Botanical Britain: Herbaria

2a Hookeria flavenscens

Specimen of Hookeria flavescens with watercolor drawings by Robert Kaye Greville, Herbarium at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

To me travel provides the opportunity to visit herbaria.  I walked past Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace at the opposite ends of what’s called Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, and it was great to see their very different architectures, as well as the wonderful architecture in between, including the modern Scottish Parliament Building and many structures dating to the 17th and 18th centuries.  But it was the herbarium at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) where I saw truly amazing sights.  I will go into this in more detail in subsequent posts, here I’m just going to hit the high points of what I saw at RBGE and several other herbaria I visited on my recent trip to Britain (see last post).  A few years ago, RBGE published a book called Botanical Treasures (Atkins et al., 2014) with photographs and descriptions of objects from its herbarium and library, so I had a guide to some of the collections.  Sally Rae, assistant herbarium curator, took out specimens prepared by Robert Kaye Greville, an expert in mosses, who sometimes painted watercolors of specimens on the sheets (see photo above).  In the library, Graham Hardy showed me a copy of Greville’s Flora Edinensis Cryptogamia with blank pages interleafed where Greville added notes and watercolors on new species.  This is just one example of the riches of these collections and how library and herbarium interrelate.  Others were shown me by Henry Noltie, a noted researcher in Indian botany and the history of its botanical illustrations (2002, 2016, 2017).

At the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Mark Nesbitt, curator of the Economic Botany Collection, gave me a tour of its storage facility for over 100,000 specimens.  In 1847 Kew was the first to open an economic botany museum and while its museum building has now been converted into a restaurant (see photo below), with a few of the displays retained (see photo below), the collection is intact.  Nesbitt is working with colleagues at Kew and Royal Holloway to track the many items that Kew distributed to other institutions over the years in a project called the Mobile Museum. He and Carine Cornish (2016) have documented how, as interest in economic botany declined in the 1950s, specimens from such collections were disbursed to herbaria and botanical collections, while the artifacts made from plant material—everything from palm mats to barkcloth jackets—found their way into world culture or ethnographic collections.  As interest in both types of assemblages is now growing, Nesbitt has worked with a group of colleagues to create a guide on Curating Biocultural Collections: A Handbook (Salick, Konchar & Nesbitt, 2014).

2b Kew Cafe

Display case with wax orchid models at The Botanical restaurant at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

I went to Oxford University Herbarium to see portions of the William Sherard (1659-1728) collection.  In my exploration of pre-Linnaean botany, his name kept coming up in a number of contexts:  he studied with Joseph Pitton de Tournefort in Paris and Paul Hermann in Leiden, helped finance Mark Catesby’s trip to the Carolinas, collaborated with John Ray and other leading botanists of his day, served as advisor to the noted horticulturalist Mary Somerset, Duchess of Beaufort, and did extensive research on a revision of Caspar Bauhin’s Pinax Theatri Botanici.  Oxford has one of the great historical herbarium collections as well as an extensive modern collection.  The Druce Curator of the herbarium, Stephen Harris, has written extensively on what it contains (2007, 2015, 2018) and showed me some of the large of boxes of notes for the Pinax revision that Sherard and his later collaborators, Johann Jacob Dillenius and Humphry Sipthorp kept, though it was never published.  Also, Sherard had obtained a portion of Paul Hermann’s plant collection and manuscripts, and these included the class lists from Hermann’s courses at Leiden (see photo below).  Leiden was such an important center of medical education at the time, in large part because it was one of the few institutions open to religious dissenters who flocked there from the British Isles, France, and Germany (Stearn, 1962).  These lists bear this out.

2c Sherard

Pages from one of William Sherard’s notebooks for his unfinished revision of Caspar Bauhin’s Pinax Theatri Botanici, University of Oxford Herbarium.

I switched gears and saw a much more recent collection in the Royal Horticultural Society RHS herbarium at Wisley that has a different character than that of most herbaria.  There is an obvious emphasis on cultivated plants; even the way the sheets are prepared is somewhat different.  As the Keeper of the Herbarium Yvette Harvey explained, the collection was begun in the early 20th century with student collections.  Each horticultural student was expected to prepare 200 specimens during their course of study.  This practice remained until the 1980s, when the number was down to 10 per student.  Now the collection is continually enlarged as specimens are prepared from plants growing in RHS gardens often as a result of research projects.  For many years it was the practice to paint watercolors of prize-winning plants on the specimen sheets in order to provide a color record.  Now instead, labels record colors matched with the RHS numbered color cards to provide a consistent system for indicating color.  Also the sheets display dissected flower parts as well as intact blooms.

2d Beaufort p8

Page from Volume 131 of the Sloane Herbarium with specimens from Mary Somerset, Duchess of Beaufort at the Natural History Museum, London.

The last herbarium I visited was in a sense the daddy of them all, that of Hans Sloane at the Natural History Museum, London.  There are 265 volumes housed in a purpose-built facility.  All I can manage here is a brief introduction to what I saw and learned there.  I was guided by Fred Rumsey, senior curator in charge of the historical plant collections.  Sloane himself gathered many of the plants in the first seven volumes, which include those from his stay in Jamaica.  However, he acquired many more botanical specimens through purchase and trade, just as he acquired coins, books, works of art, ethnographic materials, etc., etc.  Among these were specimens prepared for Mary Somerset.  In one of her volumes, it says on the first page that these specimens were prepared “by order of Mary, Duchess of Beaufort.”  It seems that she demanded care in the process (see photo above).  The pages are large and each specimen is folded in its own piece of paper which is then attached, along with a number of others, to a page.  Unfortunately, there was so much to see, I didn’t get past the first volume of her plants, but it was enough to make me want another trip to London ASAP.  I also learned a great deal from my conversation with Rumsey and with Mark Carine, principle curator for plants.


Atkins, H., & et al. (2014). Botanical Treasures: Objects from the Herbarium and Library of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. Edinburgh, UK: Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

Harris, S. (2007). The Magnificent Flora Graeca: How the Mediterranean Came to the English Garden. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Harris, S. A. (2015). William Sherard: His herbarium and his Pinax. Oxford Plant Systematics, 21, 13–15.

Harris, S. A. (2018). Seventeenth-century plant lists and herbarium collections: A case study from the Oxford Physic Garden. Journal of the History of Collections, 30(1), 1–14.

Nesbitt, M., & Cornish, C. (2016). Seeds of industry and empire: economic botany collections between nature and culture. Journal of Museum Ethnography, 29, 53–70.

Noltie, H. J (2002). The Dapuri Drawings: Alexander Gibson and the Bombay Botanic Gardens. Edinburgh, UK: Antique Collectors’ Club.

Noltie, H. J. (2016). Indian Forester, Scottish Laird: The Botanical Lives of Hugh Cleghorn of Stravithie. Edinburgh, UK: Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

Noltie, H. J. (2017). Botanical Art from India: the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh Collection. Edinburgh, UK: Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

Salick, J., Konchar, K., & Nesbitt, M. (2014). Curating Biocultural Collections. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Stearn, W. T. (1962). The influence of Leyden on Botany in the 17th and 18th centuries. The British Journal for the History of Science, 1(2), 137–158.

Note: I would like to thank Henry Noltie, Sally Rae, and Graham Hardy at the RBGE, Mark Nesbitt at Kew, Stephen Harris at Oxford, Yvette Harvey at Wisley, and Fred Rumsey and Mark Carine at NHM for their warm welcome and generous help.


Botanical Britain: Gardens

1a Botanic cottage

Botanic Cottage, Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh

I’ve just spent a week in Edinburgh followed by one in London and needless to say, visiting herbaria was among my aims.  In future series, I’ll describe some of what I learned, but this series will be more general, about the experience of being in a land that cherishes plants.  Admittedly, autumn is not the best time to visit British gardens especially in a year with record heat and drought.  Still, I saw a number of them that looked wonderful despite these travails.  I was particularly thrilled to be in the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE), since I had read about it and followed its Twitter feed for some time.  I knew about the rebuilding of the Botanic Cottage and couldn’t wait to see it.  The cottage, completed on May 10, 1766, stood at the entrance to the former site of the RBGE in Leith Walk about a mile from the present garden (see photo above).  When it was threatened with demolition a few years ago, it was moved to the present site with reconstruction completed last year.  My timing again was off, the cottage wasn’t open on the days I was there so I had to settle for seeing it from the outside.  This building adds a great deal to the garden’s atmosphere and made me realize that though we go to gardens to see plants, the structures there can impact experience.

1b Bonsai

Malus bonsai tree at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

The same thought struck me a few days later at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.  I had visited before, but still it was great to see its pagoda, newly refurbished Temperate Plant House, and Kew Palace, where George III and Queen Charlotte lived during the summer months.  I also discovered a hot house of Bonsai trees including a profusely blooming apple (see photo above).  The long flower beds lining what is called the Broad Walk were spectacular, though more with seed pods than flowers.  My favorite experience was walking through wooded areas of Kew to Queen Charlotte’s Cottage, where she would retreat for quiet time.  It wasn’t open on the day I visited but sitting, looking at its Tudor brick and lumber work and thatched roof was wonderful for someone who only sees later reproduction Tudor architecture at home (see photo below).

1c Charlotte

Queen Charlotte’s Cottage at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Two days later, I was at another famous British garden with a long history, Chelsea Physic Garden.  While Kew has a lot of real estate and can spread out its collections creating long vistas, Chelsea is quite literally stuffed with plants, but in the most engaging way.  It was founded by apothecaries in 1673 as a resource for the profession, and its future was secured by the support of the physician Hans Sloane, who bought the property and permanently leased it to the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London for an annual payment of £5.  For 75 years, the society also contributed, at Sloane’s request, 50 herbarium specimens a year (Stungo, 1993).  This herbarium-as-rent was considered evidence that the garden was still being used as originally intended, to grow medicinal plants.  The buildings I found most memorable here were the small hothouses with their brick foundations; these too are full of plants.  Because of its scale, visitors are more apparent at Chelsea than at Kew so there is a more social flavor to the garden giving it a festive touch, especially on a sunny Sunday afternoon as when I visited.

1d Danby

Danby Gate at the University of Oxford Botanic Garden (taken by the author in January, 2014)

The next day I was at the University of Oxford Botanic Garden, founded as a physic garden in 1621.  Its most imposing architectural feature is the entry gate (see photo above), named in honor of the Earl of Danby, Edward Danvers whose funded the botanical garden, the oldest in Britain (Harris, 2017).  At the moment, the gate is completely covered in scaffolding, but the rest of the garden is flourishing, with over 8,000 species in a mere 4.5 acres.  Because of its old walls and position on the River Cherwell, it is easy to imagine Jacob Bobart, the elder and the younger, working here.  They were early superintendents of the garden and the younger also taught botany at Oxford, where the herbarium houses his specimens and manuscripts.

1e Wisley

RHS laboratory building at Wisley Garden.

The final garden I saw in Britain is one of four belonging to the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS).  Wisley is also where the RHS has its herbarium, which I’ll touch on in the next post.  I was lucky enough to have the keeper of the herbarium, Yvette Harvey, lead me to a Franklinia alatamaha in bloom because she thought I would like to see an American plant that had been discovered by John Bartram.  She also pointed out that Wisley is not a botanic garden so it has a different flavor, with more emphasis put on cultivars rather than on systematic botany.  While Kew and Oxford are magnificent, Wisley has a slightly different feel; it seems more about beauty and pleasure.  Yes, the plants are labeled, but the way the garden is laid out to lure visitors further and further into its depths to see more and more extraordinary plants.  There is also great architecture here as well, with the centerpiece being an Arts-and-Crafts style building from the early 20th century that, at least for an American, is a perfect fit for the surrounding garden’s massive herbaceous borders, trellised paths, and a rock garden (see photo above).  In the gardens I was lucky enough to visit, I got at least some hint of why the British are so in love with flowers and how they express that love so beautifully.


Harris, S. A. (2017). Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum: A Brief History. Oxford, UK: Bodleian Library.

Stungo, R. (1993). The Royal Society specimens from the Chelsea Physic Garden 1722-1799. Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 47(2), 213-224.

Touring the Middle East: More Travelers

4 Astragalus psoraloides

Astragalus psoraloides collected in Armenia by Joseph Pitton de Tournefort. Herbarium, Musée National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris.

In the last post, I mentioned that the botanist John Ray had edited a translation into English of Leonhard Rauwolf’s journal of his trip to the Near East in 1573-1574.  Ray’s 1693 work includes excerpts from the writings of other travelers to the area, some of whom focused on plants, while others were more interested in antiquities and geography.  This mélange was the brainchild of Hans Sloane, who collected manuscripts as well as plants, and a lot more.  The excerpts bear mention here because they include some interesting sources such as parts of Pierre Belon’s book on his trip in 1547.   I discussed Belon in an earlier post, and I’ll quote him here to give the flavor of his prose:  “The most remarkable Herbs I took notice of, were Papyrus Nilotica (a sort of Cyperus out of whose threads, or filaments, the ancients made their paper.) The Colocasia, or great Egyptian Arum, whose root they boil with most of their meats:  The Sugar-cane, or Reed, by the fuel whereof thy melt their Metals, wood being scarce in Egypt” (p. 410).

In Ray’s book, there are also descriptions of plants written by George Wheeler (also Wheler) who went to Greece and Asia Minor.  It is essentially a list of places he visited and the plants he found there.  He shared his information with Ray, and the plants are included in another of Ray’s works.  This is noted at the end of the entry, as a friendly reminder from the editor that his other work might be useful to a reader seeking more botanical information.  Ray does this at the end of several of the entries.  Wheeler’s 1682 book, under the name Wheler, is available electronically through the Royal Collection Trust.  It is illustrated with images not only of plants, but of animals, antiquities, and ancient ruins.  In addition, Wheler collected plant specimens which he gave to Oxford University, where they are preserved.

In his book on a later traveler to the Near East, John Sibthorp, Stephen Harris (2007) of Oxford University classifies early European travelers to the area into three groups.  First were those with medical interests and diplomats, Pierre Belon, Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, and Leonhard Rauwolf, whom I’ve mentioned in earlier posts (1,2,3), fit into these categories.  The second group included those who wanted a more extensive “Grand Tour,” not limited to France, Germany, and Italy.  And third were men on “official” expeditions, sponsored by governments and with published results.  Harris sees Sibthorp’s two trips east as falling into all three categories, since he was interested in tracing the plants describe by Dioscorides in his first-century herbal, had the money to make a tour as grand as he desired, and led his own expedition.  This enterprise included the artist Ferdinand Bauer who created the exquisite drawings for the massive Flora Graeca.  Sibthorp’s died shortly after he returned from his second voyage east, and the flora was left unpublished for years.  It is a testimony to his work and that of Bauer and of James Edward Smith who did a massive editing job since Sibthorp’s notes lacked order at the time he died.  Both his specimens and the flora are available online.

As far as Harris’s third category of “official” expeditions, he notes that there were two before Sibthorp’s travels in the 1790s.  First there was Joseph Pitton de Tournefort’s trip in 1700-1702, sponsored by the French King, Louis XIV.  Tournefort too traveled with an artist, Claude Aubriet, who also created excellent illustrations for this work.  The other was led by Carsten Niebuhr in 1761 under the patronage of the Danish King.  The botanist on this expedition was Peter Forsskål, a former student of Carl Linnaeus.  Unfortunately, Forsskål didn’t survive the journey, though much of the information he collected was published after his death.  The early deaths of Sibthrop and Forsskål suggest that travel at that time could be physically brutal; deserts were very hot and very cold places, and mountain terrain was difficult to navigate.

Fortunately for botanical science, these travelers left documents in texts and specimens that are available to us today.  I’ve already cited Sibthorp’s materials.  Forsskål’s specimens are at the University of Copenhagen and Tournefort’s at the Musée Nationale d’Histoire Naturale in Paris and their books are available through the Biodiversity Heritage Library.  Obviously, Forsskål was using Linnaean taxonomy in his work, while Tournefort’s analysis was not only pre-Linnaean because of when it was written, but also because he had a different taxonomic philosophy.  Tournefort was one of the most important exponents of a natural system for classifying plants.  His work in the Near East was only a small portion of his contributions to botany which included his teaching many of the botanical notables of his time, including Hans Sloane, who has been mentioned here many times, and William Sherard, a British botanist and diplomat who served as British Council at Smyrna in Turkey for several years and whose herbarium is now at Oxford University.  As with so many of the people whose names occur in these blog posts, these are linked in a complex network of interactions, that makes this history all the more intriguing.


Harris, S. (2007). The Magnificent Flora Graeca: How the Mediterranean Came to the English Garden. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Touring the Near East: Leonhard Rauwolf

3 Limonium sinuatum

Limonium sinuatum collected in Lebanon by Leonhard Rauwolf in 1575. Collection of the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, The Netherlands.

In the last post, I discussed Ogier Ghiselin Busbecq’s introduction of many Near Eastern plants into Western Europe through the writings, specimens, seeds, and bulbs he distributed.  Twenty years after Busbecq left for Constantinople, the German physician and botanist Leonhard Rauwolf (1535-1596) set out for an extensive tour of the Near East.  While Busbecq went as a diplomat, Rauwolf went primarily as someone interested in plants; he was sponsored by his brother-in-law, a prominent trader who had agents in several countries including Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine, and Syria.  Rauwolf was charged with providing medical treatments for the trader’s employees and also with investigating medicinal plants and treatments that might be profitable for his patron.

Rauwolf was well-equipped for his mission.  He was born in Ausburg in southern Germany and studied medicine in France, including some time at the University of Montpellier, tutored by the noted botanist Guillaume Rondelet in 1560.  From this time on Rauwolf kept a herbarium, which documented not only what but where he collected.  He also carefully studied the work of Dioscorides, the first-century physician whose herbal was the major botanical text still relied upon by doctors in the 16th century.  But as botanists studied plants more carefully in their native ranges they realized that the characteristics of the species in France and Germany did not always match with Dioscoridean descriptions.  This was a major reason Rauwolf wanted to visit the Mediterranean region:  to see firsthand the plants that Dioscorides had described (Dannenfeldt, 1968).

Rauwolf set out in May 1573 and traveled to Marseilles with a friend and from there sailed to Tripoli.  He went to Aleppo with a camel caravan and then beyond to the Euphrates River in southern Turkey, sailing on the river to Baghdad.  On the return trip, it was caravan all the way until they again reached Tripoli.  They went through a lot of rough country not just in terms of geography, but also because of encounters with local tribes that were often wary of foreigners and questioning of their loyalties.  These details make Rauwolf’s journal intriguing.  The reader wants to find out what is going to happen next.  For each of the places he visits he describes not only the plants he encountered, but also the terrain, the people and their customs, and the problems that arose.  He tells of others who had been captured and held prisoner for years on this route, and he himself turned back after reaching Baghdad because of violence in the area.

Despite all the problems, it’s clear that Rauwolf is enchanted by the plants he sees, and he frequently notes how they are similar to those described in Dioscorides and Theophrastus.  This is indeed what he came for, though at several points he writes of how disappointed he is in the medicinal herbs that are available from local apothecaries when he is looking for treatments for his patients.  This dearth may be real, or it may be that the remedies are so different from what he is accustomed to he can’t appreciate what he’s offered, or that the locals aren’t willing to share their finest sources with him.  In any case, he does his best to record what he sees growing around him and writes, for example, about “plants, which I gather’d during my stay in Aleppo, in and round about it, not without great danger and trouble . . . All these and several other herbs have I preserved and glued to some paper, with great and peculiar care, so that they are to be seen in their natural colors so exact, as if they were green “ (pp. 73, 77).

Many of these specimens still exist.  There are four volumes of Rauwolf’s herbarium preserved at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, the Netherlands, and they are now the subject of an intensive study being conducted on 16th-century herbaria by a group that Tilde van Andel heads.  In her inaugural address as the Clusius Chair at Leiden University in 2017, she noted that Rauwolf’s “herbarium was locked in a treasure room for more than 400 years, where it was only seen by a handful of botanists” (p. 5).  Now things are changing, and it is exciting to see this much attention given to these early specimens.  The fourth volume of Rauwolf’s specimens is a particularly important historical document, because the 191 species preserved there were collected on his Near East trip and are supported by his published journal and the illustrations it includes (Ghorbani et al., 2018).  One early result of this new attention is the typification of two Linnaean plant names based on two of these illustrations.  There are also herbarium specimens relating to these images (Ghorbani et al., 2017).

Another reason Rauwolf’s work is more accessible today is that his journal is available electronically through the Biodiversity Heritage Library.  Both the 1583 version in German is there as well as a translation into English that was published in 1693 by the botanist John Ray.  I was curious as to what moved Ray to work on Rauwolf, so I consulted Charles Raven’s (1950) biography of Ray.  It turns out that Ray himself did not do the translation.  It was created by a German apothecary under the aegis of Hans Sloane, the great collector and botanist.  Sloane and others thought the manuscript needed editing to improve the English and also to update the plant identifications.  They urged Ray to take on the job, and though he was busy with his own work, he accepted the assignment, appending a list of the plants Rauwolf discussed.  Also added were excerpts from the writings of a number of other travelers to the Near East.  I’ll touch on these and later explorers in the next post.


Dannenfeldt, K. H. (1968). Leonhard Rauwolf, Sixteenth-Century Physician, Botanist, and Traveler. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Ghorbani, A., de Boer, H. J., Maas, P. J. M., & van Andel, T. 2017. The typification of two Linnaean plant names based on illustrations published by Leonhard Rauwolf in 1583. Taxon, 66(5), 1204-1207.

Ghorbani, A., Wieringa, J. J., de Boer, H. J., Porck, H., Kardinaal, A., & van Andel, T. (2018). Botanical and floristic composition of the Historical Herbarium of Leonhard Rauwolf collected in the Near East (1573-1575). Taxon, 67(3), 565-580.

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

van Andel, T. (2017, January). Open the Treasure Room and Decolonize the Museum. Inaugural Lecture, Leiden University.

Touring the Near East: Ogier Ghiselin Busbecq


2 Mattioli lilac

Lilac from Pietro Mattioli’s version of Dioscorides’s herbal, Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Ogier Ghiselin Busbecq (1522-1592) is someone whose name I’ve come across a number of times as I’ve tried to learn about early modern botany.  He is not one of the major figures like Carolus Clusius and Pietro Andrea Mattioli, but he is frequently mentioned in relation to them.  Even though his name isn’t easy to remember, at least for me, I’ve seen it often enough that my curiosity was piqued.  Who was this man, a diplomat and not a botanist, who nonetheless fraternized with the latter and was an avid gardener.  Busbecq was born in Flanders, now part of the Netherlands, but then a province of the Holy Roman Empire (HRE), which was based in Vienna.  He was from a wealthy family that served the Austrian court, and after studying at several Italian universities, he followed suit.  In 1554, the Emperor Ferdinand I named him ambassador to the Ottoman Empire’s Suleiman the Magnificent in Constantinople.  He traveled there with the physician Willem Quakelbeen, also a plant enthusiast.  Busbecq remained in his post for eight years.  His major mission was to negotiate a treaty between the two empires over the border of Transylvania.  He was finally successful after there was a shift in Sulieman’s chief advisor.  Though this might have been important politically, today Busbecq is known more for his role as a distributor of both botanical information and specimens.

While on his diplomatic mission, Busbecq wrote letters to another diplomat, Nicholas Michault and these were later published (Roider, 2005).  He describes his travels and his interactions in Constantinople, but Busbecq also discusses plants.  From the start of his trip, he was impressed by what he saw.  Traveling through Greece in November, he was surprised to see hyacinths, narcissi, and tulips in bloom.  He knew the first two, but tulips were new to him, and he was intrigued.  In The Tulip, Anna Pavord (1999) goes into how Busbecq asked the name of the flower a man had sticking out of his turban, and the man answered with the name of the turban, not the flower, but it stuck.  However, Busbecq may not have been the first person to send tulips back to Europe.  Pavord notes that the first documented bloom was in a Bavarian garden in 1559.  If it were grown from seed, it would have had to been germinated several years earlier to have developed into a flowering bulb.  However, it is known that Busbecq was soon sending seeds and bulbs back to his friends in Europe including Pietro Andrea Mattioli, an Italian who served as physician to HRE elite.  Mattioli had already published a revised version of Dioscorides’s first-century herbal in 1544 and was working on a new edition.  In it, he incorporated the drawings and descriptions of the “many good specimens” Busbecq sent him.  Unfortunately, Mattioli had the habit of discarding specimens after he had taken notes on them, so none of the Busbecq is material known to survive.

Another recipient of Busbecq’s Near Eastern plants was Carolus Clusius, also Flemish, who became head of the Holy Roman Emperor’s botanical garden in Vienna the year before Busbecq left Vienna to return to the Netherlands.  Busbecq gave Clusius tulip seeds and bulbs that he had brought from Constantinople, and Clusius, in turn, distributed them to his large network of botanical enthusiasts.  He also received tulips from other sources.  One of the many women gardeners he knew gave him a rare bulb she had obtained from Turkey.  Later someone involved with the Leiden botanic garden, which Clusius had founded, gave him the only bulb he had of a tulip that bloomed green and then turned yellow.  Clusius was in touch with Jean Robin at the King’s garden in Paris and with Matthias de L’Obel, another Fleming who  lived in London, and a number of gardeners throughout Europe.  It is no wonder tulips proliferated.  This was at the end of the 16th century, suggesting that tulips were already considered valuable.  In fact, Clusius complained of thieves digging up bulbs from his garden (Egmond, 2010), though what became known as “tulip mania” when the price of bulbs inflated fantastically didn’t occur until well into the next century.

Busbecq didn’t confine himself to tulips and is credited with introducing many other plants as well.  Tyler Whittle (1970) writes that in one year Busbecq sent back along with tulips, specimens of the horse chestnut, lilac, mock orange, and the Syrian rose mallow.  He also introduced the Oriental plane tree, iris tuberosa, and the gladiolus.  This explains why gardens were never quite the same after Busbecq.  But there’s another reason to be grateful to Busbecq.  While in Constantinople, he was shown a copy of Dioscorides’s herbal that was produced around 500 CE for the Byzantine Empress Juliana, hence called the Juliana Codex.  It is lavishly illustrated and is one of the treasures of the botanical literature.  Seven years later, it ended up in Vienna, where it still resides in the Austrian National Library, though it isn’t clear if Busbecq himself delivered it to the emperor.  The paintings are amazingly naturalistic and suggest that other early illustrated herbals may have also had such illustrations, though the quality of the drawings deteriorated considerably in the herbals of the Middle Ages and didn’t begin to improve until the late 14th century with such manuscripts as the Carrara Herbal (Blunt & Stearn, 1994).

With my emphasis on plants, I’ve failed to give a sense of all the other wonderful information in Busbecq’s letters on geography, customs, and political intrigue.  They were translated into English in 1633 and are now available on the web.  In the next post, I’ll discuss another traveler to the Near East, with a different purpose but also plant-obsessed, Leonhard Rauwolf.


Blunt, W., & Stearn, W. (1994). The Art of Botanical Illustration. Kew, UK: Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

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

Pavord, A. (1999). The Tulip: The Story of a Flower That Has Made Men Mad. London, UK: Bloomsbury.

Roider, K. A. (2005). The Turkish Letters of Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, Imperial Ambassador at Constantinople, 1554-1562. Baton Rouge: LSU Press.

Whittle, T. (1970). The Plant Hunters. New York, NY: PAJ.

Touring the Near East

1 Gessner Tulip

Conrad Gessner sketch of tulip grown in Johann Herwart’s garden in 1559. Gessner Notebook, University Library Erlangen, Germany.

In past blog posts, I’ve focused on early modern botanical exploration from the Far East (1,2,3,4) to Latin America (1,2,3,4) and most recently, North America (1,2,3,4).  The set of posts I’m beginning this week will be the final one on exploration, at least for a while, and will again turn east, to Greece and the Near East.  Travel there was different from what I’ve already described.  Most obviously, it didn’t entail long ocean voyages, though there was usually some water travel through parts of the eastern Mediterranean to reach Turkey or Egypt.  This relative accessibility meant that those interested in natural history did not have to trek as part of large-scale expeditions, usually undertaken by naval powers such as France, Spain, the Netherlands, or Britain and usually with political and economic objectives.  Travel in the Near East was often for similar purposes, but on a different scale.  There were diplomatic missions to the Court of the Suliman in Istanbul or groups of merchants seeking trade relations in Turkey, Egypt, or Persia.

In 1453, the Byzantine Empire came to an end when Constantinople fell to Turkish forces.  This changed the political dynamics of the region, but its economic importance meant that Europeans were still interested in doing business there.  Because of historical ties to the region as well as geography, the Holy Roman Empire (HRE) based in Vienna, was in a good position to nourish relationships with the numerous rulers of the eastern Mediterranean and beyond.  Venice was another eastern-facing city with long-nurtured links to the region, but the Dutch, whose ports were on the North Sea, were also involved because their royal family had close ties with the HRE.

All this history and geography may seem a long way from plants, but I’m setting the stage for some of the key botanical forays to the Near East.  Because they were undertaken by just a few people the reports were written less as major studies of the region, such as those undertaken by Paul Hermann for the plants of Ceylon or Francisco Hernández for Latin America, and more as travelogues or a compilation of letters; these individuals were more travelers rather than explorers.  They were not going into completely unknown territory, instead they were reporting on areas which had a long-known history, including Biblical lands.  With the focus changing from European warfare with the Muslims to greater interest in trade as Europe developed economically, the Near East was opening up, at least a little, to the West.  However, travel was still difficult and dangerous; chroniclers write of being taken prisoner for varying periods of time and getting caught up unknowingly in local enmities.

For those interested in plants, the difficulties were worth it because they were able to finally see species that the best botanical writers of ancient world, Theophrastus and Dioscorides, had described.  At the time when one of the first of these travelers, Pierre Belon (1517-1564), visited the area in 1547, these ancient texts were still the primary sources of plant information available.  Belon was an apothecary who had also studied medicine and had traveled with his teacher Valerius Cordus, one of the leading botanists of his day.  Belon became the apothecary to a French cardinal and thus came to the attention of the king of France, Francis I, who sent Belon as part of a delegation to the court of Suleiman the Magnificent in Constantinople.  While there Belon not only studied the plants, but obtained a copy of Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine (Willis, 2011).  Access to such prized works was one of the benefits of traveling east.  European botanists were still relying heavily on these texts and were only beginning to develop botanical knowledge based on direct observation.

Belon journeyed from France through Croatia and stayed in Greece and Crete for some time.  This allowed him to see plants that Theophrastus had discussed.  Then he moved on to Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Lebanon and Turkey, returning to France in 1549.  He is thought to be the first Westerner to describe the tulip, and he may have brought seeds back with him.  In her wonderful book on the tulip, Anna Pavord (1999) suggests that he may have been responsible for the first tulip to bloom in Europe, in the Bavarian garden of Johann Herwart in 1559.  In the next blog post I’ll get back to the tulip’s history, but the tulip wasn’t the only plant Belon described.  He also wrote about the lilac, plane tree, cedar, holm oak, olive tree, and oleander.  In addition, he discussed the doum palm, black myrtle, cassia tree, and sycamore fig (Thinard, 2016).

Belon noted the beauty of many of these plants and their medicinal uses as well.  Belon made the interesting observation that medicinal plants were considered so important that the camels carrying them were more closely guarded than those loaded with silks (Willis, 2011).  It’s observations like this that give Belon’s book its fascinating flavor.  An English translation of excerpts from it was published a century later in a book by John Ray that included a translation of the journal of another botanist who toured the Middle East, Leonhard Rauwolf, who will be the subject of a later post in this series.  But before I get to him, I’ll discuss the person usually credited with bringing the tulip to Europe, Ogier Ghiselin Busbecq.


Pavord, A. (1999). The Tulip: The Story of a Flower That Has Made Men Mad. London, UK: Bloomsbury.

Thinard, F. (2016). Explorers’ Botanical Notebook. Buffalo, NY: Firefly.

Willis, M. (2011). The Making of the English Gardener. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Libraries and Botany: New York, New York

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Specimen of Diopyros virginiana collected from the site of the Elgin Botanic Garden in 1829, New York Botanical Garden Steere Herbarium

Since the joint CBHL/EBHL meeting (see earlier post) was held in New York, it’s not surprising that there were several presentations related to the metropolis.  It seems fitting to end this series of posts with a review of them.  After a welcome from Susan Fraser, director of NYBG’s Mertz Library, the first major speaker of the conference was Eric Sanderson of the Wildlife Conservation Society, headquartered across the street from the New York Botanical Garden, at the Bronx Zoo.  For many years Sanderson has had a leading role in research on what New York was like before Henry Hudson sailed into the mouth of the Hudson River in 1609.  The indigenous people called the large island he found Mannahatta, and that became the name for Sanderson’s endeavor and the title of the book he published in 2009.  Using mapping technology coupled with old maps, historical accounts of the area, specimens collected there in the past, and what is known about the ecology and geology of the island, Sanderson’s team identified 54 different ecosystem types on Mannahatta.  This is a large number for that sized piece of land, and the result of its extensive wetlands along with its varied geological features.  There were also an estimated 600 species of plants.

More recently Sanderson has led an effort to produce the same kind of modeling for New York City’s other four boroughs.  Called Welikia, it too has a website that is still under construction, but includes all the information from the Mannahatta Project.  These are not just interesting exercises in environmental history, they aim at helping the citizens of New York understand the biodiversity that once existed there and how to preserve and nurture as much of it as possible.  It is unlikely that bears will again roam Manhattan, but red-tailed hawks are flourishing (Winn, 1998), and I’ve seen a coyote ambling inside NYBG’s fence as I was stuck in traffic trying to get there.

On the second day of the conference, the botanical illustrator Bobbi Angell presented on the formidable botanical art collection housed at NYBG.  Angell has spent her life creating pen-and-ink drawings to illustrate the scientific work of the garden’s botanists, including many for the seven volume Intermountain Flora: Vascular Plants of the Intermountain West, USA.  The last volume was just recently published (2017) and includes not only some of Angell’s illustrations but biographies of her and other illustrators and botanists who worked on this project that was first envisioned by Bassett Maguire in the 1930s.  There will be more on the editors, Patricia Holmgren and Noel Holmgren, in a future post.

Angell didn’t dwell on her accomplishments, but instead discussed some of the other contributors to the 30,000 pieces in the NYBG art collection.  These include the great French botanical painter Pierre-Joseph Redouté with 10 paintings on linen, but Angell concentrated on 20th and 21st-century artists, including Alexandria Taylor and Frances Horne who did illustrations respectively for Elizabeth Britton and Nathaniel Lord Britton.  Both were distinguished botanists and Britton was NYBG’s founding director.  Angell spoke reverently of artists whom she knew including Anne Ophelia Todd Dowden, who left her finished works to the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation in Pittsburgh, and her working drawings to NYBG, an interesting division.  Then there was Rupert Barneby a self-taught botanist and artist who did research at the garden and became an expert on legumes.   He created his own illustrations until he injured his hand.  Angell ended with a plea for more of the botanical art in library collections to be made available online and a mention of the American Society of Botanical Artists, which has a wonderful journal for members as well as a website on which they can present their work.

The final presentation of the meeting was a public lecture by Victoria Johnson to celebrate the publication of her book, American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic (2018).  She began the book and her talk very effectively by telling the story of how David Hosack, a physician, treated a New York boy dying of fever in 1797.  Hosack had tried everything he could without success, and so decided to lower the boy into warm bathwater with cinchona bark mixed in.  Several of these treatments led to the patient’s recovery and to a tearful thank you from his father.  Johnson then paused, and revealed that the father was Alexander Hamilton.  After this surprise, she went on describe some of what she writes about in her book:  how Hosack trained as a physician in the United States and Britain where he developed an interest in botany, even studying with James Edward Smith the founder of the Linnean Society; how he set up a medical practice in New York, obviously attracting an elite clientele; how he developed a plan to create a botanical garden in the city as a way to nurture, study, and teach about medicinally useful plants.  He used his own money to buy 20 acres of land in what is now midtown Manhattan, but was then over three miles north of the city.  He called it the Elgin Botanic Garden after the Scottish town where his family originated.  He built a wall around the property as well as greenhouses and then bought an impressive selection of plants.

Hosack had a long and successful life as a physician, but his story is definitely bittersweet.  He was the attending physician when his friend Alexander Hamilton was shot in the duel with Aaron Burr (it turns out they both were interested in gardening).  The garden, begun in 1801, was destroyed in the 1820s after it had been bought by New York State and then handed over to Columbia College (now Columbia University) for management.  It was neglected and eventually leased by Columbia as real estate prices in that part of Manhattan started to soar. Eventually, it became the site of Rockefeller Center.  However, to end on a happier note, there are a few Elgin Garden specimens in the NYBG herbarium including Diosyros virginiana (see above).

Note: I would like thank all those involved in the wonderful CBHL/EBHL meeting, particularly Susan Fraser, Kathy Crosby, Esther Jackson, and Samantha D’Acunto.  I am also grateful to the participants from whom I learned so much, to Pat Jonas who nudged me to attend, and to Amy Kasameyer who introduced me to CBHL.


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.

Johnson, V. (2018). American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic. New York, NY: Norton.

Sanderson, E. W. (2009). Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City. New York: Abrams.

Winn, M. (1998). Red-Tails in Love: A Wildlife Drama in Central Park. New York: Pantheon.

Libraries and Botany: Digital Resources

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Second edition of Basil Soulsby’s catalog of the works of Linnaeus, Biodiversity Heritage Library

One of the attractive features of the meeting of botanical and horticultural librarians that I attended in New York recently (see the last two posts 1,2) is that it included both Europeans and Americans.  Since Europe is home to so many historical collections of specimens, manuscripts, and botanical art, it was great to learn more about these treasures.  It was even better to discover how many of these resources are now available digitally.  One of the high points of the meeting for me was the presentation by Félix Alonso, head librarian at the Royal Botanic Garden in Madrid.  I already knew that this library has a magnificent collection because many of its treasures are available through the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL), and I was glad to hear that the institution is developing a new interface to make it more user-friendly.  Accessibility was Alonso’s major theme, as he outlined plans to move the library from a collection-centered to a service-centered focus, including opening it to children for the first time in its 250-year history.

Yet another group meeting at NYBG along with the European and American librarians, was the Linnaeus Link Project, an international collaboration among libraries with significant holdings dealing with Carl Linnaeus.  It is funded, maintained, and coordinated by the Linnean Society of London, which holds the bulk of Linnaeus’s specimens, manuscripts, and books, bought from his widow by the British botanist James Edward Smith in 1784.  However, a number of institutions also have substantial holdings, and the project aims to make all the Linnaeus material available through a union catalog.  Lynda Brooks and Isabelle Charmantier of the Linnean Society Library presented on Linnaeus Link and that’s how I was introduced to “Soulsby numbers” used to identify each record.  Basil Soulsby produced the second edition of his Catalogue of the Works of Linnaeus in 1933, recording all Linnaean writings and works about Linnaeus published up to 1931; the last entry was number 3874.  Linnaeus Link uses these numbers to identify items in the Union Catalogue and is also assigning post-Soulsby numbers to items not mentioned by Soulsby; there are over 400 of these.  This project gives a glimpse into the world of librarianship and the meticulous processes involved in coordinating materials spread out over several countries.

Isabelle Charmantier also presented on the work being done to digitize the Linnean Society collections, which go well beyond those of Linnaeus and include the herbarium of the society’s founder James Edward Smith, as well as his seed collection that is now being conserved.  The seeds are still enclosed in their original wrappers that include letters, sermons, newspapers—obviously of value in themselves.  There are also the archives of Linnean Society Fellows such as Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, and art including the watercolors of Nepalese plants that were done by an Indian artist under the direction of Francis Buchanan Hamilton.  He traveled to Nepal in 1802-1803 and recorded over a thousand species there.  Charmantier noted that at the moment, the Society has data on three platforms with variable metadata and would like to undertake the major task of uniting them, thus making the information available to users through a single search engine.

Another great botanical library is at the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew and the head of the library, Fiona Ainsworth, described its massive holdings: 300,000 books and pamphlets, 200,000 works of art, and 7,000,000 archive sheets.  At the moment, there is no digital catalog for the art collection, and it would be ideal to have it along with the herbarium and economic botany collections cataloged in one system with the library.  That is part of Kew’s plans for the future.  For the present, it is working on a five-year project to digitize and transcribe over 2000 Joseph Dalton Hooker letters, that are available on the Kew Library website.  This is a tremendous resource, especially when seen in relation to the letters of two great American botanists Asa Gray, whose correspondence has been digitized at Harvard University, and John Torrey, whose letters are now being digitized and transcribed at New York Botanical Garden (NYBG).

Stephen Sinon, NYBG’s archivist and curator of Special Collections, described the ongoing Torrey Transcription Project.  The noted 19th-century botanist John Torrey spent his life in New York and taught at both Columbia and Princeton.  He gave his letters and herbarium to Columbia College (now Columbia University), but these were transferred to NYBG when it was founded in 1898.  Most of the Torrey letters are incoming correspondence.  Almost ten thousand pages have been digitized and over 2,500 transcribed by volunteers through a crowdsourcing website.  This massive undertaking is being funded by NEH and the Carnegie Foundation of New York.  The resulting digital images are available not only through the NYBG’s Mertz Library website, but on BHL,, and the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA).  Mentioning this project moves me away from my focus on Europe in this post, but it’s a reminder that botany knows no borders and has always been a global enterprise.  Torrey, Gray, and Hooker knew each other, wrote extensively among themselves, and visited each other’s countries.  The Americans and the British were also rivals in describing American plants, with Hooker and his colleague George Bentham avidly courting collectors, particularly in Canada, but they did not spurn US collections as well.  Torrey and Gray were well aware of this; the letters between them have many mentions of needing to name American plants quickly to prevent the British from doing it first.

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.