Other Callings: Miscellanea

Anemones from the Rosa Luxemburg Herbarium

This post, the last in a series on plant collectors who also were involved in other careers, should really be called “other, other callings.”  It deals with those who weren’t involved in religion, philosophy, or business, the subjects of the last three posts (1,2,3).  The most obvious group I’ve missed are physicians, and I did that on purpose:  there are just too many of them.  Through much of botanical history, materia medica focused on plant material, and many physicians from Luca Ghini to John Torrey became more interested in plants than in patients.  Even in the 20th-century, Baruch Blumberg, who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discovery of hepatitis B, went on to seek a cure by screening plants for active antiviral agents.  The research didn’t pan out, but in the process he created a herbarium at the Fox Chase Cancer Center to house the voucher specimens his team collected (Blumberg, 1998).

Sometimes life takes someone into a field far from botany, only to lead back to it.  Gunnar Seidenfaden was a Danish diplomat who studied botany at the University of Copenhagen, but failed his master exam and turned to studying economics and political science, then joining the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  In the 1950s, he became ambassador to Thailand.  This post allowed him to collect, grow, and study the country’s orchids, which had never been adequately documented.  He continued this work for the rest of his life and made a significant contribution to orchid taxonomy, especially Thai species (Pedersen et al., 2009).

A person in any walk of life can be seduced by plants and the desire to collect them:  to have a physical record of what they have seen and studied.  Sometimes what is of interest is not even a plant, but a fungus.  The avant-garde composer John Cage focused on mushrooms, and several of his specimens are in the New York Botanical Garden Steere Herbarium.  He had a long-term fascination with macrofungi in part because he considered their mycelia as a metaphor for the twists and turns of music.  He even produced a book on them, A Mycological Foray, that was very Cagean in its mixture of remembrances of foraging trips, discussions of cooking with mushrooms, and experiments in poetry.

Cage also created a portfolio of illustrations with the artist Lois Long.  Each of her graceful and accurate lithographs has a cover sheet done by Cage with his notes on the species pictured.  His contribution reproduces pencil notes that are written helter-skelter and often overlap each other.  Saving the day is a translucent cover sheet over the lithograph with the notes clearly printed, though in what I consider overly small print.  Both the book and portfolio were published in 1972 and have been re-released along with a set of postcards of Cage’s recipes and of contemporary art works (Cage, 2020).  Two of the cards are scratch-offs to give the reader/viewer, an olfactory experience as well; this was not my favorite part of the collection.

Another artist interested in fungi was Erio Camporesi who made a living as an accountant.  While Cage’s herbarium contributions were meager, Camporesi’s specimens now in herbaria number in the thousands.  He contributed them to many mycologists working on a number of different groups.  Earlier this year, the journal Fungal Diversity dedicated an issue to his contributions, including reproductions of several of his artworks (see image above).  These are brightly-colored, fanciful paintings that emphasize the interconnections fungi make with the world around them (Phukhamsakda et al., 2020).

Not all plant collectors have a purpose so closely tied to science.  In the 19th century, it was common to collect plants while on vacation as a way to preserve memories of experiences in nature.  Pressed plants can also serve as reminders of nature for those less privy to it.  The Marxist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg filled 17 notebooks with specimens, mostly wildflowers, between 1913 and 1918, during which she was jailed several times for her activities in Germany.  Her herbarium was how she kept in touch with what she considered the best parts of her world.  When she could collect she did, and at other times, friends sent her pressed specimens to help her stay connected to the beauties of the world around her.  A German publisher produced a book in 2016 with photos of pages from these notebooks, and some were exhibited last year in New York.

I would like to argue that the Luxemburg exhibition is yet one more sign of a resurgence of interest in plant collections.  In this case, it is not so much for scientific reasons but for historical and cultural ones.  Luxemburg was a political radical and also a feminist at a time when both could be dangerous pursuits.  We tend to think of pressing flowers as something done by delicate young women of privilege, but flowers can be a source of pleasure and comfort to people of all classes and beliefs.  Many have turned to pressing plants during the Covid lockdown, with Quarantine Herbarium projects in both the United States and Britain.  And don’t forget Tanisha M. Williams of this summer’s Black Botanists Week project that blossomed on Twitter this summer.  She is a post-doctoral fellow in Bucknell University’s biology department and a herbarium habitué who sees diversity in the botanical community as key to maintaining biodiversity throughout the world.  Herbaria and herbaria lovers seem to be burgeoning in number and that can only be a good thing for the future of plant life on earth.


Blumberg, B. S. (1998). Case study of plant-derived drug research: Phyllanthus and hepatitis B virus. In T. R. Tomlinson & A. Olayiwola (Eds.), Medicinal Plants: Their Role in Health and Biodiversity. (pp. 3–10). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Cage, J. (2020). A Mycological Foray. Los Angeles: Atelier.

Luxemburg, R. (2016). Herbarium by Rosa Luxemburg (E. Wittich, Ed.). Berlin: Dietz.

Pedersen, H., Watthana, S., & Srimuang, K. (2009). Gunnar Seidenfaden and his heritage: Developments in the diversity and organization of Thai orchid studies. Thai Forest Bulletin, 37, 156–168.

Phukhamsakda, C., & et al. (2020). The contributions of Erio Camporesi. Fungal Diversity, 100, 1–3.

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