Vegetal Entanlgements, Antennae Issue 51

To end this series on the work of Giovanni Aloi and others in critical plant studies, I want to cover a lot of ground.  So far, I’ve gravitated toward art and literature, but philosophy is very much a part of this field as well.  This is an area with which I am less familiar, though I have read a few books on the topic that I found interesting, including Matthew Hall’s (2011) Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany.  I always enter a piece of writing by a philosopher with a bit of hesitancy:  am I going to be able to understand it?  In this case, I was soon put at ease.  Hall’s argument is clearly laid out and makes sense.  He explores perceptions of plants within different world views.  In the West, plants are seen as passive resources, while in Hindu texts, for example, plants are presented as fully sentient beings.  A multiplicity of views means that there are multiple ways of considering plant being, including as “persons,” which Hall defines as autonomous, perceptive, and intelligent beings, deserving of respect as other-than-human persons (p. 14). 

I should note, that by “intelligent” here, Hall means able to change behavior based on incoming information, something that plants do despite their lack of a central nervous system.  This deficiency is seen by some as precluding intelligence and consequently personhood.  I am not qualified to pass judgment on any of this, however I think raising such questions is important.  Thinking about plants in different ways leads to seeing in different ways and to questioning assumptions and perceptions.  It’s easy to consider plants as inactive, particularly in a herbarium which is essentially a plant morgue; not a lot of singing and dancing going on in the aisles.  However, the plant on a sheet entails so much more than just a set of characteristics to be noted and measured; it represents a “relational” being connected to many other beings, including ourselves, in a myriad of ways.

Still another philosophical perspective on what such relations involve is described by Emanuele Coccia (2019) in The Life of Plants: A Metaphysics of Mixture.  Coccia questions not cultural assumptions as Hall does, but rather looks to the biology of plants to understand how we relate to them at the most basic level, that of breath.  He writes:  “Plants are the breath of all living beings, the world as breath.  In turn, any breath is evidence of the fact that being in the world is, fundamentally, an experience of immersion.  To breathe means to be plunged into a medium that penetrates us in the same way and with the same intensity as we penetrate it” (p. 53).  That is definitely a profound yet fundamental way of thinking about our connections with plants.  While Hall looks at plants as they relate to human culture, Coccia looks at how living things share resources and the space in which they exist.  It is very interesting that the same organisms can generate such different worldviews and makes me think that I might need to investigate philosophy a little further in order to get a better perspective on plants, and life in general. 

I’ll end this ramble into viewpoints on plants that are outside my comfort zone by returning to where I began this series of posts (1,2,3) with Giovanni Aloi who seems to explore so many facets of the plant world.  He is the co-founder and editor of Antennae, a quarterly online journal that is open access.   I mentioned it in an earlier post, but it deserves attention here, because just as Hall and Coccia have expanded my view of the plant world, Antennae has done the same, in very different ways, for the living world in general.  Some Antennae issues such as Number 17 (Why Look at Plants?) and then Numbers 51-53 (Vegetal Entanglements) focus on plants.  These are definitely worth spending some time with.  They are all visually stunning, which is not surprising since Antennae is “The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture.” 

As an art critic and a plant studies expert, Aloi knows where to look for wonderful work by contemporary artists, including a couple of photographers who are exploring issues around seed collections.  But there are also articles on historical works such as Mary Delany’s (Number 51) 18th-century paper cutouts of plants and Gherardo Cibo’s (Number 51) 16th-century botanical illustrations set against landscapes, a novel twist for the time.  There are also articles giving attention to indigenous knowledge of plants and indigenous ways of honoring them.  Even if you don’t read every word of an issue, you will be richly rewarded by the images which are not only visually stunning but thought-provoking.  All issues are free and available in PDF format that is easy to view and to download for future reference.  What more could you ask of publication that, even in issues that are not devoted solely to plants, usually have some fascinating articles on them.  In any case, keep an eye on Giovanni Aloi if you want to expand your view of what plants are all about.


Coccia, E. (2019). The Life of Plants: A Metaphysics of Mixture (D. J. Montanari, Trans.). Cambridge: Polity.

Hall, M. (2011). Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Critical Plant Studies and Phytogenesis

Purple Aquilegia Anthotype: Painswick Rococo Garden, Gloucestershire, by Nettie Edwards

As I discussed in the first post in this series, I recently discovered a talk hosted by Giovanni Aloi from a series Botanical Speculations that has been going on for some time.  He mentioned that there was an upcoming online symposium, Phytogenesis II, sponsored by Plymouth University in England.  As its title implies, it is the successor to a similar event held last year.  I had attended some of the sessions at the time, but found myself overwhelmed with the stream of metaphors used to describe human relationships with plants, and the emphasis on the stranger attributes of plants.  It seemed to me that people interested in critical plant studies and looking at the cultural implications of plants, gravitate toward species that tend to have seemingly unplantlike characteristics, such as Rafflesia that lacks chlorophyll and is therefore parasitical, carnivorous like the Venus fly trap (Dionaea muscipula),  or extra-large like the corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanum), which has the added “lure” of smelling like rotting flesh.  Orchids also get a lot of attention because their sexual structures can mimic everything from monkey’s faces to animal genitals.  With hundreds of thousands of flowering plants to choose from, not to mention cryptogams, it seems narrow to focus on the bizarre and presents a skewed view of what the plant world is about. 

That being said, I decided to attend Phytogenesis II when I saw that the word “herbarium” was in the title of the first session:  “The Herbarium: Coloniality, Indigenous Knowledge and the Eucalyptus: Challenges for Critical Plant Studies.”  The first speaker was Prudence Gibson of the School of Art and Design at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.  She has received a grant for her project: “Exploring the Cultural Value of Sydney’s Royal Botanic Garden Herbarium Collection Using an Environmental Aesthetic.”  Gibson plans to collaborate with artists and writers along with the herbarium’s botanists in examining the collection in new ways.  She explained one important aspect of her work:  to focus attention on the plant names inscribed on specimen labels.  As with so many collections formed by colonizers, the labels usually do not include the names of the indigenous collectors who so often found the plants, nor the names they used for the species.  Usually just scientific names are recorded and at times the English common names of the colonizers. 

Gibson is arguing for “tri-naming,” as the herbarium standard.  This is hardly a unique situation; herbarium curators around the world are grappling with this issue, and it will require a great deal of work to address.  However, one benefit will be to draw new communities to herbaria, those with indigenous knowledge who can enrich specimen information and also learn more about the plants with which they have many deep connections.  One example of the kinds of links Gibson hopes to forge was described by her colleague Fabri Blacklock, a textile artist and associate professor at UNSW.  She works with natural dyes, including those derived from native eucalyptus species.  She discussed her projects in creating fabric artworks with fellow indigenous artists while also learning about the long history of eucalyptus use in Australia, a history that had been masked until recently. 

The next several Phytogenesis II presentations dealt with photography, such as William Arnold’s work collecting “wild” apple varieties in Britain from trees that seemingly have sprung up from seeds strewn here and there, definitely never part of an orchard.  This is a nice example of looking more closely at parts of the plant world that are overlooked, yet have interesting connections to everything from plant genetics to Johnny Appleseed.  The photographer Nettie Edwards discussed her long-term project on the anthotype, a photographic process using plant pigments to make light-sensitive prints.  It was developed in the 19th century when so many experiments were done employing light and chemicals in different ways to create images.  Mary Somerville originated the technique, but couldn’t get her work published, so John Herschel, the astronomer and photography pioneer, presented it to the Royal Society in her name, but the technique came to be more connected with him than Somerville. 

Edwards has experimented extensively with the process, using a variety of light-sensitive plant pigments and found that they create soft rather than crisp images.  Because natural pigments are used, it’s not surprising that they fade over time, ultimately disappearing.  That’s okay with Edwards.  She sees this slow disappearance as a metaphor for the disappearance of nature from our lives and of species from the biosphere.  Her work tells a story of the beauty of plants and of loss.  It was clear from her presentation that she had done a great deal of research on plant pigments, on how to prepare them for use in her photographic processes, and how best to use them to represent aspects of plant form.  I found this project particularly fascinating.  To me, it represented critical plant studies in a way that was both accessible and deeply meaningful. 

Edwards prepared me for Giovanni Aloi’s keynote at the end of the symposium.  I was ready for a deeper dive into the field of critical plant studies that had become less foreign to me, and definitely worth exploring.  There are so many people in literature, the arts, history, and philosophy engaged with plants it seems that those of us who are interested in the scientific side of plants should pay some attention to how others view these organisms that we find so fascinating.

Critical Plant Studies

Giovanni Aloi’s Botanical Speculations

In the last post, I wrote about a conversation between Randy Malamud (2021) author of Strange Bright Blooms: A History of Cut Flowers and Giovanni Aloi as part of Aloi’s Botanical Speculations series, which began in 2017 as a symposium at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where Aloi teaches courses in art history and visual culture.  A collection of essays resulted (Aloi, 2018), presentations continued, and with covid they became virtual.  Aloi is involved in a number of other projects in what is called critical plant studies (CPS), that is looking at plant-human interactions from the viewpoints of literature, art, and philosophy. 

As I’ve mentioned before, I have not delved deeply into this area in part because I don’t have a grounding in these fields, particularly literature and philosophy.  My one serious foray into literature occurred 25 years ago when I attended a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute at Vassar College on “The Environmental Imagination: Issues and Problems in American Nature Writing.”  There I learned to read in an entirely new way (Flannery, 1997).  Before that, I read like a scientist:  absorbing content, not paying much attention to word choice as long as it was understandable.  I knew something about mitochondria, so that word conjured up a particular image and set of attributes.  To me, this was not a nuanced word with metaphorical meanings, the thing literary scholars look for.  Many of the words in the essays, stories, and poems we were asked to read had such nuances.  It took a while for me to catch on and appreciate that such reading is slow and ruminative, with a lot of moving back and forth, revisiting earlier passages in the light of later ones. 

Doing this for six weeks was a wonderful experience, and I have never read anything—literature or science—in quite the same way since.  Words and their layers of meaning have become more important to me.  But I never came close to appreciating more theoretical discussions of post-structuralism, which questions many cultural structures and assumptions, including the idea of plants being less alive, complex, and responsive than animals.  The philosopher Michael Marder have contributed much to this conversation on critical plant studies, as has Aloi from the art history perspective and many from the literary side, including two colleagues of mine Tina Gianquitto and Lauren La Fauci, who recently published an article (2022) on the Herbarium 3.0 project we worked on several years ago with support from Linköping University in Sweden and Colorado School of Mines.

Critical plant studies deserves attention from those in the life sciences.  It is quite a large field in part because it involves researchers from several disciplines.  Essentially it looks at plants through different lenses that illuminate them in ways that scientists should not ignore.  A favorite quote of mine from Richard Mabey (2015) is relevant here:  “The quintessence of a plant can only ever be a fantastic goal, something to travel towards but never reach” (p. 27).  This field plumbs depths of the plant world where botanists seldom venture:  into the many relationships with humans as well as among plants and animals, investigating cultural meanings and the consequences of long-entrenched practices.  Those in plant studies get to know plants in many different ways, and these often border on the scientific in approaches that might be a surprise to those in botany and ecology.  Some examples will be the topic of my next post. 

Right now I want to spend a little more time on Aloi’s work in art criticism.  I first encountered his writing several years ago when I read an article about Greg Pryor, an Australian artist who had done a body of work related to herbaria (Aloi, 2011).  In one project, Flora Nullius (2005), he spent months at the Vienna Natural History Museum studying specimens that had been collected in Australia and given scientific names, while the original indigenous names were not recorded.  He then took old herbarium papers, discarded when the specimens were remounted, to create an artwork that presented them as blank remnants of what they had held.  In Iron Ball Taxonomy (2007), he displayed a row of specimens in a glass case, with an iron ball-and-chain running across the top to signify the indigenous labor that had been used to clear the land where these native plants were collected.  My favorite work of Pryor’s is Black Solander (2005), referencing Daniel Solander, the Swedish botanist who collected in Australia with Joseph Banks on Captain James Cook’s first voyage there.  Pryor made drawings of specimens with black ink on black sugar paper.  They represent of the 10,500 plant species known in Western Australia, suggesting the hidden toll of colonization on plants and indigenous people.

Finally, I want to mention one of Aloi’s books that I’ve written about before (see earlier post).  Lucian Freud Herbarium (2019) is an example of where the word herbarium is used metaphorically.  To my knowledge the painter, who is noted for his portraits of often less-than-beautiful people, never had a collection of pressed plants.  However, he painted plants throughout his career, sometimes including them in portraits, and in other cases focusing on them alone.  As Aloi writes:  “The book’s title comes from Renaissance dried plant collections as well as illustrated herbals. It ultimately summons a desire to see more deeply into the essence of plants.  In contrast to the classical tradition, Freud painted not precious cultivars, but weeds, undervalued survivors of the botanical world.  Like his human sitters, his plants are never perfected, or idealized; they are what they are” (p. 14).


Aloi, G. (2011). Gregory Pryor: Postcolonial botany. Antennae, 18, 24–36.

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

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

Flannery, M. C. (1997). Learning to read in Poughkeepsie. The American Biology Teacher, 59(8), 528–532.

Gianquitto, T., & Lafauci, L. (2022). A case study in citizen environmental humanities: Creating a participatory plant story website. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences.

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

Malamud, R. (2021). Strange Bright Blooms: A History of Cut Flowers. London: Reaktion.

Marder, M. (2013). Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life. New York: Columbia University Press.

Cut Flowers and Botanical Speculations

Randy Malamud’s Strange Bright Blooms

I have written about aspects of the plant humanities before (see 1,2,3), but I have tended to stay away from critical plant studies because I feel more at ease on the scientific side of the plant studies fence rather than on the literary and philosophical side.  I see the relationship of art and history to plants as occupying a middle ground, which I do love to explore but haven’t felt comfortable beyond that point.  However, plants are so important to all areas of human experience that this is an untenable position if I am going to appreciate all aspects of plant/human interactions. 

As with so many other parts of life, covid brought a change in my perspective.  I became more active on social media, began attending virtual conferences and seminars, and became connected to groups such as the Literary and Cultural Plants Studies Network through its listserv.  While I don’t follow every lead they send, I have looked into a few.  Recently, there was a message about a Botanical Speculations conversation between Giovanni Aloi, who hosts the series, and Randy Malamud (2021), author of Strange Bright Blooms: A History of Cut Flowers.  It turned out to be an interesting event, a casual interchange between the two about the book, which I had read. 

Hearing a writer speak about his work can put it into a new perspective.  As the subtitle suggestions, Malamud focuses not on growing plants, but on those whose reproductive development, and perhaps even their life histories, have been interrupted by human intervention, often simply for the pleasure of bring blooms inside to be appreciated in a different and perhaps manipulated context:  crowded together with other species, shown off in splendid isolation in a vase, or hung up to dry to become fall or winter decorations.  The book moves quickly from one topic to the next, with a thread running through the chapters going from flowers in writing and art to flower sellers:  the girls and women who sold flowers in the Victorian era and the mass production of flowers in former imperial colonies today.  Then there’s a chapter on gender, sexuality, race, and class, and finally a very affecting chapter on flowers and war, something not often touched upon.  The emphasis throughout the book is literature with references to poetry, novels, stories, and essays, which is not surprising since Malamud is a professor of literature at Georgia Southern University.

This romp made more sense after listening to Malamud, who joyfully jumped from topic to topic in speaking with Aloi.  This was obviously a byproduct of his absolute enchantment with his subject.  Enthusiasm bubbled out of him, and I could picture him sitting down to write about all the flower-related topics that caught his attention, from the daffodils in T.S. Eliot’sThe Wasteland” to William Shakespeare to Emily Dickinson, all within a few pages.  In the book, Dickinson comes up several times and her bound herbarium is mentioned.  After all, it is made up of cut flowers.  Malamud and Aloi explored what it means to cut a flower, to dismember a living thing, to impose human will over the plant.  I think people in the plant humanities consider this question much more closely than do botanists collecting in the field who are more focused on labeling what they’ve cut and getting the material into plastic bags or between sheets of paper for preservation. 

At the end of his free-ranging discussion with Malamud, Aloi asked for questions and comments from the Zoom audience.  One observation came from the artist Melissa Oresky, whose work was unfamiliar to me.  When I looked her website, I found that she does amazing art, including sculptures, collages, and prints, all with imaginative use of plant forms.  She has even created artists books (2016, 2020) based on herbarium specimens.  So my introduction to Botanical Speculations was definitely a positive experience, which I will write more about in the next posts, along with more on some of Aloi’s other projects.  These include a quarterly online journal he edits called Antennae, which is freely available on the web and combines critical plant and animal studies in fascinating ways that weave science and the arts together. 

I gravitate toward the scientific approach with efforts to learn about plants and save biodiversity.  However, I am beginning to understand that those in critical plant studies think otherwise.  They see their work in probing human-plant interactions as vital to human and ecosystem survival and health.  These relationships include everything from writing poems about plants to growing them in gardens to examining the roles of plants in indigenous cultures.  Some investigate the results of botanical imperialism in former colonies including environmental disruption, changes in food culture, and the aftereffects of plantation economies.  Corinne Fowler (2020) a British writer has recently written a rather unusual book that makes a case for how slavery and colonialism shaped not just British colonies but Britain itself.  She uses both historical records and literary works to make her case.  In addition, she includes examples of literary works, some her own, to broaden the perspective and to show that these can definitely make the argument richer, deeper, and more memorable.  Like Malamud’s book, hers is flooded with information and ideas, and her argument is well-documented.    


Fowler, C. (2020). Green Unpleasant Land: Creative Responses to Rural Britain’s Colonial Connections. Leeds: Peepal Tree.

Malamud, R. (2021). Strange Bright Blooms: A History of Cut Flowers. London: Reaktion.

Oresky, M. (2016). Ghosts. Brooklyn: Kayrock.

Oresky, M. (2020). Finder. Brooklyn: Kayrock.

Aesthetics of Communication

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Weaving Together Plant Humanities and Ethnobotany in the Future

From The Ethnobotanical Assembly, Issue 8

This series of posts is about the future of plant studies in the broadest sense.  In the first and third posts, I looked at Mason Heberling’s work on the future of herbaria, particularly in relation to plant trait research.  Between them, I wrote a post on an issue of The Ethnobotanical Assembly or T.E.A. on the plant humanities.  Several of its articles deal directly or indirectly with plant collections.  In their essay, the issue’s editors, Felix Driver and  Caroline Cornish of the University of London, include a diagram with Plant Humanities at the center of a wheel (see above) with spokes that include health, creative arts, culture, landscapes, stories, plant matter, which includes biocultural (economic botany) collections, and plant thinking, the idea that plants are sentient beings that should not be dismissed as “lower” forms of life but rather as different and equally interesting forms as animals, including humans. 

Herbaria and biocultural or economic botany collections are where many of these themes can be explored.  Author of The Plant Hunter (2021) Cassandra Quave is herbarium director and associate professor at Emory University.  She has been intrigued by the medicinal uses of plants since her college days and writes of one example of why she finds working with indigenous practitioners so important.  In another T.E.A. article called “The Herbarium as a Workshop,” Luciana Martins, a cultural historian, and Lindsay Sekulowicz, an artist, describe their collaboration on an exhibit at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew entitled Plantae Amazonicae.  They worked in both the Kew herbarium and its economic botany department on collections from the Amazon region made by the 19th-century British botanist Richard Spruce.  They uncovered many interesting items used in the display, and Sekulowicz also created several artworks that commented on the collection.  These included a drawing done in ink made from pigments in the arils of seeds from the achiote shrub Bixa orellana, native to Amazonia.  Their collaboration is a beautiful example of how botanical history, indigenous culture, and art can be interwoven under the plant humanities umbrella. 

Another example of several themes tightly interwoven are found in Steeve Buckridge’s article on Jamaican lacebark from the tree Lagetta lagetto.  The species is native to the Caribbean and its inner bark has a net-like structure that made is useful as cloth.  It was employed by enslaved people who had little access to woven cloth for apparel.  It was also made into lacey decorative items that were popular among the upper classes and ultimately with tourists.  Many herbaria with biocultural collections have examples of collars, fans, and other items made from the lacebark.  But Buckridge digs deeper into the story and finds that there were multiple uses for the inner bark including twisting it into rope or weaving it to make baskets and hammocks.  The enslaved were sometimes flogged with whips made from strips of bark, so there was a dark side to its products as well.  Finally the bark had medicinal properties such as easing joint pain and healing damaged skin. 

Buckridge’s insights make a collection of objects come alive, enriched by the stories adhering to them.  His article is a good example of what can be revealed about items that are sometimes considered little more than oddities in a botanical collection.  Linking them to stories and the spokes of Cornish and Driver’s plant humanities wheel emphasize their cultural value.  This is also the theme of Mark Nesbitt’s article “Repurposing Economic Botany for the Twenty-First Century.”   Nesbitt is curator of the Economic Botany Collection at Kew and has written extensively on it and on the significance of what he terms biocultural collections in general (Nesbitt, 2014).  He reviews the history of Kew’s collection that dates back to the time of Joseph Banks and by 1910 was spread over four museum buildings, including two housing wood specimens and products.  However, as interest in the field dwindled along with Britain’s colonial empire on which it was built, the public displays became smaller and smaller.  Today, they are reduced to a few display cases in a café housed in one of the former museum buildings. 

However, the collection itself is alive and well, stored in a facility built at Kew in the 1980s, and the number of items has actually grown by a quarter under Nesbitt’s curatorship.  It is now being used in many ways, as evidenced by several articles in this T.E.A. issue.  Almost all this work involves crossing disciplinary boundaries, and Nesbitt makes the point that there are various levels to these connections.  He quotes work by the curator Henriette Pleiger who distinguishes among the concepts of multi-, inter-, and transdisciplinarity.  Multidisciplinary work is the most superficial and informal, perhaps one or more meetings among those with different expertise.  Interdisciplinary research is more interactive, long-term, and organized; it is usually more fruitful.  Nesbitt sees much of the work of the Economic Botany program at Kew as in this vein.  Finally, transdisciplinary work describes projects that seek disciplinary synthesis.  He considers this a possibility that might arise out of work Kew is doing with indigenous people in Amazonia to acquaint them with the items Richard Spruce collected in Brazil and to learn from them how these objects relate to their lived experience and history.  This seems a hopeful idea that can arise from digging deeply into biocultural collections with peoples to wh they are tied. 


Nesbitt, M. (2014). Use of Herbarium Specimens in Ethnobotany. In J. Salick, K. Konchar, & M. Nesbitt (Eds.), Curating Biocultural Collections: A Handbook (pp. 313–328). Richmond, UK: Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Quave, C. L. (2021). Plant Hunter. New York: Penguin.

Ethnobotany and Plant Humanities in the Future

Issue 8, The Ethnobotanical Assembly

In this series of posts, I’m dealing with two topics:  plant collections in functional trait research (see last post) and plants from the humanities perspective.  This post presents Issue 8 of The Ethnobotanical Assembly or T.E.A. on the Plant Humanities.  It is freely available online and definitely worth reading.  There are nine articles that include poetry and visual art as well as botany and history.  I cannot say that I had a favorite because I found each of them striking and memorable in some way, and all extremely well written and thought out.  Kate Teltscher, author of Palace of Palms (2021, see earlier post), writes about the Napoleon Willow, a specimen of Salix babylonica or weeping willow that grew at the graveside of Napoleon Bonaparte on Saint Helena where he was exiled by the British after his defeat at Waterloo.  The island is in the South Atlantic on British trading roots and had a botanical garden where species from throughout the empire were acclimatized.  That’s how this weeping willow native to Northern China ended up there. 

The grave became a tourist stop for French mourning the loss of their leader and British reminding themselves of his sorry end.  Cuttings from the willow were sold as souvenirs, and soon the caretakers planted a grove of trees to increase production.  Since the species is easily propagated from cuttings many scions thrived in Europe and the tree became popular in the United States.  The willow was often planted in graveyards, as a sign of mourning and rebirth since it regenerated vegetatively.  The species was also grown in such British colonies as South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia where it flourished to the point of now being considered a noxious invasive.  Genetic evidence indicates that the trees in these three countries are all descended from those around Napoleon’s grave. 

Teltscher’s essay is a wonderful blend of history, horticultural, and symbolism.  All the articles in this issue are mélanges of several fields.  Yota Batsaki Executive Director the Dumbarton Oaks Museum and Library writes about an art installation at the Kunstverein in Braunschweig, Germany by the South African artist Lungiswa GquntaBenisiya Nadawoni, Return to the Unfamiliaris a complex statement about immigration, colonization, ethnobotany and the sensory experience of plants.  Lengths of razor wire were stretched diagonally across a room from floor to ceiling making it tricky but not impossible for a visitor to navigate through the space.  The wire was wrapped with sage leaves held together with string and there was a scent of burning leaves.  The room was well-lit and had pale green walls that, along with the scent, gave a calm feel that balanced the rather intimidating wire. 

The work’s title Benisiya Nadawani means “where were you headed to?” in the isiXhosa language and is a quote from the philosopher Anton Wilhelm Amo who was born in West Africa and brought to Germany as a child in 1707.  He earned degrees in philosophy and law and taught at German universities.  He returned to West Africa in 1748.  With the wire, Gqunta references Amo’s immigration and the xenophobia he faced, while the sage leaves and the incense refer to his writings on the relationship between mind and body.  She used sage on the wire because it was more readily available than the impepho or licorice plant (Helichrysum petiolare) that was burnt.  The latter is native to Africa and used in spiritual practices to prepare a space for ancestors.  Taking all these elements into account in this complex work, Batsaki does a wonderful job of making this piece come alive and weaving together culture and history. 

Reading any one of these essays easily leads on to the next.  They bounce off each other and evoke deep thinking about the subject at hand and those treated in other articles.  The weeping willow and impepho are both plants with significant cultural meanings.  They made me more attuned to “Finding the Plantness within Ourselves.”  Danielle Sands and Daniel Whistler’s article begins with a quote from Monica Gagliano (2018):  “How can a plant readily know us when we are hardly aware of the plantness within ourselves?”  That really stuck with me even though I’m not quite sure what it means.  As a biologist, it made me think of all the physiological processes and basic chemicals that I share with plants, that make up my plantness.  Many in the field of critical plant studies emphasize the environmental responses of plants to light, pressure, etc. as resembling those of animals, but I have been thinking about similarities at a different level and trying to imagine my plantness in terms of respiration, production of starch, synthesis of proteins.  My cells may look different from those of a plant, but they still have a lot in common.  My plantness is fundamental, submicroscopic, and silent.  This might seem like a form of dreaming, but to me it is a form of connection with organisms that I have never thought about that way—such broad thinking is something that the plant humanities encourages. 

One last contribution to mention here is Redell Olsen’s poem called “Moonflower, 2021 or, a scarlet transfer For Margaret Mee (1909-1988),” in which she writes of Mee’s finally capturing the night blooming moonflower in a painting.  Olsen also compares Mee’s notes on the destruction of the Brazilian rainforests in the 1960s to the 1980s with the destruction Olsen witnessed in today’s Brazil.  Reading this poem was a very different experience from reading a report on habitat loss:  much more complex, visceral, intense, and memorable.


Teltscher, K. (2020). Palace of Palms: Tropical Dreams and the Making of Kew. London: Picador.

Many Treasure Rooms

Specimens of Iris pseudacorus, Herbarium Ratzenberger (1556-1592). Naturkundemuseum Kassel. Photo by Peter Mansfeld.

In this series of posts (1,2,3) I’m exploring what Tinde van Andel calls “treasure rooms” in museums and libraries that hold early modern herbaria.  I’ve discussed some of these in the Netherlands, Italy, and Switzerland, now I want to hunt down a few spread more widely.  One was created by Caspar Ratzenberger in Germany between 1556 and 1592.  It is preserved in three volumes in the Natural History Museum of Kassel, Germany (see figure above).  It contains plants that he grew in his garden, including some exotics such as tobacco.  In 1858, a resident of the city sought it out after reading a reference to such a collection.  He found it stored but forgotten in a government building and made a list of the plants it contained.  Little else seems to have been done on this collection. 

            While the Ratzenberger herbarium didn’t travel far from its point of origin, that isn’t true of some other treasures.  One created in 1606 by Gregorio da Reggio, who collected around Bologna, is now in the Oxford University herbarium (Marner, 2006).  It was given to William Sherard by his friend Giuseppe Monti, director of the Bologna Botanical Garden shortly before Sherard’s death.  Sherard left his collections to Oxford, but this is only part of the story.  The “gift” was meant as an exchange.  Sherard had agreed to send Monti the second volume of Hans Sloane’s Natural History of Jamaica, but died before he could do so.  Monti asked Sherard’s brother James for the book, but the sibling ignored the letter because he was miffed at being cut out of the will.  Johann Dillenius, who had become professor of botany at Oxford thanks to Sherard’s funding the position, finally sent the Sloane book to Monti (Harris, 2011).  While it is certainly a gem, it is not unique like the herbarium, which has three hundred specimens with extensive labels.  Unusual for the time, the labels contain information on locality, habitat, and in some cases even flowering times and medicinal uses as well as literature citations. 

            María Carrión (2017) of Emory University has examined a number of early herbaria and written particularly about an Italian collection in Spain’s Royal Library of El Escorial (2017, 2019).  The collector of these four volumes is unknown, but it was owned by Diego Hurtado de Mendoza, who had served as Spanish Ambassador to Venice, where he had built up an extensive library, including this herbarium.  He later fell out of favor with the king and was living in exile when the monarch, who was eager to acquire the library with its extensive collection of Greek manuscripts, offered to allow Mendoza to return home if he bequeathed his library to the king.  Since the focus was on the Greek manuscripts, the herbarium didn’t receive much attention.  Carrión has examined the collection and found discrepancies between the number of plants listed in the index to each volume and the plants actually present, with in each case the lists missing plants.  Some are off by a few plants, but for the second volume only 99 of the 209 plants are recorded.  She also found that the first volume is much more focused on medicinal uses than are the others.  As with any herbarium, without any supporting material to offer hints, it is difficult to imagine all the details that went into its construction. 

            The oldest herbarium in the National Museum of Natural History herbarium in Paris dates to 1558 and was created by Jehan Girault, a medical student at the University of Lyons.  With 81 pages and 310 plants, it was kept at the University until 1721 when it was sent to the botanist Antoine de Jussieu in Paris.  It became part of the museum’s collection in 1857, a small portion of the eight million specimens now stored there, yet it is an important piece of the history of medical and botanical education in France.  Girault was a student of Jacques Daléchamps, who in turn was a student of Guillaume Rondelet, one of the pioneers of early modern botany.  Rondelet taught at the University of Montpellier that has a rich history, and he was an early proponent of fields trips as a botanical learning tool (Ogilvie, 2006).

            I’ll end this survey with the creator of multiple herbaria that still exist.  Hieronymus Harder produced 11 extant collections, with most still in Germany, where he lived (Dobras, 2009).  Some were presentation volumes like Andrea Cesalpino’s in Florence that I mentioned in the last post.  Harder was a teacher interested in medicinal plants, and most of the plants are from the area surrounding his Bavarian home.  However, there are also specimens of tobacco, pepper, and tomato which had spread so rapidly across Europe through seed sharing among botanists.  There is also a single herbarium created by Harder’s son, Johannes, an apothecary, at the Oak Spring Garden Library in Virginia.  What makes all these volumes particularly interesting is that the Harders had the habit of “embellishing” or “improving” specimens with watercolor paints to fill in missing petals or stems, to add roots or bulbs, or create a tuft of grass to ground a plant.  The son’s work is the most heavily altered and is an example of the experiments early modern botanists tried in attempting to communicate as much information as possible through their collections.  It is wonderful that such variations still exist to give a sense of the ardor and experimentation of the period.


Carrión, M. M. (2017). Planted knowledge: Art, science, and preservation in the sixteenth-century herbarium from the Hurtado de Mendoza Collection in El Escorial. Journal of Early Modern Studies, 6(1), 47–67.

Carrión, M. M. (2019). Planting dwelling thinking. Natural history and philosophy in sixteenth-century European dried gardens. Gardens and Landscapes: Sciendo, 6, 5–19.

Dobras, W. (2009). Hieronymus Harder and his twelve plant collections. Ulm Und Oberschwaben, Journal of History, Art and Culture, 56, 46–82.

Harris, S. (2011). Planting Paradise: Cultivating the Garden, 1501-1900. Cambridge: Bodleian Library.

Marner, S. K. (2006). 400 years old! (A book herbarium from Italy). Oxford Plant Systematics], 13, 9–10.

Ogilvie, B. W. (2006). The Science of Describing: Natural History in Renaissance Europe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Swiss Treasure Rooms

Facing pages from Felix Platter’s Herbarium. Bern City Library.

This post in the series (1,2) on the whereabouts of early modern herbaria begins with two notable collections in Switzerland, Felix Platter’s (1536-1614) at the Bern City Library and Caspar Bauhin’s (1560-1624) at the University of Basel’s herbarium.  Both are significant and both were the subject of an article by Davina Benkert (2016), where she does a wonderful job of describing each and comparing them.  As with many collections this old, portions are missing.  Platter eventually bound his specimens and had 18 volumes of which nine survive.  In many cases, he pasted a plant on the right hand page and one or more illustrations on the left.  Among these are prints as well as watercolors, including 77 by Hans Weiditz, the originals of the plates used in Otto Brunfel’s 1530 Herbarum vivae eicones.  Paper being valuable, Weiditz had painted on both sides of each sheet.  Wanting to get the most out of them, Platter cut them out so he could use both plants, sometimes painting in parts that were missing.  He also at times “fiddled” with specimens, such as pasting stamens to the outside of tulip flowers to make them visible.  These practices horrify present-day art historians and botanists, but this was early modern botany and techniques had yet to be codified. 

Bauhin was Platter’s student at the University of Basel and they collected together.  Eventually Bauhin joined the faculty and worked on his plant compendium, Pinax theatri botanici published there in 1623.  They used the specimens differently, so they treated them differently.  Platter used his in teaching and as reference.  Though he had early on kept his specimens loose, he eventually preferred bound volumes because they allowed him to show his collection to visitors, something he relished, without damaging the plants.  He used Bauhin’s classification system.  Even though it hadn’t been published yet, he was obviously privy to the manuscript.   

On the other hand, Bauhin was trying to build a comprehensive collection to use in creating a planned work on taxonomy.  He kept his specimens loose, slipped between folded sheets of paper with identification slips.  This enabled him to reorganize them as his ideas about relationships among them changed, but it also meant fragments and labels could easily slip out.  It also made it easier to remove specimens.  Bauhin’s collection continued to be used for teaching and reference after his death.  His descendants allowed botanists to select specimens, which explains why two-thirds of the originals are gone (Benkert, 2016).  In 1774, what remained was purchased by Werner von Lachenel, a University of Basel botanist who integrated the sheets into his own herbarium.  When the University acquired his herbarium, they then sorted out Bauhin’s sheets, but 400 were in such poor condition they were discarded.  Here at least we have some idea of why the collection is so greatly reduced.  In many cases, the dwindling of a collection isn’t as well documented.  I should add that sometimes items are later found as when 300 of Ulisse Aldrovandi’s specimens (see last post) were discovered in a later Italian collection (Mossetti, 1990).  Again, this might seem horrifying, but it is really a form of borrowing, a common practice; it’s just that in the Bauhin and Aldrovandi cases it was done posthumously. 

Alette Fleischer (2017) has written an article with a great title Leaves on the Loose and subtitled “The Changing Nature of Archiving Plants and Botanical Knowledge” and that deals with these issues.  She notes that when herbaria were unbound all ties could be lost to the history of a sheet and who made it.  She sees the digitization of old collections as a boon to “recombining” specimens, setting them next to each other for comparison.  James Petiver, an avid British collector, amassed over 100 herbaria, which eventually become part of Hans Sloane’s herbarium, now at the Natural History Museum, London.  Fleisher writes that “According to his beliefs on order, Petiver compiled, or more precisely recompiled nearly every herbarium that came into his possession.  .  .  .  He not only took sheets from older herbaria, but also cut out bits of paper and plants and glued these together with other specimens, thereby losing labels, names, and information” (pp. 125-126).

Reading statements like this explains a lot about why the early history of herbaria is fragmentary.  It also makes what is available that much more wonderful.  Particularly wonderful is the website that has been created around Platter’s herbarium, with the pages organized by volume and by species names.  In addition there are webpages with information on Platter and the collection’s history.  It’s thrilling to be able to closely study the pages, especially those with Weiditz images.  The University of Basel herbarium website states the Bauhin herbarium has been imaged, but I could not find a link to it, so I am not sure if it is available online.  In time it probably will be, another wonderful digital treasure.  In the meantime, the Platter volumes would keep anyone with an interest in early modern botany busy for a long time. 


Benkert, D. (2016). The ‘Hortus Siccus’ as a focal point: Knowledge, environment, and image in Felix Platter’s and Caspar Bauhin’s herbaria. In S. Burghartz, L. Burkart, & C. Göttler (Eds.), Sites of Mediation (pp. 211–239). Leiden: Brill.

Fleischer, A. (2017). Leaves on the loose: The changing nature of archiving plants and botanical knowledge. Journal of Early Modern Studies, 6(1), 117–135.

Mossetti, U. (1990). Catalogue of Ulisse Aldrovandi’s herbarium: The specimens found in the herbaria of Giuseppe Monti and Ferdinando Bassi. Webbia, 44(1), 151–164.

Humanistic Uses of Herbaria

Secret of the Ferns by Anselm Kiefer in the Margulies Collection

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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