Spinning the Yarn

  • Over the past year, Glasgow based artist Simone Landwehr-Traxler has been studying some of the lichen specimens in the Herbarium at RBGE from the islands of Scotland. Her latest exhibition is entitled ‘Spinning a Yarn’ and can be seen in the Project Space at House for an Art Lover in Bellahouston Park in Glasgow until 7 October 2017. This is not only a chance for the public to see her latest project, but also for the artist herself to reflect upon her research so far.

    Simone discovered the theory that the Fair Isle knitting patterns that we know today originated from Iberia in Spain and were adopted by the islanders when trading with Spanish sailors in the 1580s. She began to look at the cultural influence on remote populations and visited Murcia and Andalucia in Spain as well as Shetland and Fair Isle, collaborating with botanists, historians and weavers.

    The small wax pieces on display represent Scottish native lichens, which were traditionally used to produce dyes for wool on Fair Isle. Simone spent many hours sketching and photographing the detail of the dried lichen specimens in the Herbarium at Edinburgh. She examined the specimens under a powerful microscope and was inspired by the structures seen within the material.

    In addition to providing an amazing range of natural dye colours, lichens are important in the study of biology, they are nature’s extreme survivors and are found on every continent. They are the classic example of ‘symbiosis’ – at least two very different species, in particular a fungus and a photosynthetic alga or cyanobacteria. Despite their natural resistance to extremes of temperature, humidity and altitude, they are very sensitive to environmental change and are used as bio indicators for pollutants and climate change.

    After its time in Glasgow, this exhibition travels to The Museum & Archive in Shetland and to Fair Isle itself in 2018.  To see more of Simone’s work, visit her website www.smlandwehrtraxler.com

    Woven piece

Art and Science - a Natural Relationship

  • Lorna Fraser is a ceramicist whose work draws inspiration from the huge collection of pressed plants specimens, impressive carpological collection as well as the spirit collection of pickled flowers and fruit held at RBGE. She also works part-time as a technician in the Herbarium,

    In September 2017, Lorna was invited by Craft Biennale Scotland,The British Council and Crafts Council to exhibit a large installation titled Scaphium at the Cheongju International Craft Biennale, S. Korea as part of the British Pavilion where Scotland had special prominence. The work was first shown at Patriothall Gallery, Edinburgh in October 2016 and The Meffan Gallery in March 2017, where, Lorna and Dr Peter Wilkie gave several talks using the art work to engage the audience with the work of the RBGE and to highlight deforestation of the rain forests in S.E.Asia. 

    As Lorna explains: ”This began when Dr Peter Wilkie, tropical botanist at the garden, showed me a selection of beautiful dried fruits that he had brought back from an expedition to the rainforests of Malaysia. He described to me the story of where they came from; and from that conversation the idea for this work was born. 

    At Cheongiu I exhibited a complex hanging of over 100 porcelain forms inspired by the intricate fruit of the large tropical tree in the genus Scaphium that grows in the rain forests of South East Asia. Replicating these fruits in translucent porcelain, my installation captures the moment when the papery fruits are released allowing them to flutter to the forest floor covering it in a thick carpet.  As if in a tropical breeze, the piece continuously and gently moves with even the slightest breath, encapsulating the fragility and beauty of this event in the life-cycle of the tree.”

    As Peter explains “It was Lorna’s joy and enthusiasm for the specimens I was bringing back from the tropics that convinced me that through her art I might be able to tell the story of my science. It has been a truly inspiring partnership and it is clear that by celebrating the pure beauty of the natural world through her art we have managed to engage a wide audience with the science undertaken at the RBGE and its role in helping protect our natural world”.

    Working in the herbarium provides Lorna with endless inspiration, and it is important for her to use her art as a way of engaging people about the important science at the heart of RBGE.



A sculptural take on our Herbarium collection

  • In May 2017 the Scottish sculptor Bobby Niven visited the Herbarium here at RBGE for a tour of the collection. He was on a fact finding mission as he had recently been commissioned to produce work for the Plant Scenery of the World exhibition at Inverleith House, which runs from 29 July to 29 October 2017.

    He was shown the breadth of the collection by Lesley Scott, Assistant Herbarium Curator. Together, they explored the pressed plant specimens, wood samples and the spirit collection (fruits and flowers preserved in alcohol). Having access to a research collection of three million specimens is a terrific resource but how on earth do you choose the material to work with?

    It wasn’t long before they realised that the focus could be narrowed down to the carpological collection (the big dried seeds and fruits). Being sculptural in nature, Bobby was attracted to many of the tropical fruits and seed pods and was excited to explore the possibility that they would be suitable for casting in bronze. In fact, on subsequent return visits, Bobby pulled out most of the extensive collection and had difficulties in making a final choice.

    For the work to truly reflect the RBGE research collection, provenance was a key factor. Bobby only chose material which had been given a name and listed the country of origin and date of collection. Much of the material is from tropical trees which have a conservation status of ‘Vulnerable’ or ‘Endangered’. RBGE botanists are currently working in the tropical regions to protect threatened habitats and are providing collaborating countries with base-line data that is used to create conservation plans. Further details about the cast specimens are available in the free guide when you visit the exhibition at Inverleith House.

    The casting process relies on the robustness of the material and as the seeds were too complicated in their structure to make moulds from, wax runners and risers were attached and then direct cast. This ensured that all the fine details could be seen. The wooden hands you can see in the finished pieces compliment and support the bronze casts – symbolic of the original trees where the seeds would have flourished.

    A final word from Bobby:

    “I really enjoyed my time working in the Herbarium. I think there is so much more potential to be explored in these research collections by other artists in the future. I am very happy to champion the relationship between RBGE and the visual arts.”

    You can explore more of Bobby Niven ’s work at www.bobbyniven.com

    Completed sculpture

A sculptural take on our Herbarium collection

A collaboration between RBGE and Edinburgh College of Art

  • On 1st February 2017 an exhibition opens in the Library Foyer at RBGE displaying work which was produced through association between RBGE and Edinburgh College of Art and inspired by our research collections.  This exhibition will run until the first week of March. 


    In October 2016, the Edinburgh College of Art 2nd year Illustration course, were assigned a 5 week project based on the Herbarium, Library, Archives and Living Collections here at Edinburgh.  This collaboration is part of a concerted effort by RBGE in seeking new audiences for our collections, in addition to the traditional taxonomic researchers and was valuable for strengthening the relationship between organisations.


    As we curate such a potentially overwhelming amount of material to choose from, we decided on a geographical focus, based on some of the scientific projects that are currently active at RBGE.   The students were divided into groups and allocated one of the countries highlighted on the map.

    Each student group was given a tour of our research collections and a session with one of our taxonomists who specialises in the flora of their designated country.  These experts gave the students an overview of their current research, including anecdotes from their fieldwork emphasising the need for habitat conservation and showed them herbarium specimens and living material to be inspired by.


    The work displayed was chosen from all the material submitted by the students.  We have included the sketchbooks to illustrate the research that is such a significant part of the artistic process and to give the viewer an insight into how each student created the final artwork.  The herbarium specimen and living collection images seek to put the work into the context of the RBGE collections.

    Student exhibtion Student exhibtion

Inspired by Seaweeds in the Herbarium

  • On Friday 15 March 2019, the RBGE Herbarium and Edinburgh Shoreline Project joined forces for a half-day mixed media workshop inspired by algae specimens in the RBGE Herbarium.

    The morning started with a visit to the Herbarium, where Heleen Plaisier gave an introduction to the RBGE Herbarium and introduced the historical specimens she put on display, which were all collected on the rocky shoreline of Edinburgh.

    Charlotte Johnson explained that many of the species that were on display can now longer be found on the Edinburgh Shoreline, due to pollution, and that this became evident during a recent Seaweed Bioblitz on the rocks of Joppa, also organized by the Shoreline Project.

    Artist and designer Susan White spoke about how the Herbarium collections inspired her to create artworks, which she ended up using as designs for her own clothing brand (Rosamund of Scotland).

    Susan explained the process of rendering the beautiful and sometimes intricate seaweeds, making the images into textile designs, and printing them onto silk. She showed some prototypes of her new scarf collection, all inspired by the RBGE Herbarium collection.

    After the visit to the Herbarium, the participants continued to the John Hope Gateway, where they tried their hand at creating their own artworks in mixed media, using watercolours and pen and ink on watercolour paper – inspired by printed images from the Herbarium Catalogue. There were some truly stunning results!

    Seaweed specimens laid out in the herbarium

Salix lanata and Woolly Originals

  • We collaborated with Sarah Clarkson from Woolly Originals https://woollyoriginals.com/  who created a design based on our herbarium specimens of Salix lanata.   Sarah visited the Herbarium here at RBGE on a couple of occasions in early 2019, taking photos and doing drawings of details of the plant.  She also met with RBGE Research Associate, Heather McHaffie who told her about our Woolly Willow Species Action Plan and showed her the plants we have growing in the Nursery. These were grown from cuttings from the wild population and which will be replanted out at the original site to attempt to halt the plant’s decline. 

    Here is Sarah’s blog explaining her design process.


    In May 2018, I was intrigued when I learnt that the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh had been running a project for almost twenty years to save endangered native alpine plants. On further investigation, I discovered that one of these plants was the woolly willow (Salix lanata). I instantly knew that I had to create a design that highlighted not only the species itself, but also its vulnerability to climate change. The synergy between the woolly willow and Woolly Originals could not be ignored.

    The woolly willow is a native, low growing, alpine shrub found in the remote glens of Scotland. It has beautiful pale green leaves with a “woolly” surface, and distinctive orange-yellow catkins. It is classified as a montane, subarctic willow shrub. As a dioecious plant, the male and female catkins occur on separate plants and it needs many of both to produce seeds.

    But, the woolly willow is at risk of extinction due to climate change. Less snow cover leads to greater exposure which means that the plant may be eaten by grazing deer and sheep during the winter.


    To get a feel for the plant, I first visited RGBE’s Herbarium. Lesley Scott, the Assistant Herbarium Curator, was incredibly helpful and knowledgeable about this plant. With her assistance, I was able to view many of the pressed specimens. I also observed a number of living plants close by the East Gate at the Botanic Garden.

    Dr Heather McHaffie, who helped lead the plant’s regeneration plan, was also very helpful. She explained to me the details of the project and very kindly showed me the nursery where the willow and a number of other native plants are being propagated and grown from seed for reintroduction into the wild, as part of the Scottish Plant Project. Details of the plant’s regeneration action plan are detailed at the foot of this article.


    I wanted my design to detail both the willow itself but also to impart the message that climate change and grazing could potentially lead to the plant’s extinction.

    I first chose representative colours from Jamieson’s of Shetland Spindrift collection. I decided on two colours for the background, Conifer or Pine Forest, and Laurel for the leaves. For the catkins, I selected Orkney Wool DK in Mandarin from Be Inspired Fibres in Edinburgh. Thank you, Mei, who owns and runs this lovely yarn shop in Edinburgh, for helping me select a suitable Scottish wool in a suitable colour.

    After several attempts, I was finally happy with an interpretation of the woolly willow. I then considered how to detail the effects of climate change which was more challenging. Eventually, I knew what I wanted. The resulting pattern shows a spread of the leaves which begin densely but are abruptly halted in a stark linear manner. This is the “grazing line” where a lack of snow cover in the winter means the plants are being eaten by deer and sheep. This is the front pattern. The back pattern of the bag is simply the background colour of Pine Forest or Conifer, representing what will happen if climate change is allowed to continue and escalate.

    Finally, I decided that Woolly bags made in this pattern, would be lined with a complimentary, beautiful ivory and orange leaf print linen from Scottish Linen in Kirkcaldy, Fife. This would represent the diminishing winter snow.


    Woolly Originals bags in the Save the Willow design was launched at the Edinburgh Yarn Festival at the Corn Exchange, Edinburgh on Thursday 21st March 2019. Thereafter, they are available at the Woolly Originals EStore in Tool/Pencil Case, Small, Medium and Shopper sizes.


    Scottish Natural Heritage (2016). The Species Action Framework Handbook

    Action Plan

    Woolly Willow Species Action Plan

    Due to climate change and changes in land use, many species of Scottish alpine plants are threatened with extinction. One of these plants is the woolly willow (Salix lanata), part of the subarctic willow scrub. It has been listed under both the UK Biodiversity Action Plan (UKBAP) and Annex I of the EC Habitats Directive.

    In May 1999, the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) implemented a Species Action Plan to halt the plant’s decline. The first step was to survey all known locations of the plant. It was found to be growing in only thirteen sites across Scotland, three of which were considered to be functionally extinct. It had become vulnerable to grazing by deer and sheep due to the reduced snow-lie caused by climate change.

    An action plan was drafted and implemented over 2007-12, led by NTS. Seeds and cuttings were taken from specific sites and placed in nurseries at The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) as the Scottish Plant Project, and at the NTS Killin plant nursery.  The resulting 13-14 month old willows were subsequently planted in their area of collection. From 1999, more than 1580 plants were re-introduced by staff and volunteers from NTS, RGBE and Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), though mainly during the summers of 2009, 2011 and 2012.

    Follow-up surveys appear to suggest that in five of the replanted areas, the population has held at a minimum of 50 plants, the number needed to ensure the viability of the willow at any one site.

    This work continues as part of the Montane Scrub Action Group.


    Woolly Originals final products Salix lanata Salix lanata specimen Salix lanata mood board

Cicerbita alpina and Woolly Originals

  • In March this year, inspired by the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh project to protect and conserve endangered native alpine plants, I launched the first in a series of Woolly bags to highlight the climate crisis facing our planet.

    I am delighted now to launch the second design, Save the Sowthistle which highlights the problems facing the Alpine blue-sowthistle (Cicerbita alpina) as described by the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE):

    a tall herb at home on mountain grasslands and very palatable to grazing animals. As such it has become restricted to just four small mountain ledges beyond the reach of deer and sheep.
    Because small, isolated, populations have lower genetic diversity than larger populations their ability to evolve and adapt to environmental change is limited. RBGE is undertaking some radical regeneration work. Following collecting trips by colleagues in the Science and Horticulture Divisions, new populations of Cicerbita alpina, with increased genetic diversity, are being propagated at RBGE’s Nursery. When robust, they are translocated back to their natural mountainside environments, where grazing animals are now being managed in sympathy with habitat restoration. The future is looking brighter for Cicerbita alpina. (RBGE, 2019)


    To get a feel for the plant, I again visited RBGE's Herbarium. Lesley Scott, the Assistant Herbarium Curator, kindly assisted me again to view the pressed specimens of the plant.

    Dr Aline Finger, who is involved with the plant's regeneration plan, was also very helpful. She chatted at length about the project, answering my many questions, and showed me around the nursery where the Alpine blue-sowthistle and a number of other native plants are being propagated and grown from seed for reintroduction into the wild, as part of the Scottish Plant Project. This is being overseen by the nursery manager, Martine Borge.


    As with my Save the Willow design, I wanted to impart the message that climate change and grazing could potentially lead to the plant's extinction. To achieve this, one plant out of every four no longer has flowers.  These have disappeared as a result of overgrazing and the effects of climate change which has led to a reduced snow cover during the winter.

    The geology of the Cairngorm Mountains in the Highlands of Scotland consists of Dalradian and Moine Supergroup metamorphic rocks intruded by massive granite plutons. The background Sholmit/White colour of the design represents the composition of these Cairngorm rocks. The peaked Leprechaun pattern represents both the sowthistle’s triangular shaped leaves and the shape of the mountains. The plants themselves have been detailed in Leprechaun for the stems and Violet for the flowers. The yarns used are all from the Jamieson’s of Shetland Spindrift range of 2-ply jumper weight Shetland wool. A complimentary grey handle and lining fabric from Scottish Linen have been chosen to represent the geology of the granite plutons of the Cairngorm Mountains.


    Woolly Originals' project bags in the Save the Sowthistle design will be launched at the Perth Festival of Yarn at the Dewars Centre, Perth on Saturday 7th September 2019. Thereafter, they will be available at Yarndale and then online. They will be available in Small, Medium and Large sizes. Please note that 10% of the sale price of these bags will be donated to the RBGE to help fund their conservation and regeneration project work.


    Cicerbita alpina bag Cicerbita alpina herbarium specimens Cicerbita alpina research at RBGE

a botanical glimpse

  • We were delighted to be approached by graduating MA Art, Space and Nature student from the Edinburgh College of Art (ECA), Audrey Yeo.

    Audrey presented a botanical glimpse as a part of the ECA Degree Show 2019 which ran from 1 to 9 June in the Tent Gallery at Evolution House in Edinburgh.  

    Audrey describes her work as “an avenue for me to continuously put into question my human-centred perspective of the world. My work process is often inspired from the crossing between the art and sciences.  In a botanical glimpse, the piece attempts to explore making sense of the world around us and to draw attention to our co-existence with often overlooked ecological entities.” 

    In the initial stages, Audrey spent time with RBGE Research Associate Heather McHaffie.  Together they conducted fieldwork in the open grassland of The Meadows, surrounded by the urban sprawl Edinburgh.  They sampled an area of 0.07m2, collecting and then identifying the plants they found.

    Audrey cast key parts of the plants in resin. She explains “This immortalised, encapsulated form echoes the limitations of just relying on the present-day sense systems – emphasizing the way we often separate ourselves when observing what is around us. “

    Audrey created a theatrical setting for the piece. Viewers enter into a small, carefully lit space. The look is profoundly reminiscent of the Herbarium, suggestive of the cabinets she opened, to see dried pressed specimens of the botanical plant names she collected. The plant names in the show reflect the aged look of herbarium labels on reference specimens which are also preserved in time, collected from many Scottish locations and spanning over 200 years.

    Through the finished work, Audrey attempted “to reconcile and put into question the outcome of such an approach i.e. western scientific methods and the role of cultural institutions, in our perception and relationship with the world around us. Having the opportunity to access the resources in the Herbarium played an important part of the my research and inspiration process.“

    You can follow Audrey on Instagram https://www.instagram.com/a.wayfaringsoul/


    Audrey Yeo Staged exhibition and the herbarium cabinets encountered during research

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