The Carpological Collection on Display

Published on 22nd February 2019

This year at the Linnean Society, a little-known biological collection is finally getting the attention it deserves.

It is well known that our founder James Edward Smith, who purchased the Linnaean Collections in 1784, was a keen botanist, and kept his own herbarium. Smith's herbarium is far less well known than Linnaeus's yet holds important specimens, many of which are types, from significant naturalists of the time including Carl Linnaeus the Younger (son of Carl Linnaeus), Robert Brown, Joseph Banks, John Ellis and Joseph Dalton Hooker, amongst others. Alongside his herbarium, Smith kept a carpological collection, which contained the parts of a plant that could not easily be pressed on a herbarium sheet: seeds, bark, gum, fruits (such as cones), and leaves.

Specimens of economic importance case

The collection, which contains approximately 800 items, has always been on the margins of the other collections at the Society. It narrowly avoided being sold off, when other specimen collections owned by the Society were auctioned in 1863. A look in the Council and Meetings Minute books reveals that, since then, the matter of what to do with it has come up again and again. For many years, Librarian Gina Douglas and Conservator Janet Ashdown, both quite taken with this rich and idiosyncratic collection, wished to find ways to conserve it and make it better known. Thanks to a one-year Arts Council PRISM grant (Preservation of the Industrial and Scientific Material), awarded in March 2018, both are finally getting closer to the goal. The PRISM grant has allowed us to buy better conservation grade boxes in which to rehouse each item, and to clean the wrappers that enclose them. The grant has also enabled the collection to be stored with the Smith herbarium in purpose-built shelves. A display in the Library showcases some of the items in their new boxes, and highlights the uniqueness of the wrappers and the economic importance of many items they contain.


What makes the carpological collection unique is that most of the items are still enclosed in their original wrappers, with the name of the specimen they hold recorded in late 18th century handwritten script. The wrappers are often still folded in their original inventive and careful ways, securely fastened to prevent tiny seeds from escaping. The name of the species is written on the wrapper, and it is sometimes possible to identify the handwriting of the collector.

Some collectors grabbed any paper they had to hand to enclose the specimens: the collection includes several newspapers of the day (The True Briton, The Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser), advertisements for a ‘Doctor Henry’ (in the profession for 20 years) and for tea, letter drafts, pages ripped out of books, and small pharmaceutical boxes (‘Magnesia Lozenges for Heartburn’). These improvised wrappers are a treasure trove for social historians, such as Dr Maria Zytaruk, of the Department of English at the University of Calgary, Canada, whose research concentrates on seed exchange and seed collections. Dr Zytaruk has already contributed a podcast about the carpological collection on the Linnean Society’s channel and will give a Lunchtime Lecture on the subject on 6 March 2019.


Other collectors made their wrappers themselves, using good-quality paper, and inscribing the details of the specimens and site from which they were collected on the packet. Probably the most attractive packets are those sent from Norfolk Island, with the rough sketches of the plants from which the seeds were collected carefully drawn in ink. These were probably sent to James Edward Smith from Philip Gidley King, the Governor of New South Wales to which Norfolk Island was attached, via Aylmer Rourke Lambert FLS. They include ‘Large White Vine’, ‘Cabbage Palm’, ‘Shrub’, ‘Common Blue Vine’, and ‘Flax plant’.


The carpological collection specimens come from all across the globe, and were in many cases collected with new economic and medical uses in mind. King’s specimen of flax is a good example: the presence of New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax) on Norfolk Island led the British to seek an alternative source of fibre, although the plan to develop a flax industry ultimately failed. The display shows other examples of exotic plants whose economic, medical or culinary uses were only just beginning to be discovered and exploited. This includes a specimen of eucalyptus from Dr John White, sent to Smith in 1795, who called it New Holland Mahogany in his A Specimen of the Botany of New Holland; cochineal, an insect from the Americas from which the natural dye carmine is derived, sent by the linen merchant John Ellis and thread spun of fibres of Bromelia lagenaria, used for nets in South America, sent by John Theodore Koster, a sugar merchant based in Portugal.


While it is possible to identify a few of the collectors, the provenance of most items remains a mystery, with the date, place and author of collection unknown. A packet full of ‘Yellow bark’, or Cinchona, from which quinine is extracted, comes with a note describing its medical uses, but its author and date are unknown. The collector of the ‘Frankincense gum’, wrapped in The Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser for Saturday 30 December 1775 also remains unknown, as does the collector of ‘Paraguay Tea (…) called by the Indian Maty’. Indeed, even some of the specimens remain unidentified.


The items’ conservation is just the first step in the revival of the carpological collection. With the help of honorary botany curator Dr Mark Spencer, we are now hoping to find new funding so that the collection can be properly catalogued, researched and its links to the Smith herbarium reassessed.

arts council grant logo

Isabelle Charmantier, Head of Collections

Learn more about the Carpological Collection:

- Listen to Dr Maria Zytaurk's podcast Seed Packets Secrets.

- Attend Dr Maria Zytaruk's Lunchtime Lecture on The History of Seed Exchange on Wednesday 6 March, 12:30–1pm.

- Read Dr Maria Zytaruk's published Open Access paper, which features some of these packets: "'Take Care Some Seeds in the Letter': Material and Textual Practices of Seed Exchange in the Long Eighteenth Century,"Lumen (vol. 38, 2019).

- Come and see the display in the Library Reading Room, opened Monday–Friday 10am–5pm.