Saturday, 2 March 2013

Plant sign ☮ the times


Lovely clear label this one. When I first worked at Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens, one of my jobs was to type labels on a machine called an Addressograph. The Addressograph produced metal tags for plants. This was the way we attached a name and location to each plant in the botanic garden collection. For our eyes only.

I had to wear earmuffs because the Addressograph hammered letters and numbers into the tag, one by one. It was a big, loud, typewriter, and this is the kind of label it produced. I photographed this particular one out at Royal Botanic Gardens Cranbourne on Thursday, in the Australian Garden. I have no idea how or when this label was created and whether this machine is still in use – something for me to discover when I start on Monday.


The specimen of Banksia menziesii may well be one of the original plantings at Cranbourne. There was an extensive collection of Proteaceae in the early days, propagated mostly by Alf Salkin. Another job I had at the time was to wander around what was then a fairly exposed (hot) landscape checking plants were in the place we thought they were. It’s not that plants move, but they do die and it’s useful to check identifications when the eventually flower and fruit.

The labels out there for the visitor are more attractive, and informative. In both the Melbourne and Cranbourne, the curved, black, plastic label like the one at the top of the post is the most common now. The information on it depends on the location but some of the Cranbourne ones have lots of useful icons at the base about how to grow the plant and what it looks like when mature.


So Glischrocaryon flavescens is a low growing shrub that doesn’t need much water but likes or tolerates full sunlight (at least that’s my reading without referring to the key that I know is out there somewhere…). I can also see where it grows in Australia (the blue dots). Of course this label doesn’t help locate the plant in the garden or provide any reference number for the staff.


Swainsona greyana grows a bit taller, needs more water but also likes full sun. At least that what this label implies, and implies simply.

All botanic gardens I’ve worked at have struggled to devise the perfect label. A label has to help visitors understand more about the plant but also assist staff to manage the collection. QR codes were being used at Kew to get around the first need but it’s hard work to create all the web text needed to back up the code, and you can’t always get your phone or device of choice next to a plant without trampling its neighbours!

Barcodes can reduce the amount of ‘in-house’ information on display and this slightly fading label on Correa alba var. pannosa I take to be the modern equivalent of the Addressograph product.


The solution at the moment seems to be two labels: one for staff, one for visitors. Perhaps this is the best way to deal with the problem, and to provide a back-up name for keen visitors. The computer generated plastic tag offers plenty of advantages over the pressed metal version although not necessarily longevity. Is it fanciful to think that banksia was first planted and labelled back when I was in the Addressograph chair, circa 1981? I suspect so but it's a nice thought.

Back to covering my books and sharpening pencils. I've got things to do on Monday and when you work in a botanic garden, plant names and labels are sure to be not too far away.

*Hot off the press! This is from Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne's latest email update: 

Australian Garden plant labels go high-tech Next time you're in the Australian Garden at Cranbourne, keep an eye out for the Hortycodes on 70 new plant labels! Hortycodes are QR codes that provide in-depth plant information directly to your smartphone. Scan the barcode with your QR reader and you see details about the plant (common and Latin name, pronunciation, local stockists, and more). The RBG is proud to be the first botanic garden in Australia to use Hortycodes.

4 comments:

Jim said...

You don't seem to make a distinction between 'labels' and 'tags', as strongly as we do in Canberra. They are not the same things and they serve different purposes and are aimed at different audiences: the former is about the specimen and records management and is thus for staff use; the latter is about the species and is aimed at the public. Tags are always securely attached to the plant in the hope the two will never become separated. Labels can be easily moved from one plant or one part of the gardens to another or reused without breaking anything in the plant records database. We still use an embosser for the tags and an engraver for the labels, although these days they are both computer driven. The end result is the same, but somewhere along the way, the artisanal charm has been lost. ;)

Tim Entwisle said...

That's true, Jim, I don't make that distinction particularly strongly. It's probably the only way in the end to make it work - which I do kind of say - but at Kew and in other places we've tried at various times to incorporate both things into one piece of hardware. Kew labels have bits and pieces of information for internal use only so function as tags too. I'll be interested to see if we still emboss or now use printed thin plastic for the more critical function you mention...

Simon Goodwin said...

There will never be as many plant labels (public display) as there are tags (staff use). Tags are attached to the plant in the nursery and follow the plants to the garden. Once in the garden plants should be point located digitally (GIS). There will always be a need for individual plants to have an identity that one label wouldn't cover. Cross referencing of the systems is necessary so accession numbers on tags and labels are necessary. Tags should have individual identifiers for plants (barcodes are one way). Plant labels will always be needed in botanical gardens as you can't assume everyone has a smart phone! They may not look beautiful but it does indicate that you are in a botanical garden.

Tim Entwisle said...

Interesting to think about whether it could still look like a botanic garden without the tag, and indeed whether this might be a good challenge (to make it feel and act like one without the blatant signage). I do think you could combine everything in a label that traveled with each individual plant, just linking in common data, but it may be some way off. We do run the risk of folks 10, 50 or 100 years hence looking at our funny graveyards as the equivalent of writing books on stone tablets. But who knows?