Botanical Nature Prints: An Introduction

Print of Campanula by Zenobe Pacini in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France

Nature print of Campanula by Zenobe Pacini in the Bibliothèque nationale de France

Creating a herbarium specimen is an attempt to pin a plant down, to capture it on a page.  Obviously, this aim is only semi-successful.  The plant is physically present, but the life has gone out of, as has much its dimensionality and color.  Still, it contains a great deal of taxonomic information, and often DNA and other diagnostic chemicals.  Visiting a plant in the field may be impractical as is propagating every plant under study; photographs can document form and dimensionality, but they have no DNA, nor do botanical illustrations, which are time-consuming to produce.  In other words, there’s no perfect way to capture a plant.  As Richard Mabey (2015) writes:  The quintessence of a plant can only ever be a fantastic goal, something to travel towards but never reach (p. 27). But there is another answer, though again it isn’t a perfect solution.  That is the nature print, the subject of this set of posts.

Usually, a nature print of a plant involves inking one or both sides of a flattened specimen, sandwiching it between pieces of paper and applying enough pressure, either by hand or instrument, to transfer ink from plant to paper.  The process definitely has severe limitations, which is why it’s not part of most botanists’ repertoire.  Details of flower structure usually don’t show up well nor do any thick or fleshy plant parts.  Still, it can produce fascinating results, such as the prints I saw in an anonymous collection of prints at Oak Spring Garden Library (Tomasi & Willis, 2009).  It was created in Britain in the early 1700s by some avid plant collector, probably an amateur, yet one who could identify the common names for each of the specimens in a carefully created index at the beginning of the book.  While here the emphasis was on leaves, other printers included, or tried to include, stems and flowers, which often didn’t print as well.  The Oak Spring Garden Library also has a published nature print book by Christian Gottlieb Ludwig from 1760.  It has beautiful prints that have been colored, but the flowers are mostly painted in with rather stylized forms (Tomasi and Willis, 2009).  If nature printing results were often imperfect, why did the technique come into rather frequent use in the 16th century, reach an apex in the 19th, and still be popular at least among artists and amateurs into the 21st?

Answers to this question can be found in the best book I’ve seen on the subject, Roderick Cave’s (2010) Impressions of Nature: A History of Nature Printing.  He cites a print from as early as 1320 and also discusses Leonardo Da Vinci’s description of the technique, which was accompanied by a print of a single sage leaf.  As botany developed into a science in the 16th century, some of those who documented plants with illustrations and herbaria also created nature prints.  These include Conrad Gessner, Thomas Kentmann, Felix Platter, and Fabio Colonna.  There is evidence that at least the latter used prints as references in creating the illustrations for his book.  Among the most magnificent prints from this time are found in the 1520 volume created by the pharmacist and perfumer Zenobe Pacini, who enhanced the prints by coloring them and adding details in watercolor.  In the 17th century, the work of Paolo Bocconne is also remarkable; his prints are now available online and well worth examining.

It’s likely that it was Bocconne who brought the technique to England and perhaps taught it to the avid botanist, William Sherard, whom Cave suggests passed it on to his colleagues.  In the 18th century, the Spanish explorer Joanne Garcia de Chaves y Guevara, made nature prints of the plants he found in California (Cave, 2010).  And on the east coast of North America, Benjamin Franklin, who may have learned the technique in Britain, worked with Joseph Breintnall to use leaves in creating currency.  Since it would be difficult to copy the venation of a leaf precisely, they devised a way to transfer the leaf impression to type metal for printing money.  Breintnall also sold leave impressions as references for amateur botanists; he leaves he at John Bartram’s farm on the outskirts of Philadelphia.  Farther north, Jane Colden, a botany enthusiast as was her father Cadwallader Colden, created over 300 nature prints of native plants she found growing near their farm in New York State.

The Coldens were serious about the study of native plants and printing was Jane Colden’s means of documenting at least something of what these plants looked like.  It was more efficient than trying to draw them all, though she did do illustrations as well.  Nature printing was a way to hold on to something of a plant after an encounter with it.  The British notebook at Oak Spring Library that I mentioned earlier is one example of this, as is another from Germany, also anonymous but created later, in 1824 (Tomasi & Willis, 2009).  Bound into the manuscript is a pamphlet published in 1797 by Johann Friedrich Korn that presents prints of tree leaves and also describes how to make prints (Raphael, 1989).  This suggests the process was popular enough that publishers sought to profit from the interest.

While some amateur and professional botanists created herbaria, others chose to make prints or to use a combination of techniques.  For over 50 years, John Jacobs Thomas kept a notebook, now at New York Botanical Garden, recording 367 apple varieties as well as a number of other fruits (Fraser & Sellers, 2014).  For some of these, he included prints of cross sections.  In one of his field note books, the USDA botanist David Griffiths, who was exploring in the Southwest US, made prints of prickly pear fruits to document their differences.  In both cases, the prints served the serious purpose of recording what measurement along could not, and doing this for fruits that would have been difficult to preserve on a herbarium sheet.  In the next post, I will discuss botanists who were led to create nature print collections for other reasons while exploring remote parts of the world.


Cave, R. (2010). Impressions of Nature: A History of Nature Printing. London: British Library.

Fraser, S. M., & Sellers, V. B. (Eds.). (2014). Flora Illustrata: Great Works from the LuEsther T. Mertz Library of the New York Botanical Garden. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Korn, J. F. (1797). Sammlung von 50 in Kupfer. Breslau: Hirschberg und Liss.

Ludwig, C. G. (1760). Ectypa vegetabilium usibus medicis. Halae Magdeburgicae.

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

Raphael, S. (1989). An Oak Spring Sylva: A Selection of the Rare Books on Trees in the Oak Spring Garden Library. Upperville, VA: Oak Spring Garden Library.

Tomasi, L. T., & Willis, T. (2009). An Oak Spring Herbaria: Herbs and Herbals from the Fourteenth to the Nineteenth Centuries. Uppervil

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