The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Ethiopian Showcase - Tuesday 17th March 2009

Ethiopian Plant Specimens (extra date added because of demand)

Given by - organised by Dorothea McEwan

Reviewed by - Anne Parsons

In March, two small groups of Anglo-Ethiopian Society members were fortunate enough to visit the Kew Herbarium, London to see some of the Ethiopian plant specimens. We were most ably guided by Dr Sylvia Phillips, Honorary Research Fellow.

A herbarium is a collection of preserved plant specimens and we learnt that Kew has 7½ million specimens and that 35,000 are still received annually from new expeditions and from exchanges with other institutions (such as the Smithsonian in Washington). In numerical terms, Kew is beaten by the herbaria in Paris and St Petersburg but is foremost in terms of staff employed and overall level of activity.

During expeditions botanical material is pressed in the field between dry papers and usually some form of heat treatment is applied. In the wet tropics alcohol treatment is also used but specimens can still turn black. On arrival at Kew the specimens are deep-frozen to eliminate any residual insect-type pests. The dry samples (or tiny fractions) can be reconstituted with hot water as an aid to identification.

We were shown some specimens collected by the German naturalist / botanist Georg Heinrich Wilhelm Schimper (1804-1878). He was the most important collector of specimens in Ethiopia (then Abyssinia) where he went in 1837, the visit having been sponsored by the Esslingen Botanical Travel Association. He spent the rest of his life in Ethiopia, mainly in the Simiens and Tigray, where he married the daughter of Ras Ubie, the ruler of Tigray. He collected duplicate specimens and distributed them to various herbaria. In 1843 the Esslingen venture folded and correspondence shows he attempted to obtain further financial funding from other European institutions (including those in Britain). Towards the end of his life he sent his specimens mainly to Kew. Schimper was one of the group of hostages at Magdala and the only known photograph of him is the one showing the Magdala captives on their release.

One set of Schimper's grass samples on display was teff (white, red, and black varieties) collected in 1834. Of interest was the inclusion of local names such as beneigne and buneigne - transliteration obviously being an ever present problem!

Kew would now always have a collaborating partner (such as a national herbarium or a government-sponsored body) on expeditions, rather than rely on the efforts of a single person to undertake such large scale work.

Next on our visit was the Library - 150,000 books, 200,000 botanical illustrations, and many thousands of pamphlets and journals as well. Several items had been put on display for us including: Miscellaneous Reports Abyssinia and Somaliland 1886-1913, a collection of typescripts and pen and ink drawings sent by the botanist Georg Schweinfurth to Dr Moroni, the Assistant Director of Kew; editions of James Bruce's Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile; and Henry Salt's A Voyage to Abyssinia.

The staff at Kew have over the years lent their expertise to the publishing project that has resulted in the Flora of Ethiopia and Eritrea, a monumental 8-volume work. Cheap paper editions have been printed for the domestic Ethiopian market with hardback editions for international sale to herbaria, libraries, etc. We were also reminded that the tradition of producing flora and botanical illustration is still kept alive by Kew in the form of Curtis's Botanical Magazine.

I'm very grateful to Andrew Wain for sending the photograph below taken on the first of the two visits - somewhat of a family occasion, with descendents of Schimper coming to see his important collection.

Kew Herbarium Visit
Left to right: Mrs Sheila Mackey, Miss Emily Mackey, Dr Dorothea McEwan, Mr Peter Mackey, Mr Tony Betts, Mrs Annie Betts
Annie Betts and Peter Mackey are brother and sister, both great-great grandchildren of Georg Wilhelm Schimper; Emily is the daughter of Peter and Sheila Mackey which makes her the great-great-great granddaughter of Schimper
Photo © Andrew Wain

Many thanks are offered to Dr Sylvia Phillips and the library staff for such an enjoyable and informative visit and to Dorothea McEwan and Martha Mulugeta of the Anglo-Ethiopian Society for their administrative input.

If readers want to know more, an Open House event occurs each September where curators, botanical illustrators, archivists, and librarians are all on hand to explain the work of Kew Herbarium.

First Published in News File Summer 2009

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