This post marks the start of my sixtieth set of posts over five years for Herbarium World. As you may know, I have a monthly theme with four posts. Doing the math (which I just did), that means 240 posts, yet I’ve never titled one simply, “Herbarium,” until now. To mark this milestone, I am going to discuss four books that celebrate herbaria, and it seems fitting to begin with Barbara Thiers’s Herbarium: The Quest to Preserve and Classify the World’s Plants. No one is better equipped than Thiers to produce such a book. She is the Patricia K. Holmgren Director Emerita and Honorary Curator of the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium at New York Botanical Garden (NYBG). When I was beginning my exploration of herbaria, she graciously took time to speak with me, though she obviously had more important things to deal with in overseeing one the world’s largest herbaria, now with over 7.9 million specimens.
I know that number because it was published in the latest report from Index Herbariorum, the best source of information on the number of herbaria worldwide and the size of each collection. Thiers is the editor of what is now an online database but began as a printed publication that was moved online by her predecessor as herbarium director, Patricia Holmgren, for whom Thiers’ endowed position is named. They are both formidable women, both excellent botanists and administrators.
In Herbarium, Thiers provides a highly readable tour through the history and development of plant collections and then explains why they are so essential to the future of the earth’s biodiversity. The first thing that’s obvious is that the book, published by Timber Press, is beautifully produced. It is filled with colored photographs of what I consider “eye candy,” that is, herbarium specimens from the 16th to the 21st century, many from NYBG, but also from collections around the world. In addition are pages from significant publications such as Carl Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae and illustrations by great botanical artists including Georg Ehret and Pierre-Joseph Redouté, many from the holdings of NYBG’s LuEsther T. Mertz Library. There are also photographs of plants and landscapes, pictures of botanists, and maps.
But the meat of the book is the text. Not surprisingly, Thiers begins with the history of herbaria, including of course the origin of cryptogamic collections since she is an expert on liverworts. Along the way she clearly presents enough botanical information to guide the non-botanist. Then she moves on to the age of exploration and describes both the general landscape of plant prospecting over the centuries, and also delves into a number of interesting cases. These include the adventures and collections of the British privateer William Dampier who was the first to gather specimens in Australia and of the French botanist Philibert Commerson who traveled on a portion of Louis Antoine de Bougainville’s expedition around the world. Commerson made many notable botanical discoveries, though he may be best known not for what he found but for whom he brought with him on the voyage: his mistress Jeanne Baret. Thiers tells the tale in some detail, including how Baret posed as a male seaman, and how she and Commerson eventually left the expedition in Mauritius and collected in the area until Commerson’s death.
While the exploration chapter takes a global view, the next one deals with the development of collecting and collections in the United States from colonial times. Naturally the 18th-century Philadelphia nurseryman John Bartram is discussed as well as the Lewis and Clark Expedition, with the winding journey taken by many of its specimens. John Torrey and Asa Gray as key to the development of botany in the United States appear, with Thiers noting that Torrey’s specimens, donated to Columbia College (now Columbia University), eventually became the foundation of NYBG’s herbarium. Nathaniel and Elizabeth Britton’s pivotal role in the creation of NYBG is covered as is the work of George Engelmann and Henry Shaw in founding the Missouri Botanical Garden, and West Coast botanists in creating the California Academy of Sciences herbarium. All of these institutions are still at the forefront of botanical research today.
The last two chapters return to a global perspective, with descriptions of how collections were both made and eventually housed in Australia, Africa, India, and East Asia. Issues of colonial exploitation obviously arise there, and in addition Thiers presents fascinating information on how herbaria around the world are now being created and developed. This leads to the last chapter on the future of herbaria. Thiers knows this topic well because she has been a leader in projects designed to create that future, including the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s Global Plants initiative (now JSTOR Global Plants) to image and digitize label information for type specimens, the Biodiversity Heritage Library for botanical literature online, and iDigBio, the US digitization effort that put millions of natural history specimens online, in addition to developing projects and tools to use that information in learning about the world’s biodiversity. The challenges created by climate change and habitat loss are driving these efforts, and people like Thiers are continuing work to make the available information as useful as possible. She makes it clear that herbaria have a wonderful future and her book is a wonderful introduction to it.
Thiers, B. M. (2020). Herbarium: The Quest to Preserve and Classify the World’s Plants. Portland, OR: Timber.