Tag Archives | Botanical illustration

Norwich’s botanical secrets and surprises

Few people with a family in Norfolk will be unaware of the beauty, strangeness and interest of the natural history collections of the Castle Museum in Norwich. But how many also know that there is a Rare Books Room at the John Innes Centre in Norwich? Or that it houses an important collection covering natural science, horticulture and botanical art across five centuries? This blog celebrates the John Innes Centre’s unique treasure house of knowledge about our natural world, the rare botanical books in our collection, and some of the local botanical authors represented on the shelves. Norwich has had more than its fair share of celebrated botanists – you can read more here…

The oldest book in the John Innes collection was published in Venice in 1511 (during the reign of Henry VIII). Called Ortus sanitatis, this Latin text is studded with woodcut illustrations speaking to us about the early modern world view of the natural world. From the ordinary to the fabulous, the book records the plants, animals, birds, and insects that fascinated (or sometimes plagued) people. The plant section, like most early herbals, is focused on the medicinal properties of the plants, and how to prepare the roots, flowers or leaves. But there also traces of old legends if you know where to look:

Narcissus from Ortus sanitatis (1511)

Picture of the Narcissus plant generating tiny homunculi (men). From Ortus sanitatis (1511) John Innes Historical Collections.

 

Goat pictured in Ortus sanitatis (1511)

One of the many animals featured in our earliest rare book Ortus sanitatis (1511). John Innes Historical Collections.

Apart from individual book treasures like this one (and there are many), the John Innes collection has plenty of local interest, reflecting the fact that Norfolk botanists were at the heart and soul of British botanical science in the 18th and 19th centuries. For example, we have the 36-volume English Botany published from 1790-1814. This was the result of a fruitful collaboration between botanist James Edward Smith (1759-1828) and the publisher and celebrated illustrator James Sowerby (1757-1822).

Portrait of James Edward Smith, Norwich botanist

James Edward Smith, Norwich’s most celebrated botanist (Copyright: Public Domain).

Because Smith was born and lived in Norwich (in Surrey Street- look for the blue plaque), many of the plants included in these volumes were collected from Norfolk waysides and fields. For example, Smith remarked that the best place to find the lesser Periwinkle (Vinca minor) growing wild was Honingham Church. He also occasionally included snippets of the local Norfolk folklore of plants. When writing about Holly in 1798 he notes: ‘The branches of this tree laden with berries, and mixed with mistletoe and the spindle-tree, are used in many parts of England to ornament churches and houses at Christmas, and hence the holly is in Norfolk vulgarly called Christmas‘. Smith achieved national recognition after acquiring the entire collection of books and specimens belonging to the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus. He founded the Linnean Society of London in 1788 and became its first President. For many years the Linnean collections were housed in Surrey Street and were visited by entomologists and botanists from all over Europe.

Common toadflax (Linaria vulgaris) pictured in Smith and Sowerby's English Botany.

Common toadflax (Linaria vulgaris) pictured in Smith and Sowerby’s English Botany. John Innes Historical Collections.

Colour picture of peloric Linaria vulgaris

Peloric or ‘monstrous’ form of Linaria vulgaris. This form of the wild flower puzzled both Linnaeus and Smith. The mutation that produces it was explained by JIC scientist Enrico Coen in 1999.

Smith spent the last thirty years of his life writing books and articles on botany. Many of his books are in the John Innes Rare Books library today and there is a monument commemorating his life in St Peter Mancroft church.

Another key Norwich botanist was William (later Sir William) Jackson Hooker (1785-1865). William was educated at Norwich School and took up natural history as a hobby. Smith encouraged him to specialise in botany. Hooker soon established a reputation as an excellent botanical draftsman. One of his early books is Pomona Londiniensis (1813), a collection of 49 hand-coloured aquatint engravings of rare and beautiful fruit varieties found in the markets, private gardens and nurseries of Regency London.

Cherry illustration by William Jackson Hooker

The Elton Cherry- one of the beautiful fruit illustrations by William Jackson Hooker, in Pomona Londiniensis (1813). John Innes Historical Collections.

The colour ‘Hooker’s green’ is named after him. Later William became the first Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, an important position that placed him (and his son Joseph who succeeded him as second Director) at the top of a network of botanical gardens around the Empire. Again, his books are well-represented in the John Innes Historical Collections.

A final local ‘celebrity’ botanist from this era is John Lindley (1799-1865), who became the first Professor of Botany at the University College London, from 1829-1860. He was born in Catton, the son of a nurseryman. It is his report on the royal gardens at Kew which is said to have led to the creation of the Royal Botanic Gardens. One of my favourite Lindley titles is his two-volume Ladies Botany, a testament to the growing market for botany books among women. He has some wise words to encourage botany teachers:  ‘We have only to begin with the beginning, and never take one step till that which precedes it is secured; afterwards the student may advance to what point he pleases. This appears to me to be the only secret in teaching Botany’.

Orchid illustrated by John Lindley

Orchid Catasetum hookeri named after William Jackson Hooker by Norwich botanist John Lindley. John Innes Historical Collections.

Altogether the John Innes Historical Collections cover plant sciences, horticulture, ornamental plants, gardening, plant breeding, entomology and agriculture. Included is a fine collection of floras with illustrations both of the native plants of Britain and Europe, and of the rare and exotic plants discovered around the world. Some of the plants brought back on long sea voyages we now take for granted, like the potato, a novelty in the 1600s. Others remain exotic and are still only seen in the hothouses of botanic gardens. Whatever their story, some traces of their history will be recorded somewhere on the shelves of this remarkable room. In this Library you can make endless unexpected discoveries when you spy the book next to the one you originally wanted, or when you open a book up and find out who used to own it, or glimpse a lost social history as you read down the list of advertisements in the end papers. There is so much more to reading books in a physical library like this than internet images of books can convey!

This special collection of rare books belongs to the John Innes Foundation and is open to the public by appointment. It is closed at weekends and for public holidays. Group visits can be booked and we also run outreach events.

To find out more about the collection explore our website; to book a visit contact sarah.wilmot@jic.ac.uk

Find out more:

James Edward Smith’s archives and specimens are preserved at the Linnean Society of London

John Lindley’s contribution to botanical science is commemorated in the Lindley Library of the Royal Horticultural Society in London. His archives are held in several major libraries and archives. To find out more about his interest in orchids (his particular passion) read my Innes Lecture blog

The archives of William Jackson Hooker and Joseph Dalton Hooker are preserved at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

The correspondence of Joseph Dalton Hooker is in the process of being conserved, digitized, transcribed and made available online. At the centre of Britain’s botanical empire, and best friends with Charles Darwin, Joseph’s letters are a fascinating window onto the world of Victorian botany.

Read more here about how in 1999 the team led by John Innes Centre’s Professor Enrico Coen unravelled Linnaeus’s 250-year old mystery of peloric or ‘monster’ flowers in toadflax (Linaria vulgaris) by showing that the abnormal toadflax flowers are caused by a naturally occurring mutation of a single gene that controls flower symmetry.

 

 

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Our Ancient and Diverse Brassica vegetables

On the 8th and 9th September we welcomed members of the public to join us for our annual Heritage Open Day event in the John Innes Historical Collections. Heritage Open Days represent England’s biggest heritage festival, and like venues all across Norwich and Norfolk we were joining in the celebration of our history and culture. For these special HODs events we like to not only display a new theme using our fantastic rare books and archives, but also bring in one of our John Innes Centre scientists to tell us about their research. This year we were very lucky to have Dr Judith Irwin from JIC’s Crop Genetics Department talking about ‘Our Ancient and Diverse Brassica Vegetables’- a fascinating tour of more than 2000 years of history of cultivation and study, brought up to date with Judith’s research on flowering time in broccoli.

Display of brassica images from our rare books, 17th to 20th century

Our Heritage Open Day Event for 2016. On display, brassica illustrations across four centuries. John Innes Historical Collections.

Judith began her talk with a survey of the brassicas which are part of the mustard family. The mustards are a very large family of more than 300 genera and 3,500 species. In traditional botanical classification the mustards are part of the Crucifer family (having four petals arranged in a cross). Judith told us that a good place to see the wild brassica ancestor of many of our garden brassica vegetables (Brassica oleracea subspecies oleracea) are the chalk cliffs of Dorset where you’ll see their clumps of yellow flowers. We’re not sure whether this species is genuinely native to the UK or a garden escape. Studies of the plant geography suggest an origin in the Irano-Turanian region, possibly centred on Turkey – but this has not yet been confirmed. A flora of Turkey published in 2007 listed 560 species of Brassicaceae in all.

18th century Dutch illustration of cabbage

Cabbage illlustration from J. W. Weinmann’s 4 volume Duidelyke Vertoning … (Amsterdam, 1736-1748). John Innes Historical Collections.

The origins of our cultivated brassicas were probed further by a Korean-Japanese botanist who was working in Japan called Dr U (his name Woo Jang-choon is today known by the Japanized reading of his name ‘Nagaharu  U’) who in 1935 came up with what is now known as ‘U’s triangle’- a diagram of the relationships between the different cultivated brassica species. U showed that oilseed rape and swede (Brassica napus) is a hybrid between two other species: Brassica rapus (turnip, Chinese cabbage, turnip rape) and Brassica oleracea (cabbage, sprouts, broccoli, and cauliflower).

Illustrated diagram to show the relationship between cultivated Brassica species after U 1935

Diagram of ‘U’s triangle’ showing the relationship between different cultivated brassica species. Design: Judith Irwin, John Innes Centre after U, 1935.

Judith then moved on to tell us about the ancient history behind brassica vegetables, from descriptions by the Greek philosopher Theophrastus (370-285 BC) to the book on farming by Roman author Cato the Elder (234 BC to 149 BC) who stated ‘Cabbage surpasses all vegetables. Eat it either cooked or raw. If you eat it raw, dress it with vinegar. It aids digestion remarkably’. It has been suggested that our brassica vegetables originate with the Romans bringing cabbage to the British Isles (Gates 1950), and we know that the Anglo-Saxons cultivated brassicas because they actually called the month of February ‘sprout-kale’ (Wright, 1968). Brassica vegetables were cultivated extensively by medieval religious orders for food and medicine. Much of the knowledge they used probably came down to them from classical sources. Pliny the Elder (AD 23 to AD 79), for example, described a list of more than 80 cabbage-related medicines. The oldest herbals in the John Innes Historical Collections date from the 16th and 17th centuries and are full of advice on how to use brassicas for improving health and curing ailments. We displayed, for example, the popular herbal by Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) which listed many Cabbage–based remedies including: Adder bites, hoarseness of the voice, kidney stones, drunkenness, gout and many more.

Portrait of 17th century herbalist, Nicholas Culpeper

Nicolas Culpeper, author of a popular 17th century herbal that went to many editions. Our edition dates from 1819.

Judith went on to discuss which of our brassica vegetables came first. We think the first brassica crops grown here were the more primitive kales, or ‘collards’. The word ‘collard’ is a corruption of the Anglo-Saxon word ‘colewort’ – their word for cabbage plants.  In the Latin species name Brassica oleracea acephala, acephala means ‘without a head’. Kale has been grown for more than 2000 years: the Romans grew several kinds, and the Celts of central and Western Europe also grew them.

Illustrations of coleworts from John Gerard's herbal, 1636. John Innes Historical Collections

Garden ‘Coleworts’ illustrated in John Gerard’s Herbal, 1636. John Innes Historical Collections.

Kale and Cabbage varieties from 17th century herbal

More Kale and Cabbage varieties from John Gerard’s Herbal, 1636

The next brassicas to arrive were the cabbages: the species name Brassica oleracea capitata meaning ‘head’. Our common name ‘Cabbage’ is the anglicised form of the old French word caboce or caboche – also meaning ‘head’. The Celtic word ‘bresic’ for cabbage, is said to have influenced the Latin name brassica.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We know that cabbages were grown in 14th century England because we have a recipe ascribed to the chief cook to King Richard II for “caboches in potage”, this instructs the reader to take caboches and quarter them – see the original recipe here. The commercial cultivation of cabbages in England came later- probably introduced from Holland in the 16th century by Sir Anthony Ashley. By this time cabbages and turnips had also reached North America. French Navigator Jacques Cartier is thought to have brought the seeds with him on his third voyage for use by the settlement he established in Canada.

Colour illustrations of Kohl rabi from a 19th century seed catalogue, Album Benary, 1876-1893

Illustration of Kohl rabi varieties from Ernst Benary’s Album Benary, 1876-1893 – a nineteenth century seed catalogue. John Innes Historical Collections.

Next came the Kohl rabi from the German Kohl for ‘cabbage’ and Rabi for ‘turnip’ with the species name Brassica oleracea gongloydes – the ‘gongloydes’ meaning roundish or swollen, these are thought to have appeared in the 16th century. Other 16th century novelties included the cauliflowers and broccolis. Cauliflower from the Latin ‘caulis’ (cabbage) and floris (flower) – the species name Brassica oleracea botrytis is taken from the Greek meaning like a bunch of grapes. The ‘broccoli’ name refers to its branching character (‘brachium’- an arm or branch). In 1586 broccoli’s were referred to as the ‘Cyprus coleworts’, while the Latin name for them is Brassica oleracea italica (from Italy).

Kales and Brussels sprouts illustrated in Album Benary, 1876-1893

Kales and Brussels sprouts from Album Benary, 1876-1893. John Innes Historical Collections.

Finally, the Brussels sprouts arrived (Brassica oleracea gemmifera) – ‘gemmifera’ meaning ‘diamond maker’ (giving the idea perhaps that eating them made you mentally alert!). These are generally believed to have evolved in the seventeenth or eighteenth century and originated, as the name suggests, from Brussels. Judith rounded off this discussion with some slides taken from the John Innes’s collection of seed catalogues which cover the 19th and early 20th centuries.

A sample of early 20th century seed catalogues in the John Innes Historical Collections

A selection of early 20th century seed catalogues from the John Innes Historical Collections.

These show that seed firms recommended kale to growers as a frost hardy crop that could be relied on when other greens were scarce or destroyed. Cauliflower was ‘rather tender’ and so was sown in spring for autumnal use, whereas broccoli was hardier and suitable for growing through winter for use in spring and summer. Judith drew attention to some of the varietal names for ‘Broccoli’ in the catalogues. For example, ‘Bunyard’s Early White’, ‘Bunyard’s April White’, and ‘Snow’s Winter White’ – showing that at this time (aside from the Purple Sprouting Broccoli) the headed ‘broccoli’ known to the English grower at that time was white not green. To re-inforce the point Judith showed a clip from a 1950s film showing the Spring ‘broccoli harvest’ in West Cornwall- the vegetables in the field clearly looking like cauliflowers (and on the day this was filmed 12 special trains were laid on to transport the ‘broccoli’ to London). Calabrese (what we now call the green headed broccoli in our greengrocers) appeared in our 1935 and 1949 English and American seed catalogues as a novel Italian import.

Illustration of Calabrese Broccoli from a Carter's Seeds 1939 seed catalogue

Our now familiar calabrese broccoli was considered a novelty in 1930s Britain. This illustration from Carter’s Blue Book of Gardening, 1939. John Innes Historical Collections.

The second part of Judith’s talk focused on modern brassica research. Research on brassica is first mentioned in the John Innes archives in the papers of A J Bateman who used them as part of his experiments to work out the isolation distances for seed crops (working out how far apart you needed to grow crops to keep them from intercrossing – to keep the seed ‘pure’). This research helped the seed growers reduce the land area they needed to raise crops for seed. In 1948 Bateman was also studying hybrids between different brassica species, and his records include one of the old ‘crossing tags’ that were used to mark up the experimental plants.

Illustration of archives on Brassica experiments in the John Innes Archives, from the 1940s

Items documenting brassica experiments in the 1940s from the A J Bateman archives, John Innes Historical Collections.

After that era brassicas only become a major part of JIC’s research in the late 1980s when a Brassica and Oilseeds Department was set up shortly before the closure of the Plant Breeding Institute in Cambridge. A lot of the work introduced by the arrival of the ex-PBI staff centred on the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana – with its simpler genome and fast life-cycle, and compact form, it is a more convenient plant to work with to study genetics than the brassica species, to which the findings can later be applied. The more complex cabbages and cauliflowers have 3 times more genes and oilseed rape 6 times more to study.

Illustration of the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana from William Curtis, Flora Londiniensis, 1835.

Arabidopsis thaliana, the ‘lab rat’ or ‘rosetta stone’ of plant genetics. Illustration from William Curtis, Flora Londiniensis, 1835. John Innes Historical Collections. Clues from this plant are helping scientists unlock the secrets of flowering time in brassicas.

Judith’s research focuses on how temperature influences flowering. Why do we want to do this? Judith explained that climate change will affect when plants flower, and it is also important for crop scheduling (having crop plants ready to harvest across the season to provide efficient harvesting and reduce waste). Judith showed some examples of how spells of extreme cold had wrecked brassica harvests in the recent past. Judith is interested in winter temperature and how plants tell the seasonal day length. Broccoli plants count the number of cold days they’re exposed to because they have a ‘vernalization requirement’ meaning they need a period of prolonged cold in order to flower. Temperature is central to any brassica you grow. The fundamental research on what controls flowering time here at JIC centres on the work of Dame Professor Caroline Dean, FRS whose work on Arabidopsis has produced so much of the ‘road map’ to understanding how flowering time in brassicas works.

Judith’s work, in collaboration with Professor Dean, plant breeders and growers, involves crossing different broccoli lines together to find the gene controlling the trait for how many days of cold (and how cold) the plant needs before it can flower. Their objective is to breed different varieties of broccoli that will be ready to harvest at different times.

Illustration of different varieties of Broccoli coming into flower at different times.

Different combinations of alleles allow us to schedule flowering across the season. New brassica varieties will need changed responses to cold as our climate changes.

The difficulty comes in the fact that the genes controlling flowering are also involved in many other plant characters (including the seeds and pods) – it is important not to adversely affect these commercial traits when producing new brassica varieties with changed responses to cold. The future challenge is to ‘climate-proof’ our crops: to produce crops with defined, predictable flowering times; uniform and shortened flowering period; more determinate flowering habit; and uniform harvest with reduced losses (by breeding for reduced cold sensitivity) for agricultural and horticultural crops and for seed and commercial production. Achieving this goal will require an integrated view across plant development as a whole, and how this is affected by the environment. Judith gave the audience an insight into some of the equipment required to take this research forward, from the state of the art controlled environment rooms at JIC (taking the weather to the plant rather than the plant to the weather) to photo-booths (at the University of Aberystwyth) used to document an individual plant’s growth and development from the start to the end of their life-cycle, a process that can then be digitally modelled.  I’m sure everyone enjoyed the talk and its fascinating insights into 2000 years of brassica history.

 

Further references:

Garden catalogues on display from the John Innes Centre Archives:

George Bunyard and Co. Ltd., Vegetables for Epicures n.d. [c. 1939-1945] (Maidstone, Kent)

Carter’s Tested Seeds Ltd, The Blue Book of Gardening, Catalogues 1939 and 1949 (Raynes Park, London).

S. Daniel’s & Son, Ltd. Catalogue, Spring, 1931 (Wymondham, Norfolk)

Henry A. Dreer, Dreer’s Garden Book 1935 (Philadelphia, PA, USA)

Edmunds (Milton) Ltd, Edmunds Bulbs, Seeds, and Plants Catalogue 1931 (Milton, Cambridgeshire)

Elsoms (Spalding) Ltd, Seeds of Quality Catalogue, December 1943 (Spalding, Lincolnshire)

For a brief history of cabbages:

R. Gates, ‘Wild cabbages and the effects of cultivation’, Journal of Genetics (1950) 51: 363-372

D. Mitchell, ‘The status of Brassica oleracea L. Subsp. Oleracea’ (wild cabbage) in the British Isles’, Watsonia (1976) 11: 97-103.

Jonathan Roberts, Cabbages and Kings: the Origins of Fruit and Vegetables (London: HarperCollins, 2001).

Lawrence Wright (1968). Clockwork Man London: Elek Books Ltd., p. 43. See more here

For more information about Judith Irwin’s lab and their work on brassicas at JIC follow the link.

For U’s classic paper and the now famous ‘U’s triangle’, See Nagaharu U (1935): “Genome analysis in Brassica with special reference to the experimental formation of B. napus and peculiar mode of fertilization”. Japan. Journal of Botany, 7: 389–452.

 

 

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Innes Lecture 2016: ‘Cunning Killer Orchids’

Every year, usually in April, we hold an annual history of science lecture called the ‘Innes Lecture’ as a free ‘Friends of John Innes’ event. The Innes Lecture celebrates our founding benefactor John Innes, and the contribution of the John Innes Foundation (formerly John Innes Charity) to the flourishing of the John Innes Centre. This year’s Innes lecturer was Dr Jim Endersby, Reader in the History of Science at the University of Sussex. Jim has already published two highly readable books A Guinea Pig’s History of Biology (2007) and Imperial Nature (2008) – a book about Joseph Hooker, Kew gardens, and what it meant to be a botanist in the nineteenth century – but in this lecture on ‘Cunning Killer Orchids’ he gave us a sneak preview of his latest book Orchid: A cultural History which will be available later this autumn.

Innes Lecture Flier with picture of Jim Endersby

Flier for the 2016 Innes Lecture, Jim Endersby pictured

Jim’s starting point was the science fiction of H. G. Wells and his tales of vampiric orchids turning on their keepers and devouring them. Tracing the ‘killer orchid’ genre back, Jim delighted the audience by explaining how orchids first gained their reputation for cunning. Popularisations of Charles Darwin’s studies of intricate orchid structures, so well designed to attract insect pollinators, are key moments in this story. Darwin was writing at a time when orchids were among the most desirable, collectable, and exotic flowers to grace British greenhouses. His own studies were advanced by his contacts with elite orchid growers, such as Lady Dorothy Neville and amateur field botanists like John Traherne Moggridge (see illustrations below). The Royal Botanic Garden at Kew, where his best friend Joseph Hooker was Director and could furnish him with the latest specimens, and collectors working for botanic gardens across the empire, supplied him with many more rarities.  With Britain already in the grip of ‘orchid fever’ Darwin was assured of an audience for his orchid book when it appeared in 1862.

Spine, First edition of Darwin's Orchid book

Spine, First edition of Darwin’s Orchid book, 1862. This copy belonged to William Bateson

Cover of Darwin's Orchid book

Cover of Darwin’s Orchid book, John Innes Historical Collections

 

On the various contrivances by which British and Foreign orchids are fertilised by insects (London, 1862)

 

 

 

 

 

J T Moggridge, Bee orchid

Ophyrs insectifera and Ophyrs apifera (insect and bee orchid) pictured in J T Moggridge, Flora of Mentone (London, 1864)

Moggridge, Mirror bee orchid?

Ophyrs speculum, Mirror bee orchid (pictured on left hand side) in J T Moggridge, Flora of Mentone, (London1864). This is one of the species of orchid fertilized by ‘pseudocopulation’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We learnt that the first ‘Cunning killer orchid’ stories cluster in science fiction writing around the 1880s, with most titles falling within the late-19th century to early 1930s. This orchid genre was clearly related to popularisations of Darwin’s work by writers like Grant Allen (1848-1899), rather than Darwin’s original, rather dry book on his numerous orchid experiments. By exploring these later narratives Jim showed the gendered connotations of these fascinating and dangerous flowers which were associated with distinctly feminine attractions, deceptions and power. This was a time, he notes, when gender relations, women’s suffrage, and writing about women was undergoing change. Novel attitudes to women and femininity were registered in these stories with some ambiguity and unease. Jim then brought the story back to science with a discussion of the discovery of the phenomenon of ‘pseudocopulation’ in orchids. Unlike most orchids which are pollinated by nectar-seeking insects, some orchids are designed to seduce male insects into mating with them to get their pollen transferred. Darwin had failed to unravel the puzzle of orchids fertilised in this way- such as Ophrys speculum, the mirror bee orchid which mimics the appearance and scent of female insects to trick male insects – or to make sense of other orchid observers’ notes that seemed to hint at this evolutionary trick. Jim suggested that the ‘Cunning killer orchids’ genre had helped create a situation where botanists like Australian Edith Coleman (1874-1951) were open to seeing insect-pollinator relationships in new ways that were literally unthinkable in Darwin’s day.

To complement Jim’s lecture we pulled out some beautiful botanical books from the John Innes Historical Collections. A centrepiece of the display was the story of John Lindley (1799-1865), not only because he is a local hero (his father was a nurseryman at Catton, Norfolk and he was educated at Norwich School), but because orchids were his passion and he was the dominant figure in the orchid world until his death in 1865. His early, lavish publication Collectanea botanica (1821-25), a book designed to recommend selected exotic plants to the membership of the Horticultural Society (not yet Royal), included and illustrated no fewer than seventeen tropical orchids from many countries: China, India, North America, the West Indies, and Brazil. From 1826 Lindley was in an ideal position as Assistant Secretary at the Horticultural Society’s garden to be the first to see many of the increasing number of orchids coming into the country.

Orchid from Lindley, Collectanea Botanica, 1821-25

Orchid Catasetum hookeri from Lindley’s, Collectanea Botanica, 1821-25. Lindley named this orchid after Norwich botanist William Hooker who had done so much to foster his interest in botany as a boy and helped furthered his career.

Orchid from Lindley's Collectanea Botanica

Orchid Cattleya loddigesii from Lindley’s Collectanea Botanica, 1821-25

 

Images from John Lindley, Collectanea Botanica (London, 1821-25). John Innes Historical Collections

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lindley’s interest in orchids started when tropical orchids were a rarity confined to the collections of botanic gardens and of a few rich men and women. The expanding wealth generated by industry and empire allowed more people to indulge in hobbies and orchids became established as one of the most desirable groups in cultivation. Lindley had played a large part in the increasing popularity of orchid growing. He edited two influential horticultural journals, Edwards’s Botanical Register and the Gardeners’ Chronicle which provided him with the means to rapidly publish new species and genera of orchids, to share his views on other orchid matters and tips on orchid cultivation with a wide readership. There are long runs of both journals in the John Innes rare books library, providing a fascinating insight into nineteenth century botany and garden history, including the growth of ‘orchid fever’.

Orchid from Botanical Register

Orchid Cirrhopetalum thouarsii (now Bulbophyllum weberii) from Botanical Register, vol 24 (1838)

Orchid from Botanical Register

Orchid Comparettia coccinea from Botanical Register, vol 24 (1838)

 

As editor of the monthly journal Edwards’s Botanical Register, Lindley was able to spread the word about new orchid discoveries and how to grow them

 

 

 

 

Orchid from Botanical Register

Orchid Cattleya aclandiae from Botanical Register, vol 26 (1840). The name of this plant commemorates two orchid collectors. William Cattley, of High Barnet, a merchant who provided Lindley with money and access to his collection of living orchids, and Sir Thomas Acland, of Killerton, Devon, whose gardener had coaxed this Brazilian orchid into flower.

Also featured in the display were two very different illustrations of the ‘man orchid’ Orchis anthropophora, one from the 17th century botanist John Parkinson’s Theatrum botanicum (London, 1640) and one from John Sibthorp’s, Flora Graeca (vol. 10, London, 1840). Parkinson’s book is full of orchid illustrations, an indication of the fascination they held for people, even then. Parkinson’s woodcut of the man orchid illustrates the plant with a characteristic early modern curiosity about the generative powers of nature.

Page featuring the 'man orchid', John Parkinson, Theatrum botanicum

Page featuring the ‘man orchid’ (Orchis anthropophora), in John Parkinson, Theatrum Botanicum (London, 1640).

Norwich author Sir Thomas Browne also celebrates this plant in his book The Garden of Cyrus (1658): ‘well made out, it excelleth in all analogies’ commented Browne. In the ancient and early modern Materia Medica, preparations from orchid bulbs were supposed to help ‘procure lust’, while men could improve their chances of having male children by eating the larger bulbs! All of this was deduced from the shape of the bulbs which reminded them of men’s testicles. Moving on to the nineteenth century, Sibthorp’s volume on Greek flora includes the man orchid in the course of following in the footsteps of the classical botanist Dioscorides. This last volume in the Sibthorpian series has several beautiful orchid illustrations, produced under the careful editorship of (guess who) John Lindley.

'Man orchid' in John Sibthorp, Flora Graeca, 1840 John Lindley ed.

‘Man orchid’ (Orchis anthropophora) in John Sibthorp, Flora Graeca, 1840 John Lindley ed.

All in all it was a fascinating evening and we’re looking forward to being able to read the full history of orchids in the published book. In the meantime, if you missed the lecture or want to hear it again, you can listen to it by following the link:

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Footnote: Did you know that as well as founding The Sainsbury Laboratory here in Norwich the Gatsby Foundation initiated the Sainsbury orchid conservation project at Kew Gardens? Started in 1983, in the Conservation Biotechnology Unit, this project helps to conserve British and European orchids through propagation and re-establishment.

 

 

 

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Celebrating the history of peas and the International Year of the Pulse

This year (2016) has been designated the ‘International Year of Pulses’ (IYP) by the United Nations General Assembly. A quick look at the infographic on the official website tells you why: pulses are high in protein, their nutritional advantages include maintaining their quality after long storage, and they demand less water than other protein sources to produce, are economically accessible, and can also increase biodiversity and enhance soil fertility. Encouraging more pulses to be grown and eaten, and improving the protein content of the varieties under cultivation, is the goal of the international development and research communities, including the John Innes Centre. To mark this special year this blog delves a little into the history of just one of the pulses in widespread cultivation, the humble pea. Read what some of the early herbalists and botanists recorded about the pea (with illustrations from the John Innes Historical Collections). ‘Pulses’ are defined as edible dried mature seeds of leguminous crops so dried peas are the main focus of the blog, although the growth of the fresh pea market will also be touched on.

So to first briefly give some context, plant evidence points to two independent domestication events in peas. The first and largest cohort is Pisum sativum, which accounts for nearly all the cultivated peas worldwide.

Pisum sativum (syn. P. arvense) illustrated in John Sibthorpe's, Flora Graeca

Pisum sativum, which accounts for most of the cultivated peas worldwide, appears in many old botanical books as Pisum arvense (field peas). This illustration is from John Sibthorpe’s Flora Graeca (10 vols, London, 1806-40). John Innes Historical Collections.

The second domestication event took place in the Ethiopian highlands (‘Abyssinian peas’), a group that has proved difficult to classify. It is now classed as Pisum sativum sub-species abyssinicum, although molecular evidence shows it has more in common with two wild taxa, Pisum fulvum and Pisum elatius (P. sativum ssp elatius) than with sativum types. These peas had a more localised distribution in Africa.

Pisum fulvum illustrated in John Sibthorp's Flora Graeca

Pisum fulvum, one of the wild progenitors of Pisum abyssinicum. Illustration from John Sibthorp’s Flora Graeca (10 vols, London, 1806-40). John Innes Historical Collections.

Domesticated Pisum sativum, originated in the Near East around 8000 BCE, spread to Europe, Africa and Asia with Neolithic agriculture, fed Greek philosophers and Roman legionaries, and as ‘pease pottage’ (a gruel or thick soup), became a staple of medieval and early modern kitchens, keeping famine at bay.

Two illustrations of PIsum, from Ortus Sanitatis, 1511 and Hieronymus Bock, Kreuterbuch, 1560

Two early but unmistakable representations of Pisum from Ortus sanitatis, 1511 and from Hieronymus Bock, Kreuterbuch, 1560 (right). John Innes Historical Collections.

Pisum illustrated in Bock, Kreuterbuch, 1560

 

 

 

By the seventeenth century Pisum sativum had reached the Americas; peas are naturally packaged perfectly for expeditions, and the Pilgrim Fathers took dried peas with them on the Mayflower as part of their ration for the 65 day trip across the Atlantic. By this time European authors were beginning to discriminate between different pea varieties, and dividing ‘field’ from ‘garden’ peas.

17th century illustrations of peas, John Gerard's Herbal, 1597

Some of the different cultivated pea varieties available in the 17th century. Gerard noted that both field and garden peas were considered domesticated forms. John Gerard’s Herbal, 1597. John Innes Historical Collections.

 

Scottish or 'tufted' pea illustrated in John Gerard's Herbal, 1597

The Scottish or ‘tufted pea’ is a distinctive pea variety expressing apical fasciation. Heritage varieties of this form are still preserved in the Germplasm Resources Unit at the John Innes Centre today. Source: John Gerard, Herbal, 1597.

In the modern era, the creation and marketing of pea varieties proceeded apace with the development of plant breeding and the rise of horticultural companies like Suttons Seeds of Reading (founded 1806) or Carter’s Seeds of London (founded 1863). Today the John Innes Germplasm Resources Unit holds over 3,620 different ‘accessions’ of peas, from wild and domesticated peas collected on expeditions around the world, to ‘heritage’ peas from Great Britain (the oldest in the collection is the ‘Mummy Pea’ introduced in 1788), to an important collection of pea variants arising from mutations discovered or generated by scientists and breeders around the world. The development of new forms of peas in the 1970s by researchers at John Innes (the ‘leafless’ and ‘semi-leafless’ pea varieties), was based on mutant lines held in the collection. Today semi-leafless accounts for almost all dried pea varieties grown in the UK.

Eating peas fresh and green (rather than starting your dish with soaked dried peas) is a relatively modern luxury. Little dishes of garden peas were once presented for the enjoyment of Kings, Queens and Cardinals. By the time John Parkinson was writing his Paradisi in sole paradisus terrestris (2nd ed. 1656) green peas were eaten by rich and poor. He records that the ‘fairest’, sweetest, youngest and earliest peas were eaten by the rich, whereas the later, ‘meaner’ and lower priced peas were eaten by the poor or ‘serve to boyl into a kind of broth or pottage’ flavoured with Thyme, Mints, Savory ‘or some other such hot herbs to give it better relish’. Peas, he notes were especially consumed ‘in Town and Country in the Lent-time, especially of the poorer sort of people’. Mariners were another group relying on peas to sustain them ‘It is much used likewise at Sea for them that go on long voyages, and is for change, because it is fresh, a welcome diet to most persons therein’. As for the health benefits of including peas in the diet, 17th century authors rather sat on the fence, they were neither bad nor good!

Comments on the dietary value of peas from John Gerard's Herbal, 1636

Today peas are a taken-for-granted vegetable, and partly because food cultures have continued to evolve in the industrial age and new uses for peas have developed. Canned and frozen peas transformed the ‘fresh’ pea market. Dried peas found a new lease of life as ‘mushy peas’ (made from marrowfat peas). These will accompany your pie on a night out or at a football match in the north of England, and are also served alone as a snack in parts of the Midlands and North. A permanent stall in Norwich Market devoted to mushy peas has traded daily (except Sundays) since 1969. As an accompaniment to ‘traditional’ fish and chips mushy peas are an innovation of the 1970s. The dried pea remains central to many food cultures around the world including India, the Middle East, the Far East, Europe, and North and South America. Eating pea soup on Thursdays is a weekly tradition in Sweden and Finland and has been so ever since the Middle Ages. And in the Netherlands pea soup is traditionally served on New Year’s Day. Yet in the UK the pulse acreage in general has been in decline since 2001, falling from 319,000 hectares to 157,000 hectares in 2012. Combinable peas (for the dried pea market) have suffered the greatest decline, a 70% fall in the same period, though the acreage of vining (fresh) peas has been more stable it is also in gradual decline. The introduction of the three crop rule in 2015 as part of the Common Agricultural Policy reform (aimed at increasing diversification and ensuring that farming practices benefit the environment) has provided a significant stimulus to pulse growers but their expansion is still highly dependent on the size of the market and the commodity value.

The observation that peas and beans have root nodules (where nitrogen-fixing micro-organisms live in symbiosis with these plants) was made by plant anatomists in the seventeenth century. The role of legumes in restoring fertility to arable land was also well-known by the early nineteenth century, even if the nitrogen-fixing process itself remained largely a mystery. The famous ‘Norfolk four-course rotation’, popularised by the Holkham Estate in north Norfolk, was based on the clover crop for nitrogen fixing in a field rotation of wheat, barley, turnips and clover. In modern crop rotations peas take the place of clover as so few arable farms now have grazing livestock. Today’s CAP three-crop rule is a move to bring the benefits of pulses and their nitrogen fixation back onto more farms. To read more about the peas grown in the UK and their future prospects follow the link to the recent Anderson Report (2015) commissioned by JIC.

17th century illustration of root nodules on a pea plant, Malpighi, Anatome Plantarum, 1675

Root nodules can clearly be seen on the top left hand pea plant in this seventeenth century illustration. From Marcello Malpighi, Anatome plantarum (London, 1675). John Innes Historical Collections.

Given the number of byways a history of the pea could lead you down it’s surprising this crop hasn’t attracted more attention from historians (if you know of a good source for peas do let me know on Twitter @JIChistory or email sarah.wilmot@jic.ac.uk). I know of nothing to parallel Redcliffe Salaman’s The History and Social Influence of the Potato (1949) for example, or the delightful assemblage that is the virtual ‘World Carrot Museum’ founded and curated by John Stolarczyk from Skipton in North Yorkshire. A starting point might be Mike Ambrose’s 2008 chapter on the plant breeding history of the garden pea. In addition, and apparently well worth a visit, there are the Grade II listed ‘Pea Rooms’ at Heckington, Lincolnshire (post code NG34 9JH) where pea history is preserved in photos on the wall (if anyone has visited and has photos please get in touch). Peas also assume an important role, if still not quite centre stage, in the history of genetics, thanks to the focus on Gregor Mendel’s pea hybridisation experiments (published in 1866) and the attention paid them since their ‘rediscovery’ around 1900 (see earlier blogs for a flavour of the controversies around Mendel and his British defender, William Bateson, the first Director of the John Innes). The 2016 anniversary of Mendel’s publication will bring historians of science together for a new round of commemoration, new Mendel exhibitions, and some exciting new historical interpretations. The British Society for the History of Science (BSHS) is about to launch an educational initiative in partnership with the Brno Mendel Museum and the Royal Society to celebrate the contribution of Mendelian genetics to modern science and highlight the contributions made by Cambridge women scientists in the early twentieth century.

Caroline Pellew, one of the early pea geneticists at John Innes, illustrated by Dorothy Cayley.

Caroline Pellew working in the plots at the John Innes Horticultural Institution in the 1910s. Caroline was one of the Institute’s first pea geneticists, working alongside William Bateson. Bateson had encouraged women researchers to take up genetics both at Cambridge and at the John Innes. Caroline’s route into plant science was University College Reading’s two-year Diploma in Horticulture though, not the University of Cambridge. Illustration by Dorothy Cayley, John Innes Historical Collections.

The celebrations will coincide with the publication by the BSHS of a new edited English translation of Mendel’s work (surprisingly the one relied on currently is still the one commissioned by Bateson in the early 1900s), and will be followed up by educational web-based material. Meanwhile a helpful textbook edited by Denise Phillips and Sharon Kingsland, New Perspectives on the History of Life Sciences and Agriculture (Springer, 2015; available in the John Innes History of Genetics Library) includes chapters by Sanders Gliboff and Jonathan Harwood re-assessing the literature surrounding the ‘Mendelian revolution’ and looking again at Mendel’s impact on plant breeding (and its wider ramifications for debates about human breeding). At Leeds, Greg Radick is working on a biography (due out in 2018) of W F R Weldon, Bateson’s arch rival and critic of Mendelian genetics in Britain.  Provisionally titled Disputed Inheritance: The Battle over Mendelism and the Future of Biology, you can expect some challenging new insights on the controversy caused by Mendel’s peas. For a flavour of what’s to come listen to the Mendel discussion hosted by the Royal Society last summer.

 

 

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John Innes collection of rare botanical books helps science communication project

Guest Blog by Melanie Robb

A recent graduate of the University of East Anglia, I first became interested in the historical collection of the John Innes Centre library during a Science Communication project in my final year – this involved researching plants with medicinal properties for a new garden to be opened on campus later this year (the Modern Physic Garden, or MPG) and writing content for the forthcoming website, including images and historical references.  After discovering that the JIC had its own collection of rare botanical texts, we felt this could be a useful resource as well as providing an opportunity for collaboration between the UEA and JIC.  A subsequent visit revealed a rich collection of works, including rare herbals and books of medical botany which we otherwise would not have had access to.  Outreach Curator Sarah Wilmot was incredibly helpful in locating and providing digitised images from some of the books in the collection, enabling us to include some beautiful botanical artwork in our content for the website.

Since graduating I have continued with this project as an intern working with Dr Laura Bowater (UEA) and have been able to maintain the relationship developed with staff at the John Innes Historical Collections (JIHC) – we are now working together to create a set of digitised images of medicinal plants which will feature on the MPG website.

A selection of botanical images digitised at the JIHC, taken from Woodville’s Medical Botany, 3rd Ed. (1832), one of the many books on medical botany in the John Innes Historical Collections

Lavender

Lavender (Lavendula spica)

Chilli

Chilli (Capsicum)

Hops

Hops (Humulus lupulus)

Saffron

Saffron (Crocus sativa)

 

 

 

A brief history of physic gardens

Humans have been collecting and cultivating plants for their medicinal values for millennia and there is no doubt that these would have been grown in dedicated gardens throughout history. However the first formal ‘physic’ gardens appeared in Italy at the beginning of the 16th century and the trend soon spread across Europe, with the first opening in the UK at Oxford University in 1621. These gardens started out as collections of medicinal plants which were used as educational resources for apothecaries, doctors and students of medicine. Within a couple of centuries however, physic gardens declined in popularity and use for a number of reasons, in particular:

  • improvements in printing technology enabled mass production of medical and botanical texts and there was less need for dedicated gardens for learning
  • at the same time the ‘age of exploration’ led to the discovery of thousands of new plant species which were collected and displayed in botanic gardens, many of which had started life as physic gardens

Although Britain has a rich history of botanic gardens, only a handful of stand-alone physic gardens are open to the public today (eg: Chelsea, Dilston, Cowbridge and Petersfield Physic gardens). The Modern Physic Garden at the UEA will celebrate the historical value of maintaining a collection of useful medicinal plants whilst bringing the idea into the 21st Century. Many modern pharmaceuticals are derived from plant-based medicines which have been used in folklore and herbalism for centuries and it is this connection between past, present and future health, which the MPG aims to represent.

About the Modern Physic Garden

The brainchild of Dr Laura Bowater, the Modern Physic Garden will offer the opportunity for students, researchers and the public to come together to explore the role of plants in society today. The garden will take inspiration from the science, history and culture of important and useful plants, with an emphasis on local resources and current plant science research here at the Norwich Research Park.  Due to open in October 2015, there will be several themes within the garden, including:  pharmaceuticals, clothing, building, energy, food and drink.

 

Using the historical collection in an outreach project:

Some of the images already provided by the JIHC have been used in an outreach project in collaboration with Dr Laura Bowater.  This art and science collaborative venture was funded by North West Norfolk Decorative & Fine Art Society (NWNDFAS) and involved local glass artists (www.saltglassstudios.co.uk) working with Burnham Primary School. The project used the inspiration of plants from the Physic Garden to encourage the school pupils to design a series of glass labels for their own personal use. They also took part in a competition to design a glass plant label to be displayed and used in the garden. Botanical images from JIHC were used as inspiration for the children’s artwork, while they also learned about the uses and scientific features of their chosen plants.

3B. SALT glass studios. BMPS for Glass Art Workshop for Plant lables for the UEA MPG, NADFAS.25.6.15.Photo Credit ©

 

I have really enjoyed working with the JIHC – as someone who is passionate about botany, history and science it has been a wonderful opportunity to view rare works of historical importance and to display some of this work to the public in a modern context.  I believe that being able to access and use this valuable resource has added depth and interest to the work of communicating plant science.

 

 

Glass signs designed by schoolchildren at Burnham Primary School, copyright SALT glass studios:

 

©SALT glass studios23 BMPS School Garden Plant LabelsDSCF9658

Salt glass labels 2

Salt Glass labels 1

 

The John Innes Historical Collections are open to the public by appointment. Get in touch if you have an idea for science communication that you think we might help with!

Contact: sarah.wilmot@jic.ac.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Following the primrose path- why early botanists may have not dallied long enough to understand the secrets of heterostyly

 

 

This week (August 10th 2015) saw the launch of Professor Phil Gilmartin’s beautifully illustrated article ‘On the origins of observations of Heterostyly in Primula’ in the journal New Phytologist. Professor Gilmartin, Visiting Professor at the John Innes Centre and Dean of Science at UEA’s School of Biological Sciences, owes his interest in the history of heterostyly to the fact that he collects and loves old botanical prints. One day while studying the illustrations of William Curtis’s Flora Londiniensis, an eighteenth century publication documenting the wild plants growing within a 10 mile radius of London, and one that brought Curtis ‘praise’ rather than ‘pudding’, Gilmartin noticed that Curtis had drawn both of the two types of flower that occur in Primula. The phenomenon Curtis illustrated is called heterostyly – flower forms where the styles of the plants are of two (and sometimes three) distinct forms: long- or short-styled. If the style with its stigma (or pin) reaches the top of the tube part of the flower, the flower is ‘long-styled’. The stamens either form a ring at the top of the tube or about halfway down its interior. The flower is described as ‘short-styled’ where the stigma reaches only about halfway up the tube and the stamens are situated above it. [For further explanation see this infographic video about heterostyly at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dXRMjUdiX8Q ]

In plant science this observation is usually associated with Charles Darwin who made a series of painstaking experiments on the two forms of flower in Primula in the 1860s, work that sparked a major research project for Darwin that was ultimately published in two books: The Effects of Cross and Self Fertilisation (1876) and Forms of Flowers (1877). Darwin did not coin the term ‘heterostyly’ (this term originates with German botanist Friedrich Hildebrand) but he was one of the first to attempt to understand its reproductive significance. Professor Gilmartin’s surprise encounter with an 18th century depiction of heterostyly, 70 years before Darwin’s observations, led him to ‘follow the primrose path’ through archives, rare books, letters, prints and botanical paintings. The results of his investigation, revealed in fascinating detail in his new article, show that at least seven botanists either drew or described the two forms of flower before Darwin made his observations- the earliest going back to the 16th century.

 

Auricula engraving, 1615

Crispin van de Pas’s Auricula engravings in Hortus Floridus (1615)

 

This all begs the question- if the existence of two forms of flower in Primula was such common knowledge, why didn’t botanists study the subject more fully before Darwin? This blog offers some possible explanations, grounded in social history. Before Darwin, the two forms of flower were commonly known as ‘pin’ or ‘pin-eyed’ (long-styled) and ‘thrum’ or ‘thrum-eyed’ (short-styled). This vocabulary comes from the ‘Florist’ rather than botanical tradition, a language with which Darwin was not familiar- in his early letters on the topic he repeatedly referred to ‘thumb-eyed’ forms, missing its etymology completely. By the time his books were published Darwin had done his research and quoted Johnson’s dictionary to explain the origin of the correct term: ‘Thrum is said to be the ends of weaver’s threads, and I suppose that some weaver who cultivated the polyanthus invented this name, from being struck with some degree of resemblance between the cluster of anthers in the mouth of the corolla and the ends of the threads’. (Forms of Flowers, 1877, p.14).

This quotation accurately situates knowledge of the different forms of flowers to the ‘Florists who cultivate the Polyanthus and the Auricula’. The word ‘Florist’ connoted a very specific social world, an artisanal tradition rooted in the hand-loom and home-working weaver communities of Norwich, London, Lancashire and Yorkshire. This tradition is often located to the arrival of Huguenot Flemish weavers fleeing religious persecution and settling in England in the 1570s, bringing their favourite plants with them and their specialist skills in flower cultivation. By 1623, when the word ‘Florist’ was first used in print, a group identity for these flower enthusiasts was established. ‘Florists’ were skilled hobbyist growers (the modern sense of the flower-selling Florist does not appear until the late 19th century). In Norwich, to use a local example, there is evidence that ‘Florists’ Feasts’ were being held from 1631: these were social gatherings held in the City’s pubs where flower expertise was displayed in competitions and celebrated. The first newspaper advert for a ‘Florists’ Feast’ appeared in the Norwich Gazette in 1707. Dr Sam George has documented the growth of the feast tradition all over England and into Scotland by the late 18th century, by which time ‘Florists’ Flowers’ connoted a very specific group of non-native plants including tulips, auriculas, primulas and carnations. For example, the Paisley Florist Society (founded 1768), whose members were weavers, were famous for their carnations (‘Paisley Pinks’), while Lancashire silk weavers were renowned for their show Auriculas.

Auricula varieties, 1736-1748

Auricula varieties, hand coloured illustration from J W Weinmann, Duidelyke vertoning (1736-1748)

By the 18th century, when Curtis was writing, it had become habitual to distinguish the work of the ‘botanic philosopher’ from that of the ‘fashionable florist’. The very flowers that held the fascination of Florists were objected to as ‘foreign’ monsters, perverted perhaps from their natural form by ‘vulgar’ and ‘unnatural’ methods of raising plants for flower ‘improvement’. Scholars of botany distinguished themselves as students of natural species and naturally occurring hybrids, while a new patriotic emphasis on native flora also played in to the botanists’ disregard of the more showy florists’ flowers. Curtis, for example, invoked the authority of Linnaeus to make this distinction: ‘Linnaeus indeed cautions Botanists against being seduced by the gaudy tints that fascinate the mere Florist’. Working class and women botanists of the 19th century, both groups who were at times co-opted and at others marginalized by the mainstream male botanical tradition, also adopted these distinctions to clearly differentiate their studies from the disapproval meted out to ‘florists’ who in the standard narrative were synonymous with superficial observers. In truth, the Florists’ observation of their flowers was anything but superficial. As Roland Biffen pointed out in his monograph on the Auricula: ‘at an early stage of their work they defined the ‘properties’ which they considered the perfect flower should possess’. One of these points was that flowers should be thrum-eyed, because ‘the pin-eyed flower shows a chasm or vacancy very unpleasant to the eye of the curious florist’ (quoted in Biffen 1951, p. 15). Rules established for judging flower perfection at competitions were adhered to rigidly. Points that were of fundamental importance to the Florists, however, were of no interest to botanical science. Botanists prided themselves (in rhetoric at least) on not making aesthetic judgments about flowers, and the attention to variations in individual plants (so important a skill in genetics) was part of the ‘noise’ from which the botanist had to avoid being distracted, rather than the ‘signal’ (which in their world view was the essential character of the species).

Primula varieties, 18th century

Primula varieties (ibid.) showing the popularity of these Florists’ flowers in the 18th century

If heterostyly had only occurred in foreign Florists’ flowers it would perhaps have been overlooked altogether in scholarly botanical works. However, Curtis made the observation in native ‘Primula acaulis’ (common primrose). But situated as the phenomenon was in the Florists’ world worked against it being taken as a topic of serious study. Curtis side-lined the observation from further scientific investigation with the comment ‘We are then asked to marvel at the inventiveness of God: we are permitted to gratify our sight with the endless varieties the flowers put on, when cultivated by the curious’. Linnaean botany with its emphasis on taxonomy, collections, local floras and plant distributions was focused on establishing ‘type’ descriptions and specimens. Variation in individual flower form within a species was a nuisance for classifiers rather than a problem to be solved. Linnaeus, Curtis and the 18th and 19th century botanists that followed were fixated on a different problem, namely the specific differences between the primrose, the cowslip and the oxlip. As Curtis commented ‘Who is there that does not know the Primrose, the Cowslip, and the Oxlip? The differences between which even a child would be ashamed to be told that it was unacquainted with: and yet to this hour it is a question among the most learned Botanists if they are really distinct species’- a question that continued to fascinate in Darwin’s day.

To paraphrase Sam George- the opposition of botany to ‘Florists’ was shot through with tensions of class and nation. Fancy foreign flowers, artisan knowledge, and alien vocabulary all hampered the transfer of knowledge between the social worlds of the Florists and the ‘philosophic botanists’. That the Florists exchanged their expertise in the pub was also to risk disapproval within contemporary ideas of respectability, a problem Anne Secord has illuminated in detail in her thought-provoking study of artisan botanists in Lancashire. Anne uses tools from social science to explain that botanical specimens and Linnaean nomenclature were ‘boundary objects’ that could have different meanings for participants of distinct social groups and yet allow communication (or ‘translation’) between these different social worlds. Unfortunately for the study of heterostyly, ‘pin’ and ‘thrum-eyed’ flowers did not fit into this Linnaean model of exchange but remained part of the culture of the flower shows. Until Darwin’s studies, early botanists would not go down this particular primrose path which at the time would seem to be a diversion rather than a way of illuminating flower development or plant reproduction.

Further reading:

(All quotes in the blog are from the editions cited here – the rare books illustrations and Darwin volumes are available to view by appointment in the John Innes Historical Collections)

Roland H. Biffen, The Auricula: the story of a Florists’s Flower (Cambridge University Press, 1951). This study has recently been reprinted by CUP.

William Curtis, Flora Londiniensis. New edition revised and enlarged by George Graves and W J Hooker (London, 1835); Vol IV, Primula acaulis and Primula elatior. This edition was published after Curtis’s death. He started this multi-volume work in 1777 but by 1787 his project foundered.

Charles Darwin, ‘On the two forms or dimorphic condition in the species of Primula, Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society, 6 (1862), p. 77.

Charles Darwin, The Effects of Cross and Self Fertilisation in the Vegetable Kingdom (London, John Murray, 1876).

 Charles Darwin, The Different Forms of Flowers on Plants of the Same Species (London, John Murray, 1877).

 Sam George, Botany, Sexuality and Women’s Writing, 1760-1830: from modest shoot to forward plant (Manchester University Press, 2007).

Phil Gilmartin, ‘On the origins of observations of heterostyly in Primula, New Phytologist, first published online on 10th August 2015.

Anne Secord, ‘Science in the Pub: Artisan Botanists in Early Nineteenth-century Lancashire’, History of Science, 32 (1994): 269-315.

 

For more information about Phil Gilmartin’s paper email l.horton@uea.ac.uk

Professor Gilmartin is Visiting Professor in the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology at the John Innes Centre. He is Dean of Science at the University of East Anglia and his research lab is based at JIC where he studies plant development, gene regulation, sex determination in plants and heteromorphy.

To book an appointment to visit the John Innes Historical Collections email sarah.wilmot@jic.ac.uk

 

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