Kew Gardens was formed when George III inherited two gardens from his grandfather and joined them into one estate. It 1840 it became the Royal Botanic Garden. The collection of William Hooker, a notable director of Kew Gardens, became the foundation of the botanic Library, Art, and Archives collection when it was bought for a thousand pounds. This collection is filled with important works by famous botanists, and has items dating back as far as the middle ages. The remarkable progress in scientific illustration is evident in the differences between the fanciful medieval drawings in the collection’s oldest item, a 1370 book about herbal remedies, and the meticulous reproductions of plant life created in books like the mid-eighteenth century works of Mark Catesby.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the Kew archives was the Herbarium. Organized much like a library, but with dry plant specimens instead of books, this huge collection of seven to eight million specimens continues to grow by about 300,000 species each year. To accommodate this wealth of specimens, a new wing is needed about every fifty to sixty years.
Space isn’t the only difficulty for the Herbarium, however; fire has always been a risk, especially before the days of electricity. The Herbarium is build with large windows to decrease the need for fire-based lights. Pests, usually small beetles, are a problem as well. The old remedy for pests was to paint plants with mercury. Today, methods have changed considerably; infected specimens are frozen to kill pests, and the area cleaned and sprayed. The new wing is climate controlled to provide an inhabitable environment for the pests. During World War II, bombing was also a real threat. Today you can still see specimens that have red borders, an indication that they were the best specimens that should be quickly removed if necessary.
Not only is Kew a fascinating archive of botanical discoveries, but in many ways a living history of the field of botany itself.