Celebrating our meadows and grasses

National Meadows Day, which takes place on the first Saturday of July, has become an annual event to celebrate our meadows. There are over 100 events planned across the UK on Saturday 2 July providing the chance to visit meadows and raising awareness of this overlooked habitat. For further information go to:
http://www.magnificentmeadows.org.uk/celebrating-meadows/national-meadows-day

While it is not uncommon to find pressed flowers within the pages of an older book, finding books in which plant specimens were part of the original publication is relatively unusual. The Perkins Agricultural Library is fortunate in having seven such books of dried grasses, ranging in date from 1790 to 1896. The publications resulted from the ongoing drive to improve the quality of pastures in order to support more livestock; farmers needed to be able to identify pasture grasses accurately and for this purpose dried plant specimens were preferred to botanical illustrations.

Only one author mentions in any detail the practical problems involved in producing such a book. In his introduction to Natural Illustrations of the British Grasses (Bath, 1846), which contained sixty-two specimens, Frederick Hanham wrote that 62,000 plants had to be collected and prepared, with half as many again to ensure successful specimens. Not surprisingly he described the undertaking as involving “no slight or ordinary anxiety and exertion”.

Rye-grass or Lolium Perenne in Frederick Hanham Natural Illustrations of the British Grasses (Bath, 1846) Perkins f. SB197

Rye-grass or Lolium Perenne in Frederick Hanham Natural Illustrations of the British Grasses (Bath, 1846) Perkins f. SB197

Broadly similar in aim, the books differ in approach. In John Milne & Sons’ British Farmer’s Plant Portfolio (1896) there are only a few pages of written description, but the grass specimens are superb and well displayed. David Moore in Concise Notices of British Grasses Best Suited to Agriculture (1851) also includes tables of the quantities of seeds of different grasses required for various purposes, whilst Hanham’s Natural Illustrations of the British Grasses (1846) is an altogether different undertaking. As well as describing the plants, he also includes “instructive and appropriate extracts from the best authors”, and hopes that the reader, through nature, may look to nature’s God.

Zig zag clover in John Milne & Sons’ British Farmer’s Plant Portfolio (1896) Perkins f. SB193

Zig zag clover in John Milne & Sons’ British Farmer’s Plant Portfolio (1896) Perkins f. SB193

Hortus Gramineus Woburnensis (1816) by George Sinclair is the only book of the seven to report the results of experiments involving grasses, in this case a comparison of the nutritive qualities of grasses sown on different soils. This lavish folio volume is also unusual in containing dried seeds as well as dried grasses.  In his introduction, Sinclair wrote that the scientific study of grasses had been neglected in favour of other branches of agriculture – exactly the same opinion being expressed by Milne some eighty years later.

We do hope you enjoy taking part in National Meadows Day and perhaps you will participate in events identifying some of the grasses on view in these neglected habitats.

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