Amgueddfa Blog

The Museum's economic botany collection includes 218 specimens of medicinal plants and nearly 500 Materia Medica specimens donated by Prof. Terence Turner (Cardiff School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences). Read more about the Materia Medica collection here.

Economic botany is a term that 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.

The Americas: Coca Kola and Quinine

The medicinal plants collection includes a range of plants from the North Americas used in Native American herbal medicine, including Euonymus atropurpureus (Burning bush), Grindelia species (Gumweed), Sanguinaria canadensis (Blood root) and Ulmus rubra (Slippery Elm bark).

The collection also features a range of medicinal plants used by indigenous peoples in South America including the leaves of Erythroxylum coca (Coca) considered a stimulant. Cola vera nuts and Erythroxylum coca leaves were used as ingredients of an early form of Coca Cola.

The collection features a significant range of Cinchona species barks acquired in the 1920s  a source of quinine used to cure malaria.

Asia: Ayurvedic and Chinese Medicine

Within the collection there are a range of medicinal plants from India and South East Asia, including Butea frondosa  said to have been used to achieve enlightenment by Theraveda Buddhists; Strychnos nux-vomica  also known as Poison nut and used in Ayurvedic and Homeopathic medicinal systems. The collection also includes more familiar specimens including Cinnamomum species (Cinnamon), Glycyrrhiza glabra (Licorice), Cassia buds and Senna pods.

Medicinal specimens from the UK

In 1939, prior to World War Two, a range of herbs were added to the collection including Arnica montana, Helleborus niger (Black Hellebore), Calendula officinalis, Inula helenium (Elecampane), Chrysanthemum species and Prunus avium (Wild Cherry) bark. In contrast to some of the earlier acquisitions, these are all plants that can be cultivated in the UK.

More recent acquisitions

After the war, there were only four more additions up until 1973. Of note, include Rauwolfia species (Tropical Africa 1969 and India 1969) – recognised as source of reserpine. The 1970s were a more lively time for the collection with 38 additions – perhaps driven by the interest of the Botany Keeper at the time, S.G. Harrison. In 19731981, exotic plants were added including Aloe species – (Aloe barbadensis, A.perryi and A.vera), Eucalyptus species, Maranta arundinacea (Arrowroot), Ipomoea species (Sweet potato), Iris species (Orris), Rheum species (Chinese rhubarb), Ricinus communis (Castor oil fruits), Wild Tonka Beans (used in perfumery and source of Coumarin), Derris species  considered to have laxative and carminative properties and used for anti-arthritis treatment, Frangula alnus (Alder buckthorn), Colubrina elliptica (the bark is used for a popular drink in the West Indies, Maubi).

In 20172018 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.

The People & Plants exhibition runs until this Sunday 17 March 2019 at National Museum Cardiff.

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

The National Museum of Wales is home to the Clore Discovery Centre, a hands-on gallery full of exciting treasures. This gallery offers visitors the opportunity to get up close and personal with hundreds of objects from The Museum’s collections, from whale bones to Tudor fabrics. 

I have been working at the Discovery Centre for over two years. As a Learning Facilitator, my role is to help visitors of all ages and backgrounds enjoy and learn about our collections. I help people do this in many ways, including handling the objects (carefully!), examining them up close, making connections between objects, and using supporting materials such as books and toys to find out more.

I have become very familiar with our collections, which are housed in drawers with booklets that help us to discover more. Something that I find very interesting about the work of museums is the decisions that are made around how to interpret and talk about objects. One of my favourite drawers illustrates a perfect example of this.

If you were a museum curator and you had a fossil specimen, which collection would you put it into? Maybe the easiest answer is that you would look at it scientifically, and house it in the Geology collection…

However, my favourite drawer, ‘Fossil Folklore’, may help you to think of fossils in a different way, not as science but as part of the stories and local cultures of Britain many generations ago. 

When you think about fossils, what do you think about?

Maybe you think about fossils in a museum cabinet, or fossils on a beach such as nearby Penarth (where the odd dinosaur bone has been dug up over the years)!

What would you think if you found a fossil but didn’t know what it was? What if you had never seen one before?

‘Fossil Folklore’ is a drawer in the Clore Discovery Centre that perfectly addresses this question. Over time, people from different countries and cultures have made their own stories about fossils, what they are, and where they come from. 

You may be familiar with the ammonite, a round spiral fossil with ridges. The ammonite was a sea creature that lived around the coasts of Britain about 100 million years ago. It is related to the modern nautilus and even squid. Its soft body has decayed with time, and the ridges that we trace our fingers over are the animal’s hard shell. 

But what if you found an ammonite and you had never seen one before? 

Maybe you would guess that it was a snail, or a long, thin creature curled up into a spiral? Maybe you would think of a story explaining what you thought the ammonite was. 

When you look at an ammonite, you can imagine it as a snake curled up into a spiral. For this reason, ammonite fossils were often referred to as “snakestones”. The people of Whitby in Yorkshire have passed down the Legend of St. Hilda to explain their ideas about ammonites and their origin. St. Hilda, a spirited Northumbrian royal, is said to have uttered a mighty prayer and cut off the heads of all the local snakes before turning them into stone. In Christianity, snakes are often seen as symbols of evil, so St. Hilda’s triumph is celebrated. Local craftspeople in Whitby often carved the head of a snake into the ammonite fossils.

One of the reasons that I find this drawer so fascinating is that I love stories. Stories help us to make bonds with each other and to make sense of the world around us. The snakestone story gives us a glimpse into the lives of people living in the Britain many generations ago and helps us to understand how they made sense of their world. Scientific discoveries are always being made, and our understanding of the world is always evolving and changing. Why not come and explore at our Discovery Centre and see if you can find out more about our understanding of the world in which we live?

The Clore Discovery Centre at the National Museum is open at weekends and during school holidays (10am until 4:45pm). The Museum is closed on Mondays.

Were you amongst among the record number of people who enjoyed our recent ‘Tim Peake’ and ‘Leonardo da Vinci’ exhibitions at National Museum Cardiff? Did you realise that, while you were in the public galleries, there were workers with hard hats and power tools working to improve the building?

We are currently undertaking a large amount of maintenance works in the museum. We do this in such a way to minimise the disturbance to our visitors as much as possible. We want you to enjoy your experience at the museum and be inspired. During the coming months, however, scaffolding will be erected around parts of the building. We are also going to get a temporary over roof on the oldest part of the museum.

Given that this part of the building was opened as long ago as April 1927 by King George V it is now due some tender loving care. Owing to the ravages of time, the roof has developed a few leaks which we are going to repair this year. This also involves having to close some galleries temporarily, for example the Ceramics and Photography galleries. We do apologise for the inconvenience, but these closures are necessary to allow us to undertake the work on the roof and associated internal works.

Galleries will reopen refreshed in the Autumn of 2019, once the works are completed. The brilliant news is that we will be able to present exhibitions without having to worry about a leaking roof. Associated electrical rewiring will also reduce the fire risk in the museum.

Other works we are undertaking - unbeknown to most people as these are happening in our basement - are further electrical works and substantial improvements to our air conditioning systems. This includes the installation of new air conditioning equipment to replace old equipment which will make the museum much more environmentally sustainable.

We are undertaking these works, with kind support of Welsh Government, to protect the Welsh national collection. We constantly strive to improve the way we care for the three million objects housed at National Museum Cardiff. The collections allow us to refresh displays regularly and put on exhibitions with new themes – check out our new ‘People and Plants’ exhibition of the museum’s economic Botany collection. Collections are also used for research, study, teaching, commemoration and many other functions.

Hence, there are many reasons why we would want to do our best to preserve the collections as best we can. The maintenance works during the coming months will greatly assist us with our collection care and, if these occasionally impact on our public spaces, we do ask that you bear with us – the works are temporary but the benefits will be long-lasting.

Find out more about Care of Collections at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales here and follow us on Twitter. Follow the progress of the maintenance works during the coming months in 2019 on Twitter using the hashtag #museumcare.


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.


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).


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 St David’s Day, Friday 1 March, the Honourable Society of the Cymmrodorion will present a unique eighteenth-century painting, Poor Taff, to the museum. The Honourable Society of the Cymmrodorion has kindly offered Poor Taff to Amgueddfa Cymru and the people of Wales, following the closure of its former home, the Welsh Girls’ School (later St. David’s School) founded by the Society in the eighteenth century.

This is one of four oil paintings, possibly commissioned by Welsh Societies, telling the tale of the Welsh satirical character, Shon-Ap-Morgan, who was widely known as “Poor Taff”, and his journey to London. Shon was intent on avenging the  “rabble” English who entertained themselves by annually hanging ragged effigies of Welsh people above the streets on St David’s Day. Things did not go as planned for Shon, many versions of the story claim that the “demon drink” was responsible for his many misadventures.

He is portrayed in the painting with his attributes that include the goat he rides, leeks, cheese and herring. Some versions show him with his wife, Unnafred [Winifred] Shon. This caricature probably stems from a combination of early anti-Welsh prints and a popular Meissen figurine that originally poked fun at the tailor of the Saxony factory’s director, Count Brühl. The figurine shows the tailor riding a goat with a female companion. English factories were quick to copy this popular design that became known as “the Welsh tailor and his wife”.

This image of Poor Taff shows that he self-styled himself as a gentleman. However, he was so poverty-stricken he had to ride a goat rather than a horse. Whereas today, his diet of leeks, cheese and fish seem a healthy choice, they were seen then as further symbols of his poverty. These satirical anti-Welsh symbols were promoted in London’s popular print culture that was convenient for anti-Welsh sentiments. Some English artists used this satire on prominent public figures such as Watkin Williams Wynn and the Prince of Wales (later George IV).

Later versions of the prints however, began to praise Wales and Welsh people, condemning the previous English abuse. As a result, Shon-Ap-Morgan, or Poor Taff, became an affectionate symbol of Welsh national identity. For this reason the painting may have been commissioned by a London-based Welsh society. The stereotype that we see in this painting eventually gave way to a more benevolent Welsh icon created by Augusta Hall (Lady Llanofer) of the Welsh lady, “Blodwen”, with her tall black hat and shawl.