Walk or Talk … With a Focus - written by Erica Hollis 

On Thursday 7th March we had a most interesting visit to the garden, not walking on this occasion but gathering in the glass class to focus on the herbarium specimens of plants from Tentsmuir.

Our honorary curator of the Herbarium, Dr Heleen Plaisier, had laid out a wide range of herbarium specimens for us to see. She explained the importance of the garden maintaining a diverse collection of dried plants in addition to the live collections as these can tell us a lot about how the flora of an area has changed over time as well as helping with identification of rare species. Many of the specimens from the three main regions of Tentsmuir, Tentsmuir point, Tayport Heath and Morton Lochs were collected in the middle of C20th by a Tayport man, Ellis Crapper, whose importance, since his death in 1973, has not truly been recognised (see his signature on the photo of Parnassus palustris specimen). Some of the plants are not found elsewhere in Fife or even the country and it would now be illegal to collect them. Even for more common and less protected species, it is always necessary to obtain the landowner’s permission to collect any plant even for scientific study.

We were shown a small plant press such as might have been used “in the field” and suitable for small plants such as the tiny Radiola millegrana specimens that must have been incredibly fiddly to mount but not larger ones like Rumex hydrolapathum that obviously presented quite a different problem with the leaf having had to be folded to fit on the specimen page. Some specimens, like Viola tricolor had maintained their colour so well the sample almost looked like a botanical painting rather than a dried plant, whereas others had dried to a dull brown. Heleen explained that the different pigments in the plants as well as the drying process can have widely different effects on colour loss. Each plant or part must be covered with a paper flimsy (newspaper can be used) and then a more absorbent layer before placing in the press and tightening the screws. The press is then placed in a warm dry environment and re-tightened as necessary until the specimens are quite dry. Mounting can be done very artistically but not always – Ellis Crapper’s specimens vary in this regard.

Very many thanks are due to Dr Plaisier for moving the herbarium specimens to the glass class for us. With 25 people in the group, we would have struggled to see much in the Herbarium itself but the work involved is not inconsiderable. As we learned at the end of the session, all specimens that had been removed from the Herbarium have to be sterilised by freezing for several days to prevent introducing pests and pathogens into the collection.