Travel Back in Time With Bromley House Library’s Herbaria

Words: Michael Krawec
Photos: Bromley House Library
Thursday 03 August 2023
reading time: min, words

Michael Krawec, Nottingham’s historian of the small and obscure, leafs through centuries of the city’s botanical history…

Main Image (9)

A plucked flower is a fragile, ephemeral thing. Those we might pluck today will decompose or disintegrate within a few months. However, for a long time botanists have been preserving plants by using heavy blocks to press them onto paper and dry them out. The squashed-plant-pages are then bound together to form a catalogue of preserved plants called a ‘herbarium’. Nottingham is home to several herbaria, including a large collection at Wollaton Hall, and two uniquely local examples at Bromley House Library.

In 1822, library member Thomas Jowett gifted Bromley House the first volume of his Herbarium Nottinghamiense; or, Dried Specimens of Plants Indigenous in Nottinghamshire. Three years later, he gifted the fourth and final volume. Jowett’s herbarium contains 300 specimens collected locally, some of which are now over 200 years old. They are remarkably well preserved, though appear somewhat ethereal, like the ghosts of long dead plants. As you turn the pages, you get a unique sense of connection with Nottingham’s past, imagining Jowett plucking and pressing these plants in the decade following the Napoleonic Wars. Would Jowett have imagined his herbarium lasting this long?

Jowett was born in Colwick in 1801. He worked as a doctor in Nottingham, was an active Bromley House member and a keen botanist: in addition to his herbarium, he wrote a series of Botanical Calendars for Nottinghamshire which describe the appearance of plants in the county throughout the year. Ill health forced him to retire early in 1831, and he died the following year.

Jowett’s work can help us to understand how plant life around Nottingham has changed over the centuries. By comparing Botanical Calendars to what we see today, we could perceive the local effects of climate change, how the timings of growths and blooms are shifting with changing temperatures. Many of the herbarium specimens are now locally endangered or extinct.

As you turn the pages, you get a unique sense of connection with Nottingham’s past, imagining Jowett plucking and pressing these plants

Specimen 135 is the ‘Nottingham catchfly’: now rare, it was once very common around the city, and was chosen as its county flower in 2002. During the day, the catchfly can appear quite bland - because it’s a nightlife plant. In the evenings, it opens up, blooming with white flowers and releasing a strong scent to attract the moths which pollinate it. Recently, staff at Bromley House have been breeding the catchfly to slowly repopulate it around the city via people’s gardens.

Bromley House’s second local herbarium is Muscologia Nottinghamiensis; or, A Collection of Mosses Found Chiefly in the Neighbourhood of Nottingham by doctors Godfrey Howitt and William Valentine. Like Jowett, they were local medical doctors and library members who were incredibly enthusiastic about plants, reportedly ‘staying up until the early hours with friends, examining and debating the details of mosses.’

Accompanying the Nottingham moss specimens are extremely detailed and technical, yet oddly poetic, descriptions of these tiny plants. The authors’ passion explodes from the page; read aloud, their words sound like the incantation to a botanical spell: “Stems creeping, an inch or two in length, branched; branches densely matted. Leaves imbricated, erecto-patent, ovate, rather acuminated, obtuse, concave, somewhat falcato-secund; margin entire, recurved at the base; nerve either reaching to the summit or disappearing a little below.”

The Bromley House herbaria offer a unique experience, prompting reflections on nature, history, and localism. I hope, and staff at Bromley House hope, that they will receive more attention in future, whether that be from those researching botany or the history of herbaria, or those who simply find such curiosities fascinating. And who knows, perhaps someone will be inspired to create another local herbarium that will still be browsed centuries hence.

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