Andrea Cesalpino and Luca Ghini

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Title page of Andrea Cesalpino’s De plantis libri XVI, Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Andrea Cesalpino (1524-1603) is, I think, my favorite among Luca Ghini’s successors in botany because he most exemplifies the careful attention to detail and to observation that were hallmarks of his teacher’s work.  He also had a philosophical side that manifested itself in his great publication De plantis libri XVI or The Plant in Fourteen Books (1583).  Cesalpino had already achieved a great deal before publishing this work.  He was one of Ghini’s students at Pisa, earning his degree in medicine.  When Ghini left Pisa in 1555, Cesalpino took his place as professor of botany and director of the botanical garden there; he also adopted his mentor’s device for documenting plants for teaching and research:  the herbarium.  He created at least two, one with over seven hundred specimens which he dedicated to Bishop Alfonso Tornabuoni and which survives in the herbarium of the University of Florence.  This gives a hint that herbaria were beginning to be used for a variety of purposes.  While Ghini saw teaching and documenting species information as foremost, Cesalpino also saw the form as a way to thank and honor a patron.

From his correspondence and publications, which were extensive, we know that Cesalpino went on plant collecting field trips, created lists of the species growing in the Pisa botanical garden, and taught both materia medica and then general medicine.  He remained at Pisa until 1592 when he became professor of medicine at the University of Rome and physician to Pope Clement VIII.  This move relatively late in life was provoked by the promotion of another professor, the famous physician Girolamo Merculiale, over him at Pisa.  Cesalpino remained in Rome until his death in 1605.  While I’m interested here in his botanical research, he studied many areas of medicine including geology and the use of minerals as materia medica, as well as the circulation of blood through the heart, making the most progress in this area before William Harvey.

In all his work, but perhaps especially in botany, Cesalpino took a more theoretical view of natural history than was common at the time.  He didn’t want to just collect information and organize it, he sought out fundamental ideas behind the details.  He was Aristotelian in his approach and like Aristotle’s student Theophrastus, he attempted to formulate a system of plant classification.  However, Cesalpino didn’t publish it until after he had spent many years studying plants in the field, the botanical garden, the herbarium, and the literature.  Despite being a physician, he did not, like Dioscorides—then still the leading source of information about materia medica—focus on the medicinal properties of plants.  Instead, Cesalpino sought basic traits on which to base his taxonomy.

Theophrastus began his system by dividing plants into four categories: trees, bushes, shrubs, and herbs, noting that the division among them is not hard and fast—a deep classificatory problem that plagues systematists to this day:  living things refuse to fit into neat categories.  Cesalpino used a different, but related, four-part scheme.  He put trees and shrubs together; had a second category for seeds without coverings, namely gymnosperms; then came non-woody plants with covered seeds: the herbs and finally plants without discernable seeds.  In a letter, he described how he would shuffle through his herbarium sheets, putting them into piles based on similar traits.  This suggests that when he was working with specimens, they were not bound in volumes, but more conveniently loose for just such rearranging.

This and other interesting pieces of information are in Cristina Bellorini’s (2016) book on medicine and botany in Renaissance Tuscany, where she describes the results of Cesalpino’s studies that appeared in De plantis.  Bellorini considers Cesalpino’s system as natural in that it’s based on similarities that link plants having more than arbitrary likenesses.  Within his four basic categories, he groups species according to what he saw as their most fundamental functions:  nutrition and reproduction.  For nutrition, he looked at roots and divided them into those that became woody and those that didn’t.  For reproduction, he examined flowers, fruits, and seeds.  Cesalpino was not alone in focusing on such structures as key to understanding plant relationships.  In an earlier post, I’ve written about Conrad Gessner’s notebooks that are filled with images and notes that often highlight just such plant parts, which Florike Egmond (2016) sees as evidence that Gessner was thinking of these traits in terms of classification.

It’s important to note that Cesalpino’s book has no illustrations.  He wrote that he didn’t think they were necessary because he was less interested in differentiating among species that in illustrating ways in which they were alike.  Lack of illustrations is probably one reason why he is less known today than some of Ghini’s other associates such as Pietro Andrea Mattioli, whom I’ll discuss in the next post.  In many cases images in publications made them more popular and therefore more likely to be republished.  In the present day, early botanical works are often valued for their illustrations rather than for their texts, which is definitely the case with Mattioli.

In his history of botany, A.G. Morton (1981) regards Cesalpino’s contributions to the development of plant classification very highly.  He presents Cesalpino’s work in detail relative to how he treats many other botanists’ thought.  Morton sees Cesalpino as one of the few botanists before the 17th century to deal with fundamental questions about how to organize plant knowledge.  Obviously this issue became more urgent as more and more species became known, but even in the 16th century, plants from the Americas and Asia were being grown in Pisa.  For example, Cesalpino discusses the tomato, sunflower, and agave.  He seemed to understand the way botany was heading and felt it necessary to think deeply about plant organization.  He followed in the tradition of his teacher, Luca Ghini, in amassing specimens and information, and then subjecting it all to careful analysis.


Bellorini, C. (2016). The World of Plants in Renaissance Tuscany. Surrey, UK: Ashgate.

Egmond, F. (2016). Eye for Detail: Images of Plants and Animals in Art and Science, 1500-1630. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Morton, A. G. (1981). History of Botanical Science. New York, NY: Academic Press.


Ulisse Aldrovandi and Luca Ghini

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Website for the Herbarium of Ulisse Aldrovandi

In the last post, I discussed the life of Luca Ghini, the Italian botanist who created the first herbarium, but is little remembered because he published none of his botanical work.  However, several of his students had distinguished careers and carried on his tradition of careful observation combined with documentation in notes, illustrations, and specimens.  The one considered his heir in terms of depth of botanical knowledge is Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605), yet he never officially studied with Ghini.  Aldrovandi received his medical degree from the University of Bologna while Ghini was teaching at the University of Pisa.  However, Ghini often returned to his native Bologna where he had taught earlier, and they probably met during one of these visits.  Paula Findlen (2017) speculates that they might have been introduced sometime around 1553 by one of Ghini’s former students, Francesco Petrollini, who taught Aldrovandi and who, like Ghini, kept an herbarium.  Aldrovandi soon took up the practice, and even improved upon it, describing a paste he used to hold down the specimens on paper and help preserve their color.

After they met, Aldrovandi spent time in Pisa learning from Ghini.  Together they collected on field trips into the mountains and also investigated the plants in the Pisa botanical garden.  The younger man published a catalogue of the 620 species growing there.  Ghini shared teaching and research materials, including his class notes, which were helpful to Aldrovandi when he became professor of natural sciences at the University of Bologna.  Ghini left Pisa and returned to Bologna in 1555; by this time, he was a sick man.  Aldrovandi worked with Ghini, attempting to get his mentor’s papers in order, and thus was seen by other botanists as the person to contact about Ghini’s medical condition as well as about botanical matters.  Aldrovandi went on to live for another 50 years and had a rich career involved in a number of fields, including botany.

Ghini and Aldrovandi had much in common as botanist-physicians.  They were intent on learning about plants not only to use in treatment but as objects of curiosity—a trend that became more common as the 16th century went on (Ogilve, 2006).  They also differed from each other in many ways. They were both born in Bologna and studied there, but Ghini eventually left, while Aldrovandi spent most of his life there.  They both came from families that weren’t wealthy, however, the Aldrovandis were noblemen and their fortunes improved when a member of his mother’s family became pope in 1570.  By the time Aldrovandi died, he had amassed a reasonable fortune and a large natural history collection, which included everything from plants and minerals to insects and a variety of other animals.  He had over 14,500 specimens and 2,000 drawings of plants by 1570 (Findlen, 1994).  Like Ghini, he saw both text and image as necessary for communicating about the form of organisms; neither alone would suffice.  Aldrovandi had a large library of 4000 volumes including many of his bound collections of letters and notes.  He had an impressive network of correspondents, many times larger than Ghini’s 227.  This indicates that the perception of science as a solitary profession has never been the case:  the making of scientific knowledge has always been communal.  Even in the early modern period, no one person could know it all, though people like Aldrovandi definitely made an attempt at it.

Aldrovandi used his specimens, illustrations, and library as the basis for the many books he published, most on zoological topics.  Like Ghini, he was interested in other areas of natural history besides botany.  While I am focusing on plants here, most of Aldrovandi’s published works deal with animals, including books on birds, one on snakes, and a volume on monstrous animals.  The last is hardly surprising: curiosities and oddities remained an interest from the Middle Ages, and new and strange species were being discovered around the world.  However, Aldrovandi’s writings were based primarily on first hand observation, as was the case for his botanical work, a legacy of his time with Ghini.  He used an organizing system that was becoming common: making notes on slips of paper and pasting them into notebooks along with other relevant information, sometimes including images.  Aldrovandi did write a book on trees, Dendrologiae naturalis, which was illustrated but like most of his writings it wasn’t published until decades after his death.  That he left publication to those who followed him is probably one reason that so little about plants went into print:  books about animals seemed more fascinating, a problem that persists to this day.

Besides the fact that his work was published and Ghini’s wasn’t, another reason Aldrovandi is remembered is that his collection didn’t quickly disappear as Ghini’s did.  Aldrovandi insured its survival by willing it to the Senate of Bologna, and it was conserved in the city palace.  But in the 19th century the collection was distributed among several libraries and other institutions, leading to loss of a great deal of the material.  Some of what is left is now on display in Bologna’s Palazzo Poggi, but it is a poor remnant of its former richness.  The legacy of another of Ghini’s protégés, Andrea Cesalpino, will be the subject of the next post.


Findlen, P. (1994). Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Findlen, P. (2017). The death of a naturalist: Knowledge and community in late Renaissance Italy. In G. Manning & C. Klestinec (Eds.), Professors, Physicians and Practices in the History of Medicine (pp. 127–167). New York, NY: Springer.

Ogilve, B. W. (2006). The Science of Describing: Natural History in Renaissance Europe. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

At the Beginning: Luca Ghini

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Portrait of Luca Ghini. Wikipedia.

I recently read an article by Paula Findlen (2017) on Luca Ghini (1490-1556), the Italian botanist credited with creating the first herbarium.  Her piece was a revelation to me.  It presented Ghini as a multifaceted individual who did so much more than press plants, and it put the herbarium into context within Ghini’s approach to the study of plants.  Findlen argues that Ghini is not better known today because he published nothing during his life, however, he was extremely influential among his students and fellow botanists throughout Europe.  In this post, I’ll discuss why he was so important in botanical circles.  In the following ones in this series, I’ll profile three significant Italian botanists of the next generation who were influenced by Ghini.

Practicing medicine throughout his career, Luca Ghini was educated as a physician at the University of Bologna.  He soon began to teach practical medicine at Bologna and started to collect plant specimens around this time.  He then lobbied to teach medical botany, doing so for the first time in 1534.  He eventually became professor of materia medica and kept this position until he moved to the University of Pisa in 1544.  There he founded the first botanical garden connected to a university, taught medical botany, and served as personal physician to Cosimo I de’ Medici.  He remained in Pisa until 1555 when he returned to Bologna where he died the following year.

Findlen begins her paper with the reaction of Ghini’s students and colleagues to his passing.  They were horrified at being without their mentor, without the person to whom they brought their botanical questions knowing he would give them solid and thoughtful answers.  How had Ghini developed such a reputation?  Findlen credits careful observation as central to his method.  His professor at Bologna, Niccolò Leoniceno, taught that it was important to correlate words with things, that observation mattered in medicine.  To make observation matter, it had to be recorded, so careful note taking was essential as was physical documentation.  That’s where botanical gardens and herbaria, both of which Ghini pioneered, came into the picture.  Ghini moved to Pisa in part because Medici was willing to finance a garden to be used in teaching.  After a lecture, Ghini would spend an hour or two walking among the plants with his students, pointing out species, structures, and medicinal traits relevant to the day’s lesson.  But when winter came and the garden was rather useless for demonstrations, Ghini could fall back on his hortus siccus, his dried garden, in the form of pressed specimens.  Since this winter garden was rather colorless and flat, Ghini also had illustrations made to preserve plant form and color.

Several students took up Ghini’s practices, and while none of his illustrations or specimens survive, some of theirs do.   Gherardo Cibo’s (1512-1600) herbarium, which was begun in 1532, is the oldest one surviving and is held at the Pontifical University Library in Rome.  Cibo also painted beautiful illustrations that are in the British Library.  They are unique in that unlike most plant images, his are painted against landscape backgrounds where the plants loom very large.  Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605), who was considered by most of his peers as the person to go to for botanical information after Ghini’s death, amassed a large herbarium and a library of 8000 natural history illustrations, some of which are still extant in Bologna (Bellorini, 2016)  The specimens of another Ghini pupil, Andrea Cesalpino (1519-1603), are in Florence.  (Aldrovandi and Cesapino will be the subjects of the following posts).

As did many of botanists of his time, Ghini considered travel and communication as crucial to the development of knowledge (Ogilve, 2006).  He took field trips during the summers, going into the mountains between Pisa and Bologna, often in the company of his students or fellow botanists, many of whom travelled to consult him.  Valerius Cordus visited from Leiden, William Turner from England, and Guillaume Rondelet from Montpelier.  Leonhart Fuchs, the author of one of the first modern herbals (1542) traded specimens, illustrations, and notes.  To facilitate the exchange of seed with other botanists, Ghini created the first seed index and circulated this list so botanists would know what they could request from the botanical garden in Pisa.  Ghini maintained correspondence with a large number of botanists including many of his former students such Bartolomeo Maranta in Naples, who dedicated his book on medicinal plants to Ghini from whom he had learned research methods.  Ghini was very generous with his knowledge and his resources, which was one reason it was difficult to organize his materials after his death—many of them were out on loan.

Around 1551, Ghini made a conscious decision not to publish any work, although he had amassed notes and illustrations for a projected natural history.  It was the herbals of Otto Brunfels (1530) and Leonhart Fuchs (1542) that convinced him of the importance of illustrations, but they were expensive to produce, and he wasn’t in a position to take the financial risk involved.  Instead, Ghini shared his writings and observations with others, so his work did in part become published in the writings of several botanists, including Ulisse Aldrovandi, Andrea Cesalpino, and most importantly, Pietro Andrea Mattioli (1501-1578).  These botanists will be presented in the next three posts.

Note:  I want to thank Paula Findlen for generously sharing the reference to her Luca Ghini article with me.


Bellorini, C. (2016). The World of Plants in Renaissance Tuscany. Surrey, UK: Ashgate.

Findlen, P. (2017). The death of a naturalist: Knowledge and community in late Renaissance Italy. In G. Manning & C. Klestinec (Eds.), Professors, Physicians and Practices in the History of Medicine (pp. 127–167). New York, NY: Springer.

Ogilve, B. W. (2006). The Science of Describing: Natural History in Renaissance Europe. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Collections: Material Culture and Stories

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Aplopappus spinulosus specimen in the Steere Herbarium, New York Botanical Garden

At last fall’s History of Science Society meeting (see earlier post), Sally Kohlstedt of the University of Minnesota discussed a Maori amulet called a hei-tiki that had been acquired during the US Exploring Expedition’s visit to New Zealand in 1840.  She analyzed how this artifact, which was sacred to the Maori people, was displayed in a number of contexts over the years in the United States, where it became part of the Smithsonian Institution’s collection.  Kohlstedt began with a 1906 quote by Otis Mason, ethnology curator at the Smithsonian:  “An ideal specimen is an object that has something to teach about humanity. . . . In the untaught mind it is a curiosity or monstrosity, and the more mystery there is about it, the better.  But all such notions are far from the sciences of Anthropology.  A good specimen is capable of telling more than one story.  It may talk about race, development, geography, progress, skill, art, social life, or whisper of a spirit world.”  This statement stuck with me, because I think that in large part, it holds as true for many herbarium specimens as for human-made artifacts.

In a related article on the hei-tiki, Kohlstedt (2016) notes that the distinction between artifacts and specimens only became common in the 20th century.  This is important to my argument here that herbarium specimens are objects that can be described through the lens of material culture, which deals with objects that people use to define their culture.  In other words, specimens can be considered as cultural products, much as pottery or hei-tikis or tools can.  After all, a herbarium specimen is a plant that has been selected by a human being, cut to fit on a sheet of paper, attached there often using an artistic sense, and then labeled.  The specimen is thus much more than a plant, it is a written document about the plant, and both are essential to the meaning of this artifact.  The place and time of collection as well as the collector’s name are part of the specimen’s story.  All specimens tell stories, not only through the text attached to them, but also through, for example, such aspects as the paper used in labeling and mounting.  Labels made from reused scraps suggest that paper was a precious commodity that couldn’t be wasted.   A specimen’s meaning can alter, as later determinations change the plant’s name, or the sheet is moved from one collection to another through trade, purchase, or gift.  Thus specimens can become more meaningful with time.  They can come to be used in new ways, as evidence in biodiversity studies or as sources of DNA for genomic work.  Recently, meanings have grown beyond science since herbaria have encouraged artists to use their collections as sources of inspiration for paintings, sculptures, and installations (Drinkwater, 2017).  Also, there are projects involving historians of science working with plant collections and the documentation related to them (Ayres, 2015).

Susan Pearce, a professor of museum studies at the University of Leicester, writes that objects can have a “chameleon-like quality, the ability to take on different cultural colors while retaining the same body.” (Pearce, 1995, p. 127).  A goldenrod specimen, Solidago edisoniana, documents a plant growing in a specific place, but it takes on an entirely different meaning, as a historical rather than a botanical document, when a letter from Thomas Alva Edison is discovered in the same herbarium file.  This led Lisa Vargues, a curatorial assistant at the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) to investigate Edison’s interest in rubber cultivation and his work with the herbarium’s head curator at the time, John Kunkel Small on several species of goldenrod that had potential as rubber producers.  This is a great example of what could be called the “biography” of a specimen, it’s life history that can continue to unfold into the future.

Also at the NYBG Steere Herbarium is a sheet with two specimens of Aplopappus spinulosus, one collected by a newspaper writer on General Custer’s 1874 expedition to the Black Hills of South Dakota, two years before his last stand.  The other was obtained in 1880 in California by John Lemmon, a prolific collector who married botanist Sara Plummer Lemmon, a wedding mentioned in the journal edited by John Merle Coulter, the individual responsible for this sheet.  He was at Hobart College when he received the first specimen, and at Wabash College when the second arrived.  However, these specimens are at NYBG because Wabash donated it in the 1980s when it was making room for what it saw as more important space needs.

The layers of meaning attached to this sheet are likely to grow in the future since it has been imaged and is now available on the web.  The internet makes for an entirely new set of meanings, including the juxtapositioning of specimens that would never have been seen together.  In other words, material culture now has an immaterial aspect that changes the character of our interactions with objects.  The physicality is gone, and that is a loss.  There is no substitute for physical examination of any object, but there are attendant pluses to virtual access as well.  Constant handling of the Edison letter would hardly do it any good, but many people can enjoying reading his words at the same time that they are looking at the plant specimen in question.  Collecting can be an obsession, as Hans Sloane and John Jenks with whom I began this series of posts, well knew.  Today, it is much easier for us all to share these obsessions and learn from the objects in question.


Ayres, E. (2015). Richard Spruce and the Trials of Victorian Bryology. Retrieved January 25, 2018, from

Drinkwater, R. (2017). A collaboration between RBGE and Edinburgh College of Art. Retrieved January 25, 2018, from

Kohlstedt, S. C. (2016). Museum perceptions and productions: American migrations of a Maori hei-tiki. Endeavor, 40(1), 7–23.

Mason, O. T. (1906). Annual Report for Ethnology (No. RU158). Smithsonian Institution.

Pearce, S. (1999). On Collecting: An Investigation into Collecting in the European Tradition. Routledge.

Curating Collections

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Herbarium of the National Botanic Gardens of Ireland, Glasnevin

The word “curate” seems to have become very popular.  It once referred almost exclusively to what the people did who worked with collections in museums, but now everything is being curated, from websites to wardrobes.  It seems to have become a synonym for the verb “select:”  to put some thought into what is chosen.  However, in its original meaning it connotes more than just picking what should belong in a collection; it involves the care, study, and organization of the items.  Naturally, I’m thinking primarily about herbaria and other natural history material, but this meaning holds for all kinds of collections from art to anthropological, from libraries to historical materials.  Without curation, collections deteriorate and lose value because their attendant knowledge is not used and nurtured.

In my last two posts (1, 2), I’ve referred to Steven Lubar’s (2017) book, Inside the Lost Museum, in which he discusses why the Jenks Museum of Natural History at Brown University has not survived, why its collections have been lost.  This is hardly a unique situation.  Many herbarium specimens have been tossed into dumpsters to free up space for what are considered more pressing needs in museums, botanical gardens, and universities.  In many cases, however, they have been saved by being incorporated into other collections that continue to be curated.  Still, there is a problem:  while the specimens may get moved and properly filed, it is unlikely that curatorial staff moved with them.  Those working at the host institution must just take on the added burden of more materials to curate.

But what is all that curation about?  Answers come not only from books on managing herbarium collections (Bridson & Forman, 1998; Metsger & Byers, 1999), but also from curators of other types of collections, such as Lubar, Hans Ulrich Obrist (2014), and Nicholas Thomas (2016), who makes the point that “an object may be stored, but an object cannot be said to be cared for if curators don’t know they have it, if it can’t be located or is miscatalogued” (p. 65).  This comment would strike home for most herbarium curators because they have inherited specimens that don’t have accession numbers, are filed under outdated names, or are still in the cardboard boxes in which they arrived, perhaps decades ago.  While an art museum may have to deal with thousands of works, most herbaria must cope with tens of thousands of specimens, some of which were not treasured as art works often are.  By that I mean that they need to be remounted on acid-free paper, studied by a taxonomist to update nomenclature, georeferenced, entered into a database, and be imaged.  This is the work that curators have to manage, and it requires a great deal of time and expertise, both of which are expensive.  So curation is a nice term to bandy about, but it’s something that must be taken seriously if collections are to be useful and bear fruit in the future.

While I have been emphasizing difficult issues facing curators, there are also wonderful things about the job as well.  Both Thomas and Obrist emphasize the importance of curiosity to curators.  Obrist quotes Paul Chan’s observation that “curiosity is the pleasure principle of thought” (p. 42).  Thomas writes that a curator’s activities are often driven by curiosity to encounter something new about an item and discover novel ways to juxtapose the pieces in a collection.  He admits that some part of a collection may be better cared for more than others because that’s the curator’s area of interest, an admission that any one person’s breadth is limited.

A number of writers on the history of museums discuss the importance of catalogues as curatorial means not only of documenting and organizing a collection but also communicating that information to those who can’t examine the items firsthand.  Hans Sloane (see earlier post) not only labeled his own specimens, but created catalogues as well.  Unfortunately, though his herbarium survives, its catalogues.  Philipp Blom (2002) sees a catalogue as necessary because “it is not an appendage to a large collection, it is its apogee” (p. 215).  It is not only a sign of curatorial attention, but of the knowledge residing in it.  I am thinking specifically of the digital portals that are now providing access to herbarium materials.  These are indeed the apogee of biodiversity information, the plant world writ large .  They are the result of renewed curatorial interest in these collections, and an awareness that even if amalgamation of collections often makes physical examination of specimens more difficult, at least electronic access provides some if not all of what a specimen can reveal.

Everything I’ve read about curation includes the topic of selection.  This is often a difficult process in the art world, where funds are limited, trustees and donors must be satisfied, and the institution’s mission kept in mind.  Not every offered item is a gem, so curators have to be diplomats while also strategizing how to acquire the best pieces.  This might seem less of a problem in a herbarium, but space is limited, inferior specimens add nothing to the collection’s value, and every offered item is not a gem.  Wise curators also know how to use duplicates to obtain specimens that will enrich a particular area of the collection, and diplomacy is often needed to negotiate the acquisition of collections being “orphaned” by other institutions.  Reading about such curation issues in a broad sense has given me a greater appreciation for what herbarium managers and curators do and why their work is so vital to the health of these natural history treasure troves.


Blom, P. (2002). To Have and to Hold: An Intimate History of Collectors and Collecting. Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press.

Bridson, D., & Forman, L. (1998). The Herbarium Handbook (3rd ed.). Kew, UK: Royal Botanic Gardens.

Lubar, S. (2017). Inside the Lost Museum: Curating, Past and Present. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Metsger, D. A., & Byers, S. C. (Eds.). (1999). Managing the Modern Herbarium: An Interdisciplinary Approach. Vancouver, Canada: Elton-Wolf.

Obrist, H. U. (2014). Ways of Curating. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Thomas, N. (2016). The Return of Curiosity: What Museums Are Good for in the 21st Century. London, UK: Reaktion.

Collecting and Collectors

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Website for the Hans Sloane Herbarium at the Natural History Museum, London

In the last post, I wrote about two individuals, Hans Sloane and John Jenks, who collected natural history specimens and founded museums, the British Museum and Brown University’s Jenks Museum of Natural History.  You have probably heard of the former, but the latter didn’t last half a century.  In part the difference has to do with the quality of the collections and their management.  However, there are also similarities between them.  In both cases, the collections weren’t amassed single-handedly.  Besides hunting down his own specimens, John Jencks bought, traded, and was given collections (Lubar, 2017), and Hans Sloane was a master “collector of collectors” (Delbourgo, 2017, p. 202).  He did begin by doing his own plant collecting as a student both in Britain and in France, where he studied before completing his medical degree in the Netherlands.  His most extensive collection work was in Jamaica, where he served as physician to the island’s governor, the Duke of Albemarle.  However, this work wasn’t done singlehandedly.  Like most collectors in foreign lands, Sloane relied on those living in Jamaica to lead him to interesting material.  Some of these individuals were plantation owners, some were slaves who had the most first-hand knowledge of the land.  While the latter are hardly mentioned in Sloane’s Natural History of Jamaica, there is evidence from his notes and letters that they were involved.  This lack of attribution to the “real” collectors was common in botanical exploration.

After Sloane returned to England and became a noted physician, he had little time to do his own collecting.  He began acquiring materials from others, and this is where his large social network played a role.  He knew many wealthy collectors because at the time this was an important way of displaying not only wealth but learning and sophistication.  Sloane decided that he couldn’t excel at collecting everything, so he focused on books and on natural history, particularly plants.  He was in contact and traded specimens and information with all the major British collectors of the day.  In his herbarium, which is preserved at the Natural History Museum, London, there are specimens from over 280 individuals.  Some of the most impressive collections came from Leonard Plukenet, James Petiver, and William Courten after their deaths.  These individuals had all acquired collections from others, most notably Petiver had a large network of collectors throughout the world.  Petiver and Sloane were members of the Temple Coffee House Botanic Club who supported collectors such as Mark Catesby in the Carolinas and John Banister in Virginia.  Such early specimens from North America are obviously very important in documenting what was growing where in a relatively unspoiled environment.  Also, some Sloane specimens were referenced by Carl Linnaeus (1753) in Species Plantarum, making them species types (Jarvis, 2017).  In addition, Sloane acquired an interesting collection of horticultural plants from the Duchess of Beaufort, a talented botanist who documented the plants growing in her gardens (Laird, 2015).  These specimens included beautiful arrays of flower petals for varieties that disappeared long ago.

By the time Jenks was collecting in a manner similar to Sloane, these methods were outmoded.  There was a more systematic and large-scale method in vogue, particularly in the United States from 1880-1920, namely, survey collecting.  In All Creatures, Robert E. Kohler (2006) describes this approach to natural history, including the work of the US Geological Service which organized surveys nationwide.  However, I’ll focus on botanical surveys, and most of these were done on the state or local level.  What distinguished them from previous collecting efforts was that they were more intense and organized.  The great expeditions of earlier in the 19th century, such as those of John Frémont, Charles Wilkes, and John Wesley Powell, were wide-ranging and resulted in collections that were rather haphazard in the sense that plants might or might be in flower or in seed.  Surveys, on the other hand, were both intensive and extensive; they often went to the same locations repeatedly, to insure that all the plants in an area were represented by useful specimens.  These enterprises were less about discovering new species and more about inventorying what was growing in a particular place at a particular time.  Kohler argues that this was the beginning of a scientific approach to collecting that eventually led to today’s biodiversity research.

Survey collection was the result of several trends in US historical and cultural development.  The creation of an extensive railroad system after the Civil War made large portions of the country accessible enough for teams of collectors to travel economically.  Roads were also being extended and improved.  At the same time, land grant colleges were enlarging their offerings, with botany being an important component of agricultural programs.  The Nebraska survey was spearheaded by Charles Bessey who taught botany at the University of Nebraska.  It began as a student project and was a way to highlight the importance of the educational system to the advancement of science.  The scientific aspect of surveys was emphasized by the use of forms and field notebooks to record information uniformly.  It led to more informative specimen labels, a boon for those attempting to use these plants for biodiversity research today.

Kohler argues that by the 1930s, surveys became less common in part because the public as a whole wasn’t as interested in natural history as they had been in the 19th century.  Lack of interest meant less funding, which resulted in collecting from that time on being more focused:  on smaller areas and on particular plant groups.  However, the legacy of these surveys resides in the rich collections they produced which continue to fuel botanical research today.


Delbourgo, J. (2017). Collecting the World: The Life and Curiosity of Hans Sloane. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Jarvis, C. E. (2015). Carl Linnaeus and the influence of Mark Catesby’s botanical work. In E. C. Nelson & D. J. Elliott (Eds.), The Curious Mister Catesby (pp. 189–204). Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.

Kohler, R. (2006). All Creatures: Naturalists, Collectors, and Biodiversity, 1850-1950. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Laird, M. (2015). A Natural History of English Gardening 1650-1800. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Lubar, S. (2017). Inside the Lost Museum: Curating, Past and Present. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Collections: Herbaria in a Larger Context

1 Jenks Museum sm

The Lost Museum at Brown University

I recently read two books that have gotten me thinking about collectors and collections.  Needless to say, plants are foremost in my mind as “collectables,” but sometimes taking a broader view can lead to new insights.  This seems to have happened to me after reading James Delbourgo’s (2017) Collecting the World: The Life and Curiosity of Hans Sloane and Steven Lubar’s (2017) Inside the Lost Museum: Curating, Past and Present.  Issues about the value of collections, material culture, curation, and the meanings of collected objects circled around in my mind, and it’s these themes I want to explore in this set of posts.

The two collections at the center of these books are very different from each other, to say the least.  Hans Sloane (1660-1753) created one of the most impressive personal collections of all time.  His herbarium in 265 volumes is still extant, but he also amassed a large library as well as ethnological, geological, and zoological items, to say nothing of coins and other “curiosities.”  Sloane was born as the era of cabinets of curiosity was waning and more systematic collection came to the fore.  Delbourgo argues that though Sloane wrote an impressive two-volume Natural History of Jamaica (1707,1725), his most significant legacy as a writer was in the labels and catalogues he produced in an effort to manage his collection.  Objects disconnected from textual information lose a great deal of their value, and this is true of anything from a plant collected by Mark Catesby in the Carolinas (there are many of these in Sloane’s herbarium) to an asbestos purse that Benjamin Franklin sold Sloane when the latter was a 19-year-old visitor to London.

While many items in Sloane’s collection deteriorated or were lost over the years, a great deal of it ended up as the founding collection of the British Museum in London, which eventually morphed into three institutions as the books took up residence in a separate building, the British Library, and the natural history specimens in the Natural History Museum, London.  The collection described in Steven Lubar’s book—the Jenks Museum at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island—had a very different fate.  Founded in 1871, it closed in 1915.  The difference between the two institutions is what makes this juxtaposition so interesting.  It highlights how important not only objects, but management, attendant information, and community are to a collection’s development and survival.

John Whipple Potter Jenks (1819-1894) had graduated from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island and went on to become headmaster at a boy’s school in Massachusetts.  When he retired in 1871, he moved to Providence, bringing with him a collection of taxidermied birds and mammals.  He convinced the university’s president that the school needed a natural history museum not only as a study collection for students but also as a symbol of its prestige.  After all, Yale and Harvard had such institutions by this time.  Also, Jenks was deeply religious and saw the natural world as an important manifestation of God’s power, thus learning about nature would lead students closer to God, suggesting that collections can be valued for very different reasons.

The problem with Jenks’s collection was that he was not selective.  He collected whatever came his way and whatever collections were donated to Brown.  But as Lubar writes:  “Museum collecting is disciplined collecting, for a larger purpose” (p. 15).  Also, as was not uncommon at the time, Jenks attempted to display everything in the collection, so the exhibit rooms became crowded with, for example, stuffed sharks laid on top of exhibit cases because there was no place else to fit them in.  in addition, he kept few records, the labels often provided limited information, and many of the specimens deteriorated.  Another problem was that Jenks did not work well with others to ensure the continuation of his museum and did little to integrate the collections into the curriculum.  It was not long into the 20th century when the exhibits were put into storage, and in 1945 most of what was left ended up in a dump.

However, Jenks was not completely forgotten.  In the 21st century, a Jenks Society for Lost Museums was founded among students and faculty at Brown and the nearby Rhode Island School of Design.  Lubar, who is a professor at Brown and director of its anthropology museum was involved as was Mark Dion, an artist known for his interpretations of natural history collections.  This group created an installation called The Lost Museum in Brown’s Rhode Island Hall, which had housed the Jenks Museum.  Dion recreated Jenks’s taxidermy workshop, and there was a “Museum Storeroom” with 80 objects, all in white, which represented animals, tools, weapons, and other “curiosities” that had been in the museum, but no longer exist.  The final room exhibited 100 items from the museum that had survived; they were organized by degree of decay, including labels in Jenks’s hand for items that had disappeared.

Both books described here were published in 2017 by Harvard University Press.  They weren’t meant to be coupled, but I think they make a nice set since they both deal with various aspects of collection, curation, preservation, and value, themes explored in the following posts in this series.


Delbourgo, J. (2017). Collecting the World: The Life and Curiosity of Hans Sloane. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Lubar, S. (2017). Inside the Lost Museum: Curating, Past and Present. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Plants in Toronto: Adam White


Watercolor of G.S. Malcolm’s grave in an Adam White scrapbook in the collection of the Green Plant Herbarium at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto

Adam White (1817-1878) was a Scottish entomologist who never traveled outside his country, so why is he considered important to the Green Plant Herbarium (TRT) of the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM)?  The answer was revealed during my recent visit to the herbarium (see 1, 2).  From the age of 18, White was employed in the zoology department of the British Museum.  There he dealt with materials collected during British expeditions to all parts of the world.  For example, he identified and published on the spiders that Charles Darwin collected on The Beagle.  At times, he was given duplicate specimens from various expeditions.  He kept some of these materials, including plant specimens, in notebooks, and two of these ended up at the TRT, donated by relatives of White who lived in Toronto.  This is one of countless herbarium stories about how specimens can travel long distances over a long time before finding a permanent home.

Because these scrapbooks are so rich, it makes sense to treat them separately.  One was described by Nicholas Polunin (1936) shortly after it was donated to the TRT.  Its contents, available online, open with a series of 36 plants collected by Peter Sutherland during an 1850-1851 expedition to Baffin Bay in search of evidence for what happened to the last Franklin Arctic Expedition, which was last seen in Baffin Bay in July 1845.   Sir John Franklin’s wife pushed for searches to discover the fate of the party of over 100 men.   Sutherland sent a collection of 54 plants to William Jackson Hooker for identification, and the White specimens appear to be duplicates of some of these.  They have botanical importance because few collections have ever been made in this area.  Next are about a dozen plants from Sir John Richardson who led the expedition.  While Richardson named them, he didn’t give collection dates or locations as Sutherland did.  These are followed by 20 plants collected in southern Norway by L. Esbark.  The last 25 specimens date from the late 1840s and were gathered by Joseph Dalton Hooker and Thomas Thomson in India and the Himalayas.  These are significant because most were published by the pair.

Since this is a scrapbook, it’s not surprising that along with plants there are other items pasted on its pages including an autographed engraving of the Arctic explorer W.E. Parry and an original watercolor depicting the grave of G.S. Malcolm who was in the Franklin search party and died of frostbite (see photo above).  There is a handwritten note relating that “The plant which covered Malcolm’s grave was the Saxifraga oppositifolia,” so it’s appropriate that it should end up in a herbarium.  There are other such miscellanea, but it is the plants that make this scrapbook interesting and valuable, and explain its residence in TRT.

The second Adam White scrapbook has some empty pages so it’s described as unfinished, but it’s still a treasure trove.  It too has its own website, with information on White and on those who contributed the specimens, as well as maps of the locations where these were collected.  There are several distinct and unrelated areas represented: Europe, Palestine, and the sites visited by Joseph Dalton Hooker on the Ross Expedition to Antarctica (1839-1843).  The European material comes from British botanists: Joseph Woods, W.C. Hewitson, and Robert Brown.  The Palestine material was collected by the Scottish botanist Horatius Bonar.  Images and information on all the specimens, organized by collector and location, are available on the website.

Among the Hooker specimens is a new species, Lyallia kergulensis, (see photo below) that he collected on the subantarctic Kergulen Islands and named for his friend David Lyall who was surgeon on the HMS Terror during the Ross Expedition.  In later years, Lyall also served on ships exploring the Arctic and made valuable collections of plants at both poles.  It’s also interesting to note, as Deb Metsger pointed out, that the two ships on the Ross Expedition to Antarctica (1839-1843) were the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror.   These ships were later refitted and carried the Franklin party into the Arctic, where they disappeared.  Remarkably, both ships have been found recently.  The Erebus in 2014 and the Terror 31 miles away in 2016.  The latter’s location was 57 miles from where it was reported abandoned in 1845.  So White’s notebook united these two ships in a remarkable way, through plant specimens collected at both ends of the world.


Specimen of Lyallia kergulensis from an Adam White scrapbook in the collection of the Green Plant Herbarium at the Royal Ontario Museum

I should note in closing that there was a third Adam White scrapbook donated by his family.   It contained moss specimens and was taken apart so the specimens could be filed taxonomically in the general collection.   When the bryophyte collection was reorganized a few years ago, Deb Metsger undid this work and reunited the White mosses.  Because many of its pages were cut up to separate specimens, it would be difficult to reconstitute the scrapbook, but Metsger hopes to find a way to fittingly preserve the treasure.  This is the attitude of a truly dedicated curator, and Deb is definitely that.  She cares very thoughtfully for the collection and is generous to those like myself who want to learn more about it.

Note: Thanks to Deb Metsger for taking the time to show me these wonderful treasures of the TRT.  She made my visit memorable.


Polunin, N. (1936). A botanical scrapbook. Rhodora, 38, 409–413.

Plants in Toronto: In the Backwoods

Album Cover

Album cover from a Catharine Parr Traill scrapbook in the collection of the Green Plant Herbarium at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto

Though I am not well-versed on United States history, I am even less up on Canadian history or natural history.  However, on the few occasions when I’ve ventured north, I’ve tried to learn a little more.  On a trip to Vancouver I visited an exhibit of the artist Emily Carr’s paintings and that opened up to me not only her visual art but her writings about the Canadian Northwest (Shadbolt, 1997).  This time, thanks to my visit to the Green Plant Herbarium (TRT) at the Royal Ontario Museum (see last post), I was led to the work of Catharine Parr Traill.  I had heard of her in the sense that I knew that she was a 19th-century Canadian pioneer who had also collected plants and sent them to Eastern botanists.  But while at TRT, the assistant curator Deborah Metsger gave me more information on Traill and introduced me to this woman’s writings as well as to her collections.  At TRT there are two Traill scrapbooks of pressed plants, both conserved but with different methods because of their different levels of fragility.  In one case, the pages were almost crumbling, so the book was taken apart and the beautiful cover (see photo above) stored separately.  Each page was placed on acid-free mounting board and kept in place with plastic strips that are pasted to the board but not to the page itself.  The boards are matted to lessen the pressure on the specimens when they are stacked in an acid-free box.  It’s a beautiful conservation job and insures the collection’s survival.  The pages in the other scrapbook were in better shape and remain in their original binding.  Traill made it for her granddaughter and was over 90 at the time.  It opens with a beautiful wreath of leaves (see photo below).


Wreath from Catharine Parr Traill scrapbook in the collection of the Green Plant Herbarium at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto

Now that I’ve discussed the physical evidence related to Traill at ROM, I’ll give some background on her life and botanical work.  She was born in England in 1802, one of eight children.  When she was 16, their father Thomas Strickland died shortly after suffering a financial disaster.  Her brother Samuel Strickland emigrated to Canada in 1826.  After Catharine married Thomas Traill, a lieutenant in the British Army, they left for Canada, arriving in the fall of 1832 around the same time as her sister Susanna Moodie and her husband, also an army man.  Canada was attractive at the time for those whose British prospects weren’t bright, because military officers were being given land that they could clear and farm.  All three Strickland siblings ended up in the area around Peterborough, Ontario in what was then wilderness.  Just four years after arriving in Canada, Traill (1836) published a book on her experiences settling into a life with none of the amenities of middle-class England.  I got a copy on the recommendation of Deb Metsger and found it wonderful.

The Backwoods of Canada is based on letters Traill wrote home to her family and friends.  She never mentions her brother and sister though she does say that she knows people in the area which is why they chose to settle there.  Her husband doesn’t receive much attention either, rather she focuses on what they did to make life bearable in this very foreign environment.  First she describes the voyage, and in more detail, the trip down the St. Lawrence River.  I am accustomed to US pioneer stories which start with landing at an East Coast port and then coach travel West.  For the Traills, their first stop was on Green Island off the coast of Newfoundland.  This was three weeks after leaving England, but they had another 4 weeks to reach Peterborough, traveling by boat and stage coach.

Also at variance with other accounts I’ve read, Traill focuses a great deal on class.  From the very first letter, she makes it clear that she and her husband are educated, middle-class people who did not leave England out of desperation as did many lower-class immigrants.  She frames their decision in terms of trying a new kind of life, but she also admits that it is not the life presented in the advertisements used to attract settlers to the Canadian wilderness.  Yet, by the end of the book, she feels that they have triumphed.  She has a son, she trades with Indian women, they have a log home and have cleared land.  Also, she exults in the nature around her and devotes an entire letter to birds and another, one of the longest, to plants.  However, Charlotte Gray’s (1999) biography of the two sisters paints a different picture, more in sync with the experiences of American pioneer women.  Their lives were physically difficult, and in addition, their husbands were not good at making life in the wilderness financially successful.

In the following years Traill continued to write as a source of income, including a guide to Canadian Wild Flowers, with illustrations by her niece Agnes Fitzgibbon (1869).  She also corresponded with botanists who could answer her questions about plants and were eager to have an extra pair of educated botanical eyes on the lookout for new species.  Her sister, too, wrote a book on life in the Canadian backwoods (Moodie, 1852), as did her brother, though he didn’t summarize his experiences until he had been in Canada for over 25 years (Strickland, 1853).  Two sisters who remained in England wrote biographies of the royals, so they were definitely a literary family and one that used their talents to keep themselves financially afloat.

Note: Thanks to Deb Metsger for taking the time to show me these wonderful treasures of the TRT.


Gray, C. (1999). Sisters in the Wilderness: The Lives of Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill. Toronto, Canada: Penguin Canada.

Moodie, S. (1852). Roughing It in the Bush, or Life in Canada. New York, NY: Putnam.

Shadbolt, D. (1997). The Complete Writings of Emily Carr. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.

Strickland, S. (1853). Twenty-Seven Years in Canada West; or, The Experience of an Early Settler. London, UK: Bentley.

Traill, C. P. (1836). The Backwoods of Canada. London, UK: Knight.

Traill, C. P. (1869). Canadian Wild Flowers. Montreal, Canada: Lovell.

Plants in Toronto: The Royal Ontario Museum Herbarium

Seed Collection

H.B. Sifton Seed Collection in the Green Plant Herbarium at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto

While I was in Toronto for the History of Science Society meeting (see last post), I visited the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) to see its herbarium, or rather, one of its herbaria.  These collections were originally in the University of Toronto which is adjacent to the museum.  One was for phanerogams (TRT) and one for cryptogams (TRTC).  Eventually, ferns, bryophytes, and lichens were moved into the phanerogam collection, which was renamed the Green Plant Herbarium.  This left fungi in a separate collection (TRTC) and housed in a different part of the museum.

On the day of my visit, there was also another herbarium aficionado there, Jasmine Lai, a student at the University of British Columbia who is doing an internship at the National Herbarium of Canada at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa.  Deborah Metsger, assistant curator at TRT, gave us an extensive tour of what is a packed facility.  It has working space and compactors in a facility that Metsger helped to design and which is discussed in a volume she co-edited, Managing the Modern Herbarium (1999).  However, after years of acquisitions, most of the cabinets are nearly full, and Deb said that she is looking to add more cabinets above them.  As with most large collections, the exact number of specimens isn’t known, but it is probably over 1 million if the seed and pollen collections are included as well as economic botany material.  There are over 500,000 vascular plant specimens and 150,000 bryophyte specimens.

The herbarium was founded in the mid-19th century with the collections of H. H. Croft, the first Professor of Experimental Philosophy and Chemistry, and William Hincks, the first Professor of Natural History, appointed in 1853.  Thomas Henry Huxley applied for the job at the time he was seeking economic stability so he could marry.  Hincks, however, had local connections that gave him the edge.  Over the years, the collection grew with specimens from a number of noted Canadian botanists, including John Macoun.  I first encountered his name when I was databasing specimens at New York Botanical Garden; there are thousands of his specimens in that collection.  Then I read a biography of the Danish-Canadian arctic botanist Alf Erling Porsild who was one of a number of botanists who took up Macoun’s work in the next generation (Dathan, 2012).  Finally, this summer Macoun’s name came up again while I was reading a book on Irish natural history (see earlier post).  Macoun was born in Ireland and eventually served as a botanist for the Geological Survey of Canada after he immigrated to Ontario.  To me, this is a great example of how different parts of the botanical world are interwoven and delving into its history helps to reveal the connections.

While on the tour, another important contributor to the collection arrived.  Timothy Dickinson is a retired curator at the herbarium who continues to do research there on hawthorns.  Deb had explained to Jasmine and I that this is a particularly difficult group to work out taxonomically because they are apomictic plants, meaning that they are genetically identical from one generation to the next, so each lineage could be identified as a separate species.  This can lead to taxonomic chaos, and Dickinson along with others have tried to bring order to the group.  Another Canadian to do so is James Bird Phipps who donated 20,000 specimens, including many hawthorns, to TRT.  It’s a wonderful acquisition, but one that still needs to be integrated into the collection.

The extensive pollen collection was developed by John H. McAndrews who took core samples from bogs and studied the pollen and fossil pollen found in them.  These specimens are mounted on slides and are a resource for ecological and climate change research.  The Sifton Seed Collection was created by H.B. Sifton of the Seed Laboratory in Ottawa in the early 20th century.  It’s housed in beautiful wooden cases with drawers holding hand-labeled boxes containing the seeds (see photo above).  The entire collection has been cleaned and organized by volunteers and is a treasure for artistic as well as scientific reasons.  The topic of art came up several times during our tour.  Metsger has worked with ROM and the Bata Shoe Museum on an exhibit called Flower Power and was involved in developing ROM’s Schad Gallery of Biodiversity (Metsger, 2009).  She also showed us some botanical illustrations in the herbarium collection as well as the moss herbarium of Robert Muma who developed A Graphic Guide to the Mosses of Ontario.   He was a book binder by profession enclosed the envelopes of moss in folded sheets of thick paper with accompanying drawings of the specimens and notes in beautiful lettering.  These are kept in boxes he created for the purpose.  In addition, TRT has an extensive slide collection of plant photos, including those taken by Mary Ferguson and Richard Saunders (1995) for their Wildflowers through the Seasons.   A recent acquisition is a work called Strata by Dana Munro, an artistic interpretation of the meaning of herbaria.

As Deb showed us one herbarium jewel after another, it became clear that this is a collection that is well cared for by curators who are not afraid to accept items that extend far beyond herbarium sheets.  Among the economic botany pieces are necklaces made from a variety of different kinds of seeds and pods.  These are kept in display boxes and many of the specimens are poisonous.  When wearing such jewelry became popular, there were instances of children chewing on the colorful beads and becoming ill.  So the herbarium staff developed a display that could be used in informational presentations at the museum.

The herbarium’s location does, I think, influence its collection strategies in that there might be a greater willingness to collect the unconventional because others in the museum have expertise that can be used to preserve these items.   Also, the museum has a broad visitor base that would find many of these materials intriguing.   One that came from Deb’s family’s garage intrigued me (see photo below).  Deb said she had used it many times as a brush without paying attention to it, but after seeing a sample of lace bark in the herbarium, she realized that the brush had been made from the same material, the net-like inner bark of the lacebark tree, Lagetta legetto.  She decided to treat it with more respect and put it in the collection.   In the next two posts, I will discuss two special collections at TRT that are particularly valuable and beautiful, with wonderful stories attached to them.  In the meantime, you might enjoy Jasmine Lai’s herbarium video that includes images from TRT.

Lace Bark

“Brush” made from the lacebark tree Lagetta lagetto in the collection of the Green Plant Herbarium at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto

Note: Thanks especially to Deb Metsger, and also to Tim Dickinson and Jasmine Lai, for a wonderful afternoon at TRT.


Dathan, W. (2012). The Reindeer Botanist: Alf Erling Porsild, 1901-1977. Calgary: University of Alberta Press.

Ferguson, M., & Saunders, R. M. (1995). Canadian Wildflowers through the Seasons. Toronto: Discovery Books.

Metsger, D. (2009). “Planting” life in crisis: The Schad Gallery of Biodiversity–A community effort. Canadian Botanical Association, 43(3), 60–63.

Metsger, D. A., & Byers, S. C. (Eds.). (1999). Managing the Modern Herbarium: An Interdisciplinary Approach. Vancouver, Canada: Elton-Wolf.