Humboldt and Bonpland

2 Bonpland Cinchona

Nature print of Cinchona made by Humboldt and Bonpland, in the Institut de France, Paris.

Since Alexander von Humboldt’s training was in geology and Aimé Bonpland’s in botany, it’s not surprising that Bonpland took the lead in plant collecting on their Latin American expedition (see last post).  However, because they were essentially on their own, picking up assistants along the way, their work in processing specimens, in taking meteorological and astronomical readings, etc., was usually a team effort.  They were overwhelmed by the exciting new plants they saw and within the first few months had already amassed 4000 specimens.  They had to order more paper, since they were using it up so quickly.  It is impossible to say how many plants they collected in total, but the number is over 60,000 including 6,000 species, over half of them new (Lack, 2009).  None of these numbers are precise because many of the plants passed through several different hands, but the record is clearer than for many collections of the era because the two kept careful records that became a model for later expeditions.  They numbered each specimen and recorded it in a journal along with a tentative ID, a description, and locality information.  As time went on, the entries became more detailed.  While they sent back a number of shipments divided among several ships to guard against loss, they kept a small herbarium with them as a memory aid for what they had seen.

Needless to say, none of this work was easy.  Humboldt and Bonpland were traveling through rough, often mountainous terrain in hot and humid equatorial regions where they were driven mad by insects.  These conditions damaged or destroyed many of their specimens, and at one point they were so discouraged by the losses that they made to nature prints to document the plants.  Over 200 of these are preserved at the Institut de France in Paris (Lack, 2001).  However, they persisted in collecting because they just couldn’t ignore all the new species they encountered.  Through much of their trip they were in areas that the eyes of trained botanists had never seen so they were inundated with novelty.  Along with all the environmental data they had amassed, this treasure trove made them anxious to return to Europe and begin writing up their findings.  After leaving South America, they spent a year in Mexico, then returned to Cuba to pack up their specimens for shipment to Paris.  Humboldt decided to live there rather than to return to his native Prussia, because Paris was an intellectually alive city at the time with the National Museum of Natural History (MNHN) as the center of the country’s botanical research.  There was a great herbarium there, as well as a botanical library and experts to assist them.

Humboldt and Bonpland organized and divided up the collection so they each had a set of specimens.  Humboldt arranged for Bonpland to receive a pension from the French government to support him.  Bonpland became botanist to the Empress Joséphine at Malmaison estate, where he oversaw the gardens, provided her with new exotics, and saw to the lavish publications on her plant collection.  It soon became obvious to Humboldt that even with frequent nudging, Bonpland wasn’t getting anywhere with describing their plants.  So in 1813, eight years after they returned, Humboldt invited Carl Kunth, a young German botanist, to come to Paris and work on the collection.  Kunth remained for over six years and eventually published seven volumes with descriptions of over 4,500 plant species, among which 3,600 were new to science (Lack, 2009).  However, this summary makes the process seem more clear cut than it was.

In 1814, Empress Joséphine died, and Bonpland decided to return to South America; he felt more comfortable exploring for new plants.  He took his herbarium with him, and perhaps more importantly, he packed the botanical journals where the specimens were catalogued.  Humboldt and Kunth were aghast, and Kunth hurried to the port of Le Havre to intercept Bonpland before his ship sailed.  Bonpland didn’t give up his specimens, after all Humboldt had a collection too, but he did return the notebooks to Kunth, making it possible for the latter to continue his taxonomic work (Lack, 2004).  Eventually, Bonpland returned his sheets to the herbarium at the MNHN in Paris, where they were filed in the general collection rather than kept separately as the Humboldt collection is.

Another wrinkle was that, while still in South America, Humboldt had sent specimens and seeds to his mentor Carl Willdenow, who wrote descriptions of a number of species.  Some of these were published by others after Willdenow’s death, and his herbarium was sold by his heirs to the Berlin herbarium.  Because of the hostility between France and German, Berlin botanists refused to share specimens with Kunth, who then named some of the same plants, causing years of nomenclatural difficulties.  Kunth returned to Germany after completing most of his work for Humboldt, and when he died his herbarium was also sold to the Berlin-Dahlem Botanical Garden.  During World War II, the Willdenow specimens were considered valuable enough to be stored in a vault offsite and survived the bombing that destroyed most of the herbarium’s collection, including the Kunth specimens.  Lest you assume that by now all of the Humboldt-Bonpland plants had been identified, that may not be the case.  In 2007, a new species, Solanum humboldtianum, was described from a relatively recent collection, but researchers discovered that Humboldt and Bonpland had collected it, and it had lain unidentified for two centuries (Granados-Tochoy et al., 2007).  This is all fodder to feed my love of herbaria.


Granados-Tochoy, J. C., Knapp, S., & Orozco, C. I. (2007). Solanum humboldtianum (Solanaceae): An endangered new species from Colombia rediscovered 200 years after its first collection. Systematic Botany, 32(1), 200–207.

Lack, H. W. (2001). The plant self impressions prepared by Humboldt and Bonpland in tropical America. Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, 18(4), 218–229.

Lack, H. W. (2004). The botanical field notes prepared by Humboldt and Bonpland in tropical America. Taxon, 53(2), 501–510.

Lack, H. W. (2009). Alexander von Humboldt and the Botanical Exploration of the Americas. New York, NY: Prestel.


Humboldt and the World of Plants

1 Abronia parviflora

Abronia parviflora collected in Columbia by Humboldt and Bonpland, specimen in the herbarium of Berlin-Dahlem Botanical Garden.

A few years ago, Andrea Wulf (2015) published The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World.  “New World” here can be interpreted two ways:  as the Western Hemisphere that Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland explored during their famous five-year expedition (1799-1804), and as the world through new eyes made possible by Humboldt’s writings that influenced such leaders of environmental and ecological thinking as Henry David Thoreau, George Perkins Marsh, Ernst Haeckel, and John Muir.  It is because of this impact that Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), born 250 years ago, deserves attention today.  It seems appropriate to dedicate this series of posts to someone who helped shape the way we look at plants now.  I’ll begin by discussing early influences on his thinking and the general arc of his life’s work.  The following posts will deal more specifically with aspects of his botanical studies.

Humboldt was born into a upper-class family in Berlin.  His father died when he was 10, leaving him and his older brother Wilhelm in the care of their rather aloof mother who aimed to have her sons well-placed in the Prussian establishment.  From an early age Humboldt exhibited other inclinations, especially an interest in natural history, collecting specimens and creating what amounted to a museum of his finds.  To learn more about plants, he took some of his specimens to Carl Ludwig Willdenow, an apothecary who had just published a flora of Berlin.  This meeting led to Willdenow becoming Humboldt’s botany tutor.  While his mother hired Willdenow, this didn’t divert her from her plan, so Humboldt studied finance for a brief time and then went to the University of Gottingen where his brother was also enrolled.  There he met George Forster who years before had travelled with his father on Captain James Cook’s second circumnavigation.  Forster became Humboldt’s mentor, and like many among the educated elites of the time, they made a grand tour, visiting the Netherlands, France, and England.  This broadened Humboldt’s horizons, to say nothing of his knowledge of natural history.  In England alone, he met Joseph Banks, James Edward Smith of the Linnean Society, and the Oxford botanist John Sibthorpe.

After this trip, Humboldt studied more seriously, enrolling in the Freiburg School of Mines.  Upon graduation in 1792, he was appointed a mine inspector, a Prussian government position to his mother’s satisfaction.  He threw himself into his work, which was great preparation for his future travels (Anthony, 2018).  Humboldt became familiar with the new ways of illustrating rock formations that were beginning to emerge and with the plants growing in the subterranean world of the mines.  In fact, he wrote Florae Fribergensis in 1793, describing the plants, algae, and fungi he encountered.  As part of his work, he made a tour of mountainous areas in Switzerland and Italy, focusing on geology and botany.  His mother died in 1796, freeing him from having to remain in government service since he and his brother inherited significant wealth.  Within a year, Humboldt prepared to leave Prussia and do some serious exploring of distant lands.  He headed for Paris, where he met Louis-Antoine de Bougainville who was planning a naval expedition and invited Humboldt to join.  Nothing came of this, but in the meantime, he had met Aimé Bonpland, a botanist who had been educated by Antoine-Laurent de Jussieu and René-Louiche Desfontaines at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris.

Humboldt and Bonpland got along well and both were interested in exploration.  After further efforts to join a French expedition failed, they headed to Spain where they convinced the King to issue them passports to Spanish-held lands in South America and also the Philippines.  Since Humboldt was funding the trip, the King had little to lose and much to gain in terms of new knowledge about his own lands.  Humboldt had amassed an impressive array of the latest equipment for carrying out astronomical, meteorological, and geological measurements.  His gear also included supplies for collecting specimens, but as can be seen by just this brief review, their trip was rather ad hoc and remained so throughout.  The first stop was Tenerife, where they climbed the island’s Mount Teide.  They were thrilled with the experience and tested out their instruments for measuring altitude, atmospheric pressure, etc.

When they landed at Cumaná in what is now Venezuela, they spent over a year exploring including traveling the length of the Casiquiare River that forms a natural canal between the Amazon and Orinoco Rivers (Helferich, 2004).  They then sailed to Cuba before returning to South America and climbing in the Andes.  They went on to Lima, up the west coast to Ecuador and by sea to Mexico where they spent a year before sailing back to Cuba and to the United States.  At several points during the voyage they had to recalculate their plans, and they never did get to the Philippines.  By the time they left Mexico, Humboldt was anxious to return to Europe to start writing up his findings and learn the latest news in science because he had been out of touch for so long.  Humboldt and Bonpland settled in Paris since the scientific climate there was most conducive to doing the research necessary to describe their observations and specimens.  After this voyage, Humboldt never returned to the New World, though he did make one major trip later in life through Russia to Siberia to advise the Tsar on his mining interests there.  In the next post, I’ll discuss Humboldt’s and Bonpland’s botanical collections from the Americas and how they were eventually sorted out.


Anthony, P. (2018). Mining as the working world of Alexander von Humboldt’s plant geography and vertical cartography. Isis, 109(1), 28–55.

Helferich, G. (2004). Humboldt’s Cosmos. New York, NY: Penguin.

Wulf, A. (2015). The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World. New York, NY: Knopf.

On the Road, Learning about Herbaria: Beyond iDigBio

Acorus calamus sheet from Catalogus plantarum flore, polypetalo regulari, collection of the Mertz Library, New York Botanical Garden

After the Digital Data Biodiversity Research Conference I’ve written about in this series of posts (1,2,3), I stayed in New Haven for a couple of days and visited the Rare Book Room at the Yale Center for British Art.  Several years ago I had read Elisabeth Fairman’s (2014) Of Green Leaf Bird and Flower: Artists’ Books and the Natural World.  It accompanied an exhibit she curated at the Center and included several herbaria as well as many other book treasures from the 18th to the 21st century.  A number of these are among the Center’s holdings, and I wanted to see some of them.  One of the highlights was a collection of botanical specimens stored in a handsome wooden box and created by someone identified only as Miss Rowe.  There are 43 families represented, each in a blue envelop adorned with a watercolor of a plant in that family.  This assemblage was created in 1861 for a contest sponsored by the Liverpool Naturalists’ Field Club.  The winner would be the woman who collected and identified the most species in flower from a list of the flora of Liverpool.  The winner isn’t known but it there was something better than Miss Rowe’s entry, it must have been spectacular.  At the other end of the spectrum is a recent artist’s book made by Mandy Bonnell in response to this herbarium.  Wild flowers worth notice: in memory of Miss Rowe of Liverpool (2014) is a beautiful work in a handmade box with 8 packets, each with four hand drawings, some with collage.  This is a delicate homage to the earlier work and to women naturalists of the 19th century by one of the 21st.   Another artist’s book called POETree (2005) was created by Andrew Norris.  It consists of leaves of a birch tree stacked in a leaf-shaped box, each leaf stamped with a brief, haiku-like poem.  It is a little gem.

On my second day at the Center, I sat down with Elisabeth Fairman to talk about her work on 18th and 19th-century women naturalists.  Her involvement in a number of exhibits (Donald & Munro, 2009; Laird & Weisberg-Roberts, 2009) demonstrates the kinds of integration of science and the humanities that I wrote about in the last post.  On the curatorial side, Fairman has to be cognizant of the fragility of the organic material under her care and was particularly concerned about a group of wonderful tiny books made by Dizzy Pragnell.  Fairman has found that humidity control is key here, and works with a conservator to keep it within narrow limits.  One of these, A Is For Apple (2012), has nine leaves, each a thin, dried apple slice.  This is a beautiful example of the way the herbarium concept is being used by present-day artists.

A different variation on the herbarium theme is Tracey Bush’s Nine Wild Plants (2006), a project she began by asking friends to each name ten wild plants.  Several had trouble coming up with ten so that’s why her book has nine “specimens” of the plants they mentioned most often, including, of course, the dandelion.  The specimens are really paper cutouts that resemble the form of flattened plants, but are cut from food wrappers.  Bush’s message is that today people can much more easily identify convenience foods such as candy and cereal by their containers than they can common plants.  In the Green Leaf exhibit and book, several of the specimens are juxtaposed with 19th-century specimens of the same species, reflecting a time when the plants themselves were familiar.  Bush’s work also relates to that of a 19th-century woman identified only as Ellen W., who created elaborate flower cutouts mounted on black paper, similar to the work of Mary Delany in the 18th century.  It was a pleasure to leaf through Ellen’s amazing pieces and get a sense of just how much observation had to go into creating such life-like work, to say nothing of the delicate cutting involved.  Some of the tiny flower parts are less than a millimeter long.  (Yes, I mean millimeter.)

After my time at Yale and a visit with family in Connecticut, I headed south, stopping at New York Botanical Garden to spend a day looking at one of the treasures in their Mertz Library.  Catalogus plantarum flore, polypetalo regulari is an unattributed herbarium probably from Portugal and dating from somewhere between 1660 and 1753.  The latter date is surmised from the fact that taxonomic references are to botanists earlier than Linnaeus.  The pages are unbound.  They are beautifully conserved in acid free paper folders and organized by present-day taxonomic families, with the family folders then stored in boxes alphabetically.  Susan Fraser, the director of the library, told me that they have been loose like this since she arrived at the library 34 years ago.  More recently Olga Marder and Kelsey Osborn conserved the collection as it is now stored.  I suspect that it may be composed of more than one collection, or at least that the sheets were created at different times.  The taxonomic sorting may have destroyed some other order produced by the maker(s) or earlier owners.  In the article “Leaves on the Loose,” which Fraser shared with me, Alette Fleischer (2017) writes that often when old herbaria were unbound they lost a great deal of their history as the sheets were reshuffled, and this seems true here.

Despite this, it is an amazing collection to examine.  I only had time to examine half of the pages, but still got a sense of its richness.  The labels (see images) vary, with some of them extremely elaborate and overwhelming the specimen.   There is one case where the flower is pressed, but it is surrounded by leaves that have been painted in watercolor.  There are also 40 watercolors in the collection.  I can’t wait to go back to NY and visit it again.


Donald, D., & Munro, J. (2009). Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Fairman, E. R. (Ed.). (2014). Of Green Leaf, Bird, and Flower: Artist’s Books and the Natural World. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Fleischer, A. (2017). Leaves on the loose: The changing nature of archiving plants and botanical knowledge. Journal of Early Modern Studies, 6(1), 117–135.

Laird, M., & Weisberg-Roberts, A. (2009). Mrs. Delany and Her Circle. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

On the Road, Learning about Herbaria: The ESN

Diagram of an Extended Specimen Network (ESN) from Extending U.S. Biodiversity Collections to Promote Research and Education

This post continues my report on the Digital Data Biodiversity Research Conference held at Yale University in June (see 1,2).  Digitizing the nation’s millions of natural history specimens is a massive undertaking.  iDigBio is the National Resource for Advancing Digitization of Biodiversity Collections (ADBC) funded by the National Science Foundation.  As the iDigBio website notes:  “Through ADBC, data and images for millions of biological specimens are being made available in electronic format for the research community, government agencies, students, educators, and the general public.”  Under this umbrella there have been a number of other projects including the TCNs or Thematic Collection Networks, through which particular types of collections were digitized with a focus on research questions that could be answered by the digitized data.  For example, there was one on insect herbivores, their parasitoids, and their host plants.

Another related project just being completed is the Biodiversity Collections Network (BCoN) “to support the development of a new, sustainable community of practice that will ensure that all U.S. biodiversity collections are digitally available for research, education, informed decision-making, and other scholarly and creative activities.”  This spring, BCoN released a report along with an informative summary.  The report develops the concept of yet another acronym, the ESN or Extended Specimen Network.  Now that information on a substantial number of natural history specimens has been digitized, the biodiversity science community is looking at ways to maximize use of this data, as well as opening it to new user communities.

The ESN is an exciting idea with specimens as the focus.  There are three layers of extensions out from the specimen (figure above).  First, the digital specimen record and an accompanying specimen image, or in some cases, a 3-D image file.  Second would be links to field notes and images, gene sequences, morphometrics, and isotope data.  The third includes phylogenies, species descriptions, ecological interactions, distribution maps, and protection status locations.  The report envisions that a user could enter the name of a species into a portal and from that one portal be able to access all these types of information for that species.  This would be a dream come true for biologists and might be a way to counteract the increasing specialization that has so changed the discipline over the past 200 years:  geneticists being able to easily call up information on the source species for a gene sequence and ecologists finding phylogenies for related species in an ecosystem.

Right now the ESN is more a concept than a reality.  Yes, at least some of the circles in this diagram are connected to each other for at least some species or for some geographic areas.  As I discussed in an earlier post, projects such as NEON and the Map of Life (MOL) are moving in the direction of integrating at least some of these pieces, but also as mentioned in that post, the problems of integration are massive.  It is as if iDigBio and other projects have amassed the building blocks for an intricate structure, most of which remains unbuilt, with even the plans in a rudimentary stage, and with developers trying to devise tools that will allow the building to continue.  Still, I find the ESN an exciting idea and can’t wait to see it evolve.  In the two years since the first Digital Data conference, projects such as MOL have made amazing strides, and so the next conference scheduled for Indiana University in 2020 will surely show significant progress on the ESN.

At the end of two days of presentations, there was a reception and poster session in the great hall of Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History.  This venue is noteworthy because of The Age of Reptiles, a massive mural depicting the history of dinosaurs on earth (Volpe, 2007).  It was created by Rudolph Zallinger in the 1940s and covers one long wall of the main gallery.  My poster stood under it and presented the argument that the ESN should be extended even further to include more historical material, and that biodiversity digitization projects should be linked to such large-scale digital humanities projects as the Darwin Correspondence Project and the website for the Dumbarton Oaks exhibit on the Botany of Empire in the Long Eighteenth Century.  In fact, JSTOR, the digital library database, and Dumbarton Oaks Research Library hosted a workshop in late 2017 in which they brought together historians of science, librarians, and technical experts to brainstorm and come up with ideas for future work in connecting biodiversity studies and the humanities.  There they developed ideas for linking different resources that are reminiscent of the ESN, including one where the focus would be on taxa.  Other possible points of entry could be through a geographic area, an expedition, and a collector or taxonomist.  There is an interesting video on the workshop that gives a good recap of its work.

My dream is that those involved in the ESN would meet with a group similar to the one convened at Dumbarton Oakes Library, and that they would explore where their various inquiries intersect.  A couple of years ago, E.O. Wilson (2017) published The Origins of Creativity, in which he argues that the sciences and humanities are much more intertwined than is usually assumed.  It would be a fitting tribute to the person who made the word biodiversity so central in present-day biology, to work toward interconnectivity between these two great accomplishments of the human species.


Volpe, R. (2007). The Age of Reptiles: The Art and Science of Rudolph Zallinger’s Great Dinosaur Mural at Yale. New Haven, CT: Peabody Museum of Natural History.

Wilson, E. O. (2017). The Origins of Creativity. New York, NY: Norton.

On the Road, Learning about Herbaria: Education and Citizen Science

BLUE Port: Biodiversity Literacy in Undergraduate Education

In the last post, I described sessions I attended at the Digital Data Biodiversity Research Conference at Yale University.  Besides presentations on portals that integrate various kinds of data and on projects to create and analyze 3-D images of specimens, there was an emphasis on education.  Now that so much specimen data and other biodiversity information is available digitally, one of the major goals of iDigBio, the National Resource for Advancing Digitization of Biodiversity Collections (ADBC) funded by the National Science Foundation, is to have this data used widely.  This requires education, both of the present research community and of its future members.  For several years, iDigBio has been holding workshops and conferences, like the one at Yale.  These have resulted in a major upswing in the number of studies and publications employing biodiversity data.  Now that many professionals are trained in how to access and analyze the available information, it’s time to leverage this knowledge.  The task is to help these experts teach the next generation.

As every teacher realizes, knowing something is very different from teaching about it.  The subject matter has to be analyzed and organized; ways into the basics have to be found; a learning structure has to be created.  For many years, I was involved with the BioQUEST Curriculum Consortium and attended a number of workshops dealing with using genomic data in teaching genetics and bioinformatics.  The portals for gene sequence data are extremely powerful, but they were built for researchers who committed a great deal of time to learning to use them effectively.  Teachers, and even more so students, do not have the time, the technical support, nor the expertise to make effective use of these portals.  That’s where BioQUEST and other initiatives came into play.  At the workshops I attended, we learned enough about the available resources to “tame” them, to download data and present it to students in a way they could understand and use.  We became part of an education community committed to bringing students into the genetic sequencing research space in a way that would make sense for them.

Now the same kinds of initiatives are being developed for biodiversity research using powerful tools like iDigBio, GBIF, NEON, and MOL discussed at the conference (see last post).  Anna Monfils of Central Michigan University is the principle investigator for an NSF-funded project called BLUE: Biodiversity Literacy in Undergraduate Education that includes participation from BioQUEST.  Monfils and members of her team led a lively session at the conference on the question of what biodiversity literacy means and how to achieve it.  As the conversation developed, it became clear that these are not easy issues to resolve.  However, the BLUE project is a great first step in defining what a biology student needs to have in terms of conceptual understanding and technical skill to tackle the vast ocean of biodiversity data now available to them.  What didn’t arise as strongly is an issue that is dear to my heart:  how do you make biodiversity data understandable and accessible to students who are not majoring in biology or environmental science?  One of iDigBio’s aims has been to broaden the community of biodiversity data users, and non-scientists make up a huge audience.  Taming data for them is very different than for those interested in science, but everyone encounters organisms in their lives every day, so why not make it easier to learn more about them?

One way into such learning is through an area that has burgeoned in the last few years and that had a larger presence at the conference than in the past:  citizen science.  The field has many different aspects from political advocacy to volunteer data entry.  Examples of the latter include the development of portals such as Notes from Nature, where many institutions with natural history collections post well-defined projects such as digitizing specimen data.  The Smithsonian has an online transcription center where notebooks, journals, and letters are posted.  All these sites have sophisticated digital architectures that allow data managers to have confidence in the input, such as by having the same data entered by more than one user and then compared.  Many of those involved have commented on how fast the projects are completed.  Sometimes thousands of individuals participate, with a number being very committed and doing a great deal of data input.  In cases like this, citizen science is another name for unpaid help or volunteering.  With an increasing number of retirees looking for something interesting to do, these projects are very attractive because there is no commute involved and fascinating things to learn.

Still another type of citizen science work is done by those who use portals such as iNaturalist to record field observations and phenological information.  These data ultimately are uploaded into GBIF, a global biodiversity portal, and the citizen science input has grown to the point where it is having a significant impact on biodiversity research.  Walter Jetz of Yale University and principle investigator for the Map of Life (MOL) project, commented on the importance of citizen science several times in his presentation.  Not surprisingly, this is particularly true in ornithological research where amateurs have always been especially welcomed by the scientific community.

On the Road, Learning about Herbaria: Digitization

iDigBio Portal

I recently went north, to Yale University, for the third annual Digital Data Biodiversity Research Conference, sponsored by iDigBio, the NSF-sponsored project to digitize natural history specimens.  I attended the first of these conferences two years ago at the University of Michigan (see earlier post).  Both were fascinating and informative, but also different from each other, in that the focus of attention in this field has moved beyond digitizing collections to using digitized collections.  This seems a healthy trend, but as Katherine LeVan of National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) mentioned, only 6% of insect collections have been even partially digitized, and Anna Monfils of Central Michigan University noted that iDigBio has information from 624 of 1600 natural history collections in the United States.  Admittedly, it’s mostly small collections that aren’t represented, but Monfils went on to show that smaller collections hold larger than expected numbers of local specimens, providing finer grained information on biodiversity.

Despite the caveat about coverage, the results of the NSF funding is impressive and is leading to an explosion in the use of this data.  It is difficult to keep up with the number of publications employing herbarium specimens as sources of information for studies on phenological changes, tracking invasive species, and monitoring herbivore damage.  While the earlier conference included sessions on using data for niche modeling, the meeting at Yale also had presentations on how to integrate such data with other kinds of information.  Integration was definitely a major theme, and two large-scale projects are front and center in this work.  Nico Franz of Arizona State University is principle investigator in NEON, a massive NSF-funded project that includes 22 observatories collecting ecological data, including specimens, and then using that data in studies on environmental change.  Franz noted that while other projects might collect data over short periods of time, NEON plans for the long-term and for building strong communities sharing and using that data.

Another large sale project, one headed by Yale professor Walter Jetz, is called Map of Life (MOL).  Here again, integration is central to this endeavor that invites researchers to upload their biodiversity data and also to take advantage of the wealth of data and tools available through its portal.  As the name implies, biogeography is an important focus, and users can search for distribution maps for species and create species lists for particular areas .  As with many digital projects, this one still has a long way to go in terms of living up to its name, which implies a much broader species representation than is now available.  In a session led by MOL developers, it became clear that the issue of how different kinds of data can be integrated is still extremely fraught.  Even databases for different groups of organisms, vertebrates versus invertebrates for example, are difficult to integrate because important data fields are not consistent:  what is essential in one field, might not be noteworthy at all in another or might be handled in a different way.  Progress is being made, but as Roderick Page of the University of Glasgow notes, even linking to scientific literature is hardly a trivial task, to say nothing of more sophisticated linking.

While this may seem discouraging, there were also many bright points in the presentations.  The massive Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) has, as I write, 1,330,535,865 occurrence records, that is, data on specimens and observations.  Last year, GBIF launched an impressive new website and often adds new features.  While the tools available through GBIF are not as sophisticated as with some other portals, it is still an incredible resource since iDigBio data is fed into GBIF as well as data from projects around the world.  For example, data from the University of South Carolina, Columbia A.C. Moore Herbarium where I volunteer, which was fed into SERNEC and iDigBio, is now also available in GBIF, so researchers worldwide can access data on this collection that is particularly rich in South Carolina plants.  This was not an easy undertaking—nothing in the digital world is—and it’s important to always keep that in mind as developers have flights of fancy about could be possible in the future.

Another conference highlight for me involved the use of sophisticated neural network software, such as that coming out of the Center for Brain Science at Harvard University.  James Hanken, Professor of Zoology and Director of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard, reported on a project to scan slides of embryological sections and then use the neural network software to create 3-D reconstructions of the embryos.  Caroline Strömberg of the University of Washington discussed a project to build a 3-D index of shapes for phytoliths, microfossils from grass leaves that can be more accurate for identifying species than pollen grains.  Her lab has studied 200 species and has quantified 3-D shapes, even printing them in 3-D to literally get a feel for them.  They used this information in a study of phytoliths from a dinosaur digestive track suggesting that grasses are older than previously thought.  Others have questioned these results, so Strömberg’s group is now refining the identification process, measuring more points on the phytolith surface.  Reporting on another paleontological study, Rose Aubery of the University of Illinois described image analysis done with Surangi W. Punyasena on plant fossil cuticle specimens to obtain taxonomic information about ancient ecosystems.  What all these presentations had in common was the use of massive computational power to analyze 3-D images.  At the first conference, reports of 3-D imaging were impressive, but now it is the analysis that has taken center stage.  This is a good sign:  all that data is proving valuable.

Darwin’s Botanists: Asa Gray

Holotype of Abutilon parvulum collected by Charles Wright for Asa Gray, Harvard University Herbaria.

This last post in the series (1,2,3) on Charles Darwin and the botanists who supported his work deals with an American, Asa Gray (1810-1888).  He received his medical degree at Yale University, but like Joseph Dalton Hooker (see last post), had little interest in practicing and a great desire to learn more about plants.  He taught at Utica College in central New York State for a short time, while collecting in the area and creating exsiccatae of grasses and sedges (Gray, 1834).  He was eventually drawn to work with John Torrey, a botanist who was teaching botany part time at Columbia College in New York City while also teaching chemistry at Princeton University.  Torrey was impressed with Gray’s herbarium and paid for him to collect in New York and New Jersey.  After this, Gray moved in with Torrey’s family and organized his herbarium.  This gave Gray an opportunity to see many more species than he had encountered up to this time.  He remained with the Torreys for two years until he was offered a position as professor of botany at the newly formed University of Michigan.

In preparing for this post, Gray traveled to Europe to purchase books and equipment, and also to consult much richer herbaria than those available in the US, even for American species.  Visiting Glasgow, Gray stayed with William Jackson Hooker for three weeks examining his North American plants, including many collected by Thomas Nuttall.  Gray discovered that most of the specimens were from northern areas of North America, with the south and west still relatively unexplored.  John Lindley of the Royal Horticultural Society let him take portions of the specimens said to have been collected by Thomas Walter in the Carolinas in the 1700s, something that would be unheard of today (Dupree, 1959, p. 80).  Having gathered a wealth of information, Gray returned home to find that the University of Michigan was still not ready to have him begin work.  When offered a similar position at Harvard University, with the additional responsibility for its botanical garden, he moved to Cambridge and remained there for the rest of his life. 

Gray continued to work with Torrey on the deluge of specimens coming in from US-sponsored expeditions and surveys, including the Wilkes Expedition’s 50,000 plant specimens.  This necessitated another trip to Europe to consult herbaria in Britain and France with their superior holdings of North American plants.  Torrey and Gray did much to eventually alleviate this problem by creating large collections at their home institutions of Columbia and Harvard, while the Wilkes specimens became the nucleus of the US Herbarium at the Smithsonian Institution.  Like Joseph Dalton Hooker (see last post), Torrey and Gray became “imperial” botanists, in that they attempted to retain control over collectors and discourage them from describing species themselves.  They claimed that those gathering specimens didn’t have the knowledge, reference collections, or literature to do the job. 

In 1843, US Navy Commodore Matthew C. Perry signed a treaty with Japan that began to open the country to trade.  While Perry had not wanted a natural history collector on the expedition, two Americans associated with the mission, one a friend of Gray’s, did make a small plant collection and sent it to Cambridge.  What struck Gray about these plants, as well as some other Japanese species he had encountered, was how similar they were to those of the northeast US.  When he had examined a broad enough selection, he arranged them in a table and found that of 580 Japanese species, fewer were in western North America than in Europe, and far more were in eastern North America than in either of the other areas.  Considering this odd result, he posited that the plants in these two areas had a common ancestry.  Due to fluctuating climates, which remained most similar in eastern North America and Japan, the species were better able to survive in these regions.  This was a significant piece of evidence for evolution and Charles Darwin was very pleased with it.

Gray and Darwin began their correspondence in 1855.  Darwin appreciated Gray’s acceptance of species change, though he was less pleased that Gray held that creation still had a role in life on earth.  Gray presented this view most fully in an article in the Atlantic Monthly in 1861, “Natural Selection Not Inconsistent with Natural Theology.”  While disagreeing with it, Darwin did see it as a way to lure more people into the evolutionary fold and arranged for it to be reprinted in Britain (Dupree, 1959, p. 155).  Like Hooker, Gray also provided Darwin with much botanical information for his post-Origin plant studies.  They both experimented in their gardens, and Gray could provide seeds and cuttings of American plants.  In his own work, Gray was stymied by the amount of administrative work he was required to do at Harvard without adequate assistance.  Until he retired, he was the only professor of botany, and the University had never created an infrastructure for botanical research.  Gray managed to set the stage for this at his retirement by donating his herbarium of 220,000 specimens and his library of over 2,200 books to the University and managing the hiring of a staff to at last create a department of botany.   


Dupree, A. H. (1959). Asa Gray: American Botanist, Friend of Darwin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gray, A. (1834). North American Gramineae and Cyperaceae (Vols. 1–2). New York, NY: Post.

Darwin’s Botanists: Joseph Dalton Hooker

Illustration of Rhododendron glaucum from Joseph Hooker’s The Rhododendrons of Sikkim-Himalaya, Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1911) was born into the botanical world.  His father was William Jackson Hooker (1785-1865), a botany professor at the University of Glasgow who then became director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.  Joseph eventually succeeded his father in that post, but his career had more bumps than this succession might suggest.  The Hookers did not have the wealth of the Darwins, so they needed salaried appointments in order to pursue their interest in science, something Charles Darwin never had to consider.  William could provide for his family, but as an adult, Joseph had to find his own means of support after graduating with a medical degree from the University of Glasgow.  Eight years younger than Darwin, Joseph Hooker took a similar route to gain experience in natural history by participating in the British Navy’s Ross Expedition to Antarctica, serving as assistant surgeon; both he and the surgeon were also charged with collecting natural history materials.  Setting out in 1839, they visited South Africa and several groups of islands on their way to and from Antarctica, as well as Australia, New Zealand, and Tierra del Fuego. 

By the time Hooker arrived back in Britain four years later, he had not only amassed a large herbarium but also made many drawings.  Like his father he was an accomplished botanical artist and created many of his own illustrations, especially for his early publications.  On his return to Britain, he began work on studying his collection and publishing descriptions of new species.  Hooker also analyzed some of Darwin’s specimens from the Beagle expedition.  Eventually Hooker described many of them and in the process became quite friendly with Darwin who was thrilled to have his plant collection studied after the long delay in John Henslow’s hands (see last post).  Their friendship flourished and continued until Darwin’s death.

In 1841 William Hooker became director of Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, but there was no paid position available to his son.  Joseph applied to be professor of botany at Edinburgh, but didn’t get the job, so he worked for the British Geological Survey and learned paleobotany.  In 1847, he went on another expedition, this time to the Himalayas as a plant collector financed by Kew.  He sketched many of the plants, especially the rhododendrons, and it is amazing how beautiful these sketches are considering the rough conditions under which he worked (see above).  When Joseph returned to Britain he went to work on his collections, and finally obtained a paid position at Kew as his father’s assistant in 1855.  Ten years later, when his father died, he became director and was paid to cede the elder Hooker’s herbarium to Kew where he could still have access to it. 

In the meantime, Darwin had been developing his ideas on evolution, having written up a 230 page “summary” in 1844.  He had copies made and gave them, in sealed envelopes, to his wife Emma and to Joseph Hooker so that in case of his death it could be published, though he wasn’t ready to do the deed himself.  At one point after this, Hooker bluntly suggested that while Darwin’s interests were definitely broad, extending from variation in domesticated animals to fossils to plant breeding, he really hadn’t delved deeply into any one group of organisms.  He needed to study some segment of the living world so closely that he would get a sense of the issues involved in distinguishing one species from another.  This was the start of Darwin’s eight-year odyssey studying barnacles that resulted in a two-volume publication on them.  Janet Browne (1995) sees this as Hooker’s most significant contribution to Darwin’s thinking. 

Hooker was also very involved in dealing with the crisis that overwhelmed Darwin when he received a letter from Alfred Russel Wallace in 1858 outlining a theory of natural selection very similar to Darwin’s own.  Hooker and the geologist Charles Lyell calmed Darwin down and devised a plan in which they presented Wallace’s paper, along with a short summary of Darwin’s work, at a meeting of the Linnean Society of London (Browne, 2002).  This was another major event in Hooker’s relationship with Darwin and led to Darwin’s writing On the Origin of Species (1859) within a year.  Though they didn’t always agree on all the finer points of the theory, Hooker remained an important support to Darwin especially because in the years after publication of The Origin, Darwin wrote a number of major works on plants.  Hooker supplied not only advice and taxonomic assistance, but also sent Darwin orchids and other plants from Kew. 

Hooker had an illustrious career in his own right as described in Ray Desmond’s biography (1999).  In Imperial Botany, John Endersby (2008) takes a different tack toward Hooker’s profession and analyzes how he used his position at Kew to command an army of collectors around the world to add to the already outstanding herbarium his father had amassed.  Endersby argues that Hooker was intent on remaining in control of plant taxonomy, particularly of naming new species.  He sternly directed collectors to send the material to Kew rather than attempt to describe species themselves.  Such tight reins were difficult to maintain as collectors became more knowledgeable about the plants where they lived and collected, for example, in Australia and India.  Hooker’s argument was that they lacked the broad collection he had available and so tended to see something as a new species, when it was only a variant (Boulter, 2009).  In other words, colonial botanists were splitters and imperial botanists like Hooker were lumpers.  During his career, Hooker published an impressive array of books including Genera Plantarumwith George Bentham, The Rhododendrons of Sikkim-Himalaya, and Flora of British India, as well as works on plants he collected in Tasmania, New Zealand, and Antarctica. 


Boulter, M. (2009). Darwin’s Garden: Down House and the Origin of Species. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint.

Browne, J. (1995). Charles Darwin: Voyaging. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Browne, J. (2002). Charles Darwin: The power of place. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Desmond, R. (1999). Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker: Traveller and Plant Collector. Kew, UK: Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Endersby, J. (2008). Imperial Nature: Joseph Hooker and the Practices of Victorian Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Darwin’s Botanists: John Stevens Henslow

Specimens of Phleum arenarium in the John Henslow Herbarium, Cambridge University.

John Stevens Henslow is perhaps best known today as Charles Darwin’s botany teacher at Cambridge University and as the person who presented Darwin with an invitation to join the Beagle surveying expedition headed by Captain Robert FitzRoy.  However, this leaves out the herbarium part of the story, obviously the good part.  It’s not surprising that Henslow had an herbarium, but the way he handled his specimens was a little different.  In an article called “What Henslow Taught Darwin,” a team of researchers found that two-thirds of Henslow’s sheets at the Cambridge University Herbarium are what he termed “collated,” that is, having more than one specimen (Kohn et al., 2005).  This doesn’t seem noteworthy, especially for small plants, but their placement is interesting.  They were sometimes arranged in order of increasing height (see above), or with the largest specimen in the middle and specimens in descending height order on either side.  In many cases, specimens on a sheet included ones with different collectors, dates, and locations. 

Many of the specimens were collected around the time Henslow was teaching Darwin and also working on variation within plant species.  He grew Primulas, varying the amount of moisture, manure, and shade, noting that they differed in ways often seen in the field.  Earlier, he had made drawings of the different lengths of styles and stamens in cowslips, Primula veris, something Darwin later investigated.  Kohn and his coauthors argue that the specimens and observations on variation that Henslow presented in his lectures became part of Darwin’s “mental architecture,” so much a part of his thinking that he might not have even realized the debt he owed to Henslow.  This wasn’t just from the three cycles of Henslow lectures that Darwin attended.  Janet Browne (1995) notes that they became closest during Darwin’s last months at Cambridge when they often went on walks and collecting trips, and dined together at Henslow’s house.  It was then that Henslow arranged for his student to accompany Adam Sedgewick, Cambridge’s professor of geology, on a field trip to Wales.  This cemented Darwin’s interest in geology, which was important to his observations on the Beagle.  It was also when Darwin’s oldest known herbarium specimens were collected, three Matthiola sinuata, that were collated by Henslow on a single sheet along with another example collected by a Miss Blake.    

Darwin had an opportunity to collect many plants on the Beagle expedition, hundreds of them, which he sent to Henslow along with animal skins, fossils, etc.  After shipping the first package, he had to wait two years for a letter from Henslow to catch up with him.  In the meantime, he worried that no correspondence meant that Henslow wasn’t pleased with what he sent.  He was relieved to finally read that Henslow was grateful for the materials.  However, his mentor did comment that Darwin shouldn’t send scraps, that the entire plant should be included when possible—leaves, roots, stem, flowers—and that one of the leaves should be turned back to reveal the underside.  Also, it wasn’t necessary to sew down the specimens; they traveled better when left loose (Allan, 1977). 

Soon after his return to England, Darwin delivered the last batch of specimens in person, and Henslow agreed to begin work on identifying them.  However, this turned out to be a slow process, in part because the assignment coincided with Henslow’s move from Cambridge to become vicar at a church in Hitcham, almost 50 miles away.  He remained a Cambridge professor, but usually only visited there to give his lectures.  Another problem was that so many of the plants were unfamiliar to Henslow.  Darwin kept prodding him for several years, until eventually Henslow turned the specimens over to the young botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker, who had himself just returned from a round-the-world expedition with the British Navy.  Hooker found that many of the plants that Darwin collected on the Galapagos Islands were endemic to the islands, and in many cases, occurred on only one Island, information that Darwin was relieved to hear since it fit with his observations on birds and other animals.

Henslow might not have had time for Darwin’s plants, but he made a number of other contributions to botany (Walters & Stowe, 2001).  He revitalized the botany program at Cambridge University.  It had become rather dormant under the nearly 60-year reign of Thomas Martyn, who spent much of his time as a London physician.  He overhauled the herbarium, which had become disorganized.  Henslow made it known that he was building the collection, particularly with plants from Cambridgeshire and Great Britain, and received notable donations.  He pressed for a new, larger botanic garden at the university to replace the one that had fallen into disrepair and then oversaw this project.  Henslow’s lectures were well-received, and they were accompanied with specimens and with charts he drew.  He wrote and illustrated a text to go with his course, and later, with help from his daughter and the noted artist and engraver Fitch, published a series of large botanical charts for sale to schools (Burk, 2005).  Henslow wrote papers on plant variation and on zoological aspects of natural history, most before his move away from Cambridge.  In all, he produced significant contributions to botanical science besides serving as Darwin’s mentor and travel arranger. 


Allan, M. (1977). Darwin and His Flowers: The Key to Natural Selection. New York, NY: Taplinger.

Browne, J. (1995). Charles Darwin: Voyaging. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Burk, W. (2005). Henslow’s wall charts: A legacy of botanical instruction. Bulletin of the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, 17(1), 4–6.

Kohn, D., Murrell, G., Parker, J., & Whitehorn, M. (2005). What Henslow taught Darwin. Nature, 436, 643–645.

Walters, S. M., & Stow, E. A. (2001). Darwin’s Mentor: John Stevens Henslow, 1796-1861. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Darwin’s Botanists: In the Family

Frontispiece for Eramus Darwin’s The Botanic Garden, Biodiversity Heritage Library

In this series of post’s I’ll be discussing key botanists who influenced Charles Darwin’s work:  John Stevens Henslow, Joseph Dalton Hooker, and Asa Gray.  But first I’ll look at those closer to home who were important to Darwin’s development as a naturalist.  The most obvious is his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, a physician with broad interests including botany.  He worked with two others in his town of Litchfield to translate some of Linnaeus’s work, and after that wrote a volume of poetry, The Love of Plants, as an introduction to the Linnaean classification system.  It was well-received and was followed by The Economy of Vegetation; the two were then published together as The Botanic Garden.  There are hints of evolutionary thinking in them, but are more overt in Zoonomia, a two-volume medical work with a chapter on generation that presents a somewhat Lamarckian view of species change.  Erasmus died before Charles Darwin was born, so most of his grandfather’s influence on him was through his writings.  By the time Charles was studying at Cambridge, he was aware of Erasmus’s ideas as well as those of Lamarck.

Darwin’s father Robert was also a physician interested in botany, though not a writer.  However, he took pleasure in gardening with his children.  This is probably how Charles was first introduced to nature, and he early had a fascination with plants and animals, with closely observing nature as every good gardener must.  Since it’s impossible to garden without encountering insects, it was probably in working with his father that Charles developed his interest in insects and became a collector.  Robert also kept a notebook where he recorded phenological events such as first flowerings, something that his son and grandsons also did.  At one point Robert set the young Charles the task of counting the number of peony blooms each year.  What I find interesting about this is that the number varied from 160 to 363, an impressive display.

Robert Darwin hoped that Charles would follow in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps, not only in gardening but in becoming a physician as Robert’s older son, Erasmus, did.  But after spending two years at the University of Edinburgh studying medicine, Charles had to break it to his father that he was not cut out to be a physician (Browne, 1995).  It was a tremendous relief to be free of that burden, and Robert sent his son off to Cambridge to become a clergyman, a profession that was at the time full of naturalists.  At Cambridge Darwin met the cleric/professor of botany, John Stevens Henslow, but that is the story of the next post.

While at the university, Darwin became friendly with a cousin, William Darwin Fox, who was also interested in natural history, particularly entomology.  It was Fox who introduced Darwin to the wonders of beetles.  This was a time when divisions between biological disciplines was permeable so in hunting for beetles it was impossible not to take an interest in birds, plants, and even aquatic life that filled the wetlands around Cambridge.  After acquiring a microscope from a friend, Darwin became fascinated by the world of aquatic invertebrates and studied their reproductive cycles.  There seemed to be no aspect of natural history that didn’t engage him.  At the end of his time at Cambridge, he went on a geological fieldtrip to Wales with Adam Sedgewick, professor of geology, and there he made what is considered his oldest existing herbarium sheet. 

After Cambridge came Darwin’s five years of travel on the Beagle which involved collecting specimens that he sent back to Henslow.  In fact, Henslow served as receiver for all eight shipments of plants, animals, fossils, and rocks that Darwin had amassed.  I’m skipping forward very rapidly, but much of this story is familiar to many of you, and for those who want more detail, Janet Browne’s two-volume biography is a joy to read (1995, 2002).  As he was creating the first draft of his theory of species change in 1838, Darwin decided to marry Emma Wedgewood.  They had 10 children, seven of whom lived to adulthood, and all were assistants in his work to a greater or lesser extent.  They pitched in with the endless experiments Darwin devised at Down House, their home in the country outside London.  As they got older, they took on more responsibility.  His daughter Henrietta was his editor and proofreader, and his sons George and William made many of the drawings for his botanical works.  Darwin even engaged George Sowerby, a member of a distinguished family of natural history artists, to teach engraving to George Darwin, whose daughter became the famous printmaker Gwen Raverat.  She also wrote a great book on growing up a Darwin in Cambridge (1952).

Francis Darwin was the son who was most involved in Darwin’s later scientific work, particularly in investigating plant movements and phototropism.  Francis’s first wife died in childbirth.  To ease his grief, his parents urged him to move back to Down House with his infant son.  This is when his collaboration with his father became particularly close, and they co-authored The Power of Movement in Plants, published in 1880, two years before Charles’s death.  Francis also edited collections of his father’s letters.  So even without going outside his family, Darwin received a great deal of inspiration and assistance from those related to him, across the generations.  In the following posts, I’ll discuss some of those outside the family who were also important to his botanical work.


Browne, J. (1995). Charles Darwin: Voyaging. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Browne, J. (2002). Charles Darwin: The power of place. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Raverat, G. (1952). Period Piece: A Cambridge Childhood. London: Faber & Faber.