Words by Jessica Peace

Walking into the South London Botanical Institute (SLBI) feels like walking into someone’s house; partly because it is and partly because there’s a fab group of staff hanging out in the library, herbarium, kitchen and garden, happy to shoot the floral breeze and offer you a cup of tea.

This has been carrying on since 1910 when plant hero Allan Octavian Hume transformed 323 Norwood Road into his ‘little venture’.


A man for people and plants, after serving in India Hume helped found the Indian National Congress. His flora and fauna collections were so awesome that they ended up in the Natural History Museum – he is known as the ‘Father of Indian Ornithology’. Respect. 

Back in Blighty he began collecting plants for the Institute’s herbarium, stacking the shelves with his own books and planting ‘alien species’ in the garden.

What the hell is a herbarium?

A collection of dried plant specimens, mounted and stored with all the deets. Some of the specimens at SLBI were picked and dried from as early as 1816!!!

In this cosy backroom they have 40,000 specimens of flowering plants.

Hume’s herbarium has been the catalyst for arts and fashion, inspiring wallpaper by contemporary designer Augusta Akerman and an Alexander McQueen Scarf.

The institute has battled on through adversity, still providing a welcoming space for the slightly curious to the hardcore flower lover (and moss, lichens, fungi...). It holds tons of events, lots of these are free or pretty cheap. This Saturday you can learn how to make fabric dyes out of your veg for a fiver.

Other upcoming events include, ‘Dr Twiggs Winter Blobs’, 17th Century Medicinal Plants – one for Agony Plant fans, Microscope mornings, basic botany, botanical drawing, forensic botany, terrariums, tree walks and ‘National Weed Appreciation Day’ – I AM THERE. I’ve heard tea AND cake are served at these shindigs. 

So bang on the door on a gloomy Thursday and drink tea in the library or have a nosey in the herbarium. The garden will start thriving again from spring and you can educate yourself on it’s collection of poisonous, medicinal, scented and native plants. Just as Hume intended.


Free as a bird.

(Membership is £18 and includes 20 packets of seed!)


Tulse Hill/ loads of buses swing by the Institute.


Thursdays 10-4, some weekends.


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