Amgueddfa Blog: Hanes Naturiol

Within Amgueddfa Cymru’s botany collections are books of dried plant specimens created by scientists and enthusiasts. Each specimen has been carefully dried and pressed, before being added to the books, sometimes with handwritten or printed notes alongside. The books are of enormous importance both in terms of modern scientific research into climate change and biodiversity, and as a way to see first hand the history of botanical exploration.

You can now look through a catalogue of the 36 books that contain non-flowering plants, fungi, lichens and seaweeds. You can read about a few of the stories surrounding these books below. For more detailed information about each book, please visit the website.

These books show the changes in how we collect, classify and name plants over two centuries from 1800 to present day. An old volume which probably dates from the 19th century entitled “New Zealand Mosses”, contains more than just mosses. Lichens, algae and even some pressed hydrozoans (tiny marine animals) have been included by the unknown collector who chose to group these superficially similar ‘moss-like’ specimens together. This donation entered the Museum’s collections after its Royal Charter was received and before work had begun on the present Cathays Park building.

While the earliest currently known non-flowering plant specimen in the Museum is a moss collected in 1794 from Gwynedd, the earliest specimen book dates from 1803. This book is Lewis Weston Dillwyn’s personal collection of seaweed and freshwater algae collected between 1803 and 1809. Dillwyn’s specimen book was donated to the Museum in 1938 by the National Library of Wales, and has great importance both scientifically and historically.

Lewis Weston was part of the influential Dillwyn family, and his son John Dillwyn Llewelyn became an early pioneer photographer. He was interested in the natural history that he saw in south Wales where he lived. This is reflected in his scientific research as well as in the pottery designs created while he was owner of Cambrian Pottery. Dillwyn described new species of algae and his specimen book contains type specimens (irreplaceable specimens used in the original description of a species). The book is a personal record of his scientific life, recording places he visited and scientists who sent him specimens. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1804 and later had a plant genus named after him in recognition of his work.

Many of the botanical specimen books in National Museum Cardiff have a fascinating history. Two contain mosses collected by Thomas Drummond on the Second Overland Arctic expedition between 1825 and 1827 to British North America (now Canada). Delving further into the book’s background reveals that the Captain, Sir John Franklin, sent Drummond to the Rocky Mountains with one Native American hunter. After the hunter left him on his own, he survived a severe winter, being mauled by a bear, and starvation. He still managed to collect, preserve and study many new plants of the North American continent. This work was published by Sir W.J. Hooker, who later became the director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

The more recent books are systematically collected specimens known as ‘exsiccatae’. These are sets of duplicate specimens distributed by scientists to other museums. They help to spread the risk of losing a particularly important set of specimens, and to allow scientists around the world to study them. Lists of their contents are usually published in a journal or online. Much of the Berlin Herbarium and the botanical specimens within it was destroyed in World War 2, however many duplicate specimens from this collection survive in other herbaria around the world. From around the 1900s, exsiccatae changed from being bound books to being loose specimens. This meant museums receiving them could incorporate them into their collections alongside other closely related specimens for easier access and comparison.


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 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.

I gydnabod hyn, bydd Amgueddfa Cymru yn cynnal cyfres o flogiau misol, pob un yn trafod gwahanol elfen gemegol a’i harwyddocâd i Gymru. Cadwch lygad yn agored am y rhain trwy gydol y flwyddyn ar ein gwefan.

I ddechrau ein cyfres o flogiau, ym mis Ionawr rydym yn trafod arian.

Mae arian (symbol cemegol – Ag), rhif atomig 47, yn un o saith metel gwreiddiol alcemi a châi ei gynrychioli gan symbol y lleuad ar gynnydd. Mae arian yn fetel gwerthfawr ond ni fu erioed mor werthfawr ag aur.

Mae arian wedi chwarae rhan bwysig yn hanes Cymru ond nid yw hyn yn cael llawer o sylw. Yn rhan fwyaf gogleddol Ceredigion, ger pentref Goginan, mae nifer o hen fwyngloddiau a fu ymhlith cynhyrchwyr arian mwyaf toreithiog Ynysoedd Prydain. Mae bron yn sicr bod y Rhufeiniaid wedi darganfod y gwythiennau o fwynau llawn metelau yn y ddaear, ond y Frenhines Elisabeth I oedd yn gyfrifol am eu datblygu fel mwyngloddiau arian.

Dywed rhai mai Thomas Smythe, Prif Swyddog Tollau Porthladd Llundain a ddarganfu’r swm sylweddol cyntaf o arian ym mwynglawdd Cwmsymlog ym 1583. Mae’n llawer mwy tebygol mai Ulrich Frosse, peiriannydd mwyngloddio o’r Almaen a wnaeth y darganfyddiad a rhoi gwybod i Smythe. Roedd ganddo ef brofiad o gloddio am arian ac ymwelodd â’r mwynglawdd tua'r un pryd â Smythe. Yn ystod teyrnasiad Elisabeth I, amcangyfrifir bod pedair tunnell o arian wedi’i gloddio o fwyngloddiau Ceredigion.

Gwnaeth y Brenin J I a’r Brenin Siarl I elw sylweddol o’r mwyngloddiau (cynhyrchwyd 7 tunnell yn nheyrnasiad y naill a 100 tunnell yn nheyrnasiad y llall). Yn wir, ym 1638, penderfynodd Siarl I sefydlu bathdy yng Nghastell Aberystwyth gerllaw. Oherwydd ei lwyddiant, cafodd ei ddinistrio gan Oliver Cromwell a’r Seneddwyr yn ystod Rhyfel Cartref Lloegr ym 1646.

Mae gan Amgueddfa Cymru enghreifftiau o’r llu o ddarnau arian bath wedi’u gwneud o arian a fathwyd yn Aberystwyth. Un peth sy’n nodweddiadol ohonynt yw’r tair pluen ar y naill ochr a’r llall. Mae nod y llyfr bychan agored ar y darnau’n dangos mai Thomas Bushell a gafodd yr arian o fwyngloddiau Ceredigion a ran y Company of Mines Royal.

Mae'r mapiau a'r planiau a gynhyrchwyd i farchnata'r mwyngloddiau arian i fuddsoddwyr ymhlith y rhai cynharaf i'w cynhyrchu ym Mhrydain. Yn Llyfrgell Amgueddfa Cymru, mae sawl fersiwn o fapiau William Waller a gynhyrchwyd ar gyfer y Company of Mine Adventurers ym 1693 a 1704 ynghyd â Fodinae Regales Syr John Pettus a gyhoeddwyd ym 1670.

Cafodd un o’r mwyngloddiau, Bwlch yr Esgair Hir, ei frolio fel Potosi Cymru a defnyddiwyd peth o’r arian a gloddiwyd yno i wneud jwg ddŵr ac arni'r arysgrif ‘The Mines of Bwlch-yr-Eskir-hir’, tua 1692. Fodd bynnag, methiant oedd y mwynglawdd. Ni chynhyrchwyd cymaint o arian â’r disgwyl erioed ond problem ddaearegol oedd hyn yn hytrach na diffyg yn y dulliau cloddio. Efallai bod y safle’n fwyaf adnabyddus am ei ran mewn achos cyfreithiol yn erbyn rheolaeth y Goron dros fetelau gwerthfawr. Dygwyd yr achos gan y tirfeddiannwr Syr Carbery Pryse yn 1693 a rhoddodd derfyn ar ormes y Mines Royal.

Parhawyd i fwyngloddio arian mewn modd cynhyrchiol yng ngogledd Ceredigion, yn gyntaf o dan y Company of Mine Adventurers ac yna, trwy gydol y Chwyldro Diwydiannol, gan nifer o gwmnïau preifat. Cynhyrchwyd cyfanswm o dros 150 tunnell o fetel arian yn y rhan hon o Gymru.

Yn rhyfedd iawn, cymerodd tan y 1980au i ddaearegwyr adnabod y mwyn sy’n gyfrifol am fod cymaint o arian yr y rhan fechan hon o Gymru. Ei enw yw tetrahedrit – mwyn yn cynnwys copr, sinc, haearn ac antimoni sylffid – ac mae arian yn gallu cymryd lle peth o’r copr, y sinc a’r haearn sydd ynddo. Cofnodwyd bod hyd at 18%, yn ôl pwysau, o’r tetrahedrit o fwynglawdd Esgair Hir yn arian. Mae sbesimenau pwysig o fwynau a ddefnyddiwyd i adnabod y tetrahedrit yn cael eu cadw yn ein casgliadau daearegol yn yr Amgueddfa.

Nid oes metel arian naturiol yn weladwy yn yr un o fwyngloddiau Cymru ond mae rhai o’r enghreifftiau gorau yn y byd gan yr Amgueddfa yn ei chasgliad o fwynau. Mae’r sbesimenau, o fwynglawdd Kongsberg yn Norwy, o ansawdd eithriadol a chawsant eu caffael yn yr 1980au fel rhan o gasgliad R. J. King.