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Begonia nella Curvilinear Glasshouse

Begonia in the Curvilinear Glasshouse


Irish women discovering botany

Photographs of Cristina Archinto
Text Alessandra Valentinelli

Ireland is among the European countries with the scarcest flora. Centuries of grazing and agricultural activities have also depleted, and ultimately thwarted woodland growth. That vibrant green that is so enchanting is nonetheless a reflection of a rather articulated biodiversity.


Grasslands area with The Great Palm House in the background

The abundance of flora found in a simple meadow is unexpected: flowers, grasses, ferns, liverworts and lichens. At first it may seem less compelling than a jungle or an expedition to the Southern Seas, but perhaps it is precisely this “domestic” facet that allowed Irish women to be forerunners and to conquer an important role in the pantheon of botanical studies. At the end of the 1700s Ellen Hutchins, travelled around Cork County, classifying hundreds of still unidentified mosses. In the mid 1800s, Ann Elizabeth Ball was one of the most esteemed experts in Algae, and in 1833 Katharine Sophia Kane published the pioneering taxonomy of the Irish flora. She would be the first woman admitted to the Edinburgh Botanical Society.


Rock Garden and Grasslands on natural limestone in the Wild native Ireland plants area

It goes without saying that many women worked in the shadow of the more famous male colleagues. Ellen Hutchins never continued her own herbariums, and Lady Kane wrote under a pseudonym. Yet, when the academic interest shifted from the exotic to the endemic species, their studies turned out to be of utmost importance for the research and the knowledge of indigenous ecology, especially when identifying vulnerabilities and threats. Matilda Knowles, archivist at the Dublin Gardens from 1903 to 1933, would have to wait for over a century for the recognition of her works on lichen diversity based on the tidal patterns and the fundamental contribution it brought to the understanding of coastal environments.


Asteraceae in the Annual Plants area

In order to knot the threads of a memory so intimately intertwined with the resources of the land, Matthew Jebb, the present director of the Dublin Garden, has recreated entire habitats by transporting the rocks and the soil from their original environments. They show the natural evolution of the Irish ecosystems: the transition from reed marshlands to fens, where the rapidly growing plants flourish on top of the layer of decaying plants, rising above the water level. This explains the slow development of the tree-lined landscape, the century old formation of bogs, the discovery of fossil forests trapped under the layers of moss. Plants teach, through their frailty, that they belong to biological communities, highlighting the importance of hedges, ponds, corridors and expanses of green as a means for the protection of wild species. Plants reinstate the fragile balance and the endangered blooms and foreshadow a possible future.


South Africa plants in the Curvilinear Glasshouse

An open-air museum in its own right, Dublin has recently endorsed the renovation of its nineteenth century greenhouses: symbols of the union between aesthetics and engineering, achieved by the architectural use of iron and glass, and resulting in the technical progress. The “Curvilinear Range”, designed by Richard Turner, was completed in 1848; where the construction lasted five years despite the company in charge of the works going bankrupt. He also designed the Belfast Gardens, and worked in Kew Gardens. The structure has approximately 8,500 glass panes overlapping and honed around the edges to allow water drainage. The roof radiates out at nine specific angles, and the panes are mounted in twenty different combinations. The renovation was achieved by restoring the old wrought-iron decorations also from Kew Gardens. The “Curvilinear” assembled standard pieces, and glass panes were produced with a technique that was innovative at that time. As a whole it

is unique. The “Great Palm House”, jokingly nicknamed the “Jungle House”, was made with prefabricated components. It was inaugurated in 1884 to replace the previous wooden structure, which was destroyed during a storm. The cast iron parts forged in Scotland made it possible to dismantle its parts, and restore the damaged ones by casting molds faithful to the originals. In 2004 these were reassembled, rust and corrosion free and protected by modern treatments.


The Pond

Matthew Jebb used to say, “Taking a walk is ideal for coming up with new ideas”. The Dublin Garden is open year round, except on Christmas Day. Admittance is free, and it is frequently visited by people of all ages. It is a place to share knowledge, outdoor activities and passions; a place to nourish the never-ending curiosity about the environment that surrounds us all, or guess the plant species, letting oneself be amazed, and maybe even contemplate the unexplored frontiers of biodiversity. Exploring nature’s vitality in its simplest form, or by means of the material principles of days gone by, is a tale narrated through the intricacy of its land. It begs the question of today’s climate change and the landscapes of tomorrow. Above all else, it offers a new way of relating to its changing structures, in harmony with cycles to which all beings are inextricably linked.


Irish Botanists

Ellen Hutchins (1785–1815)

Over 200 years ago, on the shores of West Cork, a young woman was avidly collecting, studying and identifying plants. Ellen Hutchins was Ireland's first female botanist although somewhat forgotten, but in the field of botany her contribution is widely known and appreciated. Born into a very poor family at the age of two, she was orphaned by her father, but it was thanks to the care and attention of Mr Stokes, an eminent Irish physician, and his wife that Ellen decided to devote herself to botany, dividing her time between researching plants in the open air, which greatly benefited her precarious health, and cataloguing her discoveries, producing several detailed and meticulous watercolour drawings. His ability to find new plants and the quality of his drawings and specimens aroused the admiration of the leading botanists of the time and his work was featured in many publications. Although he never published under his own name, he was an important contributor to the newly developing plant sciences of his time. In his lifetime, he catalogued more than a thousand plants including algae and lichens and discovered some of them under his own name such as Jubula hutchinsiae and Herberta hutchinsiae.

Velvet horn fucus tormentosus from collection to publication

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Anne Elizabeth Ball (1808–1872)

Unlike her predecessor Ellen Hutchins, Anne was born into a family already embedded in a world of science and nature, her brother Robert Ball being a naturalist and her father Bob Stawell Ball an astronomer. In her early twenties, Anne began collecting and studying seaweed and, despite not being a member of Dublin's scientific societies as a woman, established herself as a successful algologist. However, as was customary at the time, her work was published by male naturalists such as William Henry Harvey, a friend of her brother, who reciprocated by naming the genus Ballia and the species Cladophora balliana after her. Ball also helped provide William Thompson with illustrated records of hydroids, which were published in the fourth volume of The Natural History of Ireland in 1856. His collections were preserved and later acquired by the Dublin Botanic Gardens until 1961 when they passed to the Natural History Museum in London.

A specimen of Ballia callitricha in one herbarium

Katharine Sophia Kane (1811-1886)

Also orphaned at a young age, she was raised by her uncle Matthias O'Kelly who had a strong attraction to nature, as did his son Joseph who became a geologist. Katherine was only 22 years old at the time of her first publication The Irish Flora and, although it was not a large work, it was one of the first of its kind, praised for its accuracy. In 1836, the then 25-year-old Katherine became the first woman to be elected a member of the Edinburgh Botanical Society and her herbarium is preserved at University College, Cork. During her life she also took an interest in tree cultivation, writing on the subject for the Irish Farmer's and Gardener's Magazine

The title page of the 1833 volume The Irish Flora

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Matilda Knowles (1864- 1933)

Matilda was encouraged from an early age by her father William James Knowles, also an amateur scientist, by taking her and her sister to meetings of the Belfast Naturalists. Her studies led to her being regarded as the founder of modern studies of the lichens of Ireland. In1895 she was the author, with Derry Mary Leebody, of The Flora of the North-east of Ireland and between 1897 and 1933 published over thirty scientific articles on a wide range of botanical subjects. It was while studying the lichens of Howth that he discovered how coastal lichens grow in distinct shores and are distinguished by their colour: black, orange and grey From 1923 he shared the curatorship of the National Museum of Ireland Herbarium, a collection of dried and pressed plants now housed in the Dublin Botanic Gardens. His work is said to have 'constituted an important basic contribution to the fungal botany of Ireland and western oceanic Europe'.

Lichens collected by Matilde Knowles



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