Free Miscellanea

Elizabeth Gwillim’s watercolor of ‘Gwillimia indica’, sent by J.P. Rottler to J.E. Smith in 1805, Linnean Society Archives

In this series of posts, I’ve discussed freely accessible books, articles, and images on the web (1,2,3).  But there are resource types I haven’t mentioned, and I’ll try to remedy that here.  I have been listening to free podcasts for years, especially In Defense of Plants.  Since covid, the number has increased, as has access to free lectures, seminars, etc., etc.  Of course, organizations that often sponsor such events—museums, universities, botanical gardens, professional organizations—are also those severely impacted by the pandemic’s economic fallout.  So it’s not surprising that some are charging for their programs, though often with minimal fees.  Others see free programming as a way to remind visitors of their continued existence and relevancy, with the hope that interest will spur voluntary contributions or future participation.  Some seminars are organized by educational institutions to give their graduate students a chance to present their work or listen to experts in the field; opening these events up to others is a way to spread word of the research and perhaps ignite the interest of future students.  It’s also a way to share rich resources that result from research.

It’s difficult to provide a guide to the lecture landscape; it changes daily as new ones are posted and others have already occurred.  Some of latter are archived, but many are not.  Keep in mind it takes storage space and expertise to archive lectures; usually a little editing would help too, and that requires more time and skill than may be available.  When I miss an opportunity, I comfort myself by looking on Twitter or Instagram where I often find new ones.  That’s how I discovered a Harvard Museums of Natural History lecture on the Blaschka glass flowers, and a friend on Twitter alerted me to one on the relationship between sewing and biology offered by the Wellcome Collection.  These were visually as well as intellectually stimulating, and are indicative of a continuing move to bring the digital humanities and science together, and to the fore in the online world.

An example of seminars and videos serving several of these goals is the Gwillim Project Online at the McGill University Library; many of its presentations are archived online.  It’s essentially an exploration of the writings and drawings of Elizabeth Gwillim (1763-1807) and her sister Mary Symonds (b. 1772) who lived in Madras (now Chennai), India, at the beginning of the 19th century.  I’ve only attended one of the seminars related to this project, which is also digitizing the sisters’ papers at McGill, but it provided insights into the botanical side of their work, particularly that of Elizabeth.  One presentation was by Henry Noltie, a research associate at the Royal Botanical Garden, Edinburgh and expert on British botanical activities in colonial India (2002, 2016, 2017).  He noted that Elizabeth started investigating Indian plants as she was studying Sanskrit.  So much of what she read was about plants and their uses, but the species were unknown to her so the descriptions made little sense.  She sought assistance from local botanists including the German missionary and botanist Johann Rottler.  She also corresponded with botanists in Britain and sent specimens to them.  Her only extant botanical drawing is one of a magnolia that Rottler posted to James Edward Smith in England because he thought it was a new genus and wanted to name it after Gwillim.

Many new, or newly better known, resources on the web support online learning.  Some were available before covid, but have now become vital ingredients to enhance distance learning.  These are so diverse, taking on so many different forms that it’s not possible to even scratch the surface here.  I’ll just point to one portal that gets richer by the day:  Botany Depot, managed by Lena Struwe of the Chrysler Herbarium at Rutgers University, has been a lifeline for teachers throughout the pandemic.  As so often occurs on the web, the links found here will also lead to still other finds, so it is worth visiting from time to time, just for intellectual refreshment.  Also useful are JSTOR’s Plant of the Month posts, Oak Spring Library’s Fantastic Flora, and the Jepson Herbarium’s videos on California flora.

Of course, many educational resources are behind institutional firewalls, since protecting intellectual property is important.  Still it’s great when something massive and useful is also free, sometimes as a result of funding stipulations, from National Science Foundation for example.  This is the case with an online course called Plants and Python, part of the Michigan State University project, Integrated Training Model in Plant and Computational Sciences: IMPACTS.  I have to admit that all I knew about Python is that it was a programming language, and I don’t much more now.  However, I did delve into the course’s first “notebook,” An Introduction to Plants and Python: Lists and Leaves.

Officially called Foundation in Computational Plant Science, the course begins with the statement that it “brings together plant biologists and data scientists to learn fundamental concepts in plant science using a computational mindset.”  Then in bold is the comforting addition:  “This course assumes no prior experience in plant biology or coding.”   How could I not read on?  The first question explored is “What is a plant?”  Then there’s a discussion of the function and architecture of leaves.  Basic stuff.  After this botanical grounding comes the introduction to making a Python list.  I played along for a while, but then made the decision that I am not going to be a coder, even in the service of plant form.  However, it somehow made me happy to know that such an opportunity is freely available to anyone so inclined.

I’ll end with a couple of sites in two genres made popular by the pandemic.  One is the Smithsonian digital puzzle site which uses images from its libraries, including beautiful floral illustrations.  The Manchester Museum has a museum-from-home site that offers many activities, including a coloring book of herbarium specimens.  What could be better than that!


Noltie, H. J. (2002). The Dapuri drawings: Alexander Gibson and the Bombay Botanic Gardens. Edinburgh: Antique Collectors’ Club.

Noltie, H. J. (2016). The Cleghorn Collection: South Indian Botanical Drawings 1845 to 1860. Edinburgh: Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

Noltie, H. J. (2017). Botanical Art from India: The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh Collection. Edinburgh: Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

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