Pressed Flowers

Herbaria (pressed flowers)

One of the largest and most hidden collections within Whitby Museum is the herbaria section. There are over 9000 specimens of pressed wild flowers all tucked away in cupboards to preserve their freshness. It was quite a popular hobby during the Victorian age to collect specimens of wild flowers and press them to form a herbaria collection.

Musk cranesbill Upright cudweed
Musk cranesbill – Geramiaceae
erodium moschatum
Upright cudweed – Compositae
gnaphalium sylvaticum

One such collection was put together by Canon Robert Fisher, some being his own specimens and many from other herbarium. They are beautifully mounted on loose sheets, stuck down with strips of white paper and tied into bundles with pink ribbon. They are housed in a glazed cabinet with multiple drawers. Due to the care taken in the presentation of the flowers the colour has been preserved. Many of Robert Fisher’s 1300 herbaria were collected from Yorkshire in the mid 1800’s and they were presented to the museum in 1931.

Great cowslip Small convolvulus
Great cowslip – Primulaceae
primula veris major    
Small convolvulus – Concolculus
tricolor & Convululaceae

Thomas Chapman’s herbaria is presented in a very different way. The flower specimens are stuck down, possibly with egg white onto scrapbook-type paper and bound in leather volumes with toolwork on the spines. This means of display hasn’t kept the colours as fresh and bright but it is still a very comprehensive collection. It was amassed during the early 1800’s and contains over 1600 specimens including several volumes of grasses from Yorkshire. There are also some exotics.

Herbarium are arranged into family classifications and tend to contain a specimen from almost all wildflower groups. Several specimens were pressed and the best used in the collection. Each one would be labelled with the common and latin names, the locality found, by whom and the date. Often the status was included i.e. whether naturalised or alien.

Rosebay – Onagraceae
epilobium angustifolium

In some cases it was a lifetimes passion to gather a specimen of most classes but in the case of the Percy Burnett herbarium around 2500 specimens were collected in just 3 years during the mid 1930’s. Percy led many walks locally for the Whitby Naturalists Club so was in a good position to encounter various plants from the local area. Because his collecting is so well labelled it forms an important source of information to where flowers can still be found in the Whitby area. The flowers were stuck with paper strips onto loose leaf paper and are stored in multi-drawered cabinets. They are in excellent condition and are well worth viewing.

Many members of the Whitby Naturalists Club had a passion for flowers and the museum’s collection includes many pre-war watercolour paintings of the local flora painted by members.

The most specialist herbarium within the museum is Dr. Robert Braithwaite’s collection of over 2300 mosses, lichens and liverworts. This herbarium, due to the size and nature of the specimens, is probably rarely going to see the light of day. It has been neatly wrapped in various small delicately folded papers, some of which are old letters and sections of intriguing documents. One good gust of wind could finish the collection for good! Some of these specimens are very rare if not extinct. They mainly originate from the Whitby area but many also come from Teesdale and High Force.

Moss Flora
Plate from ‘Moss Flora’

Robert spent 25 years in his later life meticulously writing and drawing hundreds of detailed illustrations of mosses and lichens in all stages of their cycle e.g. flowering or in fruit, which he published on his 81st birthday. The three volume ‘Moss Flora’ he presented to the Lit. and Phil. library is in such good condition it can barely ever have been opened.

Robert Braithwaite’s interest in flora must have been a large part of his life. His father-in-law Dr Nathaniel Ward invented an enclosed glass case which overcame the problems of transporting live plants from other countries on long sea voyages. This meant that exotic new species could successfully be imported to Botanic gardens by plant hunters. The Wardian case was also used to good advantage as a means of growing ferns as a display in Victorian houses. Nathaniel, his daughter Charlotte and Robert named their house in Clapham ‘The Ferns’ and contemporary books describe how both inside the house and the outside window sills were decorated with ornate fern, alpine and rock gardens.

A small display for the herbaria section can be found near the museum tearoom, which is constructed in the form of a ship’s Wardian case.