KewDC stands for Kew Directors' Correspondence and over here behind the scenes in the library at Kew Gardens the Directors' Correspondence team is busy digitising letters from the gardens' archive. We scan the letters using a high resolution digital camera and also summarise their content pulling out important information about plants, gardens, places and botanists past, to create a description of each letter's content. This 'metadata' is uploaded alongside the images to a fabulous website called Jstor plant science - a huge repository of plant based information, with many international contributors besides Kew, combining digitised historical documents, plant specimens and drawings, as well as published works.
|One of my fellow digitisers imaging a letter|
Kew was instrumental in helping the British Empire make the most of the natural plant resources in its vast territories and this was done through a network of gardeners, botanic gardens, experimental gardens and nurseries across the world all corresponding with the Directors at RBG, Kew. So the DC represents not just a history of Kew as a garden but of botanic gardens throughout the world: of their origin, development and day to day running. For example the collection includes over 500 letters from Calcutta Botanic Garden.
The collection also represents the history of what we have in our back gardens today. Horticulture was big business in the 18th and 19th century. As the proliferation of shows and exhibitions of goods from around the empire fuelled the desire for all things new and exotic, plant hunters were sent out by nurseries, by the Royal Horticultural Society and by RBG Kew to find new interesting and ornamental plants. The DC includes letters from some of the great Victorian explorers and botanists who introduced many of today's common British garden plants, some of whom are remembered in the names of the plants they collected.
But not all the people who can take credit for these introductions were actually employed as plant hunters and most are not well known or remembered. A favourite 'amateur collector' of mine represented in the DC is Augustine Henry who collected in China and Taiwan; he was not a trained botanist and plant hunting wasn't his job, he was posted in the orient as a customs officer. His letters are fascinating accounts of remote regions and fields of botany, which have now been lost to progress, but provided rich pickings for Henry at the end of the 19th Century. He sent over 15,000 dried plant specimens to Kew, material which included 25 new genera and 500 new species, many of which were suited to the climate of the British garden and his success prompted other sponsored collectors to be sent to China. In 1935 J.W. Besant wrote: 'The wealth of beautiful trees and flowering shrubs which adorn gardens in all temperate parts of the world today is due in a great measure to the pioneer work of the late Professor Henry'. See the letters on Jstor here.
|The beautiful Lilium henryi, collected by Henry and named after him, appeared in the 1891 Curtis Botanical Magazine and is still a garden favourite|
It seems there was scarcely a botanical letter written in the late 1830's that does not lament Douglas's grizzly death: gored by a bull when he fell into a cattle trap whilst collecting in Hawaii. And then because the 19th century botanist is a gossiping creature in my experience, there comes the epistolary discussion: did he fall or was he pushed?