Economic Botany Wood Collection

Wood collection (xylarium)

Kew's wood collection contains over 34,000 specimens, placing it seventh amongst the world's xylaria

Origin of the wood collection

Kew's wood collection (xylarium) has its origin in the founding of Kew's Museum of Economic Botany in 1847. 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). The foundation of the Jodrell Laboratory at Kew in 1876 led to more research in plant anatomy, but sustained research in wood anatomy, and the creation of a major collection of plant anatomy slides at Kew, dates from the 1930s. Since that time, accessions have come from other wood collections (sometimes the transfer of whole collections), from Kew's botanical expeditions in Brazil and Southeast Asia, and often as institutional or personal gifts from wood anatomists in other countries.

The wood collection forms approximately one third of the Economic Botany Collection, and is kept with the rest of the Collection in a purpose-built research store in the Sir Joseph Banks Building at Kew. In common with the collection as a whole, it is searchable using the online database. The oldest specimens date back to Sir Hans Sloane in the 17th century and the collection continues to grow, with new donations accessioned regularly.

Curation

The wood specimens are arranged in four size classes (specimen numbers at March 2013):

  • W1 (smallest, height <7cm, width <10 cm, 7,037 specimens)
  • W2 (book-sized, height <25 cm, width <12 cm, 25,498 specimens)
  • W3 (medium-sized, maximum dimension 30 cm, 917 specimens)
  • W4 (large exhibition pieces up to 200 cm tall, 862 specimens)

Specimens in classes W1, W2, W3 are available for scientific sampling.

Within each size class, the specimens are arranged by plant family (in the Bentham and Hooker order). Within each family, the genera and species are arranged alphabetically. There are a further 3,299 specimens made of wood that are housed in the main run of the Collection. These comprise artefacts made from wood or wood specimens that are spiny, fragile or otherwise in need of packaging, typically in acid-free boxes. All wood specimens are frozen at -30 C for 7 days, before entry to the Collection.

Wooden artefacts

The Kew xylarium forms an integral part of the Economic Botany Collection that includes many hundreds of wooden objects. Highlights include Tunbridge Ware, pulleys, and brushmaking from Britain; some fine drinking mugs from Germany, Russia and Sweden; a wooden drum and cassava grater from the Amazon; a remarkable writing desk constructed in Sydney, Australia in 1805; a painted xylotheque from Japan; a house portal (‘totem pole’) from British Columbia; and household items (including several hundred walking sticks) from around the world. These objects offer a rare opportunity to see timber samples next to objects made from the same wood.

Using the collection

The continuing growth and good health of the wood collection is closely linked to the active programme of wood anatomy research in Kew's Jodrell Laboratory. Kew scientist Peter Gasson’s research centres on the legume family (Fabaceae), and on a wide range of applied work. Much of this is concerned with the identification of CITES-listed (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) timbers in international trade, such as mahogany (Swietenia species), ramin (Gonystylus species) and rosewoods (Dalbergia species). Many visitors to the Jodrell Laboratory use the wood and slide collections on subjects ranging from the environment of the dodo in Mauritius to fossil palms, and visits to Kew often lead to joint-authored papers. Wood samples and microscope slides are often exchanged with other institutions. There is much emphasis on training, through an annual short course on wood identification each February, teaching for Kew and other institutions, training of customs officers, and the hosting of academic visitors.

Kew maintains close relations with other wood collections, including the large collections in the Oxford University Herbarium and at the Building Research Establishment, and with the International Association of Wood Anatomists. Kew was a major contributor of digitised slides to the wood identification web site InsideWood. Kew has compiled and hosts the latest revision of Index Xylariorum (IX4), and has contributed to the two PROTA (Plant Resources of Tropical Africa) volumes on timbers.

The wood collection has also proved a valuable source of samples for biochemists, and undoubtedly has potential for other techniques — such as stable isotope analysis — for pinpointing the geographical location of the original tree. It is also increasingly used by researchers in the arts and humanities; for example, Kew woods and objects were an important resource for Adam Bowett’s book (2012) Woods in British Furniture-making 1400–1900, as well as Caroline Cornish’s PhD Thesis (2012) Curating Science in an Age of Empire: Kew’s Museum of Economic Botany. Wood samples are regularly lent for display in exhibitions.

Adding to the Collection

About 1,000 wood specimens are added to the Economic Botany Collection each year. Some of these come from Kew fieldwork, and many are donated by other botanists and institutions. Gifts of securely-identified wood specimens, particularly those vouchered by herbarium specimens, are always welcome. We also accept historic and institutional collections. If you are interested in donating material to Kew, please contact us to discuss this.

Contact details

The wood collection (Index Xylariorum code Kw) is part of the Economic Botany Collection and forms part of the Collections department at Kew. Queries regarding its holdings, viewing or borrowing of specimens, donations to or exchange of wood specimens, or destructive sub-sampling should be addressed to the Curator, Dr Mark Nesbitt, at ecbot@kew.org.

The plant anatomy slide collection (code K-Jw) numbers about 120,000 slides and is held by the Jodrell Laboratory, and all queries concerning this, or the use of the wood or slide collections for plant anatomy research, should be addressed to its curator, Dr Peter Gasson, at pa.wood@kew.org. If in doubt, feel free to email both.

The wood collection can be searched online. The slide collection is currently being databased but is not yet online.

History of Kew's xylarium

Early history: 1847 to 1930

The origins of Kew's xylarium lie in the Museum of Economic Botany which opened in the grounds of the Royal Botanic Gardens in 1847. The purpose of the museum was, in the words of its founder William Jackson Hooker, to inform 'not only the scientific botanist' but also 'the merchant, the manufacturer, the physician, the chemist, the druggist, the dyer, the carpenter and cabinet-maker, and artisans of every description' of the vast variety of plant raw materials available in British colonies, and to suggest and inspire new applications for them (Hooker, W.J. 1855: 3). Small wood specimens appeared in the taxonomic displays of Museums 1 and 2. And Museums 3 and 4 were dedicated entirely to woods. Museum No. 3 opened in 1863 as a result of the vast number of wood specimens acquired by Kew after the London International Exhibition of 1862. It soon became known as the Timber Museum. Museum No. 4 ' the Museum of British Forestry ' opened in 1910 as part of a broader movement to make British forestry more 'remunerative' (Report from the Select Committee on Forestry 1884–85). Parliamentary Reports in 1885 and 1902 emphasised the need for better forestry training facilities and Kew anticipated the demand for a national collection of British timbers by rapidly building up its collection.

Kew's wood collection from the second half of the 19th century reflects two of its strengths: networks with British territories overseas and with aristocratic estates in Britain, but they are by no means limited to these. Across colonial networks of government, science, and commerce, the chief sources of woods were world's fairs, voyages of exploration, and institutions of botany and forestry.

Woods were used both for public display and teaching, focusing on their external appearance. But they also became vital to Kew's plant anatomists with the advent of the Jodrell Laboratory, established in 1876 through a benefaction from T. J. Phillips-Jodrell. Plant anatomy was a regular feature of the research conducted there, but out of 400 papers and books published by Jodrell staff from 1876 to 1929, only seven specifically concerned wood anatomy (Gregory 1976). This was to change when C. R. Metcalfe joined the Jodrell Laboratory in 1930 as a plant anatomist. On his arrival there was little equipment for studying wood anatomy at Kew; fresh sections were made, mounted and then discarded every time wood was examined, and there was opposition from the Museum's Keeper to the cutting of woods for sections.

Wood anatomy becomes established 1930 to 1969

Metcalfe's arrival in 1930 marked the beginning of a programme of sustained research into systematic wood anatomy that continues at Kew to the present day. In 1950 he published a two-volume, 1,500-page survey entitled Anatomy of the Dicotyledons, co-authored by Lawrence Chalk of the Imperial Forestry Institute at the University of Oxford. Metcalfe's most significant contribution to the collections was the creation of a collection of microscope slides. These covered not only woods, but other vegetative and floral plant parts. Slides were, and still are, prepared in the Jodrell Laboratory and also exchanged with other institutions, and therefore the slide collection draws on a wide range of wood collections.

This period saw an increase in the number of large collections received from field botanists. Notable accessions include: woods from Suriname collected by Gerold Stahel of the Department of Agriculture; woods from Malaysia collected by Arius Jacobs of the Bogor Herbarium, Java; and African woods from Edgar W. B. Milne-Redhead. Forestry institutes were another important source, including 400 woods from the Imperial Forestry Institute in Oxford. This shift in patterns of acquisition from exhibitions to field botanists and specialist forestry institutes is reflected in a greater proportion of wood specimens being vouchered by herbarium specimens, although it was only with the establishment of the Economic Botany Collection database in the late 1980s that the existence of a voucher specimen was recorded as a matter of routine. Nevertheless, Metcalfe found few serious naming errors in the earlier unvouchered collections.

The woods were still on public display in Museums 1 and 4 throughout Metcalfe's time at Kew. In 1958 Museum No 3 was closed. Some larger specimens were transferred to other institutions, and the remainder were stored or displayed in Museum No. 4, which then became known as the Wood Museum. In 1960, Museum No. 2 was also closed and in 1968 the wood collections were re-united and re-housed in Museum 2, often referred to at this time as the 'Reference Museum'. Metcalfe recounts searching for the smaller specimens of wood stored among other specimens in the glass cabinets of Museum No. 2, with doors fitted with defective locks, and no electric light.

1969 to the present

In 1969 Metcalfe, by then the Keeper of the Jodrell Laboratory, retired. Many of the staff who have worked on wood anatomy since that time are still active at Kew as Honorary Research Fellows and have contributed to one or both of the major works of synthesis that followed the original Anatomy of the Dicotyledons - Anatomy of the Monocotyledons (vols. 1–9, 1960–2003) and the Second Edition of Anatomy of the Dicotyledons (vols. 1–4). Kew's anatomists continue to undertake many identification enquiries, led by Peter Gasson (1979 onwards). Collaborations, contacts and even natural disasters in the form of storms have helped to increase the scope of Kew's xylarium in recent years.

Further reading

Cornish, C., Gasson, P. & Nesbitt, M. (2014). The wood collection (xylarium) of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. IAWA Journal 35: 85–104.

Cornish, C., Gasson, P. & Nesbitt, M. (2013). The wood collections at Kew: from toys to totem poles (Part I). World of Wood 66(3):14-16. Courtesy of the International Wood Collectors Society.

Cornish, C., Gasson, P. & Nesbitt, M. (2013). The wood collections at Kew: current status and activity (Part II). World of Wood 66(4):14-15.

Cornish C. (2012). ‘Useful and curious’: a totem pole at Kew's Timber Museum. Journal of Museum Ethnography 25: 138—151.

Metcalfe, C. R. (1976a). History of the Jodrell Laboratory as a centre for systematic botany. In: P. Baas, A.J. Bolton & D.M. Catling (eds), Wood Structure in Biological and Technological Research: 1—19. Leiden Botanical Series 3. Leiden University Press.

Metcalfe, C. R. (1976b). History of the Jodrell Laboratory. Typescript manuscript, on file in Library, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.