Lost treasures unveiled: Centuries-old plants linked to Darwin to be digitised

The specimens could help explain important links between climate change and the extinction of some plants. Credit: ITV News

Words by Emily Pringle, Health and Science Producer

More than ten thousand pressed plant specimens - some linked to famous naturalist Charles Darwin - have been tucked away for centuries in the laboratories at the Royal Agricultural University.

But now, with support from the Natural History Museum, and funding from Gloucestershire Naturalists’ Society and the University’s own Cirencester Fund, the specimens are set to be digitised and preserved for the future.

Some of the collections are more than 200-years-old and are hoped to help ecology experts understand more about the past, present, and future of biodiversity in the UK.

The specimens could also help explain important links between climate change and the extinction of some plants.

The plants were collected between around 1809 and the 1920s, with some later additions included between 1950 and 1970.

Most of the examples were collected from around Gloucestershire, however some were from further afield.

One sample was collected from inside the stomach of a cod, which was purchased from a London fish market .Where the cod was originally farmed is not currently known.

Many of the specimens were collected between 1848 and 1862. Credit: ITV News

Speaking about the importance of the project, RAU Associate Professor in Ecology Dr Kelly Hemmings, said: “Our specimens give the location and date at which they werecollected helping us to piece together patterns of biodiversity change over the last two centuries.”

She continued: “The research possibilities are endless - branching out into climate change, habitat management, genetics, and so much more.”

“But until it is digitised, and the metadata collated, we have no way, other than manually sifting through the handwritten sheets, to know exactly what the collection holds, so this rich seam of data is effectively ‘hidden’ natural heritage.”

Many of the specimens were collected by James Buckman, who was a professor of Geology and Botany at the RAU from 1848 to 1862.

Mr Buckman was known to be in correspondence with Mr Darwin, who at the time was writing the famous “The Origin of Species”.

They were friends as well as experts in the same field, so much so that some of Mr Buckman’s experiments at the college were reported to have been mentioned in Mr Darwin’s work.

Pro Vice-Chancellor at the RAU, Mark Horton, says that the RAU was at the cutting edge of Victorian science.

“Figures like James Buckman were key contributors to Darwin’s theory of evolution and werevictims of the intense debate that followed the publication of The Origin of the Species in 1859,” Mr Horton said.

He added: “This fascinating herbarium is an amazing survivor from those controversial times and it will be fantastic to have it all catalogued and in a format that we, and others, can use for research and future teaching to help us protect our precious and delicate world.”

While this collection is considered relatively small, being under 100,000 specimens, the digitisation is still expected to take around two years.

However, once completed, it is hoped that the collection could help to unlock some of the history of biodiversity and plant species in the UK which will, in turn, help inform ecological management and nature recovery.

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know...