Gardens and Herbaria: Women

Embroidery of cherry tree by Bess of Hardwick, Oxburgh Hall, Norfolk, UK

This series of posts is on gardens and the herbaria that document what has been grown in them.  Most gardeners do not preserve specimens of their favorite plants, though some might press a flower or beautiful leaf between the pages of a gardening guide.  In the past however, some gardeners were so tied into botanical networks that pressing plants was an important part of their practice.  I am thinking specifically of two British noblewomen who gardened on a grand scale.  The first is Mary Somerset, Duchess of Beaufort (1630-1715), who traded plant information with such botanical notables as Hans Sloane, William Sherard, and James Petiver.  Even John Ray consulted her herbarium in writing some of his plant descriptions.

Somerset had the wealth to pay collectors for exotic plants from around the world and also to create conditions in which these plants could flourish.  She and her gardeners gave delicate plants a great deal of attention.  She was among the first to have a stove or heated greenhouse with large windows and heating under a stone floor provided by an open fire in a mobile cart on tracks so it could be moved around under the floor.  Botanists like Petiver enjoyed visiting her because of the plants he found flourishing, some of which he only knew from pressed specimens.  Somerset was assisted by William Sherard, a botanist who later worked at Oxford and whom she hired as her grandson’s tutor.  He schooled her in botany, used his connections to add many exotics to her garden, and developed her herbarium as she worked side by side with him (Davies, 2016).

The Duchess kept track of both the rare and familiar plants she grew, and in her herbarium there are pages of anemone flowers, for example, from varieties that have long since disappeared and for which the collection provides a permanent physical record of their existence.  There are few such horticultural herbaria, particularly from this period.  It is not surprising that the 12-volume Somerset herbarium is now part of Sloane’s at the Natural History Museum, London (NHM).  Later in life when she moved from her estate in Beaufort to a house and garden in Chelsea, she was Sloane’s neighbor.  Anxious to get plant names right, she corresponded with Sloane and others, admitting that neither she nor her gardener knew Latin, yet Sloane thought so highly of her cultivation skills and facilities that he had her grow medicinal plants for the Royal College of Physicians (McClain, 2001).

Somerset documented her successes not only in her herbarium but by having her plants drawn by artists including Everhard Kick, who had painted the Jamaican plants in Sloane’s collection.  Kick spent from 1703 to 1705 at Somerset’s estate depicting species she was growing.  One was a Polygala or milkwort species from the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa that was not introduced into British horticulture until 1707, suggesting that Somerset had received a plant directly from the collector, a sign of her status in the botanical network (Cottesloe & Hunt, 1986).

Somerset used Kick’s paintings and those of others as templates for embroidery designs.  She was a skilled needleworker, as were many upper-class women of her time, and flowers were a favorite subject.  In an article on Mary Queen of Scots and Bess of Hardwick, Nicole LaBouff (2018) argues that women used embroidery as a way to display and also increase their botanical knowledge.  Among the references for these women’s work was Andrea Mattioli’s herbal from Mary’s library.   They considered sewing another form of study, a way to learn about plant form and structure, an adjunct to working in the garden or creating a herbarium.  Each enriched their understanding of plants.  Since women were limited in their educational opportunities, they used such outlets to grow intellectually through what were considered feminine arts.

Years later, the constraints remained but the number of women horticulturists had grown.  The Duchess of Portland Margaret Bentinck (1715-1785) was another wealthy woman who used plants as a way to develop her intellect, her aesthetic sense, and her gardens.  Like Somerset, she had a leading botanical artist, Georg Ehret, document her plants in watercolors and teach her daughters painting.  Bentinck was also a patron to the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who later in life studied botany, seeing it as calming the emotions by focusing the mind on something outside itself.  Botany became an important manifestation of his interest in nature, especially in common species rather than exotics and horticultural “monstrosities.”  When Rousseau visited England, he stayed at Bentinck’s estate and botanized with her.  He gave her two portable herbaria since he considered a plant collection a way to reinforce botanical knowledge (Laird, 2015).

Mary Delany, known for her exquisite floral embroideries and even more for her floral paper cutouts, was a good friend of Bentinck and spent months at a time visiting her.  They studied Linnaean botany with the Rev. John Lightfoot, who organized Bentinck’s specimens, collected for her, and served as her chaplain (Laird & Weisberg-Roberts, 2009).  Through her work with Lightfoot, Delany was familiar with specimen preparation and so with arranging a plant on paper, flattening it out, and making sure all its essential features were displayed.  With her cutouts she was doing something similar and often depicted both sides of a plant’s leaves, common practice in mounting a specimen.  Delany’s collages can be likened to herbarium specimens in having more depth and texture than an illustration; there are even a few cases where Delany added real leaves to a work (see above).  Botany, specimen preparation, and art sharpened her observations and drove her to look closely and to become more connected with flower form.


Cottesloe, G., & Hunt, D. (1983). The Duchess of Beaufort’s Flowers. Exeter, UK: Webb and Bower.

Davies, J. (2016). Botanizing at Badminton: The botanical pursuits of Mary Somerset, First Duchess of Beaufort. In D. Optiz, S. Bergwik, & B. Van Tiggelen (Eds.), Domesticity in the Making of Modern Science (pp. 19–40). London: Palgrave Macmillan.

LaBouff, N. (2018). Embroidery and Information Management: The Needlework of Mary Queen of Scots and Bess of Hardwick Reconsidered. 81(3), 315–358.

Laird, M. (2015). A Natural History of English Gardening 1650-1800. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

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

McClain, M. (2001). Beaufort: The Duke and his Duchess. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Collection Furnishings

Cabinets designed by Mark Dion for the Schildbach wood collection, Kassel Natural History Museum

In the last post on Mark Dion’s artistic commentaries about natural history collections, I failed to mention the many pieces of furniture used in his installations.  In some cases, these pieces were specially designed for displaying collections, such as a cabinet with drawers filled with specimens Dion assembled as part of his Travels of William Bartram—Reconsidered (2008) exhibit, which also included a repurposed old wood-and-glass library cabinet housing a display of alligator-related souvenirs and postcards.  Dion also built cabinets to permanently display the impressive xylotheque or wood library created in the 1780s by Carl Schildbach and now in the Natural History Museum in Kassel, Germany (see image above).  Like paper, which I discussed in an earlier series of posts (1,2,3,4), cabinets are so much a part of herbarium life they are taken for granted unless one of two things happen:  there’s no more room in these, or there are resources available to buy new equipment and/or enlarge a herbarium.

The first is definitely more likely to occur than the second, and the problem usually creeps up slowly.  Sometimes it’s possible to rearrange cabinets and fit in yet another one.  I am thinking specifically of the A.C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, my herbarium home.  It is composed of a rabbit warren of rooms, all but one with cabinets.  They are all metal, but that’s were resemblances end.  The 19th-century Henry Ravenel Collection, previously at Converse College, is housed in cabinets purchased with a NSF Collections Improvement Grant which funded the majority of the herbarium’s cabinets.  But also interspersed throughout the facility are cabinets of varying vintages and provenances.  Along with the standard-height ones there are several of counter height.  Curator emeritus John Nelson traveled to Washington DC to pick them up when the National Arboretum was disposing of them.  They were well worth the trip.  Bordering on the antique, they are beyond sturdy and double as great work tables.

To me one of the hallmarks of an active herbarium is unmatched cabinets, unless of course an herbarium has been funded, often in part with a NSF grant to buy new furnishings and perhaps move into a larger space, and often equipped with compactors—heaven, but only for a time.  The plants keep coming.  The herbarium at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew has been enlarged several times.  However, there is evidence of efforts to make do between additions.  In the oldest building, still with wooden cabinets, there were extra cabinets built on top of the original ones to provide more storage.  The same thing happened at Trinity College Herbarium in Dublin.  A rolling ladder is a necessity with such a setup.  In many herbaria where this hasn’t been attempted, the room on top of the cabinets is where cardboard boxes of unmounted and uncatalogued specimens reside.

Standard herbarium cabinets are hardly suitable for many kinds of collections.  Envelopes of lichens or mosses are often better kept in cabinets with drawers.  Something similar accommodates boxes of slides and vials, the majority of items in the Diatom Herbarium at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University in Philadelphia.  In the herbarium at the National Botanic Garden in Ireland, there are neatly arranged boxes with pine cones and other large tree-related materials collected by Augustine Henry, co-author with Henry John Elwes of The Trees of Great Britain and Ireland (1906).  His wife hit on the idea of shop boxes used in the clothing stores of the time.  They were sturdy and had cord pulls to make them easy to access.  Many herbaria also have collections of fruits and flowers in jars of solution.  They require a totally different type of care, including a heavier floor to withstand the weight and a door frame with a lip at the bottom, so if there is spillage inside the room, it won’t leak out.

While they are not common in the United States, boxes are used in many herbaria to store herbarium sheets.  Kew uses them in some areas and the National Herbarium of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia does too—they are all red.  Just as there are endless arguments about how kitchen cabinets should or should not be designed, the same is true of herbarium furnishings.  While most herbaria have closed cabinets, often with special seals to keep out pests and moisture, some institutions have open shelves.  The herbaria at the National Museum Natural History in Paris and the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, both have open shelves in their newer compactor storage facilities.  These are among the largest herbaria in the world, and omitting doors meant less space wasted and greater ease of access.  Since these facilities are temperature controlled and surveilled for pests, this solution seemed the best.

Walking into such spaces sparks a feeling of awe:  a herbarium cathedral.  However, walking into the A. C. Moore Herbarium, gives a different, and perhaps even more wonderful response:  a sense of comfort like entering a home with mismatched, well-used, and well-loved furniture.  In this environment, it is also easier to sense the history that resides there:  the decades upon decades represented and the many places in South Carolina where collections have been made repeatedly, providing data on what has changed over time.  A.C. Moore definitely needs more room, and it would be great to have “a state of the art” facility for the state’s largest collection of South Carolina plants, but I hope one of those old National Arboretum cabinets could also make the move.

Notes: I want to thank Herrick Brown and John Nelson for all their help and their graciousness in allowing me to be part of the A.C. Moore Herbarium family.


Conceptualizing Collections

A print from Herbarium H. Perrine (2010) by Mark Dion

The artist Mark Dion creates works that comment on natural history, collecting, and what doesn’t get collected.  He has been exhibiting for thirty years, producing an impressive body of work.  Just how impressive is documented in a book edited by Ruth Erickson (2020) with commentaries on his art.  It’s called Mark Dion: Misadventures of a 21st– Century Naturalist.  The title hints at Dion’s often self-deprecating approach, the underlying wit in many of his pieces, and the challenges to being a naturalist in the digital age.

I have seen a few of his works including a set of photogravure prints called Herbarium H. Perrine (2010), supposedly of marine algae specimens collected in Florida by Henry Perrine (1797-1840).  As with all of Dion’s work, this one has a complex backstory and several layers of meaning.  Most obviously, it comments on the 19th-century interest in collecting seaweed, in part fed by a general interest in natural history and also by the opening up of sea shores to tourists and vacationers (Barber, 1980).  Perrine arrived in the Florida Keys in 1838, relatively early in the area’s development.  He had been a United States consul in Mexico where he became intrigued by tropical plants.  He and he family went to the Keys to wait out the end of the Second Seminole War and then planned to move to a land-grant property where he hoped to create a settlement and cultivate tropical species.  In preparation, he planted seeds of Mexican plants and studied their growth while he also collected widely in the area.  In 1840 his home was attacked by Seminole defending their rights to the land.  Perrine was killed, his house—and specimens—burnt.  So there are no extant Henry Perrine specimens.

Dion collected algae and mounted them on herbarium sheets.  They were exhibited as the Herbarium Perrine (Marine Algae) in 1996 and became the basis of the prints Dion made later.  Like any self-respecting herbarium sheet, these are stamped with the name of the herbarium and have a “Marine Algae” stamp (see image above).  Each sheet also has a printed label with the heading:  “Ex. Herb. H. Perrine,” with lines to fill in place and date of collection, but the labels are blank, there is no information, a gesture to the missing specimens.  The irony is that Dion is highlighting a man who brought exotic plants to a fragile ecosystem; some of them later became difficult-to-control invasive weeds.  As with so much of the history of botany, this is a story about a complex passion for plants, particularly unusual ones, an interest in economic botany, colonization, humans as an invasive species, and the inherent beauty of algae.

To give the saga one more twist, the herbarium itself became part of another Dion work, an installation called South Florida Wildlife Rescue Unit: Mobile Laboratory (2006).  It included what appears to be a food truck, painted yellow, with its side panel open as if ready to sell hotdogs.  But on the counter are tools for examining specimens that would apparently be collected by biologists wearing outfits like those on two manikins alongside the truck.  This is a commentary on the continuing damage being done to Florida ecosystems by developers and by poachers looking for rare plants, particularly orchids (Orleans, 1998).  Two biologists with gear are hardly a match for such forces.

The only other Dion installation I’ve seen was part of the Carnegie Museum of Art’s biennial exhibit in 1999.  Actually, the piece was placed in the adjacent Carnegie Museum of Natural History.  There is free access between the two institutions, which makes for a wonderful blend of art and science.  Dion’s work was called Alexander Wilson—Studio, and it was just that:  a log cabin filled with what a bird artist in early 19th-century Pennsylvania would need for his work.  There were stuffed birds, a rifle, a table with art materials, clothing, a cot, etc.  Wilson emigrated from Scotland, worked as a teacher, and eventually met another famous Pennsylvania naturalist, William Bartram, who encouraged Wilson to use his obvious artistic talent in painting American birds.  Over the course of several years Wilson documented hundreds of species, discovering 26 new ones, and published nine volumes of American Ornithology.  He was followed just a few years later by John James Audubon, whose work was considered superior because birds were in more natural poses with realistic landscapes.  Dion’s tribute to Wilson is a reminder that forerunners like Wilson face unique obstacles, such as crude living conditions, lack of recognition, and difficulties in understanding subjects before painting them.  It was said that Wilson’s death at age 47 was the result of dysentery, overwork, and poverty (Kastner, 1977).  Dion does a good job of making those conditions come to life.

I’ll close by mentioning one more work of dozens that make this book well worth reading.  It is one I didn’t see, but when I read about it, the idea stuck with me.  It is called The Great Munich Bug Hunt (1993) and involved Dion and an entomologist investigating a huge tree trunk in an art gallery; they were looking for and collecting insects.  The focus was on creatures that are so often missed:  rotting wood is not always appreciated.  The fact that the two were dressed in lab coats sent the message that this was serious scientific work as well as an art installation designed to change the viewer’s sense of what is significant in nature.


Barber, L. (1980). The Heyday of Natural History. New York: Doubleday.

Erickson, R. (n.d.). Mark Dion: Misadventures of a 21st-Century Naturalist. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Kastner, J. (1977). A Species of Eternity. New York: Knopf.

Orlean, S. (1998). The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Obsession. New York: Ballantine.

Decolonizing Collections

One of James Petiver’s publications where he cited the collectors who provided him with specimens

Over the past year I have spent more time than usual on social media and Zoom presentations.  Since I am interested in plant collections, I tend to come across programs related to natural history museums.  A persistent theme that has gotten even more attention since the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, is the idea of decolonizing collections.  This is hardly a new concept, but events have made it a more obvious and pressing concern.  Because so many institutions were physically closed, curators and the public had a chance to step back and ask questions about the future of collections and how they are used.

I hesitate to even broach this topic because I am an old, white woman who some would consider privileged:  educated and comfortably retired.  Despite my limit perspective, I am writing about this issue because I can’t not write about it.  One Zoom presentation I attended was sponsored by the Digital Library Federation and featured staff from New York Botanical Garden .  Regina Vitiello, project coordinator for the garden’s Steere Herbarium, discussed the issue of labels with place names that would now be considered culturally inappropriate.  There are a number of issues here ranging from who finds these—is it enough just to wait until someone happens upon a problem or should curators be actively searching for them.  Then, who decides they are inappropriate and what to do about them:  are they expunged—both on the specimen and online—or are they left, but with a notation.  Vitiello notes that this work becomes a communal project within the herbarium, requiring discussions among those responsible for the collection.

Rashad Bell, collections maintenance associate at the NYBG Mertz Library, covered similar issues with the library catalogue.  In searching for items for a patron, he found a 1950 biography of George Washington Carver called The Ebony Scientist, a title that would not even be considered today.  However, the book is still a useful resource, so it should remain in the collection and in the online catalogue.  What, if any, notation should be made on the entry?  Neither Bell nor Vitiello had answers for all the questions they probed, but that is in part what made their presentation useful.  It showed the layers of examination and work involved in actually opening up collections, laying out how they reflect past cultural influences, and what is involved in making them more welcoming to all.

Bell also participated in a presentation at Science Museum Fridays at New York University.  The session was called Decolonizing Living Collections and also included Laura Briscoe, NYBG herbarium collections manager.  After the event,  Bell and Nuala P. Caomhánach wrote about interviews with the participants for the Journal of the History of Ideas blog (1,2).  They are worth reading to get a sense of the complexity of the issues involved.

“Decolonizing collections” can mean many things but a major thrust is to ask new questions of what is available, including what collections and their attendant archives can reveal about the role of indigenous and enslaved peoples in building them.  One collection that is receiving special scrutiny is that of Hans Sloane, the British physician who assembled not only a large herbarium but also books, art, coins, anthropological and zoological materials from around the world, that became the founding collection of the British Museum (see last post).  Sloane’s wealth came in part from his marrying a wealthy widow who had inherited her husband’s Jamaican plantations that employed enslaved people.  Sloane met her while he was physician to Jamaica’s British governor and spent his spare time amassing a natural history collection.  He was aided by British landowners as well as indigenous and enslaved people.  The latter two groups were those most engaged with the land and its organisms (Delbourgo, 2017).  Careful scrutiny of Sloane’s letters and notebooks could reveal interactions and information not recorded in his Natural History of Jamaica.

Sloane’s herbarium is composed of collections by over 280 individuals, with the most specimens coming from James Petiver who himself had acquired 100 herbaria and had a network of collectors around the world.  Important sources were the captains and surgeons on slave ships that sailed a triangular route from Britain to Africa carrying goods that were sold there and then conveying enslaved Africans to be sold in the West Indies and from there in the American colonies.  On the return trip, the ships carried sugar, coffee, and tobacco to Britain.  Though Petiver’s collection had a worldwide scope, the geography of slavery shaped it in that many of his specimens came from West Africa, the Caribbean, and southern American colonies.  The role of slavery here is now being more carefully scrutinized along with other colonization practices (Murphy, 2020).

Petiver published regularly, describing new species that his network had sent him .  He rewarded contributors by mentioning their names in print, but needless to say, the names of many who had actually found the plants and imparted information about them are forgotten.  (see image above)  To me, this is what decolonizing collections is about, attempting to unearth the people and information that never made it into publications.  In most cases, names are lost, but hidden in the archives are references to where collectors obtained plants and plant stories, some of them about a species’ uses or religious significance.


Delbourgo, J. (2017). Collecting the World: The Life and Curiosity of Hans Sloane. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Murphy, K. S. (2020). James Petiver’s ‘Kind Friends’ and ‘Curious Persons’ in the Atlantic World: Commerce, colonialism and collecting. Notes and Records: The Royal Society Journal of the History of Science, 74(2), 259–274.

Note:  I would like to thank Ray Pun, instruction/research librarian at the Alder Graduate School of Education in California, for providing the link to the Digital Library  Federation presentation from NYBG.  This is only one of many resources he has pointed me towards and for which I am grateful.

Collections: Lists and Catalogues

A portion of Hans Sloane’s vegetable substances collection, Natural History Museum, London

In writing of Hans Sloane, the great collector of plant specimens and so much more, all forming the foundations of the British Museum, James Delbourgo (2017) argues that Sloane’s greatest legacy as a writer was not his two-volume Natural History of Jamaica, significant though it was, but rather the catalogues he produced for various parts of his collections and the labels he handwrote for so many of its items, including herbarium specimens.  Lists and labels may not seem exciting, but think of all the time, money, and volunteers’ hours that have been expended in the 21st century in digitally transcribing herbarium labels.  And what is a spreadsheet but a glorified list, though at times a very sophisticated one?

Labels and catalogues are what make collections valuable and useable.  A specimen without a label is usually of little if any worth, and unless there is some clue to how a room of specimens is ordered, chaos reigns.  The order may be alphabetical by family, according to the latest Angiosperm Phylogeny Group report (APG IV), or some other system.  In a sense, digital portals such as iDigBio’s or GBIF’s are catalogues on a massive scale and would probably stun Sloane as he thought about all the hours he’d spent inputting data into his catalogues, which were essentially ledger books.

There are no catalogues for Sloane’s herbarium of 265 volumes and 120,000 specimens.  He had an alternate reference system based on the botanist John Ray’s compendium of plants, Historia Plantarum, completed in 1704.  In it, Sloane and his curators noted next to a species entry the volume and page where the specimen of that plant could be found and added species that weren’t described in the text (Dandy, 1958).  Botanists still use this reference to locate specimens.  A copy of Sloane’s two volumes on Jamaica was similarly annotated.  The latter were considered so significant that the names were updated by later botanists, including Daniel Solander who added the names from Carl Linnaeus’s Species Plantarum to keep the reference relevant (Rose, 2018).  When Joseph Banks invited him to join Captain James Cook’s first round-the-world voyage, Solander was also doing something similar for other Sloane specimens, often attaching paper slips with updated names.

Sloane also had a  “Vegetable Substances” collection with 12,000 small, sealed boxes filled with seeds, fruits, and resins, some of medicinal value.  Such a collection is much rarer than the herbarium.  There are written references to botanist’s sharing seeds and other plant materials, but most have not survived.  Analyzing Sloane’s collection, Victoria Pickering (2016) found that about two-thirds of it is intact along with three catalogues, which for most items list who sent the material and what it was used for.  Without the catalogues, determining what was in the boxes would be guesswork at best and there would also be no way to track provenance.  The boxes are just marked with a number, usually corresponding to a catalogue entry.  For example, Pickering was able to attribute 215 items to Mark Catesby, and 160 to James Petiver, who would be receiving them from his numerous contacts.

Sloane’s boxes provide a picture of what was considered valuable, including medicinal substances and seeds.  For collectors like James Cunninghame and Engelbert Kaempfer, the material in the boxes was sent in addition to their specimens.  The seeds may have been viable when they arrived, with some likely given to gardeners of Sloane’s acquaintance who eagerly attempted to grow new finds.  To keep track of things like seeds botanists shared lists of various kinds from the beginning of early modern botany.  Each year, Luca Ghini sent a seed list of what he had collected at the Botanical Garden of Pisa, and his correspondents could, in turn, send lists of those they would like to receive.  The Royal Botanic Garden, Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank grew out of a similar, but much more elaborate seed saving program at Kew.  Lists or catalogues were also common among garden owners as a way to display their prowess in obtaining and cultivating rare and exotic species.  At times these were simply lists of plant names, but sometimes descriptions were included.  Some were publications with illustrations.  That is essentially what Linnaeus’s book on George Clifford’s garden at Hartekamp is.  The illustrations were done by none other than the great botanical artist Georg Ehret.

Another elaborate catalogue, Hortus Elthamensis, was created by Johann Dillenius for James Sherard to describe his garden at Eltham.  The book was 437 pages long and published in two large-format volumes.  Dillenius drew the illustrations of 417 plants on 324 plates, all of which he also engraved.  This was definitely an impressive way to present a rich man’s garden.  James Sherard was the brother of botanist William Sherard of Oxford University.  When William died, he left money for a professorship in botany and arranged for the position to go to Dillenius, who had already come to Oxford from Germany.  Dillenius ends the preface by mentioning his “friend and patron” William Sherard, and this catalogue is definitely a tribute to both brothers.  It also indicates how broad the definition of “catalogue” can be to encompass both a simple list or pamphlet and a two-volume opus.


Delbourgo, J. (2017). Collecting the World: The Life and Curiosity of Hans Sloane. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Pickering, V. R. M. (2016). Putting Nature into a Box: Hans Sloane’s “Vegetable Substances” Collection. London: University of London.

Rose, E. D. (2018). Natural history collections and the book: Hans Sloane’s A Voyage to Jamaica (1707–1725) and his Jamaican plants. Journal of the History of Collections, 30(1), 15–33.

Collecting and Paper


George Forrest specimen of Abelia forrestii, Royal Botanical Garden Edinburg

We are so surrounded with paper today:  printouts, books, packaging, etc., etc., that we tend to pay little attention to it.  We can buy a ream of paper for a few dollars, and we throw a great deal of it into the recycling bin.  But paper is an amazing material, and nowhere is it more essential than in plant collecting.  Without paper, collecting grinds to a halt as it did for James Drummond, an early settler and plant collector in Western Australia.  His paper supply usually came from Britain via Cape Town, South Africa, so shipments were spotty at best.  He needed a great deal of paper because each year he made up ten sets of plant specimens, each with 500 species.  In 1845, he had used up his paper stocks and had to end collecting until supplies arrived.  He used newspapers in the field, when he could get them, but then needed plain paper for preparing specimens for shipment, plus more paper for packaging (Erickson, 1969).

When Joseph Banks left on his voyage around the world with Captain James Cook, he brought huge stacks of printers’ rejects, unbound copies of books that hadn’t made it into distribution.  Some of his specimens are still set between the pages of a copy of Notes on the Twelve Books of Paradise LostJohn Torrey wrote to Asa Gray saying he had high hopes because a collector who was going out west because he had brought two tons of paper with him (McKelvey, 1955).  This highlights the issue of paper weight and how to haul around large amounts of its, especially when traveling by horseback, perhaps with mules.  There are limits to how much can be carried at one time, so the rest has to be stored, and it has to be stored along with already collected materials, in a dry place to prevent water and fungal damage.

One of the best treatments I’ve read of the use of paper for the various aspects of plant collection is Erik Mueggler’s (2011) The Paper Road: Archive and Experience in the Botanical Exploration of West China and Tibet.  He writes of the 20th-century plant collectors George Forrest and Joseph Rock, who worked in the borderlands between China, Tibet, and Burma, in other words, close to the origins of paper.  In the introduction, Mueggler writes that the process was all about paper.  As he explains:  “This book is about the way some wandering botanists put the earth onto or between sheets of paper: collecting, writing, and photographing.  How are paper landscapes made?  How does this making create, mobilize, and transform social relations?” (p. 16).

Mueggler’s story begins in 1906 when Forrest arrives in Yunnan in southwest China and ends in 1950 when Rock left China.  Between these years two generations of local men did the work of exploring western China for alpine flora for Western gardens and scientific institutions.  Mueggler makes it clear that there was shared expertise here and highlights that the bulk of the difficult travelling and transporting was done by locals, though Forrest sometimes travelled with his collectors and Rock often did.  While the Chinese played a vital role, the enterprise could not have been possible without the Westerners who provided the financing and tools to support the endeavor.  They also had the Western botanical expertise to translate the Chinese knowledge and experience into a form that could be communicated to the larger botanical community.

Each time Forrest’s collector Zhao Chengzhang “walked out the city gate, one of his mules carried a full load of paper, textured and absorbent, made of a dwarf bamboo that grew in thickets on the lower mountainsides.  When he reentered the city after weeks or months of rough travel, he led a string of mules carrying stacks of paper neatly bundled and pressed between boards.  Folded into each sheet was a plant specimen.  Over the next few days he would unfold each rough sheet, rearrange the specimen in accord with his exacting sense of space and proportion, and refold it into smooth writing paper” (p. 1).

It’s noteworthy that Zhao spoke no English, and Forrest no Chinese.  They used a sign language and sketches to communicate, to turn the collectors’ finds into specimens and accompanying documentation.  At this point in the process, Forrest worked on the plants with Zhao as they pooled their expertise and Forrest took notes and wrote up plant descriptions.  In between expeditions, of which there were seven, Forrest would return to Edinburgh to work on his collections and direct efforts to naturalize some of the more promising horticultural finds.  He also consulted the RBGE herbarium, to sharpen his expertise in preparation for returning to China.  Mueggler makes it clear that all of Forrest’s work was closely tied literally to the hands and minds that collected the plant.  These men knew where to look for rare species and came to understand what the western collectors were looking for.  There was a mutuality that Mueggler argues was linked through the paper used in collecting and documenting the plants.

Much of the paper couldn’t be sourced locally and had to be imported from Rangoon.  The tags with Forrest’s name and specimen number came from Edinburgh.  Eventually, the plants would be rewrapped in paper and crates and sent to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh.  Forrest also used paper for photography, repeatedly asking for more to be sent.  Rock took his photography so seriously that he hauled glass plates around with him as well as a camera to accommodate them.  So collecting wasn’t all about paper, but Mueggler’s book is a good reminder of a product that we take for granted, not just in plant collecting but in daily life generally.


Erickson, R. (1969). The Drummonds of Hawthornden. Osborne Park, Aus: Lamb Paterson.

McKelvey, S. D. (1955). Botanical Explorations of the Trans-Mississippi West 1790-1850. Jamaica Plains, MA: Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University.

Mueggler, E. (2011). The Paper Road: Archive and Experience in the Botanical Exploration of West China and Tibet. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Herbaria and Material Culture

Specimen of Coffea arabica with 5 different kinds of paper; Manchester Museum Herbarium, Leopold Grindon Collection

Omar Nasim is an astronomer who writes on the importance of visual inquiry in history of astronomy.  He comes to mind as I write this series of posts (1, 2) on paper because he first came to my attention with his description of how astronomers learned about nebula by drawing them over and over again, getting to know them and in a real sense materialize them on paper (Nasim, 2013).  Since then he has written on the use of photography in astronomical observations.  In a recent article he deals with the photograph from the viewpoint not of the image, but of the substrate on which it is printed.  His perspective is that of material culture, of treating the photo as an object.  Nasim brings up the concept of differentiating between an object and a thing.  This distinction took me some time to sort out (Edwards, 2004).  A photograph is a physical object with an image on it, and it is thing, an entity.  If the image fades to the point of disappearing, there is still a piece of paper, but it is no longer the object it was, though it is still a thing. This approach highlights the fact that a photograph is more than an image, it has physicality.

Once I got my mind around this distinction, I began to think about it in terms of herbarium sheets.  It is not uncommon to read of a collection that was long neglected in an attic or basement.  When finally examined many of the sheets were unsalvageable, that is, the specimens were so rotted as to no longer carry much or any information.  The paper too may have been so damaged by water or lost labels or at least the writing on them.  There was still a thing, but it was no longer the object it had once been.  As I read more about the physicality of photographs, I thought of other similarities with herbarium sheets:  the different kinds of papers they can be mounted on, the ill effects of exposure to light, and the way they can be damaged by  handling:  paper bent, corners missing, stains, and other scars.

Those in natural history museums differentiate between specimens, the remains of living things, and artifacts, human-made objects.  A herbarium sheet is both.  Like a photograph, it is more than just an image, it has physicality both in itself and in its matrix.  In essence, to use a term from the art world, it is a collage.  There is not only the plant but the material such as glue, thread, or linen tape used to affix it to the sheet.  Then there’s the label, and often a stamp with an accession number and the name of the herbarium, perhaps an envelope containing fragments, and one or more determination slips to either verify the name on the label or update it.  There might also be a note concerning the specimen’s provenance or other remarks.  A barcode is a more recent addition, but there can be others:  a map, a sketch or an illustration, or a photograph of the plant in the field.  Some specimens have so much supporting material that it may spill onto a second sheet, as many specimens in Leopold Grindon’s collection at the Manchester Museum Herbarium do.  He liked to append illustrations, journal articles, newspaper clippings to give as full a record of the plant as possible.  The specimen wasn’t enough for him, and really it is never enough.  At least some accessories are essential.

Going through the specimens in a thick species or genus folder may mean encountering different kinds of specimens as physical objects.  There is often an unconscious reckoning of age when holding a specimen.  Some plants have retained their color better than others, and the same may be true of the paper.  It may have yellowed with age, depending upon its composition, may have become brittle, or been blackened by soot or mercuric chloride contamination; it may be thin and flimsy, or thick and stiff.  The plant on a neighboring sheet may have left an imprint or “ghost” on it, if they have been stored together for a long time.  The label is another indication of age, with good penmanship a thing of the past.  And I haven’t even touched on the paper in journals, reference works, and field notebooks, to say nothing of bound ex siccatae, which provide a very different material experience of specimens, somehow more ordered and less intimate.

In writing about the loss of material clues when paper is digitized, Sherry Turkle (2007) compares the experience of looking at the architect Le Corbusier’s drawings on the computer and in the archives:  there is a different sense of scale, a tactile experience, and an awareness of smudges and other signs of use by human beings that doesn’t come through on the screen.  There is also the whole experience of being in the archives—or in a herbarium—surrounded by incredibly informative paper objects.  Many people, including myself, have been separated from specimens over the past months.  Yes, I can see Henry Ravenel’s plants from the 19th century on the A.C. Moore Herbarium website, but it is just not the same as seeing the variety of surfaces on which they are mounted.  Materiality matters!


Edwards, E., & Hart, J. (Eds.). (2004). Photographs Objects Histories: On the Materiality of Images. New York: Rutledge.

Nasim, O. (2018). James Nasmyth’s lunar photography; or on becoming a lunar being, without the lunacy. In C. González (Ed.), Selene’s Two Faces (pp. 147–187). Leiden, NLD: Brill.

Nasim, O. W. (2013). Observing by Hand: Sketching the Nebulae in the Nineteenth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Turkle, S. (Ed.). (2007). Evocative Objects: Things We Think With. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Plants and Paper

Conrad Gessner’s Historia Plantarum notebook 1, page 8; University Library Erlangen-Nürnberg

What started me on my exploration of paper, the subject of this series of posts (see last post), was a book review of The Nature of the Page: Poetry, Papermaking, and the Ecology of Texts in Renaissance England by Joshua Calhoun (2020).  The title is intriguing and so was the review (Wilson, 2020).  Needless to say, I bought a copy.  Calhoun is an English professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Shakespeare scholar.  He is also affiliated with the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and at the end of his preface, mentions a limited edition of Aldo Leopold’s environmental literature classic, A Sand County Almanac (1949), that was published in 2007.  It was printed on paper made from pines the Leopold family had planted on their land in rural Wisconsin in the 1930s and 1940s.  Leopold’s words were printed on his plants.

To Calhoun this signifies the fundamental point he wants to make.  What he presents here is a look at the organisms that went into making paper and books; he states bluntly, “paper making is the transformation of a plant” (p. 27).  There are the plants like linen, cotton, straw, and wood used in making the paper itself, but also the wooden boards for bookbinding, and the cloth to cover them.  Also animals were utilized for leather covers and glue for sizing that was applied after the paper was made and dried to make the surface smoother and suitable for writing on with pen and ink.  Since paper is essentially cellulose, it absorbs water, and therefore ink.  Sizing allowed the ink to soak in less.  We are less aware of this today, because we use ballpoint pens with a much less fluid type of ink.  Ink was part of the ecology of paper too.  A common ink was made from oak galls which if properly treated made a good brown ink.  The ink used for printing had oil added, making it thicker and less absorbent than that needed for writing.  As time went on, better sizing was preferred for printing books so that readers could write in the margins.

As mentioned in the last post, botanists used a great deal of paper for writing letters, notes, and labels, so they would be cognizant of the qualities of different papers, and they would have to pay more for the types that were best for recording information.  Calhoun notes that in the early modern era, most paper was made from linen rags.  While the Chinese had mastered techniques to convert plant material, most successfully from the mulberry tree, directly into paper, Europeans didn’t accomplish this with the species at hand until the 19th century.

Linen rags were cut into pieces and fermented to loosen the structure of the cloth and separate the fibers.  Since the major constituent of paper is cellulose, other matter had to be removed in part by fermentation.  The resultant slurry was poured into a rectangular wood frame, with a bottom of mesh.  Water was pressed out through the mesh while the slurry is thick enough and the fibers overlap enough to remain in the frame.  The damp sheets were then hung up to try and later, further flattened and smoothed.  Adding sizing was another wet, messy process that resulted in loss of sheets that become misshapen or otherwise damaged.  Sizing made it possible to write on paper, and the glue adhered the fibers more firmly to each other resulting in stronger, more durable paper.  Unsized paper was okay for wrapping packages and other rough and ready uses, including pressing specimens since it readily absorbed water.

Calhoun goes into some length on how paper in books sometimes retained part of its their earlier history.  There is a book history term, shives, for pieces of flax husk that were sometimes inadvertently introduced into the paper slurry.  In some cases, small pieces of linen cloth, including linen sails, ended up on a page.  Flecks of organic matter from the river water used in papermaking were also at times apparent, another link to the environment.  He includes photographs of several pages from early editions of Shakespeare’s works as examples of these inclusions.  He also quotes from several 16th and 17th-century poets who refer to such additions in their works as indicating that users of paper were familiar with its properties and oddities.

Toward the end of the book, Calhoun deals with present-day ecological issues relating to books, not so much in terms of the consequences of cutting down forests to make paper, but the possible long-term future of books in the face of global warming.  His outlook is bleak.  He writes that the best libraries for all books, but particularly the old and precious ones, are those with strict temperature controls.  Keeping books at low temperatures slows chemical deterioration and prevents fungal and insect damage.  He makes the interesting point that there are two kinds of “bookworms,” one that creates round exit holes and the other oval ones.  Also, there are any number of fungal species that can destroy paper.  Calhoun speculates that in the future, it may not be possible to maintain climate-controlled conditions as fuel become scarcer and more costly.  He notes that “books are made of once living material that is slowly decomposing.  Deterioration is a natural process” (p. 130), a reminder of the organic origins of paper and of the fragility of herbaria, where plant specimens and their supporting material are both subject to predation by bugs and fungi.


Calhoun, J. (2020). The Nature of the Page: Poetry, Papermaking, and the Ecologies of Texts in Renaissance England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Leopold, A., Schwartz, C. W., Bradley, N. L., Leopold, A. C., & Leopold, E. B. (2007). A Sand County almanac: And, sketches here and there. Baraboo, WI: Land Ethic Press.

Wilson, G. (2020, Sept. 4). The Nature of the Page by Joshua Calhoun book review. TLS.

Looking at Paper

Alisma plantago-aquatica specimen, Ulisse Aldrovandi herbarium at the University of Bologna’s Botanic Garden

I’ve been writing posts on herbaria for over four years and I’ve never discussed the use of paper in botany.  Considering the pivotal role paper has long played in the preservation and documentation of plants, this seems a gross oversight.  To make amends, this series of posts will deal with several aspects of paper’s relationship to plant collections.  First, a little history.  The Chinese created the earliest known paper from hemp in the first century BC; this was a relatively crude product used more for packing than for writing.  They refined their processes in the following centuries, and once mulberry was used in the 7th century, it became the raw material of choice.  Papermaking spread at that time to Japan and then on to the Middle East with the first paper factory in Baghdad opening in 794 (Weber, 2007).  Paper spurred the development of science and literature in the Islamic world and led to the first papermaking in Spain in the 11th century, from there it reached Italy in 1235, Germany in 1391, and England a century later (Basbanes, 2013).  Around 1450 when Johannes Gutenberg produced the first book printed with movable type, he ordered paper from Italy because of its smoothness and ability to take ink better than the German product.

In parts of Europe, paper was not a very old technology when the first herbaria were created, probably in the 1520s in Italy.  But by this time, the demand for paper for book printing led to much higher production rates, a greater variety of grades, and an increase in the uses to which paper was put.  In the 16th century, it was still an expensive commodity, but it was much cheaper and more available that parchment, made from animal skins, that had been the material of choice for important manuscripts and documents, even after the introduction of paper.  In her seminal work on early-modern printed herbals, Agnes Arber (1938) thought it curious that pressing plants wasn’t introduced earlier since pieces of fabric or thin sheets of wood could be used in place of paper and put it down to a lack of ingenuity.  By the time modern botany had begun to emerge in the first half of the 16th century, paper was becoming more familiar commodity and the rough type used to packaging would serve in drying plants.  In fact, it was more absorbent than papers that were sized, that is, coated with something like animal glue or gelatin to create a smoother surface and more receptive to printer’s ink.

But botanists weren’t just using paper to press and preserve plants, but were writing letters, taking notes, and making lists of plants in their gardens or encountered on field trips.  As Valentina Pugliano (2012) notes, lists were “among the new tools at the naturalist’s disposal for dealing with a scientific world increasingly populated by objects” (p. 716).  Luca Ghini, purported by some to be the creator of the first herbarium but definitely one of its key proponents, sent out seed lists each year from the Pisan botanical garden which he directed (Findlen, 2017).  His correspondents could request any of the listed seeds for planting, and some probably then made specimens of their own from the plants.  The seeds themselves were usually wrapped in paper, and Ghini was also known for sending portions of his herbarium to colleagues along with notes and drawings or prints as ways to communicate about plants.

Ghini’s protégé and his successor at the University of Bologna, Ulisse Aldrovandi, used paper on a large scale.  There are 15 volumes of his herbarium still extant and over 80 volumes of notes.  He developed a paste to adhere specimens to paper, and he also used it to paste slips of paper as additions to his notes.  The slips could be shifted to where the information might be more relevant.  This system was also used by Conrad Gessner in Switzerland and later by Carl Linnaeus when he added information to his Species Plantarum that was interleafed with blank pages.  Slips had the advantage of mobility when ideas were uncertain.  All this seems mundane to us, but these tools were being developed as botanical knowledge burgeoned and must at times have seemed unmanageable (Müller-Wille & Charmantier, 2012).

A number of botanists, such as Felix Platter, filed illustrations along with specimens in notebooks.  His are now in the Bern City Library and can be viewed on the web.  He often pasted a plant on the right-hand side and a print, drawing, or both on the left, with each supplementing the information in the other.  He also made the most of the images he had.  He somehow acquired the original watercolors by Hans Weiditz that were used to make the woodcuts in for Otto Brunfels’s classic 1530 herbal, one of the first printed herbals with naturalistic illustrations.  Weitz made the best use of his paper by painting on both sides of a sheet.  Platter didn’t want to sacrifice either image, so he cut around them, and pasted the cutouts across from their respective plants.  In most cases, the pieces were substantial enough to be useful, and perhaps the least successful were discarded.  This is a reminder both of how precious paper was and how ardent botanists were in trying to document plant information (Benkert, 2016).


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

Basbanes, N. A. (2013). On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History. New York: Knopf.

Benkert, D. (2016). The ‘Hortus Siccus’ as a Focal Point: Knowledge, Environment, and Image in Felix Platter’s and Caspar Bauhin’s Herbaria. In S. Burghartz, L. Burkart, & C. Göttler (Eds.), Sites of Mediation (pp. 211–239). Leiden, NLD: Brill.

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

Müller-Wille, S., & Charmantier, I. (2012). Natural history and information overload: The case of Linnaeus. Studies in the History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 43, 4–15.

Pugliano, V. (2012). Specimen Lists: Artisanal Writing or Natural Historical Paperwork? Isis, 103(4), 716–726.

Weber, T. (2007). The Language of Paper: A History of 2000 Years. Bangkok: Orchid.

Specimens, Specimens: Uses

Box from John Percival’s wheat collection, University of Reading Herbarium

In this series of posts (1,2,3), I’ve been exploring herbarium specimens in a relatively fine-grained way, at the level of the individual specimen or a single person’s collection.  I want to end by giving a few examples of how useful one specimen can be.  The most obvious case is a holotype, the specimen used in the description of a species that is designated as having this role, perhaps along with others that also were involved, called isotypes.  Today, holotypes are named in the publication of the species, but this wasn’t so in the past, and the laborious process of designating holotypes, or in some cases lectotypes (when the original author did not designate a type), or other type categories continues.  In some cases, types are rediscovered.  Alex George (2018) reports on the type specimen of the Australian species, Donia formosa, the Sturt pea, described by George Don, a British botanist.  The specimen was thought to be in the herbarium of the Natural History Museum, London, but a search proved unproductive, so it was assumed to have been lost.  Now a specimen found in the herbarium of the Geneva Botanic Gardens, with an annotation by Don, has been officially designated by Alex George as the holotype.  He also clarifies that the plant was collected by Allan Cunningham on Malus Island in the Straight of Dampier off the coast of West Australia.  So this one specimen has done much to illuminate both the history and taxonomy of the Sturt pea.

Another way specimens are used in taxonomy is becoming more common as DNA sequencing technology improves.  Herbarium specimens are being mined for information on the origin and spread of cultivated species.  A specimen of sweet potato, Ipomoea batata, collected by Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander in the Society Islands in 1769 was used in a study on how the plant spread through the Pacific Islands from its origin in South America.  Obviously this wasn’t the only specimen tested, but it provided key information.  As smaller samples are required for testing and the techniques become increasingly sensitive, such work will become more common.  Of course, it depends on curators allowing removal of small samples, and this requires a serious decision, balancing present and future research needs.

Sometimes specimens are useful in telling stories to entice interest in a plant collection.  Allan Elliott, a Sibbald Fellow at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, wrote a post about an “unassuming section of trunk sitting on a desk in the herbarium office after being “discovered” in the back of a carpological cupboard.  It arrived in our collection in February 1940 and is possibly from a plant of Rhododendron arboreum grown from the very first introduction of this species in 1797.”  Elliott goes on to describe this provenance by citing a note attached to the wood, written by William Evans who worked in the herbarium from 1919 to 1944.  Evans notes that the piece was delivered to the herbarium after the tree came down by the weight of snow.  It grew at Kirkdale house, which was owned by a family whose ancestor had served in the army in India and had likely obtained the seed from Capt. Hardwicke.  He also supplied seeds to James Edward Smith who described the species.

In an later Tweet, Elliott, still on the rhododendron hunt, includes pictures of a specimen of Rhododendron disterigmoides ssp. astromontium that is “an overlooked type and the only representative of this subspecies at RBGE.”  He particularly likes the specimen because it includes a map and as well as SEM images in an attached packet.  The scanning electron microscope is another technology that can be used in studying preserved plant material.  Elliott’s fellowship involves horticulture and the RBGE’s living collection, but obviously he sees his work as tied to and enriched by the herbarium’s resources, including its long history.

There are unusual collections of plants that can give insights into social history.  I’ll present two exampled here that tell a lot about 19th-century attitudes toward plants.  The first are Biblical herbaria.  There is a video produced by the University of Leeds on this Victorian genre.  These collections were marketed as portable kits that could be used for inspirational lectures, Bible study groups, and Sunday school.  It was also common for travelers to the Holy Land to return with albums of plants, and publishers came up with the idea of marketing what were essentially exsiccatae of these plants, including descriptions of the species and citations on where they were mentioned in the Bible (Greene, 1895).

There were also many 19th century exsiccatae of grasses, some focused on their horticultural uses and others on agriculture.  Three examples from Britain are very different from each other.  M. Sutton’s Analyses of Natural Grasses is a beautiful wooden case with tiny boxes of seeds below a striking display of grass inflorescences, a rich landowners way of displaying agricultural expertise.  David Moore, director of what is now the National Botanic Garden in Ireland, produced a more traditional exsiccatae of the indigenous grasses of Ireland in 1843.  John Percival’s collection, though limited to wheats, is the most impressive80 boxes with specimens collected around the world, along with notes including archaeological details.  This complete collection is at the University of Reading’s herbarium.  And it seems a fitting way to end this ramble among specimens.


George, Alex. S. (2018). The type of Sturt pea found. Swainsona, 31, 49–53.

Greene, H. B. (1895). Wild Flowers of Palestine. New York: Christian Herald.