16 July 2019

If these shelves could talk

Harriet Gendall explores the “useful and curious vegetable products” of Kew’s Economic Botany Collection.

Jars of old oils found in Kew's Economic Botany Collection

The first time I stepped into Kew’s Economic Botany Collection, I was struck by its elaborate fragrance: a fanfare of spices with woody base-notes and zesty highlights; hints of tea leaves, bergamot and cloves.

This signature scent is derived from over 100,000 objects representing the enormous diversity of useful plants across the world. From raw, and partly processed, materials such as seeds, woods, gums and fibres, through to manufactured and cultural artefacts including medicines, foods, clothing and musical instruments. 

Economic botany on display

Founded in the mid-nineteenth century by Kew’s first director William Jackson Hooker, the Collection was originally housed in a museum designed to display all kinds of useful and curious vegetable products. In the age of Empire, with contributions from botanical explorers, British Consuls, manufacturers and scientific institutions, it grew rapidly to fill four buildings. It became a popular attraction, stoking interest in useful plants, both locally and internationally. However, the mid-twentieth century saw plant-based products increasingly eclipsed by synthetic alternatives, and the appetite for economic botany diminished. The museum doors eventually closed, and the Collection was moved to a research facility, where it remains today. 

Black and white photo showing a large room with glass fronted cabinets
The original Kew Museum of Economic Botany. Credit RBG Kew.

The secret lives of objects

Telling the story of the museum's history and its collections is a key objective of Kew’s Mobile Museum project. Winding apart the compactor units and passing through the aisles, which are arranged by plant family, feels like entering a giant cabinet of curiosities…

Some objects are instantly engaging, such as the pair of cheerful dolls plaited from palm leaves, depicting the Balinese rice goddess Dewi Sri. With wise eyes framed by ample fan-shaped headdresses, they represent life and prosperity. A slightly more unnerving set of residents, which occupy a bottom shelf amid the Solanaceae (nightshade family), are the carved mandrake roots (Mandragora spp.). The mandrake, a native of the Mediterranean region, was used in the deep past as an anaesthetic, but the curiously-shaped roots were also believed to have protective properties, and were often used as talismans to ward off harm. Legend has it that when pulled from the ground, the mandrake would let out a ghastly scream fatal to anyone who heard it. 

Two dolls made from palm leaves with a fan shaped head
Balinese dolls depicting the rice goddess Dewi Sri. Credit RBG Kew.
Three boxes containing strange figurines
Mandrake roots (Mandragora spp.) [EBC 47817, EBC 55206, EBC 64411]. Credit RBG Kew/Harriet Gendall.

Fantastical and fragrant

The Collection is also home to some more mystical-sounding items such as ‘unicorn root’ (Aletris farinosa), used traditionally as a medicinal tonic, although further back in time, there were those who believed it had curse-breaking properties; ‘dragon’s blood’ (Daemonorops propinquus), a tree resin used as a medicine, dye, varnish and incense; and ‘concrete milk of the cow tree’ (Couma sp.), a rubbery substance brought back to Kew from the Amazon by explorer Richard Spruce in the 1850s and used by indigenous people there as a glue and for waterproofing domestic items.

The fragrance factor is another draw. I recently stumbled across a large lump of Pontefract liquorice which glittered like obsidian and, despite being over 100 years old, still retained the potency of a newly opened bag of Liquorice Allsorts. A pair of copper flasks once held 113 ounces of Turkish rose oil, imported by the Victorian perfumers Piesse & Lubin, and was valued at 169 pounds 10 shillings - equivalent to over £10,000 today!

Old jar containing tree resin
Dragon’s blood resin (Daemonorops propinquus) [EBC 95415]. Credit RBG Kew/Harriet Gendall.
Two rusty flasks
Copper flasks for Turkish rose oil [EBC 71936]. Credit RBG Kew.

Unravelling stories

These objects harbour a wealth of intimate stories, especially considering the lives and times of the makers and collectors who once crafted and held them. A handwritten note accompanying a wind instrument of coiled birch bark, purchased by Kew in November 1894, indicates that it was made by the famous Finnish folksinger Larin Paraske. Its collector, Miss Clive-Bayley, had travelled in search of Paraske earlier that year after learning of her extraordinary ability to recall over 3,000 melodic runo poems by heart.

Painting of Larin Paraske sat down in a field.
Painting of the famous Finnish folksinger Larin Paraske, by Albert Gustaf Aristides Edelfelt in 1893. Credit Wikimedia Commons.
Coiled birch bark that looks like a funnel
Finnish birch bark wind instrument [EBC 42407]. Credit RBG Kew/Harriet Gendall.

Amongst the 42,000 wood specimens, an unassuming tree stump tells the story of the flamboyant Wild West showman Samuel Franklin Cody; the first man to fly an aeroplane in Britain. In 1908 he measured the thrust of his plane by tying it to a pine tree in Farnborough - a portion of which was preserved for its association with aeronautical innovation. Then there is the engraved walking stick which embodies Kew’s very own socio-material history. Made from oak wood salvaged from the original eighteenth century Kew Bridge, it was gifted to Hyacinth Hooker in 1906 by her husband Joseph Dalton Hooker, Kew Gardens’ second director and successor to his father William, who had founded the Collection some 60 years earlier.

Nowadays economic botany is experiencing a renaissance. The recognition that plants are essential providers of sophisticated, durable, innovative and nourishing solutions to life’s needs, and indeed life’s luxuries, is gaining traction. With biological diversity and cultural heritage increasingly under threat, getting to know objects like these is more relevant than ever.


Cornish, C. (2013). Curating Science in an Age of Empire: Kew’s Museum of Economic Botany. PhD thesis, Royal Holloway, University of London.

McCune, J. and Prendergast, H. D. V. (2002). Betula makes music in Europe: Three birch horns from Kew’s Economic Botany Collections. Economic Botany. 56(4), pp. 303-305.

Economic Botany Collection jars

Discover the Economic Botany Collection

From food and medicines to toys and clothes, the Collection contains an extraordinary range of artefacts that demonstrate some of the vital uses of plants.

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