Unravelling the secrets of a 200-year-old European Orchid collection

Unravelling the secrets of a 200-year-old European Orchid collection

Te Papa’s collection of pressed, dried plant specimens includes samples of native and exotic species collected in New Zealand and other parts of the world. Many of the foreign specimens currently in the collection were brought into New Zealand in the late 1870s to be used as reference material and to assist with the identification of exotic species and to compare with the native species being discovered.

About 28000 specimens were purchased from the British Museum by the first director of Te Papa’s predecessor, the Colonial Museum, Sir James Hector. This collection, known as the Thompson-Baker Herbarium, included samples of mosses, liverworts, marine algae, ferns and other plants. To date, only a small part of this large collection has been adequately curated and many of the specimens are still stored between the same paper sheets or newspaper pages they were placed in by their collectors or previous owners.

Close up to one of the newspapers used to separate and store these plant specimens. Photo CA Lehnebach, © Te Papa.

During the last three months Joyce Colussi-Mas has been working at Te Papa as a volunteer helping with the curation of the orchid specimens in the Thompson-Baker Herbarium. Joyce has carefully mounted over 500 specimens of European orchids on acid-free card, protected by a flimsy (thin paper sheet) and placed any loose labels, with information such as scientific name, place and date of collection, collector, into small cellophane envelopes and attached them to the card. Jonathan Frericks, MSc student at Victoria University of Wellington, also helped to mount some of these orchids.

Te Papa volunteer Joyce Colussi-Mas transcribing collection details from the labels attached to each orchid specimen. Photo CA Lehnebach, © Te Papa.

The collection includes terrestrial orchids collected in countries such as France, Germany, Sweden, Austria, Switzerland, Italy and Russia. Some of the labels are written in Latin, German or French. Luckily, Joyce’s first language is French and all those notes from orchids collected in France or Belgium are being translated into English.

This label is from a specimen collected in the forests of Pechbusque (southern France) in May 1806. The label reads: Ophrys tephrosanthos Vill. var petalis fusco-punctatis. Bois de Pechbusque, Mai 1806. Photo CA Lehnebach, © Te Papa.

Collection records of c.100 specimens have been examined so far and it seems most of these orchids were collected between the late 1770s and 1870s. Until now, one of the oldest orchid specimens we have found was collected on 16 July 1768. This orchid specimen is about 244 years old.

Fragrant orchid (Gymnadenia conopsea) collected on a hill side near Gottingen (Germany) in 1768. Back then this species was known as Orchis conopsea. The label reads: Orchis conopsea L. in der Lieth bei Mariengarten bei Göttingen. Translated by A. Zeller. Photo CA Lehnebach, © Te Papa.

After studying the labels of each specimen we will know what species and how many different species of orchids are in the Thompson-Baker Herbarium, where and when these orchids were collected, and who the main collectors were. We already know that J. G. Baker, one of the owners of this collection, was a curator at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew (UK) and contacting this institution will be our next step to find out more about the origin and stories behind these orchids.

Orchis alata collected in France, 1st May 1867. Photo CA Lehnebach, © Te Papa.

1 Comment

  1. It is quite impressive that specimens can last so long. The oldest specimen I’ve held was nearly one hundred years, in the South Australian Herbarium. So there weren’t any specimens from Australia?

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