Trinity’s historic Botany building welcomes a tropical forest

A tropical forest was unveiled today in Trinity thanks to London-based mural artist, Josephine Hicks, whose latest masterpiece spans three walls of the historic 1907 Botany Building.

The mural links the historic plant-hunting that took place at the turn of the 20th century to the tropical biodiversity and conservation research carried out by researchers and students today.

The species in the mural occur today in inland or coastal tropical forests of Thailand. Some are threatened by extinction. Others are common. Most have been directly observed, studied and collected by Trinity botanists past and present. All have a scientific story.

Professor of Botany at Trinity, Jennifer McElwain, said:

“Botanical art is enjoying a strong resurgence with fabrics, wallpapers and boutique hotels now adorned with lush palm leaf motifs and sepia-toned photographs from past expeditions. Perhaps this interest stems from a need to connect with the natural world and a realisation that unsustainable development in many parts of the world, including Ireland, is threatening species survival and the unique ecosystems that they occupy.”

“Ireland’s government has declared a biodiversity and climate emergency in line with other nations and scientists are continuing their work to count, study and conserve the world’s species before the logging trucks roll in. Indeed, the recent fires in the Brazilian Amazon brought home the unrelenting pressure of development to our living rooms and Instagram feeds.”

“Trinity’s botanists have an important role to play in conducting high-impact research that can make a huge societal impact for current and future generations. We hope the mural, which celebrates the process of science and the beauty of diversity, will act as an inspiration and reminder of that duty, underline the Botany Department’s historic and ongoing links with Thailand, andempower our students to make a difference for future climate and biodiversity.”

Artist, Josephine Hicks, added:

“I wanted to create an immersive painting where you are surrounded by oversized leaves, fruits and flowers, which transports you to the rich, dark and dense tropical forest. It’s been a fascinating and highly inspirational project, and I have been introduced to extraordinary species in celebrating the diversity of the area.”

Trinity-Thailand botany links

The Botany Department’s links with Thailand date back to 1902 when a medical graduate of Trinity from Co. Leitrim, A.F.G. Kerr, travelled to northern Thailand to take up the post of Medical Officer in Chiang Mai. He got the job via H.H. Dixon FRS, then Professor of Botany, whom he had become acquainted with during his degree.

Kerr travelled extensively by foot, boat and elephant in Thailand – all the time amassing huge collections of plant material, photographs, and other artefacts. Eventually, his botanical expertise was recognised: Kerr became Government Botanist, the first Director of the Botanical section of the Ministry of Commerce and then Director General of the Department of Agricultural Research. He returned to Europe in 1932 and donated his collections to a number of institutes, including Trinity. Kerr’s contribution is still recognised in Thailand where he is known as the Father of Thai Botany.

In 1985 the Botany Department’s connections with Thailand were renewed when Pranom Chantaraothai came to work with Trinity’s Professor John Parnell on Thai plant systematics (Syzygium). Since then Trinity’s links with Thailand have been continually strengthened, partly through a programme of extensive field-work.

Nowadays, the Department’s herbarium has become one of the focal points for study of the Thai flora (a number of its postgraduates, postdocs and staff are on the Editorial Board of the Flora of Thailand project). More broadly, the Department has housed a significant number of research students and postdoctoral researchers working on Thai Flora, partly facilitated by its Memorandum of Understanding with Khon Kaen University and its excellent working relationships with other Thai universities and the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation.

The Department’s contributions to Thai Botany were further acknowledged by the visit of HRH Princess Maha Chakri Srindhorn in 2014 when she graciously opened the new square outside the department and planted a specimen of Rhododendron arboreum obtained specially from near Chiang Mai.