In this series of posts on books about herbaria, this entry can be a considered a companion piece to the last one on Barbara Thiers’s masterful survey of the herbarium world. Kelly LaFarge’s (2020) Herbaria: A Guide for Young People is very different in size and intended audience. Herbaria is a slim volume addressed to 8-12 year-olds, in comparison with Thiers’s over-300 page Herbarium. But they both do a great job of engagingly introducing readers to the world of preserved plants. The books are beautifully formatted, and full of great images with clearly written text.
LaFarge’s Herbaria fills a niche that has been empty until now. Yes, there are many books about plants for children, but not about pressed plants. She dedicated the book to her two sons, and I imagine she tried out material on them to gauge what would interest a child and what wouldn’t. She plunges right in on the first page with a clear definition of a herbarium, also explaining the job of a botanist and the characteristics of a specimen along with a photograph of one. Both Thiers and LaFarge discuss Luca Ghini’s role in the 16th century in promoting the use of pressed plants, and also include Lewis and Clark’s collecting and the herbarium of the 19th century poet Emily Dickinson. It’s on the page with a photograph of Dickinson that the LaFarge book gets really interesting as far as I’m concerned. To the left of the text, there is a flap that when lifted, reveals one of her poems, “It’s All I Have to Bring Today.” I am a sucker for flaps, pop-ups, fold-outs, and other surprises in books. They are almost always reserved for children’s books, and I think that’s a shame. They make books lively by forcing the reader to be active. A few pages further on a spiral notebook page is pictured, one from a field journal, with space to record date, location, latitude/longitude, etc. Lift up the page and there are drawings of the tools of the collecting trade—clippers, plant press, pencil, etc. On another page, raising the cover of a “plant press” reveals a specimen underneath.
I won’t describe all the moveable parts in the book, because there should be some surprises to look forward to when you get your own copy, which you plan to give to a child. I have two nephews each turning nine soon, and they will get copies, but not my copy. One of the reasons you will not give yours away is that you’ll want to study it, and to think about what LaFarge does and does not include in these pages. Admittedly there is not a great deal of information here, but what is presented is sure to fascinate a child without being overwhelming. On one two-page (p. 24-25) spread there is a photo of someone holding a giant coco de mer seed (referred to as a “double-coconut seed”) to give a sense of its size; another of “a corpse flower, the largest, stinkiest flower” (that will please my nephews though they’ll be disappointed that there’s no scent provided); and a third of a handful of “the world’s smallest bamboo from French Guiana, that’s less than an inch high!” There are also photos of herbarium cabinets, seed collections, and botanists collecting in the field.
For a child, quite a bit of information is packed into this slim package, including an explanation of all the elements on a present-day herbarium sheet, including a fragment packet. An adult interested in herbaria will not learn a great deal here, but that’s not the point of this book. It is for the neophyte, and not just for a young one. Come to think of it, I might buy a copy for my sister, and my son, and some of my friends who are totally flummoxed by my herbarium fascination. This might also be a good book to add to any herbarium’s library, so it can be pulled out for young visitors, since they are becoming more frequent in herbaria as curators are increasingly concerned with broadening interest in their institutions.
Outreach has become an important part of the herbarium world in the 21st century (see earlier post). This can mean making collections available digitally so researchers from a larger variety of fields from ecology to geology can make use of the information (Heberling et al., 2021). But it also means building interest in the collections among younger audiences in order to provide the botanists and ecologists of the future, since there has been much written on the need for recruits to these fields. I think most of us who became interested in biology had early experiences with the living world that stayed with us. LaFarge’s book could provide a clever entry into that world that might adhere to some brain cell and link to a later experience, perhaps on a high school or college field trip. On a trip to Ireland when I was 12, I pressed some flowers that I found growing along a roadside. I pasted them into a little booklet for my mother. The memory of this had completely faded until more than 50 years later. After I had fallen in love with herbaria, my sister happened to unearth this memento in my mother’s dresser. The mind works in strange ways, and LaFarge has enough of a sense of fun and wonder to help the young mind turn to plant collections.
Heberling, J. M., Miller, J. T., Noesgaard, D., Weingart, S. B., & Schigel, D. (2021). Data integration enables global biodiversity synthesis. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118(6). https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2018093118
LaFarge, K. (2021). Herbaria: A Guide for Young People. St. Louis: Missouri Botanical Garden Press.