Falling in Love with Orchids: Oakes Ames

Portrait of Oakes Ames by Blanche Ames, photography from Historic Images of Easton, MA

I fell in love with Blanche and Oakes Ames (1874-1950) years ago when I came across a book in the library, Jottings of a Harvard Botanist (1979), a collection of Ames’s letters and other writings complied by his daughter, Pauline Ames Plimpton.  I enjoy reading about the human side of science and this book filled the bill.  It was so memorable that years later when I fell in love with herbaria, I visited the Oakes Ames Orchid Herbarium at Harvard, the collection he donated to the University after a long career there investigating orchid systematics.  What was particularly striking to me was that the collection includes sheets with watercolor drawings of orchids done by his wife Blanche, whom I already “knew” from Jottings.  In this series of posts, I want to write about both of them and the plants that were so much a part of their lives.

Oakes Ames did most of his research in the 20th century, but in terms of lifestyle, he was in the 19th century tradition of the gentleman botanist.  He came from a family that had made its money on shovels supplied to the California gold rush, the Union Army, and construction of the Union Pacific Railroad in which the family invested heavily.  In an autobiographical sketch, Ames wrote:  “There was no precedent in our family to be devoted to botanical research.  My father, his brother and his cousin took the usual interest in herbaria, . . .  gardens and greenhouses” (Plimpton, 1979, 64).  In other words, at that time, men of their class routinely had a curiosity about plants, with Ames’s uncle having a significant orchid collection, but Oakes’s dedication was at a different level.

When Ames was a teenager, his father’s health was failing, and to occupy time his father and a nurse would drive through the countryside, collect plants, and bring them home to identify.  Ames became intrigued and joined in.  One day he was struck by how the light shone on dendrobium flowers in his father’s room, and that set him on the path of trying to learn as much as he could about orchids, a passion that motivated him for the rest of his life.  He attended Harvard University, vowing to take every botany course they offered.  At home, he built a collection of orchids in the family’s greenhouses and also started a herbarium.  After Oakes completed his master’s degree,  George Goodale, one of his professors and Asa Gray’s heir as Harvard professor of botany, offered Ames a position as assistant director of Harvard’s Botanic Garden.  Ten years later, Ames became director, a post he held until 1922 when he resigned out of frustration because the university failed to properly support the garden.  There will be more on Ames’s career as a Harvard botanist in a future post.  For now, I want to divert the story to romance.

While at Harvard, Ames attended a social event at Smith College accompanied by a friend, Butler Ames, no relation.  Butler’s sister Blanche (1878-1969) was a Smith student studying art, and Oakes was smitten.  For her 21st birthday, he sent her a 17-volume set of art books specially bound in hand-tooled yellow leather, an over-the-top gift considered inappropriate for someone to whom he was not betrothed.  He soon remedied this by proposing to her, and they were married in 1900.  By 1902 they had had their first child, Pauline, and their first publication for which Blanche had done the illustrations, a role she was to play for the rest of her life (Clark, 2001).  Unlike many artist-spouses, Blanche was always given due credit since she initialed even the smallest sketch.  She often accompanied Oakes on collecting trips to Latin America, the Philippines, and Europe.  Again, I’ll put off saying more about her here since I’ll dedicate my next post to her work in and out of botany.  It will become clear that being married to an orchid taxonomist, even a wealthy one, was not always easy.

Oakes’s dedication to his chosen field was indeed intense.  He built up his herbarium not only through his own collecting but by buying collections, including material from the Philippine Bureau of Science, which eventually asked him to write the orchid section of a flora of the Philippines (Merrill, !928).  As Leslie Garay (2007) describes it, when Ames received this request he immediately made plans to sail to Europe.  This might seem rather odd, except for the fact the great European herbaria held most orchid type specimens:

One of the thrills of my career came in Paris when I turned with breathless interest to the Richard and Goleatti types and drawings to see at last just what was meant by hopelessly obscure words.  And then to pin up these precious relics and photograph them in the dim light which filters through dusty window glass. . . .  You’re in a sense of happiness I shall not attempt to describe.  Once a systematist becomes a slave of types, his contempt for guesswork reaches dizzy heights.  Never again can he become content with the uncertainty of words and identification by supposition.  Surely the unrest in my soul, caused by doubt, made me determined to represent in my herbaria by every possible means the types of orchids (Plimpton, 1979, 75).

This quote is a good reminder that in the days before digitization, travel to collections was an essential part of a taxonomists life, and photographs, if they could be had, were the next best thing.


Clark, A. B. (2001). My Dear Mrs. Ames: A Study of Suffragist Cartoonist Blanche Ames Ames. New York, NY: P. Lang.

Garay, L. (2007). The orchid herbarium of Oakes Ames. In Orchids at Christmas (pp. 41–50). Cambridge, MA: Botanical Museum of Harvard University.

Merrill, E. D. (1928). Flora of the Philippines. Manila, Philippines: Bureau of Printing.

Plimpton, O. (Ed.). (1979). Oakes Ames: Jottings of a Harvard Botanist. Cambridge, MA: Botanical Museum of Harvard University.

3 thoughts on “Falling in Love with Orchids: Oakes Ames

  1. Pingback: Botany and Art: Specimens | Herbarium World

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