On the Road, Learning about Herbaria: Beyond iDigBio

Acorus calamus sheet from Catalogus plantarum flore, polypetalo regulari, collection of the Mertz Library, New York Botanical Garden

After the Digital Data Biodiversity Research Conference I’ve written about in this series of posts (1,2,3), I stayed in New Haven for a couple of days and visited the Rare Book Room at the Yale Center for British Art.  Several years ago I had read Elisabeth Fairman’s (2014) Of Green Leaf Bird and Flower: Artists’ Books and the Natural World.  It accompanied an exhibit she curated at the Center and included several herbaria as well as many other book treasures from the 18th to the 21st century.  A number of these are among the Center’s holdings, and I wanted to see some of them.  One of the highlights was a collection of botanical specimens stored in a handsome wooden box and created by someone identified only as Miss Rowe.  There are 43 families represented, each in a blue envelop adorned with a watercolor of a plant in that family.  This assemblage was created in 1861 for a contest sponsored by the Liverpool Naturalists’ Field Club.  The winner would be the woman who collected and identified the most species in flower from a list of the flora of Liverpool.  The winner isn’t known but it there was something better than Miss Rowe’s entry, it must have been spectacular.  At the other end of the spectrum is a recent artist’s book made by Mandy Bonnell in response to this herbarium.  Wild flowers worth notice: in memory of Miss Rowe of Liverpool (2014) is a beautiful work in a handmade box with 8 packets, each with four hand drawings, some with collage.  This is a delicate homage to the earlier work and to women naturalists of the 19th century by one of the 21st.   Another artist’s book called POETree (2005) was created by Andrew Norris.  It consists of leaves of a birch tree stacked in a leaf-shaped box, each leaf stamped with a brief, haiku-like poem.  It is a little gem.

On my second day at the Center, I sat down with Elisabeth Fairman to talk about her work on 18th and 19th-century women naturalists.  Her involvement in a number of exhibits (Donald & Munro, 2009; Laird & Weisberg-Roberts, 2009) demonstrates the kinds of integration of science and the humanities that I wrote about in the last post.  On the curatorial side, Fairman has to be cognizant of the fragility of the organic material under her care and was particularly concerned about a group of wonderful tiny books made by Dizzy Pragnell.  Fairman has found that humidity control is key here, and works with a conservator to keep it within narrow limits.  One of these, A Is For Apple (2012), has nine leaves, each a thin, dried apple slice.  This is a beautiful example of the way the herbarium concept is being used by present-day artists.

A different variation on the herbarium theme is Tracey Bush’s Nine Wild Plants (2006), a project she began by asking friends to each name ten wild plants.  Several had trouble coming up with ten so that’s why her book has nine “specimens” of the plants they mentioned most often, including, of course, the dandelion.  The specimens are really paper cutouts that resemble the form of flattened plants, but are cut from food wrappers.  Bush’s message is that today people can much more easily identify convenience foods such as candy and cereal by their containers than they can common plants.  In the Green Leaf exhibit and book, several of the specimens are juxtaposed with 19th-century specimens of the same species, reflecting a time when the plants themselves were familiar.  Bush’s work also relates to that of a 19th-century woman identified only as Ellen W., who created elaborate flower cutouts mounted on black paper, similar to the work of Mary Delany in the 18th century.  It was a pleasure to leaf through Ellen’s amazing pieces and get a sense of just how much observation had to go into creating such life-like work, to say nothing of the delicate cutting involved.  Some of the tiny flower parts are less than a millimeter long.  (Yes, I mean millimeter.)

After my time at Yale and a visit with family in Connecticut, I headed south, stopping at New York Botanical Garden to spend a day looking at one of the treasures in their Mertz Library.  Catalogus plantarum flore, polypetalo regulari is an unattributed herbarium probably from Portugal and dating from somewhere between 1660 and 1753.  The latter date is surmised from the fact that taxonomic references are to botanists earlier than Linnaeus.  The pages are unbound.  They are beautifully conserved in acid free paper folders and organized by present-day taxonomic families, with the family folders then stored in boxes alphabetically.  Susan Fraser, the director of the library, told me that they have been loose like this since she arrived at the library 34 years ago.  More recently Olga Marder and Kelsey Osborn conserved the collection as it is now stored.  I suspect that it may be composed of more than one collection, or at least that the sheets were created at different times.  The taxonomic sorting may have destroyed some other order produced by the maker(s) or earlier owners.  In the article “Leaves on the Loose,” which Fraser shared with me, Alette Fleischer (2017) writes that often when old herbaria were unbound they lost a great deal of their history as the sheets were reshuffled, and this seems true here.

Despite this, it is an amazing collection to examine.  I only had time to examine half of the pages, but still got a sense of its richness.  The labels (see images) vary, with some of them extremely elaborate and overwhelming the specimen.   There is one case where the flower is pressed, but it is surrounded by leaves that have been painted in watercolor.  There are also 40 watercolors in the collection.  I can’t wait to go back to NY and visit it again.


Donald, D., & Munro, J. (2009). Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Fairman, E. R. (Ed.). (2014). Of Green Leaf, Bird, and Flower: Artist’s Books and the Natural World. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Fleischer, A. (2017). Leaves on the loose: The changing nature of archiving plants and botanical knowledge. Journal of Early Modern Studies, 6(1), 117–135.

Laird, M., & Weisberg-Roberts, A. (2009). Mrs. Delany and Her Circle. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

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