Friday, 2 October 2015

The Oxford Herbaria

For years I have been a member of the Ashmolean Natural History Society of Oxford, but now that we have settled back in Oxfordshire I have got the time and opportunity to attend some of its meetings.

Collected by William Dampier in Australia in 1697
Illustration from a Dampier's book
Yesterday they organised a visit to the Herbaria at the University of Oxford in the Plant Sciences department.  Began in 1621 this is the oldest herbaria in the United Kingdom and fourth oldest in the world.  Literally and metaphorically,  herbaria are rather dry, with racks and racks of of pressed plants, something familiar from our childhoods, but our host, Stephen Harris, the curator, brought the place alive describing some of their most noteworthy items in the collection, and the history behind them, a sweep through the history of field botany.   Piracy and theft were part of the story, as collecting moved through phases of taking whatever was there during exploration to specific commissions for plant collections, but in the 19th century there was a strong emphasis was on the commercial value of plants from afar for horticulture and cultivation such as rubber and tea .   Nowadays they are very selective and the accessions are around 500 or so per year.
Collected by Darwin in Patagonia
Collected by Linnaeus 
The oldest item was was a herbaria, dating to 1606, consisting of specimens gathered in Northern Italy by a Capuchin monk, Gregorio Reggio, and was later acquired in Italy by the English botanist William Sherard.  It was mislaid for years but was found by George Druce (Flora of Oxford, Flora of Buckinghamshire etc) in a sack in an outbuilding in the university. Druce was a major benefactor to the Herbaria having made a substantial figure from his pharmacy business, for example upwards of £20,000 pera nnum in the period 1910 to 1913.

The total collection consists of over a million items,from all over the world of which around 150,000 have been digitised and catalogued, and are accessible online. (Exploring the Oxford University Heraria)  To digitise the remaining 85% of the collection will be a major challenge.

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