Alfred Russel Wallace is very much on our minds at Kew at the moment, and not just because the centenary of his death is being marked this year. We’ve recently completed a project to conserve a set of remarkable palm specimens sent to Kew’s first great Victorian Director, William Jackson Hooker, in 1848. They were collected by the young Wallace (with Henry Bates), during his formative South American expedition to the Amazon. They are all the more precious because almost all of Wallace’s Amazon collections was destroyed when his ship caught fire on his homeward journey in 1852; only some drawings survived from his ‘considerable collection of birds, insects, reptiles and fishes, and a large quantity of miscellaneous articles, consisting of about twenty cases and packages’.
Kew holds rather fewer specimens from Wallace’s more famous Malay Archipelago explorations, but among these is a box of small, starchy, wedge-shaped blocks – sago cakes collected in Ceram, an island in the Moluccas off west New Guinea. Sago is the staple source of carbohydrate for many lowlanders in New Guinea and the Moluccas. It is extracted as a starch flour from the trunk of the sago palm, Metroxylon sagu.