The Herbarium as Personal

3 Irish Flowers

Some Irish Flowers, my “herbarium”

In 2011, shortly after my herbarium fixation began, my sister was excavating our mother’s bedroom dresser, a slow process that began with her death in 1988.   On this particular dig, Aideen discovered a very small collection of pressed plants that I had made on our trip to Ireland when I was 13 years old [see image above].  It was about as bad as an herbarium can get.  There is a title page “Some Irish Flowers” in my attempt at calligraphy, and seven pages of specimens, usually more than one per page, but no plant names, no locations, no dates, not even the name of the collector.  The pages are tied together with a ribbon—green of course—and the specimens are decorated with various, now faded, ink flourishes.  I do remember making this exsiccatae, but I soon lost track of it; I had no idea my mother kept it.  I should have known she would.  It was a souvenir of our trip to Ireland, her first trip “home” since she had left as a teenager 32 years earlier, a departure she always rued.  This rather pathetic collection was a reminder for her of the Irish wildflowers, such as primroses, that flourish in Ireland but not in a tiny backyard in New York City.

There are any number of such personal collections tucked away in herbaria and botanical libraries around the world.  Usually they are more attractive, substantial, and sometimes even botanically useful than mine.  I am definitely not going to attempt to foist it off on any institution, or even on one of my relatives.  I mention it here in part as a homage to my mother and her homeland, as well as that of my father.  On the same trip, we visited the farm where he was raised and I recall being in awe of the many different wildflowers along a road bank.  That may be where I got the idea for my collection.  An additional reason for bringing it up is that I recently saw another childhood herbarium, definitely better constructed than mine and one that presaged the maker’s later career.

I have discussed the plant morphologist Agnes Arber (1879-1960) a number of times in this blog because she has been one of my intellectual mentors, beginning long before my herbarium phase.  Her views on the relationship between science and art are riveting (Arber, 1954).  Arber’s archives are at the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.  I did some research in Arber’s papers years ago and remembered seeing the herbarium, so I decided to take another look.  Arber’s specimens are in a notebook, and on the first page, she wrote, in script to be expected of a child her age:  “Agnes aged eight, 4th May 1886.”  This is followed by nine pages with a single specimen on a page, all but one labeled with the plant’s common name.  Someone ruled the blank paper to guide her writing and probably also made the careful razor slits through which the stems were slipped in.  It is a very neat little work.  Arber was growing up in the Victorian era when creating such books was almost a given for children, especially girls.

About forty years earlier, the poet Emily Dickinson created a much more substantial plant collection and at age thirteen she wrote to a friend: “Have you made an herbarium yet? I hope you will if you have not, it would be such a treasure to you; ‘most all the girls are making one.”  Pasted onto 66 pages, there are 424 specimens, all but 60 of them with Latin binomials (Dickinson, 2006).  Because of its provenance, Dickinson’s herbarium is of much greater interest than the average adolescent collection and was digitized so that it could be studied without damage to the fragile original.  Housed at Harvard University’s Houghton Library, it is a beautiful work with the plants arranged not according to any plant classification scheme but with an eye for symmetry and balance on the page.  In an article entitled “Weaving and Breathing,” Sheena Calvert (2019) of the University of the Arts, London writes that Dickinson presents the plants, “through the lens of her experiences and desires, introducing ‘the human.’”  I think this could be said of any herbarium sheet, even those most replete with taxonomic information.  Each is a human artifact with a human choosing the specimen and perhaps the same person also selecting how to place it on the sheet.

Examining personal herbaria is a way of learning something about the maker, a small window into what caught their eye, a manifestation of the human urge to hold on to things:  images, scents, and memories of place as well as the plant itself.  Arber kept her herbarium even though, according to her daughter Muriel, she destroyed many of her papers a few years before she died (Flannery, 2005).  I can imagine Agnes leafing through it, thinking back to when she made it and who had helped her with its construction—a small memory of plants that was one building block in the foundation of her life’s work.  In visiting herbaria, I have seen a number of such collections.  There are many scrapbooks with algae, a great subject of collecting in the late 19th century; many have no attribution and no specimen labels.  They are still beautiful artifacts that deserve to be preserved, not only because of the plant material they contain but because of the human spirit they document.


Arber, A. R. (1954). The Mind and the Eye: A Study of the Biologist’s Standpoint. Cambridge: University Press.

Calvert, S. (2019). Weaving and breathing. INKQ, (6).

Dickinson, E. (2006). Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium: A Facsimile Edition (R. B. Sewall, Ed.). Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Flannery, M. C. (2005). Agnes Arber in the 21st century. The Systematist, 24, 13–17.


I would like to thank Nancy Janda for her assistance on my visit to the Hunt Institution for Botanical Documentation.  She was very helpful and I appreciate her patience.

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