Early Botanical Explorations in Latin America: Monardes

3 Tobacco

Nicotinia pictured in Joyfull Newes Out of the New Founde Worlde in Biodiversity Heritage Library

One of my favorite natural history book titles is Joyfull Newes Out of the New Founde Worlde, published in England by John Frampton in 1577.  But Frampton didn’t write the book, he just translated it from the Spanish and introduced Latin America to the British reading public.  The author was Nicolás Monardes (1493-1588), who himself never set foot in the New World.  So why mention him in a series of blog posts on botanical exploration in the Americas?  I’ve chosen to deal with him because he wrote a very good book that became popular throughout Europe.  It represents a different approach to learning about exotic plants.  Monardes never saw them growing in their native soil, but he did grow them in his garden where he observed them closely, collected seeds and specimens from them, and distributed these to correspondents throughout Spain and Europe.  He also experimented with preparing medicines from the plants he grew, and this information went into his written descriptions.

Monardes was well-placed to obtain botanical information from Latin America because he lived in Seville, the only port from which Spanish ships sailed to the New World. He was a trader who dealt in a number of products including dyes, hides, medicines, and cloth.  He was also a physician who incorporated new plants he came upon in trade into his medical practice, often after experimenting with what he had grown in his garden.  In addition, one of his sons settled in Peru and sent back specimens, seeds, and information.  While the writers I dealt with in the last two posts—Gonzalo Oviedo, José de Acosta, and Francisco Hernández—all discussed a broad range of topics including not only information on plants, but on animals, geography, and ethnography, Monardes focused exclusively on plants and particularly those that had medicinal uses.  As Daniela Bleichmar (2017) notes, while plants from Constantinople and the Near East, including tulips and other flower bulbs, were treasured for their rarity and beauty, those from the New World were valued more for their medicinal properties.

One of the reasons Monardes’s book was so popular was that he described at length plants with fascinating properties.  For example, he devoted 16 pages to tobacco.  It was one of the first New World plants extensively used in Europe and during the 16th century 60 different European books dealt with it; another 350 were published during the first half of the 17th century.  It can be seen as the marijuana of its time, though admittedly Cannabis was known and used from ancient times.  Monardes named tobacco Nicotiana for his friend Jean Nicot who was French Ambassador to Lisbon and was said to have introduced tobacco to the French court where it soon became popular (see figure above).  Bleichmar gives a thorough review of early attitudes toward this plant’s use.  Some considered it a panacea, a miracle drug to treat a variety of ailments from arthritis to toothaches, and even bad breath.  Monardes was among those with this viewpoint, and the popularity of his book meant that these ideas spread through Europe.  On the other hand, some saw tobacco as a moral poison, a branch of the sin of drunkenness, with the spewing of stinking fumes leading to shameful lust.  In part, this attitude stemmed from reports of how tobacco was used by indigenous peoples which left them in day-long stupors.  Fortunately, other plants Monardes presented were more benign.  Of course, chocolate was discussed as was the sunflower, passion flower, sweet potato, and the pepper.

Vivid descriptions of so many plants is what made Monardes’s book popular.  Frampton’s translation into English definitely had a catchy title, but what also stimulated sales was the brisk trade that existed at this time between the Iberian Peninsula and Britain.  Tobacco and other exotic plant products were becoming available so there was a positive feedback between supply and information, each spurring on the other.  The Dutch botanist Carolus Clusius, who had collected in Spain and spoke Spanish as well as seven other languages, translated the book into Latin, producing an abridged version and giving it a broad audience among the educated classes throughout Europe (Egmond, 2010).  Later, in his book on exotic plants Clusius drew heavily from Monardes.  This was a common practice among botanists of the day and was often responsible for rapid diffusion of botanical knowledge.

The original Spanish edition as well as Clusius’s and Frampton’s books were all illustrated, another reason for the book’s popularity.  By the later part of the 16th century, woodcuts had become more common in the botanical literature, particularly in books that were meant for a wide readership, rather than more technical taxonomic works such as that of Cesalpino (see earlier post).  In the second edition of his book, Monardes quotes a letter from a Spaniard in Peru who wrote that he relied on the book for information identifying native medicinal plants because the indigenous people were not forthcoming with information, one reason being that plant use was often tied to their religion.  This suggests the complexities of communicating botanical knowledge between the new and old worlds in the early modern period.

References

Bleichmar, D. (2017). Visual Voyages: Images of Latin American Nature from Columbus to Darwin. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Egmond, F. (2010). The World of Carolus Clusius: Natural History in the Making, 1550-1610. London, UK: Pickering and Chatto.

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Early Botanical Explorations in Latin America: Hernández

2 Cactus

Cactus in Rerum medicarum Novae Hispaniae thesaurus (1651) in Biodiversity Heritage Library

In the last post, I discussed two early commentators on Latin American natural history, Gonzalo de Oviedo and José de Acosta.  While they were careful observers, spent much time in the New World, and wrote extensively on its flora, there is no evidence that they collected plant specimens.  Oviedo traveled from 1514-1546 and published in 1526 with an expanded edition in 1535.  The earliest extant herbarium is from 1532, the work of a student of the Italian Luca Ghini (see earlier post), who probably originated the practice of pressing plants.  In other words, Oviedo’s observations were made so early that it’s unlikely he even knew of the technique, especially because there was far more communication by the Italians with French, German, and English naturalists, than with the Spanish.  However, by the time King Philip II of Spain sent Francisco Hernández de Toledo (1514-1587) his personal physician to the New World in 1570, things had changed.  The technique was no longer a novelty, so it’s not surprising that Hernández was said to have collected specimens of upwards of 3000 plants, many of medicinal importance.

Hernández arrived in Mexico in 1571 and toured the country and other areas of Central America until 1577 when he returned to Spain because of ill health.  He had worked with a team including a geographer, artists, botanists, and indigenous medical practitioners who had the expertise to lead him to interesting and useful plants.  While it is not always the case that native knowledge was acknowledged by explorers, it was almost always drawn upon because the new comers knew nothing of an area’s geography nor of the culture of its people.  In addition, the plants were so different in this “new” world, that even expert European botanists were perplexed by the flora they encountered, to say nothing of attempting to figure out their medicinal uses.  Hernández was more than willing to seek local expertise and to credit it.  He noted the native language, Nahuatl, names for each species and also had three indigenous artists document the plants.

When Hernández returned to Spain with this material, the King was thrilled, but thought that Hernández wasn’t up to making order out of it, so he gave the task to his new physician, the Italian Nardo Antonio Recchi.  Thus began a complex and lengthy process that ultimately led to the publication of only a part of Hernández’s hoard.  Recchi did not see the Nahuatl names and indigenous information as useful to Europeans.  Instead, he chose to focus on material that was somewhat similar to plants found in Europe.  Later research suggests that he used only about 600 of Hernández’s 3000 specimens.  This approach, not surprisingly, caused conflict with Hernández, and Recchi returned to Italy in 1583 claiming health concerns and settling in Naples.  He brought with him a copy of his manuscript and 600 illustrations produced from Hernández’s drawings, yet he never published the work.  After Recchi died in 1594, the manuscript passed to his nephew who hadn’t the means to publish it, yet there was still interest.  Naples had an active botanical community including Fabio Colonna and Giovanni della Porta who were anxious to learn about plants of the New World, though finally it was a Roman who made a move.

Federico Cesi was 19 years old when he banded together with three friends to form the Accademia dei Lincei or Academy of the Lynx in Rome in 1603, the name coming from the lynx’s keen eye, suggesting that the group saw observation as key to scientific inquiry (Freedberg, 2002).  Though they were not all naturalists—Galileo later joined the group—they were committed to the importance of visual evidence in the study of nature.  As early as 1604, the Lincei, as the group was called, set their sights on obtaining the Hernández/Recchi manuscript.  At last, Cesi went to Naples in 1610 not only to locate it but to encourage Neapolitan naturalists including Colonna and della Porta to establish a branch of the Lincei in their city.  While there, Cesi arranged to obtain the images and text from Recchi’s nephew.  But Cesi died before completing the work, which the Lincei finally finished publishing in 1651 (see figure above).  Each entry did begin with the Nahuatl name of the species, making it at the time the largest botanical glossary of non-European names.  This publication, though it represented a limited portion of Hernández’s original material, became particularly important after much of the Hernández documents, including his herbarium, was destroyed in a fire in the King of Spain’s Escorial Palace in 1671.  This explains why there are no specimens linked to Hernández’s writings.

There are still other threads to this story.  In 1626 Cassiano dal Pozzo, one of the Lincei, visited Spain with Cardinal Barbarini and following Cesi’s instructions, examined Hernández’s drawings.  While there, Barbarini obtained the Codex de la Cruz-Badiano, an Aztec herbal, and the Lincei had it copied (the original is in the National Library of Anthropology in Mexico and the copy in the Royal Library, Winsor).  They tried to correlate it with the Hernández material, but couldn’t; the cultural gap was too wide (Gimmel, 2008).  Also, as Daniela Bleichmar (2017) describes in her book on Latin American exploration, there was an edition of the Hernández/Recchi Latin manuscript published in Mexico City in 1539.  It was a Spanish translation by Francisco Ximénez, who added some of his own commentaries on the plants.  There were 478 entries describing the species’ traits and medicinal uses.  There were no illustrations, but Mexicans found the book helpful because the plants were familiar to them and this was a handy reference.  On the other hand, Europeans complained that even with illustrations, the Lincei edition was of little medical use because most of the plants described were unavailable in Europe.

References

Bleichmar, D. (2017). Visual Voyages: Images of Latin American Nature from Columbus to Darwin. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Freedberg, D. (2002). The Eye of the Lynx. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Gimmel, M. (2008). Reading Medicine in the Codex de las Cruz Badiano. Journal of the History of Ideas, 69(2), 169–192.

Early Botanical Explorations in Latin America: Oviedo and Acosta

1 Pineapple Oviedo

Pineapple pictured in Historia general de las Indias (1535) in Biodiversity Heritage Library

The last set of posts (1,2,3,4) dealt with early European botanical exploration in Asia and how it was documented both in publications and in herbarium collections that are still extant.  This set of entries again looks at early European botanical exploration in Latin America.  Here again, publications resulted from the work, but there are few known plant collections surviving.  So why even discuss the topic in a blog devoted to herbaria?  Well, I argue that this absence reveals something about the history of herbaria, the aims of exploration, and the many threats to the longevity of preserved plant material.

Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés (1478-1557) published the first work on the natural history of the New World by someone who had been there.  This was in 1526 after he had traveled in the Caribbean and South America from 1514 to 1523.  He returned again in 1526 and remained for 20 years, during which he published a second larger version, Historia general de las Indias (1535), with 35 woodcuts.  Like most early natural histories on newly discovered lands, this one dealt not only with plants but with animals and the cultural use of natural materials as well as geography.  Still, it was filled with wonderous and novel plants, especially food plants.  The book included what may be the first illustration of corn, and Oviedo also described the avocado, banana, and papaya.  He explained the preparation of cassava and in his 1535 book, introduced the pineapple to Europeans, discussing its delicious sweetness as well as its odd structure.  The book included an illustration of the fruit (see figure above), but the drawing wasn’t done from live material, so while it gives the essence of the pineapple and is identifiable, it is hardly an accurate rendition.  However this doesn’t reduce the value of Oviedo’s work that documents what an early European observer found most exciting about the vegetation of the American tropics.  He emphasized the importance of direct observation of wonders that were so different from those in Europe.  Since the earliest known herbarium dates from 1532, it’s not surprising that Oviedo didn’t collect specimens.  Physical documentation of what was observed would come later, though seeds and cuttings reached Europe from Columbus’s time on.

Another plant Oviedo described was the cacao tree, and he wasn’t the only one to be fascinated by chocolate and the ways it was used by indigenous peoples, including mixing it with eggs and feeding it to children.  Others discussed its medicinal benefits in treating diarrhea, coughing, and other ailments.  Among these writers was José de Acosta (~1539-1600), a Jesuit missionary who spent 20 years in Latin America, first in Peru and then for a short time in Mexico.  In Peru he had an number of positions, including five years touring the country as assistant to the Viceroy Francisco de Toledo.  Acosta took extensive notes on what he saw, not only on the animals and plants, but on the geography of the regions in which he traveled and the customs and history of the indigenous peoples.

When Acosta returned to Spain in 1588, he wrote a seven-volume book on his observations, Histoire naturelle et moralle des Indes.  As the title suggests, he wrote from a Christian perspective about this new world and its native populations, noting their customs and their response to Christian ideas.  But this was more than just a religious work.  Acosta was an acute observer who gave detailed, firsthand descriptions and did not sensationalize native customs as some Spanish writers did, nor did he push the religious viewpoint too far.  He discussed granadilla or small pomegranate, which had been described as the passionflower because some observers saw its intricate flower as having anthers that resembled the nails of Christ’s cross and the corolla, the crown of thorns.  Acosta considered this fanciful and metaphorical, and didn’t think it added anything to the description of the plant which had important medicinal uses.

Acosta was an early example of a class of botanical observers, that is, religious missionaries, who made important contributions to botanical knowledge well into the 20th century.  Especially at the time he visited Latin America, people didn’t travel just to study plants.  This role was tacked on to others, such as physician, colonial administrator, military man, or missionary.  In some cases, these occupations took most of the individual’s time and natural history observation was a sideline.  In other cases, the latter became the main focus.  This was in part because learning about the natural world was seen as a way to learn about God through his creations and also as an important part of taking control politically and culturally in these new lands.

Aside from the web sources I’ve linked to, much of the information for this post came from Daniela Bleichmar’s book, Visual Voyages: Images of Latin American Nature from Columbus to Darwin (2017), based on an exhibition of the same name at the Huntington Library, Arts Collections, and Botanic Gardens in San Marino, California.  It’s a beautiful book with a very interesting text, but I was loathed to buy it because I had Bleichmar’s earlier book (2011), Visible Empire: Botanical Expeditions and Visual Culture in the Hispanic Enlightenment, which covers Spanish expeditions of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  I thought there would be a great deal of overlap.  Then I read a review in which Patricia Jonas had made the same assumption and then discovered that she was wrong.  So I bit the financial bullet and bought the book; it was definitely worth it.  There is little redundancy between Bleichmar’s two works, and Visual Voyages is striking in the way text and illustrations are closely connected and complement each other.  I will again be using the book as a source for the following posts about other early writers on Latin American natural history.

References

Bleichmar, D. (2011). Visible Empire: Botanical Expeditions and Visual Culture in the Hispanic Enlightenment. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Bleichmar, D. (2017). Visual Voyages: Images of Latin American Nature from Columbus to Darwin. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Herbarium Travels: Petiver, Plukenet, and Sloane

4 Phytographia

Title page of Leonard Plukenet’s Phytographia. In the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

The names of James Petiver, Leonard Plukenet, and Hans Sloane have come up a number of times in the last three posts on plant collectors in Asia (1,2,3).  This is despite the fact that none of them traveled East, and only Sloane ever left Europe, spending a couple of years in Jamaica.  However, these men are important to the story of early botanical discovery in Asia because they were the recipients of specimens collected there.  Without them, the finds might not have survived for well over 300 years.  All three had a passion for collecting and were members of the Temple Coffee House botanic club.  In the case of Petiver and Plukenet, they were also driven to write about botany.  Sloane did produce a two-volume Natural History of Jamaica, which has fascinating descriptions as well as illustrations of the island’s flora and fauna, but it took him decades after his visit to complete the project.  The other two were more consistently prolific, drawing on their collections for subjects.  I should also say that everything I write about the three is slanted in that I only deal with plants, while they all collected broadly, especially Sloane, whom I’ve discussed in an earlier post.  Plukenet and Petiver published on new animal as well as plant species, especially insects since they were the easiest to transport.

Leonard Plukenet (1642-17106) trained in medicine and had an affluent medical practice that supported his family of seven children and his collecting habit as well.  In 1690, he was made supervisor of the king’s gardens at Hampton Court Palace, so he moved in high social circles, but he also had a botanical network.  Like Petiver and Sloane he was a member of the Temple Coffee House botanic club and in addition was connected with such outstanding botanists as John Ray, who thought highly of his plant knowledge.  Plukenet collaborated with Ray on the second volume of the latter’s Historia Plantarum.  He also published his own work, beginning with the three-volume Phytographia (1691-1692) that had 250 plates and was produced at his own expense.  Another volume came out in 1696, followed by three other works.  All were published together in 1720.  James Dandy (1958), who cataloged Sloane’s herbarium, where Petiver’s and Plukenet’s collections eventually ended up, wrote that Phytographia was an important publication because it described so many new species and included illustrations of them.  It was used extensively by Carl Linnaeus, who in many cases relied exclusively on Plukenet’s text and images to name species.  There are some wonderful gems in Plukenet’s collection including specimens from John Banister who collected in Virginia, the pirate William Dampier material from India, and the James Cuninghame specimens I mentioned in the last post.

James Petiver (1658-1718) was an even more avid collector than Plukenet.  He did not have Plukenet’s economic resources, so he had to finance his publications by subscription.  Most of these works were each composed of descriptions of 100 species, primarily plants.  And as with Plukenet’s writings, his were cited by Linnaeus.  Petiver was scrupulous about giving credit to the collectors who sent him specimens, because this was a way of rewarding them and also encouraging them to send more material.  He worked hard at cultivating travelers of all kinds as collectors.  In a biographical sketch, Raymond Stearns (1952) writes:  “Anyone who went abroad, especially if they were educated were asked: friends, friends of friends, customers, fellow apothecaries, physicians, surgeons, captains, merchants, planters, and missionaries” (p. 261).  However, he wasn’t just interested in exotic plants; those from Britain and the continent were also well received, and he participated in the Temple Coffee House botanic club’s Sunday field trips as well.

Petiver even wrote an instruction sheet on collecting.  This included a N. B.:  “As amongst Foreign Plants, the most common Grass, Rush, Moss, Fern, Thistle, Thorn, or vilest Weed you can find, will meet with Acceptance, as well as a Scarcer Plants” (p. 365).  He also wrote that plants in fruit or flower were more desirable, and that fleshy fruits should be sent in spirits or brine.  He was happy to provide jars, papers, and other needed supplies, and was willing to pay for specimens.  In some cases, he supplied medicines for the collectors’ physical complaints.  He also scolded them if they didn’t come through, and one collector was so angered he sent nothing more.  Of course, materials often were lost in transit, and it was particularly frustrating to Petiver when letters got through but the specimens didn’t; the letters promised wonders that he then didn’t receive.  The picture painted by Dandy and Stearns is of a man obsessed, and Petiver’s passion was obviously fueled by discussion at the coffee house, where the group connived schemes to send collectors to areas of interest.  This even involved encouraging one of the members, Bishop Henry Compton, to assign a botanically trained Anglican priest to North America.

There is something about this group that intrigues me:  a band of plant zealots meeting over coffee for many years.  Petiver joined when the group began in 1689 and was still a member at his death in 1718.  When I was in London a few years ago, I went to the Temple Bar area and found the lane where the coffee house once stood.  This is a part of the city that has retained many of its old buildings and narrow streets, so it was relatively easy to visualize these men hurrying to reach their meeting place on a dark winter’s night, have a nice hot coffee, and look at plant specimens.  What could be better than that?

Reference

Stearns, R. P. (1952). James Petiver: Promoter of Natural Science, c. 1663-1718. Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, 62, 243–365.

Herbarium Travels: James Cuninghame

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Specimens collected by James Cuninghame in Amoy (now Ziamen), China. In the Sloane Herbarium at the Natural History Museum, London.

James Cuninghame (ca. 1665-1709) was a Scottish physician who was the first voyager to successfully send plant specimens from China to Europe.  Little is known about his early life, not even his date of birth.  However by the 1690s, he was studying medicine in London and had contact with members of the botanic club that met at the Temple Coffee House (Riley, 2006).  Among the club members were such plant enthusiasts as James Petiver, Leonard Plukenet, and Hans Sloane, whose herbarium figured in the last two posts (1,2) and will do so again here.  Cuninghame made two trips to China and on both he was able to amass a large collection of plants, as well as zoological specimens.  Obviously, the ships he travelled on made many stops along the way, and he collected in these areas as well, so his herbarium also contains plants from Java, what is now Vietnam, the Cape of Good Hope, and the Canary Islands.  His specimens from these islands are again the earliest known.

While it had been assumed that Cuninghame had been employed by the British East India Company (EIC) for both his voyages to China, recent research on his letters that are in the British Library indicate that the first time in 1697 he was not on a company ship, but rather went on a private vessel as a free-lance merchant (Jarvis and Oswald, 2015).  The Tuscan arrived in Amoy, one of the few Chinese ports open to foreign traders, in July 1698 and remained for six months.  During that time, Cuninghame collected 176 plant species and seed samples for 84 of them.  He also commissioned almost 800 plant watercolors done by local artists.  All are named and some have notes on their uses.  This is an amazing treasure trove that is still extant in the British Library.

In 1700, Cuninghame left for China again, this time in the employ of the EIC.  He remained on the island of Chusan (now Zhousan) south of Shanghai for two years and made large collections of plants, animals, and cultural materials.  In 1703 the EIC’s post in Chusan was abandoned, and Cuninghame was sent to Cochin China in what is now Vietnam where he continued to collect.  There was a rebellion there in 1705, and he was the only member of his group who survived.  Cuninghame was imprisoned for two years and finally made his way to Indonesia and on to India, where he wrote his last letter to Petiver and Sloane, and where he died in 1709.  All Cuninghame’s specimens arrived safely in England.  His saga points to the hardships of the plant collector’s life, particularly in those early days, though traveling to remote areas and dealing with political, physical, and cultural difficulties remains difficult.

Almost all of Cuninghame’s specimens, manuscripts, and watercolors ended up in the Sloane collection.  While many of his specimens were studied and published, there are still some that have never been given determinations, hinting at interesting finds that may still lurk in the Sloane Herbarium not only related to Cuninghame but to other collectors as well (Dandy, 1958).  There are many duplicates since not only was Sloane sent material directly, but much was also sent to Leonard Plukenet and James Petiver, who were also Cuninghame’s patrons and avid collectors.  At times they could be less than cordial to each other, with each denigrating the other’s collections and methods.  Of the two, Plukenet was more careful in mounting and labeling his specimens.  Particularly toward the end of his life, Petiver let his material get away from him and many of his sheets look carelessly prepared.  He also had the habit of removing old labels and then not replacing them, so some of his collection is nearly worthless.  However, he and Plukenet were both trained in medicine and were skilled botanists.  They each received collections from many plant explorers and then published lists of descriptions of these species, often with illustrations.  These are important documents since some of them were cited by Carl Linnaeus in Species Plantarum (1753).

Petiver published a description of Camellia japonica in 1702, including the first printed illustration of the species.  This is just one of 200 Cuninghame species that Petiver described.  Plukenet presented images of Cuninghame’s plants in his Phytographia, which appeared in several volumes, and also describes them in Amaltheum Botanicum, which like Petiver’s work is a list of plant descriptions.  Plukenet quoted from the extensive information Cuninghame had included on his labels, a level of detail not common at that time. Plukenet’s and Petiver’s publications were eagerly received by plant enthusiasts, including those, like John Ray, who were interested in plants in their own right, and also horticulturalists who were seeking new and interesting species to grow in their gardens.

Not only are Cuninghame’s specimens, notes on plants, and drawings important, but so are observations on Chinese cultural practices.  For example, his is the first description by a Westerner of tea cultivation.  In other letters, he tells of adventures that have nothing to do with plants, such as his two-year imprisonment after the 1705 rebellion in Cochin China.  There are also letters that describe an earlier, though much briefer, incarceration on La Palma in the Canary Islands at the start of his first trip to the East.  The problem began when the captain tried to recapture crew members who had deserted the ship ,and the attempt ended up with the captain, crew and Cuninghame all being jailed.  There are a series of 12 letters between Cuninghame and a cleric named Juan Poggio, who was involved in the group’s release.  Plant collecting definitely involves a lot more than just pressing plants.

References

Jarvis, C. E., & Oswald, P. H. (2015). The collecting activities of James Cuninghame FRS on the voyage of Tuscan to China (Amoy) between 1697 and 1699. Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 69(2), 139-153.

Riley, M. (2006). The club at the Temple Coffee House revisited. Archives of Natural History, 33(1), 90–100.

Herbarium Travels: Engelbert Kaempfer

2 Sciadopitys verticillata

Specimen of Sciadopitys verticillata collected by Engelbert Kaempfer. In Sloane Herbarium at the Natural History Museum, London

The last post dealt with Paul Hermann, a German-born physician and plant collector who worked for the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in Asia.  This same description fits Engelbert Kaempfer (1651-1716) as well.  He was born in Westphalia, graduated from the University of Kraków, spent four more years studying in Königsberg, and eventually ended up in Uppsala, Sweden where he was offered a university position.  However, he was more interested in travel and took a position with a Swedish ambassador sent on a mission through Russia to Persia, leaving in 1683 and arriving in Isfahan in 1684.  After staying for a year, the Swedes returned home, while Kaempfer signed on with the VOC, becoming chief surgeon in the Persian Gulf.  This provided him with opportunities to see the region including Muscat and the coastlands of western India, collecting and taking note of the plants and animals he encountered.  By 1689, he was in Batavia (now Jakarta), studying Javanese natural history.   The following year, he was sent to Nagasaki as physician to the Dutch trading post there.

Aside from this port, which was open to Dutch and Chinese ships, Japan was essentially closed to foreigners.  Traders were usually confined to the port, and in fact, to a man-made island called Deshima which isolated them even more.  However, once a year the Dutch traveled to the capital at Edo to have an audience with the Shogun.  Kaempfer made the most of this opportunity and also studied the plants that he encountered in Nagasaki.  He encouraged locals to bring him material from other areas as well.  He also was interested in zoology, mineralogy, and climate, in addition to Japanese history and culture.  But since I only have eyes for plants, I’ll stick to them here.  Perhaps most notably Kaempfer was the first Westerner to describe the ginkgo tree and send specimens and seeds to Europe (Crane, 2013).  Seeds planted at the Leiden Botanical Gardens germinated, and some of those ginkgo trees survive today.  Kaempfer also described camellias and rhododendrons growing wild in mountainous areas.  He was very interested in economic botany and his History of Japan (1728) included a section on the types of plants that were central to Japanese culture.  Tea is one obvious example, but he also described mulberry leaves for feeding silkworms and making paper, the importance of giant radishes in the Japanese diet, and the failure of grapes to ripen.

Kaempfer documented all that he observed in careful notes, in seed collections, and in specimens.  He was able to learn a great deal because he was respectful of the Japanese, and they came to appreciate his medical expertise.  He received much information from interpreters.  He also used botanizing field trips during the pilgrimages to Edo as a way to gain knowledge about other aspects of Japanese life.  Michael Harbsmeier (2018) argues that Kaempfer’s case is an early example of fieldwork, of using local knowledge and working with native peoples to learn about an area.  Kaempfer had done the same thing earlier in Persia, where he befriended not a native, but a long-time resident of Isfahan, a French Capuchin monk named Raphäel de Mans who had been there almost 20 years when Kaempfer arrived.  This suggests that plant collecting involves a great deal more than just pressing plants, that social skills are important and can influence the success of fieldwork.

Kaempfer remained in Japan for two years, then stayed in Java, a Dutch stronghold, for another two, finally returning to Amsterdam in 1695.  He spent the rest of his life in Lemgo, where he had been born, serving as physician to the local count.  In 1712, he published Amoenitatum exoticarum or Exotic Delights, which presented the natural history of Japan as well as material on Persia.  He drew not only on what he had learned about Japanese plants firsthand, but also from such important Japanese natural history texts as its first illustrated encyclopedia Kinmo zui; many of his illustrations are based on those in this work.  When Kaempfer died four years later, his notes and specimens were sold to Hans Sloane, the great British “collector of collectors,” as James Delbourgo (2017) describes him.

In his 1958 catalog of Sloane’s 265-volume herbarium, James Dandy writes that Sloane Herbarium volume 211 of Kaempfer plants is among the most important volumes in the collection, and that probably no other has been consulted and cited so frequently.  Most of the plants are from Japan, but there are a few from Persia and Ceylon as well.  Some of the illustrations in Delights seem to be based on specimens.  There is a second Sloane volume H.S. 213 with Kaempfer plants, but contrary to the first, this one is of little value, having just scraps, often merely leaves and with many duplicates.  While the Paul Hermann specimens described in the last post are in several collections, there is no other known Kaempfer material outside of the Sloane Herbarium.  What makes volume 211 particularly useful is that Sloane also bought the accompanying manuscripts that included original plant drawings with Japanese names and with a list of references to the Delights and other works.  There was also the manuscript of Kaempfer’s history of Japan that Sloane’s German secretary translated into English.  Oddly, the German edition wasn’t published until many years later and was based on a translation from the English version.  As with the case of Hermann, specimens and documents of early plant hunters have long, and often twisting, stories attached to them, making them all the more interesting.

References

Crane, P. (2013). Ginkgo: The Tree that Time Forgot. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

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

Harbsmeier, M. (2012). Fieldwork avant la lettre. In K. Nielsen, M. Harbsmeier, & C. J. Ries (Eds.), Scientists and Scholars in the Field: Studies in the History of Fieldwork and Expeditions (pp. 29–50). Aarhus, Denmark: Aarhus University Press.

Kaempfer, E. (1728). The History of Japan. London: Woodward and Davis.

Herbarium Travels: Paul Hermann

1 Aerva lanata

Specimen of Aerva lanata collected by Paul Hermann. In Sloane Herbarium at the Natural History Museum London.

In the past I’ve written about the early herbaria of the 16th century (see 1,2).  The practice of preserving plants seems to have caught on quickly after Luca Ghini and his students developed the idea.  One reason for the popularity of pressed plants was that they were easily portable.  Not only were they frequently sent in letters among European botanists, but packages of them were also transported over long distances by explorers investigating plants around the world.  Specimens were what Bruno Latour (1987) terms “immutable mobiles,” forms of evidence that retain their information over time and distance.  In this series of posts, I’ll introduce just a few of these explorers and their specimens, the “immutable mobiles” they brought back.  There are a surprising number of these collections that have been at least partially preserved to the present day, and in many cases, they did further traveling once they arrived in Europe, as specimens were sold, bequeathed, and traded among plant enthusiasts.

A significant portion of Paul Hermann’s (1646-1695) collections survive in several different countries.  Hermann was born in Germany and studied medicine in Padua.  In 1672, he was recruited by the Dutch East India Corporation to be a medical officer in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka.  This was at the behest of Hans Willem Bentinck, a member of the aristocracy interested in acquiring new plant species for his impressive gardens.  At the time, horticulture was becoming an important driver of plant discovery.  On his trip to the East, Hermann stopped in Cape Town, South Africa, where he became the earliest known collector in the area.  He gave his specimens and seeds of 22 plants to a Danish surgeon, Hieremias Stolle, who was heading back to Europe.  This was perhaps as insurance against their loss on Hermann’s travels East.  Three years later, descriptions and illustrations of these species were published in Denmark.

Hermann spent five years in Ceylon where he amassed a large collection of hundreds of plants and illustrations.  There are four volumes of these specimens and one of illustrations at the Natural History Museum, London (NHM).  All the hands through which they passed on their way there aren’t known.  In fact, after Hermann’s death in 1695, they didn’t surface until 1744 when they were owned by the Danish Apothecary-Royal August Günther who loaned them to Carl Linnaeus.  It’s from here that their scientific interest arises, since many of the plants were studied, described, and named by Linnaeus, making them type specimens.  He published this work as Flora Zeylanica.  The collection was then returned to Günther who passed it on to the Danish Lord Chamberlain, Count Adam Gottlob Moltke, whose heirs sold it to a professor, who then sold it to Joseph Banks in 1793.  Banks eventually donated his herbarium to the British Museum, from which the NHM subsequently branched off.  Such journeys aren’t uncommon for old herbaria.  All this shuffling around suggests that these specimens were considered valuable, and especially after Linnaeus’s work on them.  But this is not the only extant Hermann material; the rest is spread over several collections.

Some specimens are at Oxford.  The British botanist William Sherard had studied at Padua with Hermann and later worked at Oxford.  He wrote a catalog of the Ceylonese plants after Hermann’s death.  Called Musaeum Zeylanicum, it was published in 1717.  Another set of specimens is at the Institut de France and was consulted by Johannes Burman for his Thesaurus Zeylanicus of 1736.  There is also an extensive collection of Hermann Ceylonese material in Leiden, but since it wasn’t consulted by Linnaeus it has attracted less attention.  However, a new study suggests that among the specimens there are four that were collected not by Hermann, but by Georg Eberhard Rumpf (1627-1702), more commonly known as Rumphius.  He spent almost 50 years on the island of Ambon in the Moluccas, now part of Indonesia.  Until now, no Rumphius specimens have been identified, but the authors of this paper argue that these four plants don’t grow in Ceylon, and that they have notations in Hermann’s handwriting referring to either Rumphius or Ambon (van Andel, et al, 2018).  That the collection dates overlap Rumphius’s in the area strengthens the argument and suggests even more travel for some of Hermann’s specimens.

Also in Leiden is another volume owned by Hermann, but with plants that weren’t collected by him.  They are from another area of Dutch interest in the 17th century, Suriname in northern South America.  They are attributed to Hendrik Meyer who was in the area and had a serious interest in plants and ethnobotany (van Andel et al., 2012).  They were collected around 1687 and have now been digitized so they can be viewed online.  After Hermann returned from Ceylon, he became director of the Leiden Botanical Gardens.  One of its most important patrons was Hieronymus Beverningk to whom the Suriname herbarium was later given.  So this group of plants has done much less traveling than some in this story.  As with many collections, Hermann’s are not totally that of one person, and even more so, their survival depended upon numerous individuals: Danes, British, Dutch, and French.  The many collections in which Hermann material can be found speaks strongly to the need for digitizing specimens so they can be accessed without extensive travel, and also for integrating digital collections from different institutions so related material can be accessed through one portal.  This is the present focus of interest by curators in many museums who have spent years getting collections on line (Soltis et al., 2018).  Now is the time to figure out how to get collections in different institutions, different countries, and even different continents to interact “seamlessly” with each other—no easy task.  Further examples of the challenge will come up in the following posts in this series on plants and explorers.

References

Latour, B. (1987). Science in Action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

van Andel, T. R., Mazumdar, J., Barth, E. N. T., & Veldkamp, J. F. (2018). Possible Rumphius specimens detected in Paul Hermanns Ceylon herbarium (1672-1679) in Leiden, The Netherlands. Blumea, 63, 11-19.

van Andel, T., Veldman, S., Maas, P., Thijsse, G., & Eurlings, M. (2012). The forgotten Hermann Herbarium: A 17th century collection of useful plants from Suriname. Taxon, 61(6), 1296–1304.

The Herbarium Aesthetic: Form and Beauty

Sarah Ann Drake

Epiphyllum crenatum by Sarah Ann Drake, courtesy of Biodiversity Heritage Library.

As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts (1,3) in this series, there is good neurological evidence for a link between cognitive and affective brain activities.  In other words when we think, we also feel.  It seems to follow from this that there would be a biological basis to aesthetics, to the pleasure we derive from many aspects of life.  And since we are organisms for which the visual is so important, it makes sense that what we see would attract us, in others words, be considered beautiful.  There are a number of different arguments for why an aesthetic sense would be wired into our genes.  Some are based on genetic unity, that we share genes with animals that are attracted to colors, scents, and sounds, so why wouldn’t we also have such capabilities (Skutch, 1992)?  If bees are drawn to flower forms and colors, why not us?  Coming from the other side; some argue that what makes us different from other species is an aesthetic sense.  They link it to a drive to make art, as an adaptation that builds community with others and thus makes those with similar genes more likely to survive and pass them on (Dissanayake, 1992).  Still another view is that there is an advantage to being attracted to habitats that might provide shelter or food, explaining why the savanna seems particularly alluring to humans, who evolved in such habitats in Africa (Ulrich, 1993).  Our sense of curiosity and love of novelty might also be innate because they allow us to investigate the world and learn from it.  I have given a very simplistic view of these approaches, because I am less interested in whether or not our attraction to beautiful plants is genetic and more in what that means for our experience of the green world.

It seems that people want to be near plants.  This is why so many have house plants, or garden, or hike, or even work in herbaria.  Of course, this is not just about plants.  Edward O. Wilson (1984) uses the term biophilia for an innate desire to be near living things.  Steven Kellert (1997, 2012) has written on the many kinds of evidence to support this idea, from patients recovering faster in hospital rooms with windows opening onto natural settings to improved mood after a walk in a park.  But there can be a more intimate relationship, getting to know the plant a little better when you have to consider whether you are watering it enough, or if it’s getting too much sunlight.

And then there is simply looking closely at a flower, examining its forms and colors—and doing this over and over again in a garden or on a field trip, or if neither are possible, then in the pages of books.  Humans don’t just want to experience beauty, but to preserve it in order to prolong or remember that experience.  Today, the most obvious way is with photography, in the past it was through drawing.  The advantage of the latter, even today, is that it deepens the visual experience and includes a tactile one as well.  We are back to issues of craft, as I discussed in an earlier post, and calling on different areas of the brain in still another type of cognitive and affective experience.  This is true even if the result is hardly a masterpiece; it’s still the record of a meaningful involvement with a plant.  And there is the comfort of knowing that endless examples of botanical art exist, created by those with greater skill at capturing the essence and detail of plants [see above].  If you need a fix, take a look at the Historical SciArt blog.

There is another possible level of interaction, and I’ll use as an example tree bark, which happens to be my obsession.  Yes, I was thrilled yesterday when I saw the season’s first cherry blossom and examined it closely, but I spent much more time with a piece of pine bark.  The texture appeals to me perhaps because it engages my fingers as well as my eyes.  Maybe it’s texture that also attracts me to herbarium specimens.  It’s certainly not a wide range of color.  But the textures and forms in a collection are endless.  The lack of color is a problem for some people.  Richard Fortey (2008) sees specimens as plant “mummies” and Edgar Anderson (1952) likens pressing specimens, to laying out corpses; neither are pleasant metaphors.  For me, the dull colors allow for more focus on form and surface features.

The deadness is also a reminder that this particular plant has a history, perhaps a long history.  In other words, there is a story attached to it, which might or might be told by the notations on the sheet.  As I discussed in an earlier post on collections and material culture, such stories are layered onto the taxonomic significance of the specimen.  Here again, the cognitive comes into play, but also the affective.  Everyone loves stories, and there is growing evidence that humans organize knowledge in stories, just another example of the intellect and the emotions interrelating.  Once again, biological aesthetic comes into play; it is at the foundation of our experience of the natural world, and the beauty of herbaria in all their facets is just one set of such manifestations.

References

Anderson, E. (1952). Plants, Man and Life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Dissanayake, E. (1992). Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why. New York: Free Press.

Fortey, R. (2008). Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum. New York, NY: Knopf.

Kellert, S. (1997). Kinship to Mastery: Biophilia in Human Evolution and Development. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Kellert, S. R. (2012). Birthright: People and Nature in the Modern World. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Skutch, A. (1992). The Origins of Nature’s Beauty. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Ulrich, R. (1993). Biophilia, biophobia, and natural landscapes. In S. Kellert & E. O. Wilson (Eds.), The Biophilia Hypothesis (pp. 73–137). Washington, DC: Island Press.

Wilson, E. O. (1984). Biophilia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

The Herbarium Aesthetic: Order and Unity

3 Fritillaria imperialis

In this series of posts on the herbarium aesthetic, it’s relevant to touch on aesthetic qualities, those features considered to make something beautiful and capable of eliciting emotions.  The usual list includes form, rhythm, balance, symmetry, unity and order.  The last seems particularly pertinent to the herbarium, which is all about order.  Without some organization, there is no point in having piles of specimens, because individual specimens can’t be easily located.  But besides being a practical necessity, there is something pleasant about order, whether it means tidying up a room or getting files alphabetized.  In the herbarium, order can refer to a number of things.  Consider a collection that’s being moved into a brand new facility with ranks of compact shelving (might as well dream big).  Making such a move requires planning and often involves more than replicating the ordering system used in the old space.  This would be the perfect time to reorganize, perhaps using APG IV (the fourth version of angiosperm phylogeny).  Or maybe it is better to stick with alphabetical order by family, a system used in many smaller academic herbaria where not everyone accessing the collection would be familiar with more taxonomically sophisticated systems.

Then there is finer-grained order.  Usually herbarium sheets are put into folders, perhaps one or more folders per species or per genus, depending on the size of the collection.  In some cases, a single species may require multiple folders, sorted geographically if it is a widespread one.  Many herbaria use colored folders, with different colors designating different geographical areas.  Believe me, there is absolutely no uniform color code here.  The only color used consistently is red to designate a type specimen.  Types may be filed with the rest of the specimens, or kept separately, perhaps in a more secure location, or at least where they can be easily moved if the collection is threatened by damage.

It must give curators, staff, and volunteers a great feeling of accomplishment when a move is complete, when order has been established.  Order does seem to generate a pleasant feeling at the very least.  That may be one of the reasons why bound herbaria went out of favor.  They confounded new forms of order; it was impossible to reorganize sheets without taking the entire book apart.  A master of order, Carl Linnaeus, devised the herbarium cabinet as an alternative.  But even here, entropy is the enemy of order.  It is very easy to misfile a specimen or a folder, and that can send it into oblivion.

Another aesthetic quality that comes into play in botanical systematics is unity.  I just read Peter Stevens (1994) book on Antoine-Laurent de Jussieu’s natural classification system for plants, definitely not an easy book.  What Jussieu was attempting was next to impossible based on the knowledge available at the end of the 18th century.  Stevens argues that the underlying principle behind this work was the idea of the continuity of nature, a form of the great chain of being.  Essentially this meant that that one form blended into the next: there were no gaps, creating an underlying unity of all living things.  This was an idea that originated with the ancient Greeks and was so attractive it had long staying power despite the fact that there were observations that didn’t fit the scheme.

After the theory of evolution developed, and particularly after DNA sequencing made it possible to put genetic relationships among organisms on a firmer footing, the unbroken chain was no longer tenable and morphed into a tree as the symbol for relationships among organisms.  But note, the necessity for metaphor did not disappear, an image was still needed with which to ground concepts.  Here is yet another aspect of the biological aesthetic: the pleasure of metaphor, of finding a way to link ideas.  As several commentators have shown, metaphor is intrinsic to the way we use language (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980; Brown, 2003).  So here again, as I’ve discussed in earlier posts (1,2), there is a connection between the cognitive and the affective:  what is intellectually useful is also likely to be emotionally satisfying.  There are three great books on the tree metaphor and its visualization which reveal many aspects of this pleasure (Pietsch, 2012; Archibald, 2014; Lima, 2014).

I had a botany professor in graduate school, William Crotty, who saw the beauty of plant forms as variations on a theme.  Right there is a musical metaphor used to describe what makes the study of plant structure so attractive.  When I think of this now, I automatically picture the amazing photographs of leaves, bulbs, anthers, etc. from the genus Fritillaria by the British botanist Laurence Hill [see photo above].  He won a gold medal in portfolio photography at the 2017 RHS Chelsea Flower Show for a portion of this work, Deconstructed Fritillaria.  To me it’s reminiscent of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s book on plant morphology (Arber, 1946 includes a translation of this essay) and of his imagining a urpflanze form to which all individual species’ forms can be related.  There are many good arguments against this romantic idea, but its continuing attractiveness to some botanists indicates its lure as well as, perhaps, some underlying substance.  This brings me back to Agnes Arber, whom I mentioned in the first post in this series.  She used Goethe’s ideas in her book on The Natural Philosophy of Plant Form (1950) and researchers have cited her work in discussing the similarity of flower development genes among angiosperms (Rutishauser & Isler, 2001).  She was also the author of a book on the early printed herbals (1938)  that remains an important reference in this field today.  It is filled with beautiful images from these books, which relates to the topic for my final post in this series:  plants are just plain beautiful.

Note: Thanks to Laurence Hill for his generous sharing of Fritillaria images.

References

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

Arber, A. R. (1950). The Natural Philosophy of Plant Form. Cambridge: University Press.

Archibald, J. D. (2014). Aristotle’s Ladder, Darwin’s Tree. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Brown, T. (2003). Making Truth: Metaphor in Science. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lima, M. (2014). The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge. New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press.

Pietsch, T. (2012). Trees of Life: A Visual History of Evolution. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Rutishauser, R., & Isler, B. (2001). Developmental Genetics and Morphological Evolution of Flowering Plants, Especially Bladderworts (Utricularia): Fuzzy Arberian Morphology Complements Classical Morphology. Annals of Botany, 88(6), 1173–1202.

Stevens, P. F. (1994). The Development of Biological Systematics: Antoine-Laurent de Jussieu, Nature, and the Natural System. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

The Herbarium Aesthetic: The Private Side of Taxonomy

Virtual Herbarium Image

Trifolium pratense collected by Paul Harwood, in NYBG Herbarium, specimen no. 02626317.

To help explain how scientists actually work, what Gerald Holton calls the private side of science, which I mentioned in my last post, chemist Michael Polanyi (1962) writes about “tacit knowledge.”  This is learning that can’t be put into words.  Driving a car is a good example; it is definitely something that can’t be mastered solely by reading the rules of the road.  There is too much body-centered learning involved:  how much pressure to put on the brake, the relationship between speed and control of the vehicle, how far to move the wheel to make the car turn right.  There is also a lot of tacit knowledge involved in botany.  Send a novice and an expert out into a field, then ask them a few minutes later how many different plant species they found.  Their answers are likely to be very different.  The botanist’s eye has been trained to pick up slight differences in form and color; only a great deal of field work makes this discernment possible.  The zoologist C.F.A. Pantin (1954) writes about what he calls “aesthetic recognition.”  By this he means that experts identify specimens differently than do neophytes.  A beginner will go through a key and systematically narrow down the possibilities until coming up with a name.  The expert is likely to name the specimen quickly without having to bother with this process, though they can then justify their answer by listing distinguishing features.

I find it interesting that Pantin describes the expert’s process as “aesthetic,” as an experience beyond words.  I think in general that is what an aesthetic experience is, one engaging mind and body that’s very difficult to describe.  “Aesthetic” also implies emotion—the expert “feels” that the ID is correct.  Birders talk about the “jizz” of a species, its overall form plus the way it moves, and I think there is something similar for many plants, at least as far as experts are concerned.  There is an emotional jolt that comes with an identification, it feels good to have nailed it, and it feels irksome if the answer turns out to be wrong.

I am interested in the aesthetic in this series of posts because I am trying to get at why interest in plants can be such an addictive pursuit.  I think there are a variety of answers and Pantin provides one.  Arber (see last post) and Polanyi provide others.  In all these cases, they are discussing links among seeing, thinking, doing, and feeling.  The connections are integral to the process of doing the science.  In part, it is about craft, a word with connotations from tacky artifacts to beer to exquisite pottery.  But here I am using the word in terms of expertise, the kind of tacit knowledge that Polanyi refers to.  This is everywhere in the work of a field botanist and taxonomist.  There is craft involved in knowing what to bring on a field trip and what to wear.  It takes skill to arrange specimens for pressing so the resulting herbarium sheet will look good and also display as much of a plant’s information as possible.  I learned this the hard way when I took a class with two masters of the art at New York Botanical Garden, Sheranza Alli and Daniel Atha.  By that time I had seen a lot of herbarium sheets and been enthralled by the beauty of many.  What I didn’t know was how hard it is to wrestle, and I do mean wrestle, a plant down on a sheet of newspaper.  I would get the leaves well placed, and then, while I was attempting to arrange the flower to reveal its parts, the leaves would pop up or the stem would start writhing around.  Darn.  It is very frustrating for a neophyte to see an expert doing this effortlessly—and quickly—but that’s what craft entails.

What is more obviously artistic about a herbarium sheet is the placement of the specimen, but if the plant wasn’t pressed well, the mounter can’t work miracles.  There are definitely issues of style and taste involved in all of this.  Some collectors go for quantity and size, filling a sheet with an overabundance of plant material, while others are more concerned with quality and artful arrangement.  After a while it’s sometimes possible to guess at the collector’s name from specimen characteristics.  This is hardly foolproof but it does point to aesthetic judgments being made.  There is also style in what goes on a label, and even where the label is placed.  This has become more codified over the years.  In many herbaria, it’s de rigueur for the label to be in the lower right-hand corner, in others, it tends to float depending on where there is the most space.  Also, the practice has become to add more and more information to the label, as opposed the terse info of the 19th century.  However, there is still room for personal taste.  When I worked at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden Herbarium, before it was shuttered, the herbarium supervisor, Paul Harwood, told me that his friends accused him of writing labels that were “Faulknerian” in their detail [see specimen above].  But sometimes those added pieces of information—on other species in the area, geology, and landmarks—come in handy, though it can make label transcription laborious.  In any case, herbarium sheets are rarely boring to look at because there can be a great deal of variety, the result of different tastes working at different times.

References

Pantin, C. F. A. (1954). The Recognition of Species. Science Progress, 42, 587–598.

Polanyi, M. (1962). Personal Knowledge. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.