Skip to main content
You are here

Explore the collection

Kew's Economic Botany Collection contains an extraordinary range of artefacts that demonstrate some of the vital uses of plants. For example, as food and drink; medicines and poisons; clothing and ornament; and as fuels, papers, toys, and musical instruments.
Photo of Māori bottle gourd
Bottle gourd carved by Māori and sent to Kew by William Colenso, 1853

Collection overview

The Economic Botany Collection holds about 95,000 objects. These include raw plant materials and artefacts representing all aspects of craft and daily life worldwide, including medicines, textiles, basketry, dyes, gums and resins, foods, and woods. All plant uses and most parts of the world are represented, with an emphasis on the former British Empire. Most specimens date to the period 1847 to 1930, but about 1,000 specimens are still added each year. These web pages highlight just a few of the strengths of the Collection.

Economic botany database

Search Kew’s Economic Botany Database for further information about the objects in the collection. The database includes about 2,000 images, and information on the donor, collector, plant parts, uses and geographical location.

Search the Economic Botany Database


Key collections

Ancient Egyptian artefacts — Kew houses about 600 specimens of ancient Egyptian plant remains, including wreaths, flowers, leaves, bread, textiles, wood, and artefacts. These items came direct from excavators or botanists, the Natural History Museum, and from Petrie Museum at University College London.

More about Ancient Egyptian artefacts


Bark cloth — Kew has around 100 specimens of bark cloth, a versatile material made from beaten tree bark, once used widely in the Pacific Islands and Indonesia. Bark cloth comes primarily from trees of the Moraceae family, including Broussonetia papyrifera, Artocarpus altilis and Ficus species.

More about bark cloth


Botanical jewellery — A broad range of jewellery made from plant materials, totalling more than 600 pieces. The majority of these are necklaces, but there are also earrings, bracelets, bags and brooches.

More about botanical jewellery


Canadian Aboriginal artefacts — Approximately 85 artefacts dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The collection is mainly a result of the work of three people: Eugene Bourgeau, Professor William Saunders and Dr Charles F. Newcombe.

More about Canadian Aboriginal artefacts


Cinchona — Cinchona bark and its derived quinine alkaloids were the most effective treatment for malaria from the 17th century to the 1940s. Kew holds exceptionally rich collections of bark specimens, archives and printed matter relating to the development of cinchona cultivation and use in the period 1820 to 1930.

More about Cinchona


Gourds — Around 60 gourds in a variety of shapes and sizes, most collected between 1850 to 1900. These gourds illustrate the diversity of ways humans have used gourds, including water bottles, pipes, snuff boxes, musical instruments and even cricket cages.

More about gourds


Japanese lacquerware — An impressive collection, illustrating each stage in the production of these meticulously crafted and beautiful objects, from cultivating the trees to applying the finishing polish. Lacquer is the sap derived from the tree species Rhus verniciflua, commonly called the varnish tree.

More about Japanese lacquerware


New Guinea — Artefacts from the mountainous island of New Guinea, dating from 1847 to the present. The collection contains seeds, leaves and wood samples from many different species of plant which were thought to be potentially useful. The collection also includes clothing and tools made from plant material.

More about New Guinea


Paper — Many examples of paper used to make less-than-ordinary objects including hats, sandals, hair ornaments, umbrellas and even a waterproof raincoat.

More about the paper collection


Richard Spruce (Amazonia) — Kew holds 260 rare and fascinating artefacts and raw plant materials collected by Richard Spruce in South America. They include examples of ceremonial clothing from the Cubeo Indians of North West Amazonas, musical instruments from Rio Uaupes, weapons such as poisoned arrows, and medicines used by the Manhe Indians.

More about the Richard Spruce/Amazonia collection


Royal Pharmaceutical Society Collection — In 1983 the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain donated over 10,000 historic specimens of materia medica to Kew including crude drugs, herbarium sheets, and slides. Some noteworthy collections include the Maton Collection and the Hanbury Herbarium and Collection.

More about the Royal Pharmaceutical Society Collection


South Asian lacquerware — Several fine examples of South and Southeast Asian lacquerware, including examples of Punjabi, Burmese, Malayan and East Indies origin. Many of these objects were donated by the India Museum in the late 19th century.

More about South Asian lacquerware


Wood collection (xylarium) — The wood collection, or xylarium, contains over 34,000 specimens. In the 19th century, specimens came from explorers and botanists, from imperial institutions such as the Indian Forest Department, and from international exhibitions (world's fairs).

More about the wood collection (xylarium)