Dumbarton Oaks: Botanical Artists

Heliconia chartacea var. meeana by Alice Tangerini

In keeping with one of its three areas of study, gardens and landscape, Dumbarton Oaks Museum recently held an exhibition of paintings by the British botanical artist, Margaret Mee (1909-1988), who is known for her depictions of Brazilian plants.  She and her husband moved to Brazil in 1952.  She taught art and only became interested in depicting plants after she began to explore the countryside.  She was an intrepid traveler and spent long hours under difficult conditions sketching plants in situ.  She eventually created over 400 completed works in gouache and in the 1960s Mildred Bliss, who with her husband Robert had owned Dumbarton Oaks, purchased 20 of Mee’s paintings.  These were the focus of the exhibit, though also on display were relevant items from Dumbarton’s collection as well as contemporary work by botanical artist Nirupa Rao, scientific illustrator Alice Tangerini, and photographer Amy Lamb.

In a recent Zoom presentation hosted by Dumbarton, Rao and Tangerini were featured along with artist Temitayo Ogunbiyi who uses botanical themes in her paintings, sculpture, and multimedia work.  Each discussed her approach to portraying plants, and I found it one of the most satisfying presentations I’ve seen in some time.  I should note that this was not a seminar that could have happened without the internet since the speakers were on three different continents.  Rao was in her native India, though she learned about botanical art in Australia when she would visit her aunt there.  She was amazed by the uniqueness of the plants she saw and wanted to draw them.  It was only later that she became aware of the long tradition of what is called “Company Art” done in India (Noltie, 2017).  This was painting created by Indian artists, many trained in traditional local techniques, who then worked for the British, including naturalists, for whom they portrayed plants and animals.  The botanical art is accurate and at the same time has a distinctive style.

Rao was trained in present-day botanical illustration, and yet her work, too, reveals her cultural roots.  In a recent project, she collaborated with her cousins to produce a book on trees of India’s Western Ghats mountain range (Divya et al., 2018).  She was asked by botanists to aid in documenting the trees, since photography had failed to do them justice.  Though they rise very tall in the rainforests, it’s impossible to take a photo of an entire tree; there is just too much vegetation on and around them.  Instead, Rao painstakingly did sketches of various parts of a tree and then brought them together in a single portrait:  beautiful, stately, and delicate.  Rao also shares her talent in school programs designed to help young people see and appreciate the botanical riches around them.  They learn why species are endangered and what can be done about it, as they examine artistic treasures and create their own. 

Next to speak was Temitayo Ogunbiyi, a Nigerian Jamaican-American, who now lives in Lagos.  She uses plants in her work in ways that are more expressive than traditional botanical illustration.  She began drawing plants in graphite on herbarium paper and went on to use ink and acrylic paints on found fabric.  She also references West Africa hairstyles along with plant forms in intriguing ways.  Her work is bold and original, and she too is interested in conserving the biodiversity she sees around her.  She is also intrigued by plants as food and brings her artistic talents to working with chefs.  Both she and Rao are young, enthusiastic, environmentally aware artists who communicate a calm sense of joy in their work.

The third presenter was Alice Tangerini, who has worked for many years as a botanical illustrator at the United States Herbarium in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (NMHN).  As she explained, most of her work is in pen and ink and done at the request of botanists who are publishing descriptions of new species.  She explained how she uses herbarium specimens in her work and also fresh material, if it’s available.  I thought it was interesting that the first thing she does is make a photocopy of the specimen, so she can work from that rather than disturbing the specimen, which is still available for reference.  She can cut the copy up and focus on particular areas.  She, too, is very enthusiastic about what she does, including incorporating digital technologies such as  sophisticated software to create color illustrations. 

I should add that a couple of weeks before this lecture, Dumbarton Oaks hosted one where the speaker was W. John Kress, Distinguished Scientist and Curator Emeritus at the NMNH.  He is an expert on Heliconia, a tropical genus with many species in Brazil, some painted by Mee.  When he saw one of these, he couldn’t identify the species, nor could he find a record of it in the literature.  He tracked it down with the help of a South American botanical colleague.  It turned out to be a new variety that he named for Mee, Heliconia chartacea var. meeana.  This is just one of many examples of an artist’s eye assisting the eye of a botanist.  Kress also spoke of studying gingers in Myanmar and finding a new species that was widely sold in markets, and yet had never been described in the botanical literature.  He named it Globba sherwoodiana in honor of the noted collector of botanical art, Shirley Sherwood.


Divya, M., & Raman, T. R. S. (2018). Pillars of Life: Magnificent Trees of the Western Ghats. Mysore, IND: Nature Conservation Foundation.

Noltie, H. J. (2017). Botanical Art from India: The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh Collection. Edinburgh: Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

A Washington, DC Treasure

Rare Book Room at Dumbarton Oaks Research Library, photo by the author.

I have come upon Dumbarton Oaks Museum and Library in several different contexts recently, so I’ve decided to dedicate this series of posts to exploring some of these encounters.  I mentioned one of its projects, on Plant Humanities, in a post last month, but the institution’s relationship to plants and horticultural is multi-faceted and justifies a closer look.  I have only spent one day at Dumbarton, but it was definitely memorable.  I made an appointment to see an exsiccatae guide to medical plants by the Danish botanist and physician Johannis de BuchwaldSpecimen medico-practico-botanicum (see earlier post).  Anatole Tchikine, curator of rare books, also found other items that intrigued me, including a British exsiccatae of grasses published by one of the many agricultural societies then working to improve farming.

After I finished in the rare book room, I toured the museum and learned a little more about its history.  Dumbarton Oaks is an estate in the Georgetown area of Washington, D.C. that Robert Woods Bliss and his wife Mildred bought in 1920.  They were wealthy philanthropists and he was also a diplomat.  They enlarged the house and had Beatrix Farrand design a garden.  The couple also created a significant library of rare books and manuscripts as well as an art collection.  They had three areas of interest that Dumbarton Oaks still focuses on today:  Gardens and Landscape, Byzantine, and Pre-Columbian studies.  Robert Bliss was an alumnus of Harvard University, and he and Mildred left their estate and part of the surrounding gardens to Harvard, while 27 acres were given to the National Park Service as a public park.    

If the name Dumbarton Oaks is lurking in the history part of your brain, as it was in mine before it moved to the plant part, it’s probably because you learned about the Dumbarton Oaks Conference in history class.  It was a 6-week-long series of meetings held in 1944 among diplomats from the United States, the United Kingdom, China, and the Soviet Union.  Along with participation from other nations, they worked out plans for an international organization designed to help rebuild the world collaboratively after the end of World War II and became the United Nations.  Being in Washington, DC makes Dumbarton Oaks not only attractive as a research institution but as a tourist attraction with a beautiful museum dedicated to its founders’ three areas of interest.  While these fields are very different, they play off each other beautifully in terms of the aesthetics of the displays.  In addition, the garden focus works into representations of plants in gardens in Byzantine and Pre-Columbian art.  I didn’t have much time in the garden itself, but I did manage to visit the gift shop, with beautiful items to at least look at as well as a selection of books including many Dumbarton Oaks publications, among them The Botany of Empire in the Long Eighteenth Century (Batsaki et al., 2017) that I’ll discuss in a future post. 

In connecting Dumbarton Oaks with Harvard University, Robert Bliss envisioned that the art and library would be well-used in education and research, and it is.  Over the years, there have been exhibits and conferences held onsite and many of these resulted in publications.  In addition, there are fellowship programs that allow graduate students and scholars to work in the library for considerable periods of time.  I’ve already mentioned the Plant Humanities Initiative (see earlier post), and there was a recent exhibit on the botanical artist Margaret Mee that included pieces by other distinguished artists.  Both these endeavors are tied to efforts to make the richness of plant biodiversity better known and its perilous condition in the present age better understood.  Dumbarton is definitely an elite institution, but like its founders, who funded an ambulance corps in France during World War I, it is responsive to present-day needs.  I think this is one of the reasons it seems so vibrant.  Though it is a scholar’s oasis, I left there feeling a renewed sense of cultural diversity as well as engagement with the living world.

Mildred Bliss was among several wealthy women who collected botanical and horticulture books and art in the 20th century.  They all created large and distinguished collections that are continuing sources of inspiration and knowledge today.  Rachel Hunt with her husband Roy, endowed the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.  It has an outstanding library as well as large archives, and a notable collection of botanical art.  All three are growing collections, with the art program nourished by the International Exhibition of Botanical Art & Illustration series hosted by the Institute.  Then there is Rachel Mellon who with her husband Andrew W. Mellon created the Oak Spring Garden Library at their horse farm in Upperville, Virginia.  The library is now part of the Oak Spring Garden Foundation which was founded after Rachel Mellon’s death in 2014.

I am fortunate to have visited these three institutions.  Each is a notable destination.  Dumbarton is tied to a rich museum, the Hunt is part of a great university, and Oak Spring is nestled on a farm in Virginia horse country.  They are amazing places not only for the riches these women had the intelligence and taste to acquire, but also because of the wonderful people working there that keep the joy of botany alive in all its beauty.


Batsaki, Y., Cahalan, S. B., & Tchikine, A. (2017). Botany of Empire in the Long Eighteenth Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Plant Digital Humanities

Watercolor of Bombax heptaphyllum by unnamed Indian artist in Roxburgh Collection, Botanical Survey of India

Though I’ve already discussed many digital humanities projects that deal with plants, including most notably the Plant Humanities Lab (see earlier post), there are many projects that I haven’t mentioned, and in fact, there are so many that I could only choose a few I find particularly interesting to discuss here.  They cover a broad spectrum, from historical to artistic to philosophical, and as would be expected, many touch on two or more areas:  the digital humanities are nothing if not interdisciplinary.  The website with the intriguing title The Philosophical Life of Plants is a collaboration among four British and one German institution and presents a wonderful selection of essays that would appeal to anyone interested in plants.  They are grouped into three areas:  Goethe’s views on the stages of plant form development, the history of research on whether or not plants can be considered sentient, and recent work on trees, both scientific and literary.  These three obviously cover a lot of territory as any good digital humanities project should.  The Philosophical Life website is supported by the British Arts and Humanities Research Council, a major funder of such endeavors, including the Sloane Lab I discussed in the last post.

A small project is funding a doctoral student to investigate:  “The Duchess of Botany: Mary Somerset, Jacob Bobart, and the Formation of the Oxford Botanic Garden.”  Somerset was the Duchess of Beaufort, but her title here is appropriate because she was well versed in horticulture and botany.  Jacob Bobart the Younger taught botany at Oxford University and was also director of its botanic garden.  He and Somerset kept up a correspondence and also traded specimens and living plants.  She was known for the wonders she performed in her hothouse growing exotic plants, coaxing into bloom species that botanists only knew as seeds or specimens.  Not only Bobart, but Hans Sloane and James Petiver, two avid specimen collectors, visited her garden to see and study her plants.  When she died, she left her 12-volume herbarium to Sloane. 

Bobart and Somerset had a mutually beneficial relationship, trading information on growing plants, as well as seeds and plants.  Bobart also had many other contacts in the botanical world, as did his father who was the first director of the Oxford garden.  It is thanks to their records, that we know what was grown there in the 17th century (Harris, 2018).  The herbarium and botanical library at Oxford also contain the herbaria of William Sherard and his protégé Johann Jacob Dillenius for whom his will funded a chair in botany.  Researching these botanists among others, Stephen Harris, the present herbarium curator and a professor of botany, has done a great deal in the plant humanities field.  He has written books such as The Magnificent Flora Graeca (2007) about Oxford professor John Sibthorp’s collecting expeditions to Greece and the eastern Mediterranean and the 10 volumes illustrated by Ferdinand Bauer that were ultimately published to describe the species he discovered.  Harris (2021) also recently published a book marking the 400th anniversary of botany at Oxford with the founding of the Oxford Botanic Garden.  This is a quintessential plant humanities work, combining narratives about botanists, specimens, historical artifacts, and manuscripts.  The Sherardian Library of Plant Taxonomy at Oxford also has extensive resources online, including digitized historical collections. 

I have to tear myself away from Oxford and mention a number of other projects that focus on the digital.  I joined the Literary and Cultural Plant Studies Network as a way to stay connected during covid, to learn about a wide variety of conferences, exhibitions, and projects in the plant humanities.  This group includes many in literature and philosophy who are interested in critical plant studies, but there are also offerings that are more in the art and botany areas.  While the network is relatively new, a broader one that is useful is NINES: Nineteenth-Century Scholarship Online, providing links to a variety of topics.  Type in “botany,” and you will get some interesting finds.  This is a site that I found through someone in literature; it sometimes pays to hang around with such people.

Another site that is also broad but contains material of interest to botanists, particularly those who don’t mind straying from time to time, is hosted by the Newberry Library in Chicago.  It’s called “Digital Collections for the Classroom” and could be used as such, but many topics are simply interesting to explore, such as one on “Sugar and Power in the Early Modern World,” that features the library’s holdings of images of everything from preparing sugar confections to the role of enslaved Africans on sugar plantations in the West Indies.  And finally, I recently found a site hosted by the Botanical Survey of India that has been working for a decade to digitize type specimens as well as illustrations by Indian artists along with other plant-related materials such as fabrics and dyes stuffs.  This makes for an intriguing combination of botanical and cultural objects and points the way to other projects linking botany with economic botany and art.  While the botanic gardens at Kew and Edinburgh have large collections of botanical art by Indian artists, this project seems a big step toward broadening what is available online.  The BSI has an impressive collection of 6000 paintings.  This site is one more step toward decolonial collections that I wrote about in a previous post


Harris, S. (2007). The Magnificent Flora Graeca: How the Mediterranean Came to the English Garden. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Harris, S. A. (2018). Seventeenth-century plant lists and herbarium collections: A case study from the Oxford Physic Garden. Journal of the History of Collections, 30(1), 1–14. https://doi.org/10.1093/jhc/fhx015

Harris, S. A. (2021). Roots to Seeds: 400 Years of Oxford Botany. Oxford: Bodleian Library.

Plant Humanities and Decolonial Collections

Avocado Persea americana by John Tyley. By permission of the Linnean Society of London.

In the last post, I wrote about how difficult it is to define the digital humanities.  The same holds true for decolonizing collections, which is basically about viewing collections in a broader cultural perspective as well as returning items that were inappropriately acquired.  It also means bringing to light what have often been aspects of natural history long hidden by colonial powers who downplayed or ignored those who actually collected specimens, played a role in directing the search, and explained the significance of finds.  I used the term in the title of this post as shorthand for opening up collections by expanding the questions asked about them beyond the purely scientific.  As I mentioned, this is an aspect of the extended specimen concept that is underplayed. 

There is a great article by Subhadra Das and Miranda Lowe (2018) on:  “Nature Read in Black and White: Decolonial Approaches to Interpreting Natural History Collections.”  The term “decolonial” seems better than “decolonize.”  The latter more precisely describes the process by which colonial nations became independent, more than ferreting out how natural history collections were shaped by colonial power.  Das and Lowe begin quite directly with a Twitter comment by Danny Birchall of the Wellcome Collection to the effect that natural history museums are more racist than anyone will admit.  The challenge is to describe this racism and find ways to change the situation. 

This piece includes an analysis of the racist nature of many anthropological exhibits in natural history museums.  Then the authors discuss what is missing in zoological and botanical exhibits, such as an exhibit on Colombian butterflies in which the cultural history of Colombian science was ignored.  They attribute this to the “hard science” lens used in creating natural history exhibits.  The thought crossed my mind that this may be why so many economic botany exhibits and even collections have disappeared:  they were too much about culture and not enough about the plants themselves in the way taxonomists see them. 

Lowe and Das then present a section on hidden figures:  the collectors, elders, artists, and assistants of all kinds from porters to cooks to scouts, who were essential to the work collectors did all over the world.  They lay out several cases where contributions have been neglected, including an enslaved Ghanaian named Graman Quassi who was taken to Suriname by the Dutch where he worked as a scout and negotiator.  He was able to buy his freedom and became a noted healer who discovered that a plant, which Linnaeus later named after him, could be made into a tea to treat intestinal parasitic infections.  It is still used today.  And there is John Edmondstone, a freed Guianan slave, who taught taxidermy to Charles Darwin, then a student in Edinburgh.  They also mention Hans Sloane’s extensive notes on enslaved Africans’ knowledge of plants and their medicinal uses. 

Das and Lowe make the argument that ignoring these aspects of collections alienates audiences who could be more interested in the scientific aspects of plants if they saw a relationship to their own culture and experiences.  And I would add, these stories are fascinating, no matter what your background.  They are coming to light in such projects as the Plant Humanities Lab narratives that I wrote about in the last post.  However, there is so much more to do.  In its new science strategy, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew recognizes the need to tackle the issue and acknowledges it central role in British colonial management of plant wealth around the world.  One response is the new Plant Humanities Centre being planned.  Kew has already had an important conference, Botany, Trade and Empire, on the colonial botanic gardens that were administered by Kew and resulted in the cultivation and dissemination of everything from rubber to cinchona to hemp worldwide (Brockway, 1979).  The conference focus was on what were designated Miscellaneous Reports that the garden directors sent to Kew.  Now digitized, these are a storehouse of information that has only begun to be mined, with interesting case studies done on cinchona, for example. 

There is also a massive correspondence archive at Kew.  J’nese Williams of Notre Dame University has used this, among many other sources, in her study of Alexander Anderson, who was curator of the St. Vincent Botanic Gardens from 1785 to 1811, and John Tyley, a free person of color, who worked there as an illustrator.  Williams presented at a conference on Natural History and Visual Art from the Margins sponsored by the Linnaean Society that also included papers by Josepha Richard of the University of Bristol on the British trader John Bradby Blake’s work with the Chinese botanical artist, Mak Sau in Canton, and by Malini Roy of the British Library on a collection of Indian zoological illustrations by an artist identified at Haludar.  These presentations required digging into the archives of a number of institutions and finding links between disparate types of information.  They are in essence treasure hunts, which make them all the more interesting.  As more archives come online, the hunts will be easier to do, but only if the data is prepared in a way that is highly searchable, and that can be linked to taxonomic databases so specimens that may be related to these stories can also be studied.  This is hardly a trivial matter.  But the stories that have been uncovered so far make is clear that the work involved is worth it to blur the line between science and the humanities. 


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

Das, S., & Lowe, M. (2018). Nature Read in Black and White: Decolonial approaches to interpreting natural history collections. Journal of Natural Science Collections, 6, 4–14.

The Plant Humanities Lab

Figure adapted from the Biodiversity Collections Network’s 2019 report: Extending U.S. Biodiversity Collections to Promote Research and Education

I’m interested in herbaria writ large, that is, how they relate not only to areas of biology beyond botany, but to the arts and humanities.  That’s why I’ve delved a bit into the field of digital humanities and how it might enrich the herbarium world.  From what I can gather the term digital humanities covers a lot of territory, but all related in some way to harnessing digital technology.  This can range from textual analyses such as tracing the frequency of use of a term in Emily Dickinson’s poetry to creating an online archive that brings together all her poems.  There’s also a great deal of work on developing new tools for visualizing social networks, linking different types of information, and creating new forms of communication.

In many cases, the humanities are doing much the same thing that the natural history community is doing:  using digital tools to not only make resources available online but to provide tools to use these resources in powerful and creative ways.  The problem is that the two are working in separate spheres and approaching similar issues in different ways, suggesting that the two cultures of C.P. Snow (1959) survive into the 21st century.  Snow (1905-1980) was a physical chemist and novelist; functioning successfully in the two spheres allowed him to appreciate what divided them.  Since he wrote, a great deal of work termed “interdisciplinary” has attempted to bridge the divide that Snow saw as dangerous, with each side unable to appreciate the other’s perspective.  Yet the problem remains.

My pet example is one that I’ve brought up here before.  What is coming to be called the Digital Extended Specimen is the vision that eventually a natural history specimen can be linked to many other types of information including species’ genome sequences, ecological data, field notes, field images, phylogenies, etc. (see figure above).   The focus in these conversations is on various scientific databases linking to each other.  This is a massive job and one that is just beginning.  But what I would like to see, even at this early stage—particularly at this early stage—is to make the job more massive by building history and art collections into the infrastructure.  Now is the time to do it, when frameworks on both sides are still being developed and haven’t yet become so complex that adaptation becomes almost impossible.  The FAIR principles for scientific data management could also apply in the other areas, making digital objects:  Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Reusable. 

While I’ve painted a rather bleak picture of two realms unable to talk to each other, there are some wonderful projects that do link science and the humanities in interesting ways.  In the botanical world, perhaps the most notable at the moment is the Plant Humanities Lab, a joint project of the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and JSTOR Labs.  This grew out of what could only be termed a summit at the library that included botanists, historians, librarians, and technology experts.  They outlined a series of different approaches to linking botanical, historical, and cultural resources (see video).  This was just a set of ideas, and over the next few years the library and JSTOR developed a plan and received funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to create the Plant Humanities Lab. 

The lab’s first manifestation was a set of narratives on such plants as boxwoods, watermelons, agaves, and bananas.  Each gives a well-written introduction to the species and outline not only its biology but its social history as well.  The narratives, richly illustrated, often with art from the Dumbarton Oaks collection, have hyperlinks to more information on everything from species descriptions to food, gardening, and colonial exploitation of crops and medicinal plants.  They do indeed connect history, art, and science, revealing how these are inseparable from each other.  These are wonderful stories for those interested in delving deeper into particular aspects of a plant.  One thing that becomes clear is that the history of plant use by humans is a long and winding road, sometimes stretching back millennia, with many problems along the way including the difficulties of breeding plants wrested from their native soils and brought to very different climates.  Then there was the use of indigenous knowledge about plants without in anyway acknowledging it and with no benefits to those who provided it.  In addition, there are the intriguing characteristics of so many of these species.  The subjects seem to be chosen carefully to provide many paths to different kinds of information in order to attract a variety of audiences who can explore them in their own ways. 

It’s obvious when using this site that it has a sophisticated framework.  Created by JSTOR labs over several years, the wonderful thing about it is that this digital tool is open access and now available to users as Juncture in the Beta version.  It does involve some knowledge of coding and accessing needed tools from GitHub, so this will pretty much eliminate people like me from using it.  However, we can still benefit from the sites created by those who do use it, and from the continuing development of new and more sophisticated plant narratives.  One problem with Juncture is that is allows linking to so many different kinds of information that there are endless rabbit holes to fall into, but each is just another wonderful aspect of the plant world.  Also it can be used to create narratives on any subject.  JSTOR is developing it as a tool of the future for education and research.


Snow, C. P. (1959). The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Women’s Ways of Representing Plants

Linnaea borealis, collected and mounted by George Watt, Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh

This is the last post in a series on women and botany (1,2,3), and my title brings to mind botanical illustration, which by the late 18th century had become a common pursuit for women who had time for such activities.  The stories and the art of Maria Merian and Elizabeth Blackwell are brought up in almost all discussions of this topic, but there were many women painters of plants from professional illustrators to gifted amateurs.  An example of the former is Françoise Basseporte (1701-1780) who was taught by the Claude Aubriet at the Jardin du Roi in Paris and after his death took up his position as official botanical artist for the garden.  In the 19th century many women illustrated botanical books, sometimes for their husbands, and in other cases as professional artists.  Among the latter was Sarah Drake, who worked for the British botanist John Lindley and for many years lived with his family.

There are great websites (1,2,3) and books (Kramer, 1996) on women botanical artists of the past and present, but here I want to look beyond those who produced published work.  With the internet, and the digitization of museum and library collections, more botanical illustrations are available on the webThe Linda Hall Library has a botanical manuscript with watercolors by a young woman named Mary Major.  They are based on Frederick Nodder’s illustrations for Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Letters on the Elements of Botany.  The Whipple Museum of the History of Science has an album created by Eliza Brightwen that combines drawings with cutouts, notes, and even a few specimens.  It’s a reminder that there are all levels of sophistication in botanical art.

When the Royal Horticulture Society’s library at their Wisley garden relocated to a new building, the librarians found a copy of James Edward Smith’s The English Flora with the name of the owner Isabella A. Allen written inside.  However, they could discover no information about this individual.  When the BBC posted an article on the find, there were many replies and within in 24 hours, she was identified as Isabella Ann Allen (1810-1865) who lived in the Malvern Hills near the Cotswold.  The BBC ran another post a few weeks later, as did the RHS.  The reason for the interest was that the book not only contained plant cuttings between its pages, but an elaborate and whimsical watercolor labeled “The Botaniste” with a woman’s head popping out of flower, presumably Isabella Allen.  

Beyond watercolor, there were other ways women documented plants, embroidery being one of the most common.  There is the famous case of Mary Delany and her almost thousand paper cutouts of flowering plants.  What is less well known is a technique from around the same time that was practiced by Queen Charlotte, wife of the British King George III, and by her daughters.  They were all accomplished artists, having taken lessons from, among others, the famous German artist, Franz Bauer, who worked at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew for many years when it was also a home of the royal family (Laird & Weisberg-Roberts, 2009).  Henry Noltie, a curator emeritus at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh and a historian of botanical art, has written a blog post about a small painting on black paper attached to a herbarium specimen at Kew.  It was included in an exhibit on the accomplishments of Charlotte and two other women in the royal family (see earlier post).  Noltie saw the sheet and was intrigued, so when the specimen was returned to Kew he took a closer look and investigated its backstory.

The drawing is of a small plant Erophila verna and is attached to a specimen in the collection of John Lightfoot, which, after his death, was bought by George III for Charlotte to add to her herbarium (see image above).  Lightfoot was chaplain and botany teacher to Margaret Bentinck, a friend of both Charlotte and Delany.  in fact, many of Delany’s cutouts were done while she was staying at Bentinck’s estate, Bulstrode, which Charlotte and George often visited.  That’s where Charlotte saw Delany’s cutouts and then urged Joseph Banks, the unofficial head of Kew, to provide the artist with plants.  By 1788, both Bentinck and Delany were dead, but Charlotte still had a passion for plant art and became fascinated by a technique devised by a wealthy couple, William and Frederica Lock, who had also known Delany and were later presented to the royal family.  The Locks would take a flattened specimen and forcefully press it into a piece of black paper to make a good impression.  Then they would paint the impression with gauche, an opaque watercolor paint.  It was a clever way to get a head start on a drawing.

Charlotte took to this process enthusiastically, and according to her friend Fanny Burney, the Queen had “a violent hankering” for the technique in which she was instructed by the Locks, who also taught her three daughters in “almost daily” lessons.  Unfortunately, Noltie could not find clear evidence that the E. verna was done by a royal, but the date on it of March 1788 is telling since at this time Burney wrote of Charlotte’s “hankering,” and the queen herself had written the Earl of Bute, one of her botanical advisers, about the technique.  I am not sure why I find this small painting and its story so intriguing, perhaps it’s just the idea that a queen could be subject to the latest crafting fad like anyone else.  In any case I am very grateful to Henry Noltie for doing so much research on this little piece of botanical history.


Kramer, J. (1996). Women of Flowers: A Tribute to Victorian Women Illustrators. New York: Stewart, Tabori and Chang.

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

Botany and Art: Analogy

“Portrait of the Head of a Philosopher,” second century AD Roman, Art Institute of Chicago

This post on botany and art is very different from the others in this series (1,2,3), since it doesn’t involve specimens of any kind.  But I am including it because it is about what I consider an interesting tie between the two fields, a methodological connection.  It is based on an article in the online journal Aeon by Liam Heneghan, professor of environmental science and studies at DePaul University in Chicago.  He has done research and been involved in projects to restore damaged ecosystems.  In the Midwest, this often means attempting to preserve and revitalize remnant oak savannas and tall grass prairies. 

Heneghan begins with a rather discouraging story of how difficult restoration work can be.  About 20 years ago, he and an expert restorationist visited several wetland sites in Illinois.  His companion told of how these sites were actively rehabilitated for a number of years until they were flourishing communities of diverse plants and animals.  However, when the sites were no longer actively managed, they deteriorated, becoming, for example a monoculture of cattails where animal as well as plant diversity was lost.  A great deal of money, time, and effort had been pumped into these projects, but when funding dried up, so did the ecological complexity.  Heneghan points to the problem that what may appear to be a good restoration plan to those who know the science of species interactions may not succeed at all in practice.  Many who do significant fieldwork know this, but still projects fail.

This is where Heneghan brings in the art.  He began studying art, creating illustrations for one of his books, and spending significant amounts of time at the Art Institute of Chicago.  Perhaps because of his interest in damaged landscapes, he was attracted to damaged art, especially ancient sculptures that told something of their physical history.  As a case in point he discusses “Portrait of the Head of a Philosopher,” from second century AD Roman (see image above).  The life-sized marble head has no nose, gaps at the back of the head, a crack on the left side, and areas of discoloration that might be the result of burial at some point.  I have not seen this work, but I’ve seen many of comparable age in other museums and get Heneghan’s point:  this piece reveals its history.  It is not that conservators have neglected the sculpture, but that they have respected its past.

Before “Portrait of the Head of a Philosopher” was acquired by the Art Institute in 1924, its nose had been replaced, its chin repaired, and its hair curls reshaped.  Heneghan notes that such “aggressive” restoration is now a thing of the past; for today’s conservators, less is definitely more.  The nose was removed and in a sense the story of the philosopher’s journey through time was returned to him.  Heneghan sees in this a lesson for work in environmental restoration.  He argues that perhaps the goal should not be to return a habitat to its “original” condition, because how can we even know what that was, any more than we can know what the philosopher’s head looked like in the second century AD.  He suggests that it might be more judicious and feasible to stabilize an area and at least prevent further deterioration than to forge ahead with a large-scale project.  It’s important to accept that the science of environmental restoration is in its infancy, and therefore it isn’t easy to predict the consequences of an intervention, just as it was impossible for 19th-century art restorers to predict what would happen to the glues and paints they used, sometimes doing irreversible damage to artworks. 

There are any number of internet videos of restorers at the world’s great museums doing meticulous studies of masterpieces, sometimes over a period of years, before they even come up with a plan of what to do and not to do.  This research usually involves quite an expense in x-ray and other imaging equipment, chemical analysis of the layers of paint, study of surface features, etc.  And lest you think that environmental restorers face pressures from multiple constituencies including scientists, politicians, lawyers, taxpayers, and local residents that those in the insular museum world don’t have to deal with, think again.  There are some who consider that restoration of Michelangelo’s paintings in the Sistine Chapel garish, while that of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper in need of more work.

What Heneghan is saying in this article is that there is no perfect intervention in art or in nature, that humans have to accept that they go into any project with limited expertise, so it is best to go slowly and at each stage to evaluate what has worked and what hasn’t before plunging deeper into the unknown.  Just as the philosopher’s head bears its history well, so too could a prairie or woodland.  Its residents might not be those that were there 200 years ago, but they may represent a relatively staple ecosystem that, like the sculpture, will endure more change, but will still be there 200 years from now, or even a thousand.  And to put in a word about herbaria, because I can’t help myself, there are also restoration issues involved in whether to remount a specimen or repair a damaged sheet.  Here too, the art world may be of assistance.  

Botany and Art: States of Preservation

Resin block with specimens of Pinus bungeana created by Sheila Magullion, in the Arnold Arboretum Library

Herbaria are usually described as collections of preserved plant material, rather than just as stacks of pressed plants because most herbaria house boxes for bulky items like pine cones, material such as orchid flowers preserved in alcohol, and maybe plant morphology slides, boxes of seeds, wood samples, and seaweed albums.  What I find interesting in visiting collections is that curators usually have such items they want to display, ones that may never be digitized or get into online catalogues but are nonetheless fascinating.  Sometimes items like albums are preserved in botanical libraries.  It seems to me that if these establishments are in the same institutions as herbaria, the libraries tend to receive treasures that have value, but are either not likely to be used by a plant taxonomist or are in some way so different in makeup from what is ordinarily the purview of herbarium curators or managers that the library is considered a better place for them.  The assumption, which is usually based in fact, is that a librarian will know how to take care of it, or will dig around until they find out how to take care of it.  Librarians know how to find answers.

That may be why a collection of 288 blocks of polyester resin, each embedded with dried plant specimens resides in the Arnold Arboretum Horticultural Library.  These were made in the 1970s at the behest of Gordon P. DeWolf, Jr., a taxonomist at the arboretum.  He envisioned such a collection as ideal for educational purposes.  Herbarium sheets are too fragile to be passed around among a group of students, but similar specimens embedded in resin are tough.  However, making them requires a great deal of work.  DeWolf convinced an arboretum volunteer, Sheila Magullion, to take on the project, and it’s her work that is now found in the library.   She wrote an article on her experience in creating this collection for the arboretum’s journal, Arnoldia (Magullion, 1975).  This was after she had several years experience and could confidently describe what did and didn’t work. 

Right on the first page, Magullion mentions the “insidious” odor of the syrupy resin.  So the work area had to be away from food, a kitchen would not do, and it had to be where the molds could be left for several days to harden undisturbed.  Also, it was best that the work surface not be made of anything too precious:  drops of resin were difficult if not impossible to remove completely.  I picture the best venue as an airy garage with an old kitchen table on its way to the dump.  What is amazing is that Magullion was not deterred by these problems and many others she encountered.  It is obvious that there was a great deal of trial and error involved.  And even if, like me, you have no intention of ever attempting such a project—and I am sure there are easier and safer ways to do something similar today—this article is a great lesson in observation of plant material and how it behaves during drying, being soaked in resin, and hardening. 

Magullion warns that the plant material has to be totally dried and the specimens should be as good as possible since imperfections appear magnified through the resin.  Also, care must be taken in the use of the catalyst that cures the resin.  The process is exothermic, and if there is too much heat released too quickly, the plant tissue can bleach and the cast crack.  But add too little catalyst and the resin could become cloudy.  There are also clear instructions on using tweezers to place the plant material on the base coat of resin, and also on sanding and polishing the finished product.  Some blocks have a card attached to the base that gives the name of the plant and the parts included.  These can be read through the resin and give the specimens a herbarium-sheet look (see image above). 

I mentioned in the first post in this series that there is no perfect way to represent a plant, and these blocks demonstrate this.  The specimens are well protected, and floating in space gives them an oddly pleasing quality.  Obviously, this technique hardly became a herbarium staple, but along with the 19th-century educational posters (Van der Schueren, 2011) and plant models that grace many herbaria and botanical libraries, they are worth preserving for their beauty as well as for what they say about the culture of a particular time when a craft in favor in the larger culture seeps into the world of plants. 

After her article on embedding, Magullion (1977) wrote another one on treating material from trees and shrubs with glycerin to preserve them without pressing.  The purpose here was primarily to create decorative arrangements that would be long lasting.  The cuttings were sprayed with glycerin, not dipped in it.  Again, through trial and error Magullion figured out what would work and what wouldn’t, so the bulk of the article is a list of plant families and what works best for each.  As she mentions:  “Some families refuse to absorb the glycerin mixture; some absorb it, but with poor results; and some are outstanding in their response” (p. 289).  She also found that timing was important.  For the smoke bush, Cotinus, “large plumy fruit panicles last very well if collected no later than July.”  For the birch family, foliage didn’t respond well if collected early in the year, but could be preserved if picked in August and September.  Again, I won’t be doing any of this, but it is interesting to read through the families and see what Magullion discovered.


Magullion, S. (1975). Botanical embedding. Arnoldia, 36(6), 265–275.

Magullion, S. (1977). A guide by plant family to foliage preservation. Arnoldia, 37(6), 289–304.

Van der Schueren, K. (2011). The Art of Instruction: Vintage Educational Charts from the 19th and 20th Centuries. San Francisco: Chronicle.

Botany and Art: Intimacies

Lupinus argenteus, Silver Lupine” by Susan Rubin

The last post discussed how herbarium sheets are sometimes collages with illustrations of different kinds attached along with the plant material.  There was an interesting case in Taxon recently of an illustration used to identify a type specimen (Fleischmann and Gonella, 2020).  The species in question is Drosera intermedia, an insectivorous plant found from eastern North America, through the Caribbean to tropic South America.  As with many plants, particularly those with a relatively long botanical history, nailing down the first publication of a name and the type specimen can be complicated.  The authors here wade through the literature and cite a 1798 publication by Johann Dreves and Friedrich Hayne, though a 1800 publication by Hayne is usually given.  Why I find this case interesting is that Fleischmann and Gonella argue that a specimen in the Munich herbarium is the lectotype because it so closely resembles the illustration of the plant in the 1798 publication.  It is known that Haynes himself did the drawing on which it is based. 

This seems relatively straightforward, except for the fact that there is no indication on the sheet linking the specimen to Haynes.  The handwriting on the label is that of Johann Christian von Schreber, who traded and bought plants from a number of botanists.  This sheet is part of a Schreber collection acquisitioned in 1813 by the herbarium in Munich’s Bavarian Natural History Collections.  Also on the sheet is a not in the handwriting of Albrecht Roth, who was an early proponent of the idea that plants could attract and digest insects and thus derive nourishment from them.  Schreber thought this outlandish.  Sending the plant to Schreber was less about taxonomy and more about plant physiology.  In the note Roth writes that “the incurved leaves [of the specimen] hold dead insects.”  Roth published an article in which he remarked that he had received Drosera from Haynes with insects trapped in the leaves, providing evidence for linking Haynes’s illustration to Schreber’s specimen through Roth. 

This is a case of what I would call investigative botany, practiced by those taxonomists who also have a love of history.  The “excuse” is to find type specimens for species that are untypified or mis-typified, but it is also a way to satisfy an urge to solve a mystery.  Here the hunt was made more challenging, and perhaps therefore more intriguing, because the fate of the bulk of Haynes’ herbarium is unknown, and a search of what does exist turned up nothing related to the Drosera.  It’s suggestive of the more casual attitude toward specimens used in describing a species at that time that Haynes sent at least one of them on to Roth, and then Roth passed it on to Schreber in service of his insectivore argument.  It took dogged work to link the specimen’s provenance to the illustration in the original description, which is very similar.

My other two examples of intimate relationships between specimens and art are of a different kind and definitely tend toward the artistic rather than scientific end of the spectrum.  The first is a painting I saw on the web some time ago, and it keeps coming to mind.  It is “Lupinus argenteus, Silver Lupine” by Susan Rubin.  It won the Group Gold Medal from the Royal Horticultural Society London in 2017.  It’s a work of trompe-l’oeil and shows a herbarium specimen of the lupine, with faded colors and all the associated trappings of such a sheet.  This one is stamped from the Denver Botanic Gardens (where Rubin teaches) and includes a typed label, accession number, and barcode sticker.  Overlaid on it is a fresh lupine flower with its beautiful blue-purple inflorescence and green leaves.  The cutting has a small paper label and casts a shadow on the sheet suggesting it has merely been placed there for a moment to compare the live and dead specimens. 

Not surprisingly, Rubin is a botanical artist and much of her work is more traditional, though tending toward the artistic rather than the documentary.  She has done a series of trompe-l’oeil paintings, but none of the others have a herbarium specimen.  They show illustrations, sometimes taped or pinned to an artist’s table along with notes, preparatory sketches, a pencil or two, and other tools of the trade.  Somehow, these additions make the work more lively as it seems in the act of becoming.  The lupine is an indication of the accuracy of her work, and how it is grounded in the plant itself. 

Finally, I want to mention a rather odd convergence of art and science.  This was brought to my attention by the Swedish historian of science Anna Svensson, whose dissertation is a wonderful example of how history, botany, art, and the digital environment can be interwoven.  Anna spent some time at the Botanical Garden in Florence hunting among its treasures.  One that she found was a small bound herbarium where some of the flowers were painted over to give them more color.  I’ve written about early herbaria where missing petals or leaves were painted in, but the plants themselves were unadorned.  The Florence example went a step further.  It’s definitely at the far, far end of the scientific/artistic spectrum and a very unscientific move, but fascinating nonetheless. 


Fleischmann, A., & Gonella, P. M. (2020). Typification and authorship of Drosera intermedia (Droseraceae). Taxon, 69(1), 153–160. https://doi.org/10.1002/tax.12158

Note: I would like to thank Susan Rubin for allowing me to use her art in this post.

Art and Botany: Methods of Recording

Watercolor of Neopolitan apple (1904) by Bertha Heiges, U.S. Department of Agriculture Pomological Watercolor Collection. 

In this series of posts on botany and art (1,2,3), I’m looking at a number of ways botanists have documented plants, from Ludwig Reichenbach having herbarium specimens traced to create illustrations (1), to Joseph Banks using the works of Chinese artists as guides in plant collecting (2).  In this post, I focus on recording the attributes of fruits.  My reference is an article from the first issue of the British Journal of Pomology and Horticultural Science, published in 1919.  I cannot recall how I came to this carefully researched piece.  The author is Herbert E. Durham, President of the Herefordshire Association of Fruit Growers and Horticulturalists.  Fruits, particularly apples I would say, were important to Durham, and he was not happy with the inaccuracies he found in illustrations which were supposed to distinguish among varieties. 

Durham considered it difficult if not impossible to communicate the precise placement of structures within the fruit without illustrations, and even illustrations could miss the mark.  He writes of a book on British apples in which a plate is described as presenting round fruits where the diameter and height were about equal, yet the height of one fruit was given as 72 mm and the width 85; another fruit referred to as oblong had a height of 80 mm and a diameter of 82 mm.  He adds that he himself has “often been surprised when measuring” (p. 30).  After introducing other types of errors in illustrations of whole fruits as well as sections through them, Durham presents several approaches to getting dimensions and placement right.  I am definitely not going into all the details here; much of the article reads like an instruction manual.  But I will briefly note some of the techniques to give a flavor of the care Durham took in his work of representing different varieties, documenting them for the future.  Many of the varieties he cared so much about no longer exist, but his working method says a lot to future horticulturalists and botanists about the importance of precision in any form of representation.

To draw the shape of a fruit accurately, Durham devised a simple wooden tool into which a pencil was inserted; this “projection tracer” allowed drawing the circumference and picking up any unevenness in it.  Needless to say, he describes not only his method, but how to construct such a tool.  He also presents a device, essentially a blade, to cut longitudinal and transverse sections through the fruit to reveal the seeds, intercarpellary space (which he calls the axial sac), and the stalk attachment.  The blade has to be very thin, sharp, about 6 inches long, and attached to a bow so it can be accurately placed to get an ideal central longitudinal cut.  Durham has unkind words about some drawings made from cuts that were off-center.

Of course, Durham provides illustrations to show what should be revealed in each cut, using apples and pears as examples.  The images also demonstrate what he thinks a good illustration should and should not include.  These are very simple line drawings with just a surface outline, and the positioning of the seeds and sac wall.  Really they are diagrams, extremely clear and understandable.  They would not be considered works of art, but they are meticulously drawn for accuracy and clarity, Durham’s chief criteria.  He is trying to represent rather subtle differences among varieties, but only in regards to particular traits.

This approach is very different from that used in another set of fruit illustrations that I find particularly satisfying.  They are the pomological watercolors created by artists for the USDA in the early part of the 20th century and now preserved in its National Agricultural Library.  There is an unofficial Twitter feed (@pomological) that posts images from this digitized collection.  I love to look at these illustrations, most picture the whole fruit along with a cross section that even Durham would admire.  There are also images of fruit with pathologies and many of these are strangely beautiful.  Now a book of the illustrations has been published (Landy, 2021).

After all this emphasis on accuracy, I want to end with another way to record fruit form that intrigues me.  I read about it a number of years ago in a blog post from the Smithsonian Institution’s Field Book Project.  Emily Hunter, one of the transcribers, described a notebook kept by a US Department of Agriculture botanist, David Griffiths (1867-1935) during a collecting trip to Texas and Mexico in 1905.  He was focusing on the Opuntia genus of cacti, and specifically on their fruit which are fleshy—I think Durham would describe them as oblong.  On several pages, there are blotches stamped, and they vary in size and shape with the species discussed in the accompanying notes.  While Griffiths doesn’t identify what they are, Hunter surmises that they were made by cutting the fruit in half and pressing the cut surface to the paper.  Each pressing is outlined in pencil and the central fleshy area is also outlined.  This was a rough-and-ready form of nature printing, but an effective one.  Griffiths had neither the tools nor probably the time to make measurements and diagrams like Durham’s, but he figured out how he could quickly get the basic information down in his notebook.  I think of their respective images as a link between these two horticulturalists, in different countries, with very different interests and methods, but united in wanting to do justice to the forms they studied.


Durham, H. E. (1919). The Recognition of Fruit—Graphic Records. Journal of Pomology and Horticultural Science, 1(1), 28–36.

Landy, J., United States, & Department of Agriculture. (2021). An illustrated catalog of American fruits & nuts: The U.S. Department of Agriculture Pomological Watercolor Collection. Los Angeles: Atelier.