Economic Botany at Kew


Wellies, gloves, ducks… rubber is part of everyday 21st century life and has many different uses. Thus, it has definitely earned its place in Kew’s Economic Botany collection of useful plant commodities.  Although the rubber collection is extensive, relatively little research has been done into the background of the different artefacts. Towards the end of the month I will be spending two weeks working with the rubber specimen in the Economic Botany collection to archive the information that has been collected about them.



Kew Gardens is not just a pretty face; the beautiful scenery is just one facet of this historical institution. The activities and research undertaken by Kew are of international significance. Henry Wickham is said to have smuggled 70,000 rubber tree seeds from Brazil in the late 19th century and given them to Kew Gardens (Brockway, 1979). These seeds were from the Hevea species, indigenous to Latin America, and the only latex producing tree suitable for plantation. These seeds were then sent on to Southeast Asia for mass production to meet the increasing demand for rubber.


Whilst Kew is no longer associated with empire and colonialism it cannot erase its history and continues to have a global reach making it a fascinating place to carry out my research. The Economic Botany collection does not just include raw materials, it also has commodified objects. These will form the basis for my research; I will choose 3 objects from the collection and carry out explore their histories.



Brockway, L. (1979) ‘Science and colonial expansion: the role of the British Royal Botanic Gardens’, American Ethnologist, 6(3), pp. 449-465.


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