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Caerynwch Gardens and Mary Richards

Mary Richards pressing succulent plants in camp at Chimala, in the southern Highlands of Tanzania.

Mary Richards (1885 - 1977) was born near Dolgellau in north Wales. She married Major Harry Richards in 1907, and they had three children. During the First World War the family house was turned into a Red Cross hospital which she helped to run, and for which she was awarded the Royal Red Cross Medal. For many years she was a Councillor for the Merioneth County Coucil, taking a particular interest in housing, the fight against tuberculosis and the establishment of maternity and child-welfare clinics. After her husband died near the end of the Second World War, and with her children now married and independent, she accepted the invitation of Marion and Hope Gamwell to visit them in Abercorn, Northern Rhodesia - now Mbala, Zambia.

So it was not until 1951, at the age of 65, that Mary Richards first went to Africa and, with the encouragement of Edgar Milne-Redhead, started to collect plants for the Kew Herbarium. She made annual visits to Abercorn before setting up home there in 1958. In the years to 1974 Mary made over 29,000 collections of plants which were pressed, dried, and sent back to Kew for expert identification. These specimens form an invaluable scientific record of the botanically rich and then little known region around Mbala, and the adjacent southern highlands of Tanzania. In later years she and her long-suffering assistant Samuel Arasululu collected extensively around Arusha in northern Tanzania, often accompanied by the naturalist Desmond Vesey-Vitzgerald, who was based at the National Park.

Mary Richards was awarded the MBE in 1969 for services to botany, allegedly on the personal recommendation of the first president of Zambia, Kenneth Kaunda. Many of her collections were of species new to science and at least 35 plants have been named after her. Mary had always been an active field botanist - she was a member of the Botanical Exchange Club (the forerunner of the Botanical Society of the British Isles) for 55 years - and her herbarium of Welsh plants is now housed in Cardiff at the National Museums and Galleries of Wales (NMW). Her African collections are at Kew, with some duplicated in Nairobi, Harare and other institutions around the world. Some of her plants are still in the gardens at Caerynwch.