by Daniel Quall King
This is Bracken, a Patterdale Terrier bitch,
(photographed at her hairdresser’s) who
lives with her dog, Buddy, at Abbey Farm in deepest
Norfolk. They are part of the menagerie
belonging to Richard Bales and Isabel King.
But that’s not what this is all about.
Bracken provided the word-association-football*
kickoff for this memoir, that’s all.
* A Monty Python expression
I lived in Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester, from 2004 to 2010. Having been retired for some years and being fancy-free and in a place where I could pursue an old interest, geology, at university level, I proceeded to take all the geology courses then available to older folk, and even managed an OU credit.
After a couple of years of improving my knowledge of geology but having run out of adult courses, I thought I’d see if the Manchester Museum at the University of Manchester needed any volunteers in that department. They didn’t; but “Do you know anything about botany? They could do with some help.” “Well, no, but I could learn.” In this way I was set to spend some fascinating years with the people who were then the staff and volunteers in the Manchester Museum Herbarium.
I was fortunate to live on a good bus route, so once or twice a week I headed off to the university and gradually got to know my way around the herbarium.
The museum, having grown like Topsy, is a bit of a warren; the herbarium is located in the tower and attic of Manchester Museum near the entrance to the original quadrangle.
Cast of Characters (Then)
Leander Wolstenholme, Curator of Botany here giving a tour of the herbarium. A member of probably the last generation of research-centred curators, Leander was one of those people with an extraordinary memory for all things botanical. For some years he was an editor of the Journal of the Botanical Society of the British Isles. A person of great kindness and humour.
Lindsey Loughtman, the ever-helpful Curatorial Assistant (part-time).
Suzanne Grieve, Curatorial Assistant (part-time).
Matt Lowe, Curatorial Assistant (later at the Zoological Museum, University of Cambridge).
Priscilla Tolfree, retired university librarian and lifelong plant enthusiast.
Audrey Locksley, Patricia’s botany pal and another very knowledgeable amateur.
Barbara Porter, who collected rare ferns and had a garden full of them which she bequeathed to the University. We transplanted them to the university’s Botanical Experimental Ground in Fallowfield.
Dave Bishop (Retired industrial chemist, Mersey Valley botany expert).
David Earl, County Recorder for both the Lancashire vice counties (S, 59 & W, 60); another botanist with a remarkable memory. Fondly referred to by Patricia as ‘the fount of all knowledge’.
Daniel King, rank amateur, but very curious.
The story of the founding of the MMHerb is interesting enough, and a potted version of it is included at the end of this memoir. Once Matt Lowe trained me up to take photos and put them online at http://harbour.man.ac.uk/mmcustom/BotQuery.php , most of the material I was put to work on was in the Grindon Herbarium, a unique collection of specimens, illustrations and printed material.
However, that’s just to get the ball rolling. Or the seed germinating (sorry).
One morning I de-bussed as usual at Oxford Road and made my way to the quad and up to the herbarium for a morning of photography and putting-on-line. But when it came time for cuppas, up on the raised bit of platform that accommodated a couple of office desks and enough seats for a tea-break, sitting in a group approximating the demeanour of a court martial were Suzanne, Leander and Lindsey. I negotiated the steps and made for the kettle, but before I could do anything with it, an ominous “Dannn … ” with interesting inflections emerged from Lindsey. No-one cracked a smile. So I smiled and said “Hi!”, thinking, ‘This is serious’. And I hadn’t even dropped the camera. “We’ve got a proposal for you. You know the illustrations in the Grindon Herbarium? We thought you might be interested in identifying the publications they were taken from.” Nonplussed, I was, thinking the trio had misidentified me as the Yoda of the graphic world. The Grindon Herbarium isn’t small, and over the many years Leopold Hartley Grindon had assembled the material, there must have accumulated many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of loose illustrations and articles taken from damaged or incomplete botanical books. What a job that’d be! All I could do was look at Leander and ask, “How long do you think it would take?” He looked away thoughtfully for a few seconds, and then, back in eye contact, he said “Maybe three or four years”.
To make a long story somewhat shorter, the main result of a couple of years of research was two articles, with checklists, about the Grindon Herbarium and the sources of the illustrative and other material it contains. There are materials from 24 of the popular botanical periodicals of the day; and from books and serial publications, 78 (published 2007) in Archives of Natural History and another 17 (2009) for a total of 95. Of course, never having submitted an article for publication in a scholarly periodical, I relied a great deal on advice from Leander about the commentary in the articles.
We were all very pleased when the articles were accepted. They are in ANH Vol. 34 (1): 129-139, April 2007, and Vol. 36 (2): October 2009. The latter is in the Short Notes section, p.354 ff. Archives of Natural History is published by The Society for the History of Natural History (yes, really), which has offices in the Natural History Museum in London. This may be one of the least-known scholarly publications in the world, but has fascinating articles about such things as the great voyages of discovery and so forth. For the enthusiast, the Manchester Museum Collections Database contains within a larger number, the original 700 or so images from the Grindon. If you type botanical prints and drawings into the Botany search window, it brings up most of them.
So what happened to the bracken? When Bracken the pup got her name, it eventually reminded me of an item in Grindon – a pair of exquisite pen-and-ink drawings on tracing paper, as well as a set of printer’s proofs, of Pteridium aquilinum, or bracken to you and me. According to my information, the spores of ordinary bracken are so light that they’ve spread to all corners of the botanical globe, including the often very isolated islands of the South Atlantic. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pteridium_aquilinum .
Although the original photo files of the illustrations are large and adequate to do justice to the extremely fine work in them, the software that uploads them into the KE Emu database condenses the information to such an extent that the delicacy and detail in the original are lost.
Here’s what the online photo of the original looks like:
But what a good excuse to visit the herbarium and see the originals! The illustrations were made for the translation of Julien Marie Crozet’s 1771-1772 account of his voyage of discovery to the South Atlantic, published in 1891. Here’s the relevant section:
http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks13/1306431h.html yields: H. Ling Roth, transl., Crozet’s Voyage to Tasmania, New Zealand the Ladrone Islands, and the Philippines in the Years 1771-1772. London: Truslove & Shirley, 143, Oxford Street, W.; 1891. p35ff:
The Food of the Inhabitants of the North of New Zealand.
We were extremely well received by the savages. They came in mobs on to the vessels and appeared there every day, and we went similarly to their villages and into their houses with the greatest security. This naturally gave us every facility for seeing how these people fed themselves, what were their occupations, their works, their industry, and even their amusements.
We have already noticed that the basis of the food of these people is the root of a fern absolutely similar to ours, with the sole difference that in some places the New Zealand fern has a much bigger and longer root and its fronds grow to greater length.
[1 The New Zealand fern is Pteris aquiline, var. esculenta, and the European species is Pteris aquiline. The difference is thus very slight. See Figs. 17 and 18.]
Having pulled up the root they dry it for several days in the air and sun. When they wish to eat it they hold it before the fire, roast it lightly, pound it between two stones, and when in this state they chew it in order to obtain the juices, which to me appeared farinaceous; when they have nothing else to eat, they eat even the woody fibre; but when they have fish or shellfish or some other dish, they only chew the root and reject the fibre.
These people live also principally on fish and on shellfish; they eat quail, ducks and other aquatic birds which abound in their country, also various species of birds, dogs, rats, and finally they eat their enemies.
The New Zealanders have no vessel in which to cook their meat; the general custom in all the villages we visited was to cook the meat and fish in a sort of subterranean oven. In every kitchen there is a hole one and a half feet deep and two feet in diameter; on the bottom of the hole they place stones, on the stones they place wood which they light, on this wood they place a layer of flat stones which they make red hot, and on these latter stones they place the meat or fish which they desire to cook.
They also live on potatoes and gourds, which they cook in the same way as their meat. Their habits in eating are dirty.
I have also seen them eat a sort of green gum which they like immensely, but I was not able to find out the tree from which they obtained it. Some of us ate of this by letting it drop in our mouths. We all found it very heating.
We also remarked that the savages eat regularly twice a day, once in the morning, the other time at sunset. As they are all strong, hardy, big, well-formed, and with good constitution, one concludes that their food is very healthy, and I think it well to repeat here that fern root forms the basis of their food.
Generally speaking they appeared to me to be great eaters; when they came on board our vessel, we could not satisfy them sufficiently with the biscuit which they liked immensely. When the sailors were eating they would approach them in order to get a portion of their soup and of their salt meat. The sailors used to give them the remains on their platters, which the savages took care to clean out thoroughly; they were very fond of fat and even of tallow. I have even seen them take the tallow from the sounding lead or tallow otherwise used in the ship and eat it as a tasty morsel. They were very partial to sugar; they drank tea and coffee with us, and liked our drinks according as they were more or less sweetened. They showed great repugnance for wine, and especially for strong liquors; they do not like salt and do not eat it. They drink a great deal of water, and when I saw them very thirsty, I used to think that this desire to be continually drinking was caused by their dry food, the fern root.
The Manchester Museum Herbarium
The MANCH [coded for reference] herbarium is held within The Manchester Museum, part of The University of Manchester. It contains approximately 1 million specimens covering a world-wide distribution. It was founded in 1860 by the coalition of several major individual or corporate collections. In particular, the two nineteenth-century Manchester businessmen and amateur naturalists, Charles Bailey and Cosmo Melvill, inspired by the original and substantial collections of the Manchester Natural History Society, collaborated to collect and buy plant material from around the world, and arranged for their final deposition at the Museum. Bailey and Melvill alone provided a wide range of plant collections unequalled by any but a few major national museums. Also, at that time the museum acquired the very special collection of plants, many cultivated, together with illustrations and text, that were assembled by Leo Grindon in connection with his pioneering work in Adult Education.
In addition to this foundation material, the Museum’s Herbarium incorporates collections from thousands of other people, ranging from small personal herbariums donated or bequeathed, to material collected today by expeditions to tropical rain forests and other endangered habitats. There are also many items of historical importance and interest, such as specimens collected by Charles Darwin during the voyage of the Beagle, specimens collected by Admiral Franklin’s expeditions in search of the N.W. Passage, and collections of the great Swedish naturalist Linnaeus. In particular, the 16,500 Richard Spruce items (mostly Amazon and Andes hepatics) have a value far in excess of their number.
DQK Note: At the time when I worked there, the herbarium collection was reckoned to be the fourth largest in the British Isles. Some of the others are at London (Kew and the Natural History Museum), Glasnevin, Edinburgh and Cambridge. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_herbaria_in_Europe#British_Isles .
Recently I was lucky enough to go to the Natural History Museum in London for the launch of their Seaweed Collections Online. Jane Pottas and Jo Wilbraham have spent the last year collecting images and information from 14 different institutions aiming to make seaweed data from regional herbariums more accessible (see the RBGE write-up here).
The team selected aound 150 different species of seaweed from the c.650 species found around the UK. Species were selected for reasons such as their conservation status (rarity), if they provide an ecosystem service (such as an important habitat) or if their distribution is changing (perhaps through environmental change).
430 images of specimens of seaweeds which were collected between the 1840s and 1964 were photographed from the Manchester Museum collection for the project and are now available through the online catalogue.