Does monotropa hypopithys, or yellow bird’s nest, still grow in Mickleham, Surrey, in the woods once owned by Sir Lucas Pepys the celebrity physician who, in ministering to King George III, ‘found the stool more eloquent than the pulse?’ The question is prompted by the Bodleian’s recent acquisition of a ‘Catalogus Plantarum’ kept in the 1790s by an anonymous Botanist who roamed the south of England looking for specimens and noting them down with meticulous care in an exact italic.

The volume, snapped up from the Norfolk dealer Sam Gedge, contains some 75 alphabetically arranged pages, each including the plant’s Linnaean name, English name, the place where it was found (together with soil and situation), references to relevant published works, the season of discovery and, finally, on the facing page, ‘miscellaneous observations’.

In addition to his (less likely her) botanizing on Sir Lucas’ land, our hunter made it to rewarding spots in Norfolk, Oxfordshire and even the Isle of Wight.  His most intense efforts, however, were made around Surrey, with Albury Park yielding the greatest number of specimens. One April, ‘pellucid mnium’, a type of moss, was discovered on the ‘sides of the cave’, a dank folly in a grand house owned by Samuel Thornton, Governor of the Bank of England. Two other famous residents of the village at that time were the economist Robert Malthus and his father Daniel, both amateur botanists. An entry for Adoxa moschatellina, or the tuberous crowfoot, gives its location as ‘wood, Mr Malthous, Weston Street.’ One assumes they all indulged in this fervid science, swapping observations and bountiful locations.

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Why did the Bodleian have to have this album (also, as it turns out, pursued by other institutions)? First, it has notable human interest in its specific historical fixing of places, people and seasons, the exactness of which is only sharpened by the mystery of the compiler’s identity (which some scholar or librarian will have fun revealing). More academically, the volume charts the decade immediately following the foundation of the Linnaean Society in London in 1788, making it an early witness to a newly-energised science. There are gratifying local resonances, too. The catalogue was compiled during the tenure in Oxford of the celebrated Sherrardian Professor of Botany, John Sibthorp. He was teaching his students in the classroom, certainly, but also impressing upon them that they should get out there into the woods, mill streams and chalky pastures to find native plants. These might serve the needs of agriculture or medicine quite as well as more exotic specimens from overseas. Furthermore, the volume may just contain the first reference to freely growing Oxford Ragwort, recently escaped from the confines of the University’s Botanical gardens to find a welcoming home on the bountiful supply of college walls. It clings on still.

The point about Sibthorp’s practical emphasis was made to me by Dr Stephen Harris, Druce Curator of the Oxford University Herbaria. This collection of actual specimens is almost 400 years old but like the album – and here’s another reason for the purchase – it holds a store of raw data for those pursuing today’s environmental research. ‘Is it certain that apium petrosclinum is not a native?’ puzzles our botanist in 1791, ‘I found it growing wild upon the walls both of Carisbrook and Rochester Castles.’ Returning later (different pen, different ink) he shows the evolution of his own thinking. ‘I now believe it to be not strictly indigenous but as much so as many plants which have been admitted into the British Flora’. Does parsley still grow on those castle walls, maybe even flourishing with apparent climate change, or has it been choked off by subsequent non-natives?  Perhaps a botanist will let us know.

Christopher Fletcher is Keeper of Special Collections the Bodleian Library

Tags: Botany, Gardens, History, Non-fiction