Science in the garden

With the launch of the RHS Science Strategy, now seems like a good time to look at the long history of science at the RHS

Charles DarwinThe RHS set up a Scientific Committee in 1868 with key figures of mid 19th century botany, biology and chemistry including: Charles Darwin (right), George Bentham, Joseph Hooker, Maxwell T Masters, Sir Edward Franklin amongst others as its members.

The main focus was on promoting experiments which would improve standards of horticulture and many had far reaching effects on garden practice: from early measures to establish hardiness of new plant introductions, to making greenhouses cheaper and more effective, to biological pest control.

However some scientific work had ramifications way beyond the garden wall.

Hybridization and genetics
While professional and amateur gardeners were hybridizing plants in a big way from the early 19th century onwards, there was no agreed theory to enable them to predict the results. The RHS was very keen to support and publicise research which could establish laws which lay behind inherited characteristics, to enable more effective breeding of improved varieties. Many such experiments and theories were published in the gardening press. Darwin’s ‘The Origin of the Species’ drew heavily on the results of hybridization experiments published in 'Gardeners Chronicle'. In 1899 the RHS organised an international conference on hybridization at its HQ in Vincent Square. At this conference C.C. Hurst reported on his experiments on orchids, discussing how characteristics skipped a generation, using terms ‘prepotency and latency’ – the forerunner of dominance and recession.

The conference was such a success in terms of networking and international information exchange that it was resolved to stage another. In preparation for the next conference, a literature search was undertaken, looking for any earlier hybridization experiments. This search found an obscure paper by an Austrian monk, Gregor Mendel, published 30 years previously in the journal of a local natural history society with a very small circulation. This paper was sent to biologist William Bateson who read it on the train on the way to give an RHS lecture on ‘The Problems in Heredity as a subject for Horticultural Investigation’. He revised his lecture on the train and as a result the RHS audience were the first people in Britain to hear of Mendel. The RHS published a translation of Mendel’s paper which caused a sensation. At the Third International Hybridization Conference, held by the RHS in 1906, Bateson was able to report that a new discipline had come into being – it just needed a name. He said, ‘To meet this difficulty I suggest for the consideration of this Congress, the term Genetics.’ This was the first time this term was used.

Renshaw's weather diary recorded at Wisley in 1891Weather and climate change
Interest in establishing hardiness of new plants led to the Society keeping meticulous weather records at its gardens (first Chiswick, then Wisley) from 1826. These have great potential as a resource for climate change study. Thomas Andrew Knight (Horticultural Society President) conducted an early study of climate change (Transactions, vol. 7 1830) based on published weather records in England – though he was looking to local phenomena like deforestation to explain temperature fluctuations.

Air pollution
In 1891 the Scientific Committee was granted £100 by the Royal Society to conduct a special study on air pollution and the impact on plants in cultivation (Papers in Transactions, 1892). The RHS held a Smoke Abatement Exhibition at Kensington in 1882.

Orchids and atoms
Clarkia pulchellaIn 1827, while examining grains of pollen of the plant Clarkia pulchella suspended in water under a microscope, botanist Robert Brown observed minute particles, now known to be amyloplasts and spherosomes, ejected from the pollen grains, executing a continuous jittery motion. He then observed the same motion in particles of inorganic matter, enabling him to rule out the hypothesis that the effect was life-related. Brown did not provide a theory to explain the motion, but the phenomenon is now known as Brownian motion. Atoms and molecules had long been theorized as the constituents of matter, and many decades later, Albert Einstein published a paper in 1905 that explained in precise detail how the motion that Brown had observed was a result of the pollen being moved by individual water molecules. This explanation of Brownian motion served as definitive confirmation that atoms and molecules actually exist.

More information

RHS members can borrow from the thousands of gardening books held in the Lindley Libraries - visit our online catalogue.

Even if you are not an RHS member, the RHS Lindley Libraries are open to everyone and provide access to modern collections of books and journals on gardening and related topics. Our heritage collections of rare books, photographs, art and archives are accessible by appointment.

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