Living with Orchids: Blanche Ames

Chart entitled “Economic Plants of the Archichlamydeae” created by Blanch Ames, in the collection of the Harvard University Botany Libraries

In the last post I discussed Oakes Ames, the Harvard botanist and orchid expert who was married to Blanche Ames Ames.  Yes, her maiden name was Ames, but they weren’t related.  They met while in college and married in 1900, a year after Blanche’s graduation with a degree in art.  They both came from wealthy families, but instead of starting out on their own, they went to live with Oakes’s widowed mother on her estate in Easton, Massachusetts.  It had several attractions, at least for Oakes.  There were greenhouses for the orchids he studied, and he had space for his growing herbarium, as well as plenty of room for Blanche to create orchid illustrations for Oakes’s publications.  In 1901 their first daughter Pauline was born, in 1902, the couple’s first work together was published, and in 1903 a son Oliver arrived.

Even with two children, there was still ample space for a growing family at his mother’s house.  But there was a crisis in August 1904 when the children’s nurse came down with pneumonia, a frightening infection in the pre-penicillin era.  To keep the children safe, Blanche decided to take them to her parents’ home in Lowell, MA.  Oakes did not take kindly to this as a series of letters between them documents.  Anne Biller Clark studied the correspondence for her book on Blanche (2001, pp. 71-73).  Oakes thought his wife should have gone to stay with his brother who also lived in Easton.  Though her fears “had no foundation in fact,” she could not see her way clear to “remain under a few inconveniences.”  Then he raises the real problem:  he insists that she must finish the drawings for his book and not “fritter away time with gossip.”

Not surprisingly Blanche, an ardent suffragette and what her husband called a “new woman,” responded in kind:  “You did not take the trouble to put down your herbarium sheet and your glass, but with one eye screwed up and other on a dried flower, you answered me in scarcely more than monosyllables. . . . A few moments in the herbarium showed me that I could expect no aid.”  Unfortunately, my husband Bob and I were rarely apart, so our exchanges of like kind are not preserved for posterity, but most married couples can come up with similar examples of infuriation.  What makes the Ames’s case particularly interesting to me is that the herbarium is at the center of the ruckus.  In the last post, I quoted Oakes’s enthusiasm at seeing type specimens in Paris, another passionate but very different herbarium encounter.  Herbaria are usually seen as important resources for scientific research, but I think it’s important to point out that they are nothing without the humans who work with them and cannot check their personal lives and feelings at the door, even if they wanted to.  There is a human element to herbaria and that’s one of their big attractions for me.

After this fiery encounter of 1904, it may come as a surprise to learn that Blanche and Oakes remained married for 50 years, until Oakes’s death in 1950.  They had two more children, and after living at his mother’s home for six years, they moved six miles away at Blanche’s instigation.  His mother showed her displeasure by having her servants prevent Oakes from taking his live orchid collection from the greenhouses; this particularly galled him because he had bought them himself.  She also told him that she no longer wanted to receive milk from his cows.  Eventually she relented, and mother and son reconciled.  Oakes and Blanche designed a castle-like home on their 1200-acre estate called Borderland.  The house was constructed of cement and covered in granite:  it had to be fireproof to protect not just Oakes’s family, but his herbarium.  It also housed his two-story library (Plimpton, 1979).

As she was raising her family, Blanche was an ardent suffragette, drawing political cartoons and arranging rallies that were attended by Oakes, as well as by her mother and even her mother-in-law.  Shortly before this fight was won, Blanche took up the cause of birth control as important in women’s path to autonomy.  Still, she continued to play a significant role in Oakes’ research.  She traveled with him on collecting trips to South America, Asia, and Europe.  In Berlin, they were met at the train station by the noted orchid expert Rudolf Schlecter who held an orchid bloom, Stanhopea ruckeri, in his hand to identify himself.  Over the next few days, Blanche worked alongside Oakes in Schlecter’s lab (Angell & Romero, 2011).  She drew watercolors, including of the Stanhopea, while Oakes pressed specimens.  At Harvard’s Oakes Ames Orchid Herbarium, there are a number of sheets that include watercolor and specimen.  After Oakes retired they spent more time in Florida, and worked on a book of Blanche’s illustrations paired with his commentaries; it was prepared to go along with a lecture she gave at the orchid society (Ames, 1947).

Blanche did more than draw orchids.  She also painted landscapes and portraits, including one of her husband, looking his very serious self.  After Oakes died, she sculpted his gravestone, including reliefs of orchids.  The works of hers that I like most are watercolor charts created for his economic botany class, such as one with a phylogenetic tree of useful plants (see above).  It is full of wonderful details including a squirting cucumber caught in the act.  I like to think of the couple collaborating on this, discussing what plants to include and how to represent them.

References

Ames, B. (1947). Drawings of Florida Orchids. Cambridge, MA: Botanical Museum of Harvard University.

Angell, B., & Romero, G. A. (2011). Orchid Illustrations at Harvard. The Botanical Illustrator, 17(1), 20–21.

Clark, A. B. (2001). My Dear Mrs. Ames: A Study of Suffragist Cartoonist Blanche Ames Ames. New York, NY: P. Lang.

Plimpton, O. (Ed.). (1979). Oakes Ames: Jottings of a Harvard Botanist. Cambridge, MA: Botanical Museum of Harvard University.

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Falling in Love with Orchids: Oakes Ames

Portrait of Oakes Ames by Blanche Ames, photography from Historic Images of Easton, MA

I fell in love with Blanche and Oakes Ames (1874-1950) years ago when I came across a book in the library, Jottings of a Harvard Botanist (1979), a collection of Ames’s letters and other writings complied by his daughter, Pauline Ames Plimpton.  I enjoy reading about the human side of science and this book filled the bill.  It was so memorable that years later when I fell in love with herbaria, I visited the Oakes Ames Orchid Herbarium at Harvard, the collection he donated to the University after a long career there investigating orchid systematics.  What was particularly striking to me was that the collection includes sheets with watercolor drawings of orchids done by his wife Blanche, whom I already “knew” from Jottings.  In this series of posts, I want to write about both of them and the plants that were so much a part of their lives.

Oakes Ames did most of his research in the 20th century, but in terms of lifestyle, he was in the 19th century tradition of the gentleman botanist.  He came from a family that had made its money on shovels supplied to the California gold rush, the Union Army, and construction of the Union Pacific Railroad in which the family invested heavily.  In an autobiographical sketch, Ames wrote:  “There was no precedent in our family to be devoted to botanical research.  My father, his brother and his cousin took the usual interest in herbaria, . . .  gardens and greenhouses” (Plimpton, 1979, 64).  In other words, at that time, men of their class routinely had a curiosity about plants, with Ames’s uncle having a significant orchid collection, but Oakes’s dedication was at a different level.

When Ames was a teenager, his father’s health was failing, and to occupy time his father and a nurse would drive through the countryside, collect plants, and bring them home to identify.  Ames became intrigued and joined in.  One day he was struck by how the light shone on dendrobium flowers in his father’s room, and that set him on the path of trying to learn as much as he could about orchids, a passion that motivated him for the rest of his life.  He attended Harvard University, vowing to take every botany course they offered.  At home, he built a collection of orchids in the family’s greenhouses and also started a herbarium.  After Oakes completed his master’s degree,  George Goodale, one of his professors and Asa Gray’s heir as Harvard professor of botany, offered Ames a position as assistant director of Harvard’s Botanic Garden.  Ten years later, Ames became director, a post he held until 1922 when he resigned out of frustration because the university failed to properly support the garden.  There will be more on Ames’s career as a Harvard botanist in a future post.  For now, I want to divert the story to romance.

While at Harvard, Ames attended a social event at Smith College accompanied by a friend, Butler Ames, no relation.  Butler’s sister Blanche (1878-1969) was a Smith student studying art, and Oakes was smitten.  For her 21st birthday, he sent her a 17-volume set of art books specially bound in hand-tooled yellow leather, an over-the-top gift considered inappropriate for someone to whom he was not betrothed.  He soon remedied this by proposing to her, and they were married in 1900.  By 1902 they had had their first child, Pauline, and their first publication for which Blanche had done the illustrations, a role she was to play for the rest of her life (Clark, 2001).  Unlike many artist-spouses, Blanche was always given due credit since she initialed even the smallest sketch.  She often accompanied Oakes on collecting trips to Latin America, the Philippines, and Europe.  Again, I’ll put off saying more about her here since I’ll dedicate my next post to her work in and out of botany.  It will become clear that being married to an orchid taxonomist, even a wealthy one, was not always easy.

Oakes’s dedication to his chosen field was indeed intense.  He built up his herbarium not only through his own collecting but by buying collections, including material from the Philippine Bureau of Science, which eventually asked him to write the orchid section of a flora of the Philippines (Merrill, !928).  As Leslie Garay (2007) describes it, when Ames received this request he immediately made plans to sail to Europe.  This might seem rather odd, except for the fact the great European herbaria held most orchid type specimens:

One of the thrills of my career came in Paris when I turned with breathless interest to the Richard and Goleatti types and drawings to see at last just what was meant by hopelessly obscure words.  And then to pin up these precious relics and photograph them in the dim light which filters through dusty window glass. . . .  You’re in a sense of happiness I shall not attempt to describe.  Once a systematist becomes a slave of types, his contempt for guesswork reaches dizzy heights.  Never again can he become content with the uncertainty of words and identification by supposition.  Surely the unrest in my soul, caused by doubt, made me determined to represent in my herbaria by every possible means the types of orchids (Plimpton, 1979, 75).

This quote is a good reminder that in the days before digitization, travel to collections was an essential part of a taxonomists life, and photographs, if they could be had, were the next best thing.

References

Clark, A. B. (2001). My Dear Mrs. Ames: A Study of Suffragist Cartoonist Blanche Ames Ames. New York, NY: P. Lang.

Garay, L. (2007). The orchid herbarium of Oakes Ames. In Orchids at Christmas (pp. 41–50). Cambridge, MA: Botanical Museum of Harvard University.

Merrill, E. D. (1928). Flora of the Philippines. Manila, Philippines: Bureau of Printing.

Plimpton, O. (Ed.). (1979). Oakes Ames: Jottings of a Harvard Botanist. Cambridge, MA: Botanical Museum of Harvard University.

Humboldt and the Cosmos

4 Church

Heart of the Andes (1859) by Frederic Church, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The subject of this series of posts (1,2,3) Alexander von Humboldt is known for the breadth of his interests and for his writings that illustrate how all parts of the world, and our experience of it, are connected.  In terms of botany, he wrote that in a rainforest:  “We observed with astonishment how many things are connected with the existence of a single plant” (Wulf, 2015, p. 74).  There were the epiphytes living on the trees along with hosts of insects and other invertebrates, reptiles, amphibians, etc.  Then there were the climatic, geological, and geographical elements that determined what plants grew where.  In the last post, I discussed Humboldt’s contributions to plant geography.  Here I want to broaden the perspective further and describe his writings linking science to the humanities.  While Humboldt mentioned the aesthetics of landscape and of living organisms in many of his writings, he addressed these themes most explicitly in his five-volume Cosmos (1845-1862) written toward the end of his life.  The first two of these books are the ones still most widely read because they are less scientifically dense than the later works.  The first is an introduction and synopsis, and the second a summary of the history of human beings’ appreciation for the natural world.

Though Humboldt wrote Cosmos late in life, his early experiences shaped the views he expressed there.  While a student, he met George Forster who had sailed around the world with Captain James Cook.  Forster had integrated science and aesthetics in his writing, and considered knowing and feeling as parts of a unitary experience of nature.  This approach and Humboldt’s attraction to it is not surprising considering he and Forster were living during the early years of the Romantic movement and its reaction against the emphasis on reason during the Enlightenment.  A little later in his career, while he was working as a mining inspector, Humboldt met Wolfgang Goethe and they became fast friends.  Their first meeting was in the year when Goethe wrote Metamorphosis of Plants (Arber, 1946.)  They visited each other often and at one point Humboldt made a three-month stay at the poet’s home in Jena.  Goethe had created a botanical garden there and had a herbarium.  This fed Humboldt’s interest in plants, and Goethe’s argument that nature must be experienced through feeling also had a profound effect on him.  After his stay in Jena, Humboldt felt that he had “grown new organs,” that he perceived the world in a new way, that “ what speaks to the soul escapes measurement,” which is a meaningful statement for someone who relied so heavily on scientific instruments in his investigation of nature (Wulf, 2015, p. 310).

One element in Humboldt’s linkage of different fields and experiences of nature was his focus on the visual.  While a student, he had received art instruction from a noted graphic artist, Daniel Chodowiecki.  Most of the publications resulting from his voyage to Latin America with Aimé Bonpland were illustrated, often lavishly so.  The botanical artist Pierre Turpin, who worked at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, did most of the illustrations beginning with their first publication, Essay on the Geography of Plants, with figures that included the monumental diagram of the relationship between altitude and plant species distributions (see last post).  The seven volumes describing the species Humboldt and Bonpland collected had over 700 illustrations, many of them hand-colored.  Turpin worked mostly from dried specimens, though the explorers had made many sketches that guided him; only one by Humboldt is still extant (Lack, 2009).  They also made landscape sketches that Turpin turned into illustrations as well.

One of the most significant sections in the second volume of Cosmos deals with landscape.  Humboldt argues that the scientific and aesthetic come together so powerfully that they cannot be separated.  This reflection, among others, inspired many 19th century landscape painters, perhaps most notably Frederic Church, who traveled to the Andes to experience Chimborazo and other peaks first-hand and created a number of paintings.  Particularly striking is the massive Heart of the Andes, which caused a stir when it was shown in New York, with viewers lined up to pay 25 cents to view it (see above).  A very different artist was also inspired by Humboldt.  The zoologist Ernst Haeckel had trained in art, so it’s not surprising that reading Cosmos solidified his view of the importance of art in communicating about science.  While Haeckel is best known for his book of illustrations called Art Forms in Nature, two other images come to mind when I think of him.  One is of the interior of his home that he filled with furniture, lamps, and wall decorations based on jellyfish forms.  The other is his iconic tree of life diagram with a very realistic leafless tree, a human at the top.

I have to admit that I too have been inspired by Humboldt.  When I first became interested in the aesthetics of biology, it was exhilarating to find an author who both validated my viewpoint and deepened it.  The fact that he also had exciting adventures on his Latin American voyage and was interested in plants, didn’t hurt either.  Since that time in the 1980s when I first read some of his work, Humboldt has received more attention, including Andrea Wulf’s 2015 biography.  He deserves such scrutiny because he still has a great deal to tell us.  A movement in that direction is the Alexander von Humboldt Portal hosted by the Berlin State Library, a good place to start exploring Humboldt’s papers and information about his life and writings.  And to celebrate the 250th anniversary of his birth, Nature Ecology & Evolution has collated a series of articles related to his work and Science published an essay on his importance today.  In addition, Wulf has teamed with the artist Lillian Melcher to create a graphic non-fiction book, The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt.

References

Arber, A. R. (1946). Goethe’s botany. Chronica Botanica, 10, 63–126.

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

Wulf, A. (2015). The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World. New York, NY: Knopf.

Humboldt: Essay on the Geography of Plants

3 Biogeography

Plate from Humboldt and Bonpland’s Essay on the Geography of Plants, from the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

When they returned to Paris after their five year expedition (1799-1804) to Latin America, the first publication Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland produced was Essay on the Geography of Plants (1805).  This book was really Humboldt’s conception, but since Bonpland was a botanist and had contributed his expertise throughout their journey, Humboldt thought it was fitting that Bonpland’s name should be on the essay as well (Humboldt & Bonpland, 2009).  The evidence they accumulated on the trip was central to Humboldt’s argument, and he set about writing a first draft right after their ascent of Mt. Chimborazo, one of the highest mountains in the Andes.  However, many of the ideas Humboldt presented to demonstrate how geography determines the plant life growing in a particular place, were conceived much earlier when he met George Forster who had been on Captain James Cook’s second round-the-world expedition.  Forster had broad knowledge of vegetation in very different environments and opened Humboldt’s eyes to how plant life varied with access to water, with altitude, and with distance from the equator.

Humboldt wasn’t very interested in taxonomy, in identifying new species, and among the plant descriptions in the first of their 7 botanical journals that logged the plants they collected, Humboldt wrote nine descriptions and Bonpland 682 (Lack, 2009).  This did not mean that plants weren’t important to Humboldt’s vision of the world, rather he was more interested in how the environment influenced the ability of a particular plant to survive in a particular environment.  He didn’t see plants so much as isolated entities but as part of a larger picture, and there is visual evidence of this in the Essay.  The main portion of the book is an explanation of a large diagram—originally printed 2’x3’—that is a complex blend of image and text (see above).  The center panel depicts two peaks in the Andes, Chimborazo and Cotopaxi, both of which Bonpland and Humboldt had climbed.  To the right of them, is a cross-section of the two labeled with the plants found there.

In 1824, Humboldt published a similar diagram where he moved some of the plants to different elevations.  Pierre Moret and his collaborators (2019) have recently revisited these images and compared the plants in the diagrams with the specimens Humboldt and Bonpland collected.  They found that Humboldt’s primary data above the tree line were collected mostly on Mt. Antisana.  Moret’s went to the collection area and found that over 200 years, the tree line has shifted about 215-266 meters.  This is a fascinating study of how old data can illuminate present environmental issues, while at the same time shedding light on how data was used in the past.  There is a great deal more in this image, including subterranean plants that had intrigued Humboldt since his days as a mine inspector in Germany when he studied and wrote about the plants, lichen, and algae he found in the caves and mines where he worked as a mine inspector (Anthony, 2018).

So far, I’ve only discussed the central panel of the Tableau, but there are seventeen other columns, eight to the right and nine to the left of the mountain diagram.  These include elevation, atmospheric pressure, humidity, etc. at various altitudes.  In other words, one chart summarizes a great deal of the data the team collected on their trip.  What is most important to Humboldt is the relationship between elevation and other phenomena.  His major finding is that elevation relates to temperature in influencing what plants grow where:  plants found at a particular elevation, will be found at a lower elevation but at higher latitude, in other words, further north or south of the equator.  In his introduction to a recent edition of the Essay, Stephen Jackson (2009) argues that Humboldt held to the “primacy of plant geography in his overall vision of the world, whereby vegetation is both the most obvious surface manifestation of climate and the determinant of many other natural and human features” (p. 17).  Humboldt is often designated the father of plant geography because of this essay, but he drew on the work of many others who had gone before him.  He is notable because he used his experiences in South America to synthesize a great deal of information and present it in a striking format, drawing on the growing use of diagrams in geological studies (Rudwick, 1976).

At several points in the essay Humboldt noted the environmental damage done by agriculture as forests were replaced by fields that quickly lost their fertility, leaving a degraded and useless landscape that affected local weather patterns.  These observations were taken up and enlarged upon by others in the 19th century who were influenced by his writings.  Henry David Thoreau saw the unity of nature much as Humboldt did, George Perkins Marsh wrote of the toll taken by forest destruction in the United States as did John Muir, and in Humboldt’s native land, Ernst Haeckel coined the term ecology to describe the interrelations among species and the nonliving environment.  They all had read Humboldt and were passionate about his impact on them.  The Essay was one such influence; in the next post I’ll discuss another.

References

Anthony, P. (2018). Mining as the working world of Alexander von Humboldt’s plant geography and vertical cartography. Isis, 109(1), 28–55.

Humboldt, A. von, & Bonpland, A. (2009). Essay on the Geography of Plants (S. T. Jackson, Ed.; S. Romanowski, Trans.). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Jackson, S. (2009). Introduction: Humboldt, ecology, and the cosmos. In S. Jackson (Ed.), & S. Romanowski (Trans.), Essay on the Geography of Plants (pp. 1–46). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

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

Moret, P., Muriel, P., Jaramillo, R., & Dangles, O. (2019). Humboldt’s Tableau Physique revisited. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 201904585. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1904585116

Rudwick, M. (1976). The emergence of a visual language for geological science. History of Science, 14, 149–195.

Humboldt and Bonpland

2 Bonpland Cinchona

Nature print of Cinchona made by Humboldt and Bonpland, in the Institut de France, Paris.

Since Alexander von Humboldt’s training was in geology and Aimé Bonpland’s in botany, it’s not surprising that Bonpland took the lead in plant collecting on their Latin American expedition (see last post).  However, because they were essentially on their own, picking up assistants along the way, their work in processing specimens, in taking meteorological and astronomical readings, etc., was usually a team effort.  They were overwhelmed by the exciting new plants they saw and within the first few months had already amassed 4000 specimens.  They had to order more paper, since they were using it up so quickly.  It is impossible to say how many plants they collected in total, but the number is over 60,000 including 6,000 species, over half of them new (Lack, 2009).  None of these numbers are precise because many of the plants passed through several different hands, but the record is clearer than for many collections of the era because the two kept careful records that became a model for later expeditions.  They numbered each specimen and recorded it in a journal along with a tentative ID, a description, and locality information.  As time went on, the entries became more detailed.  While they sent back a number of shipments divided among several ships to guard against loss, they kept a small herbarium with them as a memory aid for what they had seen.

Needless to say, none of this work was easy.  Humboldt and Bonpland were traveling through rough, often mountainous terrain in hot and humid equatorial regions where they were driven mad by insects.  These conditions damaged or destroyed many of their specimens, and at one point they were so discouraged by the losses that they made to nature prints to document the plants.  Over 200 of these are preserved at the Institut de France in Paris (Lack, 2001).  However, they persisted in collecting because they just couldn’t ignore all the new species they encountered.  Through much of their trip they were in areas that the eyes of trained botanists had never seen so they were inundated with novelty.  Along with all the environmental data they had amassed, this treasure trove made them anxious to return to Europe and begin writing up their findings.  After leaving South America, they spent a year in Mexico, then returned to Cuba to pack up their specimens for shipment to Paris.  Humboldt decided to live there rather than to return to his native Prussia, because Paris was an intellectually alive city at the time with the National Museum of Natural History (MNHN) as the center of the country’s botanical research.  There was a great herbarium there, as well as a botanical library and experts to assist them.

Humboldt and Bonpland organized and divided up the collection so they each had a set of specimens.  Humboldt arranged for Bonpland to receive a pension from the French government to support him.  Bonpland became botanist to the Empress Joséphine at Malmaison estate, where he oversaw the gardens, provided her with new exotics, and saw to the lavish publications on her plant collection.  It soon became obvious to Humboldt that even with frequent nudging, Bonpland wasn’t getting anywhere with describing their plants.  So in 1813, eight years after they returned, Humboldt invited Carl Kunth, a young German botanist, to come to Paris and work on the collection.  Kunth remained for over six years and eventually published seven volumes with descriptions of over 4,500 plant species, among which 3,600 were new to science (Lack, 2009).  However, this summary makes the process seem more clear cut than it was.

In 1814, Empress Joséphine died, and Bonpland decided to return to South America; he felt more comfortable exploring for new plants.  He took his herbarium with him, and perhaps more importantly, he packed the botanical journals where the specimens were catalogued.  Humboldt and Kunth were aghast, and Kunth hurried to the port of Le Havre to intercept Bonpland before his ship sailed.  Bonpland didn’t give up his specimens, after all Humboldt had a collection too, but he did return the notebooks to Kunth, making it possible for the latter to continue his taxonomic work (Lack, 2004).  Eventually, Bonpland returned his sheets to the herbarium at the MNHN in Paris, where they were filed in the general collection rather than kept separately as the Humboldt collection is.

Another wrinkle was that, while still in South America, Humboldt had sent specimens and seeds to his mentor Carl Willdenow, who wrote descriptions of a number of species.  Some of these were published by others after Willdenow’s death, and his herbarium was sold by his heirs to the Berlin herbarium.  Because of the hostility between France and German, Berlin botanists refused to share specimens with Kunth, who then named some of the same plants, causing years of nomenclatural difficulties.  Kunth returned to Germany after completing most of his work for Humboldt, and when he died his herbarium was also sold to the Berlin-Dahlem Botanical Garden.  During World War II, the Willdenow specimens were considered valuable enough to be stored in a vault offsite and survived the bombing that destroyed most of the herbarium’s collection, including the Kunth specimens.  Lest you assume that by now all of the Humboldt-Bonpland plants had been identified, that may not be the case.  In 2007, a new species, Solanum humboldtianum, was described from a relatively recent collection, but researchers discovered that Humboldt and Bonpland had collected it, and it had lain unidentified for two centuries (Granados-Tochoy et al., 2007).  This is all fodder to feed my love of herbaria.

References

Granados-Tochoy, J. C., Knapp, S., & Orozco, C. I. (2007). Solanum humboldtianum (Solanaceae): An endangered new species from Colombia rediscovered 200 years after its first collection. Systematic Botany, 32(1), 200–207.

Lack, H. W. (2001). The plant self impressions prepared by Humboldt and Bonpland in tropical America. Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, 18(4), 218–229.

Lack, H. W. (2004). The botanical field notes prepared by Humboldt and Bonpland in tropical America. Taxon, 53(2), 501–510.

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

Humboldt and the World of Plants

1 Abronia parviflora

Abronia parviflora collected in Columbia by Humboldt and Bonpland, specimen in the herbarium of Berlin-Dahlem Botanical Garden.

A few years ago, Andrea Wulf (2015) published The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World.  “New World” here can be interpreted two ways:  as the Western Hemisphere that Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland explored during their famous five-year expedition (1799-1804), and as the world through new eyes made possible by Humboldt’s writings that influenced such leaders of environmental and ecological thinking as Henry David Thoreau, George Perkins Marsh, Ernst Haeckel, and John Muir.  It is because of this impact that Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), born 250 years ago, deserves attention today.  It seems appropriate to dedicate this series of posts to someone who helped shape the way we look at plants now.  I’ll begin by discussing early influences on his thinking and the general arc of his life’s work.  The following posts will deal more specifically with aspects of his botanical studies.

Humboldt was born into a upper-class family in Berlin.  His father died when he was 10, leaving him and his older brother Wilhelm in the care of their rather aloof mother who aimed to have her sons well-placed in the Prussian establishment.  From an early age Humboldt exhibited other inclinations, especially an interest in natural history, collecting specimens and creating what amounted to a museum of his finds.  To learn more about plants, he took some of his specimens to Carl Ludwig Willdenow, an apothecary who had just published a flora of Berlin.  This meeting led to Willdenow becoming Humboldt’s botany tutor.  While his mother hired Willdenow, this didn’t divert her from her plan, so Humboldt studied finance for a brief time and then went to the University of Gottingen where his brother was also enrolled.  There he met George Forster who years before had travelled with his father on Captain James Cook’s second circumnavigation.  Forster became Humboldt’s mentor, and like many among the educated elites of the time, they made a grand tour, visiting the Netherlands, France, and England.  This broadened Humboldt’s horizons, to say nothing of his knowledge of natural history.  In England alone, he met Joseph Banks, James Edward Smith of the Linnean Society, and the Oxford botanist John Sibthorpe.

After this trip, Humboldt studied more seriously, enrolling in the Freiburg School of Mines.  Upon graduation in 1792, he was appointed a mine inspector, a Prussian government position to his mother’s satisfaction.  He threw himself into his work, which was great preparation for his future travels (Anthony, 2018).  Humboldt became familiar with the new ways of illustrating rock formations that were beginning to emerge and with the plants growing in the subterranean world of the mines.  In fact, he wrote Florae Fribergensis in 1793, describing the plants, algae, and fungi he encountered.  As part of his work, he made a tour of mountainous areas in Switzerland and Italy, focusing on geology and botany.  His mother died in 1796, freeing him from having to remain in government service since he and his brother inherited significant wealth.  Within a year, Humboldt prepared to leave Prussia and do some serious exploring of distant lands.  He headed for Paris, where he met Louis-Antoine de Bougainville who was planning a naval expedition and invited Humboldt to join.  Nothing came of this, but in the meantime, he had met Aimé Bonpland, a botanist who had been educated by Antoine-Laurent de Jussieu and René-Louiche Desfontaines at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris.

Humboldt and Bonpland got along well and both were interested in exploration.  After further efforts to join a French expedition failed, they headed to Spain where they convinced the King to issue them passports to Spanish-held lands in South America and also the Philippines.  Since Humboldt was funding the trip, the King had little to lose and much to gain in terms of new knowledge about his own lands.  Humboldt had amassed an impressive array of the latest equipment for carrying out astronomical, meteorological, and geological measurements.  His gear also included supplies for collecting specimens, but as can be seen by just this brief review, their trip was rather ad hoc and remained so throughout.  The first stop was Tenerife, where they climbed the island’s Mount Teide.  They were thrilled with the experience and tested out their instruments for measuring altitude, atmospheric pressure, etc.

When they landed at Cumaná in what is now Venezuela, they spent over a year exploring including traveling the length of the Casiquiare River that forms a natural canal between the Amazon and Orinoco Rivers (Helferich, 2004).  They then sailed to Cuba before returning to South America and climbing in the Andes.  They went on to Lima, up the west coast to Ecuador and by sea to Mexico where they spent a year before sailing back to Cuba and to the United States.  At several points during the voyage they had to recalculate their plans, and they never did get to the Philippines.  By the time they left Mexico, Humboldt was anxious to return to Europe to start writing up his findings and learn the latest news in science because he had been out of touch for so long.  Humboldt and Bonpland settled in Paris since the scientific climate there was most conducive to doing the research necessary to describe their observations and specimens.  After this voyage, Humboldt never returned to the New World, though he did make one major trip later in life through Russia to Siberia to advise the Tsar on his mining interests there.  In the next post, I’ll discuss Humboldt’s and Bonpland’s botanical collections from the Americas and how they were eventually sorted out.

References

Anthony, P. (2018). Mining as the working world of Alexander von Humboldt’s plant geography and vertical cartography. Isis, 109(1), 28–55.

Helferich, G. (2004). Humboldt’s Cosmos. New York, NY: Penguin.

Wulf, A. (2015). The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World. New York, NY: Knopf.

On the Road, Learning about Herbaria: Beyond iDigBio

Acorus calamus sheet from Catalogus plantarum flore, polypetalo regulari, collection of the Mertz Library, New York Botanical Garden

After the Digital Data Biodiversity Research Conference I’ve written about in this series of posts (1,2,3), I stayed in New Haven for a couple of days and visited the Rare Book Room at the Yale Center for British Art.  Several years ago I had read Elisabeth Fairman’s (2014) Of Green Leaf Bird and Flower: Artists’ Books and the Natural World.  It accompanied an exhibit she curated at the Center and included several herbaria as well as many other book treasures from the 18th to the 21st century.  A number of these are among the Center’s holdings, and I wanted to see some of them.  One of the highlights was a collection of botanical specimens stored in a handsome wooden box and created by someone identified only as Miss Rowe.  There are 43 families represented, each in a blue envelop adorned with a watercolor of a plant in that family.  This assemblage was created in 1861 for a contest sponsored by the Liverpool Naturalists’ Field Club.  The winner would be the woman who collected and identified the most species in flower from a list of the flora of Liverpool.  The winner isn’t known but it there was something better than Miss Rowe’s entry, it must have been spectacular.  At the other end of the spectrum is a recent artist’s book made by Mandy Bonnell in response to this herbarium.  Wild flowers worth notice: in memory of Miss Rowe of Liverpool (2014) is a beautiful work in a handmade box with 8 packets, each with four hand drawings, some with collage.  This is a delicate homage to the earlier work and to women naturalists of the 19th century by one of the 21st.   Another artist’s book called POETree (2005) was created by Andrew Norris.  It consists of leaves of a birch tree stacked in a leaf-shaped box, each leaf stamped with a brief, haiku-like poem.  It is a little gem.

On my second day at the Center, I sat down with Elisabeth Fairman to talk about her work on 18th and 19th-century women naturalists.  Her involvement in a number of exhibits (Donald & Munro, 2009; Laird & Weisberg-Roberts, 2009) demonstrates the kinds of integration of science and the humanities that I wrote about in the last post.  On the curatorial side, Fairman has to be cognizant of the fragility of the organic material under her care and was particularly concerned about a group of wonderful tiny books made by Dizzy Pragnell.  Fairman has found that humidity control is key here, and works with a conservator to keep it within narrow limits.  One of these, A Is For Apple (2012), has nine leaves, each a thin, dried apple slice.  This is a beautiful example of the way the herbarium concept is being used by present-day artists.

A different variation on the herbarium theme is Tracey Bush’s Nine Wild Plants (2006), a project she began by asking friends to each name ten wild plants.  Several had trouble coming up with ten so that’s why her book has nine “specimens” of the plants they mentioned most often, including, of course, the dandelion.  The specimens are really paper cutouts that resemble the form of flattened plants, but are cut from food wrappers.  Bush’s message is that today people can much more easily identify convenience foods such as candy and cereal by their containers than they can common plants.  In the Green Leaf exhibit and book, several of the specimens are juxtaposed with 19th-century specimens of the same species, reflecting a time when the plants themselves were familiar.  Bush’s work also relates to that of a 19th-century woman identified only as Ellen W., who created elaborate flower cutouts mounted on black paper, similar to the work of Mary Delany in the 18th century.  It was a pleasure to leaf through Ellen’s amazing pieces and get a sense of just how much observation had to go into creating such life-like work, to say nothing of the delicate cutting involved.  Some of the tiny flower parts are less than a millimeter long.  (Yes, I mean millimeter.)

After my time at Yale and a visit with family in Connecticut, I headed south, stopping at New York Botanical Garden to spend a day looking at one of the treasures in their Mertz Library.  Catalogus plantarum flore, polypetalo regulari is an unattributed herbarium probably from Portugal and dating from somewhere between 1660 and 1753.  The latter date is surmised from the fact that taxonomic references are to botanists earlier than Linnaeus.  The pages are unbound.  They are beautifully conserved in acid free paper folders and organized by present-day taxonomic families, with the family folders then stored in boxes alphabetically.  Susan Fraser, the director of the library, told me that they have been loose like this since she arrived at the library 34 years ago.  More recently Olga Marder and Kelsey Osborn conserved the collection as it is now stored.  I suspect that it may be composed of more than one collection, or at least that the sheets were created at different times.  The taxonomic sorting may have destroyed some other order produced by the maker(s) or earlier owners.  In the article “Leaves on the Loose,” which Fraser shared with me, Alette Fleischer (2017) writes that often when old herbaria were unbound they lost a great deal of their history as the sheets were reshuffled, and this seems true here.

Despite this, it is an amazing collection to examine.  I only had time to examine half of the pages, but still got a sense of its richness.  The labels (see images) vary, with some of them extremely elaborate and overwhelming the specimen.   There is one case where the flower is pressed, but it is surrounded by leaves that have been painted in watercolor.  There are also 40 watercolors in the collection.  I can’t wait to go back to NY and visit it again.

References

Donald, D., & Munro, J. (2009). Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Fairman, E. R. (Ed.). (2014). Of Green Leaf, Bird, and Flower: Artist’s Books and the Natural World. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Fleischer, A. (2017). Leaves on the loose: The changing nature of archiving plants and botanical knowledge. Journal of Early Modern Studies, 6(1), 117–135.

Laird, M., & Weisberg-Roberts, A. (2009). Mrs. Delany and Her Circle. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

On the Road, Learning about Herbaria: The ESN

Diagram of an Extended Specimen Network (ESN) from Extending U.S. Biodiversity Collections to Promote Research and Education

This post continues my report on the Digital Data Biodiversity Research Conference held at Yale University in June (see 1,2).  Digitizing the nation’s millions of natural history specimens is a massive undertaking.  iDigBio is the National Resource for Advancing Digitization of Biodiversity Collections (ADBC) funded by the National Science Foundation.  As the iDigBio website notes:  “Through ADBC, data and images for millions of biological specimens are being made available in electronic format for the research community, government agencies, students, educators, and the general public.”  Under this umbrella there have been a number of other projects including the TCNs or Thematic Collection Networks, through which particular types of collections were digitized with a focus on research questions that could be answered by the digitized data.  For example, there was one on insect herbivores, their parasitoids, and their host plants.

Another related project just being completed is the Biodiversity Collections Network (BCoN) “to support the development of a new, sustainable community of practice that will ensure that all U.S. biodiversity collections are digitally available for research, education, informed decision-making, and other scholarly and creative activities.”  This spring, BCoN released a report along with an informative summary.  The report develops the concept of yet another acronym, the ESN or Extended Specimen Network.  Now that information on a substantial number of natural history specimens has been digitized, the biodiversity science community is looking at ways to maximize use of this data, as well as opening it to new user communities.

The ESN is an exciting idea with specimens as the focus.  There are three layers of extensions out from the specimen (figure above).  First, the digital specimen record and an accompanying specimen image, or in some cases, a 3-D image file.  Second would be links to field notes and images, gene sequences, morphometrics, and isotope data.  The third includes phylogenies, species descriptions, ecological interactions, distribution maps, and protection status locations.  The report envisions that a user could enter the name of a species into a portal and from that one portal be able to access all these types of information for that species.  This would be a dream come true for biologists and might be a way to counteract the increasing specialization that has so changed the discipline over the past 200 years:  geneticists being able to easily call up information on the source species for a gene sequence and ecologists finding phylogenies for related species in an ecosystem.

Right now the ESN is more a concept than a reality.  Yes, at least some of the circles in this diagram are connected to each other for at least some species or for some geographic areas.  As I discussed in an earlier post, projects such as NEON and the Map of Life (MOL) are moving in the direction of integrating at least some of these pieces, but also as mentioned in that post, the problems of integration are massive.  It is as if iDigBio and other projects have amassed the building blocks for an intricate structure, most of which remains unbuilt, with even the plans in a rudimentary stage, and with developers trying to devise tools that will allow the building to continue.  Still, I find the ESN an exciting idea and can’t wait to see it evolve.  In the two years since the first Digital Data conference, projects such as MOL have made amazing strides, and so the next conference scheduled for Indiana University in 2020 will surely show significant progress on the ESN.

At the end of two days of presentations, there was a reception and poster session in the great hall of Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History.  This venue is noteworthy because of The Age of Reptiles, a massive mural depicting the history of dinosaurs on earth (Volpe, 2007).  It was created by Rudolph Zallinger in the 1940s and covers one long wall of the main gallery.  My poster stood under it and presented the argument that the ESN should be extended even further to include more historical material, and that biodiversity digitization projects should be linked to such large-scale digital humanities projects as the Darwin Correspondence Project and the website for the Dumbarton Oaks exhibit on the Botany of Empire in the Long Eighteenth Century.  In fact, JSTOR, the digital library database, and Dumbarton Oaks Research Library hosted a workshop in late 2017 in which they brought together historians of science, librarians, and technical experts to brainstorm and come up with ideas for future work in connecting biodiversity studies and the humanities.  There they developed ideas for linking different resources that are reminiscent of the ESN, including one where the focus would be on taxa.  Other possible points of entry could be through a geographic area, an expedition, and a collector or taxonomist.  There is an interesting video on the workshop that gives a good recap of its work.

My dream is that those involved in the ESN would meet with a group similar to the one convened at Dumbarton Oakes Library, and that they would explore where their various inquiries intersect.  A couple of years ago, E.O. Wilson (2017) published The Origins of Creativity, in which he argues that the sciences and humanities are much more intertwined than is usually assumed.  It would be a fitting tribute to the person who made the word biodiversity so central in present-day biology, to work toward interconnectivity between these two great accomplishments of the human species.

References

Volpe, R. (2007). The Age of Reptiles: The Art and Science of Rudolph Zallinger’s Great Dinosaur Mural at Yale. New Haven, CT: Peabody Museum of Natural History.

Wilson, E. O. (2017). The Origins of Creativity. New York, NY: Norton.

On the Road, Learning about Herbaria: Education and Citizen Science

BLUE Port: Biodiversity Literacy in Undergraduate Education

In the last post, I described sessions I attended at the Digital Data Biodiversity Research Conference at Yale University.  Besides presentations on portals that integrate various kinds of data and on projects to create and analyze 3-D images of specimens, there was an emphasis on education.  Now that so much specimen data and other biodiversity information is available digitally, one of the major goals of iDigBio, the National Resource for Advancing Digitization of Biodiversity Collections (ADBC) funded by the National Science Foundation, is to have this data used widely.  This requires education, both of the present research community and of its future members.  For several years, iDigBio has been holding workshops and conferences, like the one at Yale.  These have resulted in a major upswing in the number of studies and publications employing biodiversity data.  Now that many professionals are trained in how to access and analyze the available information, it’s time to leverage this knowledge.  The task is to help these experts teach the next generation.

As every teacher realizes, knowing something is very different from teaching about it.  The subject matter has to be analyzed and organized; ways into the basics have to be found; a learning structure has to be created.  For many years, I was involved with the BioQUEST Curriculum Consortium and attended a number of workshops dealing with using genomic data in teaching genetics and bioinformatics.  The portals for gene sequence data are extremely powerful, but they were built for researchers who committed a great deal of time to learning to use them effectively.  Teachers, and even more so students, do not have the time, the technical support, nor the expertise to make effective use of these portals.  That’s where BioQUEST and other initiatives came into play.  At the workshops I attended, we learned enough about the available resources to “tame” them, to download data and present it to students in a way they could understand and use.  We became part of an education community committed to bringing students into the genetic sequencing research space in a way that would make sense for them.

Now the same kinds of initiatives are being developed for biodiversity research using powerful tools like iDigBio, GBIF, NEON, and MOL discussed at the conference (see last post).  Anna Monfils of Central Michigan University is the principle investigator for an NSF-funded project called BLUE: Biodiversity Literacy in Undergraduate Education that includes participation from BioQUEST.  Monfils and members of her team led a lively session at the conference on the question of what biodiversity literacy means and how to achieve it.  As the conversation developed, it became clear that these are not easy issues to resolve.  However, the BLUE project is a great first step in defining what a biology student needs to have in terms of conceptual understanding and technical skill to tackle the vast ocean of biodiversity data now available to them.  What didn’t arise as strongly is an issue that is dear to my heart:  how do you make biodiversity data understandable and accessible to students who are not majoring in biology or environmental science?  One of iDigBio’s aims has been to broaden the community of biodiversity data users, and non-scientists make up a huge audience.  Taming data for them is very different than for those interested in science, but everyone encounters organisms in their lives every day, so why not make it easier to learn more about them?

One way into such learning is through an area that has burgeoned in the last few years and that had a larger presence at the conference than in the past:  citizen science.  The field has many different aspects from political advocacy to volunteer data entry.  Examples of the latter include the development of portals such as Notes from Nature, where many institutions with natural history collections post well-defined projects such as digitizing specimen data.  The Smithsonian has an online transcription center where notebooks, journals, and letters are posted.  All these sites have sophisticated digital architectures that allow data managers to have confidence in the input, such as by having the same data entered by more than one user and then compared.  Many of those involved have commented on how fast the projects are completed.  Sometimes thousands of individuals participate, with a number being very committed and doing a great deal of data input.  In cases like this, citizen science is another name for unpaid help or volunteering.  With an increasing number of retirees looking for something interesting to do, these projects are very attractive because there is no commute involved and fascinating things to learn.

Still another type of citizen science work is done by those who use portals such as iNaturalist to record field observations and phenological information.  These data ultimately are uploaded into GBIF, a global biodiversity portal, and the citizen science input has grown to the point where it is having a significant impact on biodiversity research.  Walter Jetz of Yale University and principle investigator for the Map of Life (MOL) project, commented on the importance of citizen science several times in his presentation.  Not surprisingly, this is particularly true in ornithological research where amateurs have always been especially welcomed by the scientific community.

On the Road, Learning about Herbaria: Digitization

iDigBio Portal

I recently went north, to Yale University, for the third annual Digital Data Biodiversity Research Conference, sponsored by iDigBio, the NSF-sponsored project to digitize natural history specimens.  I attended the first of these conferences two years ago at the University of Michigan (see earlier post).  Both were fascinating and informative, but also different from each other, in that the focus of attention in this field has moved beyond digitizing collections to using digitized collections.  This seems a healthy trend, but as Katherine LeVan of National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) mentioned, only 6% of insect collections have been even partially digitized, and Anna Monfils of Central Michigan University noted that iDigBio has information from 624 of 1600 natural history collections in the United States.  Admittedly, it’s mostly small collections that aren’t represented, but Monfils went on to show that smaller collections hold larger than expected numbers of local specimens, providing finer grained information on biodiversity.

Despite the caveat about coverage, the results of the NSF funding is impressive and is leading to an explosion in the use of this data.  It is difficult to keep up with the number of publications employing herbarium specimens as sources of information for studies on phenological changes, tracking invasive species, and monitoring herbivore damage.  While the earlier conference included sessions on using data for niche modeling, the meeting at Yale also had presentations on how to integrate such data with other kinds of information.  Integration was definitely a major theme, and two large-scale projects are front and center in this work.  Nico Franz of Arizona State University is principle investigator in NEON, a massive NSF-funded project that includes 22 observatories collecting ecological data, including specimens, and then using that data in studies on environmental change.  Franz noted that while other projects might collect data over short periods of time, NEON plans for the long-term and for building strong communities sharing and using that data.

Another large sale project, one headed by Yale professor Walter Jetz, is called Map of Life (MOL).  Here again, integration is central to this endeavor that invites researchers to upload their biodiversity data and also to take advantage of the wealth of data and tools available through its portal.  As the name implies, biogeography is an important focus, and users can search for distribution maps for species and create species lists for particular areas .  As with many digital projects, this one still has a long way to go in terms of living up to its name, which implies a much broader species representation than is now available.  In a session led by MOL developers, it became clear that the issue of how different kinds of data can be integrated is still extremely fraught.  Even databases for different groups of organisms, vertebrates versus invertebrates for example, are difficult to integrate because important data fields are not consistent:  what is essential in one field, might not be noteworthy at all in another or might be handled in a different way.  Progress is being made, but as Roderick Page of the University of Glasgow notes, even linking to scientific literature is hardly a trivial task, to say nothing of more sophisticated linking.

While this may seem discouraging, there were also many bright points in the presentations.  The massive Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) has, as I write, 1,330,535,865 occurrence records, that is, data on specimens and observations.  Last year, GBIF launched an impressive new website and often adds new features.  While the tools available through GBIF are not as sophisticated as with some other portals, it is still an incredible resource since iDigBio data is fed into GBIF as well as data from projects around the world.  For example, data from the University of South Carolina, Columbia A.C. Moore Herbarium where I volunteer, which was fed into SERNEC and iDigBio, is now also available in GBIF, so researchers worldwide can access data on this collection that is particularly rich in South Carolina plants.  This was not an easy undertaking—nothing in the digital world is—and it’s important to always keep that in mind as developers have flights of fancy about could be possible in the future.

Another conference highlight for me involved the use of sophisticated neural network software, such as that coming out of the Center for Brain Science at Harvard University.  James Hanken, Professor of Zoology and Director of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard, reported on a project to scan slides of embryological sections and then use the neural network software to create 3-D reconstructions of the embryos.  Caroline Strömberg of the University of Washington discussed a project to build a 3-D index of shapes for phytoliths, microfossils from grass leaves that can be more accurate for identifying species than pollen grains.  Her lab has studied 200 species and has quantified 3-D shapes, even printing them in 3-D to literally get a feel for them.  They used this information in a study of phytoliths from a dinosaur digestive track suggesting that grasses are older than previously thought.  Others have questioned these results, so Strömberg’s group is now refining the identification process, measuring more points on the phytolith surface.  Reporting on another paleontological study, Rose Aubery of the University of Illinois described image analysis done with Surangi W. Punyasena on plant fossil cuticle specimens to obtain taxonomic information about ancient ecosystems.  What all these presentations had in common was the use of massive computational power to analyze 3-D images.  At the first conference, reports of 3-D imaging were impressive, but now it is the analysis that has taken center stage.  This is a good sign:  all that data is proving valuable.