More Books: The Vasculum

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.

References

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.

Catesby’s Travels

Yellow pitcherplant (Sarracenia flava) and Southern toad (Anaxyrus terrestris) by Mark Catesby, Vol. 2 Illus. 69 in Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands

In the last post, I discussed the University of South Carolina’s Mark Catesby Centre and its work to bring Catesby’s legacy into the 21st century.  Now I want to dig a little more deeply into that legacy and how it developed.  Every discussion of Catesby begins with the disclaimer that not much is known about his life, and to a certain extent this is true.  There is little information about his early years with somewhat more his life after he returned to England.  However, the more historians have studied existing records about him and put these together with what they can glean from others’ correspondence and journals, Catesby has, in a sense, has come more to life.  One expert is the botanist E. Charles Nelson (2018), a member of the Centre’s affiliated faculty, who has delved into what books were in Catesby’s library.  Nelson also researched Catesby’s relationship with his uncle, Nicholas Jekyll who was a gardener and was friendly with John Ray and with Samuel Dale, a supporter of Catesby’s travels.  This is likely where Catesby developed his interest in plants and learned the basics.  However, there is no record of his having any formal education, though he came from a family that was comfortable if not wealthy. 

The next phase of Catesby’s life was his first trip to North America from 1712 to 1719.  He accompanied his sister to get her safely settled with her husband, a physician serving the governor of Virginia at Williamsburg.  It’s assumed Catesby spent much of his time working on his brother-in-law’s farm, but he also developed a friendship with two men who had a serious interest in plants, William Byrd II and John Custis.  Byrd had a large library and a greenhouse, Custis a variety of exotic plants growing in his garden.  Catesby traveled up the James River toward the Appalachian Mountains and also made other trips closer to home.  He gathered seeds and various plant materials, sending them to Dale who was impressed with them and with Catesby’s knowledge (Nelson & Elliott, 2015). 

When Catesby returned to England, Dale put him in touch with other botanists of the day such as William Sherard and Hans Sloane.  They encouraged Catesby to return to North America and more systematically collect specimens, seeds, and seedlings.  They also encouraged his artistic talent and his ability to write vividly on natural history.  These three men, along with 9 others, sponsored his second trip which was focused further south.  Many were members of the Royal Society, and Catesby later presented a report on his travels at an RS meeting.  After he visited with the botanical minded in Charleston, he began to explore the area, particularly north of Charleston where there were several large plantations as well as much wild country.

Catesby had brought supplies for painting watercolors of the organisms he found and also for making collections, particularly of plants, though he did collect shells, skins of birds and other animals, and insects as well.  He wrote of Native Americans he encountered and their uses for plants, especially for medicinal purposes.  He traveled down the coast of Carolina and then inland, perhaps as far as Clemson probably using Native American trails (Brown, 2022).  He also visited Fort Moore, across the river from what is now Augusta, Georgia on three occasions, and explored central Carolina.   Georgia was then considered part of Florida.  Finally, Catesby sailed to the Bahama Islands where he remained for a year before traveling back to England.  This is a hurried travelogue, but I want to get to his artistic work after his return because without that there would probably not be a Catesby Centre.

Catesby presented his sponsors with the fruits of his voyage in terms of plant material and correspondence, but he did not want to relinquish his drawings until he had used them to create the illustrations for the book he was planning.  He quickly discovered that to publish a work on the scale he envisioned would be very costly.  He couldn’t afford to have an expert create etched plates, so he learned from a master of the art Joseph Goupy and made his own, as well as writing the text in both English and French and advertising for subscribers.  He even hand-colored some of the prints in the first volume himself.  This volume was completed in 1731 and the second in 1743.  Each volume had 100 spectacular etchings, and there was an additional 20 in an Appendix to the second volume that was published four years later. 

While working on this opus, Catesby collaborated with nurserymen who were cultivating a number of the plants he brought back.  At times, the Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands reads almost like a catalogue where he extols the virtues of a North American tree or shrub now grown by one of his associates.  After the second volume was published he began work on something of a spin-off, Hortus Europae Americanus, with plates based on portions of the original plates.  Published posthumously, It focused on trees and shrubs and was much closer to a nurserymen’s publication in that it included practical information on growth habits and conditions for the pictured species.  This is a much less spectacular work, but I find It very pleasing to look at, with each plate divided into four sectors picturing four species. 

References

Brown, H. (2022). Catesby in Carolina. South Carolina Wildlife, January/February, 4–11.

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.

Mark Catesby in South Carolina

The naturalist, author, and artist Mark Catesby landed in Charleston, South Carolina on May 3, 1722 on his second visit to North America.  To celebrate the 300th anniversary, the Mark Catesby Centre at the University of South Carolina, Columbia presented a symposium, Catesby at 300.  The Centre is part of the University Libraries, and its Rare Book Collection has mounted a special exhibition running, Catesby in the Carolinas, which also includes exhibits at the university’s McKissick Museum with its extensive natural history collection; it runs through August.  The University Libraries holds five copies of Catesby’s Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands representing all three editionsSince there were less than 200 copies printed of the first edition and about 100 survive, this is an amazing treasure and well worth showing off.  This fine collection is one reason the rare print collector Herbert Fitzgerald decided to augment it by donating over 120 Catesby prints to the university and also why the independent Catesby Commemorative Trust found a new home there as the Catesby Centre.

David Elliott founded the Trust 20 years ago and was pleased to have it become part of the university so it can continue its already significant achievements in making Mark Catesby’s legacy better known today.  I first learned about its work when the Trust sponsored a six-day tour of Catesby-related sites from Washington, DC to Charleston in 2012.  It was a unique opportunity to travel with a group of participants and presenters that included the botanists James Reveal and Ghillean Prance who spoke of the plants Catesby encountered.  Charlie Jarvis (2007), who wrote the definitive work on Carl Linnaeus’s type specimens, discussed the plants that Carl Linnaeus named based on Catesby specimens and prints.  The two even exchanged letters and met when Linnaeus was in London early in his career.  Stephen Harris presented via video on the Catesby specimens at the Oxford University Herbaria.  They are part of the collections of Charles Dubois and William Sherard who were among those sponsoring his trip.  In return, they received specimens and seeds. 

At the Smithsonian, we saw its copies of Catesby’s books and heard from Leslie Overstreet who has done extensive work on the extant copies, including how they vary across the editions and even within an edition.  One cause of variations is that the volumes were not sold bound, but sent to subscribers in fascicles of 20 prints each along with a page of text for each print.  The copy that is now in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle was purchased by King George III and includes an original Georg Ehret painting.  This was among the interesting information provided by Henrietta McBurney who had been a curator at the Royal Library and had written a book on the 240 original Catesby watercolors also purchased by the George III.  They had not been given much attention over the years until McBurney and others on the staff examined them along with several other important natural history art collections.

Besides tours of a number of historic homes in Richmond, Virginia and Charleston that held original Catesby prints, we also took a boat trip along the Kiawah River in areas that Catesby visited.  This was a wonderful experience because we went through a large nature preserve that is a sanctuary for sea birds.  We saw not only many species, but large populations of them.  It really gave at least some sense of what South Carolina was like when Catesby visited.  I would like to reminisce more about this wonderful tour, but I want to mention other contributions made by the Catesby Commemorative Trust including the publication of the award winning book, The Curious Mister Catesby (Nelson & Elliott, 2015).  It includes chapters based on presentations given during the tour as well as other essays covering everything from Catesby’s biography, to his relationship to the horticulture trade between Britain and the colonies and his activities during the year he spent in the Bahama Islands.  The book was edited by David Elliott and E. Charles Nelson, an Irish botanist, writer, and editor who has been an integral part of the work of the Trust and now of the Catesby Centre.  He and Elliott are putting together a new book that will include a catalog of the Catesby prints donated by Fitzgerald as well as essays on the plants, birds, insects, and fishes pictured in Natural History.  These include those mentioned in Catesby’s introductory essay, “An Account of Carolina and the Bahama Islands,” but not pictured in any of the prints.  Since established within the University Libraries, the Centre has also overseen the digitization of the first edition Catesby as well as the Fitzgerald prints.

I am fortunate to have been invited to be part of the Catesby Centre’s work as affiliate faculty along with Herrick Brown the director of the A.C. Moore Herbarium in the university’s biology department, Christian Cicimurri curator of collections at the McKissick Museum, Rudy Mancke the university’s natural in residence, and Michael Weisenberg associate director of Rare Books and Special Collections in the University Libraries.  The entire list of those contributing to this effort are listed here.  I have learned a great deal from this project, and I’m very grateful to be a part of it.  I consider myself lucky to have landed at the university shortly before the Centre did.  In the following posts, I’ll discuss some of the latest discoveries about Catesby’s life and art, and end with a recap of the symposium held in May. 

References

McBurney, H. (1997). Mark Catesby’s Natural History of America: The Watercolors from the Royal Library Windsor Castle. Houston: Museum of Fine Arts.

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.

Aesthetics as Guide

Glechoma hederacea, Stadhuis Museum Zierikzee, NLD

In the last post, I discussed a number of studies that found biases in plant collecting based on a plant’s size, form, and color.  These are considered aesthetic selections, not grounded in objective properties such as a plant’s rarity or conservation status.  While bias can weaken a study’s findings and should be guarded against, I don’t think aesthetics can be totally eliminated from collecting, nor should it be.  There is a lot more to the aesthetics of collecting than just which plants are selected.  First, there is the overall experience of being outdoors, surrounded by plants and moving through a landscape.  The exhilaration of walking in an unfamiliar area or the comfort of a familiar one.  For most botanists, collecting is a scientifically and personally important part of their lives.  It can engage all the senses including the kinesthetic.  Pulling a plant up by its roots, selecting branches to cut, and then wrestling these into plastic bags or between pieces of newspaper involve many sensations and movements all at once.  At least for some plants, this is the most difficult and sensorial part of collecting—with scents and sounds abounding.  Many plants do not readily become two dimensional.  It can be a challenge, especially for a spiny species.   The work is going on as the brain is absorbing information and organizing it for identification.  This is definitely an experience in John Dewey’s (1934) sense of the word, where mind and body are involved working as one. 

            Phenomenology is the analysis of experience, becoming aware of what is going on while doing or sensing something.  It is, in the jargon of today, being mindful and realizing just how much is involved, appreciating the richness of a moment:  feelings as well as thoughts.  In other words, phenomenological analysis helps us appreciate the aesthetic aspects of life and is one reason why it is a popular philosophical tradition among artists, and perhaps it should be used more by scientists.  Some are much more aware of the aesthetic aspects of their work than others.  Years ago, the biochemist Arthur Kornberg (1989) wrote a memoir called For the Love of Enzymes describing the joys of his work.  The chemist Roald Hoffmann published a series of articles (1988-1989) on what makes molecules attractive after his wife asked him to explain why he called a chemical structure “beautiful.”  Both these men won Nobel Prizes, so their interest in the aesthetic is significant, especially because they chose to share this side of science with nonscientists.

              Another chemist whose writings are relevant here is Michael Polanyi (1966) who developed the concept of tacit knowledge, the mind and body work so closely that it’s impossible to put the experience into words.  Driving a car is one example, and expertly processing specimens is another.  Someone can explain these activities, but there is so much physical as well as mental work entailed that they can only be learned by doing.  Because mind and body are acting together, feelings are intimately integrated in pressing specimens and even more in mounting them.  The issue is how to take the material that has already been pressed and arrange it as attractively as possible, while not having too much overlap among parts, making sure both sides of leaves are visible, and displaying flowers with as much information as possible apparent.  However, there are limits to what a preparator can do with pressed material, which is why care in the field is essential. 

One problem with aesthetic considerations is that by their nature they are difficult to verbalize.  They are tacit; you know a beautiful specimen when you see it.  Many times I’ve come across descriptions of collections in which the superior quality of the specimens is mentioned.  This usually means that they are not skimpy, but at the same time they don’t look like unruly hairdos on the sheet.  Also labels and barcodes are not askew, a sign of hasty preparation.  These elements are noted.  The preparators at New York Botanical Gardens would comment on “certain people” who weren’t careful about the barcodes, thus taking away from the overall appearance of the sheet.  The same care needs to be taken with fragment envelopes and determination slips, as well as sketches and other notes that might be included.  A herbarium sheet can involve quite a few elements.  Their arrangement can make a difference not only in how good it looks, but in how easy it is to “read” or make sense of the elements.  The objective and subjective can’t be separated.

Every herbarium curator has favorite specimens taken out to show on group tours or for a visiting researcher.  Usually these include at least one particularly striking sheet, perhaps with a flower that has kept its color or a beautifully draped vine or a well-pressed orchid.  This is all about visual aesthetics.  But there are other kinds of aesthetic choices made, as in selecting sheets that have good stories related to them: a specimen collected by Joseph Banks on James Cook’s first voyage around the world or by Charles Darwin or by Margaret Gatty at the seashore in Britain.  Here history and science are rolled into one in a way that can be memorable and exciting to the viewers.  This is definitely part of the aesthetic aspect of botany for both botanists and the general public. 

References

Dewey, J. (1934). Art as Experience. New York: Minton, Balch.

Hoffmann, R. (1988a). Molecular beauty. American Scientist, 76, 389–391.

Hoffmann, R. (1988b). Molecular beauty II: Frogs about to be kissed. American Scientist, 76, 604–605.

Hoffmann, R. (1989a). Molecular beauty III: As rich as need be. American Scientist, 77, 177–178.

Hoffmann, R. (1989b). Molecular beauty IV: Toward an aesthetic theory of six-coordinate carbon. American Scientist, 77, 330–332.

Kornberg, A. (1989). For the Love of Enzymes: The Odyssey of a Biochemist. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Polanyi, M. (1966). The Tacit Dimension. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Aesthetics as Suspect

Gentiana ligustica, photo Botanical Garden of Fribourg

An article published last year deals with bias in the selection of plants for botanical studies (Adamo et al., 2021).  A survey of 280 investigations published between 1975 and 2020 on a well-studied alpine flora found that “morphological and colour traits, as well as range size, have significantly more impact on species choice for wild flowering plants than traits related to ecology and rarity” (p. 574).  Specifically, plants with blue flowers, those that were relatively tall, and those with larger flowers were more likely to be selected along with plants with wider ranges.  None of this is really news since a number of studies using digitized herbarium specimens have found spatial, temporal, and trait biases (Daru et al., 2018; Troudet et al., 2017).  However, the emphasis here on what the authors term “aesthetic” traits drew attention, with Nature (“Flower Power: Pretty Plants Are the Most Studied,” 2021) and Scientific American (“A Flashy Focus,” Kramer, 2021) running news stories including a photo of a blue gentian flower from the journal article.

In their conclusion, the authors came down quite heavily on the problems associated with this bias.  If researchers were attracted by color, form, and size rather than the conservation status particularly of rare plants, then the species that need the most attention would not be getting it:  “This apparently superficial preference has implicit and undesired effects as it translates into an aesthetic bias in the data that form the basis for scientific research and practices.”  They continue, “. . . it would be desirable to develop measures to counteract it, given the potentially negative impact on our understanding of the ecology and evolution of plants and the conservation of vital plant biodiversity” (p. 576). 

In their introduction, Adamo et al. write:  “These biases should be taken into account to inform more objective plant conservation efforts “(p. 574), thus juxtaposing science as objective and aesthetics as subjective.  I take umbrage with this and their implication that “aesthetic” is superficial and undesirable, therefore antithetical to scientific research.  My dissertation was on the aesthetic of biology, so I admit to my own bias, but this work taught me that the aesthetic is an integral part of scientific inquiry and cannot be expunged.  The two are not in opposition in part because the standard mind/body dichotomy is simply wrong.  There is more and more evidence that brain function is intimately interwoven with the physiology of the rest of the body, and so therefore are thinking and feeling.  Feelings generate thoughts and vice versa (Damasio, 2000). 

As far as attraction to large, brightly colored flowers is concerned, as Adamo et al. admit, this bias may be part of our biology.  We are a species that relies a great deal on sight, so in scanning a green landscape, a contrasting color is likely to stand out (Arnheim, 1969).  In studies of collection bias based on herbarium specimens, some researchers found that there was a bias toward collecting white flowers (Panchen et al., 2019) and more than one study has found a bias against collecting plants with green or brownish inflorescences, described as “unattractively colored” in one article (Schmidt-Lebuhn et al., 2013, p.  905).  There are biases for tall plants in one article (Williams & Pearson, 2019) and perennials over annuals in another (Daru et al., 2018).  There are also biases against collecting spiny plants:  this might also be seen as aesthetic in nature:  getting stuck repeatedly is not pleasurable (Schmidt-Lebuhn et al., 2013).  Spatial collecting biases are well-documented and myriad, with sites near roads or railroads, populated areas, and research institutions being more often visited than those that are remote and difficult to access (Haque et al., 2017).  This may also be seen as at least partially aesthetic in origin.  Botanists are human beings who like their creature comforts.

But not all biases are driven by aesthetics.  Colonial powers directed a great deal of collecting in the past, as witnessed by the large Asian, African, and Latin American collections in Europe (Brockway, 1979).  Collection today can often be influenced by a collector’s or an institution’s research interests for a particular family or class.  Since the early modern era, useful plants have been sought after, and this trend continues with quests for crop wild relatives and medicinal plants.  Mark Nesbitt (2014) of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew notes that useful plants are over-represented in herbaria worldwide.  What digitization of specimens on a large scale has done is to make these biases much easier to discover because large data sets can be analyzed without actually examining each specimen.  Now all types of biases are more identifiable and therefore more addressable. 

What is important to me about the study on alpine plants is that is brings aesthetics front and center into a discussion of scientific research, something that doesn’t happen very often.  Many scientists will discuss their attraction to certain topics or species or types of research, but it doesn’t usually get written about in journal articles.  This perpetuates the assumption that science is an “objective” activity.  It neglects what Gerald Holton (1973) calls the “private side of science:”  how science is really done—with all its joys, mistakes, brilliant insights, and wrong turns that get edited out of publications.  John Dewey (1932) argued that any deeply lived experience, and research is definitely that, is an aesthetic experience.  This is the topic I want to explore in the next three posts in this series on the role aesthetics play in collecting and preparing specimens, studying them, and communicating about them.

References

Adamo, M., Chialva, M., Calevo, J., Bertoni, F., Dixon, K., & Mammola, S. (2021). Plant scientists’ research attention is skewed towards colourful, conspicuous and broadly distributed flowers. Nature Plants, 7(5), 574–578. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41477-021-00912-2

Arnheim, R. (1969). Visual Thinking. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

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

Damasio, A. (2000). The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. San Diego: Mariner.

Daru, B. H., Park, D. S., Primack, R. B., Willis, C. G., Barrington, D. S., Whitfeld, T. J. S., Seidler, T. G., Sweeney, P. W., Foster, D. R., Ellison, A. M., & Davis, C. C. (2018). Widespread sampling biases in herbaria revealed from large-scale digitization. New Phytologist, 217(2), 939–955. https://doi.org/10.1111/nph.14855

Dewey, J. (1934). Art as Experience. New York: Minton, Balch.

Flower Power: Pretty plants are the most studied. (2021). Nature, 593, 317.

Haque, Md. M., Nipperess, D. A., Gallagher, R. V., & Beaumont, L. J. (2017). How well documented is Australia’s flora? Understanding spatial bias in vouchered plant specimens. Austral Ecology, 42(6), 690–699. https://doi.org/10.1111/aec.12487

Kramer, J. (2021). A flashy focus. Scientific American, 325(2), 24.

Nesbitt, M. (2014). Use of herbarium specimens in ethnobotany. In J. Salick, K. Konchar, & M. Nesbitt (Eds.), Curating Biocultural Collections: A Handbook (pp. 313–328). Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Panchen, Z. A., Doubt, J., Kharouba, H. M., & Johnston, M. O. (2019). Patterns and biases in an Arctic herbarium specimen collection: Implications for phenological research. Applications in Plant Sciences, 7(3), e01229. https://doi.org/10.1002/aps3.1229

Schmidt-Lebuhn, A. N., Knerr, N. J., & Kessler, M. (2013). Non-geographic collecting biases in herbarium specimens of Australian daisies (Asteraceae). Biodiversity and Conservation, 22(4), 905–919. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10531-013-0457-9

Troudet, J., Grandcolas, P., Blin, A., Vignes-Lebbe, R., & Legendre, F. (2017). Taxonomic bias in biodiversity data and societal preferences. Scientific Reports, 7(1), 9132. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-09084-6

Williams, J., & Pearson, K. D. (2019). Examining collection biases across different taxonomic groups: Understanding how biases can compare across herbarium datasets. American Journal of Undergraduate Research, 15(4), 47–53. https://doi.org/10.33697/ajur.2019.005

Plant Specimens in the Future

A sample of herbarium images used for training an AI model for recognizing leaf shape (Hussein et al., 2019)

In the first post in this series, I described ideas Mason Heberling (2022) presents in his paper on the role of herbaria in plant trait studies, including an outline of why specimens have been almost ignored by ecologists and evolutionary biologists in studies of genetic and environmental influences on plant characteristics.  After this survey and a convincing argument for why specimens would be valuable in this research, he discusses how herbaria could become centers for such work.  He begin this topic with a great quote from the corn systematist Edgar Anderson (1952):  “Making a good herbarium record . . . is something like trying to stable a camel in a dog kennel” (p. 47).  I imagine Anderson attempting to wrestle a corn plant, or parts thereof, onto a herbarium sheet.  But Heberling is also thinking about how plant trait studies might need not one specimen, but a number representing different parts of a plant’s life cycle or the variations found within a population.  He is realistic in considering how much more work this would mean for herbarium staff and how much more space would be needed to store all these specimens.  That’s why he argues for a reframing of the work of herbaria, which might seem like overreaching for an article on plant traits, but he makes clear that this type of research ties in nicely with the herbarium community’s present interest in the extended specimen network (ESN):  digitally tying together many types of genetic, ecological, and morphological data with specimen data (Lendemer et al., 2019). 

Heberling deals with what information should be on a herbarium sheet for trait research beyond the basics of plant name and collector as well as date and location.  Phenological data—presence of flower or fruit—is becoming more standard, but what if leaf areas have been measured or chemical analysis done?  This information is usually fed into trait databases such as Morphobank, but is not at present often linked to a specimen.  This is why Heberling calls for the participation of the functional trait researchers in building the ESN.  It would be helpful in convincing this community of the importance of vouchers to substantiate trait data.  This might not always be feasible, but at least photographic evidence could be linked.  In the other direction, it’s important for herbarium curators to be involved in developing the Open Traits Network that is attempting to standardize and integrate trait data.          

Heberling contends that rather than declaring specimens as too imperfect a form of evidence to use in trait studies, researchers should seek to change collection practices:  “We must ask how herbaria can better address the needs of new and unanticipated specimen uses.  What information do we wish that collectors a century ago had provided with their specimens?”  Then he gets more daring:  “I propose an open reevaluation of the very collection event” (p. 108).  Decisions have to be made in the digital age about what information is on the specimen itself and what is linked to it.  As one example, he cites work that he and his colleague Bonnie Isaac (2018) have done in linking online specimen data to information including photographs they input into iNaturalist at the time of a collection event. 

As to what information is actually recorded on the specimen, Heberling notes that research shows that data fields in taxonomic software are well-standardized, but the information in those fields may not be.  Anyone who compares label data to the digital record can attest to this.  Sometimes the problem may be just a random input error, but there is also the problem of fields without controlled vocabularies, or OCR difficulties, or a particular individual’s own take on what goes where.  These problems are being resolved as best practices become more widely standardized and employed.

Then there is also the issue of intensive collecting for life history or extent of variation studies.  Heberling admits that this cannot be done in all circumstances and requires budgeting for increased curatorial work and storage that might not be possible for all institutions.  But these issues definitely need to be part of conversations on the future of herbaria.  He ends by enumerating several moves that will lead to increased effectiveness and use of plant collections including archiving population-level and ontogenetic or developmental variation.  Also there needs to be more environmental context on labels.  This has become more common with habitat descriptions and associated species often listed, but available light and other abiotic conditions should be noted, and to make this information optimally useful, a standardized vocabulary should be adopted.

Also, the ENS should be built into specimen collection itself, as in the iNaturalist case; collectors should leverage the ability to create “born digital” specimens as much as possible.  The accession should also include storage of material such as silica dried leaved in fragment packets for future research requiring destructive testing.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, collection should be planned well into the future in order to track traits at a time of climate and habitat change.  This outline for the future is a great way for Heberling to end his article that is both rich in data and in good ideas about why herbaria are important and how they can become even more significant in the future.   

References

Anderson, E. (1952). Plants, Man and Life. University of California Press.

Heberling, J. M. (2022). Herbaria as Big Data Sources of Plant Traits. International Journal of Plant Sciences, 183(2), 87–118. https://doi.org/10.1086/717623

Heberling, J. M., & Isaac, B. L. (2018). INaturalist as a tool to expand the research value of museum specimens. Applications in Plant Sciences, 6(11), e01193. https://doi.org/10.1002/aps3.1193

Hussein, B. R., Malik, O. A., Ong, W.-H., & Slik, J. W. F. (2021). Automated Extraction of Phenotypic Leaf Traits of Individual Intact Herbarium Leaves from Herbarium Specimen Images Using Deep Learning Based Semantic Segmentation. Sensors, 21(13), 4549. https://doi.org/10.3390/s21134549

Lendemer, J., Thiers, B., Monfils, A. K., Zaspel, J., Ellwood, E. R., Bentley, A., LeVan, K., Bates, J., Jennings, D., Contreras, D., Lagomarsino, L., Mabee, P., Ford, L. S., Guralnick, R., Gropp, R. E., Revelez, M., Cobb, N., Seltmann, K., & Aime, M. C. (2020). The Extended Specimen Network: A Strategy to Enhance US Biodiversity Collections, Promote Research and Education. BioScience, 70(1), 23–30. https://doi.org/10.1093/biosci/biz140

Dumbarton Oaks and Multimedia Communication

Echeandria terniflora from Novarum, aut rariorum plantarum Horti Reg. Botan., Dumbarton Oaks Research Library

In this series of posts (1, 2, 3), I’ve discussed projects undertaken by the Dumbarton Oaks Museum and Library in Washington, DC.  It is affiliated with Harvard University and is known for outstanding scholarship in three areas:  Gardens and Landscape, Byzantine, and Pre-Columbian studies.  One result is the book Botany of Empire in the Long Eighteenth Century (Batsaki et al., 2017) that grew out of a 2013 conference; online and onsite exhibits also accompanied the conference, so it’s obvious why I used “multimedia communication” in the title for this post.  Dumbarton does a very good job of leveraging the scholarship it produces to speak to a variety of audiences through time and space.  There are other examples of its productions, but this is one that’s about botany and particularly interests me.     

Historians sometimes use the adjective “long” for a century, wanting to stretch one beyond 100 years to fit the topic they are covering.  This is an example of how human categories don’t always meet human needs, or describe the real world.  Expanding the eighteenth century here allows coverage to include some of William Dampier’s early botanical collecting, including plants in Western Australia in 1699; these were the first from that continent.  Johannes Commelin (1629-1692) would not seem to belong, but in his work as director of Amsterdam’s Hortus Botanicus, he began a project to publish on what was growing in the garden, including the many plants that were coming into the Netherlands from Dutch colonies in South America, South Africa, and Asia.  After he died, his nephew Caspar Commelin Jr. completed Horti medici amstelodamensis (1697–1701). 

Expanding the other end of century made it possible to treat the series of Spanish expeditions running from 1770-1820 and designed to investigate the botanical wealth in its colonies almost three centuries after they were first established (Bleichmar, 2011).  Earlier the emphasis had been more on exploiting mineral wealth, but the director of Madrid’s botanical garden convinced the king that plants from the species rich tropics could also be lucrative. Potatoes, maize, and tobacco had become major sources of wealth for many nations, why shouldn’t Spain benefit from “home grown” resources. 

It would have been a shame for the conference to ignore Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland’s private expedition to Latin America in 1803-1808 (Wulf, 2015).  For a variety of reasons, the Spanish projects did not yield as rich a result in terms of economic botany or even botanical publications as might be expected from the number of botanists who participated, the specimens collected, and the illustrations produced by both European and indigenous artists.  On the other hand, Humboldt produced over 20 publications, some with assistance from Bonpland.  These included seven volumes on plants as well as the Essay on the Geography of Plants that opened up the field of botanical geography, which had been developing in the background and with Humboldt’s analysis and illustrations became a significant theme in the 19th century. 

Such century expansion wasn’t really necessary because there was so much botanically important work produced in those hundred years.  Carl Linnaeus and his traveling students’ plant collections fit snuggly in here, as do James Cook’s voyages around the world, and Mark Catesby’s trips to the American Colonies and his illustrated masterwork, The Natural History of the Carolinas, Florida and the Bahama Islands.  But what I like most about the book are all the topics covered that I didn’t know anything about, including a plan presented to the French National Assembly in 1790 by Louis-François Jauffret to create models of all 25,000 known plant species.  He argued that these would be better than other representations because they would be three-dimensional.  He noted that at the time, botany had to deal with old, dry, pressed plants.  Jauffret had enlisted the assistance of Thomas Joseph Wenzel, Marie Antoinette’s florist, who had made many beautiful blooms often used to decorate her dresses.  I am very sorry that nothing came of this project (Tessier, 2020). 

There are also essays on the development of botany in 18th century Russia, Ottoman horticulture, and Mongolian medicine.  Putting all these pieces and many others together created for me a much richer view of plants in that time period.  Unfortunately, I did not see the exhibition at Dumbarton, but I have spent a good deal of time with the digital exhibit and have been dipping into it as I’m writing this post.  It is a luxury to be able to visit a presentation that was created over eight years ago.  Many digital exhibits of that “era” are no more than dead links now.  It is a credit to Dumbarton that its valuable materials are still online.  It is a sophisticated presentation, but easy to navigate.  And if the exhibition were staged today, I am sure there would be online seminars as well, like the ones held in conjunction with the Margaret Mee exhibit (see last post).  I’ll end by saying that there is NO substitute for a visit to Dumbarton to see the museum and garden.  There is also no substitute for looking at items from its library and archives.  However, many of its treasures have been digitized and there is a guide to the collection.

References

Batsaki, Y., Cahalan, S. B., & Tchikine, A. (2017). Botany of Empire in the Long Eighteenth Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bleichmar, D. (2011). Visible Empire: Botanical Expeditions and Visual Culture in the Hispanic Enlightenment. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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

Wulf, A. (2015). The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World. New York: Knopf.

A Washington, DC Treasure

Rare Book Room at Dumbarton Oaks Research Library, photo by the author.

I have come upon Dumbarton Oaks Museum and Library in several different contexts recently, so I’ve decided to dedicate this series of posts to exploring some of these encounters.  I mentioned one of its projects, on Plant Humanities, in a post last month, but the institution’s relationship to plants and horticultural is multi-faceted and justifies a closer look.  I have only spent one day at Dumbarton, but it was definitely memorable.  I made an appointment to see an exsiccatae guide to medical plants by the Danish botanist and physician Johannis de BuchwaldSpecimen medico-practico-botanicum (see earlier post).  Anatole Tchikine, curator of rare books, also found other items that intrigued me, including a British exsiccatae of grasses published by one of the many agricultural societies then working to improve farming.

After I finished in the rare book room, I toured the museum and learned a little more about its history.  Dumbarton Oaks is an estate in the Georgetown area of Washington, D.C. that Robert Woods Bliss and his wife Mildred bought in 1920.  They were wealthy philanthropists and he was also a diplomat.  They enlarged the house and had Beatrix Farrand design a garden.  The couple also created a significant library of rare books and manuscripts as well as an art collection.  They had three areas of interest that Dumbarton Oaks still focuses on today:  Gardens and Landscape, Byzantine, and Pre-Columbian studies.  Robert Bliss was an alumnus of Harvard University, and he and Mildred left their estate and part of the surrounding gardens to Harvard, while 27 acres were given to the National Park Service as a public park.    

If the name Dumbarton Oaks is lurking in the history part of your brain, as it was in mine before it moved to the plant part, it’s probably because you learned about the Dumbarton Oaks Conference in history class.  It was a 6-week-long series of meetings held in 1944 among diplomats from the United States, the United Kingdom, China, and the Soviet Union.  Along with participation from other nations, they worked out plans for an international organization designed to help rebuild the world collaboratively after the end of World War II and became the United Nations.  Being in Washington, DC makes Dumbarton Oaks not only attractive as a research institution but as a tourist attraction with a beautiful museum dedicated to its founders’ three areas of interest.  While these fields are very different, they play off each other beautifully in terms of the aesthetics of the displays.  In addition, the garden focus works into representations of plants in gardens in Byzantine and Pre-Columbian art.  I didn’t have much time in the garden itself, but I did manage to visit the gift shop, with beautiful items to at least look at as well as a selection of books including many Dumbarton Oaks publications, among them The Botany of Empire in the Long Eighteenth Century (Batsaki et al., 2017) that I’ll discuss in a future post. 

In connecting Dumbarton Oaks with Harvard University, Robert Bliss envisioned that the art and library would be well-used in education and research, and it is.  Over the years, there have been exhibits and conferences held onsite and many of these resulted in publications.  In addition, there are fellowship programs that allow graduate students and scholars to work in the library for considerable periods of time.  I’ve already mentioned the Plant Humanities Initiative (see earlier post), and there was a recent exhibit on the botanical artist Margaret Mee that included pieces by other distinguished artists.  Both these endeavors are tied to efforts to make the richness of plant biodiversity better known and its perilous condition in the present age better understood.  Dumbarton is definitely an elite institution, but like its founders, who funded an ambulance corps in France during World War I, it is responsive to present-day needs.  I think this is one of the reasons it seems so vibrant.  Though it is a scholar’s oasis, I left there feeling a renewed sense of cultural diversity as well as engagement with the living world.

Mildred Bliss was among several wealthy women who collected botanical and horticulture books and art in the 20th century.  They all created large and distinguished collections that are continuing sources of inspiration and knowledge today.  Rachel Hunt with her husband Roy, endowed the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.  It has an outstanding library as well as large archives, and a notable collection of botanical art.  All three are growing collections, with the art program nourished by the International Exhibition of Botanical Art & Illustration series hosted by the Institute.  Then there is Rachel Mellon who with her husband Andrew W. Mellon created the Oak Spring Garden Library at their horse farm in Upperville, Virginia.  The library is now part of the Oak Spring Garden Foundation which was founded after Rachel Mellon’s death in 2014.

I am fortunate to have visited these three institutions.  Each is a notable destination.  Dumbarton is tied to a rich museum, the Hunt is part of a great university, and Oak Spring is nestled on a farm in Virginia horse country.  They are amazing places not only for the riches these women had the intelligence and taste to acquire, but also because of the wonderful people working there that keep the joy of botany alive in all its beauty.

Reference

Batsaki, Y., Cahalan, S. B., & Tchikine, A. (2017). Botany of Empire in the Long Eighteenth Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Circulating Specimens: Getting Stuck

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Circulating Specimens: History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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