Seeking Plants in Seattle: Early Modern Herbaria

2 En Tibi Calendula arvensis

Specimen of Calendula arvensis from the En Tibi herbarium; the collection of the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, The Netherlands.

I wouldn’t say that the History of Science Society is a plant-focused organization, but enough historians involved in botanical history in various ways have infiltrated the association that there are always sessions of interest at its annual meeting (see last post).  One I had to attend included two speakers whose work I had read.  Fabrizio Baldassarri of the University of Bucharest organized the session.  He is also the editor of a special issue of the Journal of Early Modern Studies (2017) on Gardens as Laboratories, which included his introductory essay and one by Maria Carrión of Emory University, the other speaker I wanted to hear.  Baldassarri spoke on plant metaphors in the work of several early modern physicians who were attempting to decipher bodily functions, with both William Harvey and Marcello Malpighi drawing comparisons between seeds and eggs.

Carrión’s contribution was on “Thinking, Dwelling, Planting: Dried Gardens and Natural Philosophy in 16th-century Europe.”  It was both intellectually fascinating and visually beautiful.  Granted, I may be prejudiced toward images of herbarium specimens and especially toward very old ones, but still, she presented such a variety of examples that I wasn’t the only one in the audience who was enthralled.  Carrión is a professor of comparative literature so she looks at these botanical documents in a different light than I do, and this is what made her talk so interesting.  To her, they are cultural artifacts, and she is fascinated by their materiality.

Carrión was introduced to herbaria while doing research at the library of the El Escorial in Madrid on early modern gardens as sacred spaces.  The librarian suggested that since she was interested in gardens, she might want to see a very old “dry garden.”  It was owned by a Spanish Ambassador to Venice, Diego Hurtado de Mendoza (1503-1575).  He possessed such an impressive library that the King of Spain called him back to Madrid and purchased the entire collection.  There’s no evidence that Mendoza created the herbarium which is in four volumes; and he probably acquired it in Italy, where the specimens were in all likelihood collected.  In all it contains over 1000 specimens, some pages with multiple specimens, and there are notes in several different hands.

Seeing this treasure fired Carrión’s passion for such collections, as I can well appreciate.  She has now seen eleven 16th-century herbaria in European collections.  These include the En Tibi, another herbarium whose creator is unknown (see above).  Carrión considers it the best preserved of the ones she’s seen.  Housed at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, the Netherlands, it was created in Italy because the plants seemed to be from around Florence and Bologna.  The En Tibi is a thick volume bound in leather with 477 plants.  Carrión noted that it is inscribed:  “Here for you a smiling garden with everlasting flowers.”  I definitely like the idea of an herbarium as a smiling garden.  The watermarks date the paper to 1500-1550, suggesting it’s a very early collection.  The oldest extant herbarium dates from 1532, that of Gherardo Cibo at the Angelicum Library in Rome.

Carrión has also examined herbaria that have not been left intact, or as she puts it, have been “dislodged.”  That of Andrea Cesalpino in Florence is among these.  It has been taken out of its binding, with the loss of its original organization, and rebound in three volumes.  In terms of conservation, this was obviously a wise approach, but as she suggests, it does change the experience of studying the herbarium, especially since in its prolog Cesalpino writes on the benefits of classification.  The rearrangement of Casper Bauhin’s herbarium was even more radical.  Bauhin’s herbarium now in Basel was studied by Linnaeus when he was preparing his Species Plantarum.  The sheets were rearranged according to this new system, so this pre-Linnaean collection has a post-Linnaean organization (Benkert, 2016).

In her travels to collections throughout Europe, Carrión was guided by librarians who could show her unique features of the herbaria.  In one of the fifteen volumes of Ulisse Aldrovandi’s collection in Bologna, there was a large square cut out of a page where a specimen had obviously been removed.  There are missing specimens from many collections.  The plants and the glue holding them in place are so old, it’s not surprising that over time parts of specimens, or even an entire one, may fall off and be lost.  But in the case of the Aldrovandi page, someone very much wanted the plant pasted there.  Unfortunately, his collection has suffered worse loses with only a portion of his thousands of specimens still extant.  This holds for his other collections as well:  insects, shells, minerals, books, and artwork.  As Paula Findlen (1994) notes, Aldrovandi created one of the first museums, one of the first organized natural history collections.  Though portions have been lost over the years, it survives at all because he willed it not to heirs who might very well have auctioned it off, but to the city of Bologna.

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Limonium sinuatum collected in Lebanon by Leonhard Rauwolf in 1575. The collection of the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, The Netherlands.

Carrión also saw Leonhard Rauwolf’s four-volume herbarium, with plants collected both in Europe and the Near East (see above).  It’s at the Naturalis Biodiversity Centre in Leiden and is striking because many of its pages have eye-catching paper borders and also because some of the plants are from Syria and Iraq, making them among the earliest specimens from those regions (Ghorbani et al., 2018).  Carrión plans on seeing more such treasures, in fact, she wants to see all pre-1600 herbaria—a noble goal indeed.


Baldassarri, F. (2017). Introduction: Gardens as laboratories. A history of botanical science. Journal of Early Modern Studies, 6(1), 9–19.

Benkert, D. (2016). The ‘Hortus Siccus’ as a focal point: Knowledge, environment, and image in Felix Platter’s and Caspar Bauhin’s herbaria. In Sites of Mediation (pp. 211–239). Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

Carrión, M. M. (2017). Planted knowledge: Art, science, and preservation in the sixteenth-century herbarium from the Hurtado de Mendoza Collection in El Escorial. Journal of Early Modern Studies, 6(1), 47–67.

Findlen, P. (1994). Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ghorbani, A., Wieringa, J. J., de Boer, H. J., Porck, H., Kardinaal, A., & van Andel, T. (2018). Botanical and floristic composition of the historical herbarium of Leonhard Rauwolf collected in the Near East (1573-1575). Taxon, 67(3), 565–580.


Seeking Plants in Seattle: Burke Herbarium

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Sign from the A.C. Moore Herbarium, University of Carolina, Columbia on a cabinet in the Burke Herbarium, University of Washington.

Last month, I went to the History of Science meeting in Seattle.  I was only there for a few days, but I did manage to visit a herbarium.  It’s part of the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Washington’s (UW) campus, but it’s located at some distance from the museum on UW’s sprawling campus.  I was greeted by the herbarium collections manager, David Giblin, and felt right at home.  Though with 660,000 specimens it is five times larger than the A. C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina where I volunteer, it is as packed with metal cases of different vintages and also stuffed with books, posters, mounting tables, and all the other trappings of an active collection.

I arrived at a good time because Giblin, and the curator of the herbarium, Richard Olmstead, also a professor of botany at UW, were celebrating the publication of the new edition of Flora of the Pacific Northwest: An Illustrated Manual, updating the 1973 volume by C. Leo Hitchcock and Arthur Cronquist.  This was a massive revision involving two other editors, Ben Legler and Peter Zika.  Over 1000 new illustrations were added, and Giblin and his colleagues would now like to see a companion volume of illustrations, including both these and all those from the first edition.  Considering images as particularly important to botanists, he thinks this would be a valuable resource.

Over the 16 years Giblin has been at the herbarium, he has worked on several NSF-funded projects to digitize portions of the collection, including specimens collected in the 1990s on the Russian-owned Kuril Islands as part of a collaborative project of US, Russian, and Japanese scientists.  Portions of the herbarium were databased and imaged through NSF’s Thematic Collection Networks, including one on macroalgae and the other on macrofungi.  The herbarium also works on state and federal contracts, and augments its income with the publication of plant guides:  one on the Alpine Flowers of Mount Rainier and another on the plants of the Olympic Mountains.  With Seattle’s large population including many avid hikers, these have sold well.  In addition, the herbarium staff has produced a Washington Wildflowers app available for both iOS and Android.  It has excellent photographs of the plants, and more of these are available on Burke’s Image Collection website with over 68,000 photographs.  They are organized into three categories:  vascular plants, macrofungi, and lichenized fungi, but this is much more than an image gallery.  For each species there’s information on its characteristics and range.  Even if you aren’t living in Washington, it’s fun to see what plants call it home.

These initiatives indicate the dynamism of the herbarium.  Sure there are the constraints of space and funding that almost all collections face.  More than half of the specimens still need to be digitized, and Giblin and I discussed the time-consuming task of georeferencing older sheets.  Still, he is excited about the possibilities opened up by technology such as the cell phone and Google maps to lure new users to herbarium data, and new contributors to it as well through citizen science initiatives.  I enjoyed our discussion because Giblin, though cautious about the future, seemed to be looking forward to working on new projects and keeping Burke vibrant.  As I was leaving, I saw something else that reminded me of my herbarium home at USC:  one of its bumper stickers pasted to a cabinet (see above).  It’s a reminder of how prescient the USC curator John Nelson was in procuring the URL during the very early days of the internet.

After leaving the herbarium, I headed further into the UW campus.  Giblin suggested I visit the graduate library, which is a beautiful neo-gothic building with a lovely reading room decorated with botanical carvings (see below).  I found a cafeteria for lunch, then visited the art museum, the Henry Art Gallery, and the campus bookstore.  Finally I headed to the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, to see if any of the herbarium collection was on view—and it was.  Of course, many of the exhibits deal with animals: dioramas and dinosaur fossils.  Since this is also a cultural collection, they have impressive exhibits on the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest, with particularly striking wood carvings.  But close to the entrance there is an interesting display of plant specimens, with information on where they were collected and why they are so important.   The exhibit focuses on plants collected on an expedition to Argentina, suggesting the breadth of the Burke Collection.  On their website there’s also a post on a graduate of the UW botany Ph.D. program, Ana Bedoya Ovalle, who returned to Columbia to collect more specimens and continue her research.

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Wood carving in the graduate library reading room at the University of Washington.

From the museum, I walked toward the Seattle Light Rail station so I could get back to my hotel.  I hardly need to add that it was raining at the time.  I passed Rainier Vista, where on a clear day you can see that mountain in the distance.  This is a very nice campus feature, but one I could only imagine.  I also crossed what is termed “Red Square” because of its red brick work, and down a mall lined on both sides with a variety of gymnosperms.  I had had a great visit to UW, and on my next trip to Seattle, I hope to venture further, and perhaps get a little closer to Mount Rainier.


Hitchcock, C. L., & Cronquist, A. (1973). Flora of the Pacific Northwest: An Illustrated Manual (1st ed.). Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.

Hitchcock, C. L., & Cronquist, A. (2018). Flora of the Pacific Northwest: An Illustrated Manual. (D. Giblin, B. Legler, P. Zika, & R. Olmstead, Eds.) (2nd ed.). Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.

Where the Herbaria Are: All Over the Place

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A portion of the Marybeth Wheeler Herbarium at Wilton Library

Before I knew them, my stepsons lived in Wilton, Ct.  Many years later, when they had long left the area, I came upon a book called Ferns and Flowering Plants of Wilton at a book sale.  For a dollar, I was willing to check out their old stomping ground.  The book was put together by the local garden club, and in it was mention of a herbarium they had created that was housed at the Wilton Library.  A little digging led me to the library’s history room, and there it was, a collection numbering over 1,000 sheets.  The collection’s foundation was the donation of 200 sheets by Anna Carpenter (1833-1933) to the Wilton Garden Club.  Carpenter had spent the last 42 years of her life in Wilton and often collected in the area, which at the time was rural but is now definitely suburban.  She presented the rest of her collection to the Connecticut Botanical Society herbarium now housed at the Yale Herbarium in the Peabody Museum of Natural History.  There are 665 of her specimens listed in the herbarium’s online database.

In 1981, the Wilton Garden Club moved the collection into the Wilton Library History Room to make it more accessible.  This was part of a larger herbarium project, which had begun in the 1960s and which resulted in several hundred sheets being added to the collection.  Most of the collectors were members of the Wilton Garden Club, most notably Marybeth Wheeler, for whom the herbarium is now named.  When I visited in 2012, Scotty Taylor of the Wilton Historical Society showed me a well-cared-for collection stored in archival boxes.  She said that it was little used, but since then the library has mounted an exhibit of some of the sheets to make this treasure better known in the community.  I use the Wilton herbarium as an example of herbaria that are not in the usual places for such collections—botanical gardens, educational institutions, museums—the places I’ve described in the last three posts (1,2,3).  This last post in the series is sort of a catch-all for collections, large and small, that live in a variety of settings.

Unlike the one in Wilton, many herbaria that end up in libraries are in bound volumes.  One of my favorite examples is the 16-volume collection of Lord Robert Petre in the Sutro Library at San Francisco State University.  Petre was an avid gardener and one of the early patrons of John Bartram who sent Petre plants, including seeds and cuttings, through Peter Collinson the great British plant broker.  This connection is what makes the Petre herbarium particularly interesting.  There are Bartram plants in two of the volumes, some with Bartram’s original labels written on small pieces of brown wrapping paper.  In the 1980’s Schuyler and Newbold (1987) of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia examined these specimens and gave them updated scientific names, in addition to the pre-Linnaean ones written in beautiful script on the sheets.  All the volumes have been removed from their bindings and carefully conserved, indicating once again that a library can be a good home for herbaria.  Though botanists worry about collections that are outside of herbaria where insect infestation is carefully monitored, this collection seems to be doing very well at the Sutro.  It was purchased in the late 1800s by Adolph Sutro who had been mayor of San Francisco.  He went  on a buying spree in Europe, acquiring volumes to create a world-class library in his city.  That’s how an East-Coast collection got to the West Coast, via England.

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Volume III binding for the Petre Herbarium in the Sutro Library at San Francisco State University.

There is one case where a herbarium led to the founding of an institution, and that is the Linnean Society of London, organized around the herbarium—and library—of Carl Linnaeus, which the British botanist James Edward Smith bought from Linnaeus’s widow.  It is now stored in an underground vault built after World War II.  What has grown up around this collection is a larger herbarium including Smith’s specimens, as well as a remarkable library and archives with material from Smith, Alfred Russel Wallace, and Francis Buchanan-Hamilton.  The archives include many botanical illustrations and all of this material is stored in the Society’s headquarters in Burlington House, a huge mansion that’s also home to the Royal Academy of Art.

Needless to say, the Linnaean collection, which is full of type specimens, is often visited by botanical researchers and historians—and also by people like me who are lucky enough to just breathe the vault’s rarified air.  However, small collections like those in the Wilton and Sutro libraries are also scientific and cultural gems that reveal something about the passions of gardeners down through the ages.  I have not scratched the surface here of alternate sites for herbaria.  Just a few miles from Wilton is a collection at the Bartlett Arboretum and Gardens, which was originally owned by the Bartlett Family who began the company now known as Bartlett Tree Experts.  The site was used as a laboratory and arboretum by the company’s founder, Francis A. Bartlett, and was sold it to the State of Connecticut in 1965.  The herbarium contains specimens from the 1880s when the Bartletts began their work, and these have been augmented by others.  Several national forests have herbaria as does Yellowstone National Park, where there are about 16,000 specimens, though not the one collected by President Chester A. Arthur during a fish trip in the park in 1883; that’s at the National Herbarium in Washington.  At the other end of the size spectrum is the herbarium at the Botanical Research Institute of Texas, created as a stand-alone institution to support plant research and conservation; it now has about 1.5 million specimens.  And I should note the countless collections, large and small, housed in homes by avid collectors who relish finding plants, preparing specimens, and often sharing their duplicates with others.  In other words, you never know where a herbarium is going to pop up.

Note:  I would like to thank all the people at the institutions I’ve visited for sharing their expertise with me.


Ferns and Flowering Plants of Wilton. (1992). Wilton, CT: Wilton Garden Club.

Schuyler, A. E., & Newbold, A. (1987). Vascular plants in Lord Petre’s herbarium collected by John Bartram. Bartonia, 53, 41–43.

Where the Herbaria Are: Museums


Stairway from the great hall of the Natural History Museum, London.

Think of natural history museums and almost invariably an image of a dinosaur will pop into your mind, though it’s unlikely that a tree fern of the same era will.  Even when plant collections are part of these museums, their specimens usually don’t get the kind of exposure in the public galleries that animals or even minerals do.  In the past, some institutions did have economic botany exhibits, but these have shrunk or disappeared completely, not being able to compete with a Tyrannosaurus or a glitzy interactive display on biodiversity that usually focuses primarily on animals.  Still, there are huge plant collections attached to many of these museums.  In Paris, the Musée National d’Histoire Naturalle has the largest herbarium in the world; the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History has over five million plant specimens and the Natural History Museum, London (NHM) houses about six million.  While the public may not be very aware of these resources, researchers are, and these institutions are crucial to work in plant systematics and to investigation of biodiversity.  In the past, many of them mounted major expeditions around the world to collect specimens and ideas for exhibits.  The days of such large-scale endeavors are over, but herbarium curators still collect.

When I visited the NHM recently, Mark Carine and Fred Rumsey had just returned from Madeira where they attended a conference to mark the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook’s visit to the island at the beginning of his first circumnavigation of the globe.  While there, Joseph Banks and David Solander, who were on the expedition, collected plants in the vicinity of Funchal.  After the conference Carine and Rumsey attempted to retrace their steps, guided by colleagues at the University of Madeira, just as the earlier botanists were aided by the resident physician, Thomas Heberden.  The dates of both visits correspond almost exactly, so it should be possible to make some comparisons, especially since the Cook expedition specimens are at NHM.  Rumsey and Carine collected 120 species and hope to compare them to what the earlier botanists had seen.  Rumsey was already busy examining some of the Banks material under a microscope so he could send information to his Madeira colleagues.  Both he and Carine see this as a great link between present-day biodiversity research and historical collections, which are becoming used more and more in such contexts.

Since outreach to the public is an essential part of a natural history museum’s mission, it’s not surprising that museum herbaria are frequently called upon to contribute to exhibitions.  Deborah Metsger, assistant curator at the Green Plant Herbarium that’s housed at the Royal Ontario Museum told me museum curators asked her to collaborate, such as on the Flower Power exhibit of floral motifs and textiles.  Being at the museum also means she has access to conservation experts who have helped her to conserve old herbarium scrapbooks.  Also,  However, I should note that the herbarium, though housed at the museum, is part of the nearby University of Toronto.  So this herbarium is sort of a hybrid.  I’m sure this makes for some interesting administrative issues, but also allows the specimens to be used in a variety of ways.

Seed Collection

H.B. Sifton Seed Collection in the Green Plant Herbarium at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto

The herbaria at the World Museum, Liverpool and the Manchester Museum have been particularly active in this regard, contributing to exhibitions by providing specimens in the form of medicinal plant sheets to slices through tree trunks to 19th-century plant models that used to be stored atop cabinets but are now treated with greater curatorial care.  The Manchester Museum is also part of the University of Manchester, so here again, there are multiple ties, and art students in particular have taken advantage of the herbarium as a source of inspiration for their projects.  It was also on a visit to this herbarium several years ago where I first heard of using Harry Potter as an herbarium lure.  The curator of botany, Rachel Webster, explained that plants mixed into various potions were the focus of displays and activities organized by the herbarium staff for an open house, complete with witches’ brooms and hats hanging from the ceiling.  Backing from museum public relations and educational programmers makes it easier for curators to mount such elaborate projects.

Natural history museums, like most cultural institutions, have faced hard financial times recently, and their herbaria are not immune.  While a botanic garden only has plant collections, living and dead, to worry about these museums have to balance the needs and wants of curators in a number of departments.  So while there are some benefits to these institutional ties, there are problems as well.  Many herbarium curators complain of what amounts to plant blindness among administrators.  The only place I’ve heard the opposite complaint is in Sweden where zoologists blame admiration for Linnaeus for what they see as botanical favoritism.  In other words, there is no perfect place for a herbarium.  Each type of institutional affiliation has its pluses and minuses.  In the last post in this series, I will discuss a number of collections that have a variety of different administrative set ups, not tied to schools, museums or botanical gardens.

Note:  I would like to thank all the people at the institutions I’ve visited for sharing their expertise with me.

Where the Herbaria: Colleges and Universities

I volunteer in the A.C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina’s main campus in Columbia.  It houses over 125,000 specimens, with the majority from within the state, though all parts of the world are represented.  Kept in separate cabinets is the Ravenel Collection, previously located at Converse College.  Henry Ravenel was a South Carolina plantation owner and botanist, who before the Civil War studied and collected plants mainly out of interest, but after the war found it necessary to try to make money from his botanical expertise.  Portions of his journals have been published (Childs, 1947), and more recently a National Endowment for the Humanities grant funded the transcription and digitization of his writings as well as his specimens.  This was a collaborative project of the herbarium along with USC’s Caroliniana Library, and the Clemson University Library.  The result is a great website with wonderful search features.  All this happened well before I arrived on the scene, but I do get to work with Ravenel specimens as well as many collected by the long-time herbarium curator John Nelson who is in the process of retiring, though he is still very actively involved.  I also work with Herrick Brown, the assistant curator, who leads the digitization efforts at USC, which is part of the SERNEC collection network and thus involved in iDigBio.

There are herbaria in educational institutions that are much larger than USC, such as Harvard University and the University of California Berkeley, and much smaller such as Salem College in North Carolina and West Virginia Wesleyan College.  However, they all have education as a major component of their mission.  Some, like the last two mentioned, focus on undergraduates, while others, such as the first two, serve a variety of students ranging up to postdocs.  The great thing about these collections is that they are onsite where classroom and laboratory learning is also taking place.  The herbarium is a readily available resource, and this means not just access to the collection but to the curators who work with it as well.  John Nelson has taught courses where students mount and label the specimens they’ve collected on field trips, and these have been added to the herbarium.  In the process of transcribing labels, I’ve encountered many of these, a history of the students whose lives have been touched by the plants that they’ve touched.

Then there are the student workers who are so vital to a herbarium’s digitization efforts.  They are a lot faster than I am at imaging specimens, and working with the plants has led some of them to become more interested in databases, ecology, systematics, or all of the above.  The USC herbarium is excruciatingly overcrowded, with metal cabinets of various types and origins filling a rabbit warren of rooms.  Other institutions have a little more space and thus can more easily host open houses and other events where students, alumni, master gardeners, and those simply interested in plants can visit and learn more about the collection.  On Twitter I follow the University of Tennessee Herbarium (@UTKHerbarium) that has an active program with many events to capture students’ attention.  Last spring I visited the Massey Herbarium (@Massey Herbarium) at Virginia Tech [see photo below] where a new curator, Jordan Metzgar, has already instituted several innovative programs to draw not only VT students into research projects, but also activities for the community, including a contest where youngsters were challenged to make Lego models of plants.  The contestants were then invited to the herbarium, thus bringing a new group of children and parents into a world most of them didn’t know existed.

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Massey Herbarium at Virginia Tech

This kind of energy is needed to move academic herbaria into the future.  Many administrators consider collections as space hogs in locations that could be used to house more labs, dorms, or in the case of the University of Louisiana-Monroe’s entire natural history collection, a new sports facility.  The 450,000 specimens of ULM’s herbarium are going over 300 miles away to the Botanical Research Institute of Texas.  Yes, all those specimens are being preserved, but they are no longer easily available to students and faculty.  The collection holds 99% of Louisiana’s vascular flora.  Now those plants won’t be in Louisiana.  They are still available, but the sense of place will not be as strong.  Researchers can rely on loans, trips to BRIT, or online access to obtain the data they need, but students are in a different position.  Within a few years, the campus population will no longer remember that there was a natural history collection at the university.

But to end on a more positive note, there are institutions that gave up their herbaria in the past and are now creating new collections.  John Nelson at USC has been sending duplicate specimens to Oberlin College in Ohio.  It once had 200,000 specimens, but they were sold off to Ohio State and Miami Universities.  Now a young biology professor, Mike Moore, has begun a new collection, starting with specimens he had collected for his research.  Students at Oberlin are again being introduced to what a specimen looks like and what information it holds.  Stanford University also disposed of its Dudley Herbarium, sending the specimens to the California Academy of Sciences, but now a new one, the Oakmead Herbarium, has been founded at Stanford’s Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve.  The present interest in biodiversity and climate change will hopefully grow in the future, and more institutions will see the value of dedicating space, personnel, and financial resources to this vital part of biology education.

Note:  I would like to thank all the people at the institutions I’ve visited for sharing their expertise with me.


Childs, A. R. (Ed.). (1947). The Private Journal of Henry William Ravenel 1859-1887). Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.

Where the Herbaria Are: Botanical Gardens

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Staircase in the first building of the herbarium of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

All herbaria are basically the same.  They all have cabinets filled with folders, each with specimens attached to thick sheets of white paper that are almost the same size.  They may have other types of collections, but the sense you get when you enter an herbarium is usually of ranks of cabinets.  However, on my visits to herbaria I have also been struck by how different they can be:  in size, in collection strategies, in ancillary collections, and in their position within larger institutions.  So in this series of posts, I’m going to explore some of the cultural differences among plant collections that are dependent on their institutional environments.  I’ll begin with what is one of the largest categories, those affiliated with botanic gardens.

It’s probably more than coincidence that the first botanic garden, founded in 1543 in Pisa, was begun by the Italian botanist Luca Ghini who is also believed to be the originator of the herbarium somewhat earlier.  Both were used to support Ghini’s teaching of materia medica at the Pisan medical school.  He would take students out to the garden after class, pointing out the plants he had just described in lecture; sometimes he would show them the pressed specimen as well, so they could appreciate how drying changed a plant’s appearance.  The herbarium also served as a teaching aid during the winter months.  Around the time this garden was founded, Leonhart Fuchs (1542) published one of the first printed herbals with accurate plant illustrations, to supplement the information available in gardens and herbaria.  These three innovations were essential to the development of early modern botany, and it’s not surprising that they are still often found together today.

Great botanical gardens usually have great herbaria and great libraries.  This is true of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, New York Botanical Garden (NYBG), Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne, and many others.  From the very beginning, specimens have been supported by text; an unlabeled specimen is virtually useless.  But as botany developed, sources such as Fuchs were cited as ways to link name and plant description.  Books became vital references, and needed to be close at hand.  The fact that the Pisa garden was attached to a university is also important.  This was an institution where knowledge was passed on and generated, with specimens playing a role in both endeavors.  In my next post, I’ll discuss the relationship between herbaria and education, but for now, I’ll continue with the botanic garden thread.

Many of the major botanic gardens are so large that their functions are segregated into different departments, with a library director and a herbarium director being separate functions, though there is close collaboration especially because they are often housed in the same or adjacent buildings.  This is true in New York, Missouri, Kew, and Melbourne.  It is a wonderful luxury to be able to go just a few steps to check a reference or to find an illustration, either in a book or in botanical art collection also housed in these libraries.  The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and Kew have huge collections of illustrations done by native Indian artists under the direction of botanists and physicians working for the East India Company.  Such art was considered so important to systematics that these sheets were stored with the specimens.  This situation is changing, and the art has been moved to the libraries, cross-referenced with the plant name and that of the artist.

But in botanical gardens, it’s the relationship between the living and preserved collections that seems to me to be most important, and in some cases closely tied to national identity.  I felt this most keenly in Australia, where digitization of the national herbarium collections was first focused on Australian plants, where efforts to prevent the spread of invasive species are particularly rigorous, and where botanical artists often focus on native plants.  Celia Rosser did magnificent watercolors of all the species of the quintessentially Australian genus, Banksia; vouchers made from the specimens she used are housed in several of the country’s national herbaria.  There is also a sense of local pride when a garden manages to bring a particularly fussy plant into flower.  Right now, corpse flowers (Amorphophallus titanum) seem to be all the rage because of their size and the awful odor the bloom exudes.  Making specimens is difficult because of the flower’s size and bulk.  Daniel Atha at NYBG did such a good job that the multiple sheets he created were used in an exhibit on the herbarium.  More importantly, NYBG keeps a significant collection of specimens recording the cultivated plants growing in the garden, not just the celebrities.

Unfortunately, I am going to end on a sour note.  NYBG’s sister garden, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, was also linked to a magnificent library and herbarium, all three founded at the beginning of the 20th century.  However, in  2013 the garden’s director summarily closed the herbarium and downsized the library’s footprint at the same time.  The collection’s 300,000 specimens are now on “temporary” loan to NYBG, the library is still trying to wrestle with its lack of space, and the active environmental community in Brooklyn is left without an important resource.  The links that were forged in the 16th century by Ghini and his fellow botanists have been severed.  The only consolation is that these connections remain strong at many other institutions.

Note:  I would like to thank all the people at the institutions I’ve visited for sharing their expertise with me.

Botanical Britain: Place

4a Cyclamen

Cyclamens growing in the rock garden at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

While I was in Edinburgh and London recently (see earlier posts 1,2,3), I was reminded several times of my mother’s favorite plants, all ones that thrive in the British Isles.  She was born on the south coast of Ireland in a seaside town called Tramore.  Her family was upper middle class, but fell on hard times because of her father’s financial blunders.  She emigrated with her mother and siblings in 1928, just in time to face the depression in New York City.  While she later married my father and had two wonderful children, if I do say so myself, she never really felt at home in the United States and made her opinion known on many occasions.  I remember her often mentioning plants that grew well in the gardens of Ireland but didn’t flourish in the US.  I was reminded of this while walking by a park in Edinburgh and seeing Cyclamens blooming (see photo above).  My mother would buy them in pots as houseplants, but they didn’t grow in our garden.  She had the same problem with primroses and Fuchsia (see photo below).  From time to time she would buy a potted Fuchsia, and after she kept it alive inside, would plant it outdoors.  It never did well.  All these plants like mild and moist conditions; a New York City backyard just didn’t provide the right environment.

4b Fuchsia

Fuchsia growing near a sidewalk in Edinburgh, Scotland.

When we visited Ireland I finally understood her problem and was also introduced to another of her favorites the monkey puzzle tree Araucaria araucana (see photo below).  What I didn’t know at the time was that none of these genera, except for the common primrose, Primula vulgaris, are native to Ireland and Britain.  Yes, they thrive there, but Fuchsia was sent back by Charles Plumier from the Caribbean, Cyclamen is native to the eastern Mediterranean, and the monkey puzzle is South American.  Their naturalization in Ireland was the result of avid gardeners wanting to extend their repertoire of species, and these particular plants, among many others, ended up thriving in areas warmed and watered by the Gulf Stream.

4c Monkey Puzzle Edinburgh

Monkey puzzle tree, Araucaria araucana, at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

The connection of plants and place—both their native and adopted ranges—is a discussion had many times among those involved in the Herbaria 3.0 project.  This initiative, which has been funded by Seed Box: A Mistra-Formas Environmental Humanities Collaboratory in Sweden and Colorado School of Mines in the US describes itself as “a platform for sharing stories about plants and people. We believe that these stories can draw our attention to the intertwined nature of human-plant relationships. Turning to these relationships helps us to remember plants and reconnect with them, acknowledging the pivotal role plants play in our lives.”  The website now has a rich selection of stories in which the relationship between plants, place, and peoples’ lives are very evident.  But as was the case with my mother, the place the writer describes is often not within the plant’s native range.  This is indicative of how much the ecology of the entire globe has been changed by plant exchanges over hundreds and thousands of years.  It also signals how people’s emotional lives are influenced by the plants with which they share a space.  Attempting to grow Fuchsia in New York was important to my mother; she was trying to make her home a little more like what she considered her real home in Ireland.

My mother’s childhood home, a horse farm, was burnt down when she was nine years old.  We’ve visited the site, which is marked by little more than rubble.  On my recent trip I got to visit the intact childhood home of one of my intellectual “mothers,” Agnes Robertson Arber, a noted plant morphologist of the first half of the 20th century and the third woman elected to the Royal Society.  I’ve mentioned her in earlier blog posts (1,2) because she wrote two of my favorite books, The Mind and the Eye (1954) on the philosophy of biology including the relationship of art to inquiry, and Herbals: Their Origin and Evolution a Chapter in the History of Botany, 1470-1670 (1938), which is still an important reference in the field.  When I contacted Mark Nesbitt of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew about seeing the economic botany collection (see earlier post), he said that he had recently talked to Xandra Bingley who had inquired about Agnes Arber since Bingley lives in the house into which the Robertsons, Agnes’ parents, moved when she was eleven.  Bingley is a long-time resident but didn’t know about the connection until English Heritage decided to mount a commemorative blue plaque for Arber on the building.  Since I’ve written on Arber (Flannery, 2005), Nesbitt thought Bingley and I should get together.

Xandra invited me to her home for lunch, which lasted well into the afternoon.  She thinks that the location of the house, just steps from Primrose Hill, a park adjacent to Regent’s Park, and the lovely, long narrow garden in the rear must have stimulated Robertson’s interest in plants.  I know that while Agnes Robertson was living there, her father brought home an early edition of Henry Lyte’s English translation of the Flemish botanist Rembert Dodoens’s herbal, because a friend wanted advice on whether to buy it.  In Herbals, Arber writes that seeing the book is what kindled her interest in the history of botanical illustration.  Again, place and plants come together, but in a very different way, and I left Xandra’s house with a better sense of how one of my favorite botanists embarked on her career.  Herbals was Arber’s first book, written while she was also working on plant morphology, and weaving together strands that were to grow stronger throughout her life.


Arber, A. (1938). Herbals: Their Origin and Evolution a Chapter in the History of Botany, 1470-1670 (2nd ed.). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Arber, A. (1954). The Mind and the Eye: A Study of the Biologist’s Standpoint. Cambridge: University Press.

Flannery, M. C. (2005). Agnes Arber in the 21st century. The Systematist, 24, 13–17.

Note: The most fun I had in England was in Xandra Bingley/Agnes Robertson’s home.  I can’t thank Xandra enough for being willing to greet me so warmly and entertain me with such wonderful conversation.

Botanical Britain: Art

3a North

Marianne North Gallery at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

When I began to take this blog seriously, I wrote a series of posts on art and herbaria.  The first in that series was on Victoria Crowe, who has long lived in Scotland and is renowned there.  When she was commissioned to paint a portrait of David Ingram, then Master of St. Catherine’s College at Cambridge University, she wanted to include images from his work as a plant pathologist.  This sparked conversations between them about herbaria.  Crowe became interested (of course!) and ended up spending time in the herbarium and library at Cambridge University.  Ultimately this led to an exhibition called Plant Memory, for which Ingram contributed to the catalogue (Crowe & Ingram, 2007).  Included was a delicate watercolor of a herbarium specimen, even showing how it was taped to the page.  They also published an article (Crowe and Ingram, 2007) based on a lecture they gave, in which Crowe described being struck by the “tension between timelessness and fragility” in specimens.  This phrase has stuck with me as being a very artistic and also philosophic way of thinking about them.

In writing about Crowe, I wanted to include an image of her work in my blog, but hesitated contacting an artist of her stature.  Finally, I did it, and she very graciously sent me not one, but several images, and also some publications on her work.  Needless to say, I was thrilled.  But it got even better because she passed my email address on to David Ingram, and we began writing to each other.  Ingram was not only at Cambridge, but had also spent several years as director of the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh.  In retirement, he has written widely on art and botany, including work on John Ruskin (2011), the textile artist and entrepreneur Annie Garnett (Ingram & Roberts 2017), and the French glass artist Emile Gallé (Coutts & Ingram, 2012).  When I was in Edinburgh, I had the opportunity to have conversations with both Ingram and Crowe.  These experiences were memorable.   I will write in more detail later, but here I just want to say that I found it very encouraging that people of this stature are convinced of the profound relationship that exists between art and science, and they both speak from much experience.  For many years, Crowe taught classes, including botanical art, at the Edinburgh College of Art.  In addition, she has painted many portraits including those of such scientific luminaries as the physicist Peter Higgs and the astronomer Jocelyn Bell Burnell.  Ingram’s interest in art and botany is related to his years of research on plant pathogens when he translated his observations under the microscope into drawings as part of his practice.

When I went to London, I met another one of my email friends, Laurence Hill, a photographer who specializes in the genus Fritillaria, though this description fails to get at the heart of what Hill does.  On his website, Fritillaria Icones, he documents each species in the genus, recording the entire plant in bloom, including bulb and roots, as well as the structure of the flowers and seeds.  All these images and related data are available on the website under a Creative Commons 4.0 license.  He has also created large-scale works that have been exhibited at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery at Kew Botanic Garden and won prizes in Royal Horticultural Society photographic competitions.  I was thrilled to finally meet Hill and see some of his work in its true dimensions rather than on a computer screen.  I’ll go into more detail in the future, but I do want to say that what is most impressive about Hill’s photographs is the meticulous work that goes into them.  Each is the result of digitally stitching and stacking together many images to make a whole that has great clarity even at high magnification.  The only problem is that his website is addictive and hard to leave because there’s so much to explore.

Besides these three great conversations, I also saw a lot of other impressive art, botanically related of course.  At the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew alone, there was the Marianne North Gallery with hundreds of oils done by this 19th-century botanical explorer (see photo above), and close-by the Shirley Sherwood Gallery with two botanical art exhibits, one on the history of the recently renovated Temperate Glass House and the other on Australian botanical art.  In the Kew Gardens Gallery, I was delighted to find dozens of leaves from the diaries of the 19th-century orchid specialist John Day that are filled with his watercolors as well as his notes.  I have a book on these (Cribb & Tibbs, 2004), but seeing them in person was exciting.  Also exciting was finding at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh a copy of the huge triptych of the titan arum Amorphophallus titanum painted by Isik Güner, Jacqui Pestell, and Sharon Tingey when it was blooming at the garden.

3b Loudon Lemons

Selection of wax models if lemons from the George Loudon Collection in the Surreal Science exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, London.

In London, I went to two notable exhibits that were botanically related.  One was Fashioned from Nature at the Victoria & Albert Museum and dealt with a multitude of aspects of how animals and plants are used in clothing.  It was very cleverly done, with not only obvious things like feathered hats, but also new technologies that produce leather-like material from fungi and cloth from microbes.  On my last day, I went to the Whitechapel Gallery to see Science Surreal, an exhibit of portions of George Loudon’s natural history materials that he has amassed from the discards of old collections.  In this case, they were paired with ceramics in a surrealistic display by Salvatore Arancio.  My favorites were the fungi models made from velvet (see photo above) and Italian wax representations of oddly shaped lemons.  If you would like to see these and other marvels, Loudon (2015) has written a book on his collection.


Coutts, H., & Ingram, D. S. (2012). Emile Gallé’s verre d’eau at the Bowes Museum:
A detailed study of the motifs. The Decorative Arts Society Journal, 38, 82–87.

Cribb, P., & Tibbs, M. (2004). A Very Victorian Passion: The Orchid Paintings of John Day 1863-1888. London, UK: Thames and Hudson.

Crowe, V., & Ingram, D. (2007b). Plant Memory. Edinburgh, UK: Royal Scottish Academy.

Ingram, David S., & Wildman, S. (2011). Ruskin’s Flora: The Botanical Drawings of John Ruskin. Lancaster, UK: The Ruskin Library and Research Centre.

Ingram, D.S., & Roberts, R. (2017). Spinning the Colours of Lakeland: Annie Garnett’s Spinnery, Textiles and Garden. Bowness-on-Windermere, UK: Lakeland Arts Trust.

Loudon, G. (2015). Object Lessons. London, UK: Ridinghouse.

Note:  There is no way I can thank Victoria Crowe, David Ingram, and Laurence Hill for their willingness to share their time and ideas with me.  My visits with them were my most meaningful experiences in Britain.

Botanical Britain: Herbaria

2a Hookeria flavenscens

Specimen of Hookeria flavescens with watercolor drawings by Robert Kaye Greville, Herbarium at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

To me travel provides the opportunity to visit herbaria.  I walked past Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace at the opposite ends of what’s called Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, and it was great to see their very different architectures, as well as the wonderful architecture in between, including the modern Scottish Parliament Building and many structures dating to the 17th and 18th centuries.  But it was the herbarium at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) where I saw truly amazing sights.  I will go into this in more detail in subsequent posts, here I’m just going to hit the high points of what I saw at RBGE and several other herbaria I visited on my recent trip to Britain (see last post).  A few years ago, RBGE published a book called Botanical Treasures (Atkins et al., 2014) with photographs and descriptions of objects from its herbarium and library, so I had a guide to some of the collections.  Sally Rae, assistant herbarium curator, took out specimens prepared by Robert Kaye Greville, an expert in mosses, who sometimes painted watercolors of specimens on the sheets (see photo above).  In the library, Graham Hardy showed me a copy of Greville’s Flora Edinensis Cryptogamia with blank pages interleafed where Greville added notes and watercolors on new species.  This is just one example of the riches of these collections and how library and herbarium interrelate.  Others were shown me by Henry Noltie, a noted researcher in Indian botany and the history of its botanical illustrations (2002, 2016, 2017).

At the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Mark Nesbitt, curator of the Economic Botany Collection, gave me a tour of its storage facility for over 100,000 specimens.  In 1847 Kew was the first to open an economic botany museum and while its museum building has now been converted into a restaurant (see photo below), with a few of the displays retained (see photo below), the collection is intact.  Nesbitt is working with colleagues at Kew and Royal Holloway to track the many items that Kew distributed to other institutions over the years in a project called the Mobile Museum. He and Carine Cornish (2016) have documented how, as interest in economic botany declined in the 1950s, specimens from such collections were disbursed to herbaria and botanical collections, while the artifacts made from plant material—everything from palm mats to barkcloth jackets—found their way into world culture or ethnographic collections.  As interest in both types of assemblages is now growing, Nesbitt has worked with a group of colleagues to create a guide on Curating Biocultural Collections: A Handbook (Salick, Konchar & Nesbitt, 2014).

2b Kew Cafe

Display case with wax orchid models at The Botanical restaurant at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

I went to Oxford University Herbarium to see portions of the William Sherard (1659-1728) collection.  In my exploration of pre-Linnaean botany, his name kept coming up in a number of contexts:  he studied with Joseph Pitton de Tournefort in Paris and Paul Hermann in Leiden, helped finance Mark Catesby’s trip to the Carolinas, collaborated with John Ray and other leading botanists of his day, served as advisor to the noted horticulturalist Mary Somerset, Duchess of Beaufort, and did extensive research on a revision of Caspar Bauhin’s Pinax Theatri Botanici.  Oxford has one of the great historical herbarium collections as well as an extensive modern collection.  The Druce Curator of the herbarium, Stephen Harris, has written extensively on what it contains (2007, 2015, 2018) and showed me some of the large of boxes of notes for the Pinax revision that Sherard and his later collaborators, Johann Jacob Dillenius and Humphry Sipthorp kept, though it was never published.  Also, Sherard had obtained a portion of Paul Hermann’s plant collection and manuscripts, and these included the class lists from Hermann’s courses at Leiden (see photo below).  Leiden was such an important center of medical education at the time, in large part because it was one of the few institutions open to religious dissenters who flocked there from the British Isles, France, and Germany (Stearn, 1962).  These lists bear this out.

2c Sherard

Pages from one of William Sherard’s notebooks for his unfinished revision of Caspar Bauhin’s Pinax Theatri Botanici, University of Oxford Herbarium.

I switched gears and saw a much more recent collection in the Royal Horticultural Society RHS herbarium at Wisley that has a different character than that of most herbaria.  There is an obvious emphasis on cultivated plants; even the way the sheets are prepared is somewhat different.  As the Keeper of the Herbarium Yvette Harvey explained, the collection was begun in the early 20th century with student collections.  Each horticultural student was expected to prepare 200 specimens during their course of study.  This practice remained until the 1980s, when the number was down to 10 per student.  Now the collection is continually enlarged as specimens are prepared from plants growing in RHS gardens often as a result of research projects.  For many years it was the practice to paint watercolors of prize-winning plants on the specimen sheets in order to provide a color record.  Now instead, labels record colors matched with the RHS numbered color cards to provide a consistent system for indicating color.  Also the sheets display dissected flower parts as well as intact blooms.

2d Beaufort p8

Page from Volume 131 of the Sloane Herbarium with specimens from Mary Somerset, Duchess of Beaufort at the Natural History Museum, London.

The last herbarium I visited was in a sense the daddy of them all, that of Hans Sloane at the Natural History Museum, London.  There are 265 volumes housed in a purpose-built facility.  All I can manage here is a brief introduction to what I saw and learned there.  I was guided by Fred Rumsey, senior curator in charge of the historical plant collections.  Sloane himself gathered many of the plants in the first seven volumes, which include those from his stay in Jamaica.  However, he acquired many more botanical specimens through purchase and trade, just as he acquired coins, books, works of art, ethnographic materials, etc., etc.  Among these were specimens prepared for Mary Somerset.  In one of her volumes, it says on the first page that these specimens were prepared “by order of Mary, Duchess of Beaufort.”  It seems that she demanded care in the process (see photo above).  The pages are large and each specimen is folded in its own piece of paper which is then attached, along with a number of others, to a page.  Unfortunately, there was so much to see, I didn’t get past the first volume of her plants, but it was enough to make me want another trip to London ASAP.  I also learned a great deal from my conversation with Rumsey and with Mark Carine, principle curator for plants.


Atkins, H., & et al. (2014). Botanical Treasures: Objects from the Herbarium and Library of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. Edinburgh, UK: Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

Harris, S. (2007). The Magnificent Flora Graeca: How the Mediterranean Came to the English Garden. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Harris, S. A. (2015). William Sherard: His herbarium and his Pinax. Oxford Plant Systematics, 21, 13–15.

Harris, S. A. (2018). Seventeenth-century plant lists and herbarium collections: A case study from the Oxford Physic Garden. Journal of the History of Collections, 30(1), 1–14.

Nesbitt, M., & Cornish, C. (2016). Seeds of industry and empire: economic botany collections between nature and culture. Journal of Museum Ethnography, 29, 53–70.

Noltie, H. J (2002). The Dapuri Drawings: Alexander Gibson and the Bombay Botanic Gardens. Edinburgh, UK: Antique Collectors’ Club.

Noltie, H. J. (2016). Indian Forester, Scottish Laird: The Botanical Lives of Hugh Cleghorn of Stravithie. Edinburgh, UK: Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

Noltie, H. J. (2017). Botanical Art from India: the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh Collection. Edinburgh, UK: Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

Salick, J., Konchar, K., & Nesbitt, M. (2014). Curating Biocultural Collections. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Stearn, W. T. (1962). The influence of Leyden on Botany in the 17th and 18th centuries. The British Journal for the History of Science, 1(2), 137–158.

Note: I would like to thank Henry Noltie, Sally Rae, and Graham Hardy at the RBGE, Mark Nesbitt at Kew, Stephen Harris at Oxford, Yvette Harvey at Wisley, and Fred Rumsey and Mark Carine at NHM for their warm welcome and generous help.

Botanical Britain: Gardens

1a Botanic cottage

Botanic Cottage, Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh

I’ve just spent a week in Edinburgh followed by one in London and needless to say, visiting herbaria was among my aims.  In future series, I’ll describe some of what I learned, but this series will be more general, about the experience of being in a land that cherishes plants.  Admittedly, autumn is not the best time to visit British gardens especially in a year with record heat and drought.  Still, I saw a number of them that looked wonderful despite these travails.  I was particularly thrilled to be in the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE), since I had read about it and followed its Twitter feed for some time.  I knew about the rebuilding of the Botanic Cottage and couldn’t wait to see it.  The cottage, completed on May 10, 1766, stood at the entrance to the former site of the RBGE in Leith Walk about a mile from the present garden (see photo above).  When it was threatened with demolition a few years ago, it was moved to the present site with reconstruction completed last year.  My timing again was off, the cottage wasn’t open on the days I was there so I had to settle for seeing it from the outside.  This building adds a great deal to the garden’s atmosphere and made me realize that though we go to gardens to see plants, the structures there can impact experience.

1b Bonsai

Malus bonsai tree at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

The same thought struck me a few days later at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.  I had visited before, but still it was great to see its pagoda, newly refurbished Temperate Plant House, and Kew Palace, where George III and Queen Charlotte lived during the summer months.  I also discovered a hot house of Bonsai trees including a profusely blooming apple (see photo above).  The long flower beds lining what is called the Broad Walk were spectacular, though more with seed pods than flowers.  My favorite experience was walking through wooded areas of Kew to Queen Charlotte’s Cottage, where she would retreat for quiet time.  It wasn’t open on the day I visited but sitting, looking at its Tudor brick and lumber work and thatched roof was wonderful for someone who only sees later reproduction Tudor architecture at home (see photo below).

1c Charlotte

Queen Charlotte’s Cottage at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Two days later, I was at another famous British garden with a long history, Chelsea Physic Garden.  While Kew has a lot of real estate and can spread out its collections creating long vistas, Chelsea is quite literally stuffed with plants, but in the most engaging way.  It was founded by apothecaries in 1673 as a resource for the profession, and its future was secured by the support of the physician Hans Sloane, who bought the property and permanently leased it to the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London for an annual payment of £5.  For 75 years, the society also contributed, at Sloane’s request, 50 herbarium specimens a year (Stungo, 1993).  This herbarium-as-rent was considered evidence that the garden was still being used as originally intended, to grow medicinal plants.  The buildings I found most memorable here were the small hothouses with their brick foundations; these too are full of plants.  Because of its scale, visitors are more apparent at Chelsea than at Kew so there is a more social flavor to the garden giving it a festive touch, especially on a sunny Sunday afternoon as when I visited.

1d Danby

Danby Gate at the University of Oxford Botanic Garden (taken by the author in January, 2014)

The next day I was at the University of Oxford Botanic Garden, founded as a physic garden in 1621.  Its most imposing architectural feature is the entry gate (see photo above), named in honor of the Earl of Danby, Edward Danvers whose funded the botanical garden, the oldest in Britain (Harris, 2017).  At the moment, the gate is completely covered in scaffolding, but the rest of the garden is flourishing, with over 8,000 species in a mere 4.5 acres.  Because of its old walls and position on the River Cherwell, it is easy to imagine Jacob Bobart, the elder and the younger, working here.  They were early superintendents of the garden and the younger also taught botany at Oxford, where the herbarium houses his specimens and manuscripts.

1e Wisley

RHS laboratory building at Wisley Garden.

The final garden I saw in Britain is one of four belonging to the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS).  Wisley is also where the RHS has its herbarium, which I’ll touch on in the next post.  I was lucky enough to have the keeper of the herbarium, Yvette Harvey, lead me to a Franklinia alatamaha in bloom because she thought I would like to see an American plant that had been discovered by John Bartram.  She also pointed out that Wisley is not a botanic garden so it has a different flavor, with more emphasis put on cultivars rather than on systematic botany.  While Kew and Oxford are magnificent, Wisley has a slightly different feel; it seems more about beauty and pleasure.  Yes, the plants are labeled, but the way the garden is laid out to lure visitors further and further into its depths to see more and more extraordinary plants.  There is also great architecture here as well, with the centerpiece being an Arts-and-Crafts style building from the early 20th century that, at least for an American, is a perfect fit for the surrounding garden’s massive herbaceous borders, trellised paths, and a rock garden (see photo above).  In the gardens I was lucky enough to visit, I got at least some hint of why the British are so in love with flowers and how they express that love so beautifully.


Harris, S. A. (2017). Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum: A Brief History. Oxford, UK: Bodleian Library.

Stungo, R. (1993). The Royal Society specimens from the Chelsea Physic Garden 1722-1799. Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 47(2), 213-224.