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: Colonization

Caesalpinia pulcherrima, Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, v.25-26 (1807)

A term that has become better known in the last few years is “decolonization” including in terms of investigating the untold stories of colonization around the world, including how natural history collections were acquired.  However, these “untold” stories have in fact been told for decades, though there are more and more studies now being published (Osseo-Asare, 2014; Murphy, 2020).  At the recent Plant Humanities Conference at Dumbarton Oaks Museum and Library, there were presentations by two historians who have been active in this field for some time.  Londa Schiebinger from Stanford University is the author of Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World(2004) and Secret Cures of Slaves: People, Plants, and Medicine in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World (2017).  She spoke on a South American plant called the peacock flower, Caesalpinia pulcherrima, which became known in Europe as a garden plant because of its attractive blooms.  The naturalist and artist Maria Merian wrote about it in her book on the plants and insects of Surinam after her trip there.  She included information on its use by enslaved and indigenous women as an abortifacient.  It was a way for women to exert some control over their lives spent working on plantations.  They could not free themselves but they could try to prevent having children who would be doomed to the same fate. 

The colonial doctors who practiced in Surinam, also knew of these medicinal effects and in fact did research on them.  What Schiebinger emphasized was that despite the knowledge they acquired, they did not communicate it in their home countries.  Schiebinger brought up the sociological term agnotology:  the study of deliberate, culturally induced ignorance.  Inhibiting fertility was not considered a subject to discuss in polite society and also, doctors did not want to discourage population growth among the educated classes at home.  In all the discussion about transfer of knowledge, this is an interesting topic that doesn’t usually come up.

Another topic that’s gaining attention is the agency of indigenous and enslaved people in the face of colonial power.  The use of peacock flower is one example and another was discussed by Judith Carney of the University of California, Los Angeles.  She’s the author of In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World (2009), a book that gave me a new perspective on the international movement of plants.  While the emphasis has been on the transfer of species from around the world to Europe, Carney highlighted how African plants were transported to the Western hemisphere via the slave trade.  Much of the evidence for this is circumstantial.  African species like the yam Dioscorea rotundata were grown in the American colonies from almost the beginnings of the slave trade.  Some seeds might have been brought by the traders to grow food for the enslaved people, who might themselves have smuggled some seeds.  At the same time, traders brought seeds of American crops to Africa. 

As the plantation culture developed it became more organized, and many enslaved persons were given small plots of land to grow their own food.  This alternative to the plantation farming system was encouraged by some planters as a way to lessen their need to supply slaves with food.  These plots were much more diverse and when successful could provide surplus fruits and vegetables for sale, giving the growers a small amount of profit to use as they wished.  This form of control over their lives allowed both the enslaved and former slaves to attempt to create decent lives under challenging conditions. 

The story of oppressed groups struggling to survive is repeated over and over again in colonial contexts.  It is hardly news, but I don’t think it can be reiterated too often because everyone living today is experiencing its consequences.  We need to be aware of it in order to be impelled to repair as far as possible the damage it has done.  Another presentation at the conference, “The Visible Hand: Coconuts, Capital, and Racial Colonialism,” discussed oil seed production in Mexico.  Jayson Porter, an environmental historian and postdoctoral fellow at Brown University, reported on his research on a number of oil seeds (Porter, 2021).  This is a massive topic because the world seems to have an insatiable thirst for plant oils, not only for cooking but for soap and many other products. 

The demand has led to the creation of large plantations with, again, the wholesale movement of species.  The area Porter discusses is the Mexican state of Guerrero on the Pacific coast.  It’s climate is ideal for oil seed production, not only of palm oil, but cannabis, sesame, and other species.  Coconut palms are native to Southeast Asia, cannabis to Central and South Asia, and cultivated sesame to India.  They were all brought to Mexico because they could thrive there on a large scale.  Such plantations inevitably required vast amounts of labor, first to clear the land then to plant and harvest crops.  It is this labor that interests Porter, in part because he has family roots in Mexico.  He described his archival work in Mexican institutions and what information he could find, and what he couldn’t—the perpetual problem for historians, with both sides of the coin telling a lot about what of the past was considered worth recording and keeping.  He also linked his research to environmental issues of the present-day, the heritage of plantation culture.

References

Carney, J. A., & Rosomoff, R. N. (2009). In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Murphy, K. S. (2020). James Petiver’s ‘Kind Friends’ and ‘Curious Persons’ in the Atlantic World: Commerce, colonialism and collecting. Notes and Records: The Royal Society Journal of the History of Science, 74(2), 259–274. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsnr.2019.0011

Osseo-Asare, A. D. (2014). Bitter Roots: The Search for Healing Plants in Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Porter, J. M. (2021). This May Contain Coconut Oil. NACLA Report on the Americas, 53(3), 226–232. https://doi.org/10.1080/10714839.2021.1961499

Schiebinger, L. (2004). Plants and empire: Colonial bioprospecting in the Atlantic World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Schiebinger, L. (2017). Secret Cures of Slaves: People, Plants, and Medicine in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World. Stanford, CA: Stanford University 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.

Discussing the Plant Humanities: Indigenous Knowledge

The yam, Ipomoea batatas, from Mark Catesby’s The Natural History of Florida, Carolina and the Bahama Islands, Vol. II, Plate 60

In September 2022, Dumbarton Oaks Museum and Library presented a three-day conference on the Plant Humanities, the capstone event for it’s Plant Humanities Initiative that was funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.  The initiative included research by a number of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows on topics that explored a broad array of areas linking plants to the indigenous peoples who had discovered their uses, the artists and writers who were inspired by them, and the scientists who studied them.  There was also funding for a project with JSTOR Labs to develop software called Juncture, which allows users to create online presentations that combine text in interesting ways with images, maps, timelines, and charts.  Though it is still being developed, there are a number of essays in this format on the Plant Humanities Lab site, and it’s definitely worth visiting.  I have written about this project before (1,2) but after the conference, I have a much richer perspective on it that I want to share in this series of posts.

I don’t think I’ve ever been to a conference where the talks were so well presented.  The first session was in the late afternoon, not usually a time for maximum focus, at least for me, but all the speakers were wonderful.  In this post, I’ll mention two.  First was Jessica B. Harris, a professor emerita at Queens College in New York who is noted for her research on African-American foods, including her book High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America (2011).  She spoke about the rather complicated connections between two root vegetables, the African yam Dioscorea rotundata with a whitish tuber and the Latin American sweet potato Ipomoea batatas with yellowish pulp.  In the United States, the two are often confused with sweet potatoes inaccurately called yams.  Besides a similarity in form, another reason for this mix-up is that both were used as food by enslaved people, who brought the yam with them from West Africa where it had long been cultivated.  In turn, cross-Atlantic trading carried the sweet potato to Africa and to the southern parts of North America.  Harris did a great job of describing these basics and much more, and she’s written about the “candied yams” of Thanksgiving as a misnomer. 

Robin Wall Kimmerer, like Harris, joined via Zoom.  She is an environmental biologist, a member of the Potawatomi Nation, and the author of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (2013), a book that connects her heritage with her science.  This is also what she did in her presentation.  She noted that in her native language, Mshkikineck is the word for plants in general, but it means medicinal plants, because this is how plants are seen in her culture.  Mshkiki means strength of the earth, something plants imparted to the humans who used them.  Kimmerer also said that Native Americans consider plants as persons, as animate beings, a concept that is now more widely discussed in the plant humanities.  As to the sweetgrass (Hierochloe odorata) in her book’s title, it is a sacred ceremonial plant among the Potawatomi.

Later in the conference, there were two more presentations about indigenous uses of plants.  Elizabeth Hoover of the University of California, Berkeley discussed her work with Native American food networks and efforts to revive their agricultural practices and heirlooms crops.  Rosalyn LaPier of the University of Montana described her studies on the environmental history of the lands in the Northern Great Plains that were the home of the Blackfeet Nation to which she belongs.  LaPier’s background is interesting.  She has an undergraduate degree in physics and years later, as she became more aware of her culture and its ties to the land, returned to school, earning a doctorate in environmental history.

LaPier is working with tribal members to discover more about their religious understanding of the plant world.  She has interviewed tribal elders of the Blackfeet Nation, focusing on plants that are used in cleansing ceremonies including smudging.  This is a ritual designed to expel negativity from an individual and involves the burning of specific plants.  Religion and plants was a theme that came up in several contexts during the conference and is something that I for one tend to ignore in my conception of the plant world.  This was one of the benefits of the meeting:  it encouraged the participants to broaden their views of plants, no matter from what perspective they were coming. 

In her work LaPier made a list of 40 plants that were employed in smudging in the past and documented how they were used.  Since the Blackfeet now have access to only a small portion of the land they originally occupied, they can no longer find many of the plants with narrow ranges.  Today sage, sweetgrass, and tobacco are most commonly used.  The ritual involves burning the plant material with the person putting their hands over the smoke, collecting it, and then “washing” with it, starting with the face.  In the past, this was often done at the beginning of any religious ceremony as a form of preparation, now it is frequently considered a ceremony in its own right.  LaPier’s presentation on this portion of her nation’s traditions, like that of Kimmerer’s, was infused with the reverence and respect of someone who is an embodiment of an ancient and still living culture.

References

Harris, J. B. (2011). High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America. New York: Bloomsbury.

Kimmerer, R. W. (2013). Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. Minneapolis: Milkweed.

Art/Herbarium

Artwork by Leah Sobsey for “In Search of Thoreau’s Flowers: An Exploration of Change and Loss” exhibition. Harvard Museum of Natural History, digitized cyanotype

I get daily emails from Hyperallergic, a contemporary art website that definitely borders on the edgy.  Many of the essays are not to my taste, but some of them are great, particularly those written by a professor of art history, John Yau.  I scroll through the half dozen plus offerings each day, and often something catches my eye, as when I saw a detail from Silvina Der Meguerditchian’s installation, Treasures (2015).  Against a black background are pages of text, drawings, and plant specimens.  There are also various amulets and pieces of jewelry.  Of course, it was the plants that attracted me as well as their juxta-positioning with so many other interesting items.

The accompanying article by Louis Fishman gave me some context for Der Meguerditchian’s work.  She is an Armenian artist who grew up near Buenos Aires, in a family that valued their heritage, having been forced to flee Armenia during Turkish violence there in the early 20th century.  She then moved to Berlin where she engaged not only with other Armenian’s but with Turkish immigrants as well, another way into her family’s past.  It is this history that is the inspiration for Treasures.  The plants that are presented—in tiny seed containers, as gold leaf portraits, in color drawings, and as specimens—are all native to Armenia and familiar to Der Meguerdichian’s family.  They are among the plants described in a notebook of medicinal remedies she inherited from her great-grandmother.  The act of pressing plants was part of memorializing this history, infusing life into it by working with the same plants the notebook described.  This is a beautiful example of specimens being employed not as scientific documents but as profound statements about memory and life.

There are many examples of artists using specimens in their work to enrich a variety of themes.  Margherita Pevere is a Finnish artist interested in exploring questions about the way organisms change and persist.  Reliquiarium (2011) presented remains of organisms, such as a bird’s wing, a crab’s carapace, and seed pods half-eaten by mice, each set on red velvet and framed in gold, somewhat like a saint’s relics would be.  This speaks to the sacredness of life, the inevitability of dismemberment and death, and the persistence organic material past that death. 

Somewhat the same themes come up in Herbarium (2012), Pevere’s next piece.  Here she worked with a folder of plants collected along the Adriatic coast of Croatia.  When she opened it, she found that little of the plant material remained.  It had been attacked by mold and insects to the point that, along with a few fragments, there were just stains on the paper  with the tape that had held the specimens down and labels identifying them.  Pevere framed the sheets and raised questions about who really created this work:  the organisms themselves, the collector, the pests that altered them, or the artist who mounted them.  She sees this work as relating to the medieval, to memento mori—reminders of life’s transience.

Mark Dion is known for his art dealing with natural history collections and also has a work called Herbarium (2010) , but he created new specimens in memory of those belonging to the horticulturalist Henry Perrine (1797-1840).  They had been destroyed in a fire at Perrine’s Florida home that also ended his life.  The sheets are stamped “Collection of Henry Perrine” and while a label is attached, no information is provided.  These are ghost specimens of the opposite type from Pevere’s; here the plant remains and the data doesn’t.  As an aside I’ll mention that Perrine moved to Florida from Mexico and brought with him plants including sisal he planned to grow commercially.  After his death the property was abandoned, but the sisal thrived and became a source of plants for those, including Germans, who then grew it on plantations in their colonies (Brockway, 1979).

On a brighter note, there is a wonderful exhibit, In Search of Thoreau’s Flowers: An Exploration of Change and Loss, now running at the Harvard Museum of Natural History.  It’s based on the Harvard Herbaria’s collection of Henry David Thoreau specimens.  There are 648 of them and they were digitized five years ago.  Two artists have created an installation that allows viewers to look not only at the specimens themselves, but also artistic renderings of them.  I have only seen the online version of this exhibit, but even that is stunning.  Robin Vuchnich, a new media artist, designed an immersive experience in the gallery’s theatre using the digitized specimens along with soundscapes recorded at Walden Pond where Thoreau wrote his masterpiece Walden. 

In addition, Leah Sobsey, a photographer and artist, created cyanotypes on glass from Thoreau’s specimens.  She used a process similar to Anna Atkins’s in making algae cyanotypes in the 19th century.  As the website notes, Sobsey produced cyanotypes for all the Thoreau specimens, creating “a stunning wallpaper consisting of original cyanotypes and digital imagery that tells a story of the survival and decline of plant specimens.”  This sounds like an exciting way to both experience herbarium specimens and think about a classic in American environmental and natural history literature.  It is interesting to consider what Thoreau would make of all this, to say nothing of how Concord, and Harvard, have changed since his day.  What I find so exciting about this presentation is how not only plants, but herbarium specimens are at its core.  Think of the thousands of visitors, old and young, who will discover herbaria in such a visually striking way.

References

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

Art: Plants in Three Dimensions

Glass Flowers at the Harvard Museum of Natural History – Canada Wild Ginger. Photo by Rhododendrites

The vast majority of herbarium specimens are pressed plants:  three-dimensional living organisms transformed into two-dimensional, or almost two-dimensional, dead bodies.  They are very useful, and sometimes very beautiful.  I recently saw a passionflower sheet that was exquisite, perhaps in part because its features were so beautifully displayed even in its flatness.  Two-dimensional botanical illustrations usually attempt to give a sense of how a plant looks in space, and there’s evidence that the first good early modern herbal illustrations were done by artists schooled in naturalism.  Hans Weiditz, who did the illustrations for Otto Brunfels’s 1530 herbal, might have been a student of Albrecht Dürer, who is famous for his exquisite Great Piece of Turf.            

In the late eighteenth century, the French Academy entertained a plan involving the silk flower maker Thomas Joseph Wenzel who adorned Marie Antoinette’s wardrobe.  He would create cloth models of plants representing all the known species as a resource for botanical research (Tessier, 2020).  Unfortunately nothing became of this scheme but around the same time, the success of wax anatomical models for teaching anatomy to medical and art students led to production of plant and fruit models.  This continued into the 19th century when papier-mâché became a popular construction material.  Models of plants, often with portions that could be removed to reveal the inner workings of a flower, were common in natural history museums and schools.  The peak of this thirst for 3-D educational models was the extensive collection of glass flower models created for Harvard University by Rudolf Blaschka and his son and funded by the Ware family.  Their daughter Mary Lee had been a student of George Goodale, the museum’s director who had conceived of the project.  The fragile twigs, flowers, and plant parts are displayed attached to stiffened herbarium-sheet sized paper and presented in taxonomic order to accentuate their use as scientific tools, though nothing can detract from their aesthetic glory.           

As their heavily illustrated notebooks indicate, the Blaschkas worked hard to make their plants both accurate and beautiful, developing a host of glasswork techniques to get the colors and textures right (Rossi-Wilcox & Whitehouse, 2007).  They built on some of the techniques and construction tricks used by 19th century wax artists who catered not to educators but to interior decorators.  Bouquets of wax flowers were a way for wealthy Victorians to fill their homes with colorful blooms even in winter months.  This seems a quaint idea today, but visit a Michael’s or JoAnn’s store , and you will find a vast array of plant models, made mostly of wire and plastic, some relatively accurate representations of real species, others more fanciful.  The artist Alberto Baraya has “pressed” such specimens onto herbarium sheets to document the flora he has found in public places like hotel lobbies, in part to show how fake as well as real species have become “invasive” worldwide.            

The July 2022 issue of The World of Interiors, a journal I recently “cited” for its articles displaying homes resplendent with framed herbarium specimens, devoted quite a bit of space to plants, in gardens and in homes.  There was even an article by Amy Sherlock called “Faux-Liage” about an “exacting bunch of artisans around the world who craft flowers in everything from feathers to clay” (p. 94).  The full-page photos were spectacular.  A sprig of lilac in porcelain definitely looked as delicate at the real thing.  It was obvious that a pale lavender crocus was in fact made of feathers, but it was the superb work of the Parisian plumassière Maison Lemarié so it was a tour de force.  The business was founded in 1880 and has been making such decorations for French couture ever since.  They also make silk flowers, creating blooms that really shouldn’t be called “artificial,” a niche industry that still exists in France.           

Also in the article were 18 carat gold flowers made by Christopher Royds.   This reminded me of a piece by Lin Sproule, another goldsmith and a jewelry maker, who over the years was seduced into creating delicate stems including grasses made with yellow, green, and red gold.  But back to “Faux-Liage”: Kirk Maxson is represented by a branch of oak leaves in hammered brass and Carmen Almon by a metal strawberry plant in “living” color.  It could be considered a scientific model, and in fact Almon had been a botanical illustrator before she took up metal work.  And yes, there is a wax model here as well, a lovely primrose complete with its roots, so lifelike it definitely seems like it needs to be planted before it wilts.  Finally, there is a silk peony in the richest of pinks and paper flowers created by Sourah Gupta, as well as a climbing clematis vine modeled on one he saw growing on a fence. 

What all the specimens in this bouquet have in common is that they are based on direct, close observation.  Gupta didn’t just glance at that clematis, he studied its colors, forms, and the twists and turns of its stems.  Working in three dimensions makes achieving such a life-like representation even more difficult than drawing a 2-D botanical illustration.  Obviously, each has its challenges, but what all the works in this article indicate is that there are many artists today who are maintaining the tradition of creating flowers that will outlast the season, and perhaps even their owners. 

References

Rossi-Wilcox, S. M., & Whitehouse, D. (2007). Drawing upon Nature: Studies for the Blaschka’s Glass Models. Corning, NY: Corning Museum of Glass.

Sherlock, A. (2022). Faux-Liage. The World of Interiors, July, 94–103.

Tessier, F. (2020). Modèles botanique, des modèles scientifique entre art et science. ISTE OpenScience, 1–19.