Women and Specimens

Specimen and drawing of Erophila verna, Lightfoot Herbarium, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

In the last post, I wrote about women who were such serious gardeners that their estates and greenhouses became laboratories for learning about new species and their cultivation.  Any serious gardener is a careful observer and often a notetaker, so they can build on their expertise and use the information in the future, therefore it’s not surprising that women also took cuttings and preserved them to document what they grew.  Sometimes, as in the case of the women described by Nicole LaBouff and discussed in the last post, they sent specimens, particularly of plants in flower, to the botanists who sought their assistance.  In other cases, as for Mary Somerset in the early 18th century, a herbarium was a way to preserve a record her cultivars and the exotic plants she nurtured.  Plants and gardens are ephemeral.  Somerset’s garden in Chelsea is long gone, but her anemone varieties are preserved in Han Sloane’s herbarium (Carine, 2020). 

Later on in the 18th century, Margaret Bentinck kept a herbarium as a way to study plants and to remind herself of the different plant families she was learning about from her chaplain and botany teacher John Lightfoot.  In the 19th century, keeping an herbarium was often part of the botany curriculum for both male and female students.  Among the most elaborate sheets I’ve seen was one that Henry Noltie of the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh showed me.  It was created by George Watt, a botanist who worked in India, where he did a great deal of collecting.  But the specimen Noltie showed me was from Watt’s student days in the 1860s (see image above).  I know this post is about women’s specimens, but I just couldn’t resist including Watt’s because it puts to rest the idea that women were the only ones executing such decorative work.

From the late 18th century on, botany was considered a part of the curriculum for women, particularly for those in the upper classes who were well-schooled.  As the 19th century proceeded and middle-class girls were educated, the number of botany books directed at them increased.  The most noteworthy in the United States was Elmira Hart Lincoln Phelps’s Familiar Lectures on Botany that went through many editions.  For her, making a herbarium was a necessary part of the curriculum.  In some cases, the plants were mounted in notebooks where the students were obviously coached as to the format for recording information on scientific name and family, collection site and date, and of course, collector name, which must have been the fun part to include.  Later, special notebooks were printed with room for the specimen and then space to write in the relevant information next to preprinted prompts.  Many of these collections are now housed in herbaria and botanical libraries.  I suspect in the near future some of the more data-rich will be mined in attempts to discover what was growing in areas that are now covered with buildings and roads. 

It’s not surprising that as women learned about plants in school, some of them retained that interest as adults, since they had the intellectual tools with which to continue learning—and collecting.  Often they gathered plants close to home and corresponded with male botanists who could help them identify their finds.  Since some of these women were pioneers living in remote areas of the western United States or Australia, botanists encouraged their collecting as a way to receive plants they were unlikely to otherwise encounter (Gianquitto, 2007).  Women made discoveries that intrigued botanists, who were happy to cite the contributions of the collectors in their publications as a way to encourage more collecting. 

Sometimes attributions went awry.  Laurence Dorr (2019) writes of a collection of Madagascar lichens and plants made by Mary Pool, who along with her husband William was a missionary there from 1865-1875.  She died shortly after their return to England, and William contributed the specimens to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.  The sheets cite William as the collector, while Laurence provides detailed evidence that in fact it was Mary who did almost all of it.  This seems more a bookkeeping error than thoughtlessness on William’s part, but it is one more example of why women’s place in the history of botany is so tenuous. 

In a very different case, it was the wife who survived the husband and honored him.  Mary Strong Clemens accompanied her husband Joseph Clemens on his various assignments as a US Army chaplain.  Mary collected plants wherever they went, including their four years in the Philippines.  After he retired in 1918, they returned to the Far East and collected widely from China to Borneo.  Mary gathered the plants and William prepared the specimens for shipment; this continued until his death from food poisoning in 1936.  She recorded his death on a specimen, noting:  “It was under this tree (Myristica lancifolia var. clemensii) that my soul companion for over 40 years of wedded life, bade me farewell for the higher life.”  I found this story in a post written by Michael Gallagher from the long-defunct JSTOR Plant Science blog (August 6, 2010).  I printed it out because it was such a beautiful way for a botanist to remember her spouse.  After William’s death Mary collected in New Guinea until the start of World War II and then worked at the herbarium in Queensland.  She is representative of the transition women were making from amateur to professional botanists, and she was one of many who without much formal botanical education developed exceptional expertise.

References

Carine, M. (Ed.). (2020). The Collectors: Creating Hans Sloane’s Extraordinary Herbarium. London: Natural History Museum, London.

Dorr, L. J. (2019). Mary and William Pool and their (mostly her) Malagasy lichen and plant collections. Archives of Natural History, 46(1), 134–138. https://doi.org/10.3366/anh.2019.0561

Women and Horticulture

Pineapple from Maria Merian’s Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, Biodiversity Heritage Library

As I mentioned in the last post, the role of women in Western culture was hidden in part because they didn’t published about their knowledge.  There are of course exceptions to this, but when women did publish, it was often in forms that were not considered of interest to the intellectual elites, such as formulas for herbal medicines rather than more formal herbals or books of advice on domestic issues like cooking or housekeeping or gardening.  These were often published locally and unlikely to be republished in successive editions, so the few copies that may remain are known only to those steeped in the history of a field.

In some cases, women did not want to get into print.  It was considered vulgar to display expertise in public and not done by women of the upper classes.  This is one explanation Nicole LaBouff (2020) gives for why three 18th-century British noblewomen, Lady Amelia Hume, Jane Barrington, and Mary Watson-Wentworth, are so little known even though they made important contributions to the work of noted male botanists such as Joseph Banks, James Edward Smith, and William Roxburgh.  At one point LaBouff notes that “these women wrote themselves out of the botanical record when they either internalized or outwardly conformed to a cultural belief that the worlds of print and public dialogue were not appropriate places for modest ladies” (p. 30).  I hesitate to even use this quote since by doing so I might contribute to further enshrining this view, but not including it would make it more difficult to understand why these women chose to downplay their expertise, and they did indeed have botanical expertise. 

They were wealthy women who engaged in gardening on their estates on an impressive scale and like the many males dedicated to horticulture, were always looking for new and exceptional plants to nurture.  They also had the means to amass extensive libraries of botanical and gardening books for reference, to employ teams of gardeners, to have hothouses and other contrivances to grow delicate species from the tropics, and to not only purchase material from nurseries specializing in exotic plants but also from plant collectors who shipped directly to their estates.  They used all their resources as well as their intellects honed by their education, reading, conversations with likeminded men and women, and observations on the plants they wanted so much to successfully cultivate.  In many cases their expertise exceeded that of professional nurserymen, and male botanists appreciated that.

Smith and Banks visited the gardens of noblewomen not only to see what was growing there but to obtain specimens to study and seeds or cuttings to cultivate, and perhaps more importantly, to learn from these women’s observations.  Two references LaBouff cites are Dorinda Outram (1996) on “sedentary fieldwork” and James Secord (2007) on conversation as central to the formation of scientific knowledge during the period of polite science in the 18th century.  She argues that this is why “it is crucial to recognize the home garden as a museum-like space in which women actively shaped scientific dialogue through their interaction with other experts. (LaBouff, p. 23)”  While such women did not usually put their knowledge into print, their male colleagues did, and James Smith among others was careful to give the three women LaBouff highlights credit for their contributions.  He dedicated a volume of his writings to each of them. 

I use LaBouff’s work here to exemplify an area of female expertise that was much more widespread than just in 18th-century England.  The early modern botanist Carolus Clusius had an extensive correspondence with women gardeners in which the information was freely exchanged in both directions (Egmond, 2010).  In the 17th century Hans Sloane, James Petiver and John Ray all visited the Duchess of Beaufort Mary Somerset’s gardens and hothouses to see plants they would otherwise only know from dried specimens (see earlier post).  At about the same time, Agneta Block, a wealthy Dutch widow, was using her hothouse to coax pineapples to flower and fruit from small, rather dull looking tufts of leaves obtained from the Leiden Botanical Garden.  While the plant grew in the garden, it hadn’t flowered, which is not surprising since the Netherlands’ climate is very different from the pineapple’s native home in the South American tropics.

Like her British counterparts, Block had the combination of knowledge, observational skills, and horticultural expertise to be successful.  I can’t help making an overtly sexist comment here:  she may have called on a dose of feminine patience as well.  She success increased her status among other Dutch naturalists who visited her garden and greenhouses, including the botanist Jan Commelin and the naturalist/painter Maria Merian.  Block commissioned paintings from Merian and also from another noted artist, Alida Withoos, who did a watercolor of the pineapple to commemorate its flowering.  The painting doesn’t survive, though one by Merian does (see image above).  In a blog post on Block, there is more information on her connections with gardeners, naturalists, and artists, as well as more information on the pineapple.  It became such an object of interest that Block’s success was repeated in many botanical gardens and private estates.  Still, the pineapple remained so difficult to cultivate that the rich would sometimes rent one to display on a dinner table for a particularly important event.  Who knew plant rentals went back that far?    

References

Egmond, F. (2010). The World of Carolus Clusius: Natural History in the Making, 1550-1610. London: Pickering and Chatto.

LaBouff, N. (2020). Public science in the private garden: Noblewomen horticulturalists and the making of British botany c. 1785–1810. History of Science, 0073275320961908. https://doi.org/10.1177/0073275320961908

Outram, D. (1996). New spaces in natural history. In N. Jardine, J. A. Secord, & E. C. Spary (Eds.), Cultures of Natural History (pp. 249–265). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Secord, J. A. (2007). How scientific conversation became shop talk. Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 17, 129–156.

Women and Plants

Strelitzia reginae, watercolor by Franz Bauer of plant named for Queen Charlotte, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

This series of posts deals with women and several ways they have participated in the botanical work.  This is a huge topic, and calls to mind everything from the language of flowers to Alice Eastwood scaling the banister of the crumbling stairs of the California Academy of Sciences building after the 1906 earthquake to save type specimens in its sixth-floor herbarium, a daunting task she did successfully with the help of a friend (Daniel, 2008).  In these posts, I want to highlight the accomplishments less of professional botanists such as Eastwood and focus instead on what are considered “feminine” pursuits such as gardening, painting, flower arranging, and sewing.  My argument is that these activities could deepen women’s understanding of plants, often to the point that they had a level of knowledge and expertise that not only gave them a deserved sense of worth, but also allowed them to participate meaningfully in the botanical enterprise. 

What I plan to do here is to contribute in a small way to the rewriting of history to provide a fuller sense of women’s complex roles in this science.  I am not attempting a “truer” history, that path could lead to endless philosophical debates.  I am merely trying to use a different perspective.  I am drawing from scholarship on women who have contributed to several different fields, including botany, in ways that are only beginning to be appreciated.  Partly this is due to the type of research that is being done.  In the past when, for example, the early modern era was investigated, historians relied almost exclusively on texts, often on published texts.  Even when they studied archival materials it was to find notes and correspondence that illuminated what got into print. 

Admittedly, this situation is changing as archives continue to be searched as researchers ask different kinds of questions.  Take for example work on women apothecaries in the early modern era.  Yes, women were known to be healers, to use herbs in their work, and to collect plants for apothecaries, but since they didn’t contribute to the literature, didn’t create texts, their contributions were hidden and disregarded.  Now researchers like Sharon Strocchia (2019) are digging into the records of female religious orders that often ministered to the sick and had gardens where they grew medicinal herbs. 

These women also processed those plants and other materials into medications that they not only distributed to poor patients but sold to wealthy ones.  Strocchia studied the letters of several women in the Florentine Medici household who wrote not only to the religious apothecaries, but also to their relatives and friends, discussing quite knowledgeably the effects of medications and suggested courses of treatment.  Strocchia also found that in managing their pharmacy, the nuns kept records:  recipes for medications, their effects, and how to grow and dry plants.  These women gave advice to patients and recorded the expenses involved in running such a business, as well as the moneys they received.  In a number of cases, the revenues covered a significant portion of a community’s needs.  This book provided me with a different perspective on apothecaries and on women’s botanical knowledge at the time.

Another book that broadened my horizons was a collection of essays edited by Joanna Marschner (2017), Enlightened Princesses: Caroline, Augusta, Charlotte, and the Shaping of the Modern World.  For those like me who are not up on British royalty, past or present, these three were all noblewomen from small German states.  Queen Caroline was married to King George II of Britain.  Princess Augusta never did get to be queen because she married George and Caroline’s son Frederick, the heir apparent, who died before his father.  However, she was mother of George III who married Charlotte.  I had come across these three women in reading about plants because they were all interested in gardening on a grand scale and all had connections to what became the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.  Both Augusta and Caroline knew and worked with Joseph Banks, who became an advisor on horticulture and agriculture to George III. 

Charlotte is often described as a lover of flowers who dabbled in drawing them and encouraged her daughters to do likewise.  A deeper look provided in this book reveals a woman who built an extensive botanical library, kept an herbarium, studied botany with the founder of the Linnean Society, James Edward Smith, and with her daughters, was tutored in painting by one of the finest botanical artists of the day, Franz Bauer.  The book provides several examples of these women’s art.  Charlotte was also friendly with another notable woman with botanical interests (and a herbarium), Margaret Bentinck, the Duchess of Portland, who in turn was close to Mary Delany, the creator of almost a thousand botanically accurate, and labeled, paper collages of plants.  They were also all skilled embroiderers, specializing, of course, on flowers.  This was another way they honed their understanding of plant form and color subtleties.  These women had depths to their botanical knowledge that are only now being properly understood.

References

Daniel, T. F. (2008). One hundred and fifty years of botany at the California Academy of Sciences (1853-2003). Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences, 59(7), 215–305.

Marschner, J. (Ed.). (2017). Enlightened Princesses: Caroline, Augusta, Charlotte, and the Shaping of the Modern World. New Haven, CT: Yale Center for British Art.

Strocchia, S. T. (2019). Forgotten Healers: Women and the Pursuit of Health in Late Renaissance Italy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Botany and Art: Analogy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Botany and Art: States of Preservation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

Botany and Art: Intimacies

Lupinus argenteus, Silver Lupine” by Susan Rubin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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: John Bradby Blake

Painting of a Gardenia created in China under the direction of John Bradby Blake, in the collection of the Oak Spring Foundation Library

In the last post, I discussed how a set of herbarium specimens was created specifically for use in the production of illustrations.  Now, I want to explore a set of illustrations, or really several sets, that were used in a way that herbarium specimens are sometimes employed, as guides in finding more plants.  When the botanist John Banister was preparing to travel to colonial Virginia as a missionary and as a plant collector for his superior, Bishop Henry Compton, he compiled a collection of specimens of North American plants from the Oxford University herbarium as a memory aide and a guide for his plant hunting (Ewan and Ewan, 1970).  Pressed plants served him well because he had enough experience with dried plants to be able to relate them to living examples of the same species when he encountered them, or could recall what they looked like if he had seen them growing in the Oxford Botanic Garden.  But for an amateur, it would be difficult to make such connections. 

This is why the story of what are called John Bradby Blake’s drawings is so intriguing.  He was a supercargo for the British East India Company (EIC).  I was unfamiliar with the term “supercargo” and all it called to mind was a super tanker.  However, it refers to EIC officers who served as cargo managers on ships, supervising loading and unloading, as well as all the details of getting the materials through customs and to their final destination.  Unlike EIC surgeons who saw to the wellbeing of the crew and employees in foreign ports, supercargos were unlikely to have much grounding in botany.  Knowing about plants and their medicinal properties was an important part of medical education until the early 20 century.  Many surgeons welcomed the opportunity to collect in foreign lands as an interesting way to fill idle hours, and perhaps earn money for their collections.  While supercargos might be interested in the financial rewards, they usually didn’t have the botanical expertise to hunt for interesting species.

John Bradby Blake was an exception.  While he had no formal botanical training, his father, who had been a ship’s captain, was interested in gardening and taught his son.  It is likely that they both visited nurseries since they lived in Westminster, the area of London with a thriving nursery trade.  Captain Blake worked with John Ellis, a British naturalist interested in importing seeds and plants from China and introducing new species of horticultural interest to Britain.  While in China, Bradby Blake arranged for Chinese artists to paint watercolors of Chinese plants in a style similar to European botanical illustrations.  He had brought a number of these with them and then sent a package of the new paintings back to England, probably to his father, in 1773.  Bradby Blake did not survive the year, but his watercolors have had a long and fascinating life and even had many offspring.  Jordan Goodman and Charles Jarvis (2017) have written an interesting article on how these were “put to work” in collecting plants in China. 

With the drawings, Bradby Blake sent a letter asking for advice on the illustrations and how they could be improved.  He wanted them to accurately depict all the characteristics necessary to identify a species.  The botanist and plant entrepreneur Joseph Banks examined the collection and eventually Banks owned them along with other Chinese paintings of plants.  Two of his associates examined them.  Daniel Solander, one of Carl Linnaeus’s students, curated Banks’s herbarium and wrote out a list of 50 drawings Bradby Blake had sent giving probable identifications and noting when needed characteristics were absent or vaguely drawn.  William Aiton used the same illustrations as something of a sales catalogue, helping him to pick out plants he would like to grow at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew where he was director under Banks’s supervision. 

This selection process became more formal in 1789 when John Lind, a naval surgeon who knew Chinese, created a chart listing the Chinese and Linnaean names for the Bradby Blake drawings and noted which species were growing at Kew.  With this information, it was possible to then send instructions to China about which plants had not yet been collected.  Along with Lind’s information, Banks sent Alexander Duncan, a surgeon serving in Canton, a book of Chinese plant illustrations that were copies of Bradby Blake’s collection and were annotated with the Chinese names.  Duncan was delighted because he could visit Chinese nurseries and show them the plants he wanted.  In 1803, Banks arranged for a permanent plant collector in China, William Kerr.  This further organized the acquisition of desirable plants by Kew.  Kerr created a garden where he could harvest seeds and also grow plants for transport back to Britain, and he had at his disposal the same illustrations as Duncan did.

The EIC commissioned Kerr to have a set of plant illustrations made by Chinese artists for display at India House, its London headquarters.  The first set of 400 numbered drawings was completed in two years.  From then on, Kerr cross-referenced plants he sent with the drawings so William Aiton at Kew would be able to know what he was receiving.  In 1817, John Reeves, a EIC tea inspector, received permission to copy Kerr’s India House collection.  They were produced in Canton and sent to members of the council of the Royal Horticultural Society.  In many cases, these drawings are similar to Bradby Blake’s and others that were in Banks’s collection.  This is a fascinating story intertwining cross-cultural botanical art, plant collecting, and artistic reproduction. 

References

Ewan, J., & Ewan, N. (1970). John Banister and His Natural History of Virginia 1678-1692. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Goodman, J., & Jarvis, C. (2017). The John Bradby Blake Drawings in the Natural History Museum, London: Joseph Banks Puts Them to Work. Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, 34(4), 251–275. https://doi.org/10.1111/curt.12203