Joseph Hooker’s Rhododendrons

At the moment, all the natural history curatorial and collections staff (including some of the volunteers) at the Manchester Museum are working on ideas for the new Gallery Nature’s Library. The story theme Veronica and I have been allocated is “The History of Science.” Sub themes under this include colonialism and collectors. Our job was to find objects that told stories in that vein.

Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker was the first European to collect plant specimens in the Himalayas, so we were tasked with finding some of his rhododendron specimens in the Herbarium. Not all of Hooker’s plant specimens in the Herbarium have been documented on the collections management system KE EMu. As a result, we looked through the boxes to see if any of the labels on the rhododendron specimens had any link with Hooker, or were collected by Hooker himself. We also looked through the Leo Grindon collection of botanical illustration to find some examples of illustrated colour plants. Most of the time, the colour in a plant specimen will fade over time, so an illustration is a great way to show how the plant looked in its living state.

Hooker is credited with bringing the “Rhododendron Craze” to the British Isles.In Nepal, the rhododendron is considered the national flower. During the months of April and May in the Himalayan sub-alpine forests, many species of rhododendron flower in their thousands, and this is what Hooker would have seen. The area still attracts thousands of visitors who wish to see the spectacle.

We were able to find over 20 herbarium sheets with specimens that Hooker had collected, and many illustrations that corresponded with the species we had selected. Perhaps from the very plants that the rhododendron hybrids you now have in your garden originally came from!

References:

Hooker, J.D. Rhododendrons of the Sikkim Himalayas. London :Reeve, Benham, and Reeve,1849-51.

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