Broadening Botany through Books: Women

This last post in this series on books (1,2,3), deals with one that was published over 20 years ago, but I just read it recently and think it is still timely.  In Revealing New Worlds: Three Victorian Women Naturalists, Suzanne Sheffield (2001) focuses on how Margaret Gatty, Marianne North, and Eleanor Ormerod created original scientific contributions as well as works of science popularization.  They were British, well-off financially, and middle-aged when their natural history endeavors blossomed.  Sheffield writes:  “All three women saw science as an intellectual pursuit to provide them with the thrill of discovery and to bring meaning to their lives through productive work beyond the usual female roles dictated by society” (p. 153).  She makes clear that they did this while heeding many of the dictates of that society.  If this book were written today, I think the societal constraints would be examined more deeply since there has been much research done in this area relatively recently.  However, I don’t see Sheffield’s approach as a defect, since it pays attention less to cultural constraints and more to what these women were actually able to accomplish

When Margaret Gatty (1809-1873) was 39 and exhausted after the birth of her seventh child, she went to a seaside resort to recover.  The change from a bustling household routine left her with time on her hands.  As she walked on the beach, she found herself noticing the algae washed up on the sand.  One of her acquaintances lent her a book on seaweed and that was all it took to push her into an entirely new world.  She returned home rejuvenated and equipped with books on algae and equipment for collecting macroalgae in addition to pressed specimens and a few in jars of seawater.   Of course, she still had seven children, but she enlisted them in later collecting trips and also entertained them with books she wrote for young readers not only on seaside creatures but on other areas of natural history.  A devout Christian, she framed her narratives in terms of nature as a reflection of God’s power and goodness. 

But there was also another side to Gatty’s writings.  In order to learn more about algae, she began to correspond with botanists in the field, including William Henry Harvey.  These men maintained contact because, while they helped her identify specimens and guided her to new sources of information, she in turn sent them species that were rare and in some cases new to science.  She also wrote careful descriptions of the areas where she found them.  She produced a guide to seaweed based on Harvey’s A Manual of the British Marine Algae, but she included her own comments on each species.  She also amassed a collection of specimens now held at the University of St. Andrews herbarium in Scotland. 

I’d like to write more about Gatty, but I’ve got two other exceptional women to discuss.  Like Gatty, Marianne North (1830-1890) saw a major change in her life at age 39.  Until that time she had remained in the family home to care for her widowed father.  When he died, she was financially comfortable and could continue to travel, as she had done a number of times with him.  Though she did produce a memoir on her travels, her talents were not so much in writing but in painting.  She didn’t take her art seriously until after her father’s death, when she began to focus on painting plants.  Her approach was different from most botanical artists.  She worked in oils, not in watercolors, and she painted plants in situ, not against a blank background, but rather as they appear in nature surrounded by their peers. 

North traveled extensively and painted what she saw.  She was a very careful observer and a good artist.  She even painted some species that were new to science.  Since she had the financial resources, she left money for a building at Kew to house hundreds of her paintings.  The North Gallery has two rooms on the first floor with a balcony gallery above one of them.  The walls are literally covered with paintings, a very 19th-century exhibition style.  The effect is almost overwhelming and may be one reason her work is sometimes denigrated:  it is difficult to attend to any one piece.  But as Sheffield points out, North was prescient in presenting plants as they exist in nature; she was also aware of how humans were degrading nature.  In her memoir, she wrote of the destruction of habitats as plantations were created in British colonies.

I am giving short shrift to the third Sheffield subject Eleanor Ormerod (1828-1901) not because she doesn’t deserve better, but she worked in entomology, not botany.  While she became interested in insects while in her twenties, she came into her own at 45 after her father died.  As Sheffield describes her, Ormerod was a “convincing popularizer and a closet professional” (p. 173).  In relation to the latter, she published 22 Reports of Observations of Injurious Insects, in which she drew on the expertise not only of scientists, but also of farmers and laborers who had firsthand knowledge of insect behavior and damage.  In addition, she experimented in her garden.  Since she prized her professionalism, it was very important to her that at the end of her life she received the first honorary degree awarded to a woman by the University of Edinburgh.


Sheffield, S. L.-M. (2001). Revealing New Worlds: Three Victorian Women Naturalists. New York: Rutledge.

Broadening Botany through Books: China

It’s obvious that modern botany developed in a Western context and it is also apparent that today, Chinese botanists are excelling in this field.  It’s also clear that looking at botany in a broader culture context, including a more global one, is important to the field’s future.  This makes Nicholas Menzies’s (2021) book Ordering the Myriad Things: From Traditional Knowledge to Scientific Botany in China very timely.  Though he sets it in a wider context, he deals primarily with the period from the opening of China to foreign influence after the 1842 Treaty of Nanking to the mid-20th century.  Though there had been some Western plant collectors and botanists in China, they had little impact on Chinese natural history.  The Jesuits began significant missionary work in China in 1582.  In 1658, Michel Boym published an illustrated Chinese flora and in the 1700s Pierre d’Incarville sent back seeds and specimens which are thought to be the oldest from China; they are now in the National Museum of Natural History herbarium in Paris and are labeled with both Chinese and Latin names. 

Many of the classical Chinese writings on plants dealt with materia medica, and the complex work of updating traditional plant names with Linnaean nomenclature began in the latter part of the 19th century.  Menzies explains just how difficult it was.  It was more than a question of linguistics; there were issues of what counts as a good textual description of a species.  One approach was to translate English-language botany books into Chinese.  This happened in the 1890s and by 1898, the first introductory botany text in Chinese was published.  Then as Menzies describes it, “The momentum moved from creating a new vocabulary for the science of botany to identifying Chinese plants, classifying them, and correctly assigning Chinese names that conformed to international nomenclature” (p. 74).

Once the Chinese interior was opened to foreigners, Western plant collectors financed by herbaria such as at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew or by nurseries began to explore many parts of the country, especially in the mountainous East, with its rich flora of rhododendrons and other flowering shrubs that were particularly attractive to gardeners.  Collectors like Augustine Henry, George Forrest, and Ernest Wilson relied on local collectors and indigenous knowledge to locate hundreds of new species and varieties, with all these seeds and specimens sent back home, where the plants were identified and given Linnaean names.  This knowledge only slowly seeped back to the East (Mueggler, 2011). 

Early in the 20th century Chinese students began to study in the West and then returned to train others.  Qian Chongshu earned degrees at the University of Illinois and the University of Chicago and went back to China in 1916 to work at an agricultural college.  There he founded what is thought to be the first Chinese herbarium.  Chinese botanists also began going on collecting expeditions and eventually leading them.  Zhong Guanguang is considered the earliest Chinese botanist to carry on collecting in a systematic fashion.  His specimens formed the start of what would become the Flora of China.  He supported thorough documentation with local uses, common names, and other data.   Menzies writes that “for the first part of the 20th century the collector was also the laboratory scientist; there was no old lineage of practitioners.  In the United States and Europe, field and laboratory parted ways in the 19th century” (p. 77).

When it came to publishing, there were problems early on with multiple names for the same species, and also difficulties with distinguishing between genera and species.  This was more than about translation, it was about conceptualization across a language and cultural divide.  There was also the issue of Japanese names for many of the same plants.  Another difficulty was the need not only for clear text but for illustrations.   A long tradition existed of using images in Chinese books of material media, the earliest dates to 1061 and the first in color from 1220.  But most of these images would not count as scientific illustrations.  An early proponent of clear and accurate plant art was the artist Cai Shou who developed standards for natural history drawings.  He worked in both color and in ink-and-wash in a style that was a hybrid of traditional art and scientific illustration.  His images provide information on the flower and on both sides of leaves, but he rarely added dissections or enlargements. 

The later artist Feng Chengru (1898-1968) developed a less traditional style, but one that was not totally Western either.  He used very fine lines and little shading or perspective.  His drawings are both clear and exquisite.  Feng wrote a manual on scientific drawing that was based on lecture notes he employed in his long teaching career.  He taught a group of botanical artists who became important to the work of the Flora of China.  This influence combined with his book meant that he had a significant effect on botanical communication in Asia.  His work is also a good way to end this discussion of modern Chinese botany, which now continues a long tradition of plant study with the latest of Western techniques.  In the 21st century, Chinese botanists are playing a significant role in plant genetics and molecular biology, while investigating the country’s rich biodiversity, which is still being revealed through collecting and systematic treatments.  Menzies provides a great introduction to how the present state of affairs came to be. 


Menzies, N. (2021). Ordering the Myriad Things: From Traditional Knowledge to Scientific Botany in China. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

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

Broadening Botany through Books: Physician’s Gardens

In this series of posts, I’m writing about books that look at botany more broadly, that is not just scientifically, but also in terms of various aspects of cultural history.  Here I want to explore a recent book by Clare Hickman (2022), The Doctor’s Garden: Medicine, Science, and Horticulture in Britain.  Hickman has chosen an interesting lens through which to examine gardens.  She looks specifically at those created by wealthy British physicians in the 18th and early 19th centuries when botany was an important part of medical education.  But these men invested in their gardens for many reasons beyond their profession.  Gardens were considered important status symbols and were also significant sites for both entertainment and experimentation.  Hickman covers all these aspects.

A major focus is on John Coakley Lettsom (1744-1815), born in a West Indian Quaker colony and sent to England for his education.  He developed an early interest in botany, acquiring a copy of John Gerard’s Herball and starting a herbarium that eventually grew to 62 volumes.  He was befriended by the Quaker physician and gardener John Fothergill who arranged for Lettsom’s medical training at a London hospital.  Lettsom had to return to the islands when his father died.  As an avid abolitionist, he freed the slaves on his father’s plantation and started a medical practice.  He did well and returned to Europe to receive his medical degree at Leiden University in the Netherlands, since Cambridge and Oxford Universities were not open to Quakers.  Thus early in life his development was shaped by the culture in which he was immersed. 

Lettsom eventually practiced in London and bought an estate close by called Grove Hill where he developed an impressive garden.  He kept in touch with John Fothergill, who had an extensive garden with greenhouses and over 3,400 species of exotic plants as well as 3,000 other plant species.  When Fothergill died, Lettsom was allowed to move the latter’s greenhouses as well as 2000 plants to Grove Hill, creating a solid horticultural foundation for his estate.  He designed a walk lined with 400 European species arranged according to the Linnaean system which had become popular in England. 

One of Hickman’s major points is that gardens served a multiplicity of purposes among physicians, who were supported by experienced gardeners behind the scenes.  Gardens were used for experimentation in hybridization, in cultivating delicate species by finding the right mix of conditions, and in manipulating conditions to increase crop yields including with the addition of compost and fertilizer.  There were also experiments on increasing the amounts of active ingredients in medicinal plants.  As Hickman notes, botany, medicine, and agriculture overlapped in doctor’s gardens. 

Gardens were also important sites for social interactions.  A garden displayed not only an owner’s wealth in importing expensive exotics and the expertise to select and grow them.  Visiting gardens became a common pastime among the wealthy, in part to cement social, economic, and political ties, but also to pick up ideas for their own gardens.  When for a short time Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were both on diplomatic missions to England they took the opportunity to visit a number of estates for all these reasons, as well as for the simple pleasure of being in beautiful surroundings (Wulf, 2011).  Hickman emphasizes the sensual aspects of gardening beyond the visual.  She cites the influence of a late 17th-century physician John Floyer who argued that a great deal about plants could be learned from smell and taste.  The latter was “not mere recreational grazing;” it could aid in identifying medicinally useful plant material (p. 21). 

Gardeners like Lettsom also supported the colonial enterprise by raising exotic plants and then passing on seeds and seedlings in trade with other gardeners, so that more of them could experiment with and learn about a species—how to cultivate it and whether it had commercial potential.  Fothergill financially supported collectors, including John and William Bartram on their tour of the Southern colonies.  He also paid William Bartram not only to collect plants but also to draw and write about them, financing William’s later trip South.  So gardeners’ spheres of influence were indeed broad.  Many documented their choice plants by having them painted by botanical illustrators, often keeping volumes of drawings in their libraries along with extensive collections of botanical works. 

Lettsom was so proud of his garden that he wanted others to know about it.  He wrote several editions of a guide to visiting Grove Hill, describing the distinctive plants found in different areas of the estate.  This was not only for visiting friends, but also for wider distribution, including for those attending on open days when the public could roam the grounds.  This became a popular custom, sometimes as a form of noblesse oblige with fees charged in support of a charity .  The success of these events led to the development of several urban gardens, such as one created by William Curtis, founder of Curtis’s Botanical Magazine.  He sold subscriptions to the garden as a way to support it.  Eventually, free public gardens in cities replaced most of these sites.  In tracing such trends from doctor’s gardens, Hickman ends her study with an essay on the continuing significance of gardens and the benefits of simply walking through them.  She also stresses the importance of “leaping the fence of disciplines,” to deepen our understanding of the garden’s place in our culture.


Hickman, C. (2021). The Doctor’s Garden: Medicine, Science and Horticulture in Britain. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Wulf, A. (2011). Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation. New York: Knopf.

Broadening Botany through Books

This series of posts is on books I’ve encountered recently that forced me to look at botany in wider cultural contexts, to examine how the science relates to other parts of society.  Most of these works were published fairly recently and reflect the trend toward examining issues of gender, colonialism, economics, and social structures.  I tend to evaluate books that deal with plants in terms of what they can tell me about botany, but I’m becoming more aware that learning about botany can mean learning about many other things along the way.  The first book is a case in point:  Sara Neville’s Early Modern Herbals and the Book Trade: English Stationers and the Commodification of Botany (2022). 

Right away, commodification puts me outside my comfort zone.  I want to learn about William Turner, John Gerard, and John Parkinson, not their publishers.  However, Neville makes the case that early modern botany and the publishing business are inextricably linked, and that the names of these botanists would not be remembered today without the work of printers.  At the time, the people who traded in paper, the stationers, were connected to the printing trade as a way to sell more of their commodity.  In the 16th century, English paper production was less sophisticated than on the continent, so stationers were involved in trade relationships throughout Europe and thus knew of the latest trends in publishing as well. 

By the 1540s, there were several good herbals available in Latin from German and Dutch publishers, so it made sense that one should be printed in English.  The first was produced by the stationer Richard Bankes in 1525 with the title Herball.  No author was given since it was a translation based on an anonymous medieval manuscript in Latin called Agnus Castus.  This was a short text introducing plants, mostly of medicinal interest, in alphabetical order making it easy to use for reference.  There were no images and it was printed in a small, affordable format.  It went through several editions and was a financially successful venture.  The next year Peter Treveris published The Grete Herball, and true to its name it had more text and four hundred illustrations.  The latter were not of high quality, and readers recognized this.  Neville makes a point about the importance of readership in publishing:  word gets around if a book is not up to snuff.  Making botany public knowledge involved a complex social network of which botanists were only a small part, especially in the early years of printed herbals when the texts being produced were often simply copies of ancient texts. 

After dealing with these anonymous publications, Neville goes on to discuss William Turner’s A New Herball­, released in three volumes (1551-1561).  Turner is identified on the title page as gatherer rather than author.  In other words, he had gleaned information from a variety of sources:  ancient texts, personal observations and experiences, and facts gathered in his European travels.  His work was large and well-illustrated; it was printed in the Netherlands, where higher quality books were produced.  The text received much more attention over the years than the earlier anonymous works, even though they had sold well. 

After Turner, the next important herbal was John Gerard’s Herball or General Historie of Plants (1597).  The saga of this 1,400-page tome has been told many times (Arber, 1938; Harkness, 2007) including evidence that Gerard had cavalierly used the work of others, particularly Matthias de l’Obel with whom he was at first collaborating.  Neville sees the story differently, focusing on the communal aspects of the publication and production of early modern books.  The publisher began the enterprise seeking out L’Obel and Gerard as botanical experts.  Both were in London, and Gerard had a garden where he grew and observed a large number of plants.  In a book of this size, errors were inevitable, and Neville sees some of them as being unavoidable because of how the book was put together.  She also argues that movement of information from one writer to another was not uncommon at the time.  Writing was seen more as a pooling of ideas with one writer commenting on and building on the works of others.  She sees the same thing happening with images, which were the most costly elements in publishing.  It made sense to reuse woodblocks from earlier works.  Knowledge of a plant may change over time, but what it looks like wouldn’t.  Why not use a good image if one were available?

Neville goes on to discuss Thomas Johnson’s revisions to the Gerard herbal which he was asked to undertake by the same publisher when the defects of the original became apparent.  It was the focus on these issues that planted the idea in the historical record that Gerard was less that a competent botanist.  I am in no position to weigh in on either side, but I did enjoy being presented with a different perspective, in part because it reminded me that in history as in life there are always at least two sides to a story.  Broadening horizons is what reading is all about, and this book definitely helped me to see stationers as part of the story of botany in the early modern era. 


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

Harkness, D. E. (2007). The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Neville, S. (2022). Early Modern Herbals and the Book Trade: English Stationers and the Commodification of Botany. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.


Vegetal Entanlgements, Antennae Issue 51

To end this series on the work of Giovanni Aloi and others in critical plant studies, I want to cover a lot of ground.  So far, I’ve gravitated toward art and literature, but philosophy is very much a part of this field as well.  This is an area with which I am less familiar, though I have read a few books on the topic that I found interesting, including Matthew Hall’s (2011) Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany.  I always enter a piece of writing by a philosopher with a bit of hesitancy:  am I going to be able to understand it?  In this case, I was soon put at ease.  Hall’s argument is clearly laid out and makes sense.  He explores perceptions of plants within different world views.  In the West, plants are seen as passive resources, while in Hindu texts, for example, plants are presented as fully sentient beings.  A multiplicity of views means that there are multiple ways of considering plant being, including as “persons,” which Hall defines as autonomous, perceptive, and intelligent beings, deserving of respect as other-than-human persons (p. 14). 

I should note, that by “intelligent” here, Hall means able to change behavior based on incoming information, something that plants do despite their lack of a central nervous system.  This deficiency is seen by some as precluding intelligence and consequently personhood.  I am not qualified to pass judgment on any of this, however I think raising such questions is important.  Thinking about plants in different ways leads to seeing in different ways and to questioning assumptions and perceptions.  It’s easy to consider plants as inactive, particularly in a herbarium which is essentially a plant morgue; not a lot of singing and dancing going on in the aisles.  However, the plant on a sheet entails so much more than just a set of characteristics to be noted and measured; it represents a “relational” being connected to many other beings, including ourselves, in a myriad of ways.

Still another philosophical perspective on what such relations involve is described by Emanuele Coccia (2019) in The Life of Plants: A Metaphysics of Mixture.  Coccia questions not cultural assumptions as Hall does, but rather looks to the biology of plants to understand how we relate to them at the most basic level, that of breath.  He writes:  “Plants are the breath of all living beings, the world as breath.  In turn, any breath is evidence of the fact that being in the world is, fundamentally, an experience of immersion.  To breathe means to be plunged into a medium that penetrates us in the same way and with the same intensity as we penetrate it” (p. 53).  That is definitely a profound yet fundamental way of thinking about our connections with plants.  While Hall looks at plants as they relate to human culture, Coccia looks at how living things share resources and the space in which they exist.  It is very interesting that the same organisms can generate such different worldviews and makes me think that I might need to investigate philosophy a little further in order to get a better perspective on plants, and life in general. 

I’ll end this ramble into viewpoints on plants that are outside my comfort zone by returning to where I began this series of posts (1,2,3) with Giovanni Aloi who seems to explore so many facets of the plant world.  He is the co-founder and editor of Antennae, a quarterly online journal that is open access.   I mentioned it in an earlier post, but it deserves attention here, because just as Hall and Coccia have expanded my view of the plant world, Antennae has done the same, in very different ways, for the living world in general.  Some Antennae issues such as Number 17 (Why Look at Plants?) and then Numbers 51-53 (Vegetal Entanglements) focus on plants.  These are definitely worth spending some time with.  They are all visually stunning, which is not surprising since Antennae is “The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture.” 

As an art critic and a plant studies expert, Aloi knows where to look for wonderful work by contemporary artists, including a couple of photographers who are exploring issues around seed collections.  But there are also articles on historical works such as Mary Delany’s (Number 51) 18th-century paper cutouts of plants and Gherardo Cibo’s (Number 51) 16th-century botanical illustrations set against landscapes, a novel twist for the time.  There are also articles giving attention to indigenous knowledge of plants and indigenous ways of honoring them.  Even if you don’t read every word of an issue, you will be richly rewarded by the images which are not only visually stunning but thought-provoking.  All issues are free and available in PDF format that is easy to view and to download for future reference.  What more could you ask of publication that, even in issues that are not devoted solely to plants, usually have some fascinating articles on them.  In any case, keep an eye on Giovanni Aloi if you want to expand your view of what plants are all about.


Coccia, E. (2019). The Life of Plants: A Metaphysics of Mixture (D. J. Montanari, Trans.). Cambridge: Polity.

Hall, M. (2011). Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Critical Plant Studies and Phytogenesis

Purple Aquilegia Anthotype: Painswick Rococo Garden, Gloucestershire, by Nettie Edwards

As I discussed in the first post in this series, I recently discovered a talk hosted by Giovanni Aloi from a series Botanical Speculations that has been going on for some time.  He mentioned that there was an upcoming online symposium, Phytogenesis II, sponsored by Plymouth University in England.  As its title implies, it is the successor to a similar event held last year.  I had attended some of the sessions at the time, but found myself overwhelmed with the stream of metaphors used to describe human relationships with plants, and the emphasis on the stranger attributes of plants.  It seemed to me that people interested in critical plant studies and looking at the cultural implications of plants, gravitate toward species that tend to have seemingly unplantlike characteristics, such as Rafflesia that lacks chlorophyll and is therefore parasitical, carnivorous like the Venus fly trap (Dionaea muscipula),  or extra-large like the corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanum), which has the added “lure” of smelling like rotting flesh.  Orchids also get a lot of attention because their sexual structures can mimic everything from monkey’s faces to animal genitals.  With hundreds of thousands of flowering plants to choose from, not to mention cryptogams, it seems narrow to focus on the bizarre and presents a skewed view of what the plant world is about. 

That being said, I decided to attend Phytogenesis II when I saw that the word “herbarium” was in the title of the first session:  “The Herbarium: Coloniality, Indigenous Knowledge and the Eucalyptus: Challenges for Critical Plant Studies.”  The first speaker was Prudence Gibson of the School of Art and Design at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.  She has received a grant for her project: “Exploring the Cultural Value of Sydney’s Royal Botanic Garden Herbarium Collection Using an Environmental Aesthetic.”  Gibson plans to collaborate with artists and writers along with the herbarium’s botanists in examining the collection in new ways.  She explained one important aspect of her work:  to focus attention on the plant names inscribed on specimen labels.  As with so many collections formed by colonizers, the labels usually do not include the names of the indigenous collectors who so often found the plants, nor the names they used for the species.  Usually just scientific names are recorded and at times the English common names of the colonizers. 

Gibson is arguing for “tri-naming,” as the herbarium standard.  This is hardly a unique situation; herbarium curators around the world are grappling with this issue, and it will require a great deal of work to address.  However, one benefit will be to draw new communities to herbaria, those with indigenous knowledge who can enrich specimen information and also learn more about the plants with which they have many deep connections.  One example of the kinds of links Gibson hopes to forge was described by her colleague Fabri Blacklock, a textile artist and associate professor at UNSW.  She works with natural dyes, including those derived from native eucalyptus species.  She discussed her projects in creating fabric artworks with fellow indigenous artists while also learning about the long history of eucalyptus use in Australia, a history that had been masked until recently. 

The next several Phytogenesis II presentations dealt with photography, such as William Arnold’s work collecting “wild” apple varieties in Britain from trees that seemingly have sprung up from seeds strewn here and there, definitely never part of an orchard.  This is a nice example of looking more closely at parts of the plant world that are overlooked, yet have interesting connections to everything from plant genetics to Johnny Appleseed.  The photographer Nettie Edwards discussed her long-term project on the anthotype, a photographic process using plant pigments to make light-sensitive prints.  It was developed in the 19th century when so many experiments were done employing light and chemicals in different ways to create images.  Mary Somerville originated the technique, but couldn’t get her work published, so John Herschel, the astronomer and photography pioneer, presented it to the Royal Society in her name, but the technique came to be more connected with him than Somerville. 

Edwards has experimented extensively with the process, using a variety of light-sensitive plant pigments and found that they create soft rather than crisp images.  Because natural pigments are used, it’s not surprising that they fade over time, ultimately disappearing.  That’s okay with Edwards.  She sees this slow disappearance as a metaphor for the disappearance of nature from our lives and of species from the biosphere.  Her work tells a story of the beauty of plants and of loss.  It was clear from her presentation that she had done a great deal of research on plant pigments, on how to prepare them for use in her photographic processes, and how best to use them to represent aspects of plant form.  I found this project particularly fascinating.  To me, it represented critical plant studies in a way that was both accessible and deeply meaningful. 

Edwards prepared me for Giovanni Aloi’s keynote at the end of the symposium.  I was ready for a deeper dive into the field of critical plant studies that had become less foreign to me, and definitely worth exploring.  There are so many people in literature, the arts, history, and philosophy engaged with plants it seems that those of us who are interested in the scientific side of plants should pay some attention to how others view these organisms that we find so fascinating.

Critical Plant Studies

Giovanni Aloi’s Botanical Speculations

In the last post, I wrote about a conversation between Randy Malamud (2021) author of Strange Bright Blooms: A History of Cut Flowers and Giovanni Aloi as part of Aloi’s Botanical Speculations series, which began in 2017 as a symposium at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where Aloi teaches courses in art history and visual culture.  A collection of essays resulted (Aloi, 2018), presentations continued, and with covid they became virtual.  Aloi is involved in a number of other projects in what is called critical plant studies (CPS), that is looking at plant-human interactions from the viewpoints of literature, art, and philosophy. 

As I’ve mentioned before, I have not delved deeply into this area in part because I don’t have a grounding in these fields, particularly literature and philosophy.  My one serious foray into literature occurred 25 years ago when I attended a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute at Vassar College on “The Environmental Imagination: Issues and Problems in American Nature Writing.”  There I learned to read in an entirely new way (Flannery, 1997).  Before that, I read like a scientist:  absorbing content, not paying much attention to word choice as long as it was understandable.  I knew something about mitochondria, so that word conjured up a particular image and set of attributes.  To me, this was not a nuanced word with metaphorical meanings, the thing literary scholars look for.  Many of the words in the essays, stories, and poems we were asked to read had such nuances.  It took a while for me to catch on and appreciate that such reading is slow and ruminative, with a lot of moving back and forth, revisiting earlier passages in the light of later ones. 

Doing this for six weeks was a wonderful experience, and I have never read anything—literature or science—in quite the same way since.  Words and their layers of meaning have become more important to me.  But I never came close to appreciating more theoretical discussions of post-structuralism, which questions many cultural structures and assumptions, including the idea of plants being less alive, complex, and responsive than animals.  The philosopher Michael Marder have contributed much to this conversation on critical plant studies, as has Aloi from the art history perspective and many from the literary side, including two colleagues of mine Tina Gianquitto and Lauren La Fauci, who recently published an article (2022) on the Herbarium 3.0 project we worked on several years ago with support from Linköping University in Sweden and Colorado School of Mines.

Critical plant studies deserves attention from those in the life sciences.  It is quite a large field in part because it involves researchers from several disciplines.  Essentially it looks at plants through different lenses that illuminate them in ways that scientists should not ignore.  A favorite quote of mine from Richard Mabey (2015) is relevant here:  “The quintessence of a plant can only ever be a fantastic goal, something to travel towards but never reach” (p. 27).  This field plumbs depths of the plant world where botanists seldom venture:  into the many relationships with humans as well as among plants and animals, investigating cultural meanings and the consequences of long-entrenched practices.  Those in plant studies get to know plants in many different ways, and these often border on the scientific in approaches that might be a surprise to those in botany and ecology.  Some examples will be the topic of my next post. 

Right now I want to spend a little more time on Aloi’s work in art criticism.  I first encountered his writing several years ago when I read an article about Greg Pryor, an Australian artist who had done a body of work related to herbaria (Aloi, 2011).  In one project, Flora Nullius (2005), he spent months at the Vienna Natural History Museum studying specimens that had been collected in Australia and given scientific names, while the original indigenous names were not recorded.  He then took old herbarium papers, discarded when the specimens were remounted, to create an artwork that presented them as blank remnants of what they had held.  In Iron Ball Taxonomy (2007), he displayed a row of specimens in a glass case, with an iron ball-and-chain running across the top to signify the indigenous labor that had been used to clear the land where these native plants were collected.  My favorite work of Pryor’s is Black Solander (2005), referencing Daniel Solander, the Swedish botanist who collected in Australia with Joseph Banks on Captain James Cook’s first voyage there.  Pryor made drawings of specimens with black ink on black sugar paper.  They represent of the 10,500 plant species known in Western Australia, suggesting the hidden toll of colonization on plants and indigenous people.

Finally, I want to mention one of Aloi’s books that I’ve written about before (see earlier post).  Lucian Freud Herbarium (2019) is an example of where the word herbarium is used metaphorically.  To my knowledge the painter, who is noted for his portraits of often less-than-beautiful people, never had a collection of pressed plants.  However, he painted plants throughout his career, sometimes including them in portraits, and in other cases focusing on them alone.  As Aloi writes:  “The book’s title comes from Renaissance dried plant collections as well as illustrated herbals. It ultimately summons a desire to see more deeply into the essence of plants.  In contrast to the classical tradition, Freud painted not precious cultivars, but weeds, undervalued survivors of the botanical world.  Like his human sitters, his plants are never perfected, or idealized; they are what they are” (p. 14).


Aloi, G. (2011). Gregory Pryor: Postcolonial botany. Antennae, 18, 24–36.

Aloi, G. (Ed.). (2018). Botanical Speculations. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars.

Aloi, G. (2019). Lucian Freud Herbarium. Munich: Prestel.

Flannery, M. C. (1997). Learning to read in Poughkeepsie. The American Biology Teacher, 59(8), 528–532.

Gianquitto, T., & Lafauci, L. (2022). A case study in citizen environmental humanities: Creating a participatory plant story website. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences.

Mabey, R. (2015). The Cabaret of Plants: Forty Thousand Years of Plant Life and the Human Imagination. New York: Norton.

Malamud, R. (2021). Strange Bright Blooms: A History of Cut Flowers. London: Reaktion.

Marder, M. (2013). Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life. New York: Columbia University Press.

Cut Flowers and Botanical Speculations

Randy Malamud’s Strange Bright Blooms

I have written about aspects of the plant humanities before (see 1,2,3), but I have tended to stay away from critical plant studies because I feel more at ease on the scientific side of the plant studies fence rather than on the literary and philosophical side.  I see the relationship of art and history to plants as occupying a middle ground, which I do love to explore but haven’t felt comfortable beyond that point.  However, plants are so important to all areas of human experience that this is an untenable position if I am going to appreciate all aspects of plant/human interactions. 

As with so many other parts of life, covid brought a change in my perspective.  I became more active on social media, began attending virtual conferences and seminars, and became connected to groups such as the Literary and Cultural Plants Studies Network through its listserv.  While I don’t follow every lead they send, I have looked into a few.  Recently, there was a message about a Botanical Speculations conversation between Giovanni Aloi, who hosts the series, and Randy Malamud (2021), author of Strange Bright Blooms: A History of Cut Flowers.  It turned out to be an interesting event, a casual interchange between the two about the book, which I had read. 

Hearing a writer speak about his work can put it into a new perspective.  As the subtitle suggestions, Malamud focuses not on growing plants, but on those whose reproductive development, and perhaps even their life histories, have been interrupted by human intervention, often simply for the pleasure of bring blooms inside to be appreciated in a different and perhaps manipulated context:  crowded together with other species, shown off in splendid isolation in a vase, or hung up to dry to become fall or winter decorations.  The book moves quickly from one topic to the next, with a thread running through the chapters going from flowers in writing and art to flower sellers:  the girls and women who sold flowers in the Victorian era and the mass production of flowers in former imperial colonies today.  Then there’s a chapter on gender, sexuality, race, and class, and finally a very affecting chapter on flowers and war, something not often touched upon.  The emphasis throughout the book is literature with references to poetry, novels, stories, and essays, which is not surprising since Malamud is a professor of literature at Georgia Southern University.

This romp made more sense after listening to Malamud, who joyfully jumped from topic to topic in speaking with Aloi.  This was obviously a byproduct of his absolute enchantment with his subject.  Enthusiasm bubbled out of him, and I could picture him sitting down to write about all the flower-related topics that caught his attention, from the daffodils in T.S. Eliot’sThe Wasteland” to William Shakespeare to Emily Dickinson, all within a few pages.  In the book, Dickinson comes up several times and her bound herbarium is mentioned.  After all, it is made up of cut flowers.  Malamud and Aloi explored what it means to cut a flower, to dismember a living thing, to impose human will over the plant.  I think people in the plant humanities consider this question much more closely than do botanists collecting in the field who are more focused on labeling what they’ve cut and getting the material into plastic bags or between sheets of paper for preservation. 

At the end of his free-ranging discussion with Malamud, Aloi asked for questions and comments from the Zoom audience.  One observation came from the artist Melissa Oresky, whose work was unfamiliar to me.  When I looked her website, I found that she does amazing art, including sculptures, collages, and prints, all with imaginative use of plant forms.  She has even created artists books (2016, 2020) based on herbarium specimens.  So my introduction to Botanical Speculations was definitely a positive experience, which I will write more about in the next posts, along with more on some of Aloi’s other projects.  These include a quarterly online journal he edits called Antennae, which is freely available on the web and combines critical plant and animal studies in fascinating ways that weave science and the arts together. 

I gravitate toward the scientific approach with efforts to learn about plants and save biodiversity.  However, I am beginning to understand that those in critical plant studies think otherwise.  They see their work in probing human-plant interactions as vital to human and ecosystem survival and health.  These relationships include everything from writing poems about plants to growing them in gardens to examining the roles of plants in indigenous cultures.  Some investigate the results of botanical imperialism in former colonies including environmental disruption, changes in food culture, and the aftereffects of plantation economies.  Corinne Fowler (2020) a British writer has recently written a rather unusual book that makes a case for how slavery and colonialism shaped not just British colonies but Britain itself.  She uses both historical records and literary works to make her case.  In addition, she includes examples of literary works, some her own, to broaden the perspective and to show that these can definitely make the argument richer, deeper, and more memorable.  Like Malamud’s book, hers is flooded with information and ideas, and her argument is well-documented.    


Fowler, C. (2020). Green Unpleasant Land: Creative Responses to Rural Britain’s Colonial Connections. Leeds: Peepal Tree.

Malamud, R. (2021). Strange Bright Blooms: A History of Cut Flowers. London: Reaktion.

Oresky, M. (2016). Ghosts. Brooklyn: Kayrock.

Oresky, M. (2020). Finder. Brooklyn: Kayrock.

Aesthetics of Communication

Limnobium spongia collected by Alvin Chapman in Apalachicola, FL; A.C. Moore Herbarium, University of South Carolina, Columbia

When I was studying the aesthetics of biological inquiry, my adviser kept driving home the distinction between the aesthetics of the process of research and its product.  So far in this series of posts (1,2,3), I’ve focused on the process, what Gerald Holton (1973) calls the private side of science.  This includes the joy of discovery, the pain of failure, the exhilaration of sensing the path to figuring out a problem.  Usually, this gets bleached out of a publication on the product of this work, which in systematics might mean description of a new species or even a new genus.  Does this mean that there is no aesthetic aspect to research products?  I hardly think so; there are eloquent and not so eloquent ways of communicating results, and the difference matters.  Historians argue that one of the reasons it took so long for biologists to recognize the significance of Barbara McClintock’s work on mobile genetic elements in corn was that her papers were so obtuse (Keller, 1983; Comfort, 2001).  It was difficult to appreciate the significance of the work, and added to this was a sense that corn was an odd plant genetically.  Her work was less valued for reasons that weren’t without an aesthetic component.

It is possible to describe a new species solely in words.  There are no images in Carl Linnaeus’s Species Plantarum nor in many other botanical classics.  But the use of images arose early in the history of modern botany and even occurred before that time.  The Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder cites an illustrated materia medica text by Crateuas from the first century BCE, and the 6th century Juliana Codex has many realistic plant illustrations (Morton, 1981).  Before John Sibthorp went on his collecting trip to the Levant, he spent months in Vienna studying the Codex and a 17th century manuscript with illustrations based on it (Lack, 1999).  The great early modern herbals of the 16th century including those of Otto Brunfels and Leonhart Fuchs were significant not so much for their texts, but for their illustrations.  Rembert Dodoens’s work was considered important for both (Ogilvie. 2006). 

But while some botanists thought illustrations essential, others put the emphasis on clear descriptions.  There are no images in John Ray’s Historia Plantarum.  Even in the 19th century, botanists like Joseph Dalton Hooker saw text as more scientifically rigorous than images (Endersby, 2008).  Like many botanists, he thought images were only necessary for the less serious plant fanciers.  Today systematic publications, especially those describing new species, often have pen and ink illustrations and/or color photographs.  I haven’t done a formal study but I think the ratio of illustrations to photographs has declined over the years.  I would argue that this is to the detriment of both science and aesthetics.  Photographs are great, but often they become more legible when the eye has been trained on drawings that clearly delineate features.

However, communicating botany involves more than systematists communicating with other systematists, more to making the products of research public.  Among those products are the herbarium specimens, the tools that botanists use in their work.  These were created in private, but deserve to be public, both because they help people understand what botanists do and can transmit the excitement and exhilaration of research.  Sometimes when I am inputting label data from a specimen, someone will come in and say “that’s a beautiful specimen,” or I will simply say it to myself.  I have been known to photograph some of my favorites (see image above) as I would a beautiful flower in a garden or a striking landscape, just so I can relive the experience of it.  Working in a herbarium is like working in the storage facility of a great museum, like the 105,000 square foot underground facility at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The difference is that most herbarium treasures rarely get displayed. 

Specimens are aesthetic objects for two reasons.  Some of them are indeed beautiful, and that’s why art professors send their students to herbaria to study and draw them.  But there are also the stories that are attached, either physically and more peripherally to specimens.  Especially in historical collections, there are sometimes letters or notes affixed to sheets perhaps written by the person who sent the specimen to a botanist, describing where it was found or giving some other reason for its significance.  In other cases, it is a note reminding the botanist of its significance.  The 19th century Pennsylvania botanist William Darlington noted on a Rudbeckia triloba specimen that “This appears to be the last plant poor Baldwin collected.”  He was referring to his friend William Baldwin who died on the Long Expedition in 1820.  Another Darlington notation reads:  “Symphoria racemosa from John Jackson’s garden raised by him from plants brought from the Missouri by Lewis & Clark.”  That was definitely worth recording. 

To me these brief notations open up narratives about collecting in the early years of the United States, about the personal and national significance such collections can have.  I will end my ramble on aesthetics by mentioning the exhilaration I felt when I found these remarks while having the opportunity to study some of the material at the William Darlington Herbarium at West Chester University.    Opening up such collections and making them available digitally will allow a broader audience to appreciate them and interpret them in new ways.

Note:  I am very grateful to Sharon Began of the Biology Department and Ron McColl in the Library Archives at West Chester University who were extremely helpful to me on my several visits there. 


Comfort, N. (2001). The Tangled Field: Barbara McClintock’s Search for the Pattern’s of Genetic Control. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Endersby, J. (2008). Imperial Nature: Joseph Hooker and the Practices of Victorian Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Holton, G. (1973). Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought: Kepler to Einstein. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Keller, E. F. (1983). A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock. New York: Freeman.

Lack, H. W. (2000). Lilac and horse-chestnut: Discovery and rediscovery. Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, 17(2), 109–141.

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

Aesthetics of Doing Botany

What to collect? 19th-century graveyard in Ohio protected as a nature preserve.

In this series of posts (1,2), I am laying out an argument for the essential role of aesthetics in botanical inquiry, particularly in the herbarium.  What first comes to mind is obviously the beauty of so many plants, but aesthetic elements run deeply through all aspects of plant collecting, specimen preparation, and on into systematic research, which is the topic of this post.  Mastering a field and then spending years working on a particular genus or family is not easy.  Botanists do it because they love looking at plants, solving taxonomic puzzles, and learning how to fit new pieces of information into the portrait of a species.  How much they enjoy working with plants can be measured by the number of retired botanists who remain active in the field:  they are legion. 

I am not saying anything new here, but I think it’s important to highlight it and to examine a little more closely just what is so mesmerizing.  For some it is the thrill of the chase:  being out in the field collecting.  It is somewhat akin to people like my sister who love to shop.  Entering a forest or a shopping mall, the enthusiast may not be looking for anything in particular and that’s part of the excitement:  what will catch their eye.  Perhaps a real bargain or a rare plant.  For others the exciting part involves careful study, attempting to decide if a specimen is a member of a particular species or not.  Is it significantly different enough to count as a new variety or even a new species?  What will it take to make a case for its novelty?  One question leads to another, and spurs on future work.  Who knows where it will lead, perhaps even to examination of an entire genus.  This could result in years of research.  How wonderful!

Yet in the field, a botanist can often recognize a species in an instant, what Carl Pantin  (1954) calls “aesthetic recognition,” something that comes with deep knowledge of a particular part of the living world.  He sees this as very different from what goes on in close systematic work, where plants are keyed out and individual traits closely examined.  The knowledge thus accrued feeds into field identification, but Pantin thinks there is something more, something that can’t be put into words, perhaps similar to what birders call “jizz” or the sense of bird as a whole.  This is an example of the tacit knowledge that I discussed in the last post.  It can’t be verbalized so Pantin terms it “aesthetic,” an interesting word choice relating it to feeling as well as thinking. 

There are also other elements of systematics that have aesthetic aspects such as the propensity to lump or split.  Often a judgment call has to be made about how different two groups of plants have to be to put them into different species.  In some cases, there might not be a number of plants to study but only a single specimen, sometimes making the decision easier to make.  When there are many individuals, they can often be placed on a gradient for one or more traits that may or may not cluster together.  This can become a thorny problem and even a philosophical one involving whether or not a botanist even accepts the idea that species exist in nature.  Again, not all of this decision making can be put into words and some of it is a matter of style.  There are those who tend toward one or the other viewpoint.

In his biography of Joseph Dalton Hooker, James Endersby (2008) contrasts botanists working with larger collections in imperial capitals like London and Paris with collectors in distant colonies that didn’t have access to large collections for comparison.  Those in the colonies, looking at a few specimens, would tend to identify anything novel as a new species.  In what Bruno Latour (1990) calls “centers of calculation” where the wealth of the colonies accumulated both botanically and economically, botanists placed a specimen in a different context and perceive it as was just a variation among many, not unique at all but destined to be lumped into an already named species.  This is what Hooker’s colleague George Bentham did in moving a plant that the botanist Augustin Pyramus de Candolle had put into a new genus Darlingtonia to honor the Pennsylvania botanist William Darlington who had sent him a package of interesting North American plants.  It was moved into the Mimosa genus by the “odious Mr. Bentham,” as Darlington later referred to him (Flannery, 2019). 

But such differences in “style” remain and go well beyond lumping and splitting.  Some botanists write terse plant descriptions and others write more fulsome ones, sometimes with little difference in content.  It is a matter of literary panache.  The same holds true for label descriptions as well as journal articles.  There are also style issues in the form of publication:  a major treatment, over publication of a single new species.  At times this is about getting a publication to secure a job or to insure its continuance.  In some cases, it’s an issue of publishing before someone else does.  However, sometimes it is more about making a nice neat package of a genus, describing new species while revising descriptions of others.  And with publications, there comes the question of what to include in terms of images:  photographs or drawings, maps or no maps, etc.  But these are questions for the next post.


Endersby, J. (2008). Imperial Nature: Joseph Hooker and the Practices of Victorian Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Flannery, M. C. (2019). Naming a genus for William Darlington: A case study in botanical eponymy. Archives of Natural History, 46(1), 75–87.

Latour, B. (1990). Drawing things together. In M. Lynch & S. Woolgar (Eds.), Representation in scientific practice (pp. 19–68). MIT Press.

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