The Herbarium Aesthetic: Order and Unity

3 Fritillaria imperialis

In this series of posts on the herbarium aesthetic, it’s relevant to touch on aesthetic qualities, those features considered to make something beautiful and capable of eliciting emotions.  The usual list includes form, rhythm, balance, symmetry, unity and order.  The last seems particularly pertinent to the herbarium, which is all about order.  Without some organization, there is no point in having piles of specimens, because individual specimens can’t be easily located.  But besides being a practical necessity, there is something pleasant about order, whether it means tidying up a room or getting files alphabetized.  In the herbarium, order can refer to a number of things.  Consider a collection that’s being moved into a brand new facility with ranks of compact shelving (might as well dream big).  Making such a move requires planning and often involves more than replicating the ordering system used in the old space.  This would be the perfect time to reorganize, perhaps using APG IV (the fourth version of angiosperm phylogeny).  Or maybe it is better to stick with alphabetical order by family, a system used in many smaller academic herbaria where not everyone accessing the collection would be familiar with more taxonomically sophisticated systems.

Then there is finer-grained order.  Usually herbarium sheets are put into folders, perhaps one or more folders per species or per genus, depending on the size of the collection.  In some cases, a single species may require multiple folders, sorted geographically if it is a widespread one.  Many herbaria use colored folders, with different colors designating different geographical areas.  Believe me, there is absolutely no uniform color code here.  The only color used consistently is red to designate a type specimen.  Types may be filed with the rest of the specimens, or kept separately, perhaps in a more secure location, or at least where they can be easily moved if the collection is threatened by damage.

It must give curators, staff, and volunteers a great feeling of accomplishment when a move is complete, when order has been established.  Order does seem to generate a pleasant feeling at the very least.  That may be one of the reasons why bound herbaria went out of favor.  They confounded new forms of order; it was impossible to reorganize sheets without taking the entire book apart.  A master of order, Carl Linnaeus, devised the herbarium cabinet as an alternative.  But even here, entropy is the enemy of order.  It is very easy to misfile a specimen or a folder, and that can send it into oblivion.

Another aesthetic quality that comes into play in botanical systematics is unity.  I just read Peter Stevens (1994) book on Antoine-Laurent de Jussieu’s natural classification system for plants, definitely not an easy book.  What Jussieu was attempting was next to impossible based on the knowledge available at the end of the 18th century.  Stevens argues that the underlying principle behind this work was the idea of the continuity of nature, a form of the great chain of being.  Essentially this meant that that one form blended into the next: there were no gaps, creating an underlying unity of all living things.  This was an idea that originated with the ancient Greeks and was so attractive it had long staying power despite the fact that there were observations that didn’t fit the scheme.

After the theory of evolution developed, and particularly after DNA sequencing made it possible to put genetic relationships among organisms on a firmer footing, the unbroken chain was no longer tenable and morphed into a tree as the symbol for relationships among organisms.  But note, the necessity for metaphor did not disappear, an image was still needed with which to ground concepts.  Here is yet another aspect of the biological aesthetic: the pleasure of metaphor, of finding a way to link ideas.  As several commentators have shown, metaphor is intrinsic to the way we use language (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980; Brown, 2003).  So here again, as I’ve discussed in earlier posts (1,2), there is a connection between the cognitive and the affective:  what is intellectually useful is also likely to be emotionally satisfying.  There are three great books on the tree metaphor and its visualization which reveal many aspects of this pleasure (Pietsch, 2012; Archibald, 2014; Lima, 2014).

I had a botany professor in graduate school, William Crotty, who saw the beauty of plant forms as variations on a theme.  Right there is a musical metaphor used to describe what makes the study of plant structure so attractive.  When I think of this now, I automatically picture the amazing photographs of leaves, bulbs, anthers, etc. from the genus Fritillaria by the British botanist Laurence Hill [see photo above].  He won a gold medal in portfolio photography at the 2017 RHS Chelsea Flower Show for a portion of this work, Deconstructed Fritillaria.  To me it’s reminiscent of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s book on plant morphology (Arber, 1946 includes a translation of this essay) and of his imagining a urpflanze form to which all individual species’ forms can be related.  There are many good arguments against this romantic idea, but its continuing attractiveness to some botanists indicates its lure as well as, perhaps, some underlying substance.  This brings me back to Agnes Arber, whom I mentioned in the first post in this series.  She used Goethe’s ideas in her book on The Natural Philosophy of Plant Form (1950) and researchers have cited her work in discussing the similarity of flower development genes among angiosperms (Rutishauser & Isler, 2001).  She was also the author of a book on the early printed herbals (1938)  that remains an important reference in this field today.  It is filled with beautiful images from these books, which relates to the topic for my final post in this series:  plants are just plain beautiful.

Note: Thanks to Laurence Hill for his generous sharing of Fritillaria images.


Arber, A. (1938). Herbals: Their Origin and Evolution a Chapter in the History of Botany, 1470-1670 (2nd ed.). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Arber, A. R. (1950). The Natural Philosophy of Plant Form. Cambridge: University Press.

Archibald, J. D. (2014). Aristotle’s Ladder, Darwin’s Tree. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Brown, T. (2003). Making Truth: Metaphor in Science. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lima, M. (2014). The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge. New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press.

Pietsch, T. (2012). Trees of Life: A Visual History of Evolution. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Rutishauser, R., & Isler, B. (2001). Developmental Genetics and Morphological Evolution of Flowering Plants, Especially Bladderworts (Utricularia): Fuzzy Arberian Morphology Complements Classical Morphology. Annals of Botany, 88(6), 1173–1202.

Stevens, P. F. (1994). The Development of Biological Systematics: Antoine-Laurent de Jussieu, Nature, and the Natural System. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.


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