One Million British Botanical Treasures Will Be Digitized

Artifacts in the sprawling collection include a Chilean potato plant collected by Charles Darwin and 18th-century lavender

The new horticultural center will be built at the RHS flagship garden in Wisley, Surrey Christine Matthews / Creative Commons

When Charles Darwin was just 22 years old, he boarded the HMS Beagle and set off on a five-year voyage that would take him to the far-flung corners of the world, from the Galapagos Islands to Cape Verde and the Andes Mountains. Darwin’s trip sparked the ideas that later formed the basis of his theories of natural selection and evolution—and, in a lesser-known turn of events, enabled the young naturalist to spend plenty of time observing a staple of British cuisine: the potato.

In an 1834 letter to his sister, Darwin described his stay on the Chilean island of Chiloé, writing, “Pigs & potatoes are as plentiful as in Ireland.” However, the young Darwin appeared to be less taken with the weather. “With the exception of this weighty advantage,” he continued on, “Chiloé, from its climate is a miserable hole.” In later writings, though, Darwin adopted a more venerable tone toward the country and its potato crop, noting that “it is remarkable that the same plant should be found on the sterile mountains of central Chile, where a drop of rain does not fall for more than six months, and within the damp forests of the southern islands.”

Come 2020, a Chilean potato plant collected during Darwin’s stint on the Beagle will form the centerpiece of a display at the Royal Horticultural Society’s newly announced National Centre for Horticultural Science and Learning.

BBC News’ Helen Briggs reports that the potato plant, which was unearthed in a cabinet at the RHS herbarium five years ago, is just one of more than a million British science and heritage artifacts set for exhibition and digitization.

These items “have a long history, but they've been kept in a drawer in the dark and the public hasn't seen them," RHS’s Fiona Davison tells Briggs.

According to a press release, more than 86,000 herbarium specimens, 24,000 insect specimens, 30,000 pieces of botanical art, 250,000 photographs and 100,000 books spanning half a millennium of horticultural history will be transferred to the center upon its opening. The artifacts will also be archived online to open up this trove of heritage to the wider world.

The collection’s highlights include an 18th-century lavender specimen and a sprig of Pelargonium retrieved from the spot where France’s Prince Imperial Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte was killed at the start of the Zulu War in 1879.

Also of note are objects linked to James Kirkham Ramsbottom, a horticulturalist who revived the dwindling daffodil industry during the 1917 bulb season. As the Daffodil Journal recounts, Ramsbottom was the first to treat “eelworm-infested narcissus bulbs successfully on a commercial scale.” According to Briggs of the BBC, the horticulturalist realized that heating the bulbs for four hours at 43 degrees killed the worms, which had nearly wiped out Britain’s daffodil population.

“We wouldn't have the richness of daffodils and narcissus if it wasn't for him," Davison tells Briggs. "He's completely forgotten now."

The money for the development of the horticulture center comes courtesy of a windfall the RHS received from the National Lottery earlier this summer. The project will be constructed at the society’s flagship garden in Wisley, Surrey. In addition to housing a new library and archive, the center will feature three laboratories, two learning studios with an accompanying teaching garden, and a herbarium and digitization suite, which, we assume, will be put to good use in putting these horticultural treasures online for all to appreciate.

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