A plant's-eye-view into global cultures

Our Economic Botany Collection has 100,000 unique artefacts derived from plants and fungi. The items collected here are from across the world with a particular emphasis on regions colonised by Britain from 1847 to 1930.

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Rubber denture by RBG KewRoyal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Coming clean on plants

Plants have long played an important part in our quest for personal hygiene and health. Toothpastes, toothbrushes, soaps and shampoos all contain some plant-based materials. This rubber denture is probably over a hundred years old. 

Medicinal plant market by RBG KewRoyal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Plants that heal

Over three quarters of the world's population depend on plants for medicine. Many traditional medical systems rely almost entirely on plants. Western medicine isn't very dissimilar. Almost one quarter of drugs use active ingredients from natural sources. 

Medicinal plants collection by RBG KewRoyal Botanic Gardens, Kew

A box of tricks and medicine

Until the mid-nineteenth century, doctors relied heavily on plant drugs in many parts of the world. A medical cabinet could contain several medicinal plants to cure a number of ailments. Sometimes a few of the plants were mixed together to make the medicines needed. 

Medicine for malaria by RBG KewRoyal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Bitter medicine, refreshing tonic water

Malaria was a major killer in countries like India. But the British had a solution to protect themselves. Just 5 grains of pure quinine (Cinchona pubescens) could do the trick and prevent malaria. Europeans took their daily dose in the form of refreshing tonic water.

Betel nuts by RBG KewRoyal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Plants can give you a high

Some plant extracts can alter how you feel and make you feel relaxed or dreamy. Such materials have been used for pain relief and for pleasure. Betel nuts (Areca catechu), are one example. Chewing these nuts can produce a narcotic effect. 

Opium poppy by RBG KewRoyal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Opium poppies

Opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) capsules produce a white latex that contains many psychoactive chemicals, like morphine and codeine. Opium was once used for pleasure but since it is addictive, it is now banned in many countries. Opium does contain some pain-reducing chemicals. 

Tobacco from Colombia by RBG KewRoyal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Tobacco

Tobacco (Nicotiana) originated in Central and South America but is now grown in many countries. In the UK, in 2019, 14.1% of people aged 18 years and above smoked cigarettes.

Cloves are a popular spice by RBG KewRoyal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Spice shapes the world

Spices flavour our food and make it edible. The hunt for spices have shaped global history. People embarked on voyages and wars were fought to gain control of spices. 

Preparing cinnamon by RBG KewRoyal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Storing spices and stories

The British Empire consisted of so many regions that were rich in spices. Many samples were brought back and stored here in our Gardens. Some stories and pictures survive too, like this one that tells the story of cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum) production in Sri Lanka.

Necklace with red-brown seeds of Erythrina by RBG KewRoyal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Baubles, bangles and beads

Humans have adorned themselves not just with gemstones but also plant products that look beautiful. Some cultures have worn plant products as necklaces, bracelets and armlets. 

Necklace of seeds by RBG KewRoyal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Natural beauty

Many seeds are inherently beautiful. Their colour, size and appearance could compare to gemstones. In many cultures, necklaces made from seeds have a religious or cultural significance. 

Meet the Curator of our Economic Botany Collection by RBG KewRoyal Botanic Gardens, Kew

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