In this series of posts, I’m focusing on the holdings of the A.C. Moore Herbarium (USCH) at the University of South Carolina. Here I want to discuss the beauty I come upon among the specimens. Aesthetically pleasing plants are replete in any herbarium, but since almost all are hidden away most of the time, this beauty goes unappreciated, as does art in the vast warehouses of museums like the Met and the Louvre. The great thing about volunteering in an herbarium is that I get an opportunity to come upon gorgeous specimens on a regular basis. Recently, I was hunting for something in the mounting room and saw a Passiflora sheet collected by John Nelson, curator emeritus. Now Nelson did get help from the plant here; the delicacy of its flower is hard to beat. Carl Linnaeus also had a lovely example that is now the lectotype for the species Passiflora caerulea.
The herbarium holds the specimens of Henry William Ravenel (1814-1887) a nineteenth-century South Carolina botanist. This collection of slightly more than 6000 specimens was entrusted to the care of the herbarium by Converse College (now University) in Spartanburg, SC. The college had received the plants from Ravenel’s cousin who had bought them from his widow (Haygood, 1987). Most of the specimens have been remounted, but in some cases the plants couldn’t be easily removed from the original mount, so the specimen and its paper were attached to a new sheet. In every case, all labels, notes, and determinations were also remounted. A specimen I find particularly attractive is a American frogbit Limnobium spongia (HWR-00048010) collected by Alvan Wentworth Chapman in Apalachicola, Florida (see above). The combination of the form of the leaves and bending of the stems with the texture of the paper makes is so appealing. The subtlety of the colors of the plant and that of the paper is also attractive.
In general, the Ravenel specimens are treasures because they not only give evidence of what was growing in the 19th century in South Carolina and other parts of the South, as well as more broadly, since Ravenel exchanged specimens with many botanists. There are also some notes with interesting information on locale or habitat. Ravenel’s journals and correspondence have been digitized and transcribed. They are available on the Plants and Planter website along with all his specimens and even maps, so it is easy to search for information on particular collectors or collection events. Obviously the University of South Carolina appreciates the collection and has worked with other institutions to maximize its availability to both botanists and historians.
But even for recent collections of species that aren’t that photogenic, an expert mounter can make something wonderful from it. Take another Nelson specimen, this one of southern bog clubmoss Lycopodiella appressum (USCH0073992, see below). There are any number of aesthetic theories and definitions of what makes something beautiful. Among the qualities often mentioned elegance as one, and the Passiflora fits the bill there. Another is symmetry, and with Lycopodiella the mounter has taken this aesthetic quality and created something eye-catching from rather mundane material. But there’s more than aesthetics involved in this sheet, there is also a good use of space, to make sure all parts of both plants are displayed. Some students of beauty think that too much symmetry can be boring, and that an interplay of symmetry and asymmetry is more pleasing as is apparent here. For this specimen the obvious symmetry is enlivened by the asymmetry of the crossed branches.
As with any artwork, it takes time to appreciate all this sheet has to offer, and usually botanists tend to push aesthetics aside and focus on the information in a beautifully mounted plant. This makes perfect sense, specimens are first and foremost scientific objects stored for research and educational purposes. However, it doesn’t hurt to spend a moment from time to time just to soak in the beauty, because, as I have argued before (see earlier post), aesthetics is an intrinsic part of botanical inquiry. In the last post, I discussed the difficulties of collecting, but put less emphasis on the thrills, which is rarely mentioned on labels. John Nelson has described to me the moment when he discovered a new species of hedge-nettle Stachys caroliniana: it was a holiday weekend, he was at the beach with his family, and he decided to do a little botanizing. And there it was. Needless to say none of this made it into the article he wrote with Douglas Rayner (2014) describing the species. Elation simply is not part of scientific prose, explaining why scientists are considered a rather stuffy lot. John Nelson would not be described as stuffy. It is alleged that for many years he dressed as the masked botanical superhero Plantman for various occasions, but he denies any such involvement, adding that since Plantman is real, no one needs dress up like him.
Nelson will admit to bringing a “Vivat Linnaeus” banner with him when he leads field trips, either for his students or other groups. He also began the tradition which continues under the present curator, Herrick Brown (also a banner wielder), of saying “Vivat” whenever entering one of the rabbit warren of rooms that make up the herbarium. Anyone in the room knows to answer “Linnaeus.” This is more than just a quaint tribute to the father of modern botany, it also has a practical purpose. The rooms are filled with cabinets, that it’s good to know where a fellow human may be lurking and not come upon them unannounced and scaring both parties. Such customs makes the A.C. Moore Herbarium a happy, if crowded, space for doing and enjoying botany, as is testified to by the number of volunteers and students who work there, and often return for a visit long after they’ve moved on.
Note: I am very grateful to John Nelson and Herrick Brown for their very helpful commentaries and corrections on this series of posts.
Haygood, T. M. (1987). Henry William Ravenel, 1814-1887: South Carolina Scientist in the Civil War Era. Birmingham: University of Alabama Press.
Nelson, J. B., & Rayner, D. A. (2014). A new hedge-nettle (Stachys: Lamiaceae) from South Carolina, USA. Journal of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas, 8(2), 431–440.
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