Recently I wrote a series of posts (1,2,3,4) on books about plants that view them in broad contexts. After I finished, I realized that I still had a stack I hadn’t gotten to, so I’m doing a second series. I’m beginning with a book I fell in love with even though I have to admit to not doing a very good job of reading it. It’s Régine Fabri’s (2021) volume in French on the vasculum, the long metal box for collecting in the field that was the emblem of the 19th century botanist. I heard Fabri speak on the vasculum at the joint meeting of American and European botanical librarians held at the New York Botanical Garden in 2018. Since then she has retired as chief librarian at the Meise Botanic Garden in Belgium. She obviously has not been idle, but this book is hardly just a work of retirement; it’s clear she has been doing research on the subject for years.
Fabri was well-prepared for the challenge with a doctorate in botany and years of research in systematics leading to the publication of the volume on umbellifers for the General Flora of Belgium. She then moved into library work and clearly became a master of ferreting out information. Since my French is rudimentary, I wasn’t able to fully appreciate the text. However, from the number of topics she covers and the wide variety of images she includes (300 in all), she knows her subject literally inside out. She must have had a great deal of fun putting this book together, but it must also have been a great deal of work. I can’t imagine what was involved in finding and organizing 300 images. Each one makes a contribution to bringing the vasculum back from, as she writes in her subtitle, “obscurity.”
As Fabri notes, the first published mention of using a metal box to store specimens when out collecting was made in 1704 by William Stukeley. A British antiquarian, he wrote about students of materia medica going on fieldtrips with a copy of John Ray’s catalogue of English plants and a metal candle box, a long cylindrical container with a door on its side, perfect for adding candles or plants—and about the right size to take into the field (Allen, 1965). It’s sturdiness meant the plant material was less likely to be damaged in transport than if put into a bag or carried loose. The idea caught on. The candle box eventually was fitted with a leather strap to make it easy to carry over the shoulder and morphed into a vasculum, from the Latin for vase. By the 19th century it was marketed along with plant presses and hand lenses not only to botanists, who were becoming more and more professionalized, but also to the ever-increasing number of natural history enthusiasts.
Increased demand led to specialization. The vasculum was produced in different sizes, including one three feet long for those who didn’t want their specimens folded and were willing to tote the giant around—or were collecting by horseback or carriage. There were also small ones made for young collectors to start them off on the road to botany. These were often decorated with paintings of young children going plant hunting. There were other versions painted with more sophisticated art to appeal to feminine tastes. The vasculum became an attractive accessory, so much more becoming than carrying a tin simply painted black or green. Fabri includes dozens of photos of vasculums, including many from her own collection. I remember her saying in her lecture that there were a few she coveted but which were beyond her budget, indicating that the antique vasculum market must be hotter than that for new ones, which are still for sale in natural history catalogues.
Some of the most intriguing images in the book depict the vasculum being used in the field. These range from a painting of Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland collecting near Mt. Chimborazo in Peru, where Bonpland is sitting with his vasculum at his side, to 19th-century genre paintings picturing rather inept collectors attempting to look like they know what they are doing. There are also many prints, newspaper cuttings, book illustrations, and advertisements culled from publications in many different languages. This is where Fabri’s library skills shine. She knew how to find even the most obscure references, and I suspect, how to use her social skills to get the help of fellow librarians who enjoyed joining in the hunt.
The very ordinary plastic bag was one of the chief reasons for the decline in the use of the vasculum. It was lighter, waterproof, and less likely to crush specimens. But Fabri makes it clear that it is simply not as much fun. As you can see I loved this book, despite the language barrier, or maybe because of it: I spent more time pouring over the images. Amazon doesn’t seem to cater to the Francophile, so I bought a copy from the Meise Botanic Garden online bookshop. At 25 Euros, it was a bargain. I got my book within a couple of weeks after I ordered it. I don’t think you will be disappointed, and the next time you go out collecting, you might feel a twinge of regret that you don’t have a vasculum handy for your cuttings.
Allen, D. E. (1965). Some further light on the history of the vasculum. Proceedings of the Botanical Society of the British Isles, 6, 105–109.
Fabri, R. (2021). Le vasculum ou boîte d’herborisation: Marqueur emblémetique du botantiste du XIX siècle, objet désuet devenu vintage. Meise, BEL: Jardin Botanique de Meise.