top of page

ABA Visit to the Economic Botany Collection, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Have you selected a subject to illustrate for Botanical Art Worldwide 2025?  If not, a visit to the Economic Botany Collection at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, may provide inspiration!


Post by Diane Marshall, Botanical Artist, PPSBA


Sketch by Diane Marshall
Sketch by Diane Marshall
 

On February 24, 2024, ABA members were treated to a visit to the Economic Botany Collection at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. We were so lucky to be given a tour of this fascinating collection in preparation for choosing subject matter for the Botanical Art Worldwide 2025 exhibition (BAWW). Professor Mark Nesbitt was our brilliant guide. In addition to being Curator of the Economic Botany Collection, he is Honorary Associate Professor at University College London, Institute of Archaeology, Visiting Professor at Royal Holloway, University of London, and Senior Research Leader at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. 


Mark Nesbitt showing specimens to the ABA group
Mark Nesbitt showing specimens to the ABA group

From the Kew Gardens website describing the collection:


"Plants have been the basis of our food and drink, medicines and poisons, clothing and building materials for millennia. The Economic Botany Collection is an extraordinary range of artefacts, all derived from plants – and 500 items that are from fungi. Toys, paper, instruments, and fuel are just some of the items in the collection that tell stories about how daily lives are lived, how human moments are celebrated and how communities are built and defended. Today, the Collection adds around 2,000 specimens every year collected through global partnerships. The collection represents all plant uses and most parts of the world – but it has a particular emphasis on regions affected by British colonialism or trade in the period 1847 to 1930. 


"The Economic Botany Collection is housed in a purpose-built, temperature-controlled store with compactor units. It is maintained at 16°C and 50 percent humidity. Loose substances are kept in sealed glass jars. Others are in acid-free glass boxes. Wood specimens are kept on open shelves. Larger objects are in polythene backs or boxes. Rubber artefacts are kept in anoxic microenvironments. The collection is organised by plant family (Bentham & Hooker), then alphabetically by genus and species. Objects are divided by type and size.


The collection represents plant usage across the globe with a focus on economic uses, such as tea, rubber, medicine and food crops, also plants used for traditional crafts, such as willow weaving for salmon traps, grasses and reeds for basket making."



Fish trap made from willow used on the Severn Estuary
Fish trap made from willow used on the Severn Estuary

The focus of our visit was on native British plants and historical varieties of plants that have been grown in the UK for many years. The theme for BAWW 2025 is Crop Diversity, so this collection was a perfect place to obtain information and inspiration relevant to subject material for the UK BAWW exhibition.


Our host, Mark Nesbitt, showed us a wide range of plants held in the collection, which are housed in a variety of jars and boxes in huge shelving racks. Some of the specimens were moved into boxes and at risk of insect damage. Many of the jars had very old labels which were beautiful in their own right. We were able to take a selection of specimens to a meeting room to examine up close.



Specimen jars
Specimen jars

Rui Jiang holding very fragile, 150 year old flax, 'Linum usitatissimum'
Rui Jiang holding very fragile, 150 year old flax, 'Linum usitatissimum'

We looked at examples of plants and the products produced from them, such as flax (linen), henbane (medicine - although highly poisonous), hops (beer), dye plants (where Woad would represent the British variety rather than Indigo), grasses and wheat. We were also shown examples of diversity within a single species, for example a multi-headed wheat.



One very interesting display showed lace made from sweet pea fibre as an attempt to support the lace industry in Ireland. Another was a collection of grass varieties used for hay.





Left: Lace made from pea fibers; Right: Grass varieties grown for hay
Left: Lace made from pea fibers; Right: Display case with grass varieties grown for hay

Mark explained the difference between landrace varieties, which are often farmer-selected and more diverse across the crop, versus cultivars, which can still be old varieties, but bred to be more uniform, and often have a number against the variety name. Whilst plant breeding has been practiced by farmers for thousands of years, it developed greatly in the early 20th century when Mendel’s experiments with peas were “rediscovered” by plant breeders.


Mark recommended some additional sources for researching material for the BAWW exhibition (see below). Additionally, a number of historic publications such as books, nursery and seed catalogues have been digitised and are available on various websites. You can find a list of these resources on the ABA website (go to https://www.assocbotanicalartists.com/baw-2025, then select Artists Information Pack). Here you can also find general information about BAWW 2025, guidelines for choosing subjects and can register your interest in submitting work for the exhibition.


The visit was very inspiring and showed there are a wide range of British heritage crops to research for the BAWW exhibition.

 

Resources provided by Mark Nesbitt:

Additional BAWW resources are available at:  https://www.assocbotanicalartists.com/baw-2025

 

 



354 views0 comments

Comments


bottom of page