Discussing the Plant Humanities: Indigenous Knowledge

The yam, Ipomoea batatas, from Mark Catesby’s The Natural History of Florida, Carolina and the Bahama Islands, Vol. II, Plate 60

In September 2022, Dumbarton Oaks Museum and Library presented a three-day conference on the Plant Humanities, the capstone event for it’s Plant Humanities Initiative that was funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.  The initiative included research by a number of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows on topics that explored a broad array of areas linking plants to the indigenous peoples who had discovered their uses, the artists and writers who were inspired by them, and the scientists who studied them.  There was also funding for a project with JSTOR Labs to develop software called Juncture, which allows users to create online presentations that combine text in interesting ways with images, maps, timelines, and charts.  Though it is still being developed, there are a number of essays in this format on the Plant Humanities Lab site, and it’s definitely worth visiting.  I have written about this project before (1,2) but after the conference, I have a much richer perspective on it that I want to share in this series of posts.

I don’t think I’ve ever been to a conference where the talks were so well presented.  The first session was in the late afternoon, not usually a time for maximum focus, at least for me, but all the speakers were wonderful.  In this post, I’ll mention two.  First was Jessica B. Harris, a professor emerita at Queens College in New York who is noted for her research on African-American foods, including her book High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America (2011).  She spoke about the rather complicated connections between two root vegetables, the African yam Dioscorea rotundata with a whitish tuber and the Latin American sweet potato Ipomoea batatas with yellowish pulp.  In the United States, the two are often confused with sweet potatoes inaccurately called yams.  Besides a similarity in form, another reason for this mix-up is that both were used as food by enslaved people, who brought the yam with them from West Africa where it had long been cultivated.  In turn, cross-Atlantic trading carried the sweet potato to Africa and to the southern parts of North America.  Harris did a great job of describing these basics and much more, and she’s written about the “candied yams” of Thanksgiving as a misnomer. 

Robin Wall Kimmerer, like Harris, joined via Zoom.  She is an environmental biologist, a member of the Potawatomi Nation, and the author of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (2013), a book that connects her heritage with her science.  This is also what she did in her presentation.  She noted that in her native language, Mshkikineck is the word for plants in general, but it means medicinal plants, because this is how plants are seen in her culture.  Mshkiki means strength of the earth, something plants imparted to the humans who used them.  Kimmerer also said that Native Americans consider plants as persons, as animate beings, a concept that is now more widely discussed in the plant humanities.  As to the sweetgrass (Hierochloe odorata) in her book’s title, it is a sacred ceremonial plant among the Potawatomi.

Later in the conference, there were two more presentations about indigenous uses of plants.  Elizabeth Hoover of the University of California, Berkeley discussed her work with Native American food networks and efforts to revive their agricultural practices and heirlooms crops.  Rosalyn LaPier of the University of Montana described her studies on the environmental history of the lands in the Northern Great Plains that were the home of the Blackfeet Nation to which she belongs.  LaPier’s background is interesting.  She has an undergraduate degree in physics and years later, as she became more aware of her culture and its ties to the land, returned to school, earning a doctorate in environmental history.

LaPier is working with tribal members to discover more about their religious understanding of the plant world.  She has interviewed tribal elders of the Blackfeet Nation, focusing on plants that are used in cleansing ceremonies including smudging.  This is a ritual designed to expel negativity from an individual and involves the burning of specific plants.  Religion and plants was a theme that came up in several contexts during the conference and is something that I for one tend to ignore in my conception of the plant world.  This was one of the benefits of the meeting:  it encouraged the participants to broaden their views of plants, no matter from what perspective they were coming. 

In her work LaPier made a list of 40 plants that were employed in smudging in the past and documented how they were used.  Since the Blackfeet now have access to only a small portion of the land they originally occupied, they can no longer find many of the plants with narrow ranges.  Today sage, sweetgrass, and tobacco are most commonly used.  The ritual involves burning the plant material with the person putting their hands over the smoke, collecting it, and then “washing” with it, starting with the face.  In the past, this was often done at the beginning of any religious ceremony as a form of preparation, now it is frequently considered a ceremony in its own right.  LaPier’s presentation on this portion of her nation’s traditions, like that of Kimmerer’s, was infused with the reverence and respect of someone who is an embodiment of an ancient and still living culture.

References

Harris, J. B. (2011). High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America. New York: Bloomsbury.

Kimmerer, R. W. (2013). Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. Minneapolis: Milkweed.

Art/Herbarium

Artwork by Leah Sobsey for “In Search of Thoreau’s Flowers: An Exploration of Change and Loss” exhibition. Harvard Museum of Natural History, digitized cyanotype

I get daily emails from Hyperallergic, a contemporary art website that definitely borders on the edgy.  Many of the essays are not to my taste, but some of them are great, particularly those written by a professor of art history, John Yau.  I scroll through the half dozen plus offerings each day, and often something catches my eye, as when I saw a detail from Silvina Der Meguerditchian’s installation, Treasures (2015).  Against a black background are pages of text, drawings, and plant specimens.  There are also various amulets and pieces of jewelry.  Of course, it was the plants that attracted me as well as their juxta-positioning with so many other interesting items.

The accompanying article by Louis Fishman gave me some context for Der Meguerditchian’s work.  She is an Armenian artist who grew up near Buenos Aires, in a family that valued their heritage, having been forced to flee Armenia during Turkish violence there in the early 20th century.  She then moved to Berlin where she engaged not only with other Armenian’s but with Turkish immigrants as well, another way into her family’s past.  It is this history that is the inspiration for Treasures.  The plants that are presented—in tiny seed containers, as gold leaf portraits, in color drawings, and as specimens—are all native to Armenia and familiar to Der Meguerdichian’s family.  They are among the plants described in a notebook of medicinal remedies she inherited from her great-grandmother.  The act of pressing plants was part of memorializing this history, infusing life into it by working with the same plants the notebook described.  This is a beautiful example of specimens being employed not as scientific documents but as profound statements about memory and life.

There are many examples of artists using specimens in their work to enrich a variety of themes.  Margherita Pevere is a Finnish artist interested in exploring questions about the way organisms change and persist.  Reliquiarium (2011) presented remains of organisms, such as a bird’s wing, a crab’s carapace, and seed pods half-eaten by mice, each set on red velvet and framed in gold, somewhat like a saint’s relics would be.  This speaks to the sacredness of life, the inevitability of dismemberment and death, and the persistence organic material past that death. 

Somewhat the same themes come up in Herbarium (2012), Pevere’s next piece.  Here she worked with a folder of plants collected along the Adriatic coast of Croatia.  When she opened it, she found that little of the plant material remained.  It had been attacked by mold and insects to the point that, along with a few fragments, there were just stains on the paper  with the tape that had held the specimens down and labels identifying them.  Pevere framed the sheets and raised questions about who really created this work:  the organisms themselves, the collector, the pests that altered them, or the artist who mounted them.  She sees this work as relating to the medieval, to memento mori—reminders of life’s transience.

Mark Dion is known for his art dealing with natural history collections and also has a work called Herbarium (2010) , but he created new specimens in memory of those belonging to the horticulturalist Henry Perrine (1797-1840).  They had been destroyed in a fire at Perrine’s Florida home that also ended his life.  The sheets are stamped “Collection of Henry Perrine” and while a label is attached, no information is provided.  These are ghost specimens of the opposite type from Pevere’s; here the plant remains and the data doesn’t.  As an aside I’ll mention that Perrine moved to Florida from Mexico and brought with him plants including sisal he planned to grow commercially.  After his death the property was abandoned, but the sisal thrived and became a source of plants for those, including Germans, who then grew it on plantations in their colonies (Brockway, 1979).

On a brighter note, there is a wonderful exhibit, In Search of Thoreau’s Flowers: An Exploration of Change and Loss, now running at the Harvard Museum of Natural History.  It’s based on the Harvard Herbaria’s collection of Henry David Thoreau specimens.  There are 648 of them and they were digitized five years ago.  Two artists have created an installation that allows viewers to look not only at the specimens themselves, but also artistic renderings of them.  I have only seen the online version of this exhibit, but even that is stunning.  Robin Vuchnich, a new media artist, designed an immersive experience in the gallery’s theatre using the digitized specimens along with soundscapes recorded at Walden Pond where Thoreau wrote his masterpiece Walden. 

In addition, Leah Sobsey, a photographer and artist, created cyanotypes on glass from Thoreau’s specimens.  She used a process similar to Anna Atkins’s in making algae cyanotypes in the 19th century.  As the website notes, Sobsey produced cyanotypes for all the Thoreau specimens, creating “a stunning wallpaper consisting of original cyanotypes and digital imagery that tells a story of the survival and decline of plant specimens.”  This sounds like an exciting way to both experience herbarium specimens and think about a classic in American environmental and natural history literature.  It is interesting to consider what Thoreau would make of all this, to say nothing of how Concord, and Harvard, have changed since his day.  What I find so exciting about this presentation is how not only plants, but herbarium specimens are at its core.  Think of the thousands of visitors, old and young, who will discover herbaria in such a visually striking way.

References

Brockway, L. B. (1979). Science and Colonial Expansion: The Role of the British Royal Botanic Gardens. New York: Academic Press.

Art: Plants in Three Dimensions

Glass Flowers at the Harvard Museum of Natural History – Canada Wild Ginger. Photo by Rhododendrites

The vast majority of herbarium specimens are pressed plants:  three-dimensional living organisms transformed into two-dimensional, or almost two-dimensional, dead bodies.  They are very useful, and sometimes very beautiful.  I recently saw a passionflower sheet that was exquisite, perhaps in part because its features were so beautifully displayed even in its flatness.  Two-dimensional botanical illustrations usually attempt to give a sense of how a plant looks in space, and there’s evidence that the first good early modern herbal illustrations were done by artists schooled in naturalism.  Hans Weiditz, who did the illustrations for Otto Brunfels’s 1530 herbal, might have been a student of Albrecht Dürer, who is famous for his exquisite Great Piece of Turf.            

In the late eighteenth century, the French Academy entertained a plan involving the silk flower maker Thomas Joseph Wenzel who adorned Marie Antoinette’s wardrobe.  He would create cloth models of plants representing all the known species as a resource for botanical research (Tessier, 2020).  Unfortunately nothing became of this scheme but around the same time, the success of wax anatomical models for teaching anatomy to medical and art students led to production of plant and fruit models.  This continued into the 19th century when papier-mâché became a popular construction material.  Models of plants, often with portions that could be removed to reveal the inner workings of a flower, were common in natural history museums and schools.  The peak of this thirst for 3-D educational models was the extensive collection of glass flower models created for Harvard University by Rudolf Blaschka and his son and funded by the Ware family.  Their daughter Mary Lee had been a student of George Goodale, the museum’s director who had conceived of the project.  The fragile twigs, flowers, and plant parts are displayed attached to stiffened herbarium-sheet sized paper and presented in taxonomic order to accentuate their use as scientific tools, though nothing can detract from their aesthetic glory.           

As their heavily illustrated notebooks indicate, the Blaschkas worked hard to make their plants both accurate and beautiful, developing a host of glasswork techniques to get the colors and textures right (Rossi-Wilcox & Whitehouse, 2007).  They built on some of the techniques and construction tricks used by 19th century wax artists who catered not to educators but to interior decorators.  Bouquets of wax flowers were a way for wealthy Victorians to fill their homes with colorful blooms even in winter months.  This seems a quaint idea today, but visit a Michael’s or JoAnn’s store , and you will find a vast array of plant models, made mostly of wire and plastic, some relatively accurate representations of real species, others more fanciful.  The artist Alberto Baraya has “pressed” such specimens onto herbarium sheets to document the flora he has found in public places like hotel lobbies, in part to show how fake as well as real species have become “invasive” worldwide.            

The July 2022 issue of The World of Interiors, a journal I recently “cited” for its articles displaying homes resplendent with framed herbarium specimens, devoted quite a bit of space to plants, in gardens and in homes.  There was even an article by Amy Sherlock called “Faux-Liage” about an “exacting bunch of artisans around the world who craft flowers in everything from feathers to clay” (p. 94).  The full-page photos were spectacular.  A sprig of lilac in porcelain definitely looked as delicate at the real thing.  It was obvious that a pale lavender crocus was in fact made of feathers, but it was the superb work of the Parisian plumassière Maison Lemarié so it was a tour de force.  The business was founded in 1880 and has been making such decorations for French couture ever since.  They also make silk flowers, creating blooms that really shouldn’t be called “artificial,” a niche industry that still exists in France.           

Also in the article were 18 carat gold flowers made by Christopher Royds.   This reminded me of a piece by Lin Sproule, another goldsmith and a jewelry maker, who over the years was seduced into creating delicate stems including grasses made with yellow, green, and red gold.  But back to “Faux-Liage”: Kirk Maxson is represented by a branch of oak leaves in hammered brass and Carmen Almon by a metal strawberry plant in “living” color.  It could be considered a scientific model, and in fact Almon had been a botanical illustrator before she took up metal work.  And yes, there is a wax model here as well, a lovely primrose complete with its roots, so lifelike it definitely seems like it needs to be planted before it wilts.  Finally, there is a silk peony in the richest of pinks and paper flowers created by Sourah Gupta, as well as a climbing clematis vine modeled on one he saw growing on a fence. 

What all the specimens in this bouquet have in common is that they are based on direct, close observation.  Gupta didn’t just glance at that clematis, he studied its colors, forms, and the twists and turns of its stems.  Working in three dimensions makes achieving such a life-like representation even more difficult than drawing a 2-D botanical illustration.  Obviously, each has its challenges, but what all the works in this article indicate is that there are many artists today who are maintaining the tradition of creating flowers that will outlast the season, and perhaps even their owners. 

References

Rossi-Wilcox, S. M., & Whitehouse, D. (2007). Drawing upon Nature: Studies for the Blaschka’s Glass Models. Corning, NY: Corning Museum of Glass.

Sherlock, A. (2022). Faux-Liage. The World of Interiors, July, 94–103.

Tessier, F. (2020). Modèles botanique, des modèles scientifique entre art et science. ISTE OpenScience, 1–19.

Art: Surrealism and Specimens

Untitled Collage (1936), Eileen Agar

I will admit that it’s quite a leap from last week’s post on medieval herbals to surrealism, the subject of this post in my series on botanical art.  However, I think some of the plants in the Sloane 1975 manuscript in the British Library are reminiscent of Max Ernst’s treatment of plants, especially in Human Form (1932).  But that’s not what I am getting at here.  Instead, I want to explore how surrealists, and artists working with at least some surreal elements, have used plant material in their art, in some cases in ways reminiscent of herbarium specimens.  Ernst himself employed a technique that is occasionally seen on specimen sheets or in botanists’ notebooks:  rubbings of leaves or other structures.  Ernst used rubbings particularly of wood, but also of other plant materials.  A series of pencil rubbings called Histoire Naturelle (1925) employs this material in unusual ways, for example, a wood rubbing to create a leaf, or a leaf rubbing a tree.  The mind is thrust into uncertainty in attempting to make sense of them.

My knowledge of surrealism as an art movement is rudimentary, but I gather artists were attempting to use the unconscious as inspiration and to express it in their work.  Their art presents odd juxtapositions as occur in dreams.  I recently came upon a work by Eileen Agar, a British artist who was associated with surrealists in the 1930s, though her art went through other styles over her long career, something that was true of many others who moved in and out of this genre’s influence.  A review of a recent show of her work highlighted a 1936 untitled collage, a favorite type of work for surrealists since it lent itself to putting the unrelated together (Baker, 2021).   Of course, what struck me immediately were all the dried leaves and flowers.  The leaves are mostly from trees, but the flowers appear to be from annuals.  They are pasted on to a watercolor background with a face at the top and mostly obscured body parts.  But that’s not all, there are two pieces of lace, a tiny wooden violin, and two starfish-like forms, as well as a number of button-like discs.  I have to admit that I find a work like this mesmerizing, and the fact that I can’t really understand it makes me turn to feeling rather than thought.  Exploring it is an emotional journey; life is presented here preserved but also with a motion to it.

I’ll stop my lame attempt at art criticism but only to move on to a couple of other artists.  Joseph Beuys is not a favorite of mine.  He is more about ideas than images, and used masses of lard in some of his works—not my favorite medium.  However, Beuys was interested in nature.  He was a German artist who came of age at the end of World War II, so not surprisingly his work often deals with issues of death and destruction in an attempt to make sense of life.  But he did have a hopeful streak and is known for his 7000 Oaks project of planting trees in Kassel, Germany, each accompanied by a four-foot stone column (Tempkin, 1993).  Many of the trees are still alive and celebrated as an early manifestation of the environmental movement and the now burgeoning field of the plant humanities.  But what I want to point out are Beuys’s pressed plants.  One from early in his career, The Image (1946), is essentially a leaf pasted to a piece of paper with a diagram on it.  Another called Herb Robert (1941) is a list of medicinal plants with two small pressed plants attached.  Later he created more pressed plant works, including Let Flowers Speak(1974), with a recent auction estimate of 75,000 to 100,000 euros.  Obviously there are several layers of meaning here, but his persistent connection to the plant world definitely points to the hopeful side of his oeuvre. 

Among Beuys’s students was Anselm Kiefer, one of Germany’s most notable artists today.  He was born in 1945, so a great deal of his work deals with destruction and depicts desolate scenes, but again there is hope along with a lot of plants, pressed and unpressed.  Kiefer applies paint heavily to his canvases, and often embeds dried plants and other materials into the wet paint, then working in more paint to build the surface further.  He also creates collages such as those with ferns that are framed behind glass in his massive installation Secret of the Ferns (2007) that I wrote about earlier.  These definitely have a surrealist feel to them and are mesmerizing, though most of my experience of Kiefer’s work is second-hand from books and videos.  He is not afraid to think big and uses a lot of lead.  He has created what amounts to a herbarium of lead sheets piled up with sculptures of large sunflowers peeking out from the ends (Biro, 2013).  As in many of his pieces, Kiefer is concerned with the destruction of our environment and its preservation, and both are encapsulated in this work.  I would not want to live with such a piece, but I would like to have the opportunity to directly experience its power.

References

Baker, H. (2021). Haul of nature. Apollo, July/August, 92–93.

Biro, M. (2013). Anselm Kiefer. New York: Phaidon.

Bischoff, Ulrich. (1991). Max Ernst 1891-1975: Beyond Painting. Bonn: Taschen.

Tempkin, A., & Rose, B. (1993). Thinking Is Form: The Drawings of Joseph Beuys. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Art: Medieval Herbals

Sloane 1975 manuscript, f31v, British Library

Lately I’ve been indulging my love of botanical art by simply looking at examples of its many manifestations.  With such a massive topic, all I can really do is touch down at a few points on its vast extent.  In this series of posts, I’ve selected four sites, beginning with Medieval herbals.  The conventional view is that there isn’t much to see here:  just repeated copying of rather crude representations that are often difficult to identify.  But as with much else in history, reexamination leads to new viewpoints.  Yes, there are manuscripts like Sloane 1975 at the British Library, a medical text richly embellished with gold leaf and with plants that are extremely stylized.  Still it’s a treasure worth examining to see how they are stylized:  the emphasis is on symmetry with equal numbers of branches or flowers or leaves on each side of a central stem and with elements spread apart so they don’t overlap and are clearly visible.  If the tuber is the portion of the plant that is of medicinal interest then it is often presented as overly large to emphasize its worth.

The text accompanying these striking images is ancient, though hardly a direct copy.  Manuscripts were added to or streamlined and reordered to make them more accessible to new generations of medical practitioners.  Many are in Latin, though names may also be given in Greek, or as in an English herbal from 1070-1100, in Latin and Old English.  This is MS Ashmole 1431 in Oxford University’s Bodleian Library.  It’s a version of an herbal written in the fourth century A.D. by someone named Pseudo-Apuleius.  Since it was one of the few texts on medicinal plants available in Latin, it was often copied.  There is a later manuscript in the British Library Egerton MS 747 that was produced in the late 13th century probably in Salerno or Naples and presents many plants quite realistically.   At that time, southern Italy provided some of the most advanced medical education, and this manuscript reveals the first stirrings of the close observation that would be the hallmark of early modern medicine and botany. 

However, there are much earlier manuscripts that have amazingly naturalistic representations of plants, though these also contain many images of lesser quality.  The best known is the Anicia Juliana Codex created in 512 AD and now in the Austrian National Library, created.  It has marked similarities to two other manuscripts known by their present locations, the Naples Codex from the late 6th or early 7th century in the National Library, Naples and the mid-10th century New York Codex at the Morgan Library.  All three are written in Greek and are based on the first-century work of materia medica by the Greek physician Dioscorides.  It wasn’t available in Latin until the 12th century, but was the basis for a great deal of medieval writings on medicines into the early modern era. 

Much research has been done on these codices, especially on the Juliana, since some see it as the model for the two later works.  Several years ago, researchers at Purdue University created a database for the three herbals, so that their similarities and differences could be studied more easily (Janick et al., 2013).  As they note, each of the three presents about 400 illustrations; of these, 282 are common to all.  The website is a great resource for diving into three of the most notable early herbals either from a botanical or an art historical viewpoint, though I am not sure that these can be separated.  Just studying the differences and similarities between any two images is an exploration of how different artists present what they see, even when one is copying the other. 

A recent analysis of all three manuscripts was published by Joshua Thomas (2019) who emphasizes the sources for the images.  Many of the illustrations are so realistic that they can be identified to species, something not possible with many other manuscript illustrations.  Thomas presents a number of arguments others have made about the relationship among the three works.  First is the archetype theory, that the Vienna codex, as the oldest, was model for the other two.  While there are many species common to all three books, even in these cases, the images are not exact copies.  This has led some to see them as related to a common source that has been lost, definitely a possibility.  However, Thomas questions this view because each presents plants in different formats.  One will take up an entire page with an image, another will pair plants together, and a third will only use half or less of the page and fill the rest with text.  It seems to him that if they were all using the same source, there would be more uniformity.

Thomas then builds a case for the models being from the classical period, several hundred years before the Vienna Codex, because he doesn’t see plant images from the 4th and 5th century with the naturalism found in these manuscripts.  Instead he finds similarities with, for example, the plants depicted in the murals in the Empress Livia’s garden room in Rome and others in Pompeii (Ciarallo, 2001).  This leaves him with the question of how they ended up in later works.  He doesn’t consider the papyrus manuscripts of that time as likely sources since papyrus doesn’t allow for the fine detail seen in the codices.  He posits instead that the models were painted on whitened wooden boards called pinakes that artists were known to use.  These would have been portable, explaining how the images could have traveled.  I’m hardly in a position to judge the likelihood of this hypothesis, but it does suggest how closely these ancient botanical jewels are being examined.

References

Ciarallo, A. (2001). Gardens of Pompeii. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Janick, J., Whipkey, A. L., & Stolarczyk, J. (2013). Synteny of images in three lilustrated Dioscoridean herbals: Juliana Anicia Codex, Codex Neapolitanus, and Morgan 652. Notulae Botanicae Horti Agrobotanici Cluj-Napoca, 41(2), 333–339.

Thomas, J. J. (2019). The iIllustrated Dioskourides codices and the transmission of images during antiquity. The Journal of Roman Studies, 109, 241–273. https://doi.org/10.1017/S007543581900090X

Botany for Amateurs: The Decorative Arts

Leontodon autumnalis, Flora Danica, Tab. MDXXIII, 1816. Art Gallery of Ontario.

If “craft,” which I wrote about in the last post, can have a connotation of not being serious, then “decoration” is even less worthy of serious consideration.  Yet most of us have much more contact with the decorative arts—in our homes, our clothes, and daily encounters—than with “serious” art.  Years ago, I wrote an article called “Jellyfish on the Ceiling, Deer in the Den” (Flannery, 2005).  The title obviously signals that I produced it in my pre-botany days, but there were a lot of plants included.  My argument was that humans have a proclivity for surrounding themselves with living specimens including houseplants and pets, but even more with representations of flora and fauna.  Perhaps ultraminimalist homes are exceptions, but even there, a striking potted tree or orchid might emerge from the white walls and upholstery. 

            Most of us go much further than that, with botanical prints, animal figurines, and in the children’s room, dinosaurs.  My contention was that all this biota manifests what Edward O. Wilson (1984) calls “biophilia,” an innate human attraction to other living things.  He argues that such an adaption would be useful because until recently humans were immersed in the living world and needed to pay attention to it and appreciate it.  Even though many of us live in urban areas, we still feel that pull, and so create indoor lifescapes.  I’m bringing this up because it gives me a chance to mention the current trend, at least in certain circles, to used framed herbarium specimens in interior decoration. 

            During the pandemic I treated myself to a subscription to The World of Interiors, a glossy British magazine that presents homes from the ultramodern to the medieval.  There have been several articles over the past few years in Interiors and other publications with pictures of rooms with series of framed specimens hanging on the walls of living rooms, bedrooms, or even bathrooms.  Most of these sheets seem to be antiques, probably 19th century albums dismembered because they fetched higher prices when framed, otherwise the interior decorators might not know what to do with them.  Most are labeled at least with the plant name, but in some cases with more information.  Much as I believe in biophilia and think of specimens as works of art, I wouldn’t want them in my home.  I depresses me that these representatives of biodiversity have ended up where they will probably never be databased or used to further our knowledge of the natural world.

            But such examples do bolster the biophilia argument, and there is evidence that even representations of nature can improve a person’s mood and outlook (Kellert, 1997).  So why couldn’t a few herbarium specimens brighten a day?  And there are other connections between botany and the decorative arts.  The 18-volume Flora Danica (1761-1783) was lavishly illustrated, and the plates used as source material for the equally lavish dinnerware.  The set was created by the Royal Danish Porcelain Manufactory for the Danish royal family, not surprising since the business was owned by the Danish king (Ackers, 2010).  This is either a botanist’s dream or nightmare:  would food seem palatable with such botanical treasures peeking through the gravy?  Another example is the work of Christopher Dresser, a 19th-century British designer and professor of artistic botany.  He produced a series of articles on botany adapted to the arts, wrote a book on Rudiments of Botany (1859), and created botanical diagrams.   Another case is that of the botanical illustrator in the early days of Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, William Kilburn, who left this work to create wallpaper and fabric designs (Nelson, 2008).  This turned out to be a much more lucrative business.

            Before I end, I have to get back to the jellyfish on the ceiling from my article.  It refers to Ernst Haeckel, famed for his Art Forms in Nature that was such an inspiration to artists and illustrators at the turn of the 20th century.  He was a zoologist who specialized in studying jellyfish.  He did in fact have jellyfish decorations on his ceiling and on tables, lamps, vases, etc.  Lest you think botanists are any less obsessed, the “botanical kitchen” in the Marie-Victorin Herbarium in Montreal is equipped not only with a toaster oven but wallpaper made from scans of specimens from the collection, in a 4 by 4 sheet repeat.  The Oxford Herbarium was once located in its historic botanic garden, which just celebrated its 400th anniversary.  It has been moved to larger quarters, but there is still an “Herbarium Room” with historical displays in the former herbarium at the garden.  The room is papered not with specimens, but the next best thing, prints from Hortus Elthamensis (1732) written by Johann Dillenius, the first botany professor at Oxford University who also created not only the illustrations, but engraved many of the plates as well.  This might be a homage to that great interior decorator Carl Linnaeus, who designed a famous piece of botanical furniture to store his specimens and papered his bedroom with prints from Georg Ehret’s work.  In fact one of the cabinets is now in the print-lined room at his Hammarby farm.  The 18th-century wallpaper has not fared well and needs restoration or conservation work.  However the paper is so fragile, there is difference of opinion on the damage that could be done by any intervention (Cullhed, 2008).  Maintaining a home is never easy.

References

Ackers, G. (2010). The ferns of Flora Danica—Plants and porcelain. Pteridologist, 5, 207–213.

Cullhed, P. (2008). The conservation of iconic objects and Linnaeus’ books and wallpaper. In The Linnaean Legacy (pp. 135–140). London: Linnean Society of London.

Flannery, M. C. (2005). Jellyfish on the ceiling and deer in the den: The biology of interior decoration. Leonardo, 38(3), 239–244. https://doi.org/10.1162/0024094054029056

Kellert, S. (1997). Kinship to Mastery: Biophilia in Human Evolution and Development. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Nelson, E. C. (2008). William Kilburn’s calico patterns, copyright and Curtis’s Botanical Magazine. Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, 25(4), 361–373.

Wilson, E. O. (1984). Biophilia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Botany for Amateurs: Craft

Paper cutout of Passiflora laurifolia by Mary Delany. In the collection of the British Museum

I ended the last post remarking that it’s hard to fit botanical work into neat categories; the same is true of art and craft.  They just can’t be separated any more than professionals are distinct from amateurs.  However, craft can have connotations of amateurism, implying that professionals have raised their work to an art.  Some of the examples of scrapbooks I discussed in the last post were definitely works of art; some of them less so.  In this post, I want to explore the relationship between botany and crafts like embroidery.  Maybe I’m being sexist when I say that the last sentence probably caused male readers to sign off.  But wait, professional embroidery in many parts of the world is a male bastion, and was in Europe for many centuries.  Those amazing Elizabethan clothes—for men and women—as well as elaborate furnishings were designed and sewn by men (Parker, 1984).  Only gradually did embroidery become a well-developed skill among elite women and part of their education.  Famously, Mary Queen of Scots embroidered elaborate emblems during her imprisonment in the home of Bess of Hardwick, the Countess of Shrewsbury and an accomplished needlewoman.  Among other sources for their designs was Mary’s copy of Pietro Andrea Mattioli’s herbal, but she also had the garden of Hardwick Hall as a source of inspiration (LaBouff, 2018). 

In the first post in this series, I mentioned a present-day embroiderer who goes to the garden for inspiration, and for information on the plants she renders (Aoki, 2017).  But there are also artists using plant material in less conventional ways.  Susanna Bauer, who is a German-born artist living in Britain, makes works by embroidering on leaves.  There are a number practitioners of this art, which also involves a great deal of craft.  As anyone who has worked in an herbarium knows, dried leaves can be very brittle, but Bauer chooses her materials carefully and works slowly and deliberately.  Her pieces are commentaries on human/plant interactions and human/human relationships as well.  Set against white backgrounds they become reminiscent of herbarium specimens where the intervention is artistic rather than scientific, yet both approaches invite close inspection. 

Imke van Boekhold, a Dutch artist, used machine embroidery on wire to create three-dimensional renderings of Scottish plants for her thesis presentation.  Years later, she returned to this theme, but instead, created herbarium specimens and used them as her models.  The first set of work was pretty, the second set awe-inspiring.  She exhibited the works and the specimens at the Natural History Museum, Rotterdam.  Meanwhile in New Delhi Sumakshi Singh has taken a related tack, machine embroidering depictions of plants in black thread on see-through white fabric.  Exhibited in white frames against white walls, they seem to float.  She also takes several other approaches, including three-dimensional pieces floating in glass containers.  Machine embroidery of this caliber requires at least as much skill as handwork and is also as time-consuming.  Like Mary Queen of Scots, Singh has time to think about the forms she is creating and how they present the living world—making the familiar strange so viewers will take note and spend time considering that world. 

I want to end my exploration of embroidery by jumping back to an earlier practitioner so I can also jump to a different craft.  The 18th century amateur botanist Mary Delany was a keen observer of plants and created highly realistic embroidery designs as well as using those created by others.  She is known for a gown decorated with 200 stitched flowers that she wore to be presented to the queen.  However, she is even better known for her collages of flowers made from pieces of colored paper.  She created nearly a thousand of these, beginning at age 72.  Meticulously done, each has a black paper background and each depicts a single species, as in botanical illustrations (Orr, 2019).

In her early pieces, Delany often added details in watercolor, but as she became more adept almost all features were made of paper pieces.  Her passionflower is incredible (see above).  Like herbarium specimens, these collages are not quite two dimensional; they have depth and texture and she used mottled papers to increase the perception of texture.  Delany was a dedicated gardener of the inquisitive sort who wanted to know as much about plants as possible.  This interest was shared by her good friend, Margaret Bentinick, the Duchess of Portland.  Together they took botany lessons with Bentinck’s chaplain, John Lightfoot author of a flora of Scotland.  They also worked on dissecting flowers and creating herbarium specimens.  All these activities require attention to detail and digital skill; they are related and cannot be totally separated—they enrich each other. 

After Delany’s death, a few tried to imitate her technique, including William Booth Grey, but these works were not as detailed and lifelike; they lacked the energy and enthusiasm that she put into her art.  Delany had for years done paper cutting, including silhouettes in black paper.  At the time and even earlier such paper art was commonplace, particularly in Germany where it was known as Scherenschnitt.  In the late 17th century Johann Christoph Ende created what could be called a paper herbarium, with cutouts of two hundred plants.  Beneath each he gave the German and then Latin name as well as a description of the plant and its uses.  Some are so intricate as to be lace-like.  Ende was a skilled craftsman indeed, and an amateur botanist as well (see below).

Scherenschnitt of Arum by Johann Christoph Ende in Sonderbares Kräuterbuch. Berlin State Library, Ms. germ. fol. 223

References

Aoki, K. (2017). Embroidered Garden Flowers. Boulder: Roost.

LaBouff, N. (2018). Embroidery and Information Management: The Needlework of Mary Queen of Scots and Bess of Hardwick Reconsidered. Huntington Library Quarterly, 81(3), 315–358. https://doi.org/10.1353/HLQ.2018.0014

Orr, C. C. (2019). Mrs Delany: A Life. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Parker, R. (1984). The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine. New York: Routledge.

Botany for Amateurs: Pressing Plants

Dr. Priestley’s specimen of Carex depauperata, Natural History Museum, London (BM000059255)

Flow is a German magazine dedicated to the paper arts.  It had an English edition until the pandemic, and a friend of my sent me a section on plants from Issue 17, the last English-language number.  It was in three parts.  The first included a brief history of herbaria, a description of a Dutch stationery store’s line of herbarium-themed paper products, and of course, instructions on how to press plants between sheets of paper.  Next was a small Pocket Herbarium, a booklet pasted right onto on the magazine’s pages, ready for use in saving specimens.  It was created by Saskia de Valk who has already marketed a larger version.  The third section included three sheets of much heavier paper with reproductions of Maria Merian prints, suitable for framing as they say.  This entire feature, really the entire magazine, was definitely aimed at amateurs and women.  It could easily be dismissed as DIY fluff, but in the first section Luca Ghini is mentioned as an early champion of plant collections, and the herbarium at the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew is highlighted as the world’s largest.  Presenting Merian’s work provides exposure to some of the best botanical illustration.  In other words, these elements might just encourage some to explore plants, and herbaria, more avidly.

I was seduced by herbaria when I saw a couple of seaweed scrapbooks from 19th-century Rhode Island produced by local women, one the governor’s wife.  Anna Atkins was not a “professional” botanist, but she could be classified as a professional photographer, and her volumes of seaweed cyanotypes were the first published photography books.  Cyanotypes of plant material are still popular today, as is scrapbooking of all kinds.  I myself am not enamored of this medium, but as I discussed in the last post, there is a spectrum of approaches and levels of expertise in any endeavor.  It can be hard to tell at what point a herbarium morphs into a scrapbook or visa versa.  Leopold Grindon, who worked as a cashier for a Manchester textile company, donated 39,000 specimens to the Manchester Herbarium; this is one of its three foundational collections.   What makes it distinctive is that Grindon often attached illustrations, drawings, and entire articles to a specimen sheet, and in many cases, the accessory material was so extensive it needed a second or third sheet.  The texts included botanical journal articles as well as cuttings from magazines and newspapers.  It is an amazing archive, but there are many collectors who less vigorously augmented specimens.  The Harvard botanist Oakes Ames was one, often including drawings by his wife Blanche Ames (Flannery, 2012). 

Moving along the spectrum are those, mostly amateurs, who kept their specimens in books, and added either their own art or printed illustrations to the specimens.  There are many 19th-century scrapbooks with poems and other musings either printed or by the maker, along with cuttings; the language of flowers was popular at this time and often leaked into collections that also included scientific nomenclature.  In other words, amateurs ignored the borders between science and art, or science and life.  Even when the use of plant material was quite whimsical, as in a scrapbook of literary clippings with small plant cuttings—and feathers—as decoration, the attention to detail belies a great deal of observation.  Another notebook, the Bible Album of the naturalist Eliza Brightwen has only a few cuttings, but many drawings and prints of plants, along with religious art and texts.  Plants were woven deeply into the lived experience of women who documented them in these books.

The Department of Rare Books and Manuscripts at the Yale Center for British Art has a few of these gems which were highlighted in a wonderful book Of Green, Bird, and Flower: Artist’s Books and the Natural World (Fairman, 2014).  One example is an herbarium created by a Miss Rowe apparently as an entry in an herbarium contest conducted by the Liverpool Naturalists’ Field Club in 1861.  Such competitions were relatively common in the 19th century and were akin to horticultural competitions for the best rose or geranium or flower arrangement.  There is no record of who won this particular contest but this entry should have.  Each carefully labeled specimen was enclosed in a blue envelope with a watercolor of the plant painted on it.  These were arranged in a wooden stationary box.  Miss Rowe was definitely someone who took her botany seriously, and her art as well. 

But lest you think that only women were careful in their presentation of plants, I have to mention a single specimen that I saw on the Twitter feed for the Natural History Museum, London (@NHM_Botany).  It is a Carex depauperata specimen collected by William Overend Priestley.  In the upper left hand corner, outside a blue sheet framed in gold there is a note: “Prepared by Dr. Priestley, and presented by him 1889.”  I don’t know if this sheet is unique, or if Dr. Priestley, whose Wikipedia entry describes him as an obstetrician and makes no mention of botanical interests, made a habit of creating such extravaganzas.  All I know is that this one sheet has everything:  not only the specimen, but illustrations of the flower parts, along with dissected parts (see above).  There are also seeds and even nature prints of seeds at the bottom.  The illustrations are very delicate, done with a fine hand.  And I have to say the gold trim is a nice touch.  This specimen is light on information, though it does give the date and location of collection and the plant’s scientific name.  It’s hard to see this as a serious scientific artifact, but it is, and illustrates just how hard it is to fit botanical work into neat categories.

References

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

Flannery, M. C. (2012). Blanche and Oakes Ames: A relationship of art and science. Plant Science Bulletin, 58(2), 60–64.

Botany for Amateurs

“Amateur” is a word with several connotations.  It can mean someone who doesn’t get paid for what they do, or who is not very good at what they do, or who does something for the love of it.  In other words, an amateur in a particular field may be a person with wildly varied levels of expertise.  I am an amateur in the world of botany.  Yes, I have degrees in biology, but I focused on molecular biology and didn’t start seriously studying plants until a dozen years ago.  There is no way I am going to be anything but an amateur, yet botany is something I spend a lot of time studying and thinking about—because I love it.

Another issue here is that botany—or plant science if you like—is a huge field.  There are professionals—and amateurs—who focus on plant communities and ecology, others delve into native species, still others go in for plant breeding.  I myself am interested in the history of botany and its relationship to art.  There was a mathematician at my university who was a dedicated daylily breeder, participating wholeheartedly in that community.  He knew these plants and their genetics intimately, but his interest in other parts of the plant world was minimal.  What I am trying to get at here is that many amateurs have expertise about plants in narrow areas, but that doesn’t mean that their knowledge and experience should be denigrated.  Nor should this proficiency be downplayed when it isn’t considered “scientific” enough in the eyes of professionals.  Amateurs may view plants differently, but that hardly means their experiences are without value in understanding the plant world. 

The 19th century is often considered the heyday of natural history (Barber, 1980).  Where amateur botany was concerned the focus was often on women, since studying plants was considered within the bounds of feminine pursuits because of their interest in growing flowers, embroidering them, and arranging them in vases.  It was deemed appropriate for them to learn the scientific names of plants, do a little light classification, and even create herbaria to document their learning.  But how did these various plant-related activities interrelate and enrich each other?  This is an area that is receiving more attention as scholars are looking more closely at women’s experience of the plant world (Kelley, 2012). 

Since I dabble in embroidery, a friend of mine sent me Embroidered Garden Flowers by Kazuko Aoki (2017), with instructions on how to hand embroider a number of beautiful plants.  Each species was stitched on a plain background, much as a botanical illustration would be.  To add to the similarity, Aoki often included enlargements of flower parts.  It took careful observation to render these so accurately, with the added skill of having to figure out how to “paint” these with thread, of just the right color and thickness and stitch type:  “Whenever I hesitate about a detail when embroidering, I go out to the garden to check on the color or shape of the flower.  I might need a closer look at the contrast in color between flowers and leaves or a better grasp of the structure of the plant as opposed to the way its form appears.  Once I understand these things, I can convey the essence of the flowers, no matter how simplified they are” (p. 27). 

Aoki is a 21st-century artist so natural history may be moving into another heyday.  There was definitely a resurgence in nature study during the early days of COVID with even an online herbarium created by Elaine Ayers, an historian of botany at New York University.  She electronically gathered pressed plants from interested collectors who arranged their finds on everything from copy paper to notebook sheets.  In each case, the plant was SEEN and collected and arranged and pressed, and in many cases also named and it’s collection location noted.  It became a botanical document and a piece of cultural history as well.  iNaturalist is another form of participatory botany that became especially popular during COVID and remains so.  Those who are seriously involved with this platform make a real contribution through their recorded observations and in the process are learning much about the natural world.  It’s now more common to see published research that cites iNaturalist data and other “citizen science” contributions, with that term sometimes used as a fancy label for “amateur.” 

In this series of posts, I am having fun, which is something that amateurs do.  They dabble because it is enjoyable, but my point is that they are learning as they are dabbling, and that learning can be of several types and valuable in several ways.  You can’t collect plants without noticing them, you can’t name them without recognizing differences among them, and you can’t arrange them on a sheet without gaining a haptic sense of how stiff a stem is, or how much pressure it takes to get a leaf to lie flat.  Do these things over and over again, and experience becomes expertise.  You get good at identifying and pressing plants more quickly and adeptly.  I think amateurs themselves tend to denigrate their capabilities; they don’t necessarily stop to compare their present skill with what they had when they began.  In the next three posts, I’ll take a look at some of these skills and how they contribute to awareness of the plant world in sometimes significant ways. 

References

Aoki, K. (2017). Embroidered Garden Flowers. Boulder: Roost.

Barber, L. (1980). The Heyday of Natural History, 1820-1870. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Kelley, T. M. (2012). Clandestine Marriage: Botany and Romantic Culture. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Herbaria: Specimens Get Around

Cover of Capitulum, Volume 2, Number 1

Years ago, my husband would attend meetings of the Popular Culture Association because he was interested in visual aspects of the popularization of science in 19th century magazines and books.  I of course tagged along, and soon discovered that the PCA was about much more than comic books and plastic toys.  There are dozens of sections and I found ones that dealt with material culture, the study of things—including two of my loves: natural history specimens and textiles.  Material culture deals with human-made artifacts and would seem to exclude specimens, but that’s hardly the case.  A specimen is an artifact.  A herbarium sheet is more than a plant.  It’s a piece of paper with at least one label, and the plant has been processed by humans to behave well in two dimensions.  The botanical artist Rachel Pedder-Smith wrote about herbaria and material culture in her dissertation that accompanied her spectacular painting of Kew specimens, Herbarium Specimen Painting.

Over time, a specimen accretes greater significance as more humans interact with it.  Deborah Harkness (2007) writes:  “Every time a dried plant specimen changed hands it became infused with new cultural and intellectual currency as its provenance became richer, its associations greater” (p. 31).  Often though not always, the transfer is noted physically on the sheet, making it easier to explain how a particular plant from, for example Germany, ended up in New Zealand, or why plants collected on a Captain James Cook expedition found a home in Philadelphia.  In the last three posts (1,2,3) I’ve discussed attempts to puzzle out the provenance of herbaria, now I want to take this down to the “microhistory” level and look at the travels of individual sheets. 

I got this idea from a lovely article I read in Capitulum, the recently revamped newsletter of The International Compositae Alliance (TICA).  Abigail Moore (2022) writes about a single sheet at Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University that has two gatherings of what is now Grindelia ciliata(Nutt.) Spreng.  The first was collected in 1819 by Thomas Nuttall, a British botanist who worked for many years in the United States and collected widely in the West.  The label just gives “Arkansas” as the locale, but in the species description, Nuttall (1821) added “on the alluvial banks of the Arkansas, and Great Salt River.”  The second gathering was from Samuel Woodhouse, who was like many collectors in the West, a U.S. Army surgeon/naturalist.  He was on the Sitgreaves Expedition 1849-1851 to map in the same region Nuttall had visited 30 years earlier.  The locale is “Cherokee Nation,” and Moore explains the technicalities of that term at the time, pointing to an area close to where Nuttall had found the first specimen.  She ends by going into the rather complex nomenclatural history of this species, explaining the various names on the labels.  It’s a lovely article and a reminder of how much can be learned from a single sheet.

In a very different example of the rich history that ANS specimens can reveal, Earle Spamer (1998) writes of 26 sheets there that were collected by Johann Reingold Forster and his son Johann Georg, naturalists on Captain James Cook’s second around-the-world voyage.  Spamer describes how much they collected and how broadly the specimens were distributed, in most cases to British or at least European herbaria.  The ANS specimens were given in 1834 by Thomas Nuttall, who apparently got them from Aylmer Bourke Lambert, an avid British botanist and collector (they are marked “Lambert Herbarium”).  Some Lewis and Clark specimens at the ANS were also once part of Lambert’s herbarium but arrived by a very different route—a story for another time (Spamer & McCourt, 2002). 

On the other side of the world, the herbarium of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa has a briefer history than ANS but none-the-less an interesting collection.  Eighty-four of its specimens traveled from Japan to Russian to Britain before arriving back in the Pacific.  The Russian botanist Carl Maximowich collected in Japan from 1860-1864 and returned to Saint Petersburg with 72 chests of specimens.  The Natural History Museum, London received 1500 from this hoard, and they sent 84 on to New Zealand.  At the time, New Zealand was a young colony, trying to develop its scientific infrastructure and the museum sought assistance from London.

These specimens were part of a much larger European collection of 28,000 specimens bought from NHM by the museum’s director James Hector in 1865.  He thought Australian botanists needed a reference collection to aid in identification of the many non-native plants spreading through the colony, either inadvertently or purposefully brought in by settlers.  As often happens in understaffed herbaria, most of this material lay in storage until the 1950s, and some of it has only recently been examined in detail.  The collection was put together by three British collectors, but within it were materials collected by others, including at least one specimen of an Easter Island plant (see earlier post).  There were also specimens gathered by a German botanist Johannes Flügge (1775-1816) who established a botanical garden in Hamburg.  It was destroyed by Napoleon’s forces in 1813, yet here is a record of what was growing on the other side of the globe when New Zealand wasn’t even an official colony.  That’s the wonder of herbaria and why I study them.  I bore easily, but I am confident that there is an endless supply of examples like this to keep me intrigued.    

References

Harkness, D. E. (2007). The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Moore, A. (2022). Grindelia ciliata (Astereae), Thomas Nuttall, and the exploration of the American West. Capitulum, 1(2). https://doi.org/10.53875/capitulum.01.2.07

Pedder-Smith, R. (2012). Herbarium Specimen Painting. Rachel Pedder-Smith. http://www.rachelpeddersmith.com/Herbarium/Herbarium.html

Spamer, E. (1998). Circumventing Captain Cook. Lewisia, 2, 2–5.

Spamer, E., & McCourt, R. (2002). The Lewis and Clark Herbarium of The Academy of Natural Sciences. Part 1. Notulae Naturae, 475, 1–46.