Richard W Adlam was trained as a nurseryman in Britain. He came to the Cape Colony in 1874 and after working for some time in the Botanic Gardens at Grahamstown tried to establish himself as a nurseryman and market gardener in Uitenhage. The venture proved unsuccessful. He then fought as a trooper in the Zulu rebellion of 1878 and, after returning to England for some time, established his own nursery in Pietermaritzburg. After disposing of the nursery he was curator of the Pietermaritzburg Botanic Gardens for a short time in 1889, before moving to Pretoria where he was again unsuccessful in setting up his own business. In 1891 he was appointed the first curator of what later became Joubert Park in Johannesburg and was also responsible for tree planting in the town. In 1901, during the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), the new British administration upheld his position as curator of Joubert Park.
Adlam corresponded with J Medley Wood* of Durban during the eighteen-nineties and sent him many seeds. Bulbs and seeds were also sent to Kew Gardens, near London, and to the botanic garden at Cambridge. Several of his seed gatherings, some from Joubert Park, were deposited in the forerunner of the National Herbarium, Pretoria. During 1886-1901 Adlam published a number of articles on his travels and botanical work in the (British) Gardeners' Chronicle: "A trip to Polela" (1886), "Natal to the Transvaal" (1887), "Natal - Cape Colony" (1887), "The Transvaal" (1887), "The flora of Johannesburg" (1899), "Forestry in the Transvaal" (1899), "The flora of Cape Colony and Natal" (1900) and "Back at Johannesburg" (1901). In an article in Kew Bulletin (1897) he suggested the possible use of marram grass (Ammophila arenaria) to cover mine dumps. Adlam stayed in Johannesburg until his death in 1903. He was survived by his wife, Grace C. Adlam (born MacDiarmid). The plant species Albuca adlamii, Gladiolus adlamii, and Scilla adlamii were named after him. A collection of letters to him from other botanists is housed in the libraries of the University of Cape Town.