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.
Meet the mint family (Lamiaceae)
On Wednesdays and Sundays between 11.30am and 2.30pm Kew’s volunteer guides will be in the Secluded Garden Glasshouse, ready to tell you all about the mint family (Lamiaceae / Labiatae). Until 2 January 2011 they will have objects from Kew’s collections on display that illustrate some of the scientific research we are carrying out on the Lamiaceae. I’m a botanist in Kew’s Herbarium, where I curate and research the Lamiaceae collections; I’ve been working with the volunteer guides to select the interesting science stories they are focusing their ‘hands-on’ sessions on.
A guided tour at Kew Gardens
We'll have sage, rosemary and thyme as examples of the Lamiaceae that are commonly used in households, whether it’s in the kitchen, or in the garden. These herbs display the features characteristic of the Lamiaceae family: square stems, leaves in opposite pairs, foliage that is aromatic when crushed, tubular, often 2-lipped flowers and 4 ‘nutlets’ which make up the fruit. But we'll also be telling the stories of other species of interest. You may be surprised to find out that the tall timber tree, teak (Tectona grandis) is also a member of the Lamiaceae. And common sage (Salvia officinalis) is just one of around 900 species of Salvia. It’s also not the just the leaves of the Lamiaceae that are used in the kitchen - in Africa, the tubers of Plectranthus esculentus, the Livingstone potato, are used as a staple food.
Kew's Lamiaceae Research
The hands-on sessions are giving just a taster of the research we are doing on the Lamiaceae. For example, I’ve been studying Tectona grandis as part of my work on the Flora Malesiana - a project that aims to document and describe the plant species of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Singapore and Brunei Darussalam. My colleague, Alan Paton, has been revising the genus Plectranthus as part of the Flora of Tropical East Africa and Flora Zambesiaca projects. And a very special species of Salvia, S. caymanensis (Cayman sage), has become a focus of Kew’s UKOTs (UK Overseas Territories) team. Once thought to be extinct on its native island of Grand Cayman, Salvia caymanensis was recently rediscovered and is now part of a conservation programme.
Salvia caymanensis flower
You can find out more about these species from the volunteer guides - Sundays and Wednesdays from Sunday 5 December - Sunday 2 January, 11.30am - 2.30pm in the Secluded Garden Glasshouse. Or, follow the links to read more on species in the Lamiaceae using our species pages.
Thanks for reading!
- Gemma -
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The new wing of the Kew Herbarium, specially designed for maintenance of specimens in a pest-free environment, now hosts a completely reorganised, relabelled collection of Compositae – the daisy family. This was no mean task, and has taken six months of intensive work by a team of dedicated staff and volunteers.
Professor David Mabberley, Keeper of the Herbarium, and Sue Frisby with the last specimens to be moved
The project was managed by Dr Nicholas Hind, Kew’s Compositae specialist. Many months before the move he was already developing a new taxonomic arrangement for the genera, based on the latest finding in molecular systematics, and helping to get the Herbarium’s new walk-in freezers to the point where they could bring the specimens down to -40 degrees centigrade: essential for ensuring that any herbarium beetles and their eggs are killed before entering the pest-free, climate-controlled storage vaults.
Scale of the task
The collection is huge. It was transferred from the original cabinets to 8,500 herbarium storage boxes which were moved in 1417 trolley-loads and 236 lift journeys, stopping for three days in the freezers en route: 60 freezer-days in total. If the boxes were laid end-to-end they would stretch for 2.25km and they now occupy about 2.75km of shelving! The boxes came wrapped in 6.2 km (half a tonne) of brown paper. Each box was labelled manually with details of its contents (genus, species, geographical region), using a layout designed to be read easily even on the highest shelves in the compactor storage units.
Setting in order
Bringing the taxonomic arrangement up to date was no small job either, with around three-quarters of a million specimens representing over 1,600 genera. During this process about 30,000 genus covers needed to be relabelled and/or replaced.
Kew now boasts an up-to-date, pest-free Compositae collection that is the envy of the botanical world. The team responsible is to be congratulated.
- William -
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The flora and vegetation types of Ethiopia are already reasonably well known, thanks to the hard work and international collaboration of botanists over the last twenty years. I’m going to be joining a small team of botanists in Ethiopia where we will be collecting samples, taking photographs and documenting rare species. And now the agreements have been signed, the flights have been booked and the packing begun!
There are presses and drying papers that need packing as well as a folding saw and a mosquito net (luckily Ethiopian Airways give me an unliftable 40kg weight limit!). I hear that rainfall has been good this year in central Ethiopia, so waterproofs are also going into the rucksack.
Tim Harris on expedition in Mozambique in 2007
At the moment I’m looking over the known species from the plant family called Acanthaceae; a large group of tropical herbs often with colourful flowers that tend to have localised and rare species in the dry habitats we shall be visiting. While these are the sorts of plants I expect to make it into the IUCN Red List, on previous trips, such as this one to Mozambique it has been the less noticeable plants, such as grasses, that have turned out to be the most rare. Plants are always surprising!
Before I go I'll need to check I can work the GPS and the bulky camera that I will be taking. Time to go out into the Gardens and check I can take close-up portraits of flowers!
Shortly, I’ll be setting a twitter profile to post updates from my mobile from the field. Watch this space...
- 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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