War and Herbaria: World War I

Page from Louise Gailleton’s herbarium, National Museum of Natural History, Paris

During World War I, there were a number of soldiers who collected plants, as has been noted for the US Civil War (see last post).  In one case, a set of specimens was found almost one hundred years later, when a granddaughter, who posted in French under the name Darjeeling, wrote of a box she found when her father died.  It held a collection that his father made during the war, marked with the names of the plants and of the battlefields they came from.  There is a significant period when there were no collections, the time he spent as a German prisoner of war, and then he begins again.  The last specimen is of roses from Somme collected in 1962 by his son, with the notation “in memory of September 4, 1916,” during the month-long battle there.  On the herbarium website for the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, there is a page on historic herbaria, including one from a World War I “godmother,” someone who wrote to French troops to help keep up their morale.  Louise Gailleton asked her correspondents to send pressed plants, and she pasted several to a page, each with the species name, the initials of the sender, and the site where it was collected such as Verdun.  On one page, she also pasted a Cross of Valor woven from reeds (see image above).  

The Regius Keeper of the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, Isaac Bayley Balfour, contributed to the war effort in a significant way by managing a project to produce substantial quantities of sphagnum moss.  Balfour was knowledgeable about medicinal botany and knew that this moss could be a good dressing for wounds after it had been sterilized and dried.  It was preferable to the alternative of cotton wool; the dried moss absorbed 20 times its weight in water and also had antiseptic properties.  In addition, it could be collected in Britain and didn’t have to be imported as cotton was.  Balfour located areas in Scotland where the moss was abundant and organized its collection and processing.  As a result, he was knighted by the king in 1920 for his efforts.  Balfour managed to do this while overseeing the RBGE with a greatly reduced staff.  Half its workforce of 110 enlisted within the first few weeks of the war, with another quarter joining later.  Twenty of these men lost their lives. 

A plant collection that is peripherally associated with WWI is at the Smith College Herbarium and was a created by Frederick W. Grigg.  Among the specimens is a golden club arum, Orontium aquaticum that he found during a visit to Provincetown at the east end of Cape Cod in June, 1918, a time when German boats were sometimes seen on the horizon.  He took this trip from Boston by himself and attracted notice from locals because he had a government map and binoculars that he trained on the wireless station.  This suspicious activity was reported to the train conductor so he could keep an eye on the “suspect” during the trip back to Boston.  The conductor alerted another passenger, a naval officer, who questioned Grigg.  The collector did not take kindly to the interrogation; there was a scuffle, and Grigg ended up handcuffed.  A search of his bag produced maps, charts, a notebook with mysterious notations, and “a botanical outfit,” obviously the stuff of espionage.  When the train arrived in Boston, Grigg asked that the authorities to contact Merritt Fernald, a Harvard botanist, who vouched for Grigg’s character and identified the notations as Latin plant names. 

There are any number of examples of plant collectors’ activities being misinterpreted, especially at times when there can be legitimate reasons for suspicion.  This case ended well.  Grigg must have eventually seen the humor of the situation, since he kept clippings of news items about his brush with the law.  These became part of the herbarium he donated to Smith College.  In the 1970s, a student there, Pamela See, a biology major, investigated the herbarium and drew some of Grigg’s specimens.  These resulted in a booklet published by the college that included the See drawings as well as the story of Grigg’s espionage exploit, an example of the wonderful stories hidden in herbaria.  This one may not have had too much to do with botany, but it’s a great artifact of cultural history that documents the hypervigilance difficult situations can breed, the lure of herbaria as sources of artistic inspiration, and what great results can be achieved when a herbarium curator, in this case John Burk, works with both a student and an art professor, Elliot Offner. 

I’ll end this post by mentioning the plant that is most closely tied to our perceptions of WWI:  the red poppy.  Among the commemorations of the 100th anniversary of WWI’s end were many Twitter posts with images of herbarium specimens of the plant.  It was made famous in a poem by John McCrae with the lines about the rows of soldiers’ graves on former battlefields:  “In Flanders fields the poppies blow/ Between the crosses, row on row. . . .”

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