Edinburgh, Fife & East Scotland

Edinburgh's Royal Botanic Garden: Herbarium celebrates 50 years

Edinburgh's Royal Botanic Garden Image copyright Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh
Image caption Edinburgh's Royal Botanic Garden's herbarium was built 50 years ago

It is 50 years since the Queen officially opened the herbarium and library building at Edinburgh's Royal Botanic Garden. But what goes on inside?

Edinburgh's Royal Botanic Garden is a perennial favourite with visitors to the city and locals alike.

However, few ever step inside the large, white building with huge arched windows standing in one corner of the garden, which houses the herbarium and library.

The work that goes on here rarely attracts the public's attention, but for botanists around the world, the building is a vitally important research facility that helps them piece together an ever-more detailed understanding of the plant kingdom.

It is also home to fascinating archives that tell the story of the Royal Botanic Garden itself.

That story began in the 17th century and a small, leather-bound book kept under lock and key in the basement still provides an extraordinary insight into the garden's beginnings.

'Physic garden'

Lorna Mitchell, head of library services, tells me: "This is a copy of James Sutherland's Hortus Medicus Edinburghensis.

"This is the first catalogue of the plant collection. At the time, this was the physic garden that was located near Holyrood, the original site.

"The garden was founded in 1670 by Robert Sibbald and Andrew Balfour and they appointed Sutherland as their superintendent and he became our first regius keeper.

"He produced this first catalogue of the plants which were growing in the garden at that time."

The building's upper floors are home to a huge collection of plant specimens, collected over the intervening centuries during scientific expeditions to the four corners of the globe.

That work continues today.

Elspeth Haston, deputy herbarium curator, said: "What you're seeing here is 4,000 grey cabinets and inside those there are three million herbarium specimens collected from all parts of the world and dating back to 1697.

"It's one of the key resources in the world which botanists use in their research."

New Town

Scientists still travel to Edinburgh to examine the specimens.

That journey can be crucial to botanists working to identify new plant species that they suspect may never have been discovered before.

But digital technology is making it easier for those botanists to study the collection without ever travelling to Scotland.

Ms Haston said: "We're finding it's opening up our collections to people around the world.

"We are currently digitising our collections and we have now got a quarter of a million images of the specimens online and available on our website.

"They're being used by people from around the world who can download them and use them for their research."

It is a service that would have been inconceivable to the gentlemen who, on a February evening in 1836, attended a meeting at 15 Dundas Street in Edinburgh's New Town.

That meeting led to the creation of the Botanical Society of Edinburgh and plans for "the formation of a public herbarium and library".

But the goal of exploring, explaining and conserving the world of plants remains unchanged and is now arguably more important than ever.

The story of the Herbarium is told in the Botanical Treasures Exhibition at the John Hope Gateway in the Royal Botanic Garden. It is open until 30 September 2014. Admission is free.

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