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

Spinning the Yarn

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.



Art and Science - a Natural Relationship

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

Inspired by Seaweeds in the Herbarium

Salix lanata and Woolly Originals

  • We have been collaborating with Sarah Clarkson from Woolly Originals https://woollyoriginals.com/  who will be appearing at the Edinburgh Yarn Festival at the Corn Exchange from 21st to  23rd  March 2019 where she is launching some new designs. 

    One of these designs is based on our herbarium specimens of Salix lanata.   Sarah visited the Herbarium here at RBGE on a couple of occasions, 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.

    For the full story, click on this link to take you to the Woolly Originals website https://woollyoriginals.com/2019/02/12/save-the-willow/

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