Plant Digital Humanities

Watercolor of Bombax heptaphyllum by unnamed Indian artist in Roxburgh Collection, Botanical Survey of India

Though I’ve already discussed many digital humanities projects that deal with plants, including most notably the Plant Humanities Lab (see earlier post), there are many projects that I haven’t mentioned, and in fact, there are so many that I could only choose a few I find particularly interesting to discuss here.  They cover a broad spectrum, from historical to artistic to philosophical, and as would be expected, many touch on two or more areas:  the digital humanities are nothing if not interdisciplinary.  The website with the intriguing title The Philosophical Life of Plants is a collaboration among four British and one German institution and presents a wonderful selection of essays that would appeal to anyone interested in plants.  They are grouped into three areas:  Goethe’s views on the stages of plant form development, the history of research on whether or not plants can be considered sentient, and recent work on trees, both scientific and literary.  These three obviously cover a lot of territory as any good digital humanities project should.  The Philosophical Life website is supported by the British Arts and Humanities Research Council, a major funder of such endeavors, including the Sloane Lab I discussed in the last post.

A small project is funding a doctoral student to investigate:  “The Duchess of Botany: Mary Somerset, Jacob Bobart, and the Formation of the Oxford Botanic Garden.”  Somerset was the Duchess of Beaufort, but her title here is appropriate because she was well versed in horticulture and botany.  Jacob Bobart the Younger taught botany at Oxford University and was also director of its botanic garden.  He and Somerset kept up a correspondence and also traded specimens and living plants.  She was known for the wonders she performed in her hothouse growing exotic plants, coaxing into bloom species that botanists only knew as seeds or specimens.  Not only Bobart, but Hans Sloane and James Petiver, two avid specimen collectors, visited her garden to see and study her plants.  When she died, she left her 12-volume herbarium to Sloane. 

Bobart and Somerset had a mutually beneficial relationship, trading information on growing plants, as well as seeds and plants.  Bobart also had many other contacts in the botanical world, as did his father who was the first director of the Oxford garden.  It is thanks to their records, that we know what was grown there in the 17th century (Harris, 2018).  The herbarium and botanical library at Oxford also contain the herbaria of William Sherard and his protégé Johann Jacob Dillenius for whom his will funded a chair in botany.  Researching these botanists among others, Stephen Harris, the present herbarium curator and a professor of botany, has done a great deal in the plant humanities field.  He has written books such as The Magnificent Flora Graeca (2007) about Oxford professor John Sibthorp’s collecting expeditions to Greece and the eastern Mediterranean and the 10 volumes illustrated by Ferdinand Bauer that were ultimately published to describe the species he discovered.  Harris (2021) also recently published a book marking the 400th anniversary of botany at Oxford with the founding of the Oxford Botanic Garden.  This is a quintessential plant humanities work, combining narratives about botanists, specimens, historical artifacts, and manuscripts.  The Sherardian Library of Plant Taxonomy at Oxford also has extensive resources online, including digitized historical collections. 

I have to tear myself away from Oxford and mention a number of other projects that focus on the digital.  I joined the Literary and Cultural Plant Studies Network as a way to stay connected during covid, to learn about a wide variety of conferences, exhibitions, and projects in the plant humanities.  This group includes many in literature and philosophy who are interested in critical plant studies, but there are also offerings that are more in the art and botany areas.  While the network is relatively new, a broader one that is useful is NINES: Nineteenth-Century Scholarship Online, providing links to a variety of topics.  Type in “botany,” and you will get some interesting finds.  This is a site that I found through someone in literature; it sometimes pays to hang around with such people.

Another site that is also broad but contains material of interest to botanists, particularly those who don’t mind straying from time to time, is hosted by the Newberry Library in Chicago.  It’s called “Digital Collections for the Classroom” and could be used as such, but many topics are simply interesting to explore, such as one on “Sugar and Power in the Early Modern World,” that features the library’s holdings of images of everything from preparing sugar confections to the role of enslaved Africans on sugar plantations in the West Indies.  And finally, I recently found a site hosted by the Botanical Survey of India that has been working for a decade to digitize type specimens as well as illustrations by Indian artists along with other plant-related materials such as fabrics and dyes stuffs.  This makes for an intriguing combination of botanical and cultural objects and points the way to other projects linking botany with economic botany and art.  While the botanic gardens at Kew and Edinburgh have large collections of botanical art by Indian artists, this project seems a big step toward broadening what is available online.  The BSI has an impressive collection of 6000 paintings.  This site is one more step toward decolonial collections that I wrote about in a previous post

References

Harris, S. (2007). The Magnificent Flora Graeca: How the Mediterranean Came to the English Garden. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Harris, S. A. (2018). Seventeenth-century plant lists and herbarium collections: A case study from the Oxford Physic Garden. Journal of the History of Collections, 30(1), 1–14. https://doi.org/10.1093/jhc/fhx015

Harris, S. A. (2021). Roots to Seeds: 400 Years of Oxford Botany. Oxford: Bodleian Library.

One thought on “Plant Digital Humanities

  1. Pingback: Cut Flowers and Botanical Speculations | Herbarium World

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