Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Week Nine

I was fortunate enough to spend last weekend touring some fantastic gardens in Cornwall and Paris.  I had a really super time, and I'm really looking forward to when I get a spare minute to fill you in on my Garden Guide blog.  Unfortunately, I'm sad to say that I've been having some awful problems with technology that continue to impede my ability to update my blogs.  I thought it would be best to go ahead and share everything from this week, then go back later on next week and give you the scoop on what happened last week.  Sorry for the inconvenience.

Really basic labels in the "Every Child Outdoors"
berry patch at the Knoxville Botanical Gardens
Instead of starting right back to work on Monday, I used some of my free days to spend Monday and Tuesday visiting more gardens.  When I got back to work on Wednesday morning, Kate, Shelley and I were able to make some last minute arrangements for me to visit Wakehurst Place.  I hopped on the mail truck that runs between Kew and Wakehurst and spent the rest of the day in Sussex.  I will write all about that visit in my Garden Guide blog as an appendix to this week's post.

Thursday I was finally back to work.  While Shelley and Beth mowed in the grass garden, the rest of the crew did a "weed sweep" of the order beds.  Crissy and I started on one end of a row, India and Daisy started on the other end, we met in the middle, and then moved onto another row.  The order beds actually cover quite a large area, so this is actually no small chore.  We all worked on this until afternoon tea.  After that, I had the opportunity to help Crissy place some new plant labels.  Although we only did this for a brief time, I found the activity really interesting.  More information about the process is given below.

How Kew does labels

A brief history
Kew has been labeling their collections since as early as 1773.  Someone connected to Kew at the time wrote that, "It is said that orders have been given to the Head gardener at Kew that instead of placing numbers upon the different plants and flowers in the Garden, they shall be inscribed with their names at full length."  Before then, each plant had a number that corresponded to an entry in a printed plant catalog (Desmond, 340).

Standard plant labels in use at the
University of Tennessee gardens include the
genus, specific epithet, and common name
In the early 1800s, Kew suffered some decades of neglect.  However, it was during this time in the 1820s that the curator, John Smith, began the massive undertaking of relabeling all the plants in the gardens to include their specific names.  Before then, the plant labels only included the genus and catalog numbers, and some of these contained confusing inaccuracies (Desmond, 127-128).

As I've written before, the grass collection was the real apple of Smith's eye, and it seems to have received most of his attention in the great relabeling.  In the 1840s only the grass garden was fully and appropriately labelled (Desmond, 148).  It would be another 14 years before the tree and shrub collections received metal hanging name tags (Desmond, 346).

Finding creative ways to use plant labels to track collections and display information continues to be a consideration for Kew today.  According to the most recent edition of Ray Desmond's History of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, the gardens contain "the world's largest documented botanical collection consisting of about 30,000 plant taxa" (Desmond, 333). 

The way that plants are labelled is something that varies across different botanic gardens.  Some that are more concerned with culinary or medicinal properties of plants may include facts about use on the label.  Other institutions that are geared toward educating people on plants that may work for their home landscape will include the common name and symbols that correspond to the growing requirements.  Kew's primary responsibilities are scientific research and conservation, which influences the format of their plant labels.

What does it all mean?
First and foremost, each of these plantings must be labelled with the genus, specific epithet, and family so that horticulturalists, researchers, and visitors know what they are.  Not many of Kew's labels include the common name, but some do.  The label may also include the variety, cultivar, or hybrid name.

We'll use Eucalyptus dalrympleana as an example
of Kew's modern plant labeling system
The top right corner of each label includes the plant's accession number.  The first four digits correspond to the year they were brought to Kew.  Since Kew has only been tracking plant accessions since 1969, the accession numbers of many specimens that are quite old will begin with 1969.  If there was a record of exactly what year an older plant was brought to Kew, it may be reflected in the accession number.

The numerals that follow the hyphen identify when the plant was accessioned in a year.  We'll use one of Kew's Eucalyptus dalrympleana as an example.  The accession number is 1972-6025.  That means this plant was the 6025th plant that was brought to Kew in the year of 1972.

In addition to knowing exactly when a plant was introduced, Kew tracks who collected each plant.  That doesn't mean they track who was the first to collect the species as a whole (although I'd imagine that quite a few of Kew's specimens have that distinction).  Rather, they log who collected the specific plant that is now in the collection.  The initials of the donor are located just below the accession number on the label.  Going back to the Eucalyptus from our example, the donor initials are FRIC.  This stands for the Forest Research Institute of Canberra.

Many, but not all, of the labels will also include where the plant is native to.This information will be located in the bottom right hand corner.  This may be incredibly specific or quite general.  This depends on the native range of the plant.

The herb labels at the ECO Gardens
include the Latin name, common name,
and symbols for the garden uses
Living collections database
Any of the information on the label can be used be used by Kew staff to look up more information about the plant in Kew's living collections database.  The best way to find information about the specific plant is to search using the plant's accession number, although it is possible to look up information using the scientific name, donor initials, or physical location.

The database entry will include more details about how the plant has been managed ("curation"), exactly where it was collected, notes for cultivation, taxonomic notes, and possibly information of scientific interest such as the anatomy, physiology, or ploidy level.  Staff are able to update a database entry so that it reflects the most current information for each plant.  When a plant dies its status is changed from "live specimens" to "dead specimens", but all the information remains on the database.

Adding new labels
Earlier this summer, Crissy submitted a list of all the new plants that had been added to the order beds and the long border.  She received new labels in the section's office mail this week.  She pulled labels for a selection of plants, the we fitted each label with a stand.

Daisy and I had spent a rainy Friday morning the week before pulling these stands out of the cereal beds in the grass garden, removing their labels, and brushing the soil from the stands.  It was nice to see them put to use!

When we finished putting together the labels and stands, Crissy and I placed them out in the gardens.  Some plantings had a temporary label from before they were accessioned.  The genus and species was printed on black paper and taped to a blank plastic label.  Other plantings had white plastic nursery labels that were partially buried under the mulch.

An intern's perspective
Kew has a really broad mission.  Historically, their emphasis has been on the scientific side of horticulture, from collection to economic botany.  Until relatively recently, Kew did not see any need to provide more information to the public.  Sure, visitors were allowed in the garden, but they were rewarded with the experience of being able to see the displays, landscape, conservatories, and specimens rather than with information.

The Eden Project tended to use multiple signs -
including individual plant labels - to communicate
loads of information to visitors
Over the last few decades, Kew's mission has evolved to include public education.  Perhaps it's time for the labeling system to take this into account.  In the future, it would be worthwhile to include at least a common name.  Longwood and Missouri Botanic both do.  But why just play catch-up with other botanic gardens?  Kew is famous for blazing new frontiers.  Perhaps Kew could have a focus group with visitors to ask what further information they'd like to see on the labels in order to better meet their needs.

Don't get me wrong.  I don't think Kew should remove the accession numbers, donor initials, or any of the information that's currently on the labels.  I just think it would be a good idea to add a bit of information that is educates the visitors, since they don't have access to the living collections database.  But that's just my opinion.

Thanks for reading, and check back to read what happens next week in my internship with Kew.

If you have any questions, comments or suggestions, please feel welcome to leave a comment or send me an email.

To see more photos from this week, be sure to check out the album "Week Nine" on the Plante on Plants Facebook page.  "Likes", shares and comments are appreciated. 

This week's British treat was a bona fide Cornish scone from the Eden Project Core cafe.  The scone was bigger than a man's fist and it had fresh, local sticky clotted cream and jam that had whole chunks of strawberry.  This was the mother of all scones!

The Eden Project even uses heiroglyphics for their visitors who may not be English savvy
All photos were taken by Amanda Plante at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew unless otherwise stated in the caption.

  • Desmond, Ray.  (2007).  The History of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew (2nd Edition).  London: Kew Publishing, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. 
  • The Plant List website
  • The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew website and staff

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