Leaf of the Day: Preserving the Plants, Wonderful Wardians

Today, instead of researching more about herbaria which was my intention, I became completely engrossed in the lives of the plant hunters. My admiration for them grows in leaps and bounds. I have been reading amongst others a small paperback “The Plant Hunters” by Tyler Whittle which is full of very entertaining information about these extraordinary people. From the diminutive Albertus Magnus, 1193-1280, who walked all over northern Europe, dissuaded the Poles from eating each other and collected an extraordinary number of plants into the bargain, to the pirate plant collector William Dampier whose terrible cruelty earned him a court martial and who was the unlikely inspiration for Coleridge’s “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner”. I was really just looking for how they transported the plants but got horribly side tracked for hours .. and hours..

However the problem of shipping live plants was of course a real headache for the early explorers. I can barely get a few leaves back from Leu without them withering to nothing, let alone a 3 month sea voyage. Many ways of shipping were tried, packing things in barrels, and wrapping them in oil cloths, suspending delicate things in nets from cabins roofs, and making elaborate sets of boxes within boxes but things could happen on a voyage, storm, shipwreck, mutiny ( as on the Bounty whose revolting crew threw the precious cargo of breadfruit overboard), the neglect of the crew, salt water damage, excessive heat, excessive cold and too much or too little light etc etc etc. Pests on board were a problem too. John Bartram sent boxes of new and precious plants from America to William Collinson in the UK and on one occasion a rat’s nest complete with young was found “amidst the ruin of plants and dead greenery”. Seeds were also sent but they were as tricky to keep in good condition as live plants. Dried plants were useful for identification and if the expedition could afford it an artist went along, but even drawings were subject to the same hazards.

Some early plant carrying boxes

The big change occurred with Dr Nathanial Ward’s accidental invention of the Wardian Case in 1829, which made transporting plants more successful, so much so that plant distribution, especially economically important plants, around the world would change.

Dr Ward had an interest in entomology and ferns but lived in a very polluted part of the docklands in industrial London, and neither the ferns nor the butterflies thrived. However he was aware of the importance of clean pure air for the survival of natural things and in his own words,
“I had buried the chrysalis of a sphinx [moth] in some moist mould contained in a wide-mouthed glass bottle, covered with a lid. In watching the bottle from day to day, I observed that the moisture which, during the heat of the day arose from the mould, condensed on the surface of the glass, and returned whence it came; thus keeping the earth always in some degree of humidity. About a week prior to the final change of the insect, a seedling fern and a grass made their appearance on the surface of the mould”

His curiosity for how long the ferns could survive in this sheltered environment (in fact for 4 years until the lid began to rust), led to the hugely important botanic/economic discovery the Wardian Case.
The success of the cases wasn’t just the fact that they were made from glass but that they were sealed and not disturbed, providing the plants with a stable climate in which to travel. If you have ever had a terrarium you will know how delicate the micro climate inside can be.

Photo of a replica Wardian Case from the National Maritime Museum here
Ward was determined to test his cases well though and so on his orders two cases were stocked with native plants in Australia. These already proven “bad travellers” were put aboard a clipper and sent to England.
Stocked with Plants notorious for their tenderness and their reluctance to leave their natural habitat they were sent on the long storm wracked voyage round the Horn. Between Botany Bay and the Pool of London the plants were subjected to variations of temperature from 20 to 120 degrees. They were rolled sideways and tossed backwards and forwards on the swell and roll of two oceans. But at the end of it all when Dr Ward went down to the quayside and opened his cases he found the plants secure, fresh and green and full of promise. His confidence in the cases was entirely vindicated”
Exerpt from the “Plant Hunters”by Tyler Whittle

The new Wardian cases in which seedlings could be planted and transported enabled Robert Fortune, who I wrote about before in regards to tea, to transport the 20,000 smuggled tea seedlings from China to Assam, to start India’s tea industry. Rubber tree seedlings, after germination in the heated glasshouses of Kew, were shipped successfully in Wardian cases to Ceylon and Malaysia to start the rubber plantations and Joseph Hooker was able to ship many new and different specimens back to Britain from his four year Antarctic voyage.
A Wardian case from Kew gardens. see hereThe Wardian Case being filled in the photograph remained in use at Kew until the 1960s when air transport and other means superseded it.

Below are two examples of the decorative Wardian cases which I particularly like for the inclusion of the cat and bird looking on, perhaps a little nonplussed at being shut out of their normal haunts.

….More on pressing plants
There is so much information on the web re pressing / preserving flowers and I am sure that many had or still have old flower presses, or like me, just make do, but an easy plant press and proper collecting instructions can be seen here from Fort Hays State university

And there is a nice PDF on how to make a pressed specimen from The Fairchild Gardens with a sample of the correct label here.
If I had time I could get very involved in developing and keeping a herbarium but I will save this delightful pastime for when I get my dream garden.

Its Saturday ………..

Leaf of the Day: Porcupine Tomato and other Prickly Customers

As I walked past this little plant yesterday I had a feeling I had seen it somewhere before and today realised it was a few days ago on “Outofdoors” blog, mentioned in the post “C’mon now Touch me, babe” about the importance of considering the texture of plants for the landscape, here . It is strange how things creep into your subconscious and then suddenly there they are in front of you.
I noticed some time ago how few visitors to garden I see touching the plants. Is this because we are taught not to touch when we are children or have we become so separated from nature that we regard it as alien.. well I suppose it is sometimes. It is a shame though, because experiencing the feel of plants is one of the very great joys of gardening. I can’t resist it and am constantly surprised because things do not always feel as you expect them to!
But this little plant is not doing too well at the garden and so I only brought 2 very small leaves back to draw which by no means do it justice. This is the Solanum pyracanthum, a plant from Madagascar and a member of the huge and diverse solanum family. What makes this so attractive is the beautiful red orange stems, and the bright orange and ferocious thorns which track the leaf veins on both the top and bottom surface of the leaves.

image from cactusjungle.com here

The leaves themselves are a really beautiful blue-green and soft, apart from the spines of course. The pretty, typical solanum flowers are a lavender blue. It gets quite an enthusiastic press except from one grower who finds it self-seeds a bit too readily and each seedling arrives with fully formed skin piercing thorns.
There are over 1400 species in this solanum genus and they share some uncomfortable characteristics, all being toxic to some degree, and hairy or prickly. They all have the five lobed flowers and their fruits are berries. They range from some of the poisonous nightshades to the tomato, eggplant and the potato. There are some spectacular varieties with some wonderfully descriptive names to accompany them too, Cockroach berry, Apple of Sodom, Devil’s tomato, Nipple fruit, Bluewitch nightshade, Hairy Fruited eggplant, Buffalo burr and many others.
Here for example is the the Five Minute Plant ( why?) Solanum atropurpureum with its wonderful dark purple thorny stems and green and white striped berries, looking like the little Thai eggplants I have seen at the farmer’s market.

image from Wiki

and Solanum quitoense the “naranjilla” from Quito in Ecuador,

Image from Tom Clothiers very interesting general gardening site here

..which has these beautiful orange fruit.

Great photo from Botany Photo of the Day which always has something stunning to look at. here

I rather liked this robust illustration of the Porcupine Tomato from Curtis’ Botanical Magazine 1894. It has a brief and factual description and says that the plant arrived at its new chilly home in Kew Gardens via Paris in 1789, sent over by Andre Thouin, where ” it is cultivated with us in the stove , where it sometimes produces ripe seeds“. Mr Thouin was the head gardener at the Jardin du Roi in Paris and the “stove” would possibly be Kew’s Great Stove hot house built in 1792.

The text also explains that some of these plants are more thorny than others and parts of this specimin are “unarmed”. Not much though I think.. They are a thoroughly fascinating group of plants and I have spent far too long reading about them, the stove houses and the interesting ailments I can apparently cure with nightshade…more spells for the book!

Porcupine tomato

Leaf of the Day: Titan Arum

I am just over half way through my Uk visit and am currently at lovely West Dean College in West Sussex for some botanical art tuition. After two days of extremely enjoyable and intense botany lessons and drawing with Liz Leech I am taking a break to make a back dated post. We do have (albeit intermittent) Internet access here but not much time spare to use it. I have missed the drawing and the writing but will slowly now be able to update.
This post is backdated to the day I did the drawing and is concerning the astonishing Titan Arum which I was so lucky to see on Friday 9th May. I had gone to Kew mainly to see Shirley Sherwood’s collection of botanical paintings in their new dedicated Gallery, and while looking at the all beautiful work, feeling both inspired and dismayed, a Kew lady popped her head round the door to say that if I was interested the Titan Arum had just flowered and was at its peak in the Prince of Wales Glasshouse. (and non smelly at this point). To be honest I was not quite sure exactly what this Arum was, but when I arrived at the glass house there was no doubt I was in the right place.
The Titan Arum is monstrously beautiful. A stunning 9 foot high creamy green spike thrusting up out of a fleshy frilled cup of purple red. It is the biggest flowering structure in the world. The Kew website has a couple of photos, taken the morning I was there and a couple of days previously, and lots more information.

The first European botanist to stumble on this monster in the rainforests of Sumatra was the Italian Odoardo Beccari in 1878. He sent seeds back to Italy and one of the young plants which grew from those seeds was sent on to Kew where the British had their first encounter with the “flower” in 1889.
The flowers of the Titan Arum are actually at the bottom of the spike and it attracts pollinating insects by emitting a nauseating stench which some say smells like rotting fish, or meat. Luckily, when I was there, it had not quite reached the peak of ripeness but there was just a faint uneasy whiff about it. The Indonesians call it the “Corpse Flower”. We don’t like it but the little pollinating carrion flies love it.

Here is a photo of the amazing Titan Arum and for a short time lapse film of the opening from 2003 see the Kew site here

and two beautiful prints from Volume 117 of Curtis’ Botanical Magazine 1891, depicting the first flowering at Kew

…. I did a quick sketch too !


Titan Arum