Ellen’s Treasures

ellen's treasures

Ellen’s Treasures are plants she found, and can be seen as present day colour photographs, specimens Ellen made and her wonderful watercolour drawings.

From September 11th to 1st November 2019, there is an exhibition, Celebrating Ellen Hutchins, in the Library Reading Room at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. This includes original drawings of Ellen’s and ones of hers engraved and hand coloured in botany books of her time. The exhibition is free, and open Monday to Friday, 10am to 4pm.

Future Forests, Kealkil

Treasures in Future Forests plant nursery, Kealkil, West Cork

The current home for Ellen’s Treasures is in the magical space of the natural wooden building at Future Forests. The link between Ellen’s “pleasure in plants” and the ethos of Future Forests is strong and obvious.

The Ellen Hutchins Festival team is delighted that Future Forests are the hosts of a permanent display on Ellen, with a panel of information about her life and botanical studies, and a cabinet showing photographs of plants she found and information about her gardening.

Ellen’s Treasures at Future Forests include prints of specimens from over 200 years ago, collected by Ellen Hutchins when aged twenty to twenty eight, available to buy for €25 a print, and greetings cards of one of her watercolours of seaweed at €3.50 each or 3 for €10.

See below for information about more of Ellen’s Treasures, and see the Exhibition page here for the small Ellen exhibition currently in Bantry’s Tourist Office.

The wonderful colour photographs of plants Ellen found in the display at Future Forests are by Robbie Murphy, see robbiemurphyphotos.ie

Treasures in Trinity College Dublin: February to April 2017

Ellen’s Treasures in Trinity included the actual specimens that has been in the Herbarium there for over two hundred years, since Ellen parcelled them up and sent them to James Mackay, botanist at Trinity. There were also (prints of) watercolour drawings of seaweeds that Ellen painted at her home in Ballylickey on Bantry Bay.

Seaweed specimen collected by Ellen Hutchins over two hundred years ago. Image courtesy of the Herbarium, Trinity College Dublin

The specimens and watercolour drawings are period pieces, with faded paper and some discolouration, although really in a remarkably good state, given their age.

Seaweed specimen collected by Ellen Hutchins over two hundred years ago. Image courtesy of the Herbarium, Trinity College Dublin

This slightly faded period feel is how we expect to see things that illustrate a life or a time period from the past. The modern day colour photographs may be thought to jar alongside the early nineteenth century drawings and specimens, but of course Ellen saw the world around her and the minute species of seaweeds and lichens through her ‘little microscope’ in  glorious technicolour, just as we do.

On one windowsill in the exhibition were colour photographs of plants from the Bantry Bay area of West Cork that Ellen explored. In 1809 she was asked by botanist Dawson Turner to produce a list of all the plants in her neighbourhood, intended for publication by the Linnean Soceity, London. In the list, Ellen sometimes notes where she found the plant.

Elecampane (c) Robbie Murphy

Elecampane (Inula helenium) is an old medicinal plant, and it is now rare and mostly coastal. Ellen notes that she found it in a ‘field near the cove at Ballylickey’. It is listed as found by J Drummond in Mackay’s Flora Hibernia of 1836.

Alexanders © Robbie Murphy

Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum) is a leftover from its use as a vegetable in the past, and is therefore often found where that has been an old house. Ellen found it on the ‘seashore at Reendesart’. This was the site of an early 17th century O’Sullivan house.

Irish Spurge © Robbie Murphy

Irish spurge (Euphorbia hyberna). Ellen notes how ‘the country people here poison fish with it by putting it in rivers, and they eat the fish without injury’.

Large-flowered Butterwort (Pinguicula grandiflora) © Robbie Murphy

Robbie Murphy’s lovely photographs are from the book, The Wild Plants of Bere, Dursey, Whiddy and other Islands in Bantry Bay, and reproduced here and in the exhibitions with his kind permission. See robbiemurphyphotos.ie

The Wild Plants of Bere, Dursey & Whiddy

This wonderful book, published in 2013, puts on record the variety of wild plants found in Ireland’s most famous natural harbour. It covers history, geography, geology, vegetation and land use as well as presenting an annotated catalogue or Flora of its wild plants. It notes that in the past botanists largely neglected the islands, but that there are two significant sets of plant records from way back. The first by Philip O’Sullivan Beare (1590-1636) who wrote The Natural History of Ireland noting medicinal plants, crops and woodland trees. The second was Ellen Hutchins’ plant list of 1809-1812, and she is noted as the first Botanist to record the plants of Whiddy Island.

Another set of four colour photographs from the exhibition showed:

Stag’s Horn Club Moss

1. Stag’s Horn Club Moss: photograph by Clare Heardman, taken in July 2016 during a BSBI trip with Rory Hodd. It was seen for the first time for over a hundred years earlier in 2016 by Helen Lawless of Mountaineering Ireland. The BSBI trip was to confirm location and fill in a special recording form. Ellen had included it in her plant list, and it had only been recorded in SW Ireland once since, and that over a hundred years ago.

Dwarf Willow, on summit of Knock Boy

Dwarf Willow, on summit of Knock Boy

2. Dwarf Willow (Salix herbacea): photograph taken by Clare Heardman in August 2015 during the first Ellen Hutchins Festival, on the summit of Knock Boy, the highest mountain in Cork. Ellen listed this in the same place in her plant list over two hundred years ago, and there it was. It is an alpine plant and the world’s smallest tree (1to 6cm high).


Maria Cullen, lichenologist, inspecting the doorstep.

Maria Cullen, lichenologist, inspecting the doorstep.

3. Cladonia pyxidata – photo taken in August 2016 during the Two Day Lichens, Algae and Bryophtes Foray led by Howard Fox and Maria Cullen within the Ellen Hutchins Festival. It was lunchtime day two, at Ardnagashel East, on the shores of Bantry Bay, land that had been owned by Ellen’s brother Arthur (and is still owned by one of the Hutchins family). The group of twenty people were sitting outside with their packed lunches when the doorstep became the focus of attention for some of the group. They had been along the coastal path and into the woods to find lichens, and here, literally on the doorstep, were yet more splendid examples.


4. Lobaria pulmonaria – the Tree Lungwort lichen, photo taken August 2016 during the Ellen Hutchins Festival on the walk in Glengarriff Woods with Dr Padraig Whelan of UCC. Ellen describes rocks beside a waterfall in the woods as one of her favourite spots.

Waterfall in Glengarriff Woods

Waterfall in Glengarriff Woods

Ellen’s Treasures were part of the exhibition, Celebrating Ellen Hutchins: Ireland’s First Female Botanist, which ran from 9th February to 28th April for the students and staff of the School of Natural Sciences, in the old Anatomy Building, Trinity College Dublin, hosted by the Botany Department.

There were three free public access sessions on the first Thursdays of the month, 23rd February, 30th March and 27th April, 5pm to 6:30pm.

The exhibition was in two parts, with Part One running until an overlap day on 30th March and new material (specimens, drawings, books, photographs and information panels) then on show in Part Two until 28th April.

Fucus ovalis collected by Ellen on Whiddy Island, 1805. Image Courtesy of The Herbarium. Botany Dept. Trinity College Dublin.

Fucus ovalis collected by Ellen on Whiddy Island, 1805. Image Courtesy of The Herbarium. Botany Dept. Trinity College Dublin.

Conferva Brodiaei (now called Polysiphonia brodiaei)

The specimens are from the Herbarium of the Botany Department, Trinity College Dublin, and were on display for the first time ever since they were collected by Ellen in Bantry Bay, packaged up and sent to James Mackay at Trinity between 1805 and 1812.

The prints of the watercolour drawings of seaweeds are reproduced with the kind permission of the Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew and Museums Sheffield who hold the originals of Ellen’s drawings.

Treasures in Bantry: August 2016

You spotted them? The Treasures? In the shop windows of Bantry during Heritage Week last August? Want to know more?

They are all photographs of seaweeds, and all relate to Ellen Hutchins of Ballylickey, Bantry Bay, Ireland’s first female botanist, and the young woman who put Bantry on the map for botany.

Some are photographs of specimens (dried plants on paper) and some are photographs of watercolour drawings. The originals are all over two hundred years old and were collected by or drawn by Ellen Hutchins, at Ballylickey, about four miles from Bantry.

Fucus capillaris Collected April 18th 1808 in Bantry Bay

Fucus capillaris Collected April 18th 1808 in Bantry Bay

Ellen studied seaweeds from 1805 when she was aged twenty, until ill health prevented her doing so any more in 1813. She died in 1815, aged just twenty nine. In the eight years she ‘botanised’ she made a very significant contribution to the understanding of seaweeds.

TCD 036

Natural History Museum (2014). http://data.nhm.ac.uk/specimen/a47cd2ee-3c50-498e-be1b-bd2c941f4f61

Natural History Museum (2014). http://data.nhm.ac.uk/specimen/a47cd2ee-3c50-498e-be1b-bd2c941f4f61

The specimens are from Trinity College Dublin or the Natural History Museum, London, and on the ones from the Natural History Museum you can see the bar codes and other bits and pieces needed for them to be used by botanists. The Natural History Museum specimens are mostly Type Specimens. This means that they are the one used in the first published description of that seaweed, and they are still in active use for research and identification purposes.

The watercolour drawings were drawn by Ellen between 1808 and 1812. The originals of those used as the Treasures are currently held in store at Sheffield Museum, in the UK. After Ellen’s death, the drawings were given by Ellen’s sister in law, Matilda Hutchins, to the botanist that Ellen corresponded with for seven years, Dawson Turner.

He bound most of them into a wonderful volume that is now held by the archives at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, London. He passed the duplicates onto another leading botanist, William Harvey of Trinity College Dublin, who in turn gave them to Margaret Gatty, botanist and author of children’s books. Mrs Gatty was planning a book on seaweeds, and was to use the drawings to illustrate it. She died before finishing the project and Ellen’s drawings were given by Mrs Gatty’s daughter with her mother’s papers to the local museum (Sheffield in Yorkshire) which specialises in Natural History.