When Twitter was young, I had a conversation with a librarian who was extolling the virtues of it for research. I didn’t get it. From what I had heard, Twitter was where people told their friends about their lives, often the more trivial aspects. However, she convinced me to try it, with the advice to select a few people and institutions involved with plants and herbaria and follow them; they would lead me to other Twitter feeds. That was several years ago, and while I know family members and friends have accounts, I don’t follow them. For me Twitter is about plants. I usually check it during breakfast and often find at least one interesting item to bookmark and investigate later. Admittedly, I am not immune to the trivial, and sometimes there will be a retweet of something amusing. Recently and not surprisingly, a number of these have featured animals (yikes!), and one of my favorites involves two British Labrador retrievers. But I digress. What I want to do in this series of posts, as I did in another recent series on miscellanea (1,2,3,4), is to share some of the unrelated items I’ve come across, which reveal Twitter to be a valuable research tool.
There are two well-known websites that often have botanically flavored posts on relatively unknown aspects of the plant world. One is Atlas Obscura and the other is the Public Domain Review, which as its name suggests features old publications that are out of copyright; they usually have visual appeal too. Recently there was a post on Richard Deakin’s 1855, Flora of the Colosseum of Rome. I had come across this book years ago after a trip to Rome when I fell in love with the city, amazed by how much to its ancient past is still visible. After four years of Latin, I had an image of the Roman Forum and was thrilled to be able to walk through so much of it, to appreciate its size if not the splendor of its buildings. What tickled me about Deakin’s book is that someone in the mid-19th century had taken the trouble to thoroughly explore a major ruin and record the 420 plant species he found. There are illustrations of both the building and some of the plants. In the copy available through the Biodiversity Heritage Library, the plant illustrations are colored.
While you might not want to know every plant in this famous ruin, you should at least read the illustrated blog post about it. It’s reveals how nature abhors a vacuum and reinhabits places that humans have come to ignore. That was the situation with the Colosseum two centuries ago, though by the time Deakin was doing his survey things were beginning to change. Tourism was growing and efforts were underway to make parts of the structure more accessible and safer for exploration. This meant removing much of the overgrowth that had accumulated. Today the process has gone much further, and it’s difficult to envision the floral splendor Deakin experienced, thus making his book that much more valuable. It documents yet one more ecosystem that has been severely diminished, and an odd one at that. He found plants there that grew nowhere else in Italy. A later observer speculated that wild beasts like lions brought from Africa to fight in the Colosseum probably carried seeds with them, so that reminders of these slaughtered animals remained for two millennia, a beautiful example of plant translocation.
While I am discussing Italy, a blog called Herbarium World should not fail to mention another example of plant endurance in Italy: the herbarium at the University of Florence. It is the major focus of a beautifully illustrated book, available as a free download, about the Museum of Natural History of the University of Florence’s botanical collections. Among them is the herbarium of Andrea Cesalpino, 16th-century student of Luca Ghini, the originator or at least popularizer of dried plant collections in the 1540s (Findlen, 2017). Cesalpino succeeded Ghini as professor of botany at the University of Pisa and amassed a large herbarium, 15 volumes of which survive today. He was interested in how to order plants and so arranged his collection according to the classification system he laid out in the first modern work on plant taxonomy (Morton, 1981). This makes his herbarium a significant historical document and a contribution to a distinguished collection that includes the massive herbarium of the 19th century botanist Philip Webb, who decided to donate his collection to Florence and turn away from his British homeland and Paris where he had worked for years, because he had been treated so well in Italy.
There are other great collections in the museum including a xylarium and an array of wax plant models. The city was the center of a vogue in scientific wax modeling in the 18th and 19th centuries, with its anatomical models being the best known and definitely worth seeing at the La Speculo museum. But plant anatomy, including at the microscopic level, also got its due. Some pieces have been preserved, as well as models of apples and other fruits that were a way to document the color and shape of different varieties. Many of these have long ago disappeared as have so much for the Colosseum flora. We are fortunate that passionate botanists and curators have given us tokens of what has been lost.
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). Springer.
Morton, A. G. (1981). History of Botanical Science. Academic Press.