Circulating Specimens: Getting Stuck

Acer circinatum collected on the Lewis and Clark Expedition, in the Academy of Natural Sciences Herbarium at Drexel University, owned by the American Philosophical Society

The last post dealt with the way specimens have been moved around since the first herbaria were created in the 16th century.  But like the human circulatory system that can suffer from clots and narrowing arteries, specimens can end up stuck in forgotten cabinets and cluttered attics.  In the late 19th century Thomas Meehan was a botanical curator at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.  Its herbarium is home to specimens collected on the Lewis and Clark Expedition, though a portion of the original collection was lost in transit and some are still unaccounted for.  Once during the expedition and then after it, collections were sent, at President Thomas Jefferson’s direction, to the noted Philadelphia botanist Benjamin Barton, who had written the first botany text published in the United States.

Barton enlisted the aid of a German botanist Frederick Pursh who came to the United States to collect,.  Pursh worked on the plants, but eventually left for England with some of the specimens.  There he published a work describing many new species both from the Lewis and Clark specimens and also from those of Thomas Nuttall and John Bradbury who had collected in the United States and sent material back to Britain (McKelvey, 1955, p. 73).  Pursh got to examine and describe the plants before the two arrived home in a notable bit of taxonomic piracy.  He eventually sold the Lewis and Clark material to a voracious British botanist Aylmer Bourke Lambert whose collection was auctioned after his death.  A young American botanist, Edward Tuckerman, bought the lot with the Lewis and Clark specimens and eventually donated them to the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, also the home of another portion of the expedition’s collections.  However, the plants were put in storage and remained in relative oblivion for decades.

If your head is spinning at this point, botanists working at the Academy of Natural Sciences have written two very lucid accounts of this and other aspects of the Lewis and Clark material (Spamer & McCourt, 2002; Spamer, Hawks & McCourt, 2002).  But now back to the late 19th century and Thomas Meehan.  He was on the hunt for the Pursh specimens when someone told him that they might be at the APS.  Some searching finally brought them to light.  Since the ANS was nearby and had a significant herbarium plus the staff to curate it, the APS agreed to have the Lewis and Clark specimens transferred there, but the APS retains official ownership.

An even older collection had a different fate.  John Fraser was a British plant collector who arrived in Charleston, South Carolina in 1786.  He made contact with the French botanist André Michaux who had a nursery there, and also with Thomas Walter, who had a plantation outside the city and was writing a flora of the Carolinas.  Walter and Fraser went collecting together, and Fraser also traveled on his own more widely, going along the Savannah River with Michaux and traveling into what is now part of North Carolina on his own.  He made a collection of specimens, and Walter identified plants for him and even wrote descriptions of new species, which Walter added to his flora.   When Fraser was returning to England, Walter asked him to see to the publication of the flora.  Fraser did so and the specimens were bound in a volume with “Thomas Walter’s Herbarium” on the title page.  They became part of the collection now at the Natural History Museum, London, and didn’t receive much attention until the botanist Daniel Ward (2007) did a thorough study and published an article entitled “The Thomas Walter Herbarium Is Not the Herbarium of Thomas Walter.”  He argues that most of the plants were probably collected by Fraser, since many of the labels are in his handwriting and some of the plants are from areas visited by Fraser, not Walter.  Ward’s work was part of his effort to find type specimens for the plants Walter described.  In the process, he brought attention to Fraser and this rather obscure collection (Ward, 2017).

The work of Meehan and Ward played out before the mass digitization of specimens, but that effort has done wonders for the specimen circulatory system not only for the obvious reason of making them available on the internet.  A side effect is that preparing specimens for digitization has brought to light many interesting finds.  The curators at the University of Connecticut’s George Safford Torrey Herbarium discovered two specimens collected by Henry David Thoreau.  Moving to a new space is another was to revive circulation.  When the Cambridge University Herbarium relocated into a new building, historical collections were unearthed that have yet to be thoroughly studied (Gardiner, 2019).  Even more spectacular were the results of the project at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris to renovate the herbarium and at the same time digitize the collection.  The result was estimating the backlog of unmounted specimens at over 800,000; the process of organizing them is definitely the herbarium equivalent of open-heart surgery (Le Bras et al., 2017).  I find all these discoveries cheering, not only because I like surprises, but because they hint at still more interesting finds yet to come.

References

Gardiner, L. M. (2019). Cambridge University Herbarium: Rediscovering a botanical treasure trove. Journal of Natural Science Collections, 6, 31–47. https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.3603520

Le Bras, G., et al. (2017). The French Muséum national d’histoire naturelle vascular plant herbarium collection dataset. Scientific Data, 4(1), 1–16. https://doi.org/10.1038/sdata.2017.16

McKelvey, S. D. (1955). Botanical Explorations of the Trans-Mississippi West 1790-1850. Jamaica Plains, MA: Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University.

Spamer, E., Hawks, C., & McCourt, R. (2002). The Lewis and Clark Herbarium of The Academy of Natural Sciences. Part 2. Notulae Naturae, 476, 1–16.

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

Ward, D. B. (2007). The Thomas Walter Herbarium is not the herbarium of Thomas Walter. Taxon, 56(3), 917–926.

Ward, D. B. (2017). Thomas Walter and His Plants: The Life and Works of a Pioneer American Botanist. New York: New York Botanical Garden.

Circulating Specimens: History

Silene fruticosa collected by Paolo Boccone in 1674, now at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center, Leiden

Like many people during the covid pandemic, I became more dependent on social media for links to the world.  I didn’t spend that much more time on Twitter, but I used it differently.  It had been a way for me to find out about the latest articles and books on botany, as well as the goings on in herbaria and botanic gardens.  Then I began using it to find online opportunities.  For example, the Consortium for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine has been around for over 10 years, but I had never become involved.  A notice on Twitter sent me to the consortium website where I discovered, and joined, two of its groups:  Collections and Collecting, and Visual Cultures in Natural History, the Life Sciences, and Medicine.  Each hosts seminars by group members, with a paper for the monthly meeting available beforehand so participants can be ready for a discussion that is always thoughtful.  I come away with both information and an intellectual high.  This year the Visual Cultures group also hosted a three-day workshop on “The Circulation of Images in the Life Sciences.”  This seemed like a perfect opportunity to think about the history, and future, of the circulation of plant specimens.  This series of posts is drawn from the work I presen

My central argument was that at this moment in time there’s a great shift going on in the circulation of herbarium specimens.  More and more of it is virtual rather than physical thanks to the large-scale digitization projects.  I outlined how specimens circulated in the past in contrast with today, and both the advantages and challenges of each.  I will do something similar in these posts, beginning with this one on how mobile specimens were even from the earliest days of herbaria. 

The Italian botanist Luca Ghini, one of the first proponents of using pressed plants, was known for his generosity in lending specimens to others, along with his notes and illustrations.  This was one way he propagated the herbarium habit; others saw how useful it was to have a hortus siccus, dry garden, or hortus hyemalis, winter garden, for reference.  By the mid-16th century, the practice had spread throughout Europe (Arber, 1938).  The German botanist Leonhart Fuchs, the author of one of the first modern herbals, traded specimens, illustrations, and notes with Ghini, some of which were in Fuchs’s possession when Ghini died.  To Pietro Andrea Mattioli, who was preparing a translation of the ancient materia medica text by Dioscorides, Ghini sent several hundred specimens.   A little later in the Netherlands, Carolus Clusius and Rembert Dodoens compared the collections they made on their travels to get a fuller picture of plant diversity.

Botanists also shared specimens in other ways besides lending.  If they had collected more than one example of a species, they might give the duplicate to a colleague.  The botanical etiquette related to such a “gift” was, and is, to send back a comparable specimen of a different species, usually of similar worth.  Something common in the sender’s area might be gifted or traded for something common in the recipient’s region.  A rare plant might be met with the return of more than one specimen.  If a colleague identifies an unnamed plant, the understanding is that they could keep the specimen.  Routinely the plants are sent unmounted.  A mounted specimen is “worth” more than an unmounted one because of the labor involved and the cost of the paper. 

Some plant collectors financed their expeditions by selling specimens to those who couldn’t or didn’t wish to travel.  Those with means built large collections by buying from such entrepreneurs and also purchasing entire collections.  These often became available after a collector died, and the family either needed the money or the space taken up by piles of dead plants for which they had no use.  That’s how the British collector Hans Sloane acquired many of the 265 volumes in his herbarium now at the Natural History Museum, London, and the French financier Benjamin Delessert amassed much of his collection now at the herbarium of the Geneva Botanical Garden in Switzerland. 

Another form of accumulation was that of colonial powers, the British Empire being perhaps the premier example.  Particularly from the time of Joseph Banks, Britain purposefully set about sending plant collectors throughout the world to find new species, especially those that could be useful for the empire’s economic engine.  One collector could send back hundreds or even thousands of specimens, along with seeds for cultivation either at botanical gardens, like Kew and Edinburgh, or at colonial gardens where tropical species were more likely to flourish and could then be grown on plantations.  This is how breadfruit got from Asia to the West Indies, rubber from Brazil to Southeast Asia, and cinchona from Peru to India (Brockway, 1979).  The result of all this circulation was that plants were grown worldwide, while specimens tended to accumulate in Europe forming what Bruno Latour (1990) terms “centers of calculation.” 

Still, no herbarium can have everything a botanist needs when thoroughly investigating a particular group of plants.  That’s why they will ask other institutions to lend them what they want to see.  These requests are usually honored, another long-held tradition in natural history.  In some cases, the borrower may have to pay for postage, but that’s about it.  In “payment,” the sheet will receive a determination slip to either confirm the species name on the label or to revise it if the borrower thinks it belongs to a different one, or if the name has been updated since the label was made.  In any case, the specimen is returned with value added. 

References

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

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

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

Botany and Art: Intimacies

Lupinus argenteus, Silver Lupine” by Susan Rubin

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reference

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

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

Botany and Art: Specimens

Specimen of Planchonella spectabilis collected by J.E. Teysmann in 1877 in the National Museum of Natural History, Paris

My last set of posts was on Art and Botany (1,2,3,4).  I found so many topics I wanted to include that I’m continuing the theme for another four, with one difference.  This time, they are about Botany and Art, with plant science coming first.  I’ll begin with what may be the closest relationship between the two:  drawings on herbarium sheets.  Yes, I’ve discussed this before, but it is a fertile field in which to explore the link between science and art.  Just as textual information is necessary on a sheet, there are botanists who feel the need to include non-textual information as well.  Some botanists consider sketches important to include with specimens, particularly for traits that are less apparent in the specimen or perhaps missing altogether.  For some it is a rare addition, for others a rather common practice.  This could be considered a matter of style, just as some botanists write lengthy descriptions on labels and others are quite terse.  These differences suggest varied visions of a specimen’s role:  how much information about a plant can it convey?  There is a quote from Richard Mabey that keeps haunting me:  “The quintessence of a plant can only ever be a fantastic goal, something to travel towards but never reach” (p. 27).  No written or visual description, or the plant itself, can say it all, not even a combination of all three, but botanists continue to try.

Frequently, drawings are added later by those who have further studied the specimen, perhaps dissecting a flower.  A detailed drawings of flowers not only document what was found but also make up for the piece of tissue that might have been destroyed in the process.  There are many sheets in the Oakes Ames Orchid Herbarium at Harvard University with such pencil or ink sketches, some by Ames himself and others by botanists like Charles Schweinfurth who worked with him, as well as by those who came later.  Ames and his associates weren’t purists; many sheets in the collection have photographs, notes, and journal articles attached—anything they thought would add value to the specimen.  The most attractive additions are watercolors of live orchids done by Ames’s wife, the artist Blanche Ames.  I’ve written about this couple in earlier posts (1,2,3), so I’ll just say here that not only are Blanche’s drawings beautiful, but well document the living plant.

The British plant collector Leopold Grindon was even more avid in his additions; many of his “specimens” spread over two or three sheets, morphing into scrapbooks.  Some might consider this excessive and wasted space that could be taken up with “real” specimens, but these sheets have become historical records of the botanical and horticultural knowledge of the time and how it was recorded.  Since there are many illustrations included, the sheets provide exposure to the different ways plant art could be reproduced in the 19th century, from fine colored engravings to black and white lithographs and photographs.  Grindon’s herbarium at the Manchester Museum provides a unique take on what it means to document a species. 

To return to the more traditional linkage of specimen and drawing, an extreme example is a specimen of Begonia subhumilis from the Berlin-Dahlem herbarium.  The sheet is dominated by a drawing of a specimen with leaves and flowers, while the specimen itself is no more than fragments of flower, leaf, and bud (see image above).  I found this sheet in a Tweet post from the botanist Peter Moonlight.  It was juxtaposed with a specimen of the species that was the model for the drawing, composed of robust cuttings in the herbarium at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.  The Berlin drawing was made by Edgar Irmscher after World War II when so much of the Berlin herbarium had been destroyed and curators were attempting to replace specimens as best they could.

I found a particularly interesting juxtaposition of art and plant on a specimen of Boerlagella spectabilis (now Planchonella spectabilis) in a Taxon article on several species in the Sapotaceae family (Swenson et al., 2020).  In the Paris herbarium at the National Museum of Natural History (MNHN), it was collected by Johannes Elias Teysmann in Sumatra in 1877 and has acquired later notes and annotations.  A fruit that was originally part of the specimen was removed and dissected, with portions of it attached to a piece of a paper pasted to the sheet.  On another slip, there is a series of drawings of the dissected seed.  But what I find most interesting is that on a twig where the fruit was probably originally attached, there is a careful ink drawing of the fruit.  It is simple and lovely (see image above). 

In another Taxon article, there is a type specimen of Avena breviaristata, also from the MNHN (Gabriel et al., 2020).  Attached is a striking cross-section through the stem of this Algerian grass, obviously taken from a microscopic examination (see image below).  I think it caught my eye because it is reminiscent of some of the images drawn by the British plant morphologist Agnes Arber who specialized in monocots.  This sketch could easily hold its own as a work of abstract art, but is this comment in any way relevant to botanical science?  I think it is because aesthetics matters.  This drawing caught my eye, it pleased me, and it was one more small reinforcement of my love for plant form. 

Specimen of Avena breviaristata in the National Museum of Natural HIstory, Paris

References

Gabriel, J., Tkach, N., & Röser, M. (2020). Recovery of the type specimen of Avena breviaristata, an endemic Algerian grass species collected only once (1882): Morphology, taxonomy and botanical history. Taxon, 69(1), 142–152. https://doi.org/10.1002/tax.12187

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

Swenson, U., Lowry II, P. P., Cronholm, B., & Nylinder, S. (2020). Resolving the relationships of the enigmatic Sapotaceae genera Beauvisagea and Boerlagella, and the position of Planchonella suboppositifolia. Taxon, 69(5), 998–1015. https://doi.org/10.1002/tax.12313

Art and Botany: Methods of Recording

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

Art and Botany: “Painting One’s Bentham”

Watercolor of Sonchus from Richard Dreyer’s copy of Smith’s Flora Britannica, Linnean Society Library

Since I am not a careful researcher, I don’t take note of where I come upon a particular reference.  That’s why I have no idea what led me to a brief piece in The Archives of Natural History by David E. Allen (2004) entitled “An 1861 Instance of ‘Painting One’s Bentham.’”  The Bentham in question was George Bentham, the British botanist and author of Handbook of the British Flora, first published in 1858.  Though not illustrated, it was well-received by the audience he was targeting:  those who were interested in identifying plants but didn’t have a strong botanical background.  Besides clear descriptions, the book had a useful introduction, listed common names before Latin ones, and had an easy-to-use key, which hadn’t been available earlier for British plants.  

Professional botanists, on the other hand, had several complaints about the work.  First, those who liked precise demarcations among species (termed “splitters”) were displeased with Bentham’s tendency to ignore small distinctions within what he considered a single species.  He was a “lumper” as was Joseph Dalton Hooker, his associate at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.    In addition, his critics were not impressed with Bentham’s knowledge of the British flora.  He had spent most of his youth and did most of his early botanizing on the European continent, and later did little collecting in Britain.  He relied on herbarium specimens and that was seen as a weakness.  Even the common names he cited were considered odd, since he used the rather eccentric terminology of John Stevens Henslow

Despite this, sales of Bentham’s first edition were so strong that the publisher suggested a second, revised edition with the addition of illustrations.  These were done in black and white by the distinguished botanical illustrator Walter Hood Fitch.  This version, printed in two volumes, went through a series of editions into the 20th century, with the last revisions done by Joseph Hooker after Bentham’s death.  The Fitch drawings were so clear and the paper good enough that many users took to coloring in the images of the species they encountered, and also adding notes on where and when they saw the plants.  This became known as “painting one’s Bentham.”  David E. Allen (2003) writes that it isn’t clear when this practice began, but “it was known to have a wide following among debutantes in the 1920s.” (p. 230).  He goes on to note that the practice “broadly coincided with the onset of the revulsion against collecting for herbaria.” (p. 230).  He doesn’t comment on the reason for the revulsion, though by that time the entire natural history collecting craze of the 19th century was over.  It was definitely easier to fill in drawings, than collect plants, get them safely home and then press, dry, and mount them.  There was also the issue of what to do with stacks of pressed plants, when relatively the same information could be kept in a book one already owned, with the collection data, description, and image all on the same page.

Allen followed up this article with the brief one I cited at the beginning of this post where he reports on a case of “coloring one’s Bentham” in the original unillustrated edition, a copy owned by Elizabeth Hood who lived on the Isle of Wight.  For example, in the margins of the entry for Gentiana campestris (now Gentianella campestris) she added a watercolor of the plant in flower, noting the date and place of collection on the island.  She created many other drawings throughout the book, doing a skilled job of fitting them into the one-inch margins.  Allen argues that noting the collecting information is what makes it like a herbarium, rather than just an illustrated field guide.  He also refers to other examples of artistic of additions in books including the heavily illustrated copy of James Edward Smith’s three-volume Flora Britannica (1800-1804) with watercolors by its first owner the Rev. Richard Dreyer.  It is now in the Linnean Society’s LibraryWilliam Jackson Hooker added 235 moss paintings to his copy of Dawson Turner’s Muscologiae hibernicae spicilegium (1804).  This work is illustrated, but with only 16 plates, which clearly Hooker thought was insufficient.  I am sure there are many other examples where botanists did not consider the descriptions adequate to nailing down the relevant attributes of a species. 

What particularly interested me about “coloring one’s Bentham” is that it speaks to a present-day phenomenon, so it’s another reminder that there is nothing much new under the sun.  In the past few years there has been a fad in coloring books for adults as a way to relax, relieve stress with meditative filling in, and create nice colored pictures.  The Biodiversity Heritage Library has contributed to the interest by organizing “Color Our Collections” projects with several member libraries.  This trend got a boost during the covid pandemic when everyone was looking for easy-to-access activities.  Recently, a number of herbaria, including those at Michigan State University and the Manchester Museum, have also created web-based coloring projects, examples of broadening outreach to non-botanists and enticing younger audiences.  Perhaps this will begin a trend countering the one of the early 20th-century:  people may begin to see coloring plant images as inadequate and go back to collecting specimens, or at least taking photos and recording their observations in iNaturalist or a similar app:  natural history in the ascendency once again.

References

Allen, D. E. (2003). George Bentham’s Handbook of the British Flora: From controversy to cult. Archives of Natural History, 30(2), 224–236. https://doi.org/10.3366/anh.2003.30.2.224

Allen, D. E. (2004). An 1861 instance of “painting one’s Bentham.” Archives of Natural History, 31(2), 356–357. https://doi.org/10.3366/anh.2004.31.2.356

Art and Botany: Tracing

Illustration of Pulsatilla vulgaris from Reichenbachs’ Icones Florae Germanicae et Helveticae, Library of the University of Vienna.

On a number of occasions in this blog I’ve written on the subject of art and botany in relation to herbaria, primarily because the topic interests me and I think it has a number of interesting facets.  Apparently some people agree, since I’ve received positive comments about such posts.  I see this as an excuse to tackle the topic again.  This time I am going to focus on specific articles that deal with the subject in a variety of ways, beginning with a piece by Marianne Klemun (2009), a professor of history at the University of Vienna.  She writes about a collection of specimens found by Bruno Wallnöfer (2002) at Vienna’s Natural History Museum.  They belonged to the German botanist, ornithologist, and physician H.G. Ludwig Reichenbach (1793-1879), who became director of the natural history museum in Dresden.

In 1834, Reichenbach began a project that was completed in 1909, 30 years after his death.  It was an illustrated guide to the plants of Germany and Switzerland.  His aim was to create a reference that could be used by a broad audience.  As natural history was gaining attention, there was a need for publications that making it easier for non-specialists to learn about plants, particularly the plants found growing around them.  Illustrations would not only make a guide more visually appealing, but would aid in identifying plants the user encountered.

Reichenbach had clear ideas about what such illustrations should look like to do the job.  That’s where the Vienna specimens come into the picture.  The collection Klemun analyzes was presumably kept separate because the sheets were different from the usual ones in terms of their composition, recorded information, and purpose.  The specimen sheets have little written information on them, just the names of the species and the number of the plate illustrating them.  This is strong evidence that the collection was made specifically for the purpose of being used as models for botanical art.  Another indication is that there are usually added pencil drawings of flowers and fruits, when the specimens lacked them; these additions also appear on the plates.  The sheets and the plates are the same size, so there would be no need to enlarge or reduce the drawings.  Also, against what was becoming standard practice by this time, there were often several species, or at least several varieties or subspecies, on a single sheet.  This allowed for comparison among similar plants and reduced the number of plates, though there were ultimately over 1,000 in the 24 volumes published.

Wallnöfer and Klemun both discuss the processes involved in converting what appears on the sheets into finished drawings for use in engraving the plates.  While Reichenbach was assisted by artists, he was himself an excellent artist so he added to and corrected the pencil drawings.  Many of the drawn additions were not taken from life but from other illustrations; copying was a common practice at the time, inherited from earlier generations of botanists (Nickelsen, 2006).  The composition of a plate was based on a tracing of the specimen, creating an outline that could be filled in.  Klemun compared the plant material with the plates and found that the illustrations were frequently simpler than the herbarium sheets.  Leaves might be removed, branches cut down, or elements more widely spaced.  The flower parts and other additions were carefully placed to avoid clutter, but essentially it was easy to match the illustrations to sheets, and having the plate numbers on the sheets corroborated the comparisons. 

Reichenbach saw aesthetic appeal as important to his mission of making botany attractive both as an intellectual pursuit and a pleasant one.   In terms of accuracy, Klemun compares his method to that recorded by the botanist Christoph Jacob Trew (1695-1769), who was also an accomplished artist, and worked with, among others, the incomparable Georg Ehret.  Trew had the painter make an outline, and Trew compared it to the specimen.  He did this again with the completed drawing, and along with the artist, made the comparison yet again with the plate image.  This routine is something that is not often recorded but it has been repeated numberless times by botanists and artists in a process that Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison (2007) call “four-eyed sight,” which I think is a great name for it.  Accuracy is the goal, and at each step vigilance is needed to ensure that nothing becomes less clear, less understandable. 

Klemun notes that Reichenbach’s ideas about plant morphology were influenced by those of Goethe, who saw the great variety of plant forms as related to an idealized plant form.  With this viewpoint, it was important to show not only the form of each species, but how they were related to each other, another reason species were placed next to each other.  She also makes the point that Reichenbach used herbarium sheets as “epistemic things,” in the sense that, the 20th-century German molecular biologist and philosopher Hans-Jörg Rheinberger (1997) uses the term.  In other words, the specimen is not simply an organism, but one that has been flattened and dried, so in that sense is human-made.  It has become a representation of knowledge and a tool for learning more about plants.  I find this an interesting idea that links to work by others on the material culture of specimens as human-made artifacts (Pedder-Smith, 2011).

References

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

Klemun, M. (2009). Refined concentration of botanical expert knowledge and images for gaining passions for plants: From the Herbarium to the engraving via tracing. In S. Brauckmann, C. Brandt, D. Thieffry, & G. Müller (Eds.), Graphing Genes, Cells, and Embryos: Cultures of Seeing 3D and Beyond (pp. 41–55). Berlin: Max Planck Institute for the History of Science.

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

Pedder-Smith, R. (2011). The Glow of Significance: Narrating stories using natural history specimens [Thesis, Royal College of Art]. https://researchonline.rca.ac.uk/430/

Rheinberger, H.-J. (1997). Toward a History of Epistemic Things: Synthesizing Proteins in the Test Tube. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Wallnöfer, B. (2002). Über die Abbildungsvorlagen zu den Kupferstichen von Ludwig Reichenbachs “Icones Florae Germanicae et Helveticae.” Annalen Des Naturhistorischen Museums in Wien. Serie B Für Botanik Und Zoologie, 104, 553–562.

Victorian Botany: The Wardian Case

The Contest for the Bouquet by Seymour Guy (1866), The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The last post dealt with the rising influence of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in 19th-century botany and horticulture with the Palm House conservatory as the symbol of this sway.  Just as improvements in construction technologies made this marvel possible, another new technology, the Wardian case, helped to fill it with new wonders.  Nathaniel Ward was a physician with an interest in natural history, a common pursuit at the time.  He was fascinated by insects and experimented with taking corked bottles and putting into them leaf debris and moth larvae to study their development.  The insects did indeed flourish, and he also noticed little plants growing in the debris.  That set him thinking about nurturing not insects but plants in sealed containers, protecting them from the soot and noxious fumes of the industrial area of London where he lived.  From there his experiments moved in two directions, as Luke Keogh (2020) describes in his book, The Wardian Case.  Some cases were more in line with Ward’s first work, small glass-covered containers to grow plants and often insects and perhaps snails.  These became popular and were often decorative and designed to be focal points in Victorian parlors.  When my husband and I would visit the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, we usually spent time with Seymour Guy’s The Contest for the Bouquet: The Family of Robert Gordon in Their New York Dining(1866).  While its focus is the children’s tussle over a flower, for us it was on the Wardian in the window, an item of Victorian interior decoration. 

Keogh devotes most of the book to the Wardian case’s other use in moving plants from place to place, which he argues had a profound effect on botany, horticulture, agriculture, and present-day environmental problems.  Almost as soon as Ward created his first cases, he wanted to test them out by shipping plants to Australia.  As an avid gardener, he knew the nurseryman George Loddiges and together they packed up two strong wooden boxes of ferns, mosses, and grasses, then sealed them with glass lids.  Most of the plants survived the five-month voyage as did Australian plants that were sent back to England in the same cases.  This success caused a sensation among gardeners in Britain, particularly those in the upper classes who could afford exotics and often had greenhouses or hothouses in which to pamper them.  Since the beginning of the age of exploration, plants were transported long distances, but cultivation success rates were low.  Attempting to ship live plants from the Americas or Asia was daunting.  Fresh water was needed for the crew and usually couldn’t be spared for other uses.  If plants were kept on deck to get sunlight, they were subjected to salt breezes and the hot sun.  Yet months at sea without light was disastrous; it might work for dormant roots or bulbs, but even then most shipments rotted, as did most seeds unless they were properly dried and packaged. 

It is amazing that so many plants did make it.  Once a few examples of a species reached Europe they were carefully cultivated, with seeds and seedlings widely distributed.  That’s why by the end of the 16th century, tomatoes grew from Spain to Germany and Italy, and tobacco was the subject of more publications than any other exotic.  What the Wardian case allowed was a greater and more systematic movement of plants.  Needless to say, William Hooker made good use of cases to funnel plants into Kew where they were cultivated and then shipped to Britain’s far-flung colonial gardens.  Robert Spruce sent Cinchona plants to Kew, and these became the foundation of cinchona cultivation for quinine in the many parts of Africa and Asia where the British Empire ruled (Crawford, 2016).

Keogh writes that the cases were hardly fool-proof.  Plant mortality was still high on ocean voyages, though shipments fared better when steamships speeded travel.  The cases had a higher success rate when they were accompanied by gardeners or where crewmen with some horticultural expertise looked after them.  Eventually, the French and Germans were even more ardent users than the British, but as time went on some of the environmental consequences of large-scale plant movements became obvious.  There had been evidence of what are now called invasive species from the early years of exploration; by the 18th century there were many examples of colonial landscapes being altered by plants brought by homesick immigrants.  This became particularly apparent in 19th-century Australia and New Zealand, where their fragile ecosystems were overrun with plants that had been loved in England.

Not only plants traveled, but insects, fungi, and other soil pests tagged along and were frequently difficult to control in non-native habitats.  By the early 20th century, the ill effects of such transmission were so great that Wardian cases were used less and less.  The boxes were often destroyed after one trip to prevent further spread of organisms that could lurk in the wood.  Ironically, many of the last cases were used to transport insects that were used to control invasive plants that had earlier traveled the same way. 

Wardian case in the Economic Botany Collection at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

At the beginning of the book, Keogh tells of seeking out Wardian cases early in his research and finding very few of them; there is only one left in Britain, not surprisingly in Kew’s economic botany collection.  Later, he realized that this dearth was probably tied to the case’s later history; few survived because they were destroyed to prevent infestations, a sad end for such a clever piece of technology.  The home models fared a little better, being resurrected as terraria in the late 20th century.

References

Crawford, M. J. (2016). The Andean Wonder Drug: Cinchona Bark and Imperial Science in the Spanish Atlantic, 1630-1800. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Keogh, L. (2020). The Wardian Case. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Note:

I want to thank Mark Nesbitt, Curator of the Economic Botany Collection at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, for showing me the Wardian case and many other treasures during my visit in 2018.

Collecting and Paper

 

George Forrest specimen of Abelia forrestii, Royal Botanical Garden Edinburg

We are so surrounded with paper today:  printouts, books, packaging, etc., etc., that we tend to pay little attention to it.  We can buy a ream of paper for a few dollars, and we throw a great deal of it into the recycling bin.  But paper is an amazing material, and nowhere is it more essential than in plant collecting.  Without paper, collecting grinds to a halt as it did for James Drummond, an early settler and plant collector in Western Australia.  His paper supply usually came from Britain via Cape Town, South Africa, so shipments were spotty at best.  He needed a great deal of paper because each year he made up ten sets of plant specimens, each with 500 species.  In 1845, he had used up his paper stocks and had to end collecting until supplies arrived.  He used newspapers in the field, when he could get them, but then needed plain paper for preparing specimens for shipment, plus more paper for packaging (Erickson, 1969).

When Joseph Banks left on his voyage around the world with Captain James Cook, he brought huge stacks of printers’ rejects, unbound copies of books that hadn’t made it into distribution.  Some of his specimens are still set between the pages of a copy of Notes on the Twelve Books of Paradise LostJohn Torrey wrote to Asa Gray saying he had high hopes because a collector who was going out west because he had brought two tons of paper with him (McKelvey, 1955).  This highlights the issue of paper weight and how to haul around large amounts of its, especially when traveling by horseback, perhaps with mules.  There are limits to how much can be carried at one time, so the rest has to be stored, and it has to be stored along with already collected materials, in a dry place to prevent water and fungal damage.

One of the best treatments I’ve read of the use of paper for the various aspects of plant collection is Erik Mueggler’s (2011) The Paper Road: Archive and Experience in the Botanical Exploration of West China and Tibet.  He writes of the 20th-century plant collectors George Forrest and Joseph Rock, who worked in the borderlands between China, Tibet, and Burma, in other words, close to the origins of paper.  In the introduction, Mueggler writes that the process was all about paper.  As he explains:  “This book is about the way some wandering botanists put the earth onto or between sheets of paper: collecting, writing, and photographing.  How are paper landscapes made?  How does this making create, mobilize, and transform social relations?” (p. 16).

Mueggler’s story begins in 1906 when Forrest arrives in Yunnan in southwest China and ends in 1950 when Rock left China.  Between these years two generations of local men did the work of exploring western China for alpine flora for Western gardens and scientific institutions.  Mueggler makes it clear that there was shared expertise here and highlights that the bulk of the difficult travelling and transporting was done by locals, though Forrest sometimes travelled with his collectors and Rock often did.  While the Chinese played a vital role, the enterprise could not have been possible without the Westerners who provided the financing and tools to support the endeavor.  They also had the Western botanical expertise to translate the Chinese knowledge and experience into a form that could be communicated to the larger botanical community.

Each time Forrest’s collector Zhao Chengzhang “walked out the city gate, one of his mules carried a full load of paper, textured and absorbent, made of a dwarf bamboo that grew in thickets on the lower mountainsides.  When he reentered the city after weeks or months of rough travel, he led a string of mules carrying stacks of paper neatly bundled and pressed between boards.  Folded into each sheet was a plant specimen.  Over the next few days he would unfold each rough sheet, rearrange the specimen in accord with his exacting sense of space and proportion, and refold it into smooth writing paper” (p. 1).

It’s noteworthy that Zhao spoke no English, and Forrest no Chinese.  They used a sign language and sketches to communicate, to turn the collectors’ finds into specimens and accompanying documentation.  At this point in the process, Forrest worked on the plants with Zhao as they pooled their expertise and Forrest took notes and wrote up plant descriptions.  In between expeditions, of which there were seven, Forrest would return to Edinburgh to work on his collections and direct efforts to naturalize some of the more promising horticultural finds.  He also consulted the RBGE herbarium, to sharpen his expertise in preparation for returning to China.  Mueggler makes it clear that all of Forrest’s work was closely tied literally to the hands and minds that collected the plant.  These men knew where to look for rare species and came to understand what the western collectors were looking for.  There was a mutuality that Mueggler argues was linked through the paper used in collecting and documenting the plants.

Much of the paper couldn’t be sourced locally and had to be imported from Rangoon.  The tags with Forrest’s name and specimen number came from Edinburgh.  Eventually, the plants would be rewrapped in paper and crates and sent to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh.  Forrest also used paper for photography, repeatedly asking for more to be sent.  Rock took his photography so seriously that he hauled glass plates around with him as well as a camera to accommodate them.  So collecting wasn’t all about paper, but Mueggler’s book is a good reminder of a product that we take for granted, not just in plant collecting but in daily life generally.

References

Erickson, R. (1969). The Drummonds of Hawthornden. Osborne Park, Aus: Lamb Paterson.

McKelvey, S. D. (1955). Botanical Explorations of the Trans-Mississippi West 1790-1850. Jamaica Plains, MA: Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University.

Mueggler, E. (2011). The Paper Road: Archive and Experience in the Botanical Exploration of West China and Tibet. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Specimens, Specimens: Uses

Box from John Percival’s wheat collection, University of Reading Herbarium

In this series of posts (1,2,3), I’ve been exploring herbarium specimens in a relatively fine-grained way, at the level of the individual specimen or a single person’s collection.  I want to end by giving a few examples of how useful one specimen can be.  The most obvious case is a holotype, the specimen used in the description of a species that is designated as having this role, perhaps along with others that also were involved, called isotypes.  Today, holotypes are named in the publication of the species, but this wasn’t so in the past, and the laborious process of designating holotypes, or in some cases lectotypes (when the original author did not designate a type), or other type categories continues.  In some cases, types are rediscovered.  Alex George (2018) reports on the type specimen of the Australian species, Donia formosa, the Sturt pea, described by George Don, a British botanist.  The specimen was thought to be in the herbarium of the Natural History Museum, London, but a search proved unproductive, so it was assumed to have been lost.  Now a specimen found in the herbarium of the Geneva Botanic Gardens, with an annotation by Don, has been officially designated by Alex George as the holotype.  He also clarifies that the plant was collected by Allan Cunningham on Malus Island in the Straight of Dampier off the coast of West Australia.  So this one specimen has done much to illuminate both the history and taxonomy of the Sturt pea.

Another way specimens are used in taxonomy is becoming more common as DNA sequencing technology improves.  Herbarium specimens are being mined for information on the origin and spread of cultivated species.  A specimen of sweet potato, Ipomoea batata, collected by Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander in the Society Islands in 1769 was used in a study on how the plant spread through the Pacific Islands from its origin in South America.  Obviously this wasn’t the only specimen tested, but it provided key information.  As smaller samples are required for testing and the techniques become increasingly sensitive, such work will become more common.  Of course, it depends on curators allowing removal of small samples, and this requires a serious decision, balancing present and future research needs.

Sometimes specimens are useful in telling stories to entice interest in a plant collection.  Allan Elliott, a Sibbald Fellow at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, wrote a post about an “unassuming section of trunk sitting on a desk in the herbarium office after being “discovered” in the back of a carpological cupboard.  It arrived in our collection in February 1940 and is possibly from a plant of Rhododendron arboreum grown from the very first introduction of this species in 1797.”  Elliott goes on to describe this provenance by citing a note attached to the wood, written by William Evans who worked in the herbarium from 1919 to 1944.  Evans notes that the piece was delivered to the herbarium after the tree came down by the weight of snow.  It grew at Kirkdale house, which was owned by a family whose ancestor had served in the army in India and had likely obtained the seed from Capt. Hardwicke.  He also supplied seeds to James Edward Smith who described the species.

In an later Tweet, Elliott, still on the rhododendron hunt, includes pictures of a specimen of Rhododendron disterigmoides ssp. astromontium that is “an overlooked type and the only representative of this subspecies at RBGE.”  He particularly likes the specimen because it includes a map and as well as SEM images in an attached packet.  The scanning electron microscope is another technology that can be used in studying preserved plant material.  Elliott’s fellowship involves horticulture and the RBGE’s living collection, but obviously he sees his work as tied to and enriched by the herbarium’s resources, including its long history.

There are unusual collections of plants that can give insights into social history.  I’ll present two exampled here that tell a lot about 19th-century attitudes toward plants.  The first are Biblical herbaria.  There is a video produced by the University of Leeds on this Victorian genre.  These collections were marketed as portable kits that could be used for inspirational lectures, Bible study groups, and Sunday school.  It was also common for travelers to the Holy Land to return with albums of plants, and publishers came up with the idea of marketing what were essentially exsiccatae of these plants, including descriptions of the species and citations on where they were mentioned in the Bible (Greene, 1895).

There were also many 19th century exsiccatae of grasses, some focused on their horticultural uses and others on agriculture.  Three examples from Britain are very different from each other.  M. Sutton’s Analyses of Natural Grasses is a beautiful wooden case with tiny boxes of seeds below a striking display of grass inflorescences, a rich landowners way of displaying agricultural expertise.  David Moore, director of what is now the National Botanic Garden in Ireland, produced a more traditional exsiccatae of the indigenous grasses of Ireland in 1843.  John Percival’s collection, though limited to wheats, is the most impressive80 boxes with specimens collected around the world, along with notes including archaeological details.  This complete collection is at the University of Reading’s herbarium.  And it seems a fitting way to end this ramble among specimens.

References

George, Alex. S. (2018). The type of Sturt pea found. Swainsona, 31, 49–53.

Greene, H. B. (1895). Wild Flowers of Palestine. New York: Christian Herald.