Not just a collection of old dead leaves!

In my teenage years, I squashed plants and sellotaped them into to a far-too-small notebook. It was what May Coley – author of Wild Flower Preservation: a collector’s guide (1913) – would have called a ‘mournful’ collection, but it helped me learn some of the commoner species in the fields and hedges around my home in Essex. I did a bit of plant collecting as a summer job, while an undergraduate, some more on a student expedition to Colombia, and a few specimens of brambles from my D.Phil project were collected so they could be sent off for identification. However, I don’t think I have pressed more than a handful of specimens in the last 40 years. This is probably the case for most modern British naturalists.

A couple of specimens that bear my name.

All of which is a far cry from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when plant collecting was a craze, as promoted in May Coley’s guide. There was even a proposal in 1864 from the Horticultural Society for a prize for the three best herbaria from every county in Great Britain with a further prize for the best overall. The Botanists Chronicle, commended the aim of encouraging the study of local botany, but pointed that this amounted to offering ‘…two or three hundred prizes for the extirpation of all the rare plants in the British Islands…’ because it would let loose ‘…the idle dilettanti in the country to search out and pillage all the localities of rare plants giving them moreover a direct interest in taking or destroying every specimen they can find, that, what they do not themselves want, may be made inaccessible to their competitors’. The competition was modified, but it highlights the tension that arises over the taking of specimens – when does the increase of personal and scientific knowledge, and perhaps the provision of material that will benefit future researchers, outweigh the loss and destruction of existing plants?

For common species the risks of over-collecting may have been exaggerated but for rare species the effects could be disastrous. The 1865 edition of the Botanist’s Chronicle notes that ‘… A friend told us that [the Lady’s Slipper] is plentiful in some wood not far from Keswick. We do not know the name of this locality and if we did it is not safe to publish the local of so rare a plant…… an unscrupulous collector had carried off a great many plants and uprooted others too small to carry off ..but there are still some plants of Cypripedium there.’ Not any more; I imagine that the remaining plants in Borrowdale were also collected out. Near where I was doing my teenage collecting had been the sole locality in Britain for Sickle-leaved Hare’s-ear. In 1842 300 specimens were collected from this site: there are 18 sheets of it in the Fielding-Druce Herbarium dating from 1835 (just four years after it was first found) to 1912. The Botanists’ Chronicle (1864) thought the exact situation of the Hare’s-ear (fields alongside the Ongar-Chelmsford road) ‘may be definitely described without danger to the plant’s existence there; for its plenty is so great as to exclude all risks of extermination’. Well, so it seemed at the time: I never saw the plant because the last record from the site was in 1962.

Sickle-leaved Hare’s-ear and an account of its former abundance near Ongar in 1832.

For the modern researcher, good herbarium specimens (well-preserved, correctly identified, with date and place of collection) can provide indications of whether species distributions have changed, or whether flowering times have advanced with climate change. DNA samples may be used to test ideas on how closely-related different species are.

Notes accompanying the specimens throw light on the social lives and attitudes of the botanists themselves. There might be disappointment as when an immense colony of Cardamine impatiens L. near the Clifton Suspension Bridge was shortly after ‘cleared by gardeners’. George Claridge Druce’s first attempt to see the Red Helleborine in the Cotswolds failed because he misread the instructions and entered the wood from the wrong end. His finding of Cyanoglossum germanicum Jacq. in Wychwood was more successful, in the company of Lady Margaret Watney, Lady Isabel Gordon and Lady Edward Grey – could a modern expedition match this clutch of titles?

We do not want to go back to the practices of Victorian collectors such as Nona Bellairs, who found so much Parsley Fern during a visit to Kirkstone Pass in Cumbria that she immediately packed up a hamper of it and sent it back to London.

Rydal collection 1864 Cryptogamma crispa

Not quite a hamper-full, but this specimen of Parsley-fern collected near Rydal in the Lake District in 1864 reflects an over-enthusiastic approach.

We do though owe it to our successors to keep herbaria up to date. Unlike entomologists most British botanists do not usually take voucher specimens as part of the surveying process, except for difficult groups such as Euphrasias or Hieracia. Yet, I know that my early surveys certainly contained some mis-identifications and I sometimes wonder about other people’s names when I am comparing recent data with past records: did they really find that species there, or was it a similar, apparently more likely, one.

We are entering a period of rapid alterations in the distribution and abundance of plants in Britain as climate change starts to bite. We should be providing more evidence to back the lists that we make. Experienced surveyors may bridle at any implication that they might not have accurately identified a plant such as Dog’s Mercury; but will someone in 60-yrs’ time know that they were experienced and that their record can therefore be trusted? Support could now be as a photographs for the commoner species, but for less common species a voucher specimen would provide extra confidence in the identification provided, of course, that taking it does not threaten the population.

In Lincolnshire the Love Lincs Plants project is assembling a new herbarium collection for the 21st century. See

In Oxford, there are ambitious plans underway to make digital copies of all the current collection (Harris 2020).

We are also looking to start a modern collection from Wytham Woods this summer.

The Fielding-Druce Herbarium in Oxford – the focus for a major project to digitise specimens, such as that of the Yellow Birds-nest, collected by Elton, which allowed us to refind the species in Wytham after 50 years when no-one had spotted it.

My teenage collection was lost when my parents moved house. Herbaria too may often be seen as relicts of a past era in plant sciences, but they have an under-appreciated role in modern conservation in Britain and need more support.

Harris, S. 2020 Physical and Digital: making Oxford University Herbaria digital. Quarterly Journal of Forestry. In press.

2 thoughts on “Not just a collection of old dead leaves!

  1. Great post. I have never maintained a herbarium of vascular plants, but when I did my undergrad degree at Sheffield we had to prepare a collection of grasses in the summer after the first year, which was a really good learning experience.


  2. This is great Keith. I’ve never prepared proper herbarium sheets either although as a child on holiday in north west Scotland collected with my mother some of the common plans of the area and pressed them between sheets of newspaper under the carpets (not fitted in those days) in our holiday cottages. At least some of the dried specimines are still stuck with Sellotape amongst the photographs in the family albums! A slightly more serious attempt on a more recent trip to Belize was thwarted when I realised that the vital parts of the trees I was struggling to identify were too high up to reach.


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