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Welcome to Kew's Library Art and Archives blog. Here you will find information about Kew's collections, services and fascinating work which is taking place within the section and also meet the Library, Art and Archive staff who will provide regular updates with news from projects they are involved in, treasures they have discovered and exciting new developments planned for the future. Donate now - Help Kew look after its art and heritage

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The love potion

By: Tavian Hunter - 19 Feb 2014
Library Graduate Trainee, Tavian Hunter, examines the mythological connections that have been made between plants and love.    
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Valentine’s Day may be past, but down the centuries plants have had mythological connections with the “feeling of love”. One such plant is Mandragora officinarum, better known as the mandrake. Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love, was also known by the name “Mandragoritis”.

The fruits of the mandrake are called the “apples of love” and there are stories of their use in creating “love potions”. One book that examines the myths surrounding the mandrake is John Riddle's Goddesses, elixirs, and witches: plants and sexuality throughout human history (2010).

Illustration of male mandrake from Ortus sanitatis (1485)

 Male mandrake from Ortus sanitatis (1485)

Ancient history

Mandragora officinarum  was given its name because its taproot was thought to resemble a small human figure (“man”) and because it was believed to have mystical powers (“dragon”). In both Dioscorides’ (fl. 50-70 CE) De materia medica  and Theophrastus’ (371-587 BCE) Enquiry into plants, it is suggested that mandrakes are “good for making love potions”.

Dioscorides explains that this is because the female mandrake fruit has a “sweet-smelling” fragrance while the male mandrake fruit is “oppressively fragrant”. Theophrastus notes that when the skin of the mandrake is scraped and mixed with vinegar or wine it makes a love potion. However, more emphasis is placed on the use of the mandrake for medicinal purposes, including anaesthesia when undergoing surgery, reducing inflammation and tumours, and inducing sleep.

Sibthorp’s Flora Graeca & Plenck's Icones plantarum medicinalium

Atropa Mandragora  (former Linnaean bionomial name) Left: Sibthorp’s Flora Graeca. Vol. 3, Plate 232 (1819). Right: Icones plantarum medicinalium ... Vol. 2, Plate 126 by Plenck (1789)


The famous myth

Quoted by Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet  and J.K. Rowling in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the most famous myth about the mandrake is that “the shrieks of an uprooted mandrake would kill anyone who hears it”.

This superstitious belief was widely adopted in the Middle Ages, when traditional herbalists were considered to be witches associated with Hecate, Goddess of Magic and Witchcraft, who is often illustrated as a black dog. This may explain the origin of the suggested practice for extracting the mandrake safely - dig into the ground to expose the roots, draw three circles around the plant with a sword and tie a rope around a starved black dog and the mandrake; throw fresh meat to the dog, which will run towards it and pull the mandrake from the ground.

Facsimile of Mandrake uprooted by dog on chain. Source: Riddle, 2010

Facsimile of Mandrake uprooted by a dog on a chain. Source: Riddle, 2010.


Truth or fiction?

So could the mandrake really be used to make a love potion? Schultes, Hofmann and Rätsh (2001) suggest the chemistry of the mandrake (which belongs to the Solanaceae family) could explain why this may hold some truth. Mandragora officinarum  contains a high concentration of the tropane alkaloid, scopolamine. This induces effects of intoxication and narcosis, making users lose all sense of reality, impairing memory, and inducing a deep sleep.

The stories about men lured by women into taking drinks doctored with mandrake root, and remembering nothing about it in the morning, could have their basis in truth. However, it is perhaps more probable that the mandrake, a narcotic hallucinogen, was sometimes mistaken for Deadly Nightshade, Atropa belladonna, (also in the Solanaceae family) with deadly consequences.

The mighty mandrake has lost a lot of its mythological wonder but the idea of plants with aphrodisiac qualities persists to this day, with people wearing botanical perfumes and giving their lovers roses and chocolate on Valentine’s Day.

- Tavian -




  • Goddesses, elixirs and witches : plants and sexuality throughout human history  by John M. Riddle. New York : Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
  • Plants of the Gods : their sacred, healing and hallucinogenic powers  by Richard Evans Schultes, Albert Hofmann, Christian Rätsch. Vermont : Healing Arts Press, 2001.
  • Theophrastus : Enquiry into plants and minor works on odours and weather signs  with English translation by Arthur Hort. London : Heinemann, 1916.
  • Dioscorides "De materia medica" : being an herbal with many other medicinal materials, written in Greek in the first century of the common era : a new indexed version in modern English by T.A. Osbaldeston and R.P.A. Wood. Johannesburg : Ibidis Press, 2000.
    Plants and the Human Brain  by David O. Kennedy. New York : Oxford University Press, 2014. Source: Google Books 

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Discovering the secrets of Japanese paper conservation

By: Emma Le Cornu - 13 Feb 2014
Paper conservator, Emma Le Cornu, describes a visit to Tokyo to learn the secrets of Japanese paper conservation.
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For three weeks in August and September 2013, I had the opportunity to attend the International Course on the Conservation of Japanese Paper in Tokyo, Japan. This annual course is organized by the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) and hosted by the National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, in Tokyo.

The course

The course has been running every year since 1992 and invites conservators from all over the world to study Japanese paper conservation in Japan.

The aim is to give an insight into traditional Japanese paper mounting materials and techniques for non-Japanese conservators, providing a greater understanding of how to care for Japanese paper artefacts in their own collections. It is also an opportunity for an exchange of ideas and techniques between Japanese and western traditions.

Ten conservators, each from a different country, were my classmates. We had two weeks of intensive practical work in Tokyo and a week-long study trip to visit the papermaking district of Mino and the traditional material and tool suppliers of Kyoto.

Japanese paper conservation

Japanese paper conservation techniques and materials have a long history and are now used extensively in western paper conservation. Traditionally Japanese scroll mounters will train for ten years to develop the skills and understanding of the materials and techniques involved in the construction of a scroll.

Photo of demonstration of lining techniques for scroll mounting

Demonstration of lining techniques for scroll mounting.

To give us a taste of these processes we each made a traditional Japanese hand scroll from start to finish. The practical work involved an intensive daily programme of demonstrations and translated instructions of each stage, which we then carried out on our own scrolls. Our tutors were all very accomplished and experienced conservators working in various studios in Tokyo and Kyoto. The practical work was supplemented with lectures by the tutors describing their current research activities.

Photo of a woman repairing damage to the artwork

Repairing damage to the artwork.

Japanese papermaking

Japanese paper is used in almost all areas of paper conservation. It has qualities that make it suitable for conservation: it is very pure so it does not degrade, it is strong due to the long fibres, and it can be made in extremely thin sheets. We were taken to a traditional Japanese papermaking mill to see how these sheets of paper are made.

Photo of the raw materials for the paper - Kozo bark - in various states of preparation

Hasegawa Washi Kobo, traditional papermaking studio in Mino, Japan: the raw materials for the paper - Kozo bark - in various states of preparation.

Photo of hands washing the bark to remove impurities

Washing the bark to remove impurities.

The traditional papermaking technique and equipment are still used today and sheets are handmade, one by one, on a bamboo screen. The bark of the mulberry tree, Kozo, is processed to make a pulp, with the only additive being the mucilage from the root of the hibiscus plant. Japanese Kozo is a hybrid of Broussonetia kazinoki (China) and Broussonetia papyrifera (SE Asia). This creates an extremely pure and high quality sheet of paper. These special papers are used in Japan specifically for conservation and exported to conservation studios internationally.

Photo of a man forming the sheet from the paper pulp.

Hasegawa Washi Kobo, traditional papermaking studio in Mino, Japan: forming the sheet from the paper pulp.


Photo of the finished sheet on the bamboo screen.

The finished sheet on the bamboo screen.

Tools and materials

We were also taken to a number of traditional tool and materials suppliers. The adhesives, pigments and tools such as brushes and knives also have a long traditional heritage. Many of the adhesives and pigments are natural and plant-derived materials such as wheat starch and seaweed. The specialist brushes and knives are still handmade by family-run businesses that have been passed down through the generations.

Photo of a man making traditional tools

Kanetaka Hamono Shinise, Knife Shop, Kyoto. Tools are still handmade in the shop by the fourth generation of the same family.

Japanese conservation studios

Japanese conservation studios differ greatly from a western studio. It is traditional to work on the floor on low tables, without shoes. Traditional materials are still used, such as ten year aged paste, which is stored in large clay pots underground for a total of ten years before it is ready to use. Scrolls are often completely taken apart and re-mounted whereas in a western studio we would be more likely to keep and conserve all of the original materials. These different working methods made for interesting discussions and comparisons of Japanese and western techniques.

Many of the skills I learned have made it back into my work here and I have a much greater understanding of the complex construction of Japanese artworks and the Japanese materials we use on a daily basis. I also learned a great deal from the exchange created by bringing together a diverse group of conservators, in an unfamiliar and inspiring environment.

- Emma -


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The living fossil

By: Tavian Hunter - 06 Feb 2014
Library Graduate Trainee, Tavian Hunter, describes books, letters and paintings in the Kew collections about the remarkable species Welwitschia mirabilis, the 'living fossil'.
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Hi, I am Tavian, the new Library Graduate Trainee for Collections.

Working on the cataloguing and classification of new library books, I have had enquiries for numerous books I have catalogued, such as the ambitiously titled 100 plants that almost changed the world by Chris Beardshaw.

However, the most interesting enquiry was for a signed copy of Ernst van Jaarsveld and Uschi Pond’s captivating book, Uncrowned Monarch of Namib.

Book cover of Uncrowned Monarch of Namib

Uncrowned Monarch of Namib

Welwitschia mirabilis

This beautiful quarto is written in English with parallel German text and focuses on the plant Welwitschia mirabilis, a rare species endemic to the Namib Desert. The plant was first described as Tumboa strobilifera upon its discovery in 1859 but was officially named after its discoverer, the Austrian-born medical practitioner, botanist and naturalist Friedrich Martin Josef Welwitsch (1806-1872) by Joseph Dalton Hooker in 1862.

Photo of Friedrich Martin Josef Welwitsch

Friedrich Martin Josef Welwitsch

A letter from Welwitsch to Kew’s Director (and recently made available through the Directors' Correspondence Digitisation project) reveals that Welwitsch was 'honoured to have the genus named after him', and promised he would send more drawings and fresh specimens to Kew.

Letter from Dr Fréderic Welwitsch to Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, from Lisbon, dated 5 January 1862 (Folio 364. Source: JSTOR Global Plants)

Letter from Dr Fréderic Welwitsch to Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, from Lisbon, dated 5 January 1862 [Archive ref: DC 60 f.364]

Botanical Background

As a species of the order Gnetales, Welwitschia mirabilis is especially classified as a cone-bearing plant but it also has some features of a flowering seed plant, making it fall into its own family of Welwitschiaceae. Cone-bearing plants have been around since before the age of the dinosaurs, and the oldest recorded living specimen of Welwitschia mirabilis is over 1,000 years old. So it is understandable why it acquired its common name of the 'living fossil'.

Curtis’s Botanical Magazine (1863). Plate 5368. Hand-coloured lithograph of male and female Welwitschia mirabilis 

Curtis’s Botanical Magazine (1863). Plate 5368. Hand-coloured lithograph of male and female Welwitschia mirabilis

Interestingly enough, this plant has only two leaves, which can each grow to between 8 and 14 metres in length and, although a ground-hugging plant, it can stand 1.5 metres high. Welwitschia mirabilis is so resilient against high desert temperatures that it is said by some to be able to live without a drop of water for five years!

However, considering that its geographical distribution follows the fog belt in coastal areas south of Angola, it is likely that Welwitschia mirabilis takes advantage of condensation on its leaves to absorb water.

Welwitschia mirabilis has separate female and male plants. The female cones can be eaten raw, baked or roasted and the cork that lines the younger plants can be used as wood for fire. So, if you are ever lost near the Damara or Herero people of Namibia, you definitely should request onyaga, also known as 'Onion of the Desert' or, in Afrikaans tweeblaar-kanniedood (two-leaved cannot-die).

On Welwitschia, a new Genus of Gnetaceae (1863) plate 7 by Walter Hood Fitch (1863) – depicts Welwitschia mirabilis female cones in colour

On Welwitschia, a new Genus of Gnetaceae (1863) plate 7 by Walter Hood Fitch (1863) – depicts Welwitschia mirabilis female cones in colour

Botanical legacy

Over the millennia, it has evolved adaptations to dry environments, such as slow growth and leaves capable of catching dewdrops. It is so distinctive, in fact, that it is now the official emblem depicted on the Coat of Arms of the Republic of Namibia.

A range of rich botanical art represented in the 'Art & Welwitschia' section of the book has formed part of Welwitschia’s botanical legacy. The most notable illustrations are 11 plates drawn by Walter Hood Fitch (1817-1892) bound in the J. D. Hooker publication On Welwitschia, a new Genus of Gnetaceae (1863) (see above) and Thomas Baines's oil painting of two Welwitschia close to each other (1867), something that rarely happens in nature.

Thomas Baines's oil painting of Welwitschia (1867)

Thomas Baines's oil painting of Welwitschia (1867)

When I think of the long history and curious adaptations of this plant, it makes me appreciate the work that goes on in Kew's Millennium Seed Bank to ensure the valuable benefits of such plants are preserved - and makes me appreciate my role of enhancing and delivering access to information about such flora from Kew's library.

- Tavian -



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The letters of botanist Joseph Hooker are now online

By: Virginia Mills - 21 Jan 2014
Virginia Mills describes our new online collection of Joseph Hooker's Correspondence in which you can explore Hooker's letters from India and the high Himalayas, and look at some of his expedition collections and the plant-hunting paraphernalia held here at Kew.
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The Joseph Hooker correspondence project

You may have seen my previous blogs about the Joseph Hooker Correspondence project, teasing you with some of the great content to be found in the historic letters from Joseph Hooker's pioneering expedition to India and the Himalayas.

Now you can explore Hooker's Indian letters, in full, online, at the Joseph Hooker collection website.

 Joseph Dalton Hooker correspondence project

In the letters, Hooker writes about the challenges of plant collecting at altitude and in terra nova, and shares his opinions on everything from new kinds of tea to his imprisonment by the Rajah of Sikkim. His letters range from anecdotes about riding elephants to observations on his friend Darwin's fledgling 'species theory' and his own ground-breaking investigations into plant distribution.

In Kew's Library, Art, Archive and Herbarium collections not only do we have Hooker's letters we also hold personal items (including Hooker's own, well-used dissecting microscope!) and Hooker's scientific collections: from specimens and drawings of his famed rhododendrons, to plant products and artefacts collected on his expeditions. On the Correspondence Project website you can get a glimpse of some of these behind the scenes collections in our image galleries.

For example, this Tibetan tea pot which Joseph brought back from his expedition and which is now part of the Economic Botany Collection. 

Joseph Hooker's TIbetan Teapot

Joseph Hooker's TIbetan Teapot 

On the tea theme, here's a tit-bit from one of the letters which reveals what Hooker thought of some tea from one of the new Indian plantations:

'We had some "first chop" Kemaon [sic] Tea at Campbells the other morning & [it was] the most excusable stuff I ever tasted, as bad as "Senna" -- & yet this an indubitable sample & not a promiscuous purchase. Do not say however that I said this -- as a few words would ruin the project.' JDH_1_10_159-161

Tea cultivation in the Kumaon Hills was to explode over the next decades and become a significant commercial enterprise for the British Empire, so it's just as well Hooker didn't let his distaste become widely known. 

Joseph Hooker publications from Kew

There are loads more artefacts to see on the Correspondence website plus Kew publishes a sumptuously illustrated book, Joseph Hooker: botanical trailblazer, which features many of the items from our online image galleries plus even more material from the behind the scenes collections at Kew. It is available to buy from the Kew shop - perfect for those who prefer the on-paper experience.

And if handling a book is how you like to do your reading, they don't come any better or more tactile than The Plant Hunters. Featuring Joseph Hooker alongside other famous plant hunters, it's full of intriguing envelopes and hidden pockets containing beautiful facsimile documents from the Kew archive.  

The Plant Hunters interactive book from Kew, available on itunes

Fans of the ipad, you are not forgotten, there is also an interactive version of the The Plant Hunters book, available on the ibookstore, which includes audio readings from Hooker's travel journal - such as his entry describing a visit to an opium factory!

With Joseph Hooker available on so many platforms there really is no reason not to find out more about this fascinating pillar of Kew’s past.



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John Ray: in a class[ification] of his own

By: Jessica Hudson - 15 Jan 2014
Library Graduate Trainee Jessica Hudson explores the significance of John Ray's work in sowing the seeds of modern taxonomy.
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Hello, I’m Jess. I’m one of this year’s new Library Graduate Trainees and I thought I would take this opportunity to talk about someone who hails from my ‘neck of the woods’ - the naturalist John Ray.

From boyhood to botany

Ray was born on 29th November 1627 in Black Notley near Braintree in Essex. He came from relatively humble beginnings (his father was a blacksmith and his mother was known as a herbalist) but through the support of the vicar of Braintree (Samuel Collins) the evidently bright, young Ray was sent up to Cambridge in 1644 to pursue studies in rhetoric, logic and grammar, graduating from Trinity in 1648. But it was an interest in plants that became his ‘growing concern’.

Portrait of John Ray
Portrait of John Ray (1627-1705) by an unknown artist

Travels and tomes

With no formal degree in botany available during this period, Ray (unlike many who came to botany through medicine) pursued a course of autodidactic study, amassing knowledge through reading and practical experience, direct study and fieldwork. He undertook excursions to develop an understanding of local flora and eventually broadened his horizons by journeying through Europe (1663-1666) in the company of Francis Willughby .

They had one (modest) aim in mind during their travels – the classification of all living things, with Ray naturally taking the lead in all things botanical. Sadly, Willughby died in 1672 before their researches could be published and it was left to Ray to organise and disseminate his friend’s material. Mercifully, he still found time to produce his own works.

History of the Historia

Ray’s great masterwork, the Historia Plantarum, was published 1686-1704 in three large volumes. In Ray’s own words the impetus for publication was ‘to facilitate the learning of plants without a guide or demonstrator, by so methodising them and giving certain and obvious characteristic notes of the genera that it shall not be difficult for any man to find out infallibly any plant especially being assisted by the figure of it’.

Alas in this last point the Historia summarily failed. The volumes were destined never to be illustrated. Ray’s own financial resources were limited and the posthumous publication of Willughby’s Historia Piscium (which Ray had laboured over) had swallowed up those of the Royal Society who may otherwise have provided financial backing. Ultimately, the (eternal) problem of not being able to secure funding left the tomes unadorned. Their value therefore rests solely with the text.

Title page of Historia Plantarum

Title page of the 1686 edition of Ray’s Historia Plantarum held at Kew.

Ground-breaking taxonomy

The Historia was no common herbal, it was truly comprehensive. Examining and categorising thousands of plants, the books methodically detail everything from plant structures, physiology/anatomy and habitats to medicinal uses. Written in Latin, it offers its readers a rigorous and systematic examination of the plant world, which builds and elaborates upon the groundwork of Ray’s previous publications (namely Cambridge Catalogue, 1660 and Methodus Plantarum, 1682) to give the fullest expression of his ground-breaking taxonomic system.

This was based on the concept of species as a defining measure of classification - a system which, unlike anything before it, looked at plant morphology and shared characteristics, recognising for the first time monocots and dicots and using the terms ‘petal’ and ‘pollen’. This was Ray’s botanical legacy. He sowed the seeds for future generations of naturalists and botanists: 

Extract from Historia Plantarum

Extract from Historia Plantarum

'In order that an inventory of plants may be begun and a classification of them correctly established, we must try to discover criteria of some sort for distinguishing what are called “species”. After a long and considerable investigation, no surer criterion for determining species has occurred to me than the distinguishing features that perpetuate themselves in propagation of seed. Thus, no matter what variations occur in the individual or the species, if they spring from the seed of one and the same plant, they are accidental variations and not such as to distinguish a species... one species never springs from the seed of another nor vice versa.

Ray's legacy

In January 1705, less than a year after the final tome’s publication, Ray died. The impact of his work lived on however, proving an influencing factor for many years to come. Indeed in 1844 the John Ray Society was founded which celebrates and commemorates Ray’s work to this day.

- Jess - 


Bibliography and further information

The following titles are all available in the library at Kew and further details are available via the library's online catalogue:


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