What did Ellen do?
She was a field botanist or plant hunter.
She found many new plants – ones that had not been identified and named.
She studied seaweeds, lichens, and mosses very closely and worked out how they grew.
She added to the information already known about them.
She was a good friend to other botanists studying these difficult and curious plants, and she was generous in sharing information with them, and sending them plants for their research.
The leading botanists of her time thought that she was very talented and valued her work greatly. Many botanists named plants after her, which is one of the highest forms of respect in the world of science.
How did she do it?
FINDING PLANTS 'NEW TO SCIENCE'
There is a system for dealing with and naming plants when a new one is found.
It starts when a field botanist, such as Ellen, finds a plant that they don’t think matches anything they have ever seen before. Ellen lived in a very special place for plants, Bantry Bay, West Cork. She found new plants on the seashore, in the countryside, on mountains, and in her garden, on a roadside verge, and on the wall by a friend’s house. Ellen would make a careful note of where she had found the plant and how it was growing.
Ellen would look at it very carefully indeed, including under her microscope, looking at and making written notes on all the little details of it and comparing these with other plants.
She compared it to plants she could see in the wild, and ones she had samples of that she had dried and kept for just this purpose. She also had dried plants that other botanists had sent her.
Ellen would also see if she could find the plant in the botany books that she had.
If she was fairly sure that the plant was new, then she would make specimens by very carefully spreading the plant out onto a piece of paper and letting it dry out, or in the case of dry or lumpy ones like lichens, putting them into a small box like a matchbox. She would parcel up the specimens and send them off to the botanist who knew the most about that type of plant and who described and published new ones in their books. more
The botanist publishing the new plant can choose the name for it, within a system that has been running since before Ellen’s time and still exists now. Many botanists chose to name the new plants that Ellen had found after her. This is considered one of the highest honours for a botanist.
Seaweed Specimen: Ellen Hutchins, 1807 (NHM)
Glengarriff Woods: Louisa Hutchins, 1855 (HFC)
SOLVING PLANT PUZZLES
Ellen became very knowledgeable about seaweeds, lichens and mosses. She was determined to understand the stages of growth they went through. She would return day after day to see a particular plant develop and catch just the right moment to see it produce spores or be ‘in fruit’.
One particular seaweed, called Fucus tomentosus, played an important part in Ellen’s story. In one letter to her botanist friend Dawson Turner, Ellen writes excitedly:
This was very significant. Ellen was the first botanist to find the seaweed in fruit, and as well as explaining the stages of growth it went through, this saved it from being thrown out of the plant kingdom!
ARTIST AS WELL AS SCIENTIST
In July 1808, when Ellen found the seaweed, Fucus tomentosus in fruit, and thought that it would look different when it dried, she drew it to show Dawson Turner what it looked like when alive.
Without photography, drawing was the best way Ellen had of showing another botanist the details of the plant she had seen. Ellen proved to be a very talented botanical artist as well as a great botanist.
One of her botanist friends had nearly finished his big book on seaweeds when Ellen started to make her drawings, but he published some of the drawings with the descriptions of plants Ellen found.
“I had great pleasure in finding Fucus tomentosus with fruit. I enclose a fragment to show you how beautiful it is in that state. I have got some laid out on glass that will I hope enable you to see its manner of growth and its little capsules but fearing that drying may alter its appearance I have attempted to draw it as it appeared when recent."
ELLEN TO DAWSON TURNER, 27th July 1808
Seaweed Specimens: Ellen Hutchins, 1805 / 1808 (TCD)
Seaweed (Fucus tomentosus) specimen: Ellen Hutchins (NHM)
Why was Ellen’s botany important?
Plants are incredibly important to the planet. Plants are needed for human life to be possible. The more we know about plants, the better human life can be, and the better we can look after our planet. more
Ellen played a part in helping us understand plants better.
She made significant discoveries about the non flowering plants - seaweeds, lichens and mosses.
She found at least twenty plants new to science.
She had many plants named after her by leading botanists in recognition of the importance of her botanical studies.
She produced a list of all the plants she could find in her neighbourhood. She listed over a thousand plants. This was the first proper plant list or Flora for West Cork.
Drawings of Seaweeds:
Ellen Hutchins, in Dawson Turner’s book on Seaweeds, Historia Fucorum (KEW)
Seaweed specimen, Ellen Hutchins (NHM)