Aesthetics of Communication

Limnobium spongia collected by Alvin Chapman in Apalachicola, FL; A.C. Moore Herbarium, University of South Carolina, Columbia

When I was studying the aesthetics of biological inquiry, my adviser kept driving home the distinction between the aesthetics of the process of research and its product.  So far in this series of posts (1,2,3), I’ve focused on the process, what Gerald Holton (1973) calls the private side of science.  This includes the joy of discovery, the pain of failure, the exhilaration of sensing the path to figuring out a problem.  Usually, this gets bleached out of a publication on the product of this work, which in systematics might mean description of a new species or even a new genus.  Does this mean that there is no aesthetic aspect to research products?  I hardly think so; there are eloquent and not so eloquent ways of communicating results, and the difference matters.  Historians argue that one of the reasons it took so long for biologists to recognize the significance of Barbara McClintock’s work on mobile genetic elements in corn was that her papers were so obtuse (Keller, 1983; Comfort, 2001).  It was difficult to appreciate the significance of the work, and added to this was a sense that corn was an odd plant genetically.  Her work was less valued for reasons that weren’t without an aesthetic component.

It is possible to describe a new species solely in words.  There are no images in Carl Linnaeus’s Species Plantarum nor in many other botanical classics.  But the use of images arose early in the history of modern botany and even occurred before that time.  The Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder cites an illustrated materia medica text by Crateuas from the first century BCE, and the 6th century Juliana Codex has many realistic plant illustrations (Morton, 1981).  Before John Sibthorp went on his collecting trip to the Levant, he spent months in Vienna studying the Codex and a 17th century manuscript with illustrations based on it (Lack, 1999).  The great early modern herbals of the 16th century including those of Otto Brunfels and Leonhart Fuchs were significant not so much for their texts, but for their illustrations.  Rembert Dodoens’s work was considered important for both (Ogilvie. 2006). 

But while some botanists thought illustrations essential, others put the emphasis on clear descriptions.  There are no images in John Ray’s Historia Plantarum.  Even in the 19th century, botanists like Joseph Dalton Hooker saw text as more scientifically rigorous than images (Endersby, 2008).  Like many botanists, he thought images were only necessary for the less serious plant fanciers.  Today systematic publications, especially those describing new species, often have pen and ink illustrations and/or color photographs.  I haven’t done a formal study but I think the ratio of illustrations to photographs has declined over the years.  I would argue that this is to the detriment of both science and aesthetics.  Photographs are great, but often they become more legible when the eye has been trained on drawings that clearly delineate features.

However, communicating botany involves more than systematists communicating with other systematists, more to making the products of research public.  Among those products are the herbarium specimens, the tools that botanists use in their work.  These were created in private, but deserve to be public, both because they help people understand what botanists do and can transmit the excitement and exhilaration of research.  Sometimes when I am inputting label data from a specimen, someone will come in and say “that’s a beautiful specimen,” or I will simply say it to myself.  I have been known to photograph some of my favorites (see image above) as I would a beautiful flower in a garden or a striking landscape, just so I can relive the experience of it.  Working in a herbarium is like working in the storage facility of a great museum, like the 105,000 square foot underground facility at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The difference is that most herbarium treasures rarely get displayed. 

Specimens are aesthetic objects for two reasons.  Some of them are indeed beautiful, and that’s why art professors send their students to herbaria to study and draw them.  But there are also the stories that are attached, either physically and more peripherally to specimens.  Especially in historical collections, there are sometimes letters or notes affixed to sheets perhaps written by the person who sent the specimen to a botanist, describing where it was found or giving some other reason for its significance.  In other cases, it is a note reminding the botanist of its significance.  The 19th century Pennsylvania botanist William Darlington noted on a Rudbeckia triloba specimen that “This appears to be the last plant poor Baldwin collected.”  He was referring to his friend William Baldwin who died on the Long Expedition in 1820.  Another Darlington notation reads:  “Symphoria racemosa from John Jackson’s garden raised by him from plants brought from the Missouri by Lewis & Clark.”  That was definitely worth recording. 

To me these brief notations open up narratives about collecting in the early years of the United States, about the personal and national significance such collections can have.  I will end my ramble on aesthetics by mentioning the exhilaration I felt when I found these remarks while having the opportunity to study some of the material at the William Darlington Herbarium at West Chester University.    Opening up such collections and making them available digitally will allow a broader audience to appreciate them and interpret them in new ways.

Note:  I am very grateful to Sharon Began of the Biology Department and Ron McColl in the Library Archives at West Chester University who were extremely helpful to me on my several visits there. 


Comfort, N. (2001). The Tangled Field: Barbara McClintock’s Search for the Pattern’s of Genetic Control. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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

Holton, G. (1973). Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought: Kepler to Einstein. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Keller, E. F. (1983). A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock. New York: Freeman.

Lack, H. W. (2000). Lilac and horse-chestnut: Discovery and rediscovery. Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, 17(2), 109–141.

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

Aesthetics of Doing Botany

What to collect? 19th-century graveyard in Ohio protected as a nature preserve.

In this series of posts (1,2), I am laying out an argument for the essential role of aesthetics in botanical inquiry, particularly in the herbarium.  What first comes to mind is obviously the beauty of so many plants, but aesthetic elements run deeply through all aspects of plant collecting, specimen preparation, and on into systematic research, which is the topic of this post.  Mastering a field and then spending years working on a particular genus or family is not easy.  Botanists do it because they love looking at plants, solving taxonomic puzzles, and learning how to fit new pieces of information into the portrait of a species.  How much they enjoy working with plants can be measured by the number of retired botanists who remain active in the field:  they are legion. 

I am not saying anything new here, but I think it’s important to highlight it and to examine a little more closely just what is so mesmerizing.  For some it is the thrill of the chase:  being out in the field collecting.  It is somewhat akin to people like my sister who love to shop.  Entering a forest or a shopping mall, the enthusiast may not be looking for anything in particular and that’s part of the excitement:  what will catch their eye.  Perhaps a real bargain or a rare plant.  For others the exciting part involves careful study, attempting to decide if a specimen is a member of a particular species or not.  Is it significantly different enough to count as a new variety or even a new species?  What will it take to make a case for its novelty?  One question leads to another, and spurs on future work.  Who knows where it will lead, perhaps even to examination of an entire genus.  This could result in years of research.  How wonderful!

Yet in the field, a botanist can often recognize a species in an instant, what Carl Pantin  (1954) calls “aesthetic recognition,” something that comes with deep knowledge of a particular part of the living world.  He sees this as very different from what goes on in close systematic work, where plants are keyed out and individual traits closely examined.  The knowledge thus accrued feeds into field identification, but Pantin thinks there is something more, something that can’t be put into words, perhaps similar to what birders call “jizz” or the sense of bird as a whole.  This is an example of the tacit knowledge that I discussed in the last post.  It can’t be verbalized so Pantin terms it “aesthetic,” an interesting word choice relating it to feeling as well as thinking. 

There are also other elements of systematics that have aesthetic aspects such as the propensity to lump or split.  Often a judgment call has to be made about how different two groups of plants have to be to put them into different species.  In some cases, there might not be a number of plants to study but only a single specimen, sometimes making the decision easier to make.  When there are many individuals, they can often be placed on a gradient for one or more traits that may or may not cluster together.  This can become a thorny problem and even a philosophical one involving whether or not a botanist even accepts the idea that species exist in nature.  Again, not all of this decision making can be put into words and some of it is a matter of style.  There are those who tend toward one or the other viewpoint.

In his biography of Joseph Dalton Hooker, James Endersby (2008) contrasts botanists working with larger collections in imperial capitals like London and Paris with collectors in distant colonies that didn’t have access to large collections for comparison.  Those in the colonies, looking at a few specimens, would tend to identify anything novel as a new species.  In what Bruno Latour (1990) calls “centers of calculation” where the wealth of the colonies accumulated both botanically and economically, botanists placed a specimen in a different context and perceive it as was just a variation among many, not unique at all but destined to be lumped into an already named species.  This is what Hooker’s colleague George Bentham did in moving a plant that the botanist Augustin Pyramus de Candolle had put into a new genus Darlingtonia to honor the Pennsylvania botanist William Darlington who had sent him a package of interesting North American plants.  It was moved into the Mimosa genus by the “odious Mr. Bentham,” as Darlington later referred to him (Flannery, 2019). 

But such differences in “style” remain and go well beyond lumping and splitting.  Some botanists write terse plant descriptions and others write more fulsome ones, sometimes with little difference in content.  It is a matter of literary panache.  The same holds true for label descriptions as well as journal articles.  There are also style issues in the form of publication:  a major treatment, over publication of a single new species.  At times this is about getting a publication to secure a job or to insure its continuance.  In some cases, it’s an issue of publishing before someone else does.  However, sometimes it is more about making a nice neat package of a genus, describing new species while revising descriptions of others.  And with publications, there comes the question of what to include in terms of images:  photographs or drawings, maps or no maps, etc.  But these are questions for the next post.


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

Flannery, M. C. (2019). Naming a genus for William Darlington: A case study in botanical eponymy. Archives of Natural History, 46(1), 75–87.

Latour, B. (1990). Drawing things together. In M. Lynch & S. Woolgar (Eds.), Representation in scientific practice (pp. 19–68). MIT Press.

Pantin, C. F. A. (1954). The recognition of species. Science Progress, 42, 587–598.

Aesthetics as Guide

Glechoma hederacea, Stadhuis Museum Zierikzee, NLD

In the last post, I discussed a number of studies that found biases in plant collecting based on a plant’s size, form, and color.  These are considered aesthetic selections, not grounded in objective properties such as a plant’s rarity or conservation status.  While bias can weaken a study’s findings and should be guarded against, I don’t think aesthetics can be totally eliminated from collecting, nor should it be.  There is a lot more to the aesthetics of collecting than just which plants are selected.  First, there is the overall experience of being outdoors, surrounded by plants and moving through a landscape.  The exhilaration of walking in an unfamiliar area or the comfort of a familiar one.  For most botanists, collecting is a scientifically and personally important part of their lives.  It can engage all the senses including the kinesthetic.  Pulling a plant up by its roots, selecting branches to cut, and then wrestling these into plastic bags or between pieces of newspaper involve many sensations and movements all at once.  At least for some plants, this is the most difficult and sensorial part of collecting—with scents and sounds abounding.  Many plants do not readily become two dimensional.  It can be a challenge, especially for a spiny species.   The work is going on as the brain is absorbing information and organizing it for identification.  This is definitely an experience in John Dewey’s (1934) sense of the word, where mind and body are involved working as one. 

            Phenomenology is the analysis of experience, becoming aware of what is going on while doing or sensing something.  It is, in the jargon of today, being mindful and realizing just how much is involved, appreciating the richness of a moment:  feelings as well as thoughts.  In other words, phenomenological analysis helps us appreciate the aesthetic aspects of life and is one reason why it is a popular philosophical tradition among artists, and perhaps it should be used more by scientists.  Some are much more aware of the aesthetic aspects of their work than others.  Years ago, the biochemist Arthur Kornberg (1989) wrote a memoir called For the Love of Enzymes describing the joys of his work.  The chemist Roald Hoffmann published a series of articles (1988-1989) on what makes molecules attractive after his wife asked him to explain why he called a chemical structure “beautiful.”  Both these men won Nobel Prizes, so their interest in the aesthetic is significant, especially because they chose to share this side of science with nonscientists.

              Another chemist whose writings are relevant here is Michael Polanyi (1966) who developed the concept of tacit knowledge, the mind and body work so closely that it’s impossible to put the experience into words.  Driving a car is one example, and expertly processing specimens is another.  Someone can explain these activities, but there is so much physical as well as mental work entailed that they can only be learned by doing.  Because mind and body are acting together, feelings are intimately integrated in pressing specimens and even more in mounting them.  The issue is how to take the material that has already been pressed and arrange it as attractively as possible, while not having too much overlap among parts, making sure both sides of leaves are visible, and displaying flowers with as much information as possible apparent.  However, there are limits to what a preparator can do with pressed material, which is why care in the field is essential. 

One problem with aesthetic considerations is that by their nature they are difficult to verbalize.  They are tacit; you know a beautiful specimen when you see it.  Many times I’ve come across descriptions of collections in which the superior quality of the specimens is mentioned.  This usually means that they are not skimpy, but at the same time they don’t look like unruly hairdos on the sheet.  Also labels and barcodes are not askew, a sign of hasty preparation.  These elements are noted.  The preparators at New York Botanical Gardens would comment on “certain people” who weren’t careful about the barcodes, thus taking away from the overall appearance of the sheet.  The same care needs to be taken with fragment envelopes and determination slips, as well as sketches and other notes that might be included.  A herbarium sheet can involve quite a few elements.  Their arrangement can make a difference not only in how good it looks, but in how easy it is to “read” or make sense of the elements.  The objective and subjective can’t be separated.

Every herbarium curator has favorite specimens taken out to show on group tours or for a visiting researcher.  Usually these include at least one particularly striking sheet, perhaps with a flower that has kept its color or a beautifully draped vine or a well-pressed orchid.  This is all about visual aesthetics.  But there are other kinds of aesthetic choices made, as in selecting sheets that have good stories related to them: a specimen collected by Joseph Banks on James Cook’s first voyage around the world or by Charles Darwin or by Margaret Gatty at the seashore in Britain.  Here history and science are rolled into one in a way that can be memorable and exciting to the viewers.  This is definitely part of the aesthetic aspect of botany for both botanists and the general public. 


Dewey, J. (1934). Art as Experience. New York: Minton, Balch.

Hoffmann, R. (1988a). Molecular beauty. American Scientist, 76, 389–391.

Hoffmann, R. (1988b). Molecular beauty II: Frogs about to be kissed. American Scientist, 76, 604–605.

Hoffmann, R. (1989a). Molecular beauty III: As rich as need be. American Scientist, 77, 177–178.

Hoffmann, R. (1989b). Molecular beauty IV: Toward an aesthetic theory of six-coordinate carbon. American Scientist, 77, 330–332.

Kornberg, A. (1989). For the Love of Enzymes: The Odyssey of a Biochemist. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Polanyi, M. (1966). The Tacit Dimension. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Aesthetics as Suspect

Gentiana ligustica, photo Botanical Garden of Fribourg

An article published last year deals with bias in the selection of plants for botanical studies (Adamo et al., 2021).  A survey of 280 investigations published between 1975 and 2020 on a well-studied alpine flora found that “morphological and colour traits, as well as range size, have significantly more impact on species choice for wild flowering plants than traits related to ecology and rarity” (p. 574).  Specifically, plants with blue flowers, those that were relatively tall, and those with larger flowers were more likely to be selected along with plants with wider ranges.  None of this is really news since a number of studies using digitized herbarium specimens have found spatial, temporal, and trait biases (Daru et al., 2018; Troudet et al., 2017).  However, the emphasis here on what the authors term “aesthetic” traits drew attention, with Nature (“Flower Power: Pretty Plants Are the Most Studied,” 2021) and Scientific American (“A Flashy Focus,” Kramer, 2021) running news stories including a photo of a blue gentian flower from the journal article.

In their conclusion, the authors came down quite heavily on the problems associated with this bias.  If researchers were attracted by color, form, and size rather than the conservation status particularly of rare plants, then the species that need the most attention would not be getting it:  “This apparently superficial preference has implicit and undesired effects as it translates into an aesthetic bias in the data that form the basis for scientific research and practices.”  They continue, “. . . it would be desirable to develop measures to counteract it, given the potentially negative impact on our understanding of the ecology and evolution of plants and the conservation of vital plant biodiversity” (p. 576). 

In their introduction, Adamo et al. write:  “These biases should be taken into account to inform more objective plant conservation efforts “(p. 574), thus juxtaposing science as objective and aesthetics as subjective.  I take umbrage with this and their implication that “aesthetic” is superficial and undesirable, therefore antithetical to scientific research.  My dissertation was on the aesthetic of biology, so I admit to my own bias, but this work taught me that the aesthetic is an integral part of scientific inquiry and cannot be expunged.  The two are not in opposition in part because the standard mind/body dichotomy is simply wrong.  There is more and more evidence that brain function is intimately interwoven with the physiology of the rest of the body, and so therefore are thinking and feeling.  Feelings generate thoughts and vice versa (Damasio, 2000). 

As far as attraction to large, brightly colored flowers is concerned, as Adamo et al. admit, this bias may be part of our biology.  We are a species that relies a great deal on sight, so in scanning a green landscape, a contrasting color is likely to stand out (Arnheim, 1969).  In studies of collection bias based on herbarium specimens, some researchers found that there was a bias toward collecting white flowers (Panchen et al., 2019) and more than one study has found a bias against collecting plants with green or brownish inflorescences, described as “unattractively colored” in one article (Schmidt-Lebuhn et al., 2013, p.  905).  There are biases for tall plants in one article (Williams & Pearson, 2019) and perennials over annuals in another (Daru et al., 2018).  There are also biases against collecting spiny plants:  this might also be seen as aesthetic in nature:  getting stuck repeatedly is not pleasurable (Schmidt-Lebuhn et al., 2013).  Spatial collecting biases are well-documented and myriad, with sites near roads or railroads, populated areas, and research institutions being more often visited than those that are remote and difficult to access (Haque et al., 2017).  This may also be seen as at least partially aesthetic in origin.  Botanists are human beings who like their creature comforts.

But not all biases are driven by aesthetics.  Colonial powers directed a great deal of collecting in the past, as witnessed by the large Asian, African, and Latin American collections in Europe (Brockway, 1979).  Collection today can often be influenced by a collector’s or an institution’s research interests for a particular family or class.  Since the early modern era, useful plants have been sought after, and this trend continues with quests for crop wild relatives and medicinal plants.  Mark Nesbitt (2014) of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew notes that useful plants are over-represented in herbaria worldwide.  What digitization of specimens on a large scale has done is to make these biases much easier to discover because large data sets can be analyzed without actually examining each specimen.  Now all types of biases are more identifiable and therefore more addressable. 

What is important to me about the study on alpine plants is that is brings aesthetics front and center into a discussion of scientific research, something that doesn’t happen very often.  Many scientists will discuss their attraction to certain topics or species or types of research, but it doesn’t usually get written about in journal articles.  This perpetuates the assumption that science is an “objective” activity.  It neglects what Gerald Holton (1973) calls the “private side of science:”  how science is really done—with all its joys, mistakes, brilliant insights, and wrong turns that get edited out of publications.  John Dewey (1932) argued that any deeply lived experience, and research is definitely that, is an aesthetic experience.  This is the topic I want to explore in the next three posts in this series on the role aesthetics play in collecting and preparing specimens, studying them, and communicating about them.


Adamo, M., Chialva, M., Calevo, J., Bertoni, F., Dixon, K., & Mammola, S. (2021). Plant scientists’ research attention is skewed towards colourful, conspicuous and broadly distributed flowers. Nature Plants, 7(5), 574–578.

Arnheim, R. (1969). Visual Thinking. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

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

Damasio, A. (2000). The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. San Diego: Mariner.

Daru, B. H., Park, D. S., Primack, R. B., Willis, C. G., Barrington, D. S., Whitfeld, T. J. S., Seidler, T. G., Sweeney, P. W., Foster, D. R., Ellison, A. M., & Davis, C. C. (2018). Widespread sampling biases in herbaria revealed from large-scale digitization. New Phytologist, 217(2), 939–955.

Dewey, J. (1934). Art as Experience. New York: Minton, Balch.

Flower Power: Pretty plants are the most studied. (2021). Nature, 593, 317.

Haque, Md. M., Nipperess, D. A., Gallagher, R. V., & Beaumont, L. J. (2017). How well documented is Australia’s flora? Understanding spatial bias in vouchered plant specimens. Austral Ecology, 42(6), 690–699.

Kramer, J. (2021). A flashy focus. Scientific American, 325(2), 24.

Nesbitt, M. (2014). Use of herbarium specimens in ethnobotany. In J. Salick, K. Konchar, & M. Nesbitt (Eds.), Curating Biocultural Collections: A Handbook (pp. 313–328). Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Panchen, Z. A., Doubt, J., Kharouba, H. M., & Johnston, M. O. (2019). Patterns and biases in an Arctic herbarium specimen collection: Implications for phenological research. Applications in Plant Sciences, 7(3), e01229.

Schmidt-Lebuhn, A. N., Knerr, N. J., & Kessler, M. (2013). Non-geographic collecting biases in herbarium specimens of Australian daisies (Asteraceae). Biodiversity and Conservation, 22(4), 905–919.

Troudet, J., Grandcolas, P., Blin, A., Vignes-Lebbe, R., & Legendre, F. (2017). Taxonomic bias in biodiversity data and societal preferences. Scientific Reports, 7(1), 9132.

Williams, J., & Pearson, K. D. (2019). Examining collection biases across different taxonomic groups: Understanding how biases can compare across herbarium datasets. American Journal of Undergraduate Research, 15(4), 47–53.

Humanistic Uses of Herbaria

Secret of the Ferns by Anselm Kiefer in the Margulies Collection

This series of posts (1, 2) is highlighting projects sponsored by the Dumbarton Oaks Museum and Research Library.  I’ve already mentioned their Zoom presentations.  One particularly notable one was held in March 2021 and dealt with Humanistic Uses of Herbaria.  It was hosted by New York Botanical Garden Humanities Institute along with Dumbarton which is home of the Plant Humanities Initiative along with JSTOR Labs.  There were four speakers that day, all stars in their respective fields.  First was Barbara Thiers, now Director Emerita of the NYBG herbarium, leader in many endeavors to digitize herbarium collections, and author of Herbarium (see earlier post).  She gave a great introduction to the history and importance of herbaria and was followed by Pam Soltis, curator at the University of Florida’s Museum of Natural History, one of the leads on the iDigBio project to digitize specimens, and an expert on evolutionary genetics and ecology.  She presented on the future of research using herbarium specimens.  Anatole Tchikine, curator of rare books at Dumbarton, was the next speaker and discussed herbaria in the collection including a very interesting manuscript by the landscape architect Samuel Parsons, Jr., Leaves of Hardy Oaks and Maples.  He created it early in his career as a way to study leaf form and how this might affect the shade a tree produced. 

Yota Batsaki, executive director of Dumbarton Oaks, gave the last presentation on “The Apocalyptic Herbarium: Anselm Kiefer’s Secret of the Ferns (2007).”  She dealt with the herbarium as metaphor for the deterioration of life, particularly plant life, on earth.  Kiefer is among the most noted postwar German artists and often uses plants in his works.  He was born in 1945 in a Berlin bunker and played in ruble as a child, so it is not surprising that the war and the holocaust have been among his major themes.  Many of his paintings, often multimedia works, are devastated landscapes, with thick layers of paint, sometimes splashed with molten lead and embedded with dried plants (Biro, 2013). 

As Batsaki noted, more recently Kiefer has turned to other forms of devastation, including thoughtless abuse of the earth.  In dealing with this theme he uses some of the same tropes he employed in earlier work.  In particular, she discusses a large installation, Secret of the Ferns, that fills a room at the Margulies Collection in Miami.  At the center of the room are two concrete bunkers that have seen much wear and tear.  A two-story one is at the back and in front of it is one with a pile of coal at its entrance.  Along the left and right walls are hung large framed works in two ranks on each side, 48 in all towering over the viewer. 

Kiefer’s installations are complex; there are many layers to them and many details.  I was intrigued by Batsaki’s presentation but I knew I was missing some of the nuances.  I hoped that she would publish on this topic, and she has, in an article in Environmental Humanities (2021).  Through the text and images of the work, I was able to dig more deeply into it.  While I was somewhat familiar with Thiers and Solitis’s work, this was another realm.  Here were plants being used in a very different way, not to reveal information about genetics or environmental change, but to get at deep questions of what humans value and how they relate to other forms of life on earth.  Batsaki does a great job of “interrogating” the work.  This is a term that scholars in the humanities use regularly, but it is sort of foreign to me.  Interrogating living things seems rather aggressive and is a verb seldom used by biologists, though many of their techniques can be quite aggressive.  It is an example of how science and the humanities have to learn each other’s language and attitudes if they are to do more than just meet occasionally as at the March seminar.

Hanging to the left and right of the bunkers, many of the frames hold large pressed fern fronds against a dark background, in some cases, with the stipe appearing to rise from dried, cracked earth.  Each is encased in what Batsaki describes as a vitrine and framed in lead, a common material for Kiefer, who is intrigued with its role in alchemy.  The ferns relate to the installation’s title which is from a Paul Celan poem.  Celan’s work, often dealing with aspects of German history and the holocaust, has proved a rich reservoir of inspiration for Kiefer.  The artist is drawn to ferns because of their long history on earth as the earliest vascular plants and one source of the organic material in coal.  Their presence in the frames is tied to the coal by the bunker:  a reminder that burning coal has led to disastrous changes in the earth’s atmosphere that threatens the long-resilient ferns and all life on earth, what Batsaki describes as the “slow violence of extinction.” (p. 394). 

In this short post, it’s impossible to do justice either to the artwork or to the essay.  There is a great deal here as Batsaki investigates a variety of themes including that of transformation, examining how ferns were long thought to be mysterious because they did not form seeds and so their mode of reproduction was unknown until their tiny spores were studied in the mid-19th century.  One line from her essay that I find particularly memorable is: “If the herbarium started as an aide to memory [in the early modern era], the installation transforms it into a vehicle for memorialization.” (p. 409).  Unfortunately too many sheets in herbaria serve the same function for extinct species.


Batsaki, Y. (2021). The Apocalyptic Herbarium: Mourning and Transformation in Anselm Kiefer’s Secret of the Ferns. Environmental Humanities, 13(2), 391–413.

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

Herbarium Metaphors

Herbarium Verbarium, Claudette Sartiliot

The last post in this series on books about herbaria is different from the others (1,2,3).  It won’t focus on one book, but touch on many.  What they have in common is their use of the word “herbarium” metaphorically; pressed plants are hardly mentioned, though they do come up in one book, Claudette Sartiliot’s (1993) work of literary criticism Herbarium Verbarium: The Discourse of Flowers.  Herbarium here is used to signify all plants, not just dead ones.  Sartiliot writes that she concentrates on modern and post-modern writers who use the flower “to reveal its polyvalent and extravagant nature, its verbal, psychological and botanical significances” (p. 2). 

Not surprisingly, Sigmund Freud is among the writers Sartiliot cites, discussing a section of his The Interpretation of Dreams in which he recounts one of his dreams.  In it, he had written a monograph about a plant and bound in each copy was a dried specimen of the plant, “as though it had been taken from a herbarium” (Sartiliot, p. 19, from Freud’s Chapter 5).  Later she writes that in this dream Freud moved from text to plant, and this is a theme she returns to often.  She also describes Proust as writing as a botanist, a psychologist, and an artist.  She adds “it is according to these principles that I have tried to read him and the other writers in this book” (p. 152).  I have to admit that I am not accustomed to reading literary criticism, and I am not at all adept at deciphering the layers of meaning in good literature.  But I did find Sartiliot’s observation interesting that the relationship between herbarium and verbarium is not new; it is “part of a long, but forgotten tradition in which botany and literature are linked; as science and humanities once were” (p. 34).

Non-botanical books with herbarium in the title link science and the humanities in very different ways.  Giovanni Aloi’s (2019) Lucien Freud Herbarium is a study of the British portrait painter’s portraits of plants, a portion of his work of which I was unaware.  Freud did not always choose the most beautiful people to paint, and the same is true of plants.  But in both cases, his work is masterful—realistic, yet also expressionistic.  Aloi works in the area of critical plant studies, at the border between literature and philosophy, exploring alternate ways of thinking about plants and questioning the “privileged” position of humans relative to plants (Aloi, 2018).  The central issue here is whether plants should be seen as a “lower” form of life relative to animals.  This also relates to the changing focus in plant research with plants now perceived as more active agents and more responsive to their environments than they were considered in the past.  In some cases this leads to questions of plant mind and plant consciousness, areas that I am no more able to address than those of literary criticism. 

One of the leaders of the critical plant studies movement is Michael Marder and two of his books have “herbarium” in their titles.  The Philosopher’s Plant: An Intellectual Herbarium (2013) is a series of essays on how philosophers through the ages, from Plato to Hegel, have employed plants as metaphors in their writings.  Here he uses herbarium in a way it is often used metaphorically:  to signify a grouping of plants in a particular context.  Marder’s (2016) The Chernobyl Herbarium: Fragments of an Exploded Consciousness features a collection of plants, but in this case photographs.  They are very artistically done studies by Anaïs Tondeur.  She took plants that had been grown in the radiation-contaminated soil around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine and pressed them, not onto paper, but onto photographic plates, which were exposed by the radiation emitted by the specimens.  The results are ghostly images of the plants that are a perfect counterpoint to Marder’s text in which he describes living as a boy in the area downwind of Chernobyl at the time of the explosion. 

Also in the photography realm is William Arnold’s (2020) Suburban Herbarium, a collection of photos of plants growing around where he lives and works.  In the commentary, it’s noted that the photography pioneer Henry Fox Talbot was a serious amateur botanist and thought that accurate recording of plant specimens would become an important contribution made by his invention.  In A Painted Herbarium: The Life and Art of Emily Hitchcock Terry (1838-1921) by Beatrice Smith (1992), herbarium refers to Terry’s botanical illustrations of Minnesota plants.  Then there’s Gianna Gatti’s (2010) The Technological Herbarium, a review of art that relates plants to technology from immersive environments taking the viewer inside a tree to being able to watch a garden growing on the internet.  Lastly, Herbarium Taste is a bilingual Italian/English guide to vegetables by Valentina Raffaelli (2015).  What these four books have in common is that they are all visual feasts, and all stress the visual rather than the informational aspects of herbaria.  Also, they assume the reader will think of plants when they read the title, and live plants, not dead ones.  They are essentially using the word herbarium as it was used in the early modern era to mean an illustrated book about plants, well before the French botanist Joseph Pitton de Tournefort referred to collections of pressed plants as herbaria in 1694 (Arber, 1938). 


Aloi, G. (Ed.). (2018). Botanical Speculations. New Castle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars.

Aloi, G. (2019). Lucian Freud Herbarium. Munich: Prestel.

Arber, A. (1938). Herbals: Their Origin and Evolution a Chapter in the History of Botany, 1470-1670 (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Arnold, W. (2020). Suburban Herbarium. Axminster, UK: Uniformbooks.

Gatti, G. M. (2010). The Technological Herbarium (A. N. Shapiro, Trans.). Berlin: Avinus.

Marder, M. (2014). The Philosopher’s Plant: An Intellectual Herbarium. New York: Columbia University Press.

Marder, M. (2016). The Chernobyl Herbarium: Fragments of an Exploded Consciousness. London: Open Humanities Press.

Raffaelli, V. (2015). Herbarium Taste: The Four Seasons. Mantua, ITA: Corraini.

Sartiliot, C. (1993). Herbarium Verbarium: The Discourse of Flowers. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

Smith, B. S. (1992). A Painted Herbarium: The Life and Art of Emily Hitchcock Terry, 1838-1921. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Women and Plants

Strelitzia reginae, watercolor by Franz Bauer of plant named for Queen Charlotte, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

This series of posts deals with women and several ways they have participated in the botanical work.  This is a huge topic, and calls to mind everything from the language of flowers to Alice Eastwood scaling the banister of the crumbling stairs of the California Academy of Sciences building after the 1906 earthquake to save type specimens in its sixth-floor herbarium, a daunting task she did successfully with the help of a friend (Daniel, 2008).  In these posts, I want to highlight the accomplishments less of professional botanists such as Eastwood and focus instead on what are considered “feminine” pursuits such as gardening, painting, flower arranging, and sewing.  My argument is that these activities could deepen women’s understanding of plants, often to the point that they had a level of knowledge and expertise that not only gave them a deserved sense of worth, but also allowed them to participate meaningfully in the botanical enterprise. 

What I plan to do here is to contribute in a small way to the rewriting of history to provide a fuller sense of women’s complex roles in this science.  I am not attempting a “truer” history, that path could lead to endless philosophical debates.  I am merely trying to use a different perspective.  I am drawing from scholarship on women who have contributed to several different fields, including botany, in ways that are only beginning to be appreciated.  Partly this is due to the type of research that is being done.  In the past when, for example, the early modern era was investigated, historians relied almost exclusively on texts, often on published texts.  Even when they studied archival materials it was to find notes and correspondence that illuminated what got into print. 

Admittedly, this situation is changing as archives continue to be searched as researchers ask different kinds of questions.  Take for example work on women apothecaries in the early modern era.  Yes, women were known to be healers, to use herbs in their work, and to collect plants for apothecaries, but since they didn’t contribute to the literature, didn’t create texts, their contributions were hidden and disregarded.  Now researchers like Sharon Strocchia (2019) are digging into the records of female religious orders that often ministered to the sick and had gardens where they grew medicinal herbs. 

These women also processed those plants and other materials into medications that they not only distributed to poor patients but sold to wealthy ones.  Strocchia studied the letters of several women in the Florentine Medici household who wrote not only to the religious apothecaries, but also to their relatives and friends, discussing quite knowledgeably the effects of medications and suggested courses of treatment.  Strocchia also found that in managing their pharmacy, the nuns kept records:  recipes for medications, their effects, and how to grow and dry plants.  These women gave advice to patients and recorded the expenses involved in running such a business, as well as the moneys they received.  In a number of cases, the revenues covered a significant portion of a community’s needs.  This book provided me with a different perspective on apothecaries and on women’s botanical knowledge at the time.

Another book that broadened my horizons was a collection of essays edited by Joanna Marschner (2017), Enlightened Princesses: Caroline, Augusta, Charlotte, and the Shaping of the Modern World.  For those like me who are not up on British royalty, past or present, these three were all noblewomen from small German states.  Queen Caroline was married to King George II of Britain.  Princess Augusta never did get to be queen because she married George and Caroline’s son Frederick, the heir apparent, who died before his father.  However, she was mother of George III who married Charlotte.  I had come across these three women in reading about plants because they were all interested in gardening on a grand scale and all had connections to what became the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.  Both Augusta and Caroline knew and worked with Joseph Banks, who became an advisor on horticulture and agriculture to George III. 

Charlotte is often described as a lover of flowers who dabbled in drawing them and encouraged her daughters to do likewise.  A deeper look provided in this book reveals a woman who built an extensive botanical library, kept an herbarium, studied botany with the founder of the Linnean Society, James Edward Smith, and with her daughters, was tutored in painting by one of the finest botanical artists of the day, Franz Bauer.  The book provides several examples of these women’s art.  Charlotte was also friendly with another notable woman with botanical interests (and a herbarium), Margaret Bentinck, the Duchess of Portland, who in turn was close to Mary Delany, the creator of almost a thousand botanically accurate, and labeled, paper collages of plants.  They were also all skilled embroiderers, specializing, of course, on flowers.  This was another way they honed their understanding of plant form and color subtleties.  These women had depths to their botanical knowledge that are only now being properly understood.


Daniel, T. F. (2008). One hundred and fifty years of botany at the California Academy of Sciences (1853-2003). Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences, 59(7), 215–305.

Marschner, J. (Ed.). (2017). Enlightened Princesses: Caroline, Augusta, Charlotte, and the Shaping of the Modern World. New Haven, CT: Yale Center for British Art.

Strocchia, S. T. (2019). Forgotten Healers: Women and the Pursuit of Health in Late Renaissance Italy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gardens and Herbaria: Women

Embroidery of cherry tree by Bess of Hardwick, Oxburgh Hall, Norfolk, UK

This series of posts is on gardens and the herbaria that document what has been grown in them.  Most gardeners do not preserve specimens of their favorite plants, though some might press a flower or beautiful leaf between the pages of a gardening guide.  In the past however, some gardeners were so tied into botanical networks that pressing plants was an important part of their practice.  I am thinking specifically of two British noblewomen who gardened on a grand scale.  The first is Mary Somerset, Duchess of Beaufort (1630-1715), who traded plant information with such botanical notables as Hans Sloane, William Sherard, and James Petiver.  Even John Ray consulted her herbarium in writing some of his plant descriptions.

Somerset had the wealth to pay collectors for exotic plants from around the world and also to create conditions in which these plants could flourish.  She and her gardeners gave delicate plants a great deal of attention.  She was among the first to have a stove or heated greenhouse with large windows and heating under a stone floor provided by an open fire in a mobile cart on tracks so it could be moved around under the floor.  Botanists like Petiver enjoyed visiting her because of the plants he found flourishing, some of which he only knew from pressed specimens.  Somerset was assisted by William Sherard, a botanist who later worked at Oxford and whom she hired as her grandson’s tutor.  He schooled her in botany, used his connections to add many exotics to her garden, and developed her herbarium as she worked side by side with him (Davies, 2016).

The Duchess kept track of both the rare and familiar plants she grew, and in her herbarium there are pages of anemone flowers, for example, from varieties that have long since disappeared and for which the collection provides a permanent physical record of their existence.  There are few such horticultural herbaria, particularly from this period.  It is not surprising that the 12-volume Somerset herbarium is now part of Sloane’s at the Natural History Museum, London (NHM).  Later in life when she moved from her estate in Beaufort to a house and garden in Chelsea, she was Sloane’s neighbor.  Anxious to get plant names right, she corresponded with Sloane and others, admitting that neither she nor her gardener knew Latin, yet Sloane thought so highly of her cultivation skills and facilities that he had her grow medicinal plants for the Royal College of Physicians (McClain, 2001).

Somerset documented her successes not only in her herbarium but by having her plants drawn by artists including Everhard Kick, who had painted the Jamaican plants in Sloane’s collection.  Kick spent from 1703 to 1705 at Somerset’s estate depicting species she was growing.  One was a Polygala or milkwort species from the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa that was not introduced into British horticulture until 1707, suggesting that Somerset had received a plant directly from the collector, a sign of her status in the botanical network (Cottesloe & Hunt, 1986).

Somerset used Kick’s paintings and those of others as templates for embroidery designs.  She was a skilled needleworker, as were many upper-class women of her time, and flowers were a favorite subject.  In an article on Mary Queen of Scots and Bess of Hardwick, Nicole LaBouff (2018) argues that women used embroidery as a way to display and also increase their botanical knowledge.  Among the references for these women’s work was Andrea Mattioli’s herbal from Mary’s library.   They considered sewing another form of study, a way to learn about plant form and structure, an adjunct to working in the garden or creating a herbarium.  Each enriched their understanding of plants.  Since women were limited in their educational opportunities, they used such outlets to grow intellectually through what were considered feminine arts.

Years later, the constraints remained but the number of women horticulturists had grown.  The Duchess of Portland Margaret Bentinck (1715-1785) was another wealthy woman who used plants as a way to develop her intellect, her aesthetic sense, and her gardens.  Like Somerset, she had a leading botanical artist, Georg Ehret, document her plants in watercolors and teach her daughters painting.  Bentinck was also a patron to the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who later in life studied botany, seeing it as calming the emotions by focusing the mind on something outside itself.  Botany became an important manifestation of his interest in nature, especially in common species rather than exotics and horticultural “monstrosities.”  When Rousseau visited England, he stayed at Bentinck’s estate and botanized with her.  He gave her two portable herbaria since he considered a plant collection a way to reinforce botanical knowledge (Laird, 2015).

Mary Delany, known for her exquisite floral embroideries and even more for her floral paper cutouts, was a good friend of Bentinck and spent months at a time visiting her.  They studied Linnaean botany with the Rev. John Lightfoot, who organized Bentinck’s specimens, collected for her, and served as her chaplain (Laird & Weisberg-Roberts, 2009).  Through her work with Lightfoot, Delany was familiar with specimen preparation and so with arranging a plant on paper, flattening it out, and making sure all its essential features were displayed.  With her cutouts she was doing something similar and often depicted both sides of a plant’s leaves, common practice in mounting a specimen.  Delany’s collages can be likened to herbarium specimens in having more depth and texture than an illustration; there are even a few cases where Delany added real leaves to a work (see above).  Botany, specimen preparation, and art sharpened her observations and drove her to look closely and to become more connected with flower form.


Cottesloe, G., & Hunt, D. (1983). The Duchess of Beaufort’s Flowers. Exeter, UK: Webb and Bower.

Davies, J. (2016). Botanizing at Badminton: The botanical pursuits of Mary Somerset, First Duchess of Beaufort. In D. Optiz, S. Bergwik, & B. Van Tiggelen (Eds.), Domesticity in the Making of Modern Science (pp. 19–40). London: Palgrave Macmillan.

LaBouff, N. (2018). Embroidery and Information Management: The Needlework of Mary Queen of Scots and Bess of Hardwick Reconsidered. 81(3), 315–358.

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

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

McClain, M. (2001). Beaufort: The Duke and his Duchess. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Rereading Botany: An Oak Spring Herbarium

Cover of the Johannes Harder Herbarium at the library of the Oak Spring Garden Foundation

The third book in this series of posts (1,2) on rereading some of my favorites is about An Oak Spring Herbarium by Lucia Tongiori Tomasi and Tony Willis (2009).   This is the last of four books, published over 20 years, on the collection assembled by Rachel (Bunny) Mellon at Oak Spring Library, all available as ebooks.  Since her death in 2014, the library is now part of the Oak Spring Garden Foundation which includes not only the library but the home that she shared with her husband Paul Mellon and the surrounding gardens, buildings, and land.  The foundation is directed by Sir Peter Crane, who has had a distinguished career in botanical science and administration.  He and the board have shaped a mission that focuses on bringing together theory and practice around plants, encouraging the underrepresented, and fostering interdisciplinarity among the sciences, the humanities, and the social sciences.  Information on their programs is available on the website and there is also a series of Oak Spring exhibits on Global Arts and Culture.

I discovered Oak Spring through the books it produced.  Each deals with a different aspect—trees (Raphael, 1989), fruits (Raphael, 1990), flowers (Tomasi, 1997), and herbals—of Mrs. Mellon’s extensive collection of rare books, manuscripts, and art on plants and horticulture.  It is the last I want to focus on because it has herbarium in the title.  As it did in early modern botany, the word here has the broad meaning of a collection, usually illustrated, on plants particularly medicinal plants.  The Mellon collection includes many of the great publications of the 16th century: the herbals of Otto Brunfels and Leonhart Fuchs, the Carolus Clusius volume on rare plants including many from the New World, and the translation and commentary written by Pietro Andrea Mattioli on the ancient master of medical botany Dioscorides.  The edition of the last work is a special one, created for royalty, printed on blue paper, and with illustrations embellished with gold and silver highlights.  Mrs. Mellon also acquired some of the wood blocks used to print the Mattioli work.  They had been purchased by the French botanist and horticultural Henri-Louis Duhamel du Monceau in the 1700s and were held by the family until the mid-20th century.

Along with books, a variety of manuscripts are presented, and yes, even a couple of “real” herbaria, that I have mentioned in an earlier post:  one created by the German apothecary, Johannes Harder around 1595 and another attributed to the Italian pharmacist Carlo Sembertini (c. 1720).  They are very different from each other in construction and purpose.  Harder’s appears to be a way to present medicinal plants to customers.  What makes it intriguing is that in cases where a flower or other plant part is missing, he painted it in.  The Italian volume, on the other hand, is clearly a presentation piece dedicated to a physician, Angelo Barberio.  The pages are framed in India and red ink, the plants are pasted down with silk ribbons, and the lettering is in the style of medieval manuscripts, with red initials for the first letter of a plant’s name.  These volumes led me to visit Oak Spring, where Tony Willis, Kimberly Fisher, and Nancy Collins have welcomed me warmly on several occasions, and I’ve seen how Oak Spring has evolved into a much more public-facing institution over the past few years.

When writing of Oak Spring and Rachel Mellon, a quote from the botanical writer Richard Mabey (2015) comes to mind:  “The quintessence of a plant can only ever be a fantastic goal, something to travel towards but never reach” (p. 27).  I see Mellon as enraptured by plants and seeking to travel toward them from many directions.  She started collecting books on plants in order to develop her garden, to learn about plants and landscape design.  She obtained works by French horticulturalists like Jean-Baptiste de La Quintinie who designed the gardens at Versailles, and Monceau who studied fruit trees.  Her garden at Oak Spring is still kept beautifully, including a espalier of pear trees along a garden wall.

Mellon also collected botanical art and Oak Spring presented an exhibition of these works at New York Botanical Garden.  It was the best show I ever saw there.  It included watercolors by Georg Ehret, Elizabeth Blackwell, and Pierre-Joseph Redouté.  There were two large oil paintings by Giralmo Pini filled with flowers that are named in a painted legend at the lower corner of each.  There was an illustration by Andy Warhol on how to make a vine leaf marinade, two Picasso lithographs, and at the end of the show a watercolor painted on the flattened lid of a long flower box, a thank for the flowers Mellon sent her daughter, the artist Elizabeth Lloyd Moore, whom she described as her “best friend.”

Rachel Mellon really did seem to want to get at the quintessence of a plant in any way she could.  At the library, there are Brendel plant models used in teaching in the 19th century, a beautiful 20th-century model of a mushroom, and numerous pieces of china with floral motifs.  I have digressed from the book I was supposed to be writing about here; but my fond memories of Oak Spring have overtaken me.  I hope that my passion for the place will encourage others to learn more about it and about the woman who created this remarkable collection which is housed in the beautiful library building that Paul Mellon had built for it.  By the time it was completed, it already needed to be enlarged to accommodate new acquisitions, an indication of Mrs. Mellon’s continuing passion for plants, art, and books.


Mabey, R. (2015). The Cabaret of Plants: Forty Thousand Years of Plant Life and the Human Imagination. New York: Norton.

Raphael, S. (1989). An Oak Spring Sylva: A Selection of the Rare Books on Trees in the Oak Spring Garden Library. Upperville, VA: Oak Spring Garden Library.

Raphael, S. (1990). An Oak Spring Pomona: A Selection of the Rare Books on Fruit in the Oak Spring Garden Library. Upperville, VA: Oak Spring Garden Library.

Tomasi, L. T. (1997). An Oak Spring Flora: Flower Illustration from the Fifteenth Century to the Present Time. Upperville, VA: Oak Spring Garden Library.

Tomasi, L. T., & Willis, T. (2009). An Oak Spring Herbaria: Herbs and Herbals from the Fourteenth to the Nineteenth Centuries. Upperville, VA: Oak Spring Garden Library.

Art and the Herbarium: Metaphor

4 Freud

Cover of Lucian Freud Herbarium by Giovanni Aloi, courtesy of Prestel Publishing

In the last post, I discussed Anselm Kiefer and his use of dried plants, essentially herbarium material, in his multimedia paintings.  Here I want to begin with another artist whose name is linked to herbaria, at least metaphorically.  In Lucian Freud Herbarium Giovanni Aloi (2019) deals with paintings of plants that Freud created throughout his career, though Freud is much better known for his portraits, sometimes of nudes with less than perfect bodies.  I am always surprised and delighted when I discover artists known for other subjects who also painted plants:  the pop artist Jim Dine (Dine & Livingstone, 1994), the minimalist Ellsworth Kelly (Axsom, 2005), and two painters in the precisionist style:  Charles Sheeler (Troyen, 1987) and Charles Demuth (Peitcheva, 2016).  But here what I want to focus on is Aloi’s inclusion of the word “herbarium” in the book’s title.

The term “herbarium” was in use long before there were collections of preserved plants.  It is a Latin noun and was employed to refer to a book on plants, often illustrated.  For example, Otto Brunfels’s 1534 Herbarum Vivae Eicones was an early herbal, a volume on medicinal plants that had realistic illustrations.  This was about the same time that herbaria began to be created, but the term used for such a collection was usually the Latin hortus siccus, dry garden, or hortus hyemalis, winter garden.  Agnes Arber (1938) writes:  “The word “Herbarium,” in the modern sense, makes its first appearance in print—so far as the present writer is aware—in Pitton de Tournefort’s Elemens of 1694” (p. 142).  She is so often quoted on this that 1694 has become the birthday of the term, over 150 years after the first of its kind was created.

Those working in herbaria are often called on to describe their place of employment to family and friends.  Say the word, and people automatically think of growing and selling herbs, or being into health food or herbal medicine.  Their faces usually fall when it’s explained that herbaria house dead plants, all labeled with scientific names.  But the fact remains that the base of this term, herb, is the Latin word for herb or grass.  It has been tied to plant material for millennia, and “herbarium” continues to be used in a variety of ways, usually to describe some plant-related collection, as in the case of the Freud book.  I’d like to dig a little deeper into this metaphorical usage because it both causes some confusion—I have never heard that Lucian Freud, for all his interest in plants and his attention to rendering them realistically, ever had a herbarium.

The definition of a metaphor I like to use is that of the philosopher Max Black (1954).  He argues that a metaphor is different from a direct comparison:  saying metaphorically “man is a wolf” is different from saying “man is like a wolf.”  The metaphor is more powerful.  Though the two subjects have both similarities and differences, it is the similarities that are heightened in the metaphor.  So in the case of herbarium, using the term “Lucian Freud herbarium” highlights the fact that Freud painted a collection of plants as a way to preserve something of them visually even though he didn’t press the plants or dry them or paste them on to sheets of paper.  There have been several collections of art referred to as herbaria including an exhibit of plant-related pieces at Lytes Cary Manor House in Britain called simply Herbarium, as well as a book on art that links technology with plants, The Technological Herbarium (Gatti, 2010).

Right now it seems to be fashionable to use the word herbarium metaphorically in a variety of ways, usually relating to plants and collections and often with the idea of preservation, of memory.  This is especially true for writers interested in plants as sentient beings or at least worthy of more attention for having sophisticated interactions with the environment including with other living things.  It is not a coincidence that Giovanni Aloi, the author of the Lucian Freud book, is also the editor of a volume of essays, Botanical Speculations (2018), on plants in contemporary art with a focus on their “agency.”  There is also Botanical Drift: Protagonists of the Invasive Herbarium (Carroll, 2017), a collection of art pieces presented at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew that encouraged visitors to appreciate plants in new ways.

Michael Marder, a philosopher and leading figure in the “critical plant studies” movement to link the humanities to botany, has used the herbarium metaphor in two different ways in his books.  In The Philosopher’s Plant: An Intellectual Herbarium, Marder (2014) applies the term to emphasize his interest in collecting stories about how philosophers have incorporated their observations on plants into building their philosophical systems.  Marder’s The Chernobyl Herbarium (2016) is more personal.  It is a collection of writings about his memories of living downwind from Chernobyl at the time of the reactor accident and includes photographs of plants taken by Anaïs Tondeur by pressing plants from the area near the reactor onto photographic plates, which were thus developed by the radiation emitted by the plants.  The resulting images are ghostly but powerful.  Other meanings of herbaria also arise here including deterioration, death, and fragility.  Such metaphorical uses of the word may be one way we can give it more currency.  Max Black argues that metaphors can be used so much that they lose their force, but I don’t think we are there yet.


Aloi, G. (Ed.). (2018). Botanical Speculations. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars.

Aloi, G. (2019). Lucian Freud Herbarium. Munich, Germany: Prestel.

Arber, A. (1938). Herbals: Their Origin and Evolution a Chapter in the History of Botany, 1470-1670 (2nd ed.). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Axsom, R. (2005). Drawn from Nature: The Plant Lithographs of Ellsworth Kelly. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Black, M. (1954). Metaphor. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 55, 273–294.

Carroll, K. von Z. (Ed.). (2017). Botanical Drift: Protagonists of the Invasive Herbarium. Berlin, Germany: Sternberg.

Gatti, G. M. (2010). The Technological Herbarium (A. N. Shapiro, Trans.). Berlin, Germany: Avinus.

Livingstone, M. (1994). Jim Dine: Flowers and Plants. New York, NY: Abrams.

Marder, M. (2014). The Philosopher’s Plant: An Intellectual Herbarium. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Marder, M. (2016). The Chernobyl Herbarium: Fragments of an Exploded Consciousness. London, UK: Open Humanities Press.

Peitcheva, M. (2016). Charles Demuth: Drawings. Scott’s Valley, CA: CreateSpace.

Troyen, C. (1987). Charles Sheeler, Paintings and Drawings. Boston, MA: Little, Brown.