Circulating Specimens: Getting Stuck

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

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

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

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

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

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


Gardiner, L. M. (2019). Cambridge University Herbarium: Rediscovering a botanical treasure trove. Journal of Natural Science Collections, 6, 31–47.

Le Bras, G., et al. (2017). The French Muséum national d’histoire naturelle vascular plant herbarium collection dataset. Scientific Data, 4(1), 1–16.

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

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

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

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

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

Circulating Specimens: History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Herbaria for Young People

Herbaria, Kelly LaFarge

In this series of posts on books about herbaria, this entry can be a considered a companion piece to the last one on Barbara Thiers’s masterful survey of the herbarium world.  Kelly LaFarge’s (2020) Herbaria: A Guide for Young People is very different in size and intended audience.  Herbaria is a slim volume addressed to 8-12 year-olds, in comparison with Thiers’s over-300 page Herbarium.  But they both do a great job of engagingly introducing readers to the world of preserved plants.  The books are beautifully formatted, and full of great images with clearly written text.

LaFarge’s Herbaria fills a niche that has been empty until now.  Yes, there are many books about plants for children, but not about pressed plants.  She dedicated the book to her two sons, and I imagine she tried out material on them to gauge what would interest a child and what wouldn’t.  She plunges right in on the first page with a clear definition of a herbarium, also explaining the job of a botanist and the characteristics of a specimen along with a photograph of one.  Both Thiers and LaFarge discuss Luca Ghini’s role in the 16th century in promoting the use of pressed plants, and also include Lewis and Clark’s collecting and the herbarium of the 19th century poet Emily Dickinson. It’s on the page with a photograph of Dickinson that the LaFarge book gets really interesting as far as I’m concerned.  To the left of the text, there is a flap that when lifted, reveals one of her poems, “It’s All I Have to Bring Today.”  I am a sucker for flaps, pop-ups, fold-outs, and other surprises in books.  They are almost always reserved for children’s books, and I think that’s a shame.  They make books lively by forcing the reader to be active.  A few pages further on a spiral notebook page is pictured, one from a field journal, with space to record date, location, latitude/longitude, etc.  Lift up the page and there are drawings of the tools of the collecting trade—clippers, plant press, pencil, etc.  On another page, raising the cover of a “plant press” reveals a specimen underneath. 

I won’t describe all the moveable parts in the book, because there should be some surprises to look forward to when you get your own copy, which you plan to give to a child.  I have two nephews each turning nine soon, and they will get copies, but not my copy.  One of the reasons you will not give yours away is that you’ll want to study it, and to think about what LaFarge does and does not include in these pages.  Admittedly there is not a great deal of information here, but what is presented is sure to fascinate a child without being overwhelming.  On one two-page (p. 24-25) spread there is a photo of someone holding a giant coco de mer seed (referred to as a “double-coconut seed”) to give a sense of its size; another of “a corpse flower, the largest, stinkiest flower” (that will please my nephews though they’ll be disappointed that there’s no scent provided); and a third of a handful of “the world’s smallest bamboo from French Guiana, that’s less than an inch high!”  There are also photos of herbarium cabinets, seed collections, and botanists collecting in the field. 

For a child, quite a bit of information is packed into this slim package, including an explanation of all the elements on a present-day herbarium sheet, including a fragment packet.  An adult interested in herbaria will not learn a great deal here, but that’s not the point of this book.  It is for the neophyte, and not just for a young one.  Come to think of it, I might buy a copy for my sister, and my son, and some of my friends who are totally flummoxed by my herbarium fascination.  This might also be a good book to add to any herbarium’s library, so it can be pulled out for young visitors, since they are becoming more frequent in herbaria as curators are increasingly concerned with broadening interest in their institutions.

Outreach has become an important part of the herbarium world in the 21st century (see earlier post).  This can mean making collections available digitally so researchers from a larger variety of fields from ecology to geology can make use of the information (Heberling et al., 2021).  But it also means building interest in the collections among younger audiences in order to provide the botanists and ecologists of the future, since there has been much written on the need for recruits to these fields.  I think most of us who became interested in biology had early experiences with the living world that stayed with us.  LaFarge’s book could provide a clever entry into that world that might adhere to some brain cell and link to a later experience, perhaps on a high school or college field trip.  On a trip to Ireland when I was 12, I pressed some flowers that I found growing along a roadside.  I pasted them into a little booklet for my mother.  The memory of this had completely faded until more than 50 years later.  After I had fallen in love with herbaria, my sister happened to unearth this memento in my mother’s dresser.  The mind works in strange ways, and LaFarge has enough of a sense of fun and wonder to help the young mind turn to plant collections.


Heberling, J. M., Miller, J. T., Noesgaard, D., Weingart, S. B., & Schigel, D. (2021). Data integration enables global biodiversity synthesis. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118(6).

LaFarge, K. (2021). Herbaria: A Guide for Young People. St. Louis: Missouri Botanical Garden Press.


Herbarium, Barbara M. Thiers

This post marks the start of my sixtieth set of posts over five years for Herbarium World.  As you may know, I have a monthly theme with four posts.  Doing the math (which I just did), that means 240 posts, yet I’ve never titled one simply, “Herbarium,” until now.  To mark this milestone, I am going to discuss four books that celebrate herbaria, and it seems fitting to begin with Barbara Thiers’s Herbarium: The Quest to Preserve and Classify the World’s Plants.  No one is better equipped than Thiers to produce such a book.  She is the Patricia K. Holmgren Director Emerita and Honorary Curator of the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium at New York Botanical Garden (NYBG).  When I was beginning my exploration of herbaria, she graciously took time to speak with me, though she obviously had more important things to deal with in overseeing one the world’s largest herbaria, now with over 7.9 million specimens.

I know that number because it was published in the latest report from Index Herbariorum, the best source of information on the number of herbaria worldwide and the size of each collection.  Thiers is the editor of what is now an online database but began as a printed publication that was moved online by her predecessor as herbarium director, Patricia Holmgren, for whom Thiers’ endowed position is named.  They are both formidable women, both excellent botanists and administrators. 

In Herbarium, Thiers provides a highly readable tour through the history and development of plant collections and then explains why they are so essential to the future of the earth’s biodiversity.  The first thing that’s obvious is that the book, published by Timber Press, is beautifully produced.  It is filled with colored photographs of what I consider “eye candy,” that is, herbarium specimens from the 16th to the 21st century, many from NYBG, but also from collections around the world.  In addition are pages from significant publications such as Carl Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae and illustrations by great botanical artists including Georg Ehret and Pierre-Joseph Redouté, many from the holdings of NYBG’s LuEsther T. Mertz Library.  There are also photographs of plants and landscapes, pictures of botanists, and maps. 

But the meat of the book is the text.  Not surprisingly, Thiers begins with the history of herbaria, including of course the origin of cryptogamic collections since she is an expert on liverworts.  Along the way she clearly presents enough botanical information to guide the non-botanist.  Then she moves on to the age of exploration and describes both the general landscape of plant prospecting over the centuries, and also delves into a number of interesting cases.  These include the adventures and collections of the British privateer William Dampier who was the first to gather specimens in Australia and of the French botanist Philibert Commerson who traveled on a portion of Louis Antoine de Bougainville’s expedition around the world.  Commerson made many notable botanical discoveries, though he may be best known not for what he found but for whom he brought with him on the voyage:  his mistress Jeanne Baret.  Thiers tells the tale in some detail, including how Baret posed as a male seaman, and how she and Commerson eventually left the expedition in Mauritius and collected in the area until Commerson’s death.   

While the exploration chapter takes a global view, the next one deals with the development of collecting and collections in the United States from colonial times.  Naturally the 18th-century Philadelphia nurseryman John Bartram is discussed as well as the Lewis and Clark Expedition, with the winding journey taken by many of its specimens.  John Torrey and Asa Gray as key to the development of botany in the United States appear, with Thiers noting that Torrey’s specimens, donated to Columbia College (now Columbia University), eventually became the foundation of NYBG’s herbarium.  Nathaniel and Elizabeth Britton’s pivotal role in the creation of NYBG is covered as is the work of George Engelmann and Henry Shaw in founding the Missouri Botanical Garden, and West Coast botanists in creating the California Academy of Sciences herbarium.  All of these institutions are still at the forefront of botanical research today.

The last two chapters return to a global perspective, with descriptions of how collections were both made and eventually housed in Australia, Africa, India, and East Asia.  Issues of colonial exploitation obviously arise there, and in addition Thiers presents fascinating information on how herbaria around the world are now being created and developed.  This leads to the last chapter on the future of herbaria.  Thiers knows this topic well because she has been a leader in projects designed to create that future, including the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s Global Plants initiative (now JSTOR Global Plants) to image and digitize label information for type specimens, the Biodiversity Heritage Library for botanical literature online, and iDigBio, the US digitization effort that put millions of natural history specimens online, in addition to developing projects and tools to use that information in learning about the world’s biodiversity.  The challenges created by climate change and habitat loss are driving these efforts, and people like Thiers are continuing work to make the available information as useful as possible.  She makes it clear that herbaria have a wonderful future and her book is a wonderful introduction to it. 


Thiers, B. M. (2020). Herbarium: The Quest to Preserve and Classify the World’s Plants. Portland, OR: Timber.

Victorian Botany: Seaweed

Title page of Specimens of Sea Weeds, British (circa 1840), Yale Center for British Art.

Along with ferns, which were discussed in the last post, Victorians were also fascinated by seaweed or macroalgae, to be more botanically correct.  While ferns became popular in the 19th century, seaweed had already piqued interest in the later 18th century.  Sales of the estates of the Duchess of Portland (1715-1785) and Queen Charlotte (1744-1818), who both owned herbaria, included seaweed collections.  While the earlier attraction was among the upper classes, pursuit of aquatic plants grew as natural history became a more popular pastime.  This was due to the 19th century’s expanding educational opportunities, cheaper publications, and increasing leisure time for those in the middle and lower classes.  Trains made travel more accessible, as did more and better roads.  Because Britain is an island, it’s not surprising that seaside areas became popular vacation spots.  Since many people were already accustomed to studying the plants and animals around them, they brought this curiosity with them to the seashore and began collecting sea life.  In the 1830s, the first aquaria were developed (Brunner, 2005).  For those more interested in documenting than nurturing what they encountered, a seaweed herbarium was often the answer.

Just as fern albums were popular souvenirs, so were seaweed books.  I examined several of these along with a small herbarium at the Museum of Natural History in Providence, Rhode Island; this experience hooked me on herbaria.  After my visit, I couldn’t stop thinking about the idea of collectors, often women, making their leisure time profitable by learning about nature.  One of the museum’s albums was created by Mrs. George Peabody Wetmore, wife of a former governor, who summered in Newport, Rhode Island.  In Britain, it was places like Bath where shops sold blank albums to be filled by vacationers, or already-made ones for those who wanted a souvenir without the work. 

The technique for preparing specimens was different from that for land plants. The alga was floated in a pan of water, then a sheet of paper was placed underneath the specimen and gently raised to catch it.  Some collectors recorded the Latin name and even where it was found, others included no information at all.  The latter albums were definitely made for their aesthetic qualities, with the specimens mounted on paper doilies and sometimes with several species on a page arranged to form a landscape or to resemble flowers spilling from a paper basket (see image above).  In this genre, art and science were definitely intertwined.

These interconnections are brought out in an intriguing book called Ocean Flowers (Carol Armstrong and Catherine de Zegher, 2004), that deals with mounted specimens, nature prints, and botanical art, focusing on aquatic plants.  One of the most spectacular displays of macroalgae in the 19th century was the work of Anna Atkins who produced hundreds of nature prints in the form of cyanotypes of seaweeds in her Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (1843-53), considered the first published book of photographs.  A cyanotype is a form of photograph created by placing a specimen on chemically treated paper that turns deep blue when exposed to light, usually by placing the preparation in bright sunlight.  Each of Atkins’s photographs is labeled with the species name, so there is a nod to science, even if the date and location of collection aren’t given.

Many collectors were definitely more scientific.  One example is Margaret Gatty who was introduced to algae when she visited the shore to recover from the delivery of her seventh child.  Someone loaned her a guide to British algae, and she became entranced.  She started collecting specimens and matching them to descriptions in the book.  Soon she was in contact with experts like William Henry Harvey, who realized from her keen observations that Gatty was someone whom he could guide and in the process acquire specimens and other information.  They corresponded until his death, he and his wife visited the Gatty family, and Gatty herself prepared exsiccatae organized according to Harvey’s guide to British algae.  Harvey collected broadly while he lived in South Africa and later when he traveled to Australia.  He created specimen sets that are found in many herbaria, since serious botanists were also interested in these organisms. 

I want to end with one more example, a seaweed album with 293 species now held at the Huntington Library in Pasadena, California.  It was described in an article by Michele Navakas (2018) who writes that leafing through it, she could feel the creator’s passion for the subject.  She also admits that the digital version available on the library’s website, great though it is, just doesn’t give a sense of its impressive physicality, with its gold embossed red leather cover.  It was published in runs of fifteen copies, the work of  Charles Durant, a Jersey City stockbroker who enjoyed walking along the beach near his home, across the Hudson River from lower Manhattan.  This was in the mid-19th century when both sides of the river were very different from what they are today and when the river was alive with intertidal life.  To produce the exsiccatae, Durant spent, according to his records, 2000 hours of work on the project that had him walking a thousand miles searching for the right specimens.  It was obviously a labor of love, and it is wonderful that we can at the very least experience it digitally.


Armstrong, C., & de Zegher, C. (2004). Ocean Flowers: Impressions from Nature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Brunner, B. (2005). The Ocean at Home: An Illustrated History of the Aquarium. Princeton Architectural Press.

Navakas, M. (2018). A book full of seaweed. Huntington Frontiers, Spring/Summer, 8–12.

Victorian Botany: The Wardian Case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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


Palm basket from Botswana in the Kew Economic Botany Collection

As the twentieth century progressed and economic botany went into decline (see last post), ethnobotany developed and incorporated some of the former’s collections and concepts.  Merlin Sheldrake (2020) defines ethnobotany as the study of the relationships among plants and people, in other words, learning about plants through people’s attitudes towards and uses of them.  Because ethnobotany grew out of studies of plants and indigenous peoples, its emphasis has been on plant use among these populations and is often related to anthropological studies.  Richard Schultes was a botanist instrumental in making the transition from economic botany to ethnobotany.  He studied economic botany with Harvard’s Oakes Ames in the 1930s and wrote his undergraduate thesis on the use of peyote cactus as a hallucinogen among the Kiowa people of Oklahoma.  Schultes went on to pursue both taxonomy and ethnobotany.  Like many botanists who are involved in more than one facet of the science, he collected specimens because he needed to be able to identify the species he found in the field and to study their relationships not only to human use but to each other (Ponman & Bussmann, 2012).

Oakes Ames had early warned of the need to learn as much as possible about plants and their uses from indigenous peoples because they and their life styles were so vulnerable.  Schultes heeded his mentor’s warning and recorded much about the peoples he studied within tropical South America, especially their use of hallucinogenic plants in religious rituals.  He wrote a great deal and also educated the next generation of ethnobotanists.  Ethnobiology is still evolving as a discipline, and in the 21st century it is becoming more central to efforts to promote conservation, equitable distribution of resources, and sustainability. 

In the second half of the 20th century, pharmaceutical companies funded many expeditions with the goal of finding plant-derived active substances.  About a quarter of prescription drugs are produced from plant materials or based on chemicals first found in plants, so this strategy makes sense.  There are two approaches to plant hunting for pharmaceuticals.  One is to collect enough material from an array of plants in a region to test each for chemicals such as alkaloids, a molecular class that includes many drugs.  Interesting substances have been discovered this way, but it is rather hit or miss (Blumberg, 1998).   

The other approach to drug discovery is to partner with indigenous peoples, particularly with healers who use local plants to treat a variety of maladies.  This has been done since the arrival of the first European explorers, but now the work is much more respectful of local knowledge.  Experts in ethnobotany live with indigenous peoples and make it a practice to learn the languages of the groups they work with, understanding the culture as well as the plants and studying healing practices and other uses of plant materials (Balick & Cox, 1996).  Ethnobotany provides a more holistic approach to drug discovery, studying the culture as a whole.  In some locales for example, palms are pivotal plants as sources not only of medicines, but of food, building materials, containers, and even cloth (See image above). 

Abena Osseo-Asare (2014) investigated efforts to develop drugs from African medicinal plants and discovered that researchers often consulted the herbaria of colonizers to find likely locations for plants that might yield active ingredients.  So even though African nations had achieved independence, colonial influence remained.  However, she also found it difficult to create a simple narrative of exploitation.  Drug development is a complex process, and most areas of Africa do not yet have the infrastructure for research and development independent of multinational corporations.  Osseo-Asare’s research also revealed that many likely medicines were hardly new to science, their existence had long been known and could not be attributed to a particular indigenous group or area.  This meant that compensation would be difficult to negotiate.  Robert Voeks (2018) has also questioned the “jungle medicine narrative,” writing from his perspective as a botanist who spent much time in the tropics studying medicinal plants.  He has great respect for indigenous knowledge, but is less positive about how likely it is that useful drugs can arise from these resources because the diseases of the developed and developing worlds are so different from each other.

Ethnobotanical research, for medical or other aims, requires herbarium vouchers to document the plants discussed in reports and other publications.  Having a preserved specimen, a voucher, allows future investigators to verify the species tested.  Also, since herbal medicines are essentially formulations of plant material, it is considered good practice in their manufacture to voucher each batch of plants used, though the term “batch” can mean many different things.  Ideally, it would be the plants collected in a certain place at one time by a single collector or group working together.  This is not always feasible, but it is definitely a useful goal (Eisenman et al., 2012). 


Balick, M. J., & Cox, P. A. (1996). Plants, People, and Culture: The Science of Ethnobotany. New York: Scientific American.

Blumberg, B. S. (1998). Case Study of Plant-Derived Drug Research: Phyllanthus and Hepatitis B Virus. In T. R. Tomlinson & A. Olayiwola (Eds.), Medicinal Plants: Their Role in Health and Biodiversity. (pp. 3–10). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Eisenman, S., Tucker, A., & Struwe, L. (2012). Voucher specimens are essential for documenting source material used in medicinal plant investigations. Journal of Medicinally Active Plants, 1(1), 30–43.

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

Ponman, B. E., & Bussmann, R. W. (Eds.). (2012). Medicinal Plants and the Legacy of Richard E. Schultes. St. Louis: Missouri Botanical Garden.

Sheldrake, M. (2020). The ‘enigma’ of Richard Schultes, Amazonian hallucinogenic plants, and the limits of ethnobotany. Social Studies of Science, 50(3), 345–376.

Voeks, R. A. (2018). The Ethnobotany of Eden: Rethinking the Jungle Medicine Narrative. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gardens and Herbaria: Colonial America

Acer saccharinum by Redouté from Michaux’s The North American Sylva, Biodiversity Heritage Library

In this series of posts on gardens (1,2,3), I’ve written primarily of British gardens and gardeners:  women, nurserymen, and acclimatization of exotics in colonial botanical gardens.  Now I want to turn to a subject that combines the themes of these earlier posts:  North American colonial gardens.  Just as the European colonial powers moved plants around the globe, with Brazilian rubber ending up in Malay Peninsula plantations and Asian breadfruit in the West Indies, American colonists were eager to grow European plants and other exotics.  This side of the bilateral trade has been less emphasized than the many North American plants that became prized items in European gardens such as magnolias, kalmias, and tulip trees.

The Philadelphia farmer John Bartram was a well-known exporter of seeds and seedlings of such species to the British textile merchant Peter Collinson, the middle man in dealings with wealthy British gardeners who awaited Bartram’s yearly boxes of botanical treasures.  Collinson also sent seeds and seedlings in return, including fruit trees.  He even shared seeds of a Chinese aster species that had been collected by French Jesuit missionaries and sent home where its seeds were propagated and passed from France to England through the eager network of botanists that existed at the time.  Trading was a way to insure that one was on the receiving end of the next interesting exotic to come along (O’Neill & McLean, 2008).

One of Bartram’s cousin, Humphry Marshall, had a farm in the Brandywine Valley where he created a botanical garden and also an arboretum.  He specialized in exporting tree seeds and seedlings of native trees to such British customers as Joseph Banks, but Marshall also imported European species for local customers.  After the Revolution they were interested in enriching their properties in the new nation with botanic novelties (Harshberger, 1903).  In 1785, Marshall produced the first botanical book about native plants written by an American and published in America, Arbustrum Americanum: The American Grove.  In the same year, a French botanist with an interest in trees, André Michaux, arrived in the United States, sent by the French government to set up a more formal plant exchange than that between Bartram and Collinson.  Michaux brought European plants with him to sell and to trade with collectors.  He set up a nursery in New Jersey where his assistant could grow seedlings from the plants he collected and then send them to France.  Michaux went on to Charleston, South Carolina, which had long had a French flavor because of its Huguenot population, Protestants who had fled Catholic France years before.

By this time the botany of the Carolinas was relatively well known in Europe thanks to Mark Catesby’s The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and Bahama.  Even earlier, James Petiver had a number of collectors who either visited or lived there.  Alexander Garden, a Scottish physician, set up a practice in Charleston in 1752.  He was an enthusiastic botanist, collected in the area and sent plant and animal specimens to John Ellis in England and Carl Linnaeus in Sweden.  Garden corresponded with John Bartram, visited him in Philadelphia, and hosted him on his trip to Charleston.  Bartram was encouraged by Collinson to collect broadly, hence his travels that took him from northern New York to Florida.  In Charleston he met not only Garden, but Martha Logan, a nurserywoman who too was involved in sending and receiving seeds and bulbs (Stearns, 1970).

Michaux’s work for the French government was on a larger scale.  Unlike Logan who had a small plot, he bought over 100 acres outside Charleston, and employed enslaved people to clear the land in preparation for the plants and seeds he began collecting.  He had brought his teenage son, François André, with him and together they explored not only around Charleston but went on more extended trips.  His son returned to France for further education, while Michaux continued to explore and collect plants.  He sent specimens back to botanists at the Paris botanical garden, and also cultivated thousands of plants, shipping them to France.  Most did not survive, which he discovered when he returned to France after 10 years in the United States.

Michaux worked on his specimens at the Paris garden and a few years later was part of an expedition to Africa where he died in 1802.  His son François André Michaux returned to the United States to dispose of the two nurseries and spent time collecting as well.  He traveled to Mexico and around the United States, so he added many species to the ones his father collected.  From 1810 to 1813 he published three volumes of what was translated as The North American Sylva.  The original edition had illustrations by the noted botanical artists Pierre-Joseph Redouté and Pancrace Bessa (see image above).  In 1853 there was a supplement produced with more species, including ones from the West, collected by Thomas Nuttall (Savage & Savage, 1986).


Harshberger, J. W. (1913). Exercises in memory of Humphry Marshall and William Darlington, at Marshallton, Pa., September 27, 1913. Hickman.

O’Neill, J., & McLean, E. (2008). Peter Collinson and the 18c Natural History Exchange. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society.

Savage, H. Jr., & Savage, E. J. (1986). André and François André Michaux. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press.

Stearns, R. P. (1970). Science in the British Colonies of America. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Gardens and Herbaria: The Nursery Trade

Specimen of Medicago lupulina with description in German from Kaufmann and Saamenhandler catalogue, 1826; Oak Spring Foundation Library.

As the examples of Mary Somerset and Margaret Bentinck illustrate (see last post), large sums of money were lavished on gardens.  Over the centuries as the number of gardeners grew, gardening became a business.  The wealthy employed managers for their estates and these men in turn hired those who actually did the work.  John Tradescant the Elder spent many years as head gardener to the Duke of Buckingham, who financed collecting trips to Russia, Algiers, and the Middle East in search of new plants to cultivate.  His son John Tradescant the Younger made trips to Virginia between 1628 and 1637, introducing the magnolia, bald cypress, and tulip tree to Britain.  The Tradescants had their own garden on the outskirts of London where they grew the plants they had collected and sold them to interested gardeners, while maintaining their positions on estates.  After Buckingham died, the father served King Charles I as did his son (Potter, 2016).

The Tradescants were early to a new form of business:  the nursery, where gardeners could buy equipment and also novel plants.  On the outskirts of London nurseries cultivated plants in large number and sold the seeds they harvested.  Plants from North America and South Africa became particularly popular because their native ranges had climates more similar to Europe than those from India or South America.  Nurserymen often dealt directly with collectors or plant importers.  There was much communication of information and plants, especially seeds, across Spain, France, the Netherlands, and Britain, with each country’s plantsmen having different sources for exotics.  Some nurseries specialized in exotic plants and had connections with collectors, some of them officers on the British naval vessels.  Another good source of novel species was the Netherlands, with its colonies in the Far East and connections to Spanish and Portuguese trading vessels that stopped at Dutch ports.

Besides cultivating exotics, nurserymen also experimented with better ways of nurturing common garden plants and finding new varieties.  Thomas Fairchild who grew and sold plants in London, was the first to create a hybrid between two plant species.  There is a herbarium specimen at the Oxford University Herbarium of “Fairchild’s mule,” a cross between sweet William and carnation pink—an example of how herbaria can document otherwise fleeting botanical accomplishments (Leapman, 2000).  Fairchild was also the first to have a blooming horse chestnut tree in Britain, almost 200 years after Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq brought seeds and specimens from Greece for Carolus Clusius and Pietro Andrea Mattioli.

As with any business, nurserymen needed ways to advertise their wares.  William Darby, who dealt in exotics, used a herbarium as a sales catalogue; it was portable and provided proof that he in fact had possession of the species (Harris, 2011).  It was also a way to appeal to the more sophisticated gardeners, who also documented their plants this way.  Kaufmann and Saamenhandler, nurserymen in Rostock, Germany, had a sales catalogue for forage herbs and grasses that was sold with and without specimens pasted to its pages (see image above).  There was even a deluxe version that included vials of seeds for each species, except for the six at the end of the catalogue that were considered noxious weeds and were included to help customers identify these interlopers.

Some sellers simply printed up lists of what they had in stock, perhaps with a brief description of each variety.  Others added woodcuts picturing their wares, but for the most elite clients, there were colored engravings as in Robert Furber’s Twelve Months of Flowers with plates of flowering plants he sold, organized by the month they bloomed.  At times the advertising was more subtle.  Mark Catesby, perhaps the best known British naturalist who visited colonial North America, made two trips there.  On the second begun in 1722, he amassed a large collection of plants and animal specimens, as well as notes and drawings he used in his two-volume The Natural History of the Carolinas, Florida, and the Bahamas.  He engraved the illustrations himself because he could not afford to hire an engraver.  To make ends meet, Catesby was involved in London’s nursery trade, where North American plants were popular (Nelson & Elliott, 2018).  Particularly in the second volume, a number of plant descriptions include the names of nurserymen who had successfully grown particular species.  Since only the wealthy could afford these books, they served almost as catalogues for American exotics aimed at a receptive clientele.  After Catesby’s death, his Hortus Europae Americanus was published.  It focused on North American trees and shrubs that could be grown in British gardens and was a more explicit advertisement for these species.

As a brief postscript, a stained glass window honoring Catesby has recently been installed in St. Giles’ Cripplegate Church in London.  It was a joint project of the Mark Catesby Centre at the University of South Carolina and the Worshipful Company of Gardeners, which received a British royal charter in 1605 to regulate the sale of plants, a sign of maturation of the nursery trade.  The window is a reminder of the close ties between plant collecting and plant selling as well as an indication of how Britain values its garden history.  A second example of this is another church building a few miles away.  St. Mary’s Lambeth Church where John Tradescant the Elder is buried.  It was due to be demolished and was saved by being turned into the Garden Museum.  It’s a beautiful building with a lovely old churchyard that includes a prominent memorial to Tradescant erected by his wife.


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

Leapman, M. (2000). The Ingenious Mr. Fairchild: The Forgotten Father of the Flower Garden. St. Martin’s.

Nelson, E. C., & Elliott, D. J. (Eds.). (2015). The Curious Mister Catesby: A Truly Ingenious Naturalist Explores New Worlds. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.

Potter, J. (2006). Strange Blooms: The Curious Lives and Adventures of the John Tradescants. Atlantic Books.

Collecting and Paper


George Forrest specimen of Abelia forrestii, Royal Botanical Garden Edinburg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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