At A.C. Moore Herbarium: Materiality of Specimens

Celtis laevigata var. laevigata collected by Henry Ravenel along the Santee Canal in April. Henry William Ravenel Collection at A.C. Moore Herbarium, University of South Carolina, Columbia

During the pandemic, I became interested in digital medieval manuscripts after reading a blog post by a researcher studying the digitization of manuscripts at Cambridge University and being unable to access the manuscripts themselves (Haaren, 2020).  I began comparing this digitization process to that of herbarium specimens.  “Materiality” is a term much used in the manuscript world for the look and feel of parchment or paper and the way documents are damaged, annotated, amended over time.  It struck me that such issues also pertain to herbarium specimens, but it’s not something that’s often a matter of focus.  Botanists are interested in the information on sheets:  what the plant itself can tell them and what else they can learn from the label, determination slips, and other notations. 

What I want to argue here is that materiality can have at least a subliminal effect on how specimens are viewed and handled.  I want to use as a study case a number of specimens from the herbarium I’ve been highlighting in this series of posts (1,2,3), that of the A.C. Moore Herbarium (USCH) at the University of South Carolina, Columbia.  As I mentioned earlier, it holds the collection of the 19th-century botanist and planter Henry William Ravenel (1817-1887).  Ravenel was born into a family of planters in South Carolina’s low country relatively near the coast.  In the 1840s, he moved to the southwest part of the state, to the town of Aiken, and bought a plantation there.  Of course, the American Civil War is the elephant in this room.  Before then, he was successful in large part because he owned 80 slaves who worked his land, giving him time to devote to plants and fungi.  By 1860, he had published five volumes of fungal exsiccati and had a wide correspondence with the likes of Asa Gray, George Engelmann, and Edward Tuckerman.

Convinced of the confederate cause, Ravenel sunk all his money into war bonds and was thus left in dire financial straits after the war, with no slaves to farm his land and no one willing to buy it at anywhere near its previous value.  He turned to botany, no longer as just a beloved avocation but as a source of income.  His journals and letters, which have all been transcribed and are available online and cross-referenced with his specimens, record his efforts.  After the war, he was able to resume correspondence with his former botanical colleagues.  He wrote to them asking for advice:  would there be an interest in southern specimens (not really in the post-war era), was there a market for the volumes of his exsiccati (Tuckerman was able to sell some of them and also bought some of his books), what about starting a nursery (nurseryman Thomas Meehan in Philadelphia sent him stock and gave him $50 in start-up money that didn’t need to be repaid). 

Ravenel did cobble together a livelihood and a botanical support group.  He was sent by the federal government to collect plants in Texas in 1869, prepared large cuttings of southern trees for Charles Sprague Sargent in Massachusetts, and traded specimens with the likes of Alvan Chapman in Florida, Stephen Olney in Rhode Island Delaware, and Moses Curtis in the Appalachian regions of the Carolinas (Haygood, 1987).  I can’t go into any more of his background, but you can learn about him on the Plants and Planter website.  Now I want to get to the materiality of Ravenel’s specimens by looking at a couple of them.  As was common in the 19th century, most were mounted on thin paper, now discolored.  After Ravenel’s death, a cousin bought the flowering plant collection from his widow and contributed it to Converse College, in Spartanburg, SC (now Converse University).  The college transferred the collection to USCH in 2004, when its conservation was begun.

There are a variety of sheets in any one folder.  In some cases, the original sheets are themselves mounted on heavier sheets (see image in earlier post); in many cases the original paper is cut around the plant, creating a collage that includes the original label and later determinations, some made in the 1930s when the collection was obviously given attention.  The grasses, for example, were sent for annotation to Mary Agnes Chase at the US Department of Agriculture.  There are also specimens that were apparently easier to remove from damaged mounts and pasted to new sheets.  The original labels are also included, and their darkened paper stands out against the white background (see above).

These remounted specimens, which make up most of the Ravenel collection, are what got me thinking about the materiality of the Ravenel collection.  They look so different from the few older sheets that are extant.  All the plants are from the same period, yet the ones on new sheets look so much fresher.  I think there is also a tendency to handle them with less reverence because the paper is not fragile, there is little reminder of their age.  This got me thinking about the folders in the main collections.  Most of the specimens are from the 20th century, with a good number from the 21st.  However, the specimens from the 1930s and 1940s are often on thin and yellowed paper.  Going through a folder, I think there is a subconscious assessment made in handling each sheet:  delicate, old and fragile; recent, tough and vibrant; or somewhere in between.  These are obviously aesthetic assessments, but they are also practical ones in terms of how the sheets are handled.  They may not require the care in handling a medieval manuscript does—or maybe they do.  Plant material is more fragile than the paper on which it is mounted and paper is more fragile than parchment.  Materiality does matter.

Note: I am very grateful to John Nelson and Herrick Brown for their very helpful commentaries and corrections on this series of posts.

References

Haaren, S. van. (2020, May 25). Physical distancing from manuscripts and the presence of the digital facsimile. Cambridge Medieval Graduate Students. https://camedievalists.wordpress.com/2020/05/25/physical-distancing-from-manuscripts-and-the-presence-of-the-digital-facsimile/

Haygood, T. M. (1987). Henry William Ravenel, 1814-1887: South Carolina Scientist in the Civil War Era. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.

At A.C. Moore Herbarium: Ecology

Diphasiastrum digitatum collected by Ronald Chicone, Jr. at Saluda Shoals Park, SC on Novemeber 5, 2000. A.C. Moore Herbarium, University of South Carolina, Columbia

The human brain has a problem with complexity; it can easily be overloaded, which is why simplification and classification are so important in human learning.  This helps to explain why a herbarium sheet usually displays a specimen, or maybe specimens, of a single species.  The plant is spread out so as many observable characteristics as possible are clearly displayed, and since only one species is involved, it makes the sheet easy to put into a single category, a particular species folder.  The same convention of solitude is found in botanical illustration even from the few early illustrations extant on papyrus (Griebeler, 2022).  However, to state the obvious, plants don’t grow this way.  A reminder of this is apparent on an unusual specimen from the A.C. Moore Herbarium (USCH) at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, the institution that is the subject of this series of posts.

The sheet in question is labeled and filed as Diphasiastrum digitatum (USCH0073424) formerly Lycopodium digitatum, a fern ally (see above).  What makes it so eye-catching is that distributed over the sheet are several leaves: one each of maple, oak, and elm.  These are listed on the label as among the species present in this hardwood forest habitat.  Such references are common on labels, but including specimens of the associated species is not.  The leaves are unlabeled, nor are leaves of all the trees mentioned on the label included.  Still, it’s a sheet that catches the eye, and also serves as a reminder that no plant is ever really alone on a sheet.

This Diphasiastrum was collected in 2000 by Ron Chicone, Jr.  A search of the USCH database turned many other specimens collected by him, though none as species-diverse as the Diphasiatrum.  A search of SERNEC, the database for the SouthEast Regional Network of Expertise and Collections, revealed many more of his specimens.  LinkedIn provided the information that Ronald Chicone, Jr. graduated from Coastal Carolina University and since then has held several positions, including one as herbarium staff at the University of South Florida.  He is now a land management specialist for the Brevard County Environmentally Endangered Lands Program in Florida.  So Chicone has spent his career looking at plants in ecological contexts, just as this specimen suggests. 

This fits well into Mason Heberling’s (2022) argument that plant collections have been underused by ecologists for many kinds of studies, including of seasonal and geographical variations in plant traits.  Now botanists are also looking at the roots of herbarium specimens to identify a species’ fungal partners and have successfully extracted DNA from many of them (Heberling & Burke, 2019).  Also, the soil on roots can harbor algae, yet another organism in a vascular plant’s ecosystem—and a reason to leave a little soil on a specimen’s roots (Parker, Schanen & Renner, 1976), though this is considered by some to be haphazard specimen preparation.

Also being investigated is insect damage to specimens’ leaves using a grid system to calculate the extent of eaten areas (Meineke et al., 2019), and it’s not uncommon to find dead insects on a specimen.  Years ago, D.R. Whitehead (1976) wrote an article entitled, “Collecting Beetles in Exotic Places: The Herbarium,” in which he argued that a plant collection was a good place to look for new beetle species.  There is also research on new species of tiny snails first found on plant specimens (Miquel & Bungartz, 2017).  At USCH, researchers have recently begun microscopic examination of invertebrates lurking on algae specimens.  So herbaria can be sources of many kinds of biodiversity beyond the plant world and can contribute to ecological studies on multispecies interactions, including those involving plant pathogens.  

Despite this, I don’t see Chicone’s approach as becoming common, though it does suggest the surprises that can be found in any herbarium.  He was just out of college when he made this collection, so he was relatively new to the world of botany and perhaps therefore less concerned with its traditions and constraints.  Yet, he was hardly a neophyte because the collection number for this specimen is 236.  He probably didn’t mount it, but he must have tucked those leaves into the newspaper in which he pressed the plant.  This means that someone at USCH thought enough of the inclusion to mount the leaves, rather than tossing them out as irrelevant.  So the mounter was also party to this innovation/anomaly.

I am hardly recommending that adding in associated species become standard herbarium practice, though it might be nice if specimens were crossed-reference with those collected at the same time and place.  What I do think is important about this sheet is its role as a reminder that there are many unspoken do’s and don’ts that botanists absorb while working in an herbarium, and it is good to be aware of these.  They are constraints that make botany more organized, and also perhaps more canalized. 

Note: I am very grateful to John Nelson and Herrick Brown for their very helpful commentaries and corrections on this series of posts.

References

Griebeler, A. (2022). Production and design of early illustrated herbals. Word & Image, 38(2), 104–122. https://doi.org/10.1080/02666286.2021.1951518

Heberling, J. M. (2022). Herbaria as big data sources of plant traits. International Journal of Plant Sciences, 183(2), 87–118. https://doi.org/10.1086/717623

Heberling, J. M., & Burke, D. J. (2019). Utilizing herbarium specimens to quantify historical mycorrhizal communities. Applications in Plant Sciences, 7(4), 1–11. https://doi.org/10.1002/aps3.1223

Meineke, E. K., Classen, A. T., Sanders, N. J., & Davies, T. J. (2019). Herbarium specimens reveal increasing herbivory over the past century. Journal of Ecology, 107(1), 105–117. https://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2745.13057

Miquel, S. E., & Bungartz, F. (2017). Snails found among herbarium specimens of Galapagos lichens and bryophytes, with the description of Scolodonta rinae (Gastropoda: Scolodontidae), a new species of carnivorous micro-mollusk. International Journal of Malacology, 173–186. https://doi.org/10.1127/arch.moll/146/173-186

Whitehead, D. R. (1976). Collecting beetles in exotic places: The herbarium. The Coleopterists Bulletin, 30(3), 249–250.

At A.C. Moore Herbarium: Aesthetics

Limnobium spongia collected by Alvan Chapman in Apalachicola, FL. Henry William Ravenel Collection at A.C. Moore Herbarium, University of South Carolina, Columbia

In this series of posts, I’m focusing on the holdings of the A.C. Moore Herbarium (USCH) at the University of South Carolina.  Here I want to discuss the beauty I come upon among the specimens.  Aesthetically pleasing plants are replete in any herbarium, but since almost all are hidden away most of the time, this beauty goes unappreciated, as does art in the vast warehouses of museums like the Met and the Louvre.  The great thing about volunteering in an herbarium is that I get an opportunity to come upon gorgeous specimens on a regular basis.  Recently, I was hunting for something in the mounting room and saw a Passiflora sheet collected by John Nelson, curator emeritus.  Now Nelson did get help from the plant here; the delicacy of its flower is hard to beat.  Carl Linnaeus also had a lovely example that is now the lectotype for the species Passiflora caerulea

The herbarium holds the specimens of Henry William Ravenel (1814-1887) a nineteenth-century South Carolina botanist.  This collection of slightly more than 6000 specimens was entrusted to the care of the herbarium by Converse College (now University) in Spartanburg, SC.   The college had received the plants from Ravenel’s cousin who had bought them from his widow (Haygood, 1987).  Most of the specimens have been remounted, but in some cases the plants couldn’t be easily removed from the original mount, so the specimen and its paper were attached to a new sheet.  In every case, all labels, notes, and determinations were also remounted.  A specimen I find particularly attractive is a American frogbit Limnobium spongia (HWR-00048010) collected by Alvan Wentworth Chapman in Apalachicola, Florida (see above).  The combination of the form of the leaves and bending of the stems with the texture of the paper makes is so appealing.  The subtlety of the colors of the plant and that of the paper is also attractive. 

In general, the Ravenel specimens are treasures because they not only give evidence of what was growing in the 19th century in South Carolina and other parts of the South, as well as more broadly, since Ravenel exchanged specimens with many botanists.  There are also some notes with interesting information on locale or habitat.  Ravenel’s journals and correspondence have been digitized and transcribed.  They are available on the Plants and Planter website along with all his specimens and even maps, so it is easy to search for information on particular collectors or collection events.  Obviously the University of South Carolina appreciates the collection and has worked with other institutions to maximize its availability to both botanists and historians.

But even for recent collections of species that aren’t that photogenic, an expert mounter can make something wonderful from it.  Take another Nelson specimen, this one of southern bog clubmoss Lycopodiella appressum (USCH0073992, see below).  There are any number of aesthetic theories and definitions of what makes something beautiful.  Among the qualities often mentioned elegance as one, and the Passiflora fits the bill there.  Another is symmetry, and with Lycopodiella the mounter has taken this aesthetic quality and created something eye-catching from rather mundane material.  But there’s more than aesthetics involved in this sheet, there is also a good use of space, to make sure all parts of both plants are displayed.  Some students of beauty think that too much symmetry can be boring, and that an interplay of symmetry and asymmetry is more pleasing as is apparent here.  For this specimen the obvious symmetry is enlivened by the asymmetry of the crossed branches. 

Lycopodiella appressum collected by John Nelson at the headwaters of Sandy Run, SC on June 23, 1989. A.C. Moore Herbarium, University of South Carolina, Columbia

As with any artwork, it takes time to appreciate all this sheet has to offer, and usually botanists tend to push aesthetics aside and focus on the information in a beautifully mounted plant.  This makes perfect sense, specimens are first and foremost scientific objects stored for research and educational purposes.  However, it doesn’t hurt to spend a moment from time to time just to soak in the beauty, because, as I have argued before (see earlier post), aesthetics is an intrinsic part of botanical inquiry.  In the last post, I discussed the difficulties of collecting, but put less emphasis on the thrills, which is rarely mentioned on labels.  John Nelson has described to me the moment when he discovered a new species of hedge-nettle Stachys caroliniana:  it was a holiday weekend, he was at the beach with his family, and he decided to do a little botanizing.  And there it was.  Needless to say none of this made it into the article he wrote with Douglas Rayner (2014) describing the species.  Elation simply is not part of scientific prose, explaining why scientists are considered a rather stuffy lot.  John Nelson would not be described as stuffy.  It is alleged that for many years he dressed as the masked botanical superhero Plantman for various occasions, but he denies any such involvement, adding that since Plantman is real, no one needs dress up like him. 

Nelson will admit to bringing a “Vivat Linnaeus” banner with him when he leads field trips, either for his students or other groups.  He also began the tradition which continues under the present curator, Herrick Brown (also a banner wielder), of saying “Vivat” whenever entering one of the rabbit warren of rooms that make up the herbarium.  Anyone in the room knows to answer “Linnaeus.”  This is more than just a quaint tribute to the father of modern botany, it also has a practical purpose.  The rooms are filled with cabinets, that it’s good to know where a fellow human may be lurking and not come upon them unannounced and scaring both parties.  Such customs makes the A.C. Moore Herbarium a happy, if crowded, space for doing and enjoying botany, as is testified to by the number of volunteers and students who work there, and often return for a visit long after they’ve moved on. 

Note: I am very grateful to John Nelson and Herrick Brown for their very helpful commentaries and corrections on this series of posts.

References

Haygood, T. M. (1987). Henry William Ravenel, 1814-1887: South Carolina Scientist in the Civil War Era. Birmingham: University of Alabama Press.

Nelson, J. B., & Rayner, D. A. (2014). A new hedge-nettle (Stachys: Lamiaceae) from South Carolina, USA. Journal of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas, 8(2), 431–440.

At A.C. Moore Herbarium: Collecting

Botrychium virginianum collected by Ann Darr and Albert Pittman on August 13, 2003. A.C. Moore Herbarium, University of South Carolina, Columbia

As I’ve mentioned a number of times, I volunteer at the A.C. Moore Herbarium (USCH) at the University of South Carolina, Columbia.  I am writing this series of posts during Thanksgiving week in part to let the people at the herbarium know how grateful I am for all I learn from them.  From my years of volunteering here and in New York, I know that developing good volunteer requires a lot of work.  They need training, retraining, reminding, herding, and positive reinforcement by the professionals who have many other things to do.  The herbarium’s curator is Herrick Brown who has years of experience managing and digitizing this collection, and has also worked for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) and the Smithsonian.  He took over three years ago when John B. Nelson became curator emeritus.  Like many retired botanists, Nelson continues to work in the herbarium and collect specimens (over 44,000).  Both men are patient and generous in sharing their knowledge, especially about Southern species, and have taught me a great deal about the history of botany.  Plus they make the herbarium a joyous place, along with Amanda Harmon the herbarium manager, Csilla Czako, the data manager, and a band of volunteers both students and master gardeners. 

Nelson was the one who suggested I write a blog post about what doesn’t get recorded on specimen labels to remind people of the amount of work involved in wrangling plants and the difficulties encountered in the field.  This is a very good point.  Rarely are specimen sheets sweat-stained.  It’s easy to forget that a plant collected in a South Carolina swamp in July was harvested by a botanist who was perspiring profusely, persecuted by mosquitos, and in danger of encountering a venomous snake.  There is a plant called coastal doghobble Leucothoe axillaris that Mark Catesby dealt with over 300 years ago in The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands.  It can still grow in thick stands that are difficult to get through, even for a hunting dog.  Added to that is the South Carolina summer heat and humidity; hydration is essential, and water is heavy to carry. 

Botanists’ logs or journals may make note of some problems, but environmental conditions are so much a part of the job that they are often ignored.  Even if the temperature is moderate and the insects in abeyance, collecting is still work:  taking notes including geographic coordinates, making sure the specimens are labeled, hauling them around.  There is also the disappointment if the particular object of a foray doesn’t appear or is past its prime.  I could go on, but this might get depressing.  So I’ll also mention the thrill of finding something unexpected and in full bloom, or sitting under a tree with a cool breeze providing the perfect respite. 

I want to mention a case where the difficulties slipped onto a specimen label for the fern Botrychium virginianum (USCH0075490, see above).   I found the sheet pictured above on the same day that Nelson gave me the idea for this post.  The label is enlarged so you can see clearly the cross-out on the first line:  “The day started in the wrong direction.”  Ann Darr and Albert Pittman both worked for the SCDNR and were conducting a survey of mafic areas, those with igneous rock, in Pickens County in the northwest part of the state where the Piedmont meets the Blue Ridge Escarpment.  I would assume Darr wrote the label since her collection number is recorded, and Brown has pointed out to me another one of her witty labels.1  However, I don’t know if she later regretted being so blunt, or if Pittman or someone else crossed it out.  However, I’m glad it is still legible.  After all, the precise details about the mistake are given in the next line, and it is easy to see how a mistake was made:  mistaking Little Caesar for Caesar.2

No one is perfect, and it is nice to see such candor, tinged with humor, on a label.  It would have seemed a shame not to note an error that made the day a little (or a lot?) more difficult.  It would have been especially annoying at the start:  all fired up for collecting and then having to go back to square one.  Keep in mind, this was not flat land.  As the labels notes, their access to the collection site was “by way of the Foothills Trail: Sassafras Mountain to Chimneytop Gap.”  This fern was collected in August so a trip to the mountains might have been a nice respite from the heat of Columbia where DNR is headquartered.  Still, no one wants to make a mistake, especially when they are not alone.  Yet having collecting partners is a good idea because of some of the challenges I’ve already mentioned.

John Nelson can also write labels that tell more than need be to set the stage.  When he was collecting out West, he mentioned the presence of a  “Gentleman’s Club” near the collecting site.  On another label for a plant found closer to home, a narrowleaf silkgrass plant (Pityopsis graminifolia USCH0051476), he wrote:  “Corollas bright yellow, plants silvery, offering a vaguely cheerful aspect to an otherwise sad landscape, weedy and pathetic . . . “   There is poetry here and a reminder of the aesthetic aspects of collecting, something that will come up in the next post.  It’s also a reminder that there is a lot to learn about people as well as plants while sifting through specimens and reading labels. 

Notes:

1. USCH0017120: “We parked our vehicle on private land to get to Peach Orchard Mountain.  Believe it or not the gentleman’s name is “Tony Orlando.”  Bert was already asking Tony if he knew “Dawn.”  I wanted to tie a yellow ribbon around Bert’s head.”  Brown told me that he had to look up “Tony Orlando” on the web to figure out what was going on here. 

2. Comment from Brown: “One is pizza, the other an Emperor.”

Acknowledgement: I want to thank Herrick Brown and John Nelson for their careful reading of this series of posts and their thoughtful, if sometimes irrelevant, comments.

Discussing the Plant Humanities: Botany

Pentsemon haydenii

I want to end this series of posts (1,2,3) on the Plant Humanities Conference at Dumbarton Oaks Museum and Library by discussing the plants.  Ned Friedman, a Harvard University biology professor and director of the Arnold Arboretum saw one of the conferences goals as decentering the human in the plant humanities.  He did this with four plant vignettes at time scales that moved further and further from the human.  First, he introduced a single tree at the arboretum, a sand pear, Pyrus pryrifolia, native to East Asia.  The life history of this tree is recorded at the arboretum, and its life expectancy while greater than that of humans, means that visitors 30 years ago saw a much less mature tree.

Then Friedman jumped to discussing the American beech Fagus grandifolia and how pollen cores from thousands of years ago show no evidence of the beech in New England, while cores from more southern regions do.  This record of northern movement of the species is evidence of the warming that occurred after the last ice age, something well beyond human memory.  Stretching the time scale still further, he described two species of tulip tree, Liriodendron tulipifera from North America and the Asian species Liriodendron chinense.  They are closely related genetically and will form hybrids if grown near each other even though their ranges have been separated geographically for 14 million years.  Finally, Friedman moved on to the hundreds of millions of years involved in the evolution of plant stem and branch structures, leaving his audience breathless from the journey in time and what it means for the presence of plants in our world.

Toward the conference’s end, Rosetta Elkin, a landscape architect at Pratt Institute in New York, discussed the difficulties involved in conservation management through a case study of blowout beardtongue, Pentsemon haydenii, an endemic of blowouts, windswept hollows, of the Nebraska sandhills.  It is an endangered species that has received quite a bit of attention from conservation ecologists.  However, none of their interventions have worked, though they have discovered much about the plant’s life cycle.  This species is a lesson in botanical humility, reminding us of how little we know about plants and of how much there is to learn about a single species.

Elkin is also the author of Tiny Taxonomies (2017), a book with the same title as several of her landscape exhibitions that feature waist-high chrome tubes standing on end.  Each is about a foot in diameter and displays tiny plants.  I was drawn by the book’s title and loved it with its great closeups of many species she used.  But even more, I liked Elkin’s ideas including that she considers smallness a design opportunity and has set up the displays so the clumps of tiny plants are easy to observe closely.  She also noted that when plants are this small, they don’t survive as individuals, but in clusters to trap warm air and moisture.  She sees first-hand experience with plants as a form of research, which I think explains why some people have green thumbs.  They observe and record at least mentally what the plants feel like as they are transplanted, and the minute changes that occur from day to day. 

Some of Elkins ideas I find less positive, including her assertion that the herbarium specimen “has gradually expired as a useful tool for expressing the behavioral and mutable characteristics of plants” (p. 54).  Like a gardener with a green thumb, a sharp eyed and minded botanist can learn a lot from observing a specimen, especially as more focus is being put on using specimens for trait measurements (Heberling, 2022).  I agree more with her view that  “When faced with an herbarium specimen, it is impossible not to feel a sense of loss, as plant life is seemingly obliterated on the sheet.” (p. 54)  However, I do think obliterated is too strong a word.  Despite this, Tiny Taxonomies is a small treasure.

The ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan (1993, 2009) of the University of Arizona used a phrase I loved:  botany needs to dance with the humanities.  I haven’t yet investigated the depths of this metaphor but I see it as involving slow dancing where the couple get to know each other gradually, intimately, and memorably.  It is full of aesthetic nuances directed toward the idea that academic and indigenous botanists need to be in dialogue toward a contemplative ecology of caring for creation.  This is definitely an aspirational goal, but we have too long discounted the aspirational as a driver of change in favor of economic and pragmatic goals that often fall short. 

John McNeill, a Georgetown University historian, again brought up the issue of timescale toward the end of the conference as Ned Friedman had at the beginning.  McNeill thinks that historians and scientists have different timescales, that historians deal in particular moments while scientists look for regularities that persist over time.  He also touched on a topic that pervaded the conference:  the ownership of plants, and what precisely does that mean, or does it really have any meaning across the species divide?  Like the dancing metaphor, this term definitely requires more consideration, as does so much discussed at the conference. 

Note: In describing as much as I have, I still didn’t tell of the beautiful gardens at Dumbarton Oaks, the great meals we had, and the fascinating conversations.  I am grateful to have been part of it all.  I am particularly grateful to Yota Batsaki and Anatole Tchikine for inviting me to attend this event. 

References

Elkin, R. S. (2017). Tiny Taxonomy. New York: Actar.

Heberling, J. M. (2022). Herbaria as Big Data Sources of Plant Traits. International Journal of Plant Sciences, 183(2), 87–118. https://doi.org/10.1086/717623

Nabhan, G. (1993). Songbirds, Truffles, and Wolves: An American Naturalist in Italy. Pantheon.

Nabhan, G. (2009). Where Our Food Comes From: Retracing Nikolay Vavilov’s Quest to End Famine. Island Press.

Discussing the Plant Humanities: Collections

Specimens of Argyroxiphium caliginis with Otto Degener collection number 2557, the same as the one Shih displayed with Wiebke’s name crossed out. In the specimen on the left from KHD, only Degener’s name appears; on the right from US, both names appear.

Felix Driver of Royal Holloway University of London was the first speaker at the Plant Humanities Conference at Dumbarton Oaks, which is the focus of this series of posts.  He was one of the authors of a recent report mapping out future plans for the plant humanities in Britain, making him a good choice for the leadoff role.  He was also the principle investigator for a study called the Mobile Museum on how the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew distributed items from its Economic Botany Collection to schools and museums throughout the country, while still maintaining the core collection at Kew (Driver, Nesbitt & Cornish, 2021).  The height of the distribution was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  It was a way to provide hands-on exhibit and spread the word not only about the usefulness of a large variety of plants, but also the ability of the British Empire to develop and utilize plant products.

The economic botany collection still exists at Kew under the care of Mark Nesbitt, another contributor to the Mobile Museum project.  With over 100,000 items, the collection is growing, though most items are no longer exhibited as they were when Kew had four buildings with economic botany exhibits in the early 20th century (Nesbitt & Cornish, 2016).  Now the collection is used for research that often involves what Driver terms “co-producing knowledge with nonacademic partners.”  This includes collaborations with Pacific barkcloth makers and North Brazilian Amazonia indigenous peoples.  Driver ended his presentation with a photo of one item in the collection, a glass lime juice bottle.  He chose this because his grandfather had been born on a lime plantation in Monserrat, with lime juice shipped in barrels from there to bottling plants in England.  The bottle is a small symbol of the British colonial apparatus.

The next day Ashanti Shih, who teaches history at Vassar College, presented on her research in the collections of Hawaii’s Bishop Museum.  She was studying the career of the German botanist Otto Degener who worked in Hawaii for thirty years.  She focused on his interactions with Asian and indigenous people whom he employed.  One of the latter was Henry Wiebke, a native Hawaiian of the Kanaka Maoli people.  Wiebke was studying medicine, and Degener hired him because he had knowledge of native plants, their indigenous names, habitats, and uses.   The pair planned to write two books, one a popular guide to the flora of the Hawaiian National Park, the second a comprehensive flora of the Hawaiian Islands.  After working together as colleagues and friends for six years, their relationship frayed, at least in part over Wiebke’s decision to defer his medical training in order to work to support his family.  He did collaborate for some time with Degener after this, but eventually they parted ways.

When Degener did publish the books, they were without mention of Wiebke (Degener, 1945; 1932-1969), but the erasure of his contribution went beyond that.  Shih showed a specimen of the iconic silver sword, Argyroxiphium caliginis, collected by both men.  Degener’s name is printed on the label with the typed addition of “and Henry Wiebke.”  But Degener later crossed out the latter, as he did on a number of sheets.  This was a small record of petulance preserved in a herbarium where few would see it, until the age of digitization when the principles were long gone.  Shih related the story with more nuance, but the message was clear that here was one of many untold cases of appropriation of indigenous knowledge without proper, or any, attribution.

The next day the conference provided a very different aspect of indigenous knowledge and in this case, its relationship to art.  The presentation was by the artist Temitayo Ogunbiyi, a Jamaican-American from New York who has lived in Lagos, Nigeria since 2011.  She is interested in the culture of the Yoruba people of Nigeria and found a 1995 book by Pierre Verger, The Uses of Plants in Yoruba Society, with Latin and vernacular plant names.  It also has poetry that Ogunbiyi uses for inspiration for her art which often includes plant forms.  Several years ago, Ogunbiyi was an artist-in-residence at the Smithsonian, and as she delved into collections she became fascinated by the herbarium.  There she asked a very basic question:  why are herbarium sheets always 11.5 by 16.5 inches?  She couldn’t get a good answer, and that just added to her interest in the sheets.  She now does her drawings on herbarium paper, which she sees as “pivotal to my practice.”  She showed several of her works from a recent exhibit in the Berlin Biennale.  They often combine plant forms with African hairstyles in intriguing ways.  She noted that in southwest Nigeria, hairstyles have meaning, and that the head is the foundation of the Yoruba religious practice Ifá.

It’s this thoughtful interweaving of indigenous practice, plants, and art that makes Ogunbiyi’s art so fascinating to me.  She has journeyed back to the continent from which her ancestors were transported centuries ago, and she uses that cultural heritage along with what amounts to a colonial artifact, the herbarium sheet, as a vehicle for exploring it.  She sees her drawings as a form of plant portraiture and the presence of human forms reveals the connections between the two worlds present in Yoruba traditions.  To me, her work and her presentation suggest the power of the plant humanities to open up new worlds for all of us.

References

Degener, O. (1932). Flora Hawaiiensis: The New Illustrated Flora of the Hawaiian Islands (Vol. 1–7). Honolulu.

Degener, O. (1945). Ferns and Flowering Plants of Hawaii National Park. Ann Arbor, MI: Edward Brothers.

Driver, F., Nesbitt, M., & Cornish, C. (Eds.). (2021). Mobile Museums: Collections in Circulation. London: UCL Press.

Nesbitt, M., & Cornish, C. (2016). Seeds of industry and empire: Economic botany collections between nature and culture. Journal of Museum Ethnography, 29, 53–70. https://www.jstor.org/stable/43915938

Verger, P. (1995). Ewé: The Use of Plants in Yoruba Society. São Paolo: Odebrecht.

Botany for Amateurs: Pressing Plants

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

Herbaria: Specimens Get Around

Cover of Capitulum, Volume 2, Number 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

Herbaria: Sorting Things Out

Specimen of Zollernia glabra from Brazil, Herbarium Wied [140], photo by P.L.R. des Moraes from article (2009)

It’s hardly news that the preponderance of type specimens are in Northern Hemisphere collections (Park et al., 2021).  To increase accessibility for countries in the species-rich Southern Hemisphere, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation funded the digitization of over two million botanical type specimens that are now available through JSTOR Global Plants.  Yes, for most of us there is a paywall to scale to fully use the site, but support is available for third-world institutions to gain access.  It is an impressive resource and botanists are using it for more than just finding type specimens of interest.  For two Latin-American botanists, Sandra Reinales and Carlos Parra-O. (2022), Global Plants was a major tool in “disentangling” the specimens of José Jerónimo Triana (1828-1890).  He was a Colombian botanist who collected plants from 1851-1857 for the Chorographic Commission set up by the newly organized government of Colombia.  After the survey was completed, he turned over to the commission a full set of the plants he collected along with a catalogue where the specimens were numbered and organized taxonomically.  This became the “Colombian Catalogue.” 

Triana then took his duplicates to Europe and worked at the Paris herbarium.  There he created a new list, renumbering the specimens.  It ended up in the Natural History Museum, London and so is the “London Catalogue.”  I think you can probably figure out where this story is going, but to add one more level of complexity.  In the listing of some species in the second catalogue is another set of numbers:  collection numbers for specimens gathered by Jean Jules Linden with whom Triana had a long collaboration.  These are designated “Linden numbers.”  The article includes photographs of pages from the catalogues; they are hand written neatly, with the information given in columns. 

The problem is how to relate these catalogues to the many collections containing Triana material.  Obviously the catalogue numbers and specimens sync for those that remain in Colombia.  However, there were multiple duplicates for many of his gatherings located in the NHM, Paris, Geneva, Vienna, and several other European and North American herbaria.  To attempt to figure out the location of type specimens, the authors searched for Triana specimens in JSTOR Global Plants and found over 5000 records.  They then searched in other databases for additional types and cleaned the data by reading the label information and removing those specimens that didn’t fit their criteria.  Obviously this was a lengthy and tedious process, and they were rewarded with some knotty problems to solve.  I can’t even scratch the surface of their detailed work, but I’ll give a brief summary of a couple of issues.  There were cases where the same Triana gathering was used to describe different species; the different numbers on the labels of duplicates was one of the issues.  There were also cases where Triana and other botanists collected in the same area at the same time. One of the specimens designated as a type for Meriania umbellata, a species collected and described by Karl Wilhelm Karsten, also has a Triana label and collection number on it.  To alleviate some issues, Reinales and Parro-O. present guidelines for lectotypification of some names of specimens that Triana described based on his specimens.

Now I soldier on to another herbarium, no less problematic (Moraes, 2009).  Again, it involves South American plants, this time collected by Prince Maximillian of Wied when he was in Brazil from 1815 to 1817.  He explored along the southeastern coast, a species-rich rainforest area.  In 1998  historians were searching family records in what had been his palace and rediscovered his private herbarium.  It had been missing for 20 years and was found when an intrepid researcher decided to investigate a difficult to get at cabinet.  In it were 22 parcels of plants collected over 26 years, so they obviously contained more than the Brazilian material.  In all there were 7000 plants including some from his trip to North America and his European collections, and there were 125 Brazilian plants.  Though this is modest compared to the 5000 specimens of 1000 species that he gathered in Brazil, it does contribute to knowledge of Wied’s work because there are still many of his specimens that haven’t been located.  As with a number of German collections, some might have been destroyed in the large-scale damage to the Berlin-Dalhem herbarium during WWII. 

To bring up the major issue with the Triana specimens of collection numbers, the situation is not as confusing here, though hardly ideal.  Wied didn’t used collection numbers, but he did number some specimens later as he studied them, and some were also numbered by others in the course of their work.  Of the 125 Brazilian specimens in his personal collection, there are 98 species represented, several of which are not found in other Wied material.  Unfortunately, he rarely gave location information on his labels.  Still, Moraes notes:  “Species kept in the private collection of Brazilian plants gathered by Wied represent a precious register of the flora of the Atlantic rainforest of the 19th century.  Its historical value is indisputable since Wied’s vouchers are among the first ones collected in Brazil that are still extant”(p. 46).  In other words, the contents of that cabinet were a pleasant botanical surprise.

References

Moraes, P. L. R. (2009). The Brazilian herbarium of Maximilian, Prince of Wied. Neodiversity, 4(2), 16–51. https://doi.org/10.13102/neod.42.1

Park, D. S., Feng, X., Akiyama, S., Ardiyani, M., Avendaño, N., Barina, Z., Bärtschi, B., Belgrano, M., Betancur, J., Bijmoer, R., Bogaerts, A., Cano, A., Danihelka, J., Garg, A., Giblin, D. E., Gogoi, R., Guggisberg, A., Hyvärinen, M., James, S. A., … Davis, C. C. (2021). The colonial legacy of herbaria. bioRxiv (p. 2021.10.27.466174). https://doi.org/10.1101/2021.10.27.466174

Reinales, S., & Parra-O., C. (2022). Disentangling the historical collection of José Jerónimo Triana from the República de la Nueva Granada between 1851 and 1857. Taxon, 71(2), 420–439. https://doi.org/10.1002/tax.12653

Herbaria: Two Views of the Zierikzee Herbarium

Specimen of common soapwort (Saponaria officinalis), Zierikzee Herbarium

As discussed in the last post, older herbaria are being given increased attention because they shed light on what plants were in growing in Europe and in European gardens at the time, and how botanists approached their work.  But as with any old documents, it is often difficult to unlock their secrets.  A case in point is a beautiful herbarium at the natural history museum in Zierikzee in the Netherlands with no information on who the collector might have been.  In 2021, two articles were published on its contents and provenance, each presenting different conclusions as to who created it and when.  The article by a team from the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden came out first, and I read it first (Offerhaus et al., 2021).  Like the herbaria discussed in the last post, also studied by a Naturalis team, efforts were made to identify all the species and provide up-to-date names.  The organization of the sheets, the information on the labels, the type of paper used, and many other possible clues were presented. 

In the case of the Zierikzee Herbarium, there was an analysis of the ornate printed labels and vases found on all but 21 of 348 plants.  Their use seems to have been a primarily Dutch fad in the first half of the 18th century.  They definitely perk up a specimen, giving it a bit of class or status, showing the taste of the collector.  Carl Linnaeus’s patron in the Netherlands, the wealthy merchant and horticulturalist George Clifford used them; they befitted someone with a large garden, and a greenhouse each for Asian, American, European, and African plants.  Historians of botany have studied them and in some cases identified the printers and the years when they were produced.  In the case of the Zierikzee, the Naturalis group focused on labels with a putto on each side of a frame with the species information using pre-Linnaean nomenclature written, in the blank space between them. 

Both articles also researched old auction catalogues to attempt to find the answer to who created this work.  There is not direct evidence in the herbarium itself, which is the major mystery at the center of this controversy.  In the second article, Gerard Thijsse (2021) found a resemblance between an herbarium auctioned in 1790, that of Martin Wilhelm Schwencke.  It consisted of 10 volumes, and Thijsse thinks that six of them make up the herbarium in Zierikzee and that Schwencke collected the plants early in his long career.  Thijsse gives a detailed explanation as to why this makes more sense than the Naturalis team’s hypothesis, which links the herbarium to Jacob Ligtvoet  described in a 1752 auction catalogue shortly after his death.  Reading these two reports reminded me of opposing lawyers carefully laying out their arguments, using a variety of different kinds of evidence, some of it scientific some of it textual.

Both articles also discussed evidence from computer analyses of similarities between the information given in published botanical sources and the label data, which included references to several authors.  The two studies significantly diverge.  The Naturalis group sees some resemblances between the label data and the information in Herman Boerhaave’s two catalogues of the plants in the Leiden botanical garden, one published in 1720 and the other in 1730.  They suggest that the herbarium began to be put together between these two dates and consider the likely creator to be the gardener at Leiden, Jacob Ligtvoet who helped Boerhaave with the second catalogue.  They note that along with the preponderance of the plants from the Netherlands but there are exotic species that Boerhaave obtained from those associated with the Dutch East India Company

On the other hand, Thijsse found that the herbarium contains a “virtually” complete set of the plants mentioned by the unknown author of the 1738 Pharmacopoea Hagana.  He also argues that one of the vases used is similar to one the Georg Ehret designed in 1734, so that the Naturalis date for the herbarium is too early.  Since Thijsse’s article appeared later than the Naturalis one, he had the luxury of questioning some of its findings.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Naturalis is now working on a rebuttal.  Of course, there is much fertile ground for argument here.  Many pharmacopoeia of the time included similar species, and the plants could have been mounted earlier and then the vases added later as a decorative afterthought.  That’s the problem with history, it is impossible to know everything about the past, information is always limited and open to interpretation. 

This is very reminiscent of scientific controversies, where researchers ask similar questions but use different protocols or methods of attack and come up with opposite conclusions.  Is that because one of them is wrong or because they are really not looking at the same phenomenon?  Only more research will provide the answer, which may very well be the case here, or there will be a stalemate.  I’ve just finished rereading these articles, and my head hurts.  For once I have reached my herbarium saturation point.  I think there is more here than I want to know about this one collection.  One the other hand, I am not sorry that I spent time on this because it helped me to see how historians work.  Like scientists, they have to be creative in how they approach their problem, asking different kinds of questions so that eventually they may perhaps find a niche that opens up a new world of answers.

References

Post 2

Offerhaus, A., de Haas, E., Porck, H., Kardinaal, A., Ek, R., Pokorni, O., & van Andel, T. (2020). The Zierikzee Herbarium: Contents and origins of an enigmatic 18th century herbarium. Blumea, 66, 1–52. https://doi.org/10.3767/blumea.2021.66.01.01

Thijsse, G. (2021). The four W’s of two 18th century Dutch herbaria: The “Zierikzee Herbarium” and the herbarium of Simon D’Oignies. Blumea, 66, 263–274. https://doi.org/10.3767/blumea.2021.66.03.09