Our green pledge at The Firs

Image Posted on Updated on

As part of our green pledge work in the museum five of us from the Collections team went  to The Firs (The University of Manchester’s experimental garden).

repotting economic plants at The Firs

Our job was re-potting the economic plants from a display in one of the greenhouses.  Above, Henry and David mixing compost in the potting shed.

Platycerium bifurcatum - staghorn fern

We explored the greenhouses while we were there, and came across this impressive staghorn fern (Platycerium bifurcatum).  Below, carnivorous plants Venus Flytrap and a sundew, and the cactus house.

Venus fly trap and sundew

the cactus house

Being away from the workplace and out in the sunshine (although it was very, very cold) made it a great morning’s work.  I enjoyed working with living plants, getting my hands dirty, and working with different people.   The Firs is a wonderful place to visit.

Botany volunteer Barbara Porter donated her rare fern collection to the Firs when she died.  It was good to see the bench dedicated to her.


Lindsey and botany intern Alyssa repotting lemongrass plants.


Snowdrops: pearls of the opening year

Posted on Updated on

Putting away some specimens in the herbarium last week I noticed a folder labelled Nat. Ord. CLXXIV Amaryllaceae GENUS 8. Galanthus.


Unfortunately pressed flowers rarely keep their natural colours, and snowdrops are no exception – even though their petals are white.  The flowers turn brown and the leaves darken too.

 Our cultivated collection also includes illustrations.  Below is a colour illustraion of ‘Eight kinds of Snowdrops’ from The Garden, dated 23 January 1885:

A short article in The Garden (no date, probably around 1886) by F. W. Burbidge begins, ‘THE GIANT SNOWDROPS. One of the minor miseries of my life is having to live in a garden containing thirty distinct kinds of Snowdrops, and not being able to boast of possessing Galanthus fosteri, the “giantest”, and so far, the most to be desired of them all.  Still, I live in hopes, since we are told that, “all things come to those who know how to wait”.’

Burbidge goes on to describe the species and varieties of snowdrop giants in his garden.  He concludes, ‘I hope all the readers of these notes who have distinct Snowdrops in their collections … will be so good as to tell us of them, since there are now a good many of us deeply and seriously interested in these pearls of the opening year’.

Another delightful little piece about the average flowering dates of snowdrops (probably dated around 1880 to 1890):



Posted on Updated on

Lindsey’s recent posts about walking make interesting reading… so I have borrowed her idea to describe a short walk in Somerset. The provisional title (which suggested itself last night in the bath), was “Not Lindsey’s walk”. That produced a chuckle, followed by the observation that I wouldn’t remember, which led along a train of thought about how to make a waterproof notebook, and then to the advisability of chuckling in the bath… but I digress.

I usually like the implication produced by a definition in the negative. Commentators commonly describe modern democracy as the “least worst system”. “Not Lindsey’s walk” sounded pretty good at first, but it doesn’t have an obvious subtext. So “Ramblings” has won the day.

The impulse to think about the world around you while walking isn’t a new one. Aristotle (384-322 BC) famously taught while walking around the Lyceum in ancient Athens. The word peripatetic describes this process and identifies disciples of the Aristotelian philosophical system. One such disciple, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, extended Aristotle’s theories of the imagination, and it is with Coleridge, or more precisely with a statue erected in his honour, that this walk (from Watchet on the north coast of Somerset to Blue Anchor, a couple of miles to the west) begins.

A statue of the ancient mariner, Coleridge's most enduring fictional creation, on the harbour-side in the Somerset town of Watchet, provides a starting point for this walk.

The coast between Watchet and Blue Anchor provides a window into a remote geological past when ‘slimy things did crawl with legs upon the slimy sea’. The slimy things are now almost magically transformed into fossils… As well as the rocks and the fossils they contain, there are fascinating plants and animals to be seen, and who could resist a journey on a steam train?

The West Somerset Railway runs a steam service most of the year and has stations at Watchet and Blue Anchor.

There is a small museum on the harbour-side at Watchet, 100 metres west of the statue, which displays local fossils including a nearly complete ichthyosaur skeleton. Walking west from the museum a slipway at a gap in a row of terraced houses provides access to the beach. This is a good place to start looking for fossils. The blue-grey limestone pebbles in the bay commonly contain bivalves, and occasional mudstones preserve the spiral traces of ammonites. There are exotic foreign rocks here too, imported to provide sea defences for the town. Some of these contain fossils, but they are Carboniferous in age and not related to the local geology.

Ammonites are very common in fallen blocks of Jurassic mudstone on the shore between Watchet and Blue Anchor

The cliffs reveal a pattern of folds and faults that illustrate the complex forces that have moulded the landscape. The oldest rocks are red, and accumulated in an ancient desert environment. Younger rocks were deposited in tidal mudflats. The youngest were laid down in warm tropical seas. The lost world they record existed 200 million years ago as the Triassic period ended and the Jurassic began. At that time, the landmass that is now the British Isles lay beneath tropical skies about 20 degrees north of the equator. The Variscan mountain range to the south and west, was gradually being worn away and by the beginning of the Jurassic period, warm shallow seas had replaced the desert.

Three quarters of the way toward Blue Anchor the character of the rocks changes and the cliffs are veined with white to salmon-pink gypsum. In the Middle Ages the gypsum deposits were worked to produce alabaster for carving and to make Plaster of Paris. The gypsum veins are exposed in the cliffs for several hundred metres before a fault throws up older orange-red Triassic rocks. These Triassic rocks, known to geologists everywhere as “Red Beds”, remain all the way to Blue Anchor.

A beautiful example of a fault in the cliffs near Blue Anchor. Red Triassic mudstones are faulted against marine sediments of Jurassic age

Coastal cliffs and the seashore provide a great opportunity to wander in the hope that nature will reveal something interesting. All sorts of plants grow on the cliffs. These include grass vetchling… a truly cryptic species, which although present in great abundance does a marvellous job of disguising itself as a member of the grass family, (at least, until it flowers). There are also orchids including the exotic greater butterfly orchid.

Grass vetchling (Lathyrus nissolia), a truly cryptic plant except in Summer when its pea-like flowers are conspicuous.
The greater butterfly orchid (Platanthera chlorantha). Note the long thin nectar-bearing spurs which can only be plumbed by the tongues of a few large moths.

Sea shore animals include shore crabs and nudibranchs (commonly known as sea slugs, but rather more attractive than our common garden variety). Recently, while looking at some geological specimens collected in the area I came across a very strange beast indeed… a pseudoscorpion. It will be the subject of another post, but I couldn’t resist adding a photo here!

Sea Slug
Shore crab

Different people have different perspectives on nature. Rocks and fossils or plants and animals aren’t everyone’s cup of tea! But this area of Somerset has attractions that can tempt even the hardiest non-naturalist. Foremost among these is the West Somerset Railway. This runs a steam service calling at both Watchett and Blue Anchor. A particular treat is in store in September, when the newly built peppercorn class A1 Pacific steam loco Tornado is making a guest appearance on the line.

The newly built A1 Pacific steam loco Tornado at its unveiling at the National Railway Museum, York.

A common sense approach when visiting the locations described is important. The cliffs between Watchet and Blue Anchor are tidal and the low and high tide times should always be determined. Do not start the walk on the seashore on a rising tide as the sea always reaches the base of the cliffs!

Specimen of the Day: 21/12/2009 – Frankincense

Posted on Updated on

It’s so nearly christmas and there’s snow in Manchester (falling off the roof like an avalanche) and on the Herbology Manchester blog too (silently and not half so cold).

Unfortunatley this article has neither the date nor details of the publication it came from.
Illustration from the Leo Grindon collection

Frankincense is our specimen of the day.  Had a rummage and found this specimen and newspaper clipping in our Grindon collection, and  then found a jar of the stuff in the Materia Medica.  The blurb in the paper makes no mention of  the gifts given to baby Jesus, of which frankincense was one.  Maybe it wasn’t a big deal in 1850.

Frankincense is an sweet smelling resin from trees in the genus Boswellia, mainly found in North Africa. 

Guess what the specimen will be tomorrow?

My Dear Whitehead… …I remain yours very respectfully Thomas Whitelegge

Posted on Updated on

Having looked through our archives, I found one letter from Thomas Whitelegge.  It was written to his old friend from The Ashton Linnean Botanical Society, John Whitehead.  It is dated March 23, 1885 and shows Whitelegge’s address as 537 Crown St, Surry Hills, Sydney, New South Wales.

Having discovered last week that Whitelegge had corresponded with Darwin, I was a little disappointed to only find this one letter, however it is such an interesting letter I soon cheered up.  Considering Whitelegge left school at 8 years old, his handwriting is remarkably easy to read.  Working in the herbarium and doing my History degrees, I have spent many hours transcribing Victorian handwriting so I know how difficult it can be to read.  I’ll try and find time to transcribe the letter fully and post it up here, but in the meantime here’s an excerpt to whet your appetite…

“…I  think it is now time I gave you some hint as to how I like this country.  I like it better every day and never regret coming out here but I have been very fortunate in getting a government billet, which is a fine thing out here there are no broken weeks or paydays although there is some 10 public holidays in each year, and the hours are only school hours 9 to 4 with 1 hour for dinner so that when I leave off I can jump on our steam tramway cars and go mossing and have 3 or 4 hours out before dark.  The trams go at such a speed to that is a wonder there is not more accidents then what there is.  The cars are double deckers ugly looking things appearing top heavy so that you would think they would topple over…”

Thomas Whitelegge and Bog Rosemary

Posted on Updated on

We had an exciting morning in Herbarium last Tuesday.  It began when Andrea Winn, the Curator of Community Exhibitions, called to see if we could supply some specimens to put in a ‘Museum Comes To You’ box linked to the Manchester Gallery.  Andrea had already collected some cotton samples but now wanted either some Bog Rosemary (Andromeda polifolia) or a specimen collected by one of our working class, Victorian botanists.  I decided to see if I could combine the two requests and find some Bog Rosemary collected by a working class botanist.  In our British collection I found a lovely sheet of specimens collected from Lindow Common in Wilmslow by Thomas Whitelegge in 1877.

I didn’t know much about  Whitelegge but a quick look in Desmond’ (Dictionary of British and Irish Botanists and Horticulturalists: Including Plant Collectors, Flower Painters and Garden Designers, Ray Desmond, 1977) revealed that Whitelegge (1850-1927) was indeed a workingman naturalist.  The short entry showed that he was born in Stockport, was Secretary and President of the Ashton Linnean Botanical Society and that he moved to Australia in 1883 where he joined the staff of the Australian Museum in Sydney until 1908.  Whitelegge became an authority on ferns and mosses and to top it all, he corresponded with Charles Darwin.

Andrea and I immediately started looking through our archives for any correspondence to or from Whitelegge.  Meanwhile Leander had found a more detailed biography of  Whitelegge in the Australian Dictionary of Biography Online.  We discovered that he had been born into poverty to an illiterate brickmaker, leaving school at just  8 years of age.  He went to work in a factory before becoming apprenticed to a hatter.  We were then shocked to find that he broke his indentures and lived as a fugitive for 2 years on a farm in Hurstbrook, Lancashire.  It was whilst working on this farm that Whitelegge developed his interest in natural history.

Andrea and I are both following some leads to see what else we can discover about Whitelegge.  We will keep you posted of any news.