Tag Archives | John Lindley

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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