Rereading Botany: Botanical Sketchbooks

Richard Dreyer’s copy of James Edward Smith’s copy of Flora Britannica, Linnean Society of London

This week’s entry in my survey of botanical rereading is Botanical Sketchbooks, a book really as much about re-seeing.  The authors Helen and William Bynum (2017) have both had long careers in the history of medicine and know well the botanical literature and accompanying archives.  Their Remarkable Plants That Shape Our World (2014) describes many fascinating species that are also useful, from foods to medicines to textiles; it’s illustrated with botanical art from the collection at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.  With Sketchbooks, the Bynums draw from many sources.  This is where I learned of the two volumes of Fabio Colonna’s nature prints that are in Blickling Hall in Britain.  I had read somewhere that Colonna had done nature printing but he is much better known for his books with fine copper engravings, an early use of the technique for botanical illustration.  I had no idea that the prints were so sophisticated.  These were done in the early 1600s, and in some cases the engravings were copied from the prints (Tognini, 2005).

The watercolors of British garden and field flowers painted by Percy Shelley’s sisters, Hellen and Margaret, were another surprise.  As were the notebooks of Charles Parish, a clergyman serving with the East India Company in Burma.  He and his wife had a garden with 150 orchids species, and he wrote that “hardly a day passed on which I did not either draw or examine microscopically one orchid or another” (p. 85).  Collections like this suggest the wealth hidden away in archives (Clayton, 2014).  Some are of scientific interest, but all have historical and cultural value, saying much about how people chose to spend their time in experiencing nature.

Needless to say, there are many well-known botanists and botanical artists represented in the Bynum book.  Though I’ve seen some of their work before, it’s always a pleasure to re-look at it.  One representative of the botanist/artist category is Joseph Dalton Hooker.  It’s interesting to see what information he considered worth recording on the spot as he drew rhododendrons in India, including leaves with insect damage, enlargement of flower parts, and sketches of entire shrubs.  There are also examples from the work of Walter Hood Fitch, the artist who converted many Hooker sketches into finished plates.  Arthur Harry Church, known for his distinctive cross sections through flowers, is represented with the authors noting that later in life Church took up photography to document plant life around Oxford (Mabberly, 2000).  Interesting facts like this add zest to the text and show the depth of their knowledge.

The Bynums also reveal breadth in their choices as well.  The Japanese Honzō zufu, Illustrated Manual of Medical Plants was written by Iwasaki (Kan’en) Tsunemasa (1786-1842) who also did many of the illustrations, though there were other artists including Okada Seifuku who created a large number of botanical watercolors on rice paper, some of which were published.  Several volumes of Honzō zufu are available on the Library of Congress website, and even more on the University of Tokyo Library site.  In addition, Kew has just had one of their volumes of this work restored and plans to digitize it as well.  The Botanical Sketchbooks provide a tantalizing peak at a few of the original works and also presents another artist active at around the same time, Yoshikawa Kokei.  His art was not in the service of science, but he believed in close observation and this is obvious in his sketchbooks arranged according to season.  The drawings are accurate, and the species easy to identify, yet they are also quintessentially Japanese in style.  Muhammad Shafi’ was an artist in the 17th-century Persian court and also drew accurately but distinctively.  A beautiful clump of violets is pictured and in another work, roses are drawn in pen and ink.  The Bynums suggest that this image was copied from a European engraving because of the striations and cross-hatching, but the overall effect is still Persian.

I am having a difficult time deciding who else to mention, whose work to squeeze in here.  There are just too many treasures.  Conrad Gessner’s notebooks are classics of drawing as a way of learning about plants, as are Georg Ehret’s and Franz Baurer’s.  The latter artists’ sketches are in many ways even better than their finished works because they reveal the way they approached plants, moving from one detail to another, but also studying overall forms.  Then there are the biggies of the art world, Leonardo Da Vinci and Albrecht Dürer, as well as that superb recorder of nature, John Ruskin.

Yet it’s the artists that were unfamiliar to me that I keep returning to, such as Richard Dreyer, a British clergyman with an interest in botany who became a member of the Linnean Society in 1817.  The Society’s founder James Edward Smith, published an unillustrated Flora Britannica (1800-1804).  Dreyer set about illustrating it with watercolors in the margins, including dissections of flowers and even roots for some plants.  It is a unique combination of art and text [see image above].  Now held at the Linnean Society, it documents Dreyer’s passion for plant knowledge in different forms, none alone could tell the entire story.  Its inclusion here with so many other wonderful unpublished works demonstrates the Bynum’s passion for art and nature.


Bynum, H., & Bynum, W. (2014). Remarkable Plants That Shape Our World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bynum, H., & Bynum, W. (2017). Botanical Sketchbooks. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

Clayton, D. (2014). The Reverend Charles Samuel Pollock Parish – plant collector and botanical illustrator of the orchids from Tenasserim Province, Burma. Lankesteriana, 13(3), 215–227.

Mabberley, D. (2000). Arthur Harry Church: The Anatomy of Flowers. London: Natural History Museum.

Tognoni, F. (2005). Nature Described: Fabio Colonna and Natural History Illustration. Nuncius, 20, 347–370.

Rereading Botany: Vienna

illustration 7 from Fungi Austriaci by Leopold Trattinnick, Biodiversity Heritage Library

Years ago I began an accounting process called book debt.  When I acquired books, they were added to the debit column, and when I read them, they became assets.  Over the years, my state of indebtedness has risen and fallen, but I’ve never been debt-free and that’s a comfort.  There is always something waiting to be discovered, but in this time of crisis, my debt has become skewed.  I still have novels to read, but I’ve run out of books on plants.  I could order them online, and I have, but I am just not in a buying mood at the moment.  So I’ve turned to rereading, and have had a great time.  For each post in this series, I’ll focus on one book I’ve revisited.  They are all about visual aspects of botany because that’s what I love and what I’ve turned to in these trying times.

I’ll begin with a brick of a book, Walter Lack’s (2001) Garden Eden: Masterpieces of Botanical Illustration.  An Austrian botanist, he is director of the Botanical Garden and Botanical Museum Berlin-Dahlem.  Also a noted historian of botany, Lack wrote Alexander von Humboldt and the Botanical Exploration of the Americas (2009) and The Bauers: Joseph, Franz and Ferdinand: Masters of Botanical Illustration (2015), both large-format, well-illustrated works.  Garden Eden is different in that it focuses not on botanists but on botanical images, all in the collection of the Austrian National Library in Vienna.  The works are arranged chronologically from the 6th century to the 20th.  Each entry is a page or two long in three languages: German, French, and English.

If you have any interest in botanical illustration, many of the works in Garden Eden will be familiar to you, but some won’t or at least they weren’t to me.  The first manuscript is the oldest and probably the most valuable in the collection.  The Anicia Juliana Codex (also called the Vienna Dioscorides) was created in the early 6th century and named for its first owner, the Byzantine Princess Anicia Juliana.  The manuscript is an illustrated version of the first-century materia medica text by the physician Dioscorides, a primary source for medical botany well into the Renaissance.  The codex remained in Constantinople until it was taken to Vienna in 1569.  While some of the plant images are stylized, others are realistic enough for identification; an arum and a poppy are among the species pictured in the book.  For major works like this, Lack presents several pages of illustrations, for others, just one on the facing page from the text.

Other well-known works here are the herbals of Otto Brunfels and Leonhart Fuchs, Basilius Besler’s Hortus Eystettensis, Pierre-Joseph Redouté’s Les Liliaceae, and what is considered the most expensive botanical production, John Sibthorp’s Flora Graeca.  All these provide a feast for the eyes, as do works by Georg Ehret and the Bauer Brothers, among my favorite botanical artists.  But what kept me moving through this compendium were the surprises, the works that were little-known, at least to me.  Because this library is in Vienna, there are more German, Austrian, and Eastern European works than in most collections in English-speaking countries.  For example, there are the 16 boxes of large paintings done for Francis I, Emperor of Austria by Matthias Schmutzer.  They are striking even in reproduction.  As often happens when libraries get rearranged, evacuation from Berlin and Cracow during World War II turned up over 1400 preparatory sketches and notes for the paintings, making them even more fascinating, though none of this material is pictured in the book.

Lack notes that until around 1800, “the plant world of the eastern parts of Central Europe was still largely unexplored” (p. 224).  Pál Kitaibel (1757-1817) traveled through Hungary, Austria, Croatia, Ukraine, Romania, and adjacent regions.  He collected specimens which were drawn by his traveling companion Janós Schütz.  Later Kitaibel became a professor of botany in Budapest and worked on a multivolume work with Franz von Waldstein.  The illustrations are distinctive and present a flora that is still intriguing today, as evidenced by the recent Transylvania Florilegium (2017) produced under the patronage of Prince Charles of Britain.

Besides the books and manuscripts that would be expected in a library collection, Lack also includes a few surprises.  There is an 18th-century wood library or xylotheque produced by Johann Bellermann.  It includes samples of 60 different woods, each book-shaped with the “spine” covered in bark and marked with an identifying label, a book title of sorts.  Text and illustrations were also included.  Lack found wax models of macrofungi packed away in boxes in the library and presents several along with illustrations from related books.  Leopold Trattinnick was a botanical curator in Austria in the early 19th century, and fungi were among his interests.  He published several books and had wax models made of a number of edible mushroom species.

Also pictured is a box of notes made by Adam Kollar who worked at the Imperial Court Library in Vienna in the 1760s.  The notes compare the contents of the Anicia Juliana Codex with another ancient manuscript, the Naples Codex, which had been taken to Vienna when Naples was seized by the Austrian emperor in the early 1700s.  Kollar was planning to use this comparison to build an updated version of the works.  All that remains are the notes, but their organization, strung together with cord and neatly arranged in a long box, says something about the orderly minds of scholars and is reminiscent of a card catalogue drawer.  At the end of the book, Lack includes a few 20th century works, but the collection is really a historical one, as the library no longer acquisitions botanical material, now the purview of the University of Vienna Botanical Garden.


Charles, Akeroyd, J., & Mills, C. (2017). The Transylvania Florilegium. London: Addison.

Lack, H. W. (2001). Garden Eden: Masterpieces of Botanical Illustration. Cologne: Taschen.

Lack, H. W. (2009). Alexander von Humboldt and the Botanical Exploration of the Americas. Munich: Prestel.

Lack, H. W. (2015). The Bauers: Joseph, Franz and Ferdinand: Masters of Botanical Illustration. Munich: Prestel.

Connections: Science and Art

Illustration of the pepper Piper nigrum in van Rheede’s Hortus Indicus Malabaricus, courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

In the last post, I discussed the relationship between art and science in the 21st century rather theoretically.  Now I want to look at recent exhibits that have a botanical turn, though their reach extends well beyond botany, and beyond art for that matter and they all have a digital presence.    At the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) where she has been affiliated for four years, Siân Bowen presented an exhibit called “After Hortus Malabaricus, Sensing and Presensing Rare Plants.”  She drew on three different RBGE collections in her work.  First, from the library, she used the massive 12-volume Hortus Indicus Malabaricus published between 1678 and 1703.  I can understand why she was intrigued by it.  Hendrik van Rheede, a Dutch governor of Malabar in India, directed a massive effort to create this work focused on useful, and particularly medicinal, plants.  He gathered a team including indigenous and Dutch physicians to agree on plant names and uses, and also employed indigenous artists to create the striking plates.  They are definitely botanical illustrations, but also have an eastern flavor (see above).

Some of Bowen’s art comments on these images, but she also worked with specimens of Indian plants, mostly collected in the late 18th and into the 19th centuries, when Britain had taken over Malabar.  The RBGE herbarium became an important gathering place for plant specimens from this area in part because the University of Edinburgh was a major training ground for physicians who were later employed on naval ships going to the area or by the East India Company which controlled it.  Bowen selected several specimens and rather than working with them directly, made models of them which she then translated into other media, such as etching.  She did similar work with the illustrations, and also with living Indian species growing in the garden.  She sees drawing as a way to sense the presence of the plants, plants that are present at RBGE in several different ways.  She multiplied those ways through her work, even making paper from hemp, an Indian species.  She was attempting to use art to induce viewers to look more closely not only at the specimens and historic illustrations displayed, but at plant form more generally and more deeply, to sense plants differently through her representations.

At the Serpentine Gallery in London, the Italian design team Formafantasma created an exhibit called Cambio, a conceptually expansive look at trees and wood.  The title derives from the Latin word cambium, which means change or exchange, and also refers to the growth area of a tree’s trunk responsible for producing bark and new wood.  As at RBGE, they drew from a botanical collection, in this case the xylarium of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.  The wood samples presented were displayed at London’s Great Exhibition of 1851 in the Crystal Palace, at the height of Britain’s colonial power and when the search for timber to keep the empire supplied was particularly intense. 

In another room, there was an oak tree’s long trunk that had been sliced into boards, but that’s where its processing stopped.  The boards still had bark as a reminder of the complex process of turning trees into products.  There was also a large photo of an Italian forested hillside where all the trees were felled in an extreme storm, leaving just gray sticks on the slopes.  A stack of stools formed a display about the lifespan of furniture, with oak lasting much longer than walnut.  In addition, there was a presentation on the results of analysis of paper used in various editions of Darwin’s Origin of Species; most of the paper was made from pine and eucalyptus, helping to explain why so many tree plantations grew these species. 

The last exhibit I want to mention is now virtual, but its delayed opening is scheduled for September 24 at London’s Camden Art Centre.  Called Botanical Mind: Art, Mysticism and the Cosmic Tree, it exists as a massive website divided into six sections or “chapters,” to correspond with a book on the exhibit being released soon.  The chapter titles give a sense of the show’s tendency to go much further than many art/science collaborations.  They include Astrological Botany, on medicinal botany and astrological traditions on the four humors, and Vegetal Ontology, about the new work on plants’ sensing abilities.  These move into a world where I am not terribly comfortable, but when I looked at the list of artists and writers represented that include Anna Atkins, Hildegard von Bingen, Carl Jung, and indigenous communities, the Yawanawá and Shipibo-Conibo peoples, I had to dig deeper.  The experience was definitely broadening.  I was forced to widen my horizons, and that’s not a bad thing.

The fact that all three exhibits originated in the United Kingdom is not a coincidence.  The country has always had a rich botanical and horticulture tradition, and its citizens still manifest a culture of respect for and love of nature.  The nation also has a long and fraught colonial history, with botanical imperialism being one of its hallmarks, so these exhibits that weave together art and science in very interesting ways, also take on history, politics, and philosophy.  That’s what makes them so intriguing and mind-expanding. 

Connections: Art and Science

Deep Time Library (2019), installation by Andrew S. Yang

I even hesitate to write the term “science and art,” because it is so overused, at least in certain circles:  among scientists who want to make their work more broadly relevant and among artists with the same goal.  So in that sense at least they have a lot in common.  I have to admit that I am a scientist with a rather old-fashioned notion of art, a view that rests heavily on aesthetics.  I think form, symmetry, rhythm, and pattern are important, that beauty matters.  I find some conceptual art interesting, but I prefer if it has some attractiveness as well.  This is hardly a sophisticated approach, but I leave it to others to delve deeper.  Still, I am willing to broaden my horizons and was recently drawn to an article with the title:  That Drunken Conversation between Two Cultures.  It had the subtitle:  Art, Science and the Possibility of Meaningful Uncertainty.  I didn’t have high hopes for it, but the first part of the title intrigued me, and it was accessible on the author’s site

Andrew S. Yang first questions the use of terms like art and science as if they were unities “rather than astoundingly diverse and heterogeneous fields of practice” (p. 318).  Right away that makes the reader uneasy; whatever he’s going to write next is not going to be an simple view of the relationship existing between them.  Yang teaches both art and science courses at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  He has a background in ecology and evolutionary, with an interest in geology, and his art is definitely conceptual.  Some works resonate with me more than others.  In one piece, Deep Time Library, Yang has created an arrangement of books stacked against a wall, most with the spines hidden against the wall, a few with the spine toward the viewer (see above).  The piece as a whole gives a sense of geological layers:  there is some regularity, but also irregularities—uncertainties especially at the top, and along one edge that appears to be crumbling.  I found it satisfying to view as a work of abstract art, a beautiful thing in terms of color and form, order and pattern. 

But there is more to this art installation than aesthetics.  It was partially inspired by an illustration in James Hutton’s Theory of the Earth. Included in Yang’s installation is a text that reads:  “454,000 leaves of book paper, one for every 10,000 years of Earth’s history.”  With this, the science sinks in:  a single leaf of paper in this massive pile represents 10,000 years.  Now the work becomes a scientific illustration, it says something about geology in a way that seems much more memorable that the usual diagram.  This stack of books, this mountain of pages is a metaphor for time.  Close examination reveals book titles that resonate with the theme as do pages that stick out here and there.  In discussing Deep Time Library I’ve obviously strayed far from botany and herbaria, though piles of paper are common to both, evolution lurks as a theme here, and paper does come from trees.  But the real reason I brought it up is to illustrate some of the points made in the article.

The basic argument Yang presents is that we should be looking not to aesthetic,  material, or textual relationships between art and science but to the epistemological, to ways of knowing, or as he drunkenly puts it:  ways of unknowing, of uncertainty.  This is where the two cultures can stand on common ground; both deal with the “what if” (p. 319).  He refers to Keats’s idea of artists having a negative capability to cultivate doubt and mystery.  Yang notes that this capacity “resonates strongly with the ways in which both artistic and scientific practices often seek opportunities to configure new and largely uncharted kinds of meaning” (p. 319).   

Sometimes I walk away from an artwork thinking that I just don’t get it, that the artist might be telling me something, but I’m not grasping it.  I feel unsatisfied and annoyed; this would not be what I would call a positive aesthetic experience.  But maybe it wasn’t meant to be.  I often feel that way when I finish reading a scientific paper.  It hasn’t given me all the answers, the conclusions that I wanted.  We are all living with this sense of uncertainty today as the science of Covid-19 slogs along.  If only the evidence was more definitive, could guide us more clearly.  Yet as I have told my students many times in the past, “this is an experience of science in the middle of being done, that is the exciting part, as it slowly forms before our eyes;” just as art slowly sinks into our being. 

Yang suggests that the way forward for art-science is something that Bruno Latour (2004), one of the gurus of science studies, recommended:  “a circling back to the kind of conceptual flexibility that existed before the modern division of art and science.”  Yang sees this more as a reticulation, as with mycelia, where plant and fungus “fuse in ways fitting the teeming conceptual ‘compost’ . . . setting a ground of possibility rather than any one, easily understood outcome.”  (p. 320).  With this fungal metaphor I’ve gotten to botany, though in the broadest sense of the term.


Latour, B. (2004). Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern. Critical Inquiry, 30(2), 225–248.

Connections: Botany and History

The Online Wallich Catalogue

I want to continue the theme I discussed in the last post, on how what is termed the digital humanities can enrich botany and in particular the use of herbarium collections.  There are so many ways that botany and the humanities can be interwoven that the possibilities are almost endless.  I’ll begin with an example that doesn’t have a digital twist.  It involves three different parts of Oxford University coming together because of the interests of two professors.  Kate Bennett, a lecturer in English literature, works with science-related texts and is an expert on John Aubrey, a 17th-century polymath famous for his biographies in Brief Lives.  She studies not so much the specimens on old herbarium sheets, of which Oxford has a large collection, but the notes that are sometimes attached to them.  To her, they are textual documents which she has even used as examples of 17th-century punctuation.

Stephen Harris, the curator of Oxford’s herbarium, found a paper package that Aubrey gave to Jacob Bobart the Younger, keeper of the Oxford Botanic Garden.  It contains a sample of henna.  In a blog post, Bennett writes:  “This is wonderful, because there is a matching paper in an Aubrey manuscript in the Bodleian [Library at Oxford] , explaining in more detail how to use henna as dye hair.  The Bodleian manuscript has lost its henna over the years, along with other similar material:  put these two examples together, and it’s a perfect restoration job.”  She later adds:  “When someone from the humanities looks at a collection [herbarium] like this, they see things that a scientist couldn’t possibly appreciate might be relevant to current humanities research.” 

Bennett’s comment reminds me of notes attached to specimens in the William Darlington Herbarium at West Chester University in Pennsylvania.  William Darlington was a 19th-century amateur botanist with connections to John Torrey, Asa Gray, William Jackson Hooker, and other botanists of the day.  Attached to some of his specimens are notes either Darlington wrote or received from others about a specimen:  gathered from John Jackson’s garden, collected in Pierce’s forest, etc.  Most of the notes would probably not be of interest to a botanist seeking, for example, evidence of climate change.  But for someone researching the history of gardening in the Brandywine Valley, these same notes could be valuable.  They might lead to “a perfect restoration job” with documents perhaps held in the nearby archives of the Chester County Historical Society.  In the past, the only way this would happen is if someone with both botanical knowledge and an interest in history would stumble upon them.  But in the future, there may be ways of linking them that would require less serendipity and more technology. 

The International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) that I discussed in the last post might provide part of the answer.  Britain has launched a program called Towards a National Collection that aims to make the nation’s amazing cultural collections more accessible to researchers and the public.  The program has funded eight projects including Deep Discoveries that will investigate using “new machine learning methods to create a computer vision search platform that can identify and match images across digitized collections.”  What fun!  Making it even better, the focus will be on content with a botanical theme.

One question for the project is: could such a system recognize a rose on a textile pattern, a herbarium specimen, and a ceramic vase as being similar?  To answer it, the IIIF will be used in conjunction with artificial intelligence techniques (neural networks) in which computers are trained to do the sophisticated task of image recognition.  The institutions involved are an interesting mix including the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, the Victoria and Albert Museum, British National Archives, and the University of Surrey; they are partnering with the Gainsborough Silk Weaving Company, the Sanderson Design Archives, and the Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture.  This heady mix opens up new possibilities for research on a novel set of questions and for engagement with a broad audience.  The team is hoping that the ideas they generate, the tools they develop, and the mistakes they make will push such projects further.

It’s wonderful that the RBGE herbarium is integral to this mix that is so heavy on design, but it is really not such an odd choice as it might seem.  A number of botanical illustrators over the centuries have been textile designers, early modern herbals were often used as pattern books by embroiderers looking for inspiration, and Flora Danica is like a florilegium on china.  This new type of search could introduce many more people to the world of herbaria.  Imagine looking for a picture of an iris and finding not only a beautiful Japanese painting on silk but also a 150-year old specimen.  It might not look as good, but who knew plants could last so long?  And what do all the labels mean?  Not everyone would follow this path, but a few might, and so a few more people may learn about these hidden treasures. 

#Collectionsunited is a hashtag now being used on Twitter by those involved in knitting together British collections.  For example, the British Museum, the British Library, and the Natural History Museum, London are working to link their Hans Sloane holdings.  This is a case of reconnection in the sense that the British Museum first spun off the Natural History Museum and then the library.  As another example, the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh Library digitized a copy of the Wallich Catalogue and provided it with extensive metadata so it would be searchable (see above).  The catalogue is the printed guide to the 19th century botanist Nathaniel Wallich’s herbarium, rich in South Asia specimens, but these are at Kew.  They have been digitized and soon this project, which began twelve years ago, will link the catalogue information with the specimens.  


The Harvard Library’s Botanical Illustrations website.

This series of blogs is about connections across disciplines including the digital humanities, a broad field that’s difficult to define.  One area deals with using digital tools, such as those for textual analysis, to explore issues usually dealing with history, literature, and the social sciences.  However, historians of science are getting involved.  Katrina Maydom has traced the use of the word sassafras in British publications over time to track the acceptance of this New World plant in medicine.  I am more interested in other kinds of digital humanities tools, especially those that make images available to users.  Obviously there is a wealth of resources available, but the format varies from site to site, with some presentations much more user-friendly than others.  Among my all-time favorite manuscripts are Conrad Gessner’s two botanical notebooks for his projected book, Historia Plantarum.  They were digitized and are on the Erlangen-Nuremberg University Library website.  The viewer is straightforward to use and allows the viewer to magnify a page and feast on the details.

Suzette van Haaren wrote a blog post recently on physically distancing from manuscripts in the age of Covid-19.  She is studying the Bury Bible at the Parker Library at Cambridge University, but with the library shut down, she uses a digital facsimile to continue her work.  Fortunately, she has a very good one to view.  Movement from page to page is easy and there are several levels of magnification.  van Haaren argues that this experience of the bible is different from, but not necessarily inferior to or less intense than actually being able to see and touch it.  It is a rich experience to enlarge the page and scan across it, to linger on a particular feature without worrying about getting too close to the physical object.  Her research is on the relationship between digital and actual archival material, and she sees physical distance on the screen as different from physical absence:  “The digital facsimile is simultaneously a copy of the medieval manuscript, but also fundamentally a material object of its own. . . the facsimile exists and functions as its own object in a separate space.”  This is an interesting way to think not only about digital manuscripts but about herbarium specimens online.  We tend to consider digital specimens as handy fill-ins for the real thing, available without travel, either across town or across the world.  But like the Bury Bible, a digital specimen can be experienced in ways a physical specimen might not. 

One of the reasons the digitized bible experience is so vivid is the clarity of the image and the ability to easily magnify it.  High resolution images are at the heart of both archive and specimen imaging, but how images are served up to the viewer is equally important.  Recently, I had an opportunity to attend the virtual conference of the IIIF, the International Image Interoperability Framework, a consortium of institutions around the world working to standardize and enhance the way images are presented on the web.  Standardization of metadata and software is the key to allow for interoperability among databases and organizations.    

Elisabeth Fairman, curator of rare books and manuscripts at the Yale Center for British Art, told me about IIIF last year; the university was an early adapter of this framework.  In general, this is an art museum and library-based consortium, though at Yale the Peabody Museum of Natural History is participating.  The Discover Yale Digital Content site allows a user to search a number of Yale institutions, including the two I’ve just mentioned.  Typing in Quercus rubra calls up mostly herbarium specimens, but also original art from the Yale Center for British Art and rare prints from the Yale University Library.  What Yale has accomplished is also being done at other institutions.  They are constantly innovating to provide new tools, improve the user experience, and make these resources better known. 

I had learned about the IIIF conference when it was going to be held in Boston in June and had no intention of going since my interest is as a consumer not on a producer of digital assets.  But when the meeting went online—and was free to boot—I signed up.  The IIIF made a point of inviting a general audience and labeling sessions as less or more technical so a participant would pick and choose.  I especially liked a presentation on how museums use IIIF tools, of which there are several, including a viewer called Mirador, which I had heard of and used, but didn’t know its origins.  (Harvard University employs it for its Botanical Illustrations website, see above)  There was also, as a finale, a session called Fun with IIIF, a lightning round of presentations on tools created by developers.  Few would be useful to me but it definitely revealed many possibilities and was, in fact, fun to watch. 

Several natural history museums and botanical gardens are now exploring IIIF, including the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh where Roger Hyam is Biodiversity Data Systems Developer.  There is video in which he explains its advantages.  If it were used by the natural history community it could allow collections to be displayed in a variety ways across institutions.  This is an exciting prospect.  The tools being developed through IIIF would open up many possibilities, including pulling specimens from different collections and examining them side by side.  Eventually, it might also allow for linking to field notes, journals, letters, and other related materials.  Think of the possibilities!  One thing I learned from my IIIF experience is that none of this work is easy.  It requires much technical expertise, computer power, time, money, and most of all, trial and error.  But if the polish with which the conference was presented is any indication, IIIF will produce great things.

Twitter Botany: A Fossil in Pieces

Stenzel’s diagram of major portions of Tubicaulis solenites fossil from Löcse et al. article on the fossil

It’s not uncommon for fossils, whether of plants or animals, to be found broken into pieces that paleontologists patiently attempt to put together somewhat as the organism may have been in life.  In this last post on items I stumbled upon in Twitter, the topic here involves the opposite situation:  a tree fern fossil that was in several pieces when found, but was then further sawn into a larger number of longitudinal and transverse sections.  These were subsequently distributed to multiple individuals and institutions.  The fossil in question is the only example of the tree fern Tubicaulis solenites to have been found and is made up of portions of the trunk.  It was discovered in 1815 by Heinrich Schippan in a quarry in southeast Germany.  The silicified specimen is about 300 million years old from the Carboniferous Period; its analysis has made an important contribution to understanding the developmental history of early tree ferns. 

The fossil was originally described and named in 1828 by D. A. Sprengel and then examined more closely in 1832 by Carl Bernard von Cotta in his doctoral thesis.  The material was definitely close at hand since it was in his father Heinrich Cotta’s large fossil wood collection.  The British botanist Robert Brown was visited by Carl von Cotta in 1839 and subsequently half of the elder von Cotta’s botanical fossils, including a fragment of T. solenites were given to Brown.  However, records show that the Natural History Museum, London, where Brown’s collection resides, holds four pieces:  two longitudinal and two transverse, which were probably made from the original piece.  So as pieces of the fossil moved around they also multiplied, making it ever more difficult to keep track of them. 

The original discoverer Heinrich Shippan had sent the three pieces of the trunk to his mentor Abraham Werner at Frieberg, and they entered his collection at the museum there.  In 1889, Stenzel diagramed the three major pieces of the trunk, that fitted one on top of the other, with the lower section broader than the two above.  There is an old photograph of these pieces set on top of each other, and it is incorporated into a diagram explaining the plant’s internal structure (see figure above).  At this time, Carl Stenzel tracked down most of the pieces for his analysis of the fern, but since then there were more distributions.  He himself had made transverse and longitudinal sections from the lower piece and distributed them to several institutions.

Because the fossil’s significance a group of paleontologists recently attempted to locate all the pieces and bring them together at the Natural History Museum in Chemnitz, which was important in the specimen’s history and still holds some of the fragments.  They planned this reunion to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the original discovery.  Three researchers have written an article on what turned out to be a difficult task (Löcse, Zierold, and Rößler, 2018).  Though they did track down most of the pieces that are in eight different institutions, a number couldn’t be located.

There are fragments in eight different European institutions, three in Germany including Chemnitz, where the exhibit was to be held, and Friedberg, where the three large trunk pieces had been catalogued.  Other holding institutions are in London, Stockholm, and St. Petersburg.  No wonder researchers wanted to reunite the pieces at least temporarily to see if there would be further information they could glean from them when viewed in context.  But there were problems.  Pieces that had been in Strasbourg were lost in a fire, and some from Friedberg had apparently ended up in India.  In addition, over the years, in studies by numerous paleobotanists and geologists, individual slices, thins sections, and cuttings had been made. 

The Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm received 57 fossils from Friedberg in 1918, and though it isn’t explicitly mentioned then, label data suggests that these included a piece of the fern.  At least one slice was taken from this piece; it’s noted that the slice was sent to the Indian botanist, Birbal Sahni, in 1948.  The next year, the Indian premier Jawaharlal Nehru laid a foundation stone for the Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeobotany in Lucknow.  Embedded in the stone were 78 fossil wood specimens, including the T. solenites sent from Sweden, precluding its being reunited with the other pieces in Chemnitz.  But there is more to the Lucknow connection.  The article’s authors discovered that those imposing pieces pictured in the old photo and that were supposed to be at Friedberg, had been loaned to Sahni in 1932.  Efforts were made to find the pieces in Lucknow, and a couple of fragments that appear to have originated from them are in the collection, but the rest have not been located.  

It is hardly uncommon for herbarium specimen collections to be dismembered, distributed by family or other taxon, or sometimes by collector.  There are even cases where the specimen on a sheet has been cannibalized.  For those not familiar with fossil plant collections, the fate of T. solenites may seem odd and confusing.  But think about it; the material unearthed in Germany is the only example of the species.  The fact that it was in pieces when it was discovered and that taking slices of fossils is not uncommon, the temptation to distribute them, or at least to lend them out, must have been great.  Also, generosity seems to be a hallmark of the botanical community, and if not generosity then enlightened self-interest:  if I lend/give this to you, I expect you to lend/give me something of equal worth.  Such an economy sometimes leads to interesting mysteries like those presented in this article.


Löcse, F., Zierold, T., & Rößler, R. (2018). Provenance and collection history of Tubicaulis solenites (Sprengel) Cotta: A unique fossil tree fern and its 200-year journey through the international museum landscape. Journal of the History of Collections, 30(2), 241–251.

Twitter Botany: Family and Quarantine Herbaria

Impatiens in sidewalk crack, courtesy of Arthur Anderson

One organization I follow on Twitter is the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (@BSBIbotany).  Recently a Welsh member Barbara Brown wrote a blog post about personal herbaria, particularly those that have become a family tradition.  She discusses one volunteer at a nature preserve in Wales, Sue Arthur, who with her mother began making a plant collection in the 1960s.  They preserved 120 species over the years, most of them common wildflowers though there are some rare plants included.  Arthur kept up the practice with her daughter who is now passing it on to her daughter.

This is a wonderful practice at so many levels.  Arthur thinks that her early exposure to nature as something valuable and worth physically preserving was instrumental in making her a long-time participant in nature preserve activities.  Also, the herbarium obviously became a thread bonding generations together, physical evidence of time spent together and memorable encounters with the living world.  In addition, It is a record of what plants were common at particular times in a particular area, a chronological and ecological document.  Such collections were frequently created by amateurs in the 19th and early 20th centuries in both Europe and the US.  Today, they are much less common, but that might be changing.  It’s a familiar observation in the age of Covid-19 that people are spending more time observing nature; they have discovered wonderful living things while walking through woods, urban parks, or even down city sidewalks.  Of course, quarantine came at a good time, as spring arrived in the northern hemisphere, but really, winter is a better time to study tree architecture and plant decay, so any time of year will do. 

At least in my botanical Twitter world, there are several manifestations of this heightened awareness of plants.  First is an uptick of interest in urban plants, that is, weeds, which seem to be in fashion right now.  Many have discovered that weeds can have beautiful flowers, not surprising when you consider that weeds often go by the name of “wildflowers.”  @concretebotany is a Twitter account based in Philadelphia that regularly posts great images of what can be found in a city landscape and has been doing so for some time.  There are British counterparts @streetbotany and @morethanweeds.  In Europe, there is also a movement to make people aware of the plants growing in sidewalk cracks, in vacant lots, and along the edges of roads by writing plant names in chalk with arrows pointing to the relevant specimens.  The Manchester Guardian ran an article on this practice, which is becoming so common right now that some are annoyed about it and calling on local governments to ban it.  Obviously there are still large pockets of plant blindness, if not downright plant hostility.  Chalk botany is a great form of public education, not only giving people names for ubiquitous plants, but also getting them to really look at these specimens. 

Some of those who stop to look at plants might be tempted to go a step further and take a few flowers home with them, to put them in water and brighten the day.  They might even take a stab at drawing them.  After all, looking closely at a beautiful bloom may actually be more enjoyable than scrolling through email or Facebook.  Artist Aimee Lee has written about creating a drawing of the same rhododendron every day as a social distancing continued in Ohio.  Jessie Wei-Hsuan Chen, who is working on a doctorate in the history of science in the Netherlands, has a blog where she discusses how her work intersects botanical art and the living world.  She has made a practice of drawing the common plants she sees growing in the world around her.  Her master’s thesis deals with the first 100 years of the Plantin Press which produced some of the most significant illustrated botanical books of the early modern era.  Chen focused on the woodblocks used for printing the illustrations and has published a fascinating open access article on her research.  For her, art is a way to relax, to carefully examine some of the same plants that are represented in the woodblocks, and to gain an appreciation for the work of the artists involved in producing these blocks. 

Beyond drawing, the next step in plant engagement would be, like Sue Arthur and her family, creating a herbarium.  That’s the idea behind Elaine Ayer’s Quarantine Herbarium project.  She is a faculty fellow at New York University and is interested in the history of botany.  She has written a number of blog posts on a wide range of topics from the difficulties of botanical artists getting their watercolors to match flowers’ hues to Richard Spruce and Victorian bryology.  Ayer has a google documents site with information on how anyone can upload photos of their pressed plants.  This idea is catching on and there are specimens from all over the world.  Many of them might be looked down upon by herbarium curators who don’t tend to use graph or notebook paper for mounting specimens.  Several institutions such as the herbaria at the Natural History Museum, London have posted videos on to press plants.  These projects are yet other ways to engage with the living world and also to document the activities that went on during a very odd, and I hope rare, period in history.  Perhaps as we now look at the peaks and valleys of Covid-19 graphs, we might in the future look at peaks and valleys of herbarium interest, with this time being the beginning of a new spike that turned into a long-lasting plateau. 

Twitter Botany: Trees

The “Treaty Elm,” from Birch’s Views of Philadelphia (1800)

In this series of posts I’m presenting ideas and information I’ve gleaned from my “research” Twitter account.  Many scholars now routinely Tweet about their articles as soon as they are published; this is particularly true in this time of Covid-19 when electronic communication has become, if possible, even more crucial.  I must admit that I don’t keep track of who sent a Tweet containing something of note, I usually just bookmark the reference so I don’t forget about it.  In many cases, the author has put a proof copy or preprint on or ResearchGate, two goldmines, or it might even be open source.  It is wonderful to get instant gratification:  find an interesting item and download it immediately.  The next step is not to let it stay unread.  I’m glad that I didn’t allow historian Jared Farmer’s (2020) “Taking Liberties with Historic Trees” to be ignored.  Right now, trees get a great deal of publicity.  They are seen by some as the saviors of the planet from the evils of global warming, though others debate just how much planting trees can reverse climate change.  Trees are also considered important for the mental life of humans, providing a myriad of sensory experiences from the sound of rustling leaves, to the scent of pine trees, to the cooling experience of shade, and the constantly changing visual experience of walking through a wooded area (Jones, 2020).

Farmer deals with trees in a different way.  He begins by looking at specific individuals, American trees that have been given historical meaning.  Early in his article, he introduces the Treaty Tree,under which William Penn reputedly promised peace to the Lenni-Lenape Indians in 1682.  It was revered until it came down during a storm in 1810, but there is still a park marking the spot.  In a similar vein, the Liberty Tree was another elm this time in Boston and was the site of protests against British rule in 1765.  This specimen was chopped down by Tories a decade later, but not before it had become part of the iconography for both sides in the American Revolution.  However, Farmer’s major aim is really to investigate trees that have much more negative historical connotations.  The Treaty Tree was an early example of trees representing locations where treaties were negotiated with Indigenous Americans, usually to their severe disadvantage.  Images of the Liberty Tree with a noose hanging from it, symbolizing the fate of British tax collectors, presages the lynching trees found too frequently, where primarily African-Americans, slaves and freemen, were hung.

Farmer opens with a riveting passage:  “Today, one of the innumerable minor privileges of American whiteness is the freedom to appreciate trees as just trees: anodyne features, ahistorical objects.  Viewing the same scenery, African Americans can hardly ignore a painful past. . . . poet Lucille Clifton begins, ‘surely I am able to write poems celebrating grass,’ before finding it impossible to advance to woody flora” (p. 815).  As someone who loves poems about trees, I was taken aback by this statement and yet again was forced to look at the world through different eyes.  Needless to say this opening led me to pay careful attention to the rest of the article.  It’s hardly the first time I’ve considered trees in a negative light.  I know several people killed by falling trees, and there is an entire genre of art focused on skeleton dead trees set against bleak landscapes expressing pain, death, and abandonment.  It’s just that Farmer’s words made me see trees as political symbols that went way beyond Connecticut’s Charter Oak and similar botanical legends.

Farmer describes the origin of the term “lynching” that memorializes the name of a militia leader during the revolution who devised a way of dealing with Tories and also freedom-seeking slaves.  Trees could be instruments of violence in all kinds of contexts.  Lynching was not just perpetrated upon African Americans, though they were the most common victims for centuries.  However, many British soldiers and pro-British colonists were hung as well.  In addition, hanging was a tool used in subduing Native Americans because it was such a public form of death that could act as a visible threat long after the deed was done.    

Their size and strength, which are usually seen as positive attributes of trees, also make them effective tools of torture and death.  They are also ubiquitous in so many parts of the country that they are convenient as well.  I have to stay that I still love trees, especially oaks, which have always been my favorite for their leaf, nut, and branching forms.  But I have now broadened my view of how trees are employed by humans.  I don’t just think about timber for houses, maple syrup, apple pie, and walnuts, but also about the demeaning symbolism tied to trees and the power of such symbolism to survive and continue to erode the soul.  This article also made me realize the power a historian can have in opening the eyes of others not only to what went on in the past but how those events penetrate into the soul of a culture and remain there feeding the ideas of the present and the future.  Farmer is continuing with his arboreal theme and writing a book on the past and future of ancient trees.


Jones, L. (2020). Losing Eden: Why Our Minds Need the Wild. Allen Lane.

Twitter Botany: Plants in the Roman Colosseum, and in Florence

Illustration from Deakin’s Flora of the Colosseum of Rome, Biodiversity Heritage Library

When Twitter was young, I had a conversation with a librarian who was extolling the virtues of it for research.  I didn’t get it.  From what I had heard, Twitter was where people told their friends about their lives, often the more trivial aspects.  However, she convinced me to try it, with the advice to select a few people and institutions involved with plants and herbaria and follow them; they would lead me to other Twitter feeds.  That was several years ago, and while I know family members and friends have accounts, I don’t follow them.  For me Twitter is about plants.  I usually check it during breakfast and often find at least one interesting item to bookmark and investigate later.  Admittedly, I am not immune to the trivial, and sometimes there will be a retweet of something amusing.  Recently and not surprisingly, a number of these have featured animals (yikes!), and one of my favorites involves two British Labrador retrievers.  But I digress.  What I want to do in this series of posts, as I did in another recent series on miscellanea (1,2,3,4), is to share some of the unrelated items I’ve come across, which reveal Twitter to be a valuable research tool. 

There are two well-known websites that often have botanically flavored posts on relatively unknown aspects of the plant world.  One is Atlas Obscura and the other is the Public Domain Review, which as its name suggests features old publications that are out of copyright; they usually have visual appeal too.  Recently there was a post on Richard Deakin’s 1855, Flora of the Colosseum of Rome.  I had come across this book years ago after a trip to Rome when I fell in love with the city, amazed by how much to its ancient past is still visible.  After four years of Latin, I had an image of the Roman Forum and was thrilled to be able to walk through so much of it, to appreciate its size if not the splendor of its buildings.  What tickled me about Deakin’s book is that someone in the mid-19th century had taken the trouble to thoroughly explore a major ruin and record the 420 plant species he found.  There are illustrations of both the building and some of the plants.  In the copy available through the Biodiversity Heritage Library, the plant illustrations are colored.

While you might not want to know every plant in this famous ruin, you should at least read the illustrated blog post about it.  It’s reveals how nature abhors a vacuum and reinhabits places that humans have come to ignore.  That was the situation with the Colosseum two centuries ago, though by the time Deakin was doing his survey things were beginning to change.  Tourism was growing and efforts were underway to make parts of the structure more accessible and safer for exploration.  This meant removing much of the overgrowth that had accumulated.  Today the process has gone much further, and it’s difficult to envision the floral splendor Deakin experienced, thus making his book that much more valuable.  It documents yet one more ecosystem that has been severely diminished, and an odd one at that.  He found plants there that grew nowhere else in Italy.  A later observer speculated that wild beasts like lions brought from Africa to fight in the Colosseum probably carried seeds with them, so that reminders of these slaughtered animals remained for two millennia, a beautiful example of plant translocation. 

While I am discussing Italy, a blog called Herbarium World should not fail to mention another example of plant endurance in Italy:  the herbarium at the University of Florence.  It is the major focus of a beautifully illustrated book, available as a free download, about the Museum of Natural History of the University of Florence’s botanical collections.  Among them is the herbarium of Andrea Cesalpino, 16th-century student of Luca Ghini, the originator or at least popularizer of dried plant collections in the 1540s (Findlen, 2017).  Cesalpino succeeded Ghini as professor of botany at the University of Pisa and amassed a large herbarium, 15 volumes of which survive today.  He was interested in how to order plants and so arranged his collection according to the classification system he laid out in the first modern work on plant taxonomy (Morton, 1981).  This makes his herbarium a significant historical document and a contribution to a distinguished collection that includes the massive herbarium of the 19th century botanist Philip Webb, who decided to donate his collection to Florence and turn away from his British homeland and Paris where he had worked for years, because he had been treated so well in Italy. 

There are other great collections in the museum including a xylarium and an array of wax plant models.  The city was the center of a vogue in scientific wax modeling in the 18th and 19th centuries, with its anatomical models being the best known and definitely worth seeing at the La Speculo museum.  But plant anatomy, including at the microscopic level, also got its due.  Some pieces have been preserved, as well as models of apples and other fruits that were a way to document the color and shape of different varieties.  Many of these have long ago disappeared as have so much for the Colosseum flora.  We are fortunate that passionate botanists and curators have given us tokens of what has been lost.


Findlen, P. (2017). The death of a naturalist: Knowledge and Community in Late Renaissance Italy. In G. Manning & C. Klestinec (Eds.), Professors, Physicians and Practices in the History of Medicine (pp. 127–167). Springer.

Morton, A. G. (1981). History of Botanical Science. Academic Press.