Amgueddfa Blog: Natural History

The Amgueddfa Cymru economic botany collection features 65 specimens of plant-based dyes and tannins. The collection includes a range of leaves, roots, petals, seeds and barks used for dyeing and tanning from around the world.


'Economic Botany' refers to a group of plants that have recognised societal benefit. The Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales economic botany collection contains over 5,500 plant-based specimens, together with 12,000 timber specimens. Categories within the collection include medicinal plants; food products; dyes and tannins; gums, resins and fibres; and seeds.


Most of the dye specimens were collected from Asia, South Africa and the West Indies as well as a few samples from South America. There is one specimen from the UK - Isatis tinctoria (Woad) from Roath Park Cardiff (1936). Most of the acquisitions of these specimens were made in 1914, 1920—22 and 1938. Only two of the specimens were added after 1938.

As well as leaves, petals, roots and fruits the collection contains a range of specimens of barks for dyeing, largely acquired in the 1920s.

Dye specimens

A number of the plant-based dye specimens originate from India including:

  • The dried leaves of Indigofera tinctoria (Indigo) – one of the most famous plant dyes produces a range of blue tones.
  • The roots of Rubia cordifolia (Indian madder) which produce a red dye.
  • The roots of Morinda citrifolia (Al dye) which produce a yellowish colour.
  • Myrobalans fruits (Terminalia chebula) which produce a yellow dye.
  • The petals of Safflower (Carthamus tinctorius).

Many of these plants indicate their potential as colouring agents in their botanical names. Carthamus derives from Arabic meaning ‘dye’ whilst tinctoria is a Latin word for dyeing or staining.

The collection also includes specimens from the Caribbean including Bixa orellana (Anatto seeds) from the Dominican Republic, Gold Coast, Trinidad and Tobago; and Bursera graveolens leaves from Colombia, both of which produce a red dye.

Some of these plants are used in combination to produce enhanced tones. For example, Myrobalans (Terminalia chebula) produce a buttery yellow on their own, if added to Indigo (Indigofera tinctoria) produce a teal and with madder (Rubia cordifolia) they produce orange.

Tannins

Some barks are very high in tannin. Such barks are useful for the dyeing of cellulose fibres (such as cotton and silk). The collection features a range of barks used as tannins including:

  • The powdered bark of Quercus tinctoria (North America 1921), known as Dyer’s oak.
  • Haematoxylon campechianum (Log wood) (Central America and West Indies 1921) which produces a purple from the heartwood.
  • Rhizophora mucronata (Mangrove) (India 1920) bark which produces a reddish brown with mordant.
  • The bark of Ceriops candolleana (Tengah) (India 1920), used in Malaya within Batik dyeing for purple, brown and black colours.
  • Cassia auriculata (Tanner’s Cassia) (India 1921).
  • An extract of wood from Schinopsis balansae (Quebrachio) from Argentina.
  • Acacia mollissima (Black Wattle) (South Africa) including bark, chopped bark, ground bark and solid mimosa extract (acquired from Kew in 1924).

The collection also includes a range of Libidibia coriaria (Divi divi) seed pods from the West Indies used for tanning and extract as dye (including specimens acquired from Kew in 1924).

Galls

The collection also contains a range of galls mainly from Southern Europe (used as tannin) mainly acquired in 1914. This includes Blue Aleppo Galls, Green Aleppo Galls, Morea galls (Greece), White Bussorah galls, Blue Smyrna galls. These oak marble galls are caused by gall wasps which puncture bark of Quercus species and lay eggs inside. As well as oak marble galls, Chinese Sumac (Rhus chinensis) are also used as tanning agents.

Galls are used in dyeing processes since they tend to be very high in tannin. Cellulose-based fabrics are often treated in a gall bath prior to adding mordant (a substance that fixes dye in fabric). This process is called ‘galling’. The fabric can then be mordanted with alum, as the tannin forms an insoluble compound with the alum and natural dye, resulting in more permanent colour.

Dyed wool specimens

The dyes and tannins collection also features a range of specimens of wool that were dyed with plants using wool from the Cambrian Mill, Felindre. This includes Weld (with tin mordant), Privet (with tin mordant), Brazil wood (with alum mordant), Onions (with tin mordant), Eucalyptus (with copper mordant), Indigo (no mordant), Madder (with tin mordant), Walnut (no mordant) alongside two red and blue cloth specimens (possibly Madder and Indigo).

Tin can produce very bright natural colours. However, in excess it can make wool brittle and it is also harmful, potentially causing irritation to skin, eyes and respiratory system and damage to the liver and kidney system. Of note are the two specimens (Walnut and Indigo) that are ‘substantive’ rather than ‘fugitive’. Substantive dyes do not require a mordant.  

In 2017-2018 Poppy Nicol worked with Heather Pardoe to explore the economic botany collection and its relevance for helping us understand biodiversity and the importance of plants for health and well-being. You can read more about the Sharing Stories Sharing Collections Project here.

Have a look back at previous posts about this collection:

This article is by Dr. Poppy Nicol, a visiting researcher from Cardiff University.

This week marks the launch of the exhibition ‘People and Plants’ in the Insight Gallery, National Museum Cardiff and accompanying public report ‘Sharing Stories, Sharing Collections.’

The exhibition and report are outcomes of a collaborative placement between the Sustainable Places Research Institute and Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales funded by the National Environment Research Council Valuing Nature Programme.

During the placement, Dr. Poppy Nicol (Sustainable Places Research Institute) spent four months within the Natural Science Department at National Museum Cardiff. Poppy worked with Principal Curator Dr. Heather Pardoe and other members of the Botany team to investigate the Amgueddfa Cymru economic botany collection and its potential role it can play in supporting, valuing and understanding of biodiversity. As part of the placement, Poppy and Heather conducted a series of workshops with community groups and interviews, with the aim of exploring how future activities associated with the economic botany collection can further societal understanding and valuing of biodiversity and address the Museum’s duty of well-being.  

Drawing upon the findings of the placement, the exhibition offers insight into the Amgueddfa Cymru economic botany collection and the important role of plants in society.  

Health, well-being and plants

The Amgueddfa Cymru economic botany collection includes over 5,500 specimens of medicinal plants, food products, fibres, seeds, gums, dyes and resins, most of which were acquired between the nineteenth century and present day. The selected specimens in the ‘People and Plants’ exhibition highlights the role of plants in supporting the health and well-being of past, present and future generations.

Plant-based Remedies: old and new

The economic botany collection contains over 700 medicinal plant specimens including a Materia Medica (donated by Professor Terence Turner, Cardiff School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences). The exhibition features a range of plant specimens used medicinally – including quinine (used for treating malaria), star anise (containing a compound used for treating influenza) and senna pods (a traditional laxative).

It also features a contemporary example of a plant-based compound for medicinal purposes – the daffodil (Narcissus pseudonarcissus). Although toxic if consumed raw, it contains galantamine which is used in the treatment of the early stage of Alzheimer’s disease.

Biocultural diversity: heritage grains

The exhibition also showcases some of the specimens within the Museum’s economic botany seed collection - which contains over 2,700 seed specimens. The collection includes a range of wheat, barley, oat and rye varieties acquired from the Welsh Plant Breeding Station. Hen Gymro, an old wheat variety affectionately known as “Old Man’s Beard” was cultivated in South Wales into the 1920’s, said to have thrived in South Wales. With predicted changing climates and the urgent need for more ecological growing approaches, perhaps some of these old grain varieties might be of value for future farmers and growers. The exhibition highlights the importance of safeguarding biodiversity – of both wild and cultivated crops and wild species.

Sharing Stories, Sharing Collections

The accompanying report to the exhibition, ‘Sharing Stories, Sharing Collections’ by Poppy, highlights how bio-cultural collections have the potential to support public understanding and valuing of biodiversity. It suggests recent legislation in the form of the Well Being of Future Generations Act (Wales) (2015) presents opportunity for Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales to become a global innovator in terms of curating bio-cultural collections.

The report identifies clear interest in the Amgueddfa Cymru economic botany collection amongst the public. It identifies a number of opportunities for innovation in bio-cultural and economic botany collections including research-driven curation; inter-generational learning programmes; and, innovative and participatory approaches to digitisation. Inter-disciplinary collaboration with other centres of learning particularly present great opportunities to share and enhance the value of the collection. Such innovations will improve the role of the collection in supporting public valuing and understanding of biodiversity and the health and well-being of future generations.

In an era where biodiversity is being eroded, bio-cultural collections have a crucial societal role of developing understanding and valuing of biodiversity through raising public awareness of the crucial role of plants in supporting livelihoods, supporting health and well-being, maintaining ecosystem services and adapting to global environmental change.

You can see the People & Plants exhibition at National Museum Cardiff until Sunday 17 March.

Read more about the start of the project in this February 2018 blog post.

Every river has its source, starting small then gathering pace. Our project on freshwater snails is doing just that as we tumble into 2019. “Codi i’r Wyneb – Brought to the Surface is a 2-year project to create a new guide to the freshwater snails of Britain and Ireland, supported by the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund. Where better to begin than with Amgueddfa Cymru’s world class Mollusca collections?

This month we are joined by three new faces: our Project Officer, Harry Powell, and volunteers Jelena Nefjodova and Mike Tynen. Harry studied biology and ecology at Plymouth University, and is a former volunteer here himself. Mike spent many years with the Cheshire Wildlife Trust and Jelena is a current student at Cardiff University. All four of us have gotten stuck in to the snail collections here, of which we’ll say more in a moment.

To date over 1000 other people, and several organisations, have already engaged with Brought to the Surface. Our travelling display was especially popular at Swansea Science Festival in November 2018, where many members of the public took the chance to get up close (up to 50X magnification!) with British and foreign freshwater snails on our stand. We also showcased specimens at two conferences at the Museum, Unknown Wales (Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales) and at the Wales Biodiversity Partnership.

These displays will evolve as the project does, but also on the way is a more permanent exhibit at the Museum, now in the design stages. This gives us an excuse to feature a photo by our partner Hannah Shaw, of the magnificent Llangloffan Fen near Fishguard, Pembrokeshire. We’ve been looking for a lush landscape, captured in summer, to make a good backdrop for the display. It’s also a reminder that, having passed the solstice, outdoor snail activities are not too far away.

Summer will also bring our series of “Snail Day” training and key testing events around Wales. Our partner Mike Dobson has been especially quick of the mark in helping draft a comprehensive key to try out with the public at these. We are fortunate in having such a range of snail specimens from the Museum to use in these activities, but it will also be fun for people to have a go at finding and identifying their own. After all, the ideal key is one that should allow a total beginner to identify the very first snail they find…

And so back to the collections, the foundation of this kind of biology and a unique asset of museums. Harry, Mike and Jelena have been helping review and curate what we already have, and others have kindly been sending specimens from England, Scotland and Northern Ireland for our project. Particular thanks to our partner Martin Willing from the Conchological Society, who is hot on the trail of Britain’s more obscure freshwater snail species. Our Twitter account @CardiffCurator will feature many of these over the next couple of years with the hashtag #FreshwaterSnailoftheFortnight. The photos, descriptions and DNA sequences from 150 years’ worth of snail study will all be the basis for our eventual Field Studies Council publication.

We’ll report again as more people, places and snails join us on our journey.

In recognition of this Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales will be running a series of monthly blogs, each one covering a different chemical element and its significance to Wales. Look out for these throughout the year on our website.

To start off our series of blogs, for January we have silver.

Silver (chemical symbol – Ag), atomic number 47, is one of the original seven metals of alchemy and was represented by the symbol of a crescent moon. Silver is a precious metal, but it has never been as valuable as gold.

In Wales, silver has played an important role in the history of Wales, but this is often forgotten. In the northernmost part of Ceredigion (the old county of Cardiganshire) near to the village of Goginan lie a number of disused mines which were some of the richest silver producers in the history of the British Isles. The Romans almost certainly had a part to play in the discovery of the metal-rich mineral veins, but it was Queen Elizabeth I who oversaw their development as silver mines.

It is reported that the first rich discovery of silver was made at Cwmsymlog (sometimes written as Cum sum luck in historical records) mine in 1583 by Thomas Smythe, Chief Customs Officer for the Port of London. It is much more likely that it was discovered by Ulrich Frosse, a German mining engineer experienced in silver mining who visited the mine at about the same time and advised Smythe. During the reign of Elizabeth I it is estimated that 4 tons of silver was produced from the Cardiganshire mines.

King James I and King Charles I both made handsome profits from the mines (producing 7 and 100 tons of silver respectively), so much so that in 1638 Charles I decided to establish a mint nearby at Aberystwyth Castle. Its success ultimately led to its destruction by Oliver Cromwell and the Parliamentarians during the English Civil War in 1646.

Amgueddfa Cymru holds examples of the many silver coins minted at Aberystwyth. Their characteristic feature is the three feathers on both sides of the coin. The addition of a small open book at the top signifies that the silver was produced by Thomas Bushell from the Cardiganshire mines on behalf of the Company of Mines Royal.

Maps and mine plans produced to market the silver mines to investors are some of the earliest to have been made in Britain. The Library at AC-NMW holds several versions of William Waller’s maps produced for the Company of Mine Adventurers in 1693 and 1704 as well as Sir John Pettus’ Fodinae Regales published in 1670.

One of the mines, Bwlch-yr-eskir-hir [Esgair Hir], was much hyped as the Welsh Potosi and from the silver was produced a silver ewer inscribed ‘The Mines of Bwlch-yr-Eskir-hir’, c.1692. The mine was, however, a failure. The quantity of silver produced never lived up to expectations, but this was more to do with the geology than mining methods. It is perhaps better known as the site involved in a legal case against the Crown’s control over precious metals. The case, brought by the landowner Sir Carbery Pryse in 1693, ended the tyranny of the Mines Royal.

Productive silver mining continued in north Cardiganshire, firstly, under the Company of Mine Adventurers and then through the Industrial Revolution by a number of private companies. Total silver production within this part of Wales exceeded 150 tons of silver metal.

Remarkably, it took until the 1980s for geologists to identify the mineral responsible for the high concentrations of silver in the small area of Wales. It is tetrahedrite – a copper, zinc, iron, antimony sulphide mineral - within which silver can replace some of the copper, zinc and iron. At Esgair Hir mine tetrahedrite has been recorded as containing up to 18 wt. % silver. Important ore specimens used during the identification of this mineral are preserved in our geological collections at the Museum.

Naturally occurring silver metal – known as native silver – does not occur in visible concentrations in any of the Welsh mines, but the Museum holds some of the world’s finest examples in its mineral collection. The specimens, from the Kongsberg mine in Norway, are exceptional in their quality and were acquired during the 1980s as part of the R. J. King collection.

The National Waterfront Museum is one of the partners in the Angelshark Project, which aims to gather information, both current and historic, about this protected species, one of the rarest sharks in the world. Prior to a roadshow at the Museum on 15 and 16 February, Jake Davies, from the Zoological Society of London, shares his work.

Angels of Wales - How can you help?

Angel Shark Project: Wales is a pioneering new project with an aim to better understand and safeguard the Angelshark (Squatina squatina) in Wales through fisher-participation, heritage and citizen-science.

We are working with Amgueddfa Cymru and alongside fishers and coastal communities in Wales to better understand the Angelshark through gathering historic and current information about its life off the Welsh coast.

Angelsharks are large, flat-bodied sharks can reach 2.4m in length. Also known as monkfish or angel fish, they are sometimes mistaken for a ray or misrecorded as anglerfish. Angelsharks feed on a range of fish, crustaceans and molluscs and have an important role in maintaining a balanced marine ecosystem.

They are not threatening to humans, living mainly on sand or mud at the bottom of the sea, lying in wait to ambush unsuspecting prey.

Angelsharks are protected under Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

It is illegal to intentionally disturb, target, injure or kill Angelsharks within 12 nautical miles of Welsh and English coastlines.

The four major areas of the Angelshark Project are:

  1. Understand status and ecology of Angelsharks in Wales
  2. Fishers are stewards of Angelshark conservation
  3. Communities help unlock Angelshark heritage to share across the generations.
  4. Develop Wales’s Angelshark Action Plan to identify key steps to secure their future

As part of the historical research, Angel Shark Project: Wales will be running the Angelshark History Roadshow from January to March 2019 in five of the project’s focal regions: North Anglesey, the Llŷn Peninsula, Porthmadog to Aberarth, Fishguard to Milford Haven and Swansea to Porthcawl (though we also welcome information from across Wales). The free events provide the opportunity to bring your memories, photos or stories of Angelsharks (or any other interesting shark, skate or ray species off the Welsh Coast) and see how they help build our understanding of Wales’s rich maritime landscape. The roadshows will also be a good opportunity to meet the team and find out more about the project. The roadshow dates are:

Date Venue Location
25 & 26 Jan Llŷn Maritime museum Nefyn
11 & 12 Feb Milford Heritage Museum Milford Haven
15 & 16 Feb National Waterfront Museum Swansea
1 & 2 Mar The National Library of Wales Aberystwyth
4 & 5 March Sea Cadets Holyhead

Following the roadshows, we will be recruiting and training citizen scientists to continue the historical research by scouring local libraries, archives, historic magazines and museums. Information captured through this research will be digitalised and displayed in collaboration with Peoples Collection Wales and provided to the next generation via a History of Angels iBook.

Those who are interested in being part of the project but unable to attend the roadshows and would like to share memories or photographs of Angelsharks can get in touch at angelsharks@zsl.org to help save one of the rarest sharks in the world. You can report personal sightings and accidental captures of Angelsharks to the sightings webpage http://angelsharknetwork.com/#map or email angelsharks@zsl.org.

Angel Shark Project: Wales is led by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and Natural Resources Wales (NRW), funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Welsh Government.

Angel Shark Project: Wales (PDF)