background. Far from it: I am used to looking at and identifying marine invertebrates that have been dead for around 340 million years. What I do have is a fair bit of experience in curating natural history collections and, more recently, herbarium collections as part of the Wet Tropics Africa team in the Herbarium. In the six months of carrying out this role I have picked up a smattering of aptitude at identifying plants as they come back from collection trips. So it was with a view to beefing up my abilities that I embarked on this course.
Herbarium specimens featured heavily to reinforce the theory behind plant identification (Image: Caroline Pannell)
There were 15 of us attending from all over the world; from Brazil to Ethiopia, Colombia to Holland. It seemed rude to ask but I think it is fair to say there was a mixed level of experience at plant identification amongst the group.
The course tutor addressing his pupils (Image: Caroline Pannell)
During the two week course, each day was broken down into teaching sessions of one and a half hours, each covering a few, often closely related, plant families; the emphasis being on pointing out the key characteristics that are needed to ID that family. Each session ended by getting participants to look at herbarium specimens and identify them to one of the families we had just been learning the theory about. This kind of arrangement worked really well for me; I got to make some notes and then look at the things I had just been learning about, solidifying them in my memory.
The course wasn’t all lessons and herbarium sheets; we also went for a jaunt around the glasshouses in the gardens to look at living examples of the plants we had been looking at on herbarium sheets. This sealed the deal really; linking together the theory, the herbarium specimens and the living plants. I wouldn’t say the course was easy as such but it was definitely straightforward and in a neat, logical format. Some families are a lot harder than others and some are far more confusing than others; that said, all of the information is presented for you and you can go back over your notes at a later date.
Looking at the living collections in the Palm House (Image: Caroline Pannell)
At the end of each week there was a small test to recap the previous week’s work (can I brag and say I did really well on this?). The tests give you an indication of how you are picking up the information and certainly point to where you need more practice.
There always has to be a group photo! (Image: Caroline Pannell)
All in all I learned a LOT over these two weeks. Much of it will be used day to day and the notes I made will probably be a handy reference for months if not years to come. It is also definitely worth mentioning that meeting people from herbaria all over the world, chatting and getting to know them and their work has been invaluable and made the experience even greater.
- Lee Davies -
- Tropical Plant Identification course
- Blog post about a previous course
- Tropical Plant Families: An Identification Handbook
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In many parts of Madagascar and elsewhere, yams (from the genus Dioscorea) are eaten when staple crops, such as rice, fail or supplies have been exhausted. All the native species of yam in Madagascar occur only on that island and as most are edible, collection of yams from the wild can become a threat which could lead to their extinction.
Yams being cooked and sold in the Ambositra-Vondrozo corridor forest
While some countries have a long history of cultivating yam species that grow easily, there has been little historic yam cultivation in Madagascar. The charity Feedback Madagascar, through its local NGO, Ny Tanintsika, with whom Kew is working closely, has been introducing yam cultivation to areas where it has not been practiced previously, particularly the Ikongo region.
The Feedback Madagascar-led project is very effective in producing large quantities of yam. The introduced yam species used in cultivation is Dioscorea alata which is native to Myanmar and has been cultivated in many countries around the world for centuries. It produces high yields. However, it is important both to the success of this project and the conservation efforts directed at the native, forest yams, that local villagers will enjoy eating the introduced alternative.
Scientists from Kew and botanists at the Kew Madagascar Conservation Centre in Antananarivo have been analysing the results of a survey carried out last year. Villagers consistently favoured the introduced, cultivated yam species over the wild ones offered in the survey.
Famato Andriamampihatona and Tim Harris ask a farmer from the Ikongo district about different yam species
While the survey showed this strong preference of villagers in the region for the cultivated yam species, it was also clear that the quantities of yams extracted from the wild exceeded the quantities of yams currently cultivated. There is evidence that yams are exchanged between villages involved in the cultivation project and those which did not grow yams. There appears to be scope to expand the project to villages not growing yams at the moment. Feedback Madagascar has plans to expand the yam cultivation project to more villages, and Kew will be supporting these efforts to conserve the rare species of yams that are found in Madagascar.
- Tim -
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About this blog
There are a number of us from the Herbarium who contribute to this blog. We provide updates on a variety of diverse activities that our roles cover, including scientific discoveries, research expeditions, specimen management, geographical information systems (GIS), publications and more.
Big changes for names of algae, fungi, plants and plant fossils: Is this just at Kew or world wide? Presumably discoveries made in/by other countries will not be na ... by: Pam
Kew's latest field expedition to the Brazilian Amazon: Fascinating film - perhaps some sound would add to the experience. Beautifully filmed and put togeth ... by: Judy Garland
Big changes for names of algae, fungi, plants and plant fossils: i like the idea of change but not agree, for many reasons, Changing Latin names is confusing,difficu ... by: riham
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