The Herbarium Aesthetic: The Private Side of Taxonomy

Virtual Herbarium Image

Trifolium pratense collected by Paul Harwood, in NYBG Herbarium, specimen no. 02626317.

To help explain how scientists actually work, what Gerald Holton calls the private side of science, which I mentioned in my last post, chemist Michael Polanyi (1962) writes about “tacit knowledge.”  This is learning that can’t be put into words.  Driving a car is a good example; it is definitely something that can’t be mastered solely by reading the rules of the road.  There is too much body-centered learning involved:  how much pressure to put on the brake, the relationship between speed and control of the vehicle, how far to move the wheel to make the car turn right.  There is also a lot of tacit knowledge involved in botany.  Send a novice and an expert out into a field, then ask them a few minutes later how many different plant species they found.  Their answers are likely to be very different.  The botanist’s eye has been trained to pick up slight differences in form and color; only a great deal of field work makes this discernment possible.  The zoologist C.F.A. Pantin (1954) writes about what he calls “aesthetic recognition.”  By this he means that experts identify specimens differently than do neophytes.  A beginner will go through a key and systematically narrow down the possibilities until coming up with a name.  The expert is likely to name the specimen quickly without having to bother with this process, though they can then justify their answer by listing distinguishing features.

I find it interesting that Pantin describes the expert’s process as “aesthetic,” as an experience beyond words.  I think in general that is what an aesthetic experience is, one engaging mind and body that’s very difficult to describe.  “Aesthetic” also implies emotion—the expert “feels” that the ID is correct.  Birders talk about the “jizz” of a species, its overall form plus the way it moves, and I think there is something similar for many plants, at least as far as experts are concerned.  There is an emotional jolt that comes with an identification, it feels good to have nailed it, and it feels irksome if the answer turns out to be wrong.

I am interested in the aesthetic in this series of posts because I am trying to get at why interest in plants can be such an addictive pursuit.  I think there are a variety of answers and Pantin provides one.  Arber (see last post) and Polanyi provide others.  In all these cases, they are discussing links among seeing, thinking, doing, and feeling.  The connections are integral to the process of doing the science.  In part, it is about craft, a word with connotations from tacky artifacts to beer to exquisite pottery.  But here I am using the word in terms of expertise, the kind of tacit knowledge that Polanyi refers to.  This is everywhere in the work of a field botanist and taxonomist.  There is craft involved in knowing what to bring on a field trip and what to wear.  It takes skill to arrange specimens for pressing so the resulting herbarium sheet will look good and also display as much of a plant’s information as possible.  I learned this the hard way when I took a class with two masters of the art at New York Botanical Garden, Sheranza Alli and Daniel Atha.  By that time I had seen a lot of herbarium sheets and been enthralled by the beauty of many.  What I didn’t know was how hard it is to wrestle, and I do mean wrestle, a plant down on a sheet of newspaper.  I would get the leaves well placed, and then, while I was attempting to arrange the flower to reveal its parts, the leaves would pop up or the stem would start writhing around.  Darn.  It is very frustrating for a neophyte to see an expert doing this effortlessly—and quickly—but that’s what craft entails.

What is more obviously artistic about a herbarium sheet is the placement of the specimen, but if the plant wasn’t pressed well, the mounter can’t work miracles.  There are definitely issues of style and taste involved in all of this.  Some collectors go for quantity and size, filling a sheet with an overabundance of plant material, while others are more concerned with quality and artful arrangement.  After a while it’s sometimes possible to guess at the collector’s name from specimen characteristics.  This is hardly foolproof but it does point to aesthetic judgments being made.  There is also style in what goes on a label, and even where the label is placed.  This has become more codified over the years.  In many herbaria, it’s de rigueur for the label to be in the lower right-hand corner, in others, it tends to float depending on where there is the most space.  Also, the practice has become to add more and more information to the label, as opposed the terse info of the 19th century.  However, there is still room for personal taste.  When I worked at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden Herbarium, before it was shuttered, the herbarium supervisor, Paul Harwood, told me that his friends accused him of writing labels that were “Faulknerian” in their detail [see specimen above].  But sometimes those added pieces of information—on other species in the area, geology, and landmarks—come in handy, though it can make label transcription laborious.  In any case, herbarium sheets are rarely boring to look at because there can be a great deal of variety, the result of different tastes working at different times.


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

Polanyi, M. (1962). Personal Knowledge. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


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