Libraries and Botany: Hidden Collections

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Child’s vasculum circa 1900, photo by Régine Fabri / Wikimedia Commons

On the last day of the horticultural and botanical library conference I attended in New York recently (see last post), there was a session entitled “Hidden Collections—unveiling treasures through research.”  The first speaker was Régine Fabri, head of the library at the Botanic Garden Meise in Belgium who presented her preliminary work on the history of the vasculum (see photo above).   Most botanists are familiar with this tool of the trade, basically a metal box to hold specimens collected in the field, but most, like myself, haven’t given it much thought now that portable plant presses and plastic bags have pretty much replaced it.  However, Fabri has taken it on with a passion.  She discovered that the first reference to such a device was in 1704, when it was called a candle box, and this was probably its origin, a repurposing of a water-proof metal container for candles, with a door wide enough to lift them in and out.  As with plants, botanists gave it a Latin name, vasculum, meaning container.

By the 19th century, the vasculum had become signature equipment for botanists, and Fabri presented numerous paintings and drawings of plant collectors with their boxes.  She also had photos of Darwin’s vasculum as well as those of Joseph Dalton Hooker and John Torrey.  This last we later saw in the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) library since it is part of their collection.  Fabri ended by noting the vasculum’s decline.  A 1910 scientific supply catalog offered two different models in an array of seven dimensions.  Today, one type is available in only one size.  However, there are many beautifully decorated antique versions on the market if you are interested, and Fabri left us wanting more with a photo of her own collection.

The next presentation was in a very different vein.  Brent Elliot, the retired Royal Horticultural Society librarian, drew on the resources of this institution for his research into the different associations of the word “nature” in Britain and America.  He focused on how the 19th-century garden cemetery movement played out in the two countries.  In America, cemeteries like Green-Wood in Brooklyn, New York  and Mount Auburn in Boston provided parklike settings for graves, with their creators emphasizing the idea that these sites were natural areas in which to remember and honor departed loved ones.  In Britain however, such cemeteries were seen not as natural but as human-made works of art, with an emphasis on the contrivances of landscaping used to create a peaceful atmosphere.  Elliot showed wonderful photographs and engravings of many of these sites in both countries to illustrate his theme, providing a great blend of art and textual analysis.

The third speaker was Florence Tessier, botanical librarian at the National Museum of Natural History (MNHN) in Paris.  She spoke about Marie Fortier (1844-1931) who created artificial “herbaria” from silk.  She was a student in the laboratory of practical botany at the MNHM and made silk flowers as a way to teach botany.  At the time, these were popular adornments for women’s dresses, and there were many ateliers in Paris creating them with time-consuming cutting and shaping processes.  Fortier learned these skills and applied them in a very different way by arranging whole flowers and flower parts on herbarium sheets and labeling them.  As Tessier notes, Fortier’s work probably grew out of an idea that developed during the last days of the French monarchy.  François Le Vaillant, who made two expeditions to southern Africa between 1781 and 1784 collected animal skins, particularly of birds, and plant specimens as well.  When he returned to France he became critical of the way flowers were presented in just two dimensions in botanical illustrations and herbarium specimens, compared to vivid taxidermied birds.  He had seen the beautiful artificial silk flowers that Joseph Wenzel had created for Marie Antoinette and wanted to use Wenzel’s expertise to produce three-dimensional plant displays for the botanical museum in the king’s garden in Paris.  Unfortunately, it’s impossible today to know what Wenzel’s productions looked like.  Unlike wax flowers preserved in some economic botany collections and the glass flowers of Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, we don’t have any remains of the project, swept away along with so much else during the French Revolution.  But stories of his plan may very well have inspired Fortier, working as she did in the same museum and with the silk flower industry still thriving in Paris.

Fortier’s sheets were sold in sets through an arrangement she had with the publisher Hachette; they cost one to ten francs per plant, and in all 110 were created.  After her contract with Hachette ended, she decided to work on her own and had regular sales to Paris primary schools from 1886 to 1908.  When this arrangement no longer proved lucrative, the sets were sold as drawing lesson aids.   Fortier also created a diorama for a forestry museum in Vincennes, outside of Paris.  Tessier presented photos of Fortier’s beautiful specimens, emphasizing that they were made as works of science, but also have great aesthetic appeal.  Tessier herself has obviously fallen in love with them, and with her subject.  She has found that there are examples of Fortier’s flowers at Madrid’s Instituto Cardenal Cisneros; they were bought in Paris by a Spanish botanist to use in Madrid’s secondary schools, and they have been preserved.  So Tessier’s work also had an impact outside of France.


Libraries and Botany

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Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden at New York Botanical Garden

I recently went to New York, my old stomping ground, for a meeting of the Council of Botanical and Horticultural Librarians (CBHL).  They were celebrating their 50th anniversary and were meeting jointly with the European Botanical and Horticultural Libraries Group (EBHL), celebrating 25 years.  Despite my lack of library expertise, I went because I’m a CBHL member, induced to join by its great website, listserv, and newsletter.  I learn a lot from librarians, particularly when they are involved in things that interest me, namely plants.  I definitely learned a great deal at this conference, ate some great meals, and saw many beautiful plants.  We met at New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) in the Bronx and also spent a day at Brooklyn Botanic Garden (BBG), both possessors of amazingly beautiful gardens and libraries.  Fortunately, the weather was wonderful.  This meeting was in mid-June so both gardens were at their best, and it was great to be able to stroll around them between sessions (see photo above).

On the way to BBG, participants had the opportunity to see another impressive garden, the High Line.  This is an almost 1.5 mile “linear park” on the West Side of lower Manhattan created out of an elevated railway line that had been unused for years.  During that time plants “invaded” the 30-foot-wide expanse, in many areas turning it into green swards.  Residents had climbed onto it illegally to enjoy the greenery and began an effort to make it a park.  I can remember when this effort began.  It seemed quite unrealistic, but it kept gaining support, particularly after 9/11 when the city was looking for ways to restore itself.  The High Line is now an amazing horticultural attraction, with beautiful plants and interesting architectural features.  After being at NYBG the day before, with its 265 acres, it was very interesting for participants to see what can be done within , literally, much narrower constraints.

Then it was on to Brooklyn where we visited the library, which is located in the original administration building and has a small though beautiful reading room.  BBG gave up its science program and herbarium several years ago, a very disturbing decision; its specimens are now on long-term loan to NYBG.  The herbarium and storage for the library were located in a building across the street from the garden.  The structure needed repair so the herbarium was closed, and the librarians had to either de-acquisition material or move it into the original library’s tight quarters.  The process of organizing these resources is still going on.  A beautiful room has been built for BBG’s amazing rare book and botanical illustration collection (see photo below).  It includes the very large format, 34-volume Banks’ Florilegium of plants from Captain Cook’s first voyage around the world.  The head librarian, Kathy Crosby, also displayed a sampling of botanical illustrations created by members of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden Florilegium Society that includes many of the best botanical artists working today.

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Special Collections at Brooklyn Botanic Garden

Needless to say, everyone had another feast for the eyes at NYBG.  At the moment, the garden is celebrating the art that Georgia O’Keeffe created in Hawaii, with a number of her works in its art gallery and a display of the plants that inspired her in the conservatory.  During our tour of the library, the archivist Stephen Sinon displayed some of its treasures including its oldest book, a manuscript of the herbal Circa Instans from the  late 12th century, and one of my favorite’s Johannes Gessner’s Tabulae phytographicae, a guide to flowers using the Linnaean system that has wonderful illustrations.  Equally wonderful was a display of herbarium treasures by its director Barbara Thiers, including specimens collected by John Muir, Charles Darwin, and even Thomas Edison.  Since the herbarium has about 7.8 million specimens, this gave just a hint of the wonders it contains, including the work of such 20-21st century botanists as Pat and Noel Holmgren who recently completed the seventh and final volume of Intermountain Flora: Vascular Plants of the Intermountain West, USA (2017).

Since this was a library conference, there were presentations on the latest at a number of institutions.  Amy Kasameyer, archivist at the University of California, Berkeley Herbarium discussed the development of The Silva Center for Phycological Documentation.  Named for Paul Claude Silva (1922-1014), an expert on algae, it includes a library and archives that has been created within the herbarium.  This center is a wonderful adjunct to the herbarium’s extensive phycological collection, the second largest in the country.  Along with this example of physical collection development, there were also a number of presentations on virtual collections.  One was by Deirdre Ryan and Jason Przybylski of JSTOR, which provides access to journals in many fields as well to Artstor for art images and JSTOR Global Plants for botanical journals and over 2 million type specimens, scanned as part of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s Global Plants Initiative.

JSTOR now plans to build on this foundation with a collection called JSTOR Plants & Society that would present botanical, horticultural, and ethnobotanical materials making them useful not only to scientists but to students and to the broader public as well.  In developing this project, JSTOR worked with the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection to host a workshop on Botany and the Humanities to explore what is most needed for future collaborations.  There’s a fascinating video where the participants discuss the exciting ideas that came out of their meetings.  It’s a great window into some wonderful plans for the future particularly about integrating various digital platforms.  I hope at least a few of them come to fruition as soon as possible!


Holmgren, N. H., & Holmgren, P. K. (2017). Intermountain Flora: Vascular Plants of the Intermountain West, U.S.A (Vol. 7). New York, NY: New York Botanical Garden.

Early North American Exploration: Maryland and Virginia

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Illustration of bison and Robinia hispida in Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, Biodiversity Heritage Library.

In the last post, I discussed the botanical explorations of the Anglican clergyman John Banister in colonial Virginia.  Before considering some that followed him to the colony, I want to mention three men who collected a little to the north, in Maryland.  James Petiver, whose name keeps coming up in these posts on collections of exotic plants, was among those who supported Reverend Hugh Jones’s explorations of the area (Frick et al., 1987); Petiver also received plants from David Krieg, a physician, while William Vernon was sponsored by Hans Sloane and Bishop Henry Compton (Reveal, 1992).  All three were collecting in the late 1690s and the British recipients of their work—specimens of about 650 different plants—rushed to describe new species, with Petiver, his rival Leonard Plukenet, and John Ray all involved.  The details are confusing but fascinating, as they show how specimens moved from hand to hand, often behind the backs of other botanists.

An example involves a noteworthy collector of the next generation, John Clayton (~1694-1773).  He arrived in Virginia in 1715, but probably didn’t become interested in collecting plants until he met the most noted natural history collector of this time, Mark Catesby, on his first trip to North America when he visited Virginia with a side trip to the West Indies (1712-1719).  Through Catesby, Clayton connected with Jan Frederik Gronovius in the Netherlands.  Catesby sent Clayton’s specimens and seeds on to Gronovius who grew and studied them (Ewan, 1969).  Eventually, working with Carl Linnaeus in identifying Clayton’s plants, Gronovius published the 200-page Flora Virginica in 1743.  Clayton didn’t feel he received enough credit for his collections and thought about writing his own book, which was never completed.  However, William T. Stearn (1975) argues that Gronovius did the work of naming and describing the plants after careful study, and he included Clayton’s name on the title page, so this was hardly a case of using another’s work without credit.

Catesby himself did not collect much on his first visit, but he returned in 1722 and spent four years with the express purpose of studying the flora and fauna for an illustrated book.  What resulted was the famous Natural History of the Carolinas, Florida, and the Bahamas.  This is a massive work in two volumes published from 1729 to 1747 (1,2).  Though I’ve focused totally on plants in these posts, I should note that Catesby, as well as Banister, Clayton, and many other early collectors gathered animal skins, insects, shells and minerals for their patrons.  Petiver and Plukenet, in turn, didn’t just describe plant material, though that was their main focus.  Because of the plant blindness that is common today, Catesby’s plates are often presented as animal portraits, even though many of them depict at least one species of plant and animal together.  These could not be termed ecological portraits as those of Maria Merian are, with an insect pictured on its host plant.  Catesby seems to have been more interested in creating intriguing compositions that often ignored scale.  One of my favorites is a bison dwarfed by a rose locust bloom (see figure above).

Catesby is the best known of the colonial North American plant collectors thanks to his publications.  While some of the earlier botanical works were illustrated, such as Plukenet’s Phytographia, none had such sumptuous images.  Catesby did his own engravings, supervised their hand coloring, and had the volumes published in large format.  They are magnificent and are available to view through the Biodiversity Heritage Library.  Another interesting way to look at the pages is at Botanica Caroliniana, where the illustrations are paired not only with the explanatory text, but also with the herbarium specimens of the plants pictured.  This is a wonderful approach to studying these two very different visual presentations of a plant.  Also on the site are images of several other colonial herbaria, making Botanica Caroliniana an amazing resource that deserves to be better known and comes out of a collaboration between Furman and Clemson Universities.

With this post, I am coming to the end of my brief and cursory examination of early plant explorations in North and South America.  I have hardly scratched the surface and have relied heavily on evidence available from the Sloane Herbarium (SH) at the Natural History Museum, London.  In part this is because I have depended largely on English language sources, but also because the SH is about the largest pre-Linnaean herbarium in existence.  Since the time it was in Sloane’s hands it has always been valued, cared for, and studied.  Despite my rather narrow viewpoint, I hope I’ve managed to convey something of the excitement with which plant specimens and seeds of new species were received in early modern Europe.  The recipients had a variety of reasons for their excitement.  Some couldn’t wait to see them growing in their gardens.  Others wanted to be the first to describe them in print.  Still others were interested in the uses to which these plants could be put, primarily as medicines, but also as new food sources, new fibers, new fragrances, etc.  When looking at the specimens now, it may be difficult to imagine how they could have been received with such anticipation, but that’s where historians come in.  They can flesh out the stories behind these specimens and give them new life.  An example of what is possible is the Reconstructing Sloane, a collaborative project among the British Museum, the British Library, and the Natural History Museum, London, all holders of massive Sloane collections.


Ewan, J. (Ed.). (1969). A Short History of Botany in the United States. New York, NY: Hafner.

Frick, G. F., Reveal, J. L., Broome, C. R., & Brown, M. L. (1987). Botanical explorations and discoveries in colonial Maryland, 1688 to 1753. Huntia, 7, 5–59.

Reveal, J. L. (1992). Gentle Conquest: The Botanical Discovery of North America with Illustrations from the Library of Congress. Washington, DC: Starwood.

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

Early North American Exploration: Carolina and Virginia

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John White watercolor of a milkweed plant done in 1585, British Library.

In the last two posts (1,2) I’ve discussed botanical explorations in Canada and New England; now I want to move south to areas where there was more work done on plants and more collection of specimens rather than just seeds.  As with almost all issues in the history of botany, there were political, economic, and cultural factors influencing how plants were studied.  Plymouth and the other early New England colonies were founded by Puritans and other religious dissenters.  They were not wealthy nor were they in most cases linked to the wealthy and powerful in Britain.  The situation was very different in Virginia and adjacent areas.  From the beginning, these colonies were founded with economic development in mind.  British monarchs rewarded those who did their bidding with large parcels of land, and these individuals had the wherewithal, along with the government backing, to succeed.  Admittedly, the early settlers had a rough time particularly at first as they had to find suitable sites, learn about the perils and opportunities of the land, and negotiate with indigenous peoples.  Early attempts at settlement were financed by Sir Walter Raleigh on Roanoke Island in what is now North Carolina.  The colony ultimately failed but the 1585 expedition there included the scientist Thomas Harriot who wrote the first book in English on North American flora and fauna, A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, and the artist and mapmaker John White who documented the people and landscapes he saw, as well as some plants and animals, though many of the original watercolors did not survive (see figure above).

By the mid-17th century there were thriving British colonies in New England and in Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas.  The coast provided many useable harbors, plenty of fish and other wildlife for food, and fertile land for agriculture.  However, the purpose of these colonies was not just to successfully settle the land, but to develop resources that would make its British landlords wealthier and provide them with novelties to impress their peers.  While the Spanish found gold and silver to the south, Britain has to be satisfied with other kinds of riches.  The thick forests were one resource.  As the British navy expanded and the homeland continued to develop, Britain needed ever more wood and had already lost a great deal of its woodlands, which were being cut down from the Middle Ages onward.  So there was need for kind of trees abundant in North American forests, those that yielded long, straight boards and wood that resisted rot.

There was also another reason for tree hunting: to find new species to plant in the expanding gardens of the British upper classes.  As the country’s naval power increased after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, so did its economic strength and for those who benefitted from this, gardens became a significant way to display their wealth.  Even today, if you look at garden catalogs, you’ll see that new introductions tend to be expensive, but people in the know are often willing to pay the price to be the “first on the block” with the latest hybrid.  This was equally true in the 17th century when many with means were passionate gardeners who were learning about new plants, creating hothouses for finicky species, and encouraging collectors to send seeds and specimens.  Seeds were being sent back from Spanish and French explorers since the first half of the 16th century.  The 17th century British botanical scene was interested in botany as well as gardening, so specimens were sent along with the seeds.  Specimens also gave gardeners some sense of what those seeds might produce, so they could encourage collectors to provide more seeds of particularly intriguing species.

In an earlier post, I discussed the major role that Hans Sloane, James Petiver, and Leonard Plukenet played in supporting plant collectors and amassing specimen collections that are now found in the Sloane Herbarium (SH) at the Natural History Museum, London.  Mark Laird (2015) has written about their work in relation to gardeners including one of my favorites, Mary Somerset, the Duchess of Beaufort who kept her own herbarium, now part of SH. It gives some sense of her attention to her garden, and how she was attempting to document what varieties she grew there, with pages full of different varieties of the same species, tulips for example.  In other cases, she preserved specimens of exotic plants that she had nursed to health in her hot houses.

Among the collectors supported by Sloane et al., was John Banister, who had studied at Oxford and was the first university-trained collector to send specimens back to England.  He was encouraged by Bishop Henry Compton, himself a member of Sloane’s botany club that met at the Temple Coffee House in London.  Banister was dispatched to Virginia as a clergyman but he had prepared for his role in natural history as well.  Before he left, he studied specimens that had already been sent from North America, including many grown from seed collected by French explorers.  Banister brought with him a herbarium of such plants and left a catalog of them in Oxford so that botanists there would know what he was referring to.  In all there are over 300 of his specimens in Oxford and many more in SH.  He communicated with his professor at Oxford, Robert Morison, who was also in contact with the coffeehouse group.  Both Petiver and Plukenet published on Banister’s collections but Plukenet’s work was the most extensive.  He described almost 100 species and in many cases included illustrations made from Banister’s drawings (Ewan & Ewan, 1970).  Morison also collaborated with John Ray in studying the Virginia plants, some of which were described in Ray’s, Historia plantarum (Raven, 1950).  Though many botanists were using Banister’s specimens, he still wanted to write his own book but after collecting for many years he was killed in a hunting accident in 1692.


Ewan, J., & Ewan, N. (1970). John Banister and His Natural History of Virginia 1678-1692. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

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

Raven, C. E. (1950). John Ray Naturalist: His Life and Work. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Early American Exploration: New England

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Josselyn’s illustration of a pitcher plant in New England Rareties, Biodiversity Heritage Library

Children educated in the United States are taught that the Pilgrims learned about growing corn from the indigenous peoples who lived in and around Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts.  From the very beginning, local botanical knowledge was pivotal to the success of the settlement, as it was for all such enterprises in unfamiliar places.  Within a few years after the founding of the colony in 1620, William Wood wrote New England’s Prospect (1634), a general description of the area and how it was developing.  It makes fascinating reading as Wood pictures getting lost in untrod woods, searching for food during a harsh winter, and enjoying the bounties of a “fertile summer.”  The book isn’t illustrated, but it has brief sections on plants used for food, as well as on the various kinds of useful trees available.  Wood notes that crops which grow well in England do equally well in the colony, and some actually do better and grow bigger.  As to trees, the cherry is different from the English cherry, and so is the walnut, but they are at least as good and useful as their British cousins.  It is easy to detect a nostalgia for plants that are now only a memory for Wood, but there is also a sense of wonder at what the dense woods may hold.

John Josselyn first visited New England in 1638 and stayed a year.  He returned in 1663 and remained until 1671.  Afterwards he wrote two books on his experiences, New England Rarities (1671) and An Account of Two Voyages (1674).  He is considered gullible since some of his descriptions border on the fantastic, but he does give interesting information on plants, listing 32 species growing in Plymouth gardens (Reveal, 1992).  His first book describes the birds, mammals, reptiles, insects, and plants he encountered in Massachusetts, including areas where his relatives had settled that are now part of Maine.  It’s not surprising that Josselyn provides an extensive list of fish, since he is reporting on coastal communities with access to both salt and freshwater species.  However, he only mentions three insect species.  As for plants, he focuses on their medicinal uses.  For example: “An Indian bruising and cutting of his knee with a fall, used no other remedy than alder bark, chewed fasting, and laid to it, did soon heal it.”  In 1865, Josselyn’s books were reprinted; and the botanist Edward Tuckerman wrote an introduction to Rarities putting Josselyn’s botanizing in context.   Tuckerman deems him to be “little more than an herbalist,” but gives him credit for botanizing and making use of references like John Gerard’s The herball, or, Generall historie of plantes (1597), a book highly regarded at that time.  Tuckerman considers Wood’s book a better introduction to the natural history of the area, but concedes that Josselyn provides more on plants.  Then leaving Josselyn behind, he continues with a brief but interesting review of what had come to be known about plants of North America since Josselyn’s time, including mention of such greats as John Bartram, Peter Collinson, and Alexander Garden.  If you are interested in the history of American botany, Tuckerman’s book is a good read.

One thing that makes Rarities notable is that it’s illustrated.  For those accustomed to the polished engravings of the European floras of the time, Josselyn’s images are disappointing, but they carry some information as well as a certain charm.  The drawings of walnuts aren’t inspiring, but Tuckerman notes that Josselyn “sufficiently exhibits” characteristics of the (see illustration above).  Josselyn describes a plant he calls Paris or One Berry, but which Tuckerman identifies as Cornus canadensis, the bunch berry.  The illustration is rather stylized and imprecise, displaying features that could be interpreted as either plant.  This is why reading not the original Josselyn book, but Tuckerman’s edited version is more informative and satisfying.  Both versions are available through the Biodiversity Heritage Library, as examples of its wealth of resources.  And in case you haven’t heard, BHL now has a full-text search function which makes it even more useful in historical research.

To get a few herbarium specimens in here, as well as a little family history, I want to mention Cotton Mather, a New England Puritan minister infamous for his involvement in the Salem witch trials.  However, he was also a close observer of nature, who supported the use of smallpox vaccination and did early work on the hybridization of corn.  Among his descendants was my husband of good New England stock, Robert Mather Hendrick.  Cotton Mather corresponded with the London botanist and collector James Petiver (see earlier post) and sent him seven specimens, with notes (Stearns, 1952).  These are in the Sloane Herbarium, and there is also a letter from Mather to Sloane in the Sloane manuscript collection in which he discusses his views on smallpox—a small but interesting piece of American, and British, history.


Reveal, J. L. (1992). Gentle Conquest: The Botanical Discovery of North America with Illustrations from the Library of Congress. Washington, DC: Starwood.

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

Early North American Plant Exploration: Canada

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Title page of Jacques Cornuti’s Canadensium Plantarum Historia (1635), Biodiversity Heritage Library

The last set of posts (1,2,3,4) dealt with plants brought back to Europe from early explorations of Central and South America.  Some of these species were indeed spectacular and whetted European appetites for more botanical novelties.  Gardening was becoming a passion and having the latest flower or tree was a sign that a gardener could not only afford a rarity but had the connections to obtain them.  Yet the impulse to find horticultural wonders was about more than just showing off; it was part of a larger political and economic drive to investigate the riches, botanical and otherwise, of the New World.  While the Portuguese and Spanish were focusing on the south, France and Britain, though operating in the Caribbean, were also attempting to establish colonies in North America.  One of the their prime goals was to discover a passage to the East.  Many were convinced that there must be a navigable body of water that crossed this land, though they were uncertain as to how vast the land might be.  It is the botanical fruits of these explorers, and the herbarium specimens that document their efforts that are the topic of this series of posts.

The first major French expedition was in 1534:  Jacques Cartier’s (1491-1557) voyage to Newfoundland and then on to the Gulf of St. Lawrence with stops in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.  He returned to France the same year, and in 1535 set out again, this time traveling down the St. Lawrence River to what is now Montreal.  There his ships were stuck in ice for the winter, and the crew survived the ordeal in part because indigenous people told the French of the restorative powers of a conifer that Cartier called arborvitae or tree of life (Thuja occidentalis) because it had cured his men’s scurvy.  After this harrowing experience, Cartier returned to France in 1536, bringing seeds of a number of plants as well as tales of the wealth in gold and diamonds to be found in what he came to call Canada.  It was the promised mineral wealth that led the king to send Cartier back to Canada in 1541 to establish a colony.  Problems arose when the king then dispatched a friend, Jean-François Roberval, to take over command and ordered Cartier to provide back up.  After the explorer had loaded his ships with ore, he angrily sailed back to France, only to find out that the rocks didn’t contain precious minerals or gems.  That was the end of Cartier’s service to the king, but he did write a report of his second voyage in which he described over 30 plants.  Some of the seeds he gathered flourished in the king’s garden and were distributed to gardeners and botanists in Britain and Spain.

The same held true for plants collected by Samuel de Champlain, who arrived in Canada for the first time in 1603, 60 years later.  He eventually made over 20 voyages between Canada and France over 30 years, exploring along the St. Lawrence River and founding the city of Quebec.  Champlain described a number of plants and brought back seeds for such notable plants as the “potato of Canada,” the Jerusalem artichoke, Helianthus tuberosus.  In 1635 Jacques Cornuti described about 60 Canadian plants in his illustrated Canadensium Plantarum Historia (1635) (see title page above).  These descriptions were based on plants grown by Jean Robin and his son Vespasien in the king’s garden, and many of them were probably brought back by Champlain from his own garden in Canada (Dickenson, 1998).

In the first half of the 16th century when Cartier was traveling, the herbarium had only recently been first developed, probably by Luca Ghini in Italy, so it isn’t surprising that the Frenchman didn’t preserve specimens.  However, the plants that grew from Cartier’s seeds were used as sources of specimens.  The Robins shared seeds and cuttings with a number of botanists including Carolus Clusius, an avid botanist and horticulturalist and garden networker (Egmond, 2010).  They  also traded seeds with the botanist John Gerald and the nurseryman John Tradescant in England, Cardinals Farnese and Barberini in Rome, and Caspar Bauhin in Switzerland, who described many of these plants.  The latter sent some of the seeds to his correspondent Joachim Burser who not only grew plants from the seeds he received, but took cuttings and made herbarium specimens from them.  This collection was particularly important because Carl Linnaeus studied it in concert with Bauhin’s book, Pinax theatri botanici, thus many of the specimens in this herbarium are type specimens for Canadian species.  The collection is now in the herbarium of the Museum of Evolution at Uppsala University in Sweden, as still another example of plant specimens zigzagging around in the course of botanical investigations.

The Canadian plants were of interest to gardeners was because these were more likely to grow in European climates than were the tropical plants from Central and South America.  However, they often weren’t as novel as the southern plants.  Because the climates in North America and Europe were somewhat more similar, the plants tended to be similar—not identical—but similar.  This created the need for more careful taxonomic work to parse out just how different these new finds were, and whether they constituted new species, which in many cases they did.  The same held true for the plants of the more temperate climate of the British colonies which were being created at about the same time a little to the south.  These will be the subject of the next posts.


Dickenson, V. (1998). Drawn from Life: Science and Art in the Portrayal of the New World. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

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

Early Botanical Explorations in Latin America: Maurits


4 Brazilian Landscape

Frans Post’s “A Brazilian Landscape” (1650) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Nearly 40 years ago, when I started dating my husband, we would go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art because of his interest in art history.  I was not as enthralled with the Impressionists and even less with genre painting—his two loves—so I searched for something I could get excited about.  That’s how I began to look for biology in art, and I’ve never stopped.  I can remember on one visit discovering a painting by Frans Post, a Dutch artist who had traveled to Brazil in the 17th century and recorded the landscapes and people he encountered.  I vividly recall walking into a gallery, seeing his “A Brazilian Landscape,” (see figure above) and focusing on the rich vegetation it pictured.  Here was someone who knew how to paint plants; here was a painting that, as far as I was concerned, was a work of science as well as art.  At the time, it didn’t occur to me to question how a Dutch artist ended up in Brazil, because obviously Post must have visited the country; the painting was definitely an eye-witness depiction.  In the years since, I’ve encountered Post’s work, particularly his Brazilian paintings, now and again, so I’ve come to know a little more about his story.

In her book on expeditions to Latin America up to the time of Charles Darwin, Daniela Bleichmar (2017) describes the survey of parts of Brazil by Count Johan Maurits van Nassau-Seigen (1604-1679).  The Netherlands formed the Dutch West India Company in 1621 and took over the northeast coast of Brazil from the Portuguese in 1624, remaining in control until 1654.  Their colony was called New Holland or Dutch Brazil, and Maurits was governor there from 1637 to 1644.  He set out to study the area and to do this he employed two artists, Albert Eckhout and Frans Post.  He also brought with him, at his own expense, a German naturalist, Georg Marcgraf and a Dutch physician, Wilhelm Piso.  They directed collection of specimens and objects of interest, all of which were shipped back to Europe.  Thus Maurits and his collaborators made the first systematic study of New World natural history (Appleby, 2013).  It is said that it was the Maurits model that Mark Catesby used when he took his second trip to North America which resulted in his Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands.

The fruits of Maurits’s expedition are many.  There are, of course, Frans Post’s landscapes, which as I have noted are also plant scapes, picturing breadfruit trees, pineapples, cycads, cacti, and other Brazilian botanical wonders, along with indigenous peoples going about their lives.  The other artist, Albert Eckhout, painted from a closer perspective, doing portraits of individual indigenes and still lifes of local plants with an emphasis on fruits.  These are reminiscent of Dutch still lifes of flowers, but more somber and definitely designed to give as much information as possible about the subjects.  Many of the fruits are shown both whole and cut in half to reveal the seed arrangement.  One painting focuses on a large palm inflorescence paired with a basket of peanuts, chili peppers, and spices.  Another depicts a pineapple, melons, and cashews, with a passion flower vine twisting among them, a fully opened flower in the foreground (see figure below).  These would not be considered botanical illustrations in the strict sense of the term, in part because there are just too many species crowded together.  On the other hand, they are detailed and realistic; the species are in most cases easily identifiable, so they are definitely informative botanical documents as well as notable works of art.  The philosopher David Topper (1996) writes about just such art arguing that the line between artistic work and empirical scientific document is often impossible to draw.  Art and science in cases like this cannot be pulled asunder.

4a Eckhout passionflower

Albert Eckhout’s “Still Life with Watermelons, Pineapple and Other Fruit” (1640) in the National Museum of Denmark.

As to the textual outcome of the expedition, the naturalist Georg Marcgraf died right before the expedition returned to Europe, so the publication work was undertaken by the physician Wilhelm Piso.  He published Historia Naturalis Brasiliae in 1648.  As Bleichmar notes, this was the first major illustrated natural history of any region of the Americas where the text and the illustrations were the result of first-hand experience by naturalists and artists.  It opens with Piso’s observations of medical and botanical observations.  This is followed by Marcgraf’s contribution on plants and animals.  In all cases, Piso gave Portuguese, Spanish, and indigenous names for each species.  There is a volume of Marcgraf’s herbarium at the University of Copenhagen’s herbarium.  It contains what are probably the first dried plant specimens from the tropical New World, and includes 177 species (Ossenbach, 2017).  One of the orchids is Trigonidium acuminatum.  There is an image of the same species in the Historia that is almost identical in its features (see figures below).

While Maurits’s name is associated with this expedition, he was more the organizer than an active participant.  He was essentially a military man who had earlier been involved in the campaign against the Portuguese that led to the Dutch control of northeast Brazil.  His job was to run the colony’s government, but he valued knowledge of its natural history enough to not only fund but manage the survey.  He obviously selected his team well since they produced a great deal of visual and textual information in a timely fashion compared, for example, to the results of Francisco Hernández’s work in the 1570s that remained unpublished well into the next century (see first post in this series).  What I hope should be apparent from this series of posts (1,2,3) and the previous one (1,2,3,4), is that there were many different approaches to exploring the plants of unknown lands in the early modern period.  These differences involved personalities, politics, culture, and geography.  That variety is what makes the history of botany so fascinating.


Appleby, J. (2013). Shores of Knowledge: New World Discoveries and the Scientific Imagination. New York, NY: Norton.

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

Ossenbach, C. (2017). Precursors of the Botanical Exploration of South America. Wilhelm Piso (1611-1678) and Georg Marcgrave (1610-1644). Lankesteriana, 17(1), 61–71.

Topper, D. (1996). Towards an Epistemology of Scientific Illustration. In B. S. Baigrie (Ed.), Picturing Knowledge: Historical and Philosophical Problems Concerning the Use of Art in Science (pp. 215–249). Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press.

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.


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.

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.


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.


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.