The 18th-Century Passion for Botany: Illustrations

3 Gessner Triandria

Illustration of Linnaeus’s triandria class (Table IV) from Johannes Gessner’s Tabulae phytographicae, Biodiversity Heritage Library

In discussing 18th century botany, it’s impossible not to bring up Carl Linnaeus.  As I’ve already discussed (1, 2), his classification system based on flower structure made it easier to identify species.  It also changed the character of botanical illustrations, as noted in an earlier post on Linnaeus’s collaboration with the artist Georg Ehret during their time together at George Clifford’s estate in the Netherlands.  Ehret had already been schooled in the necessity for accuracy and detail by the exacting German botanist Christoph Jacob Trew, but Linnaeus introduced him to a classification system based on the number of male and female parts in a flower.  In many plants, these structures are difficult to see without a magnifying glass or without dissecting the flower.  So while small drawings of such features sometimes appeared at the bottom of botanical illustrations before this time, they then became more common (Nickelsen, 2006).  Also, there was more emphasis on the flower in the main drawing as well.  At times this attention was coupled with less detail on the non-reproductive parts of the plants.  For example, the branch and at least some of the leaves would be just outlines in ink drawings where only the flower was colored.  There were also cases, as in Johannes Gessner’s Tabulae phytographicae (1795-1804), where flowers and fruits were presented with almost no attention to other plant parts (see figure above).

Linnaeus’s work also had the far reaching effect of making botany more popular and thus increasing demand for botanical publications in a variety of formats, most calling for illustrations, again of various sorts.  There were richly illustrated florilegia that emphasized the beauty of plants growing in a particular area, or even in a particular garden.  Usually these had engravings hand-colored on fine paper and produced in small print runs.  More technical books tended to have uncolored illustrations; many botanists thought that color distracted the eye from the structural elements that were important in identifying species.  Toward the end of the century the thirst for botanical publications led to William Curtis’s first issue of the Botanical Magazine which became a long-running journal known for its hand-colored illustrations.  Some of the early ones were done by William Kilburn who then went on to a long career in producing gorgeous botanically themed wallpapers and fabrics, harkening back to the floral embroideries discussed in the last post (Christie, 2011).  After Kilburn, James Sowerby took over (Henderson, 2015).  This was early in his illustrious career as a natural history artist.  Sowerby then teamed up with James Edward Smith, the purchaser of Linnaeus’s herbarium and founder of the Linnean Society, to begin a long-running series of books on English Botany.  These were printed in a small format making them accessible to many interested in botany, yet Smith’s plant descriptions was written with accuracy so they were considered valuable references.  Distinguished gardeners began sending rare plants to Sowerby to use in his paintings, thus adding prestige to their horticultural abilities and all this indicating the continuing passion for plants.

This trend wasn’t just in Britain.  I’ve already mentioned Ehret’s art in Trew’s botanical publications in German, while in France, the center of botanical activity was at the King’s Garden, the Jardin des Plantes, in Paris.  From 1666 to the French Revolution in 1789, there was a full-time artist working at the garden, beginning with Nicolas Robert and including Claude Aubriet who created impressive work for Joseph Pitton de Tournefort’s book on the plants of the Middle East, Aubriet having traveled with the botanist on this voyage; he also illustrated other work by Tournefort.  He was succeeded by his student, Madeleine Basseporte, one of a growing number of women distinguishing themselves as botanical artists.  Finally, there was Gérard van Spaendonck who survived the revolution, was later honored by Napoleon, and taught Pierre-Joseph Redouté, whom many consider the greatest flower painter of all time.

One further aspect of 18th century botanical art to consider is the trend, already mentioned in the case of Aubriet and Tournefort, to include artists along with naturalists on expeditions to little known parts of the world.  When James Cook sailed on his first round-the-world voyage, Joseph Banks and Linnaeus’s student Daniel Solander collected and described plant specimens, and the artist Sydney Parkinson created over 900 drawings of them (Banks et al., 1980).  The ill-fated expedition headed by Jean-François La Pérouse had a similar team as did the voyage of Antoine Bruni d’Entrecasteaux who was sent in search of his missing countrymen (Williams, 2003).  There were also a number of Spanish enterprises, most to Latin America toward the end of the 18th century (Bleichmar, 2011).  It is interesting that many of the expeditions resulted in no publications or extremely delayed ones.  Banks’s planned flora of Australia wasn’t published until the 1980s, and much of the Spanish material was never published by members of the expeditions, though the superb illustrations produced by the artists employed by José Celestino Mutis in New Granada are now available on a well-organized website.  The 18th century was definitely a century when botanical art flourished, feeding the passion for botany and also for floral decorative art in what could be considered a self-perpetuating circle of influence.  In the next post, I’ll look at some of the philosophical ramifications of these trends.

References

Banks, J., Solander, D., & Cook, J. (1980). Banks’ Florilegium (Vols. 1–34). London, UK: British Museum.

Bleichmar, D. (2011). Visible Empire: Botanical Expeditions and Visual Culture in the Hispanic Enlightenment. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Calman, G. (1977). Ehret: Flower Painter Extraordinary. Oxford, UK: Phaidon.

Christie, A. (2011). A taste for seaweed: William Kilburn’s late eighteenth-century designs for printed cottons. Journal of Design History, 24(4), 299–314.

Henderson, P. (2015). James Sowerby: The Enlightenment’s Natural Historian. Kew, UK: Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Nickelsen, K. (2006). Draughtsmen, Botanists and Nature: The Construction of Eighteenth-Century Botanical Illustrations. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.

Williams, R. L. (2003). French Botany in the Enlightenment: The Ill-Fated Voyages of La Perouse and his Rescuers. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer.

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The 18th-Century Passion for Botany: Women

2a Passiflora laurifolia

Paper cutout of Passiflora laurifolia by Mary Delany, in the collection of the British Museum

The last post was on the enthusiasm for gardening that flourished in the 18th century.  One aspect of this trend was the increasing interest in horticulture among women, especially those with the wealth to satisfy it.  A prominent example was Margaret Bentinck, Duchess of Portland (1715-1785).  She was curious about all aspects of natural history and was an prodigious collector not only of animals, plants, and minerals, but also of paintings and the decorative arts.  After her husband’s death in 1762, she devoted more time to bringing exotic plants to the gardens of her estate at Bulstrode Park and learning as much as she could about natural history.  She had impressive collections in conchology, entomology, and ornithology, but I’ll concentrate on the plants.  Bentinck knew Peter Collinson (see last post) and received North American plants from him.  He also suggested that she hire Daniel Solander, Carl Linnaeus’s former student who had recently arrived from Sweden, to arrange her collections according to the Linnaean system.  She may have had massive numbers of organisms, but unlike many other collectors, they were well-organized (Laird, 2015).

Bentinck also hired another émigré, the botanical artist Georg Ehret, not only to paint plants she grew, but also to teach art to her daughters.  Another member of her household was the Reverend John Lightfoot, who served as chaplain and naturalist, giving special attention to her shells and plants.  She financed his collecting in various parts of Britain and took botany lessons from him.  The duchess was obviously more than just a plant lover; she had a sophisticated appreciation of botany, and not surprisingly, kept a herbarium.  In fact, none other than the French philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, gave her two portable herbaria.  As I’ll discuss in the last post in this series, he became passionate about botany toward the end of his life, had a herbarium, and created others for patrons such as the Duchess, whom he visited while in England in 1767.

Bentinck was not the only woman with broad intellectual pursuits.  She was loosely connected with the original group of bluestockings, who met to discuss their mutual intellectual interests.  She was particularly close to another member, Mary Delany, also a gardening enthusiast whose knowledge of botany deepened with time.  Delany came from a less wealthy line of nobility, but this still gave her access to royal circles.  She had a dreadful first marriage, and eventually found love and contentment with an Irish clergyman and friend of Jonathan Swift’s.  She developed their garden near Dublin and led a satisfying life until the Rev. Delany’s death in 1768.  Like many women of her time, she took an interest in drawing, and combined with her gardening passion, it’s not surprising that she drew flowers.  Among her accomplishments was the design of floral embroidery patterns including those used on a gown she wore when presented at court.  Though she did needlework, the gown was made by professional embroiderers and precisely displayed about 200 identifiable species (see image below).  It was so magnificent that portions were preserved and passed down through her family for generations (Hayden, 1994).

2b Delany mantua

Segment of the embroidered court gown designed by Mary Delany

After her husband’s death, Delany spent months at a time visiting Bulstrode Park, working with the Duchess on her plant collections and studying with Rev. Lightfoot.  They would press plants, draw them, and dissect them using a microscope, another not uncommon aspect of botanical interest at the time.  Naturally, they also walked through the gardens regularly, but in 1772, Delany had a sore foot that kept her sidelined.  She occupied her time by coloring pieces of paper and then cutting them out to form pictures of flowers.  These were very much in the tradition of botanical illustrations: a single branch against a plain background, though instead of the usual white, she used black.  They could be likened to herbarium specimens, having more depth and texture than an illustration does.  There are even a couple of cases where she added real leaves to a work.  Delany, and presumably the Duchess, were pleased with her compositions, and so she continued.  Over time the pieces became more elaborate.  At first, she would paint in details, but later she cut out tiny pieces of paper to form minute structures.  One particularly amazing example was used on the cover of a catalogue for an exhibition on Mrs. Delany and Her Circle (Laird & Weisberg-Roberts, 2009).  It presents the passionflower, Passiflora, in all its glory (see figure at top).

During the next 10 years Delaney completed over 900 cutouts, with the Linnaean name for each species written on the back.  When King George III and his wife Queen Charlotte, another devoted gardener, visited Bulstrode, they marveled at Delany’s work and within months she was given access to plants at Kew Gardens.  There the King’s confidante, Joseph Banks, was converting the garden to the study of exotic species.  Delany also received plants from a number of other sources, including the Quaker gardener John Fothergill, a patron of the American nurseryman John Bartram, and William Pitcairn, who sponsored plant collecting in the East and West Indies (Laird, 2015).  Her work is a notable example of how women combined botanical knowledge with the arts.  The next post will focus on the artwork resulting from the passion for plants in the 18th century.

References

Hayden, R. (1993). Mrs. Delany: Her Life and Her Flowers. New York: New Amsterdam.

Henderson, P. (2015). James Sowerby: The Enlightenment’s Natural Historian. Kew, UK: Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

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.

Linnaeus in the Netherlands: George Clifford

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Hypericum androsaemum from the Clifford Herbarium, courtesy of the Natural History Museum, London

As I mentioned in the first post in this series, Carl Linnaeus had just begun work with Johannes Burman at the Leiden Botanic Garden when George Clifford (1685-1760) asked Linnaeus to write a catalogue of the plants in his garden at Hartekamp, near Haarlem in the Netherlands.  It took some convincing for Burman to release him, but it ended up well for Linnaeus.  He spent over two years at Hartekamp, where he had available to him a large collection of tropical plants from around the world.  Linnaeus had already sketched out his Systema Naturae (1735) before he left Sweden, but his knowledge of plant diversity was limited to northern Europe.  Then he met Jan Frederik Gronovius, who had studied plants that John Clayton had sent him from Virginia and Burman, who had Paul Herman’s specimen collection from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).  His horizons were broadening (see last post).

Clifford was a wealthy Dutch financier and a director of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) that oversaw a worldwide shipping organization making the Netherlands a mercantile power.  From the VOC’s creation in 1602, its captains and ship surgeons were given directions on how to make collections and transport specimens, seeds, bulbs, and cuttings back home.  The more exotics that reached home, the more the Dutch became avid gardeners hungry for still more plant novelties.  Because of his position, Clifford had first dibs on the plants that arrived in Holland, and he had the interest and knowledge to appreciate them.  To give a sense of the scope of his collection, he had four greenhouses, one each for plants from Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas.  At this time, gardening and sophisticated plant collecting were status symbols for the elite; Clifford’s Hartekamp was obviously a premier example.  Even his herbarium specimens reflected his status.  The sheets had elaborately printed labels, and the cut end of each plant was covered with a printed urn (Thijsee, 2018).  This became a fad at the time among the rich and botanically sophisticated (see figure below).

Among the living plants in Clifford’s unique collection was a banana tree, which was growing well but had never blossomed or produced fruit.  Linnaeus gave it special attention and took credit for inducing it into flower in four months with a regimen of restricting watering, and then watering generously.  This was one of the first times this feat had been achieved in Europe and was so noteworthy that Linnaeus wrote a short book on the plant, and Clifford had it published (Rutgers, 2008).  This added luster to both their names; it also indicated Linnaeus’s skills with living plants as well as with identifying specimens.

Another important event during this time was the arrival of the German artist Georg Ehret at Hartekamp in 1736.  Ehret had already produced a large portfolio of botanical watercolors for several patrons, none of whom paid very well.  He had come to the Netherlands after doing some work in England and called on Clifford in the hope of finding further employment.  Clifford was indeed interested in Ehret’s work and even paid his asking price for a number of paintings.  Ehret remained at Hartekamp for a month, working on illustrations for Clifford’s catalogue.  Linnaeus explained to Ehret his plant classification system based on the reproductive structures in flowers.  He had worked out 24 classes simply by counting the number and arrangement of the stamens or pollen-producing male organs, with the 24th class reserved for those without visible stamens.  Within each class were subclasses depending up on the number of female organs.  The beauty of the system was its relative simplicity, grounded in traits that were usually visible and countable.

Ehret illustrated the system with a chart that has become famous, a simple visual representation of the 24 classes (see figure below).  He published it shortly after leaving Hartekamp and Linnaeus also published it much later, but not crediting Ehret.  Working in close proximity together, even for a month, must have been important to them both during this early formative period in their careers.  Ehret, who had already developed the practice of dissecting flowers and illustrating their parts, often with magnification, learned from Linnaeus the pivotal importance of these structures in identifying species.  On the other hand, Linnaeus was able to see the artistic and intellectual work that went into creating first-rate botanical art.  In their book Objectivity, Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison (2007) write of four-eyed sight, which results from an artist and a scientist working and looking together, resulting in an image that satisfies both.  Linnaeus and Ehret could very well have collaborated in this way.  After he left Hartekamp, Ehret had a long career in England producing illustrations for many major botanical works including those of Philip Miller and Christoph Jacob Trew, who had been an early patron of Ehret’s in Germany.

3 Ehret
Georg Ehret’s diagram of Carl Linnaeus’s classification system, courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library

Most of the illustrations in the Clifford catalogue were done by Ehret and the remainder by Jan Wanderlaar, who also engraved the plates.  It took Linnaeus nine months to write the text (Blunt, 1971).  The species descriptions were organized according the classification system Linnaeus had laid it out in his Genera Plantarum, which was also published during this time (1737).  While he was in Hartekamp, he published early versions of other works as well.  Clifford also afforded him the time and the resources to become better educated in botany.  Besides his herbarium and garden, Clifford also had a substantial library, with all the leading botanical references of the day.  Hartekamp must have been a difficult place to leave.  However, after spending almost three years in the Netherlands, Linnaeus’s thoughts were of Sweden.  Yet he didn’t go directly home.  His further wanderings will be examined in the next post.

References

Blunt, W. (1971). The Compleat Naturalist: A Life of Linnaeus. New York, NY: Viking.

Daston, L., & Galison, P. (2007). Objectivity. New York: Zone.

Rutgers, J. (2008). Linnaeus in the Netherlands. TijdSchrift Voor Skandinavistiek, 29, 103–116.

Thijsse, G. (2018). A contribution to the history of the herbaria of George Clifford III (1685–1760). Archives of Natural History, 45(1), 134–148.

Book Tour: Francis Hallé

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Gunnera

In this series of posts, I’m discussing books I read during my trip to northern states visiting relatives.  On the way I stopped in Philadelphia (see last post) and went to the Joseph Fox Bookshop, one of my favorites.  I always find surprising and interesting books there.  One of the discoveries on this trip was Atlas of Poetic Botany by Francis Hallé (2018), professor emeritus of botany at the University of Montpellier in France.  He is noted for his research on tropical plants, particularly trees.  He coauthored a book on the architecture of trees in the tropics (1978), and he envisioned studies in the forest canopy.  His first idea was to use a dirigible to move through the upper reaches of trees, but winds made this impractical.  Then he worked with a group of engineers and botanists to create a raft suspended from a dirigible.  Others produced alternative designs with systems of pulleys and cranes.  These technologies made it possible for biologists to finally spend more time in the upper reaches of tall tropical trees, studying the animals and plants living there and the intricate relationships among them.

Hallé is now 80 years old, but he is still passionate about tropical plants, as his Atlas reveals.  This is a book aimed at the general reader and its illustrations, drawn by the author, are as fascinating as the text.  In his introduction, he makes a strong case for the continuing need for botanists to draw despite access to photography that can record a plant’s form and color in a second.  For Hallé, the advantage of drawing is what others would see as its disadvantage—it takes time:  “To seize an ephemeral moment, as photography does, is to content oneself with limited information.  The extended time required for drawing, on the other hand, amounts to a dialogue with the plant” (p. 8).  That’s a lovely phrase, “a dialogue with the plant,” and isn’t that what botanical research is about?  Hallé also points out that this process involves the relationship not only between plant and observer, but between the observer’s hand and brain.  He then adds that botanical drawings give rise to emotions, luring the observer into further investigation of the subject.

A first glance at Hallé’s drawings might be disappointing to those accustomed to standard botanical illustrations.  His might be considered naïve but that’s their charm:  they are meant to teach, to be understandable to nonbotanists.  Hallé’s chief tool is a pencil and not a very sharp one at that.  Once he has the basic drawing down, he goes over the pencil lines with pen and ink, sometimes adding color.  He might introduce a figure into the drawing, a human or an animal, to give a sense of scale.  He does follow a few botanical illustration conventions such as adding enlargements of flowers or other pertinent structures.  Some drawings are very diagrammatic, but almost all have a slight sense of whimsy.  At times Hallé plays with scale as when he emphasizes the gigantic size of Gunnera peltata by adding a small artist drawing the plant, one who is in reality squirrel-sized in relation to the leaves (see photo).  There are a couple of videos on the web that illustrate his technique.  One was done in conjunction with an exhibit at the Montreal Botanical Garden of poster-sized enlargements of his work scattered through the garden.  The other was in a series made along with a documentary on conserving tropical rainforests.  This was a collaboration between Hallé and the filmmaker Luc Jacquet who created another documentary, March of the Penguins.

In the videos and the book, Hallé’s passion for tropical botany is evident.  He is fascinated not just by the trees, but by all the life connected to them.  He is intrigued by plants that have developed what might be considered odd adaptations to survive in unusual environments.  He notes that the flowers of the Amazonian tree Duguetia calycina are not to be found in its canopy.  Instead, its lower branches hang down to the ground, grow underground to some distance from the trunk, and then produce flowers with a pleasant fragrance.  They are probably pollinated by flying insects, but little is known about the tree or its relationships.  Hallé adds that a totally different species from another family and growing in Cameroon, Caloncoba flagelliflora, has a similar habit, producing tiny white flowers on the forest floor.  Another of my favorites is a parasitic laurel, Cassytha filiformis.  A tropical vine, it looks like a typical laurel when young, but once it finds a plant to crawl on, most of its chlorophyll disappears, and it fades to a yellow color after it punctures the host’s bark to extract nutrients.  This vine can engulf a tree to the point that, as Hallé writes, huge mango trees in Thailand were “covered by a Cassytha; they looked like they were wearing giant yellow wigs” (p. 60).

I hope I’ve given some sense of how “poetic” in a visual as well as verbal sense this book is.  It introduced me to an author and to plants that are equally intriguing.  And it reminded me once again of how important art is to botanical science.  If you want to learn more about Hallé’s approach, there is a booklet online that describes a workshop he gave, along with Peter Del Tredeci, on tree architecture to students in the University of Virginia’s Landscape Architecture program.

References

Hallé, F. (2018). Atlas of Poetic Botany. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Hallé, F., Oldeman, R. A. A., & Tomlinson, P. B. (1978). Tropical Trees and Forests: An Architectural Analysis. Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer Berlin Heidelberg.

Botanical Britain: Art

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Marianne North Gallery at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

When I began to take this blog seriously, I wrote a series of posts on art and herbaria.  The first in that series was on Victoria Crowe, who has long lived in Scotland and is renowned there.  When she was commissioned to paint a portrait of David Ingram, then Master of St. Catherine’s College at Cambridge University, she wanted to include images from his work as a plant pathologist.  This sparked conversations between them about herbaria.  Crowe became interested (of course!) and ended up spending time in the herbarium and library at Cambridge University.  Ultimately this led to an exhibition called Plant Memory, for which Ingram contributed to the catalogue (Crowe & Ingram, 2007).  Included was a delicate watercolor of a herbarium specimen, even showing how it was taped to the page.  They also published an article (Crowe and Ingram, 2007) based on a lecture they gave, in which Crowe described being struck by the “tension between timelessness and fragility” in specimens.  This phrase has stuck with me as being a very artistic and also philosophic way of thinking about them.

In writing about Crowe, I wanted to include an image of her work in my blog, but hesitated contacting an artist of her stature.  Finally, I did it, and she very graciously sent me not one, but several images, and also some publications on her work.  Needless to say, I was thrilled.  But it got even better because she passed my email address on to David Ingram, and we began writing to each other.  Ingram was not only at Cambridge, but had also spent several years as director of the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh.  In retirement, he has written widely on art and botany, including work on John Ruskin (2011), the textile artist and entrepreneur Annie Garnett (Ingram & Roberts 2017), and the French glass artist Emile Gallé (Coutts & Ingram, 2012).  When I was in Edinburgh, I had the opportunity to have conversations with both Ingram and Crowe.  These experiences were memorable.   I will write in more detail later, but here I just want to say that I found it very encouraging that people of this stature are convinced of the profound relationship that exists between art and science, and they both speak from much experience.  For many years, Crowe taught classes, including botanical art, at the Edinburgh College of Art.  In addition, she has painted many portraits including those of such scientific luminaries as the physicist Peter Higgs and the astronomer Jocelyn Bell Burnell.  Ingram’s interest in art and botany is related to his years of research on plant pathogens when he translated his observations under the microscope into drawings as part of his practice.

When I went to London, I met another one of my email friends, Laurence Hill, a photographer who specializes in the genus Fritillaria, though this description fails to get at the heart of what Hill does.  On his website, Fritillaria Icones, he documents each species in the genus, recording the entire plant in bloom, including bulb and roots, as well as the structure of the flowers and seeds.  All these images and related data are available on the website under a Creative Commons 4.0 license.  He has also created large-scale works that have been exhibited at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery at Kew Botanic Garden and won prizes in Royal Horticultural Society photographic competitions.  I was thrilled to finally meet Hill and see some of his work in its true dimensions rather than on a computer screen.  I’ll go into more detail in the future, but I do want to say that what is most impressive about Hill’s photographs is the meticulous work that goes into them.  Each is the result of digitally stitching and stacking together many images to make a whole that has great clarity even at high magnification.  The only problem is that his website is addictive and hard to leave because there’s so much to explore.

Besides these three great conversations, I also saw a lot of other impressive art, botanically related of course.  At the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew alone, there was the Marianne North Gallery with hundreds of oils done by this 19th-century botanical explorer (see photo above), and close-by the Shirley Sherwood Gallery with two botanical art exhibits, one on the history of the recently renovated Temperate Glass House and the other on Australian botanical art.  In the Kew Gardens Gallery, I was delighted to find dozens of leaves from the diaries of the 19th-century orchid specialist John Day that are filled with his watercolors as well as his notes.  I have a book on these (Cribb & Tibbs, 2004), but seeing them in person was exciting.  Also exciting was finding at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh a copy of the huge triptych of the titan arum Amorphophallus titanum painted by Isik Güner, Jacqui Pestell, and Sharon Tingey when it was blooming at the garden.

3b Loudon Lemons

Selection of wax models if lemons from the George Loudon Collection in the Surreal Science exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, London.

In London, I went to two notable exhibits that were botanically related.  One was Fashioned from Nature at the Victoria & Albert Museum and dealt with a multitude of aspects of how animals and plants are used in clothing.  It was very cleverly done, with not only obvious things like feathered hats, but also new technologies that produce leather-like material from fungi and cloth from microbes.  On my last day, I went to the Whitechapel Gallery to see Science Surreal, an exhibit of portions of George Loudon’s natural history materials that he has amassed from the discards of old collections.  In this case, they were paired with ceramics in a surrealistic display by Salvatore Arancio.  My favorites were the fungi models made from velvet (see photo above) and Italian wax representations of oddly shaped lemons.  If you would like to see these and other marvels, Loudon (2015) has written a book on his collection.

References

Coutts, H., & Ingram, D. S. (2012). Emile Gallé’s verre d’eau at the Bowes Museum:
A detailed study of the motifs. The Decorative Arts Society Journal, 38, 82–87.

Cribb, P., & Tibbs, M. (2004). A Very Victorian Passion: The Orchid Paintings of John Day 1863-1888. London, UK: Thames and Hudson.

Crowe, V., & Ingram, D. (2007b). Plant Memory. Edinburgh, UK: Royal Scottish Academy.

Ingram, David S., & Wildman, S. (2011). Ruskin’s Flora: The Botanical Drawings of John Ruskin. Lancaster, UK: The Ruskin Library and Research Centre.

Ingram, D.S., & Roberts, R. (2017). Spinning the Colours of Lakeland: Annie Garnett’s Spinnery, Textiles and Garden. Bowness-on-Windermere, UK: Lakeland Arts Trust.

Loudon, G. (2015). Object Lessons. London, UK: Ridinghouse.

Note:  There is no way I can thank Victoria Crowe, David Ingram, and Laurence Hill for their willingness to share their time and ideas with me.  My visits with them were my most meaningful experiences in Britain.

Libraries and Botany: New York, New York

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Specimen of Diopyros virginiana collected from the site of the Elgin Botanic Garden in 1829, New York Botanical Garden Steere Herbarium

Since the joint CBHL/EBHL meeting (see earlier post) was held in New York, it’s not surprising that there were several presentations related to the metropolis.  It seems fitting to end this series of posts with a review of them.  After a welcome from Susan Fraser, director of NYBG’s Mertz Library, the first major speaker of the conference was Eric Sanderson of the Wildlife Conservation Society, headquartered across the street from the New York Botanical Garden, at the Bronx Zoo.  For many years Sanderson has had a leading role in research on what New York was like before Henry Hudson sailed into the mouth of the Hudson River in 1609.  The indigenous people called the large island he found Mannahatta, and that became the name for Sanderson’s endeavor and the title of the book he published in 2009.  Using mapping technology coupled with old maps, historical accounts of the area, specimens collected there in the past, and what is known about the ecology and geology of the island, Sanderson’s team identified 54 different ecosystem types on Mannahatta.  This is a large number for that sized piece of land, and the result of its extensive wetlands along with its varied geological features.  There were also an estimated 600 species of plants.

More recently Sanderson has led an effort to produce the same kind of modeling for New York City’s other four boroughs.  Called Welikia, it too has a website that is still under construction, but includes all the information from the Mannahatta Project.  These are not just interesting exercises in environmental history, they aim at helping the citizens of New York understand the biodiversity that once existed there and how to preserve and nurture as much of it as possible.  It is unlikely that bears will again roam Manhattan, but red-tailed hawks are flourishing (Winn, 1998), and I’ve seen a coyote ambling inside NYBG’s fence as I was stuck in traffic trying to get there.

On the second day of the conference, the botanical illustrator Bobbi Angell presented on the formidable botanical art collection housed at NYBG.  Angell has spent her life creating pen-and-ink drawings to illustrate the scientific work of the garden’s botanists, including many for the seven volume Intermountain Flora: Vascular Plants of the Intermountain West, USA.  The last volume was just recently published (2017) and includes not only some of Angell’s illustrations but biographies of her and other illustrators and botanists who worked on this project that was first envisioned by Bassett Maguire in the 1930s.  There will be more on the editors, Patricia Holmgren and Noel Holmgren, in a future post.

Angell didn’t dwell on her accomplishments, but instead discussed some of the other contributors to the 30,000 pieces in the NYBG art collection.  These include the great French botanical painter Pierre-Joseph Redouté with 10 paintings on linen, but Angell concentrated on 20th and 21st-century artists, including Alexandria Taylor and Frances Horne who did illustrations respectively for Elizabeth Britton and Nathaniel Lord Britton.  Both were distinguished botanists and Britton was NYBG’s founding director.  Angell spoke reverently of artists whom she knew including Anne Ophelia Todd Dowden, who left her finished works to the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation in Pittsburgh, and her working drawings to NYBG, an interesting division.  Then there was Rupert Barneby a self-taught botanist and artist who did research at the garden and became an expert on legumes.   He created his own illustrations until he injured his hand.  Angell ended with a plea for more of the botanical art in library collections to be made available online and a mention of the American Society of Botanical Artists, which has a wonderful journal for members as well as a website on which they can present their work.

The final presentation of the meeting was a public lecture by Victoria Johnson to celebrate the publication of her book, American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic (2018).  She began the book and her talk very effectively by telling the story of how David Hosack, a physician, treated a New York boy dying of fever in 1797.  Hosack had tried everything he could without success, and so decided to lower the boy into warm bathwater with cinchona bark mixed in.  Several of these treatments led to the patient’s recovery and to a tearful thank you from his father.  Johnson then paused, and revealed that the father was Alexander Hamilton.  After this surprise, she went on describe some of what she writes about in her book:  how Hosack trained as a physician in the United States and Britain where he developed an interest in botany, even studying with James Edward Smith the founder of the Linnean Society; how he set up a medical practice in New York, obviously attracting an elite clientele; how he developed a plan to create a botanical garden in the city as a way to nurture, study, and teach about medicinally useful plants.  He used his own money to buy 20 acres of land in what is now midtown Manhattan, but was then over three miles north of the city.  He called it the Elgin Botanic Garden after the Scottish town where his family originated.  He built a wall around the property as well as greenhouses and then bought an impressive selection of plants.

Hosack had a long and successful life as a physician, but his story is definitely bittersweet.  He was the attending physician when his friend Alexander Hamilton was shot in the duel with Aaron Burr (it turns out they both were interested in gardening).  The garden, begun in 1801, was destroyed in the 1820s after it had been bought by New York State and then handed over to Columbia College (now Columbia University) for management.  It was neglected and eventually leased by Columbia as real estate prices in that part of Manhattan started to soar. Eventually, it became the site of Rockefeller Center.  However, to end on a happier note, there are a few Elgin Garden specimens in the NYBG herbarium including Diosyros virginiana (see above).

Note: I would like thank all those involved in the wonderful CBHL/EBHL meeting, particularly Susan Fraser, Kathy Crosby, Esther Jackson, and Samantha D’Acunto.  I am also grateful to the participants from whom I learned so much, to Pat Jonas who nudged me to attend, and to Amy Kasameyer who introduced me to CBHL.

References

Holmgren, N. H., & Holmgren, P. K. (2017). Intermountain Flora: Vascular Plants of the Intermountain West, U.S.A (Vol. 7). New York, NY: New York Botanical Garden.

Johnson, V. (2018). American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic. New York, NY: Norton.

Sanderson, E. W. (2009). Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City. New York: Abrams.

Winn, M. (1998). Red-Tails in Love: A Wildlife Drama in Central Park. New York: Pantheon.

Libraries and Botany: Digital Resources

3 Soulsby

Second edition of Basil Soulsby’s catalog of the works of Linnaeus, Biodiversity Heritage Library

One of the attractive features of the meeting of botanical and horticultural librarians that I attended in New York recently (see the last two posts 1,2) is that it included both Europeans and Americans.  Since Europe is home to so many historical collections of specimens, manuscripts, and botanical art, it was great to learn more about these treasures.  It was even better to discover how many of these resources are now available digitally.  One of the high points of the meeting for me was the presentation by Félix Alonso, head librarian at the Royal Botanic Garden in Madrid.  I already knew that this library has a magnificent collection because many of its treasures are available through the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL), and I was glad to hear that the institution is developing a new interface to make it more user-friendly.  Accessibility was Alonso’s major theme, as he outlined plans to move the library from a collection-centered to a service-centered focus, including opening it to children for the first time in its 250-year history.

Yet another group meeting at NYBG along with the European and American librarians, was the Linnaeus Link Project, an international collaboration among libraries with significant holdings dealing with Carl Linnaeus.  It is funded, maintained, and coordinated by the Linnean Society of London, which holds the bulk of Linnaeus’s specimens, manuscripts, and books, bought from his widow by the British botanist James Edward Smith in 1784.  However, a number of institutions also have substantial holdings, and the project aims to make all the Linnaeus material available through a union catalog.  Lynda Brooks and Isabelle Charmantier of the Linnean Society Library presented on Linnaeus Link and that’s how I was introduced to “Soulsby numbers” used to identify each record.  Basil Soulsby produced the second edition of his Catalogue of the Works of Linnaeus in 1933, recording all Linnaean writings and works about Linnaeus published up to 1931; the last entry was number 3874.  Linnaeus Link uses these numbers to identify items in the Union Catalogue and is also assigning post-Soulsby numbers to items not mentioned by Soulsby; there are over 400 of these.  This project gives a glimpse into the world of librarianship and the meticulous processes involved in coordinating materials spread out over several countries.

Isabelle Charmantier also presented on the work being done to digitize the Linnean Society collections, which go well beyond those of Linnaeus and include the herbarium of the society’s founder James Edward Smith, as well as his seed collection that is now being conserved.  The seeds are still enclosed in their original wrappers that include letters, sermons, newspapers—obviously of value in themselves.  There are also the archives of Linnean Society Fellows such as Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, and art including the watercolors of Nepalese plants that were done by an Indian artist under the direction of Francis Buchanan Hamilton.  He traveled to Nepal in 1802-1803 and recorded over a thousand species there.  Charmantier noted that at the moment, the Society has data on three platforms with variable metadata and would like to undertake the major task of uniting them, thus making the information available to users through a single search engine.

Another great botanical library is at the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew and the head of the library, Fiona Ainsworth, described its massive holdings: 300,000 books and pamphlets, 200,000 works of art, and 7,000,000 archive sheets.  At the moment, there is no digital catalog for the art collection, and it would be ideal to have it along with the herbarium and economic botany collections cataloged in one system with the library.  That is part of Kew’s plans for the future.  For the present, it is working on a five-year project to digitize and transcribe over 2000 Joseph Dalton Hooker letters, that are available on the Kew Library website.  This is a tremendous resource, especially when seen in relation to the letters of two great American botanists Asa Gray, whose correspondence has been digitized at Harvard University, and John Torrey, whose letters are now being digitized and transcribed at New York Botanical Garden (NYBG).

Stephen Sinon, NYBG’s archivist and curator of Special Collections, described the ongoing Torrey Transcription Project.  The noted 19th-century botanist John Torrey spent his life in New York and taught at both Columbia and Princeton.  He gave his letters and herbarium to Columbia College (now Columbia University), but these were transferred to NYBG when it was founded in 1898.  Most of the Torrey letters are incoming correspondence.  Almost ten thousand pages have been digitized and over 2,500 transcribed by volunteers through a crowdsourcing website.  This massive undertaking is being funded by NEH and the Carnegie Foundation of New York.  The resulting digital images are available not only through the NYBG’s Mertz Library website, but on BHL, Archive.org, and the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA).  Mentioning this project moves me away from my focus on Europe in this post, but it’s a reminder that botany knows no borders and has always been a global enterprise.  Torrey, Gray, and Hooker knew each other, wrote extensively among themselves, and visited each other’s countries.  The Americans and the British were also rivals in describing American plants, with Hooker and his colleague George Bentham avidly courting collectors, particularly in Canada, but they did not spurn US collections as well.  Torrey and Gray were well aware of this; the letters between them have many mentions of needing to name American plants quickly to prevent the British from doing it first.

The Herbarium Aesthetic: Form and Beauty

Sarah Ann Drake

Epiphyllum crenatum by Sarah Ann Drake, courtesy of Biodiversity Heritage Library.

As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts (1,3) in this series, there is good neurological evidence for a link between cognitive and affective brain activities.  In other words when we think, we also feel.  It seems to follow from this that there would be a biological basis to aesthetics, to the pleasure we derive from many aspects of life.  And since we are organisms for which the visual is so important, it makes sense that what we see would attract us, in others words, be considered beautiful.  There are a number of different arguments for why an aesthetic sense would be wired into our genes.  Some are based on genetic unity, that we share genes with animals that are attracted to colors, scents, and sounds, so why wouldn’t we also have such capabilities (Skutch, 1992)?  If bees are drawn to flower forms and colors, why not us?  Coming from the other side; some argue that what makes us different from other species is an aesthetic sense.  They link it to a drive to make art, as an adaptation that builds community with others and thus makes those with similar genes more likely to survive and pass them on (Dissanayake, 1992).  Still another view is that there is an advantage to being attracted to habitats that might provide shelter or food, explaining why the savanna seems particularly alluring to humans, who evolved in such habitats in Africa (Ulrich, 1993).  Our sense of curiosity and love of novelty might also be innate because they allow us to investigate the world and learn from it.  I have given a very simplistic view of these approaches, because I am less interested in whether or not our attraction to beautiful plants is genetic and more in what that means for our experience of the green world.

It seems that people want to be near plants.  This is why so many have house plants, or garden, or hike, or even work in herbaria.  Of course, this is not just about plants.  Edward O. Wilson (1984) uses the term biophilia for an innate desire to be near living things.  Steven Kellert (1997, 2012) has written on the many kinds of evidence to support this idea, from patients recovering faster in hospital rooms with windows opening onto natural settings to improved mood after a walk in a park.  But there can be a more intimate relationship, getting to know the plant a little better when you have to consider whether you are watering it enough, or if it’s getting too much sunlight.

And then there is simply looking closely at a flower, examining its forms and colors—and doing this over and over again in a garden or on a field trip, or if neither are possible, then in the pages of books.  Humans don’t just want to experience beauty, but to preserve it in order to prolong or remember that experience.  Today, the most obvious way is with photography, in the past it was through drawing.  The advantage of the latter, even today, is that it deepens the visual experience and includes a tactile one as well.  We are back to issues of craft, as I discussed in an earlier post, and calling on different areas of the brain in still another type of cognitive and affective experience.  This is true even if the result is hardly a masterpiece; it’s still the record of a meaningful involvement with a plant.  And there is the comfort of knowing that endless examples of botanical art exist, created by those with greater skill at capturing the essence and detail of plants [see above].  If you need a fix, take a look at the Historical SciArt blog.

There is another possible level of interaction, and I’ll use as an example tree bark, which happens to be my obsession.  Yes, I was thrilled yesterday when I saw the season’s first cherry blossom and examined it closely, but I spent much more time with a piece of pine bark.  The texture appeals to me perhaps because it engages my fingers as well as my eyes.  Maybe it’s texture that also attracts me to herbarium specimens.  It’s certainly not a wide range of color.  But the textures and forms in a collection are endless.  The lack of color is a problem for some people.  Richard Fortey (2008) sees specimens as plant “mummies” and Edgar Anderson (1952) likens pressing specimens, to laying out corpses; neither are pleasant metaphors.  For me, the dull colors allow for more focus on form and surface features.

The deadness is also a reminder that this particular plant has a history, perhaps a long history.  In other words, there is a story attached to it, which might or might be told by the notations on the sheet.  As I discussed in an earlier post on collections and material culture, such stories are layered onto the taxonomic significance of the specimen.  Here again, the cognitive comes into play, but also the affective.  Everyone loves stories, and there is growing evidence that humans organize knowledge in stories, just another example of the intellect and the emotions interrelating.  Once again, biological aesthetic comes into play; it is at the foundation of our experience of the natural world, and the beauty of herbaria in all their facets is just one set of such manifestations.

References

Anderson, E. (1952). Plants, Man and Life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Dissanayake, E. (1992). Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why. New York: Free Press.

Fortey, R. (2008). Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum. New York, NY: Knopf.

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

Kellert, S. R. (2012). Birthright: People and Nature in the Modern World. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Skutch, A. (1992). The Origins of Nature’s Beauty. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Ulrich, R. (1993). Biophilia, biophobia, and natural landscapes. In S. Kellert & E. O. Wilson (Eds.), The Biophilia Hypothesis (pp. 73–137). Washington, DC: Island Press.

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

Pietro Andrea Mattioli and Luca Ghini

4 Mattioli

Image of crocus in Mattioli’s Sinensis Medici, 1565. Biodiversity Heritage Library.

This is my final post on Luca Ghini and the botanists influenced by him.  My subject here is Pietro Andrea Mattioli (1501-1577), who was not one of Ghini’s student but definitely benefited from his mentorship.  Mattioli’s first publication was a 1544 translation and commentary on the Greek physician Dioscorides’s first-century AD book on herbal medicine, the leading reference in the field for over 1500 years.  It was copied in many different versions in Greek, Latin, and Arabic, often with notes added to include new information or to correct mistakes.  Mattioli followed in this tradition.  By the time he was writing, there were several forces at work making updating Dioscorides more difficult.  First was the problem of attempting to relate the plants the Greek described with those botanists found growing in their own localities.  It was becoming clear that biogeography had to be taken into account.  This presented a problem for physicians:  how could they know that a plant with certain medicinal properties that Dioscorides described was the plant they were looking at?  Some saw this as a philological issue, a matter of textual descriptions, and tried to work it out by editing his text and adding comments to it.  Others, and these became more common as the 16th century moved on, saw the solution in direct observation of the plants they had before them, and testing the species’ medicinal properties.

Luca Ghini obviously belonged to this second group, but he was also a product of a time when Dioscorides was still revered.  In fact, he had planned his own commentary on the earlier work and had been accumulating specimens, observations, and illustrations for it.  Yes, illustrations.  While Ghini thought that textual descriptions were necessary, he considered images valuable in communicating information about plant form.  In her article about Ghini that I’ve used as a reference for these posts, Paula Findlen (2017) writes that sometime around 1551, Ghini made the decision not to pursue work on his book.  He had too much else to do and producing a publication was a major task.  In addition, it would be a costly one if there were illustrations involved.  Instead, he freely shared his research with other botanists.  As I’ve mentioned an earlier post, he lent notes, images, and even specimens and also received loans of such materials.  This was how knowledge was shared and developed, but Ghini was particularly giving in this regard.

He was especially generous to Mattioli, who was the recipient of Ghini’s research on Dioscorides’s plants.  In 1551, Ghini completed his annotations to Mattioli’s commentary on Dioscorides.  Known as the Placiti, it was made up of 69 opinions or notes,.  He sent this to Mattioli and also recommended that illustrations be included.  There must have been correspondence between Ghini and Mattioli over these revisions, but all their letters are lost.  By 1554, Mattioli was preparing another edition, and Ghini spent four days finishing his review of the manuscript and made a list of suggested corrections, which he sent to his protégé Ulisse Aldrovandi for his comments, a great example of the communal nature of botanical inquiry.

Mattioli’s 1554 edition of Dioscorides was the first to be illustrated, including woodcuts of illustrations that Ghini had sent, as well as one made from his pressed plants.  It had quotes from the Placiti and as citations from Ghini’s letters.  Mattioli is well-known today not so much for his written commentaries but for the illustrations in the latter editions of his work on Dioscorides.  The last edition which he oversaw was published in 1565 in Venice and had over 1000 illustrations.  Remarkably, many of the carved wooden blocks used to print these images have survived and are held at a number of institutions including the Oak Spring Foundation Library, and the libraries at the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) and the Missouri Botanical Garden (Tomasi & Willis, 2009).  Oak Spring also has a copy of the 1565 edition that was printed on blue paper—one of only two in existence—with the illustrations highlighted in silver and gold (Tomasi, 2013).  I saw it on display at NYBG a few years ago, open to the page with an illustration of lavender and I found it mesmerizing (Tomasi, 2013).  And this is the point:  Mattioli is known for the beauty of his publication more than for their substance; by the time this edition came out interest in attempting to update Dioscorides and other ancient texts was fading.  Botanists like Ghini’s student Andrea Cesalpino (see last post) were writing new texts based on observation and analysis rather than on philology, analyzing the meaning of ancient texts.

The transition from one approach to the other was slow, and Mattioli was in the middle between the two traditions, with Ghini pushing him toward direct observation and visual evidence.  As Findlen remarks, Ghini’s lack of publication caused him to become rather invisible in botanical history, despite his pivotal role in early modern Italian botany.  His major claim to fame seems to be his development of the herbarium though there are some who see it as having been invented earlier.  In any case, he is the one who proselytized its use to the point where it became a relatively common means of documenting plants.  I should note however, that Mattioli, while he pressed plants and studied those pressed by others, including Ghini, didn’t keep an herbarium.  He tossed his sheets out after he was finished studying them!

References

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

Tomasi, L. T. (2013). The Renaissance Herbal. New York, NY: New York Botanical Garden.

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.

Plants in Sweden: Specimens and Art

1 Santalum

Specimen of Santalum fernandezianum from the University of Gothenburg Herbarium

In September I spent a week at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.  I participated in planning meetings for a project called Herbaria 3.0, which I’ll describe in the last post in this series.  But first I want to delve into some of the plants and people I met along the way.  On my first day in Gothenburg, I caught up with two members of our group.  Terry Hodge is a graduate student in the horticultural program at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where his research deals with tomato breeding.  Dawn Sanders is a senior lecturer in the Department of Pedagogical, Curricular and Professional Studies at the University of Gothenburg and the lead researcher on a project called “Beyond Plant Blindness: Seeing the Importance of Plants for a Sustainable World.”  This was an interdisciplinary endeavor focusing on student teachers’ perceptions of plants and on finding ways to foster appreciation of the importance of plants for a sustainable world.

One aspect of the project involved the Gothenburg Botanical Garden where we headed to meet Claes Gustafsson, the curator at the University’s herbarium which is housed adjacent to the garden.  The collection has about 1.6 million specimens, though as with most large herbaria, the exact number is still unknown.  The type specimens have been scanned and digitized as part of the Global Plants Initiative and are available on the web through JSTOR Global Plants and also at Sweden’s Virtual Herbarium.  The herbarium also includes specimens from one of the most noted botanists at Gothenburg, Carl Skottsberg (1880-1963), who founded the herbarium and who collected in Antarctica and South America as well as in the Pacific, including on the Hawaiian Islands and on Easter Island.

Dawn Sanders asked Claus if he had any good plant stories to share about the specimens in the collection, since the focus of our project is on stories that link plants and people.  It only took Claus a minute to decide on what he wanted to show us.  He produced a specimen of a tree in the sandalwood family, Santalum fernandezianum F.PH., which is now extinct but was collected in 1908 by Skottsberg on Más Afuera, one of the Juan Fernandez Islands, where Robinson Crusoe was set (see photo above).   The tree was native to these islands off the coast of Chile, and this specimen is from the last known tree of that species.  It was the only one left on the island and none have been found since.   Claus showed us the article Skottsberg wrote about his visit and about the tree; he was also able to find the original photograph used in the article, and a slice of wood taken from a dead branch of the tree (See photo below).  The wood, with the species name scrawled in pencil across it, has a label attached and still retains a little of the sandalwood scent even though the hook protruding from it suggests it hung in Skottsberg’s office for many years.  Claus mentioned that Skottsberg was well known among Hawaiian botanists because of his work on those islands, and I have found a book he wrote that was translated into English, The Natural History of Juan Fernandez and Easter Island.  We left thinking that the sad story of the Juan Fernandez sandalwood would definitely be highlighted in our project.  Discovering a story like this is what I love about visiting a herbarium.  And I’m sure that Claus could have shared many more if we had had the time.

1b Santalum wood

Slice of S. fernandezianum wood from the University of Gothenburg Herbarium

After our meeting, we stayed at the garden to see parts of an art installation done by Bryndis Snaebjörnsdóttir and Mark Wilson.  There were three separate elements, in three different areas of the garden.  Unfortunately, we arrived at the tail end of the exhibit, and one part had already been dismantled.  It was an eight-meter long tapestry depicting a scanning electron microscope (SEM) picture of a Stipa pennata seed, a long graceful structure adapted to be wind dispersed.  I would have loved to have seen this work because it was made from an image constructed with 26 separate scanning electron microscope (SEM) scans.  At the reception building was the second part of the exhibit, a series of SEM scans of the seeds of 14 other species.  In the background of each was a grayed-out photo of the plant itself, and beneath the scan, a description of the plant written by a long-time Gothenburg gardener.  The artists’ aim was to help the viewer see plants in a different way, to focus on the seed when usually the adult plant is what’s most apparent.  To further illustrate the connection between the two, the exhibit also included pots where seeds of each species were grown, some more successfully than others.  The exhibit’s third part was further into the garden, and on the way we passed the garden’s café where Dawn introduced us to the Swedish custom of Fika, or an afternoon snack, of which we all approved.  That readied us for the climb to a wooden shelter where two photographs of a field of wild flowers including Stipa pennata had been printed on Plexiglas and mounted in the open areas of the shelter (see photo below).  Outside there was also a patch of the grass growing so a visitor could experience the same plant in different ways.

1c Wildflower installation at Gothenburg BG

Installation by Bryndis Snaebjörnsdóttir and Mark Wilson at the Gothenburg Botanical Garden

This garden tour was a wonderful way to prepare for the work on our project.  We had experienced plants in many different ways—as dried specimens, as art, and as living beings.  The visit also gave us a taste of what Dawn’s plant blindness project was aiming to achieve, and what our project could add to that effort.  In my next post, I will write about another biology educator at the University of Gothenburg and our discussion of herbarium specimens.