Colorimeter reading of dyed cloth

Research resources

The Economic Botany Collection is an important research resource because of its extraordinary breadth, and the copious documentation associated with many specimens

Key sources

Economic Botany Collection Database 

A database of all specimens in the collection, including those in Kew’s Plants + People display. When searching, use common synonyms as well as accepted names.

Search the Economic Botany Database

Specimen labels 

The specimen may be accompanied by the old printed label from the Kew Museums (usually repeating information given in the Museum Entry Book), and by all manner of documents including the original collection notes, letters and printed matter. Most of this material has been transcribed into the Economic Botany Collection Database.

Museum Entry Books 

A continuous run since 1847, covering all specimens except for those first received in 1847, from Sir William Hooker’s collection. A running number (EBN) is allocated to each group of specimens received in a year (e.g. 23.1853). If the EBN is not listed on the database, the entry can be found using the donor name (the Entry Books are indexed) or date. The Entry Book usually gives a short summary of the donation, including the name and address of the donor, date of donation, country of origin, and concise details of the specimens.

Kew Archives 

Once the date and donor are known, it is time to move to Kew’s Archives. These are not fully catalogued, but four main sources are available:

  • Miscellaneous Reports — These are bound volumes arranged by country. Letters and pamphlets relating to material from a specific country are often bound together in these volumes. A list of these volumes can be downloaded as a PDF file.
  • Director’s Correspondence — Series from 1847 to 1960s, covering most scientific correspondence in and out of Kew. Card index.
  • Personal files — Some runs of files for specific individuals. Many of these are listed at the National Register of Archives; see also the list for Richard Spruce.
  • Registry files — These are recent files (1960s to present day) and include some museum files.

Finding aids, including downloadable research guides, are available from Kew's Archives. 

Collection files 

The office of the Economic Botany Collection holds files relating to some recent documentation projects, comprising photocopies of archive and printed material.

Printed sources 

These should not be neglected, and are increasingly easy to search using resources such as Kew’s Library Catalogue and Google Books. See also our list of articles relating to the Collection. The Museum guidebooks (1855–1930) give brief details of displays. Text changes little between editions. The Dictionary of National Biography and Who was Who cover many donors to the Collection and are available online at Kew and through many local libraries.


Historic photographs of Kew (including the museums) are held on the Kew Picture Index, a CD library housed in the Library. This is not searchable online. The Kew Museums had many 19th century photographs on display; this important collection has not been catalogued, but is available for consultation in Kew’s Library. It is arranged by botanical name.

Other research resources

Areas of current research into the Collection

Research use has changed through time, with increasing emphasis on anthropology and history. The following list covers some areas of current research into the Collection.


In addition to plant artefacts, the Collection contains many plant parts too large to be housed in the Kew Herbarium’s pressed plant or seed collections. Some plant parts are vouchered by pressed plant specimens in the Herbarium, such as conifer cones collected by Sir Joseph Hooker on his American journey. The Collection holds about 40 type specimens from various genera including Caesalpinia and Pandanus. A paper concerning an important group of palm specimens collected by Alfred Russell Wallace was published by Bill Baker in Palms in 2002. 750 pot pourri specimens, deriving from identification work carried out at Kew, have been added to the Collection since this work began in 1990.

William and Joseph Hooker encouraged plant collectors to collect both herbarium specimens and artefacts for Kew; it is therefore always worth checking the Collection if surveying the collecting activities of botanists associated with Kew.

History of medicine

The period 1840 to 1930 saw a transformation in the supply and use of plant drugs which is exceptionally well documented by the around 15,000 medicinal plant specimens in the Collection. During this time pharmacognosy — the study of plant drugs — made huge advances in botanical identification and standardisation, and supply was transformed by the development of large pharmaceutical maunfacturers such as Howard & Sons. The cornerstone of Kew’s holdings in this field are the 19th century plant drugs transferred from the Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s (RPSGB) Museum, many of which were donated by leading pharmacologists, and which are very well documented.

The plant specimens are complemented by Kew’s comprehensive library holdings of herbals and pharmacopeias, and subject files from the RPSGB and former Kew Museums, now held in the Jodrell Library.

History of plants and the British Empire

The collections cover most plants traded in the 19th century, and has a long series of specimens from plants transplanted in this period, including quinine, tea, coffee, chocolate, jute and rubber.

In many respects the history of Kew is a microcosm of the history of the British Empire. Many of Kew’s activities were carried out with reference to the central administration of empire, and integrated study of Kew’s archives and specimens offers many insights into the motivations and processes involved — often more complex than usually assumed. Richard Drayton’s classic book Nature’s Government suggests many starting points for research in this area.

History of science and exploration

The Hooker’s wide-ranging contacts ensured that most of the serious scientific expeditions of the second half of the 19th century contributed material to the Collection, from sources as diverse as Richard Spruce’s journeys up the Amazon (1849–1864), David Livingstone’s Zambesi expedition of 1858 to 1864, and the Challenger expedition (1872–1876). The artefacts collected provide insights into the conduct and purpose of the journeys, as well as into encounters with the lives of indigenous peoples.

Arts and crafts

The Collection contains both the raw materials of art — particularly paper, wood, fibre and pigments — and many exquisite craft works that are works of art in their own right. Some, such as containers made of baskets or gourds, are beautiful in their simplicity; others, such as lacquer, are made by complex processes. A strength of the Collection is its emphasis on utility; many of the artefacts were made for daily life and are poorly represented in High Art collections.


Kew holds about 400 plant specimens from ancient Egypt — one of the most comprehensive collections outside Egypt itself — mainly deriving from Sir William Flinders Petrie’s excavations. In the last decade the Collection has found a new use as a source of material for analytical projects on ancient residues and DNA. For example, the British Museum has used pine resin samples to identify the adhesives in Mayan mosaics, and DNA from historic wheat and barley specimens is helping unravel the early history of agriculture.


A striking feature of the old Kew Museums was their value-free treatment of plant materials from around the world; the novel technologies of the 19th century, such as vulcanised rubber, were displayed alongside artefacts from indigenous peoples. As a result, Kew has rich holdings of plant artefacts from Australasia, North America and South America, often made of fragile materials.