Flow is a German magazine dedicated to the paper arts. It had an English edition until the pandemic, and a friend of my sent me a section on plants from Issue 17, the last English-language number. It was in three parts. The first included a brief history of herbaria, a description of a Dutch stationery store’s line of herbarium-themed paper products, and of course, instructions on how to press plants between sheets of paper. Next was a small Pocket Herbarium, a booklet pasted right onto on the magazine’s pages, ready for use in saving specimens. It was created by Saskia de Valk who has already marketed a larger version. The third section included three sheets of much heavier paper with reproductions of Maria Merian prints, suitable for framing as they say. This entire feature, really the entire magazine, was definitely aimed at amateurs and women. It could easily be dismissed as DIY fluff, but in the first section Luca Ghini is mentioned as an early champion of plant collections, and the herbarium at the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew is highlighted as the world’s largest. Presenting Merian’s work provides exposure to some of the best botanical illustration. In other words, these elements might just encourage some to explore plants, and herbaria, more avidly.
I was seduced by herbaria when I saw a couple of seaweed scrapbooks from 19th-century Rhode Island produced by local women, one the governor’s wife. Anna Atkins was not a “professional” botanist, but she could be classified as a professional photographer, and her volumes of seaweed cyanotypes were the first published photography books. Cyanotypes of plant material are still popular today, as is scrapbooking of all kinds. I myself am not enamored of this medium, but as I discussed in the last post, there is a spectrum of approaches and levels of expertise in any endeavor. It can be hard to tell at what point a herbarium morphs into a scrapbook or visa versa. Leopold Grindon, who worked as a cashier for a Manchester textile company, donated 39,000 specimens to the Manchester Herbarium; this is one of its three foundational collections. What makes it distinctive is that Grindon often attached illustrations, drawings, and entire articles to a specimen sheet, and in many cases, the accessory material was so extensive it needed a second or third sheet. The texts included botanical journal articles as well as cuttings from magazines and newspapers. It is an amazing archive, but there are many collectors who less vigorously augmented specimens. The Harvard botanist Oakes Ames was one, often including drawings by his wife Blanche Ames (Flannery, 2012).
Moving along the spectrum are those, mostly amateurs, who kept their specimens in books, and added either their own art or printed illustrations to the specimens. There are many 19th-century scrapbooks with poems and other musings either printed or by the maker, along with cuttings; the language of flowers was popular at this time and often leaked into collections that also included scientific nomenclature. In other words, amateurs ignored the borders between science and art, or science and life. Even when the use of plant material was quite whimsical, as in a scrapbook of literary clippings with small plant cuttings—and feathers—as decoration, the attention to detail belies a great deal of observation. Another notebook, the Bible Album of the naturalist Eliza Brightwen has only a few cuttings, but many drawings and prints of plants, along with religious art and texts. Plants were woven deeply into the lived experience of women who documented them in these books.
The Department of Rare Books and Manuscripts at the Yale Center for British Art has a few of these gems which were highlighted in a wonderful book Of Green, Bird, and Flower: Artist’s Books and the Natural World (Fairman, 2014). One example is an herbarium created by a Miss Rowe apparently as an entry in an herbarium contest conducted by the Liverpool Naturalists’ Field Club in 1861. Such competitions were relatively common in the 19th century and were akin to horticultural competitions for the best rose or geranium or flower arrangement. There is no record of who won this particular contest but this entry should have. Each carefully labeled specimen was enclosed in a blue envelope with a watercolor of the plant painted on it. These were arranged in a wooden stationary box. Miss Rowe was definitely someone who took her botany seriously, and her art as well.
But lest you think that only women were careful in their presentation of plants, I have to mention a single specimen that I saw on the Twitter feed for the Natural History Museum, London (@NHM_Botany). It is a Carex depauperata specimen collected by William Overend Priestley. In the upper left hand corner, outside a blue sheet framed in gold there is a note: “Prepared by Dr. Priestley, and presented by him 1889.” I don’t know if this sheet is unique, or if Dr. Priestley, whose Wikipedia entry describes him as an obstetrician and makes no mention of botanical interests, made a habit of creating such extravaganzas. All I know is that this one sheet has everything: not only the specimen, but illustrations of the flower parts, along with dissected parts (see above). There are also seeds and even nature prints of seeds at the bottom. The illustrations are very delicate, done with a fine hand. And I have to say the gold trim is a nice touch. This specimen is light on information, though it does give the date and location of collection and the plant’s scientific name. It’s hard to see this as a serious scientific artifact, but it is, and illustrates just how hard it is to fit botanical work into neat categories.
Fairman, E. R. (Ed.). (2014). Of Green Leaf, Bird, and Flower: Artist’s Books and the Natural World. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Flannery, M. C. (2012). Blanche and Oakes Ames: A relationship of art and science. Plant Science Bulletin, 58(2), 60–64.
3 thoughts on “Botany for Amateurs: Pressing Plants”
RE/ your mention and link for a Dutch paper store selling herbarium-themed paper products, I see no such items at the store you have linked. Out of stock already?
The article was published over two years ago.
Thanks for your thoughtful and prompt reply. I have since communicated with the store owner, who confirmed that the herbarium product line is long gone.