Tag Archives | history of botany

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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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 (Lavendula spica)


Chilli (Capsicum)


Hops (Humulus lupulus)


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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The meaning of flowers: a Valentine’s Day blog

When our John Innes Centre scientists ask about the meaning of flowers you can be pretty sure they are not thinking about flower symbolism and the language of love. That’s probably not unusual for the majority of us; aside perhaps from choosing flowers for a wedding or funeral, most of the culture and folklore of flowers is now lost on us.

The scientific way of viewing flowers has classical roots, a tradition that was advanced in the Renaissance with the return of naturalism in the work of artists such as Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). This more realistic artistic style began to influence herbals in the late 15th and 16th centuries, side-by-side with other stylised and mythical representations of plants. By the 17th century a wealth of botanical art describes flowers through close observation and dissection (often with microscopes), and from the 18th century, illustrations show the influence of new systems of plant classification in the way botanical plates are grouped and the parts of the flower are displayed. Over time the study of flowers branched out from its primary purpose of helping to identify specimens for use in medicine to being a division of natural science in its own right, and we’re fortunate to be able to see all of this unfolding in our John Innes Historical Collections.

Though little thought of today, the symbolism or language of flowers has an equally ancient heritage and a history of change and innovation. The mythic origins of some flower symbols derive from Eastern cultures or are shared with them. Others are tied more directly to associations in the Western Christian tradition. The movement of populations, such as the Huguenots into East Anglia in early modern times, enabled plants and plant lore to travel to new communities.  In Norwich, these immigrant flower-enthusiasts introduced their specialist knowledge of the anemone, auricula, carnation, hyacinth, ranunculus and tulip and celebrated them at ‘florists’ feasts’. From the 17th century the growing international trade in exotic plants and bulbs served to enrich the range of possible choices for floral symbols. The history of art and literature shows that the language of flowers was once widely disseminated: the evidence can be found in court fashions, household decoration, portrait painting, porcelain, and printed books.

Scientific botany itself once routinely included at least some reference to the symbolic power of plants. Many of the botanical books in the John Innes Centre’s collection, for example, have elaborate frontispieces that combine carefully chosen floral imagery with representations of the three classical goddesses: Flora (flowers), Pomona (fruit) and Ceres (crops). But only one botanical work in our collection engages plants directly with the symbolism of love. Published in the 1790s, The Botanic Garden by Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin’s grandfather, contained  ‘The loves of the plants’-  a long poem that delighted (and sometimes scandalised) his generation as it introduced readers to Swedish botanist Linnaeus’s system of plant classification. Based on the sexual structures of the flower, the Linnean scheme was ready-made for a poetic linking of flowers to earthly passions, and Darwin exploited this symbolic potential to the full.  With Darwin’s stated aim ‘to Inlist the Imagination under the banner of science’, The  Botanic Garden is sometimes seen as a forerunner text of Romantic science, part of the Romantic movement that took hold in Europe in the early 1800s. The true cultural home of ‘Loves of the Plants’ is surely the Rococo though – with its overblown devotion to pleasure recently covered by Waldemar Januszczak on BBC4, a movement that went out of fashion at the end of the 18th century. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03slvhy#programme-broadcasts

As we’re approaching Valentine’s Day I thought I’d re-connect a few of the botanical illustrations in the John Innes Historical Collections with the history of floral symbolism. Here I want to introduce six flowers that once had a rich set of meanings to lovers. And no, I’m not even going to mention red roses!


Carnation: Trew, Hortus nitidissimis (1768-1786)

Carnation: Trew, Hortus nitidissimis (1768-1786)

Carnation The carnation or pink first appeared in Britain in the mid-16th century. Though at first associated with Christ (the red carnation originally stood for Christ’s kingship and crucifixion), the carnation came to mean fidelity, true love, friendship and betrothal. It is a common feature of 16th century betrothal portraits.

The tulip craze captured by John Parkinson (1656)

The 17th century tulip craze captured by John Parkinson

John Parkinson, Paradisi in Sole (2nd edition, 1656)

John Parkinson, Paradisi in Sole (2nd edition, 1656)




Tulip The tulip made its first appearance as a symbolic flower in Persia and was the emblem of the perfect lover. In northern Europe the tulip underwent changes of symbolic meaning, first it was a symbol of wealth, and later (after the crash in the tulip bulb trade in 1636-7) it became a symbol of extravagance and folly.







Orange blossom (Citrus sinensis). The fragrant white flowers and evergreen leaves of this tree have long symbolized purity, innocence and virtue, and have also been used to suggest eternal youth and entry into paradise. A flower of choice for bridal bouquets, the orange blossom featured in 17th century portrait painting to symbolise marital fidelity.

 Thistle A surprising emblem of love perhaps, but like enduring love it continues to grow in the stoniest of ground! Image from Merian, Erucarum ortus alimentum et paradoxa metamorphosis (1717).

Thistle by Maria Sybilla Merian (1717)

Thistle by Maria Sybilla Merian (1717)


Columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris) – the emblem of the deserted lover.  Although in the 16th century this flower would symbolise Christ’s passion and the Holy Trinity, or have associations with Mary and the Holy Spirit, columbine later became synonymous with adultery and cuckoldry!


Aquilegia: Weinmann, Duidelyke vertoning (1736-48)

Columbine: J. W. Weinmann, Duidelyke vertoning (1736-48)

Rose garland by Pierre Joseph Redouté (1817)

Rose garland by Pierre Joseph Redouté (1817)


Yellow or white roses In the Victorian language of flowers the rose had specific meanings. A yellow rose signified jealous love or adultery and a white rose symbolised pure love. Image from P J Redouté, Les roses, with text by C. A. Thory, 1817.










For further reading on floral symbolism (including a bibliography of source material from 1883-2001):

Flower Power: The Meaning of Flowers in Art, 1500-2000 by Andrew Moore and Christopher Garibaldi, with an introduction by Anna Pavord (2003).


Follow these links to find out more about some of the current research on flowers and flowering time at the John Innes Centre:










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The First Moderns: Art Nouveau, from Nature to Abstraction

If you haven’t seen it yet, you really should get along to the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts First Moderns exhibition, which among its object collections is showcasing a selection of rare botanical books from the John Innes Historical Collections. The exhibition can be found on the West Mezzanine, and will close on the 8th of December, so this really is your last chance to see it!

Part of a programme dedicated to the history of Modernism, First Moderns focuses on the period 1890 to 1930. The main theme is the use of natural forms among pioneer Modernists. The new natural science had a profound effect on Art Nouveau style. Charles Darwin’s widely-read Origin of Species (1859) and Descent of Man (1871) altered late-Victorian views of humanity’s place and relationship to nature; microscopy introduced cellular life to artists; plants, insects and flowers provided patterns and forms that Modernists applied in designs for glass, ceramics, jewellery and furniture. Connected to this new naturalism was the idea that models of evolution could be applied to human artefacts, society and culture. Nature was seen as transformative, and the use of natural forms was a means to break with the artistic conventions of the past. The botanical books underline the central importance of scientific thought and endeavour to the wider cultural landscape at that time.

Visitors to the exhibitions will find fascinating works from SCVA’s Anderson Collection of Art Nouveau (which include pieces by Emile Gallé and Eugène Baudin) complemented by objects from the Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection and from private collections. The items on loan from the John Innes Centre are woven in to thematic sections titled ‘The New Art and the New Science’ and ‘Outside of Europe’. They include a volume from William Curtis’s Botanical Magazine (1879), open at an illustration of the orchid Paphiopedilum lawrenceanum, which shows how closely Art Nouveau jewellery makers studied natural forms. Georges Fouquet’s Orchid Brooch (1898) lovingly recreates the flower in gold, pearls, mother of pearl and pliqué à jour.


Orchid illustration, Curtis's Botanical Magazine

Orchid illustration, Curtis’s Botanical Magazine

Orchid brooch by G. Fouquet, SCVA First Moderns Exhibition

Orchid brooch by G. Fouquet, SCVA First Moderns Exhibition


Morning Glory illustration by Bunjiro Fujisawa (1902) displayed with ceramics

Morning Glory illustration by Bunjiro Fujisawa displayed with ceramics

In ‘Outside of Europe’ the exhibition explores how Japanese prints and other artwork became part of the visual vocabulary of Art Nouveau. It includes JIC’s copy of Siebold’s Flora Japonica (1870), a book which had immense influence on horticulture and art as it was the first time that Europe and the rest of the world became aware and had access to plants such as Wisteria from that region.

Also included are two volumes by Bunjiro Fujisawa (1902) containing illustrations of varieties of the Morning Glory plants isolated and appreciated as leaf and floral developmental variants and grown in nurseries throughout Japan. These are displayed with artefacts showing the Modernist fascination with the decorative art of the orient and the influence of oriental styles of botanical representation. This is a beautiful exhibition and food for thought for all those interested in the connections between art and science in the modern era.

For visitor information contact:

Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia

Norwich Research Park, Norwich, NR4 7TJ

01603 593199


The featured John Innes books will be returning to our Rare Books Room, so if you’d like to have a closer look please make an appointment!




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