The herbarium possesses a wealth of botanical specimens in a special collection called the Materia Medica. The Materia Medica collection houses a huge variety of plant derivatives that were used in Victorian times for their therapeutic benefits. Stored in a confusing order in awkward cupboards in a room seldom visited, the collection was in need of a re-organisation. Each sample is stored in a glass jar. On each glass jar is a number in sharpie pen, this number represents the family the plant is a member of, using the Bentham & Hooker system of ordering. Previously the collection was ordered by what the sample was. For example there would be a shelf for seed samples, rhizomes, cortex samples, leaves etc. This system didn’t make much sense for a person who wanted to view all of the parts of one plant, or one genus of plant. This led to us deciding it would be best to do a complete overhaul of the system of ordering and start anew.
The first task in the project was to clear the cupboards of all of the samples. One morning Jamie the apprentice, Bernard the volunteer and I emptied the cupboards. Using the numbers written on the jars, we placed samples from the same family together on some temporary shelving. 578 jars of samples later and we had finally cleared the cupboards.
The next task was to write down what exactly was in each jar. What the sample was, the common name of the plant, the plant’s Latin name etc. This data is to be entered into a spreadsheet so that when people want to look specific items in the collection they will know where it is located or if there are any other parts of the plant in the collection. We will the re-house the collection back into the cupboards in the new order.
Whilst the advent of modern medicine means the samples in the Materia Medica are no longer widely used, the samples are fascinating. The collection includes items such as: Poppy seeds (Papaver somniferum), Acacia Gum (Acacia sp.), Red Sandal Wood (Pterocarpus santalinus) , Grains of Paradise (Amomum melegueta) & Dragon’s Blood (Calamus draco).
Blog post by Josh, FLS placement student