Specimen Labels: History


Specimen from the Ulisse Aldrovandi Herbarium at the University of Bologna

It’s often noted that herbarium specimens are prepared today much as they were in the 16th century when Luca Ghini (1490-1556) created the first well-documented herbarium. This lack of “progress” is because the original approach was both easy and effective: press a plant between two pieces of paper to absorb moisture and to flatten it. Plant material treated in this way can last indefinitely. Moisture encourages the growth of fungi and other agents of decay, and pressing means the plant doesn’t curl up into an irregular mass as it dries. Today, the sheets of paper may be interleafed with felt pads and cardboard sheets to hasten drying. After this the specimen is mounted on heavy white paper and labeled. It is in the labeling that significant changes have occurred over the years and continue to occur. To put it simply, the amount of information on a sheet has increased significantly, but even today, there is no “perfect” label, no standard for what be included and in what format. This may not seem like a very exciting topic to pursue, but I hope to show that following the label story tells a great deal about the history of plant collections and of plant science itself.

Ghini’s herbarium is not extant, but those of his students, Gherardo Cibo (1512-1600) and Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605) are (Nepi& Gusmerol, 2008). They are beautifully mounted, and on the latter, the plant names are written in script. There is little other notation, and this is true of most early specimens. Since herbaria were created either by or for individuals, it can be assumed that these owners knew more about the plants, could fill in the blanks, at least for many of the specimens. They felt the name was all the information they needed; there were books with species descriptions that could be referenced. However as Brian Ogilve (2006) notes, at this time the written information on plants lagged behind the illustrations and plant specimens then available. This was one of the driving forces behind the creation of herbaria: to have good visual information available for study. Plants themselves were studied first for their uses in medicine, and then as fascinating in themselves, opening the way to plant taxonomy. Geography or date of collection wasn’t considered important, nor was the name of the collector.

As time went on, labeling and specimen preparation became more standardized, but still, collections were for the most part individual rather than institutional so personal idiosyncrasies were common. This was especially the case among the wealthy who saw a herbarium as an important element of a cabinet of curiosities and a significant symbol of status. A case in point is the herbarium of George Clifford (1685-1760), which was studied and augmented by Carl Linnaeus during his time in the Netherlands. Clifford was a wealthy banker with an interest in gardening and wanted to document the range of plants he grew. Each sheet had an ornately bordered label and the bottom of the stem was covered by an engraving of a vase from which the plant was seemingly growing. In other collections, the pages were framed with a border of inked lines. The Oxford botanist Johann Dillenius (1684-1747) pasted thin strips of wallpaper around the edges of his moss specimen sheets to strengthen them. On the other hand, Hans Sloane (1660-1753) who had one of the largest pre-Linnaean herbaria, didn’t use any such devices, unless the specimens he was given or that he purchased came with them, as in the case of the herbarium of Mary Somerset, Duchess of Beaufort (Laird, 2015). He simply had the sheets mounted in volumes, 265 of which still exist in the Natural History Museum, London.

Binding was another common herbarium practice of the past that has disappeared. Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) kept his specimen sheets loose so that he could easily organize—and reorganize—them. He had a wooden cabinet constructed for his collection, and his strategy is still used today. One of his practices that hasn’t continued is writing on the back of the sheet. This is now frowned upon because accessing the information means turning over the specimen, which can lead to plant fragments falling off. Loss of fragments still occurs; this is why many sheets prepared today have a folded paper envelope attached in which any such debris can be saved. After his death, Linnaeus’s collection was sold to Edward Smith and formed the basis of the Linnean Society herbarium in London. However, other such collections were either discarded by uninterested heirs or found their way into university, botanical garden, or museum collections. Often they were just stored as they were, so the idiosyncrasies remained.

Laird, M. (2015). A Natural History of English Gardening 1650-1800. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Nepi, C., & Gusmerol, E. (2008). Gli erbari aretini da Andrea Cesalpino ai giorni nostri. Florence, Italy: Firenze University Press.
Ogilve, B. W. (2006). The Science of Describing: Natural History in Renaissance Europe. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s