Botany is the science and study of plants. RAMM has many thousands of plant specimens in its collections, which are collectively called herbaria. Although they are no longer considered to be members of the plant kingdom, fungi and algae are also cared for in the botany section. Most of the specimens are what we call flowering or seed plants. These are the majority of large green plants you are likely to see in the countryside or in gardens. Divisions in which we have significant collections include fungi, seaweeds, green algae, stoneworts, clubmosses, horsetails, ferns, conifers and flowering plants.
Due the sheer size of the collection it is not possible to display it all at once. If you wish to view a stored collection for research purposes please contact the Curator of Natural History via the enquiries page. A selection of displayed and stored items can also be viewed on RAMM’s online Collections Explorer.
Traditionally, all living things were assigned to either the plant or animal kingdom. Plants get their energy from the sun and use carbon dioxide from the air together with water and nutrients from the soil to make new growth. Animals derive their energy from living or dead organic sources, such as other plants and animals.
In modern times we have many more divisions of living organisms, relating to their position on the evolutionary tree. Fungi and algae are no longer considered to be plants and belong in separate kingdoms.
Within the RAMM herbarium plants are arranged in a system of classification that is recognised around the world. This is called Linnaeus’ binomial system, named after the Swedish botanist Carl von Linne who first proposed the scheme.
For example, the heath lobelia is the English name for the plant identified as Lobelia urens Linnaeus. ‘Lobelia‘ is the generic name. A genus is a group of essentially similar and related plants. ‘urens‘ is the species, or specific name.
It may be followed by the name of the person who originally named it, in this instance Linnaeus, the alternate, Latinised version of Carl von Linne himself.
RAMM has many thousands of plant specimens in its collections, collectively called herbaria. Divisions in which we have significant collections include stoneworts, clubmosses, horsetails, ferns, conifers and flowering plants.
However, unlike the bird and mammal taxidermy in RAMM’s collections the preserved plants have not been mounted with display purposes in mind. Most are pressed and stored on herbarium sheets, others are kept in alcohol or between glass, and some are decoratively arranged in photograph albums.
Plants in Spirit
Sometimes it is more appropriate to preserve plants in liquid. This is often the case if they are bulky (e.g. fruits), or have a very complicated three-dimensional structure such as orchid flowers.
Formalin, alcohol, and more complicated mixtures of chemicals such as ‘Kew Mix’ (developed by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew) may be used as preservatives.
With few exceptions plants are kept in the form of herbarium sheets. When the plants are collected in the field they are spread flat on sheets of paper and dried in a plant press or underneath a heavy object between sheets of absorbent paper that soak up moisture.
Once pressed and dried they are attached to sheets of card or stiff paper. The plants are sometimes glued directly to the paper but more frequently, especially with bulkier specimens, they are attached using strips of paper that are glued at either end.
It is important that the information relating to the specimen’s collection location, date, altitude, etc. is also recorded on the sheet.
Because they are preserved this way they often don’t look much like the living plant. But details of their shape and form are preserved and can still be studied after hundreds of years.
Herbarium sheets are particularly prone to attack by museum pests. Silverfish are attracted to the paper the plant is mounted on, the label and the adhesives used to attach the plant to the paper. Booklice are also common, unwanted visitors to these collections as they will feed on any mould growths and spores that are on the sheet or the plant. In doing so silverfish and booklice can destroy the data that accompnaies the specimen and cause serious damage to the specimen itself.
In the past chemicals such as mercuric chloride, napthalene and arsenic have been used to kill or deter these pests. However, these chemicals are also harmful to humans and are banned today. As a result curators must be vigilant and make regular checks on the collection so that action can be taken if any pests are found.
RAMM’s Oldest Specimen
RAMM’s senior curator of natural history retired at the end of April 2012 having worked at the museum for over 30 years. Whilst undertaking some research in order to answer an enquiry from the Natural History Museum, London he found RAMM’s oldest biological specimen to date – a seaweed sample collected over 210 years ago!
The specimen of tufted conifer-weed (Boergeseniella thuyoides), a red alga, was collected on the Cornish coast in 1801 by the renowned seaweed collector Mrs Amelia Griffiths who lived in Torquay. She was a dedicated and diligent collector who not only provided the foremost algologists of her time with new material to describe, but also popularised seaweed collecting and promoted our seaside towns as holiday destinations. In 1817 her reputation was so great that an eminent Swedish botanist (Carl Agardh) named a genus of red seaweeds Griffithsia in her honour.
This specimen is held in one of three volumes of pressed seaweeds that were collected, mounted and complied by Mrs Griffiths. Once the seaweed had been collected on the shore and cleaned of sand she would have floated it in a shallow tray of water to allow it to spread out in a natural form. She would then have slipped a thick sheet of paper underneath it and used it to lift the seaweed from the tray being careful not to disturb the attractive and biologically relevant arrangement of the fronds. The sheet would then have been pressed in much the same way as we press flowers today.