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.

Plant Humanities and Decolonial Collections

Avocado Persea americana by John Tyley. By permission of the Linnean Society of London.

In the last post, I wrote about how difficult it is to define the digital humanities.  The same holds true for decolonizing collections, which is basically about viewing collections in a broader cultural perspective as well as returning items that were inappropriately acquired.  It also means bringing to light what have often been aspects of natural history long hidden by colonial powers who downplayed or ignored those who actually collected specimens, played a role in directing the search, and explained the significance of finds.  I used the term in the title of this post as shorthand for opening up collections by expanding the questions asked about them beyond the purely scientific.  As I mentioned, this is an aspect of the extended specimen concept that is underplayed. 

There is a great article by Subhadra Das and Miranda Lowe (2018) on:  “Nature Read in Black and White: Decolonial Approaches to Interpreting Natural History Collections.”  The term “decolonial” seems better than “decolonize.”  The latter more precisely describes the process by which colonial nations became independent, more than ferreting out how natural history collections were shaped by colonial power.  Das and Lowe begin quite directly with a Twitter comment by Danny Birchall of the Wellcome Collection to the effect that natural history museums are more racist than anyone will admit.  The challenge is to describe this racism and find ways to change the situation. 

This piece includes an analysis of the racist nature of many anthropological exhibits in natural history museums.  Then the authors discuss what is missing in zoological and botanical exhibits, such as an exhibit on Colombian butterflies in which the cultural history of Colombian science was ignored.  They attribute this to the “hard science” lens used in creating natural history exhibits.  The thought crossed my mind that this may be why so many economic botany exhibits and even collections have disappeared:  they were too much about culture and not enough about the plants themselves in the way taxonomists see them. 

Lowe and Das then present a section on hidden figures:  the collectors, elders, artists, and assistants of all kinds from porters to cooks to scouts, who were essential to the work collectors did all over the world.  They lay out several cases where contributions have been neglected, including an enslaved Ghanaian named Graman Quassi who was taken to Suriname by the Dutch where he worked as a scout and negotiator.  He was able to buy his freedom and became a noted healer who discovered that a plant, which Linnaeus later named after him, could be made into a tea to treat intestinal parasitic infections.  It is still used today.  And there is John Edmondstone, a freed Guianan slave, who taught taxidermy to Charles Darwin, then a student in Edinburgh.  They also mention Hans Sloane’s extensive notes on enslaved Africans’ knowledge of plants and their medicinal uses. 

Das and Lowe make the argument that ignoring these aspects of collections alienates audiences who could be more interested in the scientific aspects of plants if they saw a relationship to their own culture and experiences.  And I would add, these stories are fascinating, no matter what your background.  They are coming to light in such projects as the Plant Humanities Lab narratives that I wrote about in the last post.  However, there is so much more to do.  In its new science strategy, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew recognizes the need to tackle the issue and acknowledges it central role in British colonial management of plant wealth around the world.  One response is the new Plant Humanities Centre being planned.  Kew has already had an important conference, Botany, Trade and Empire, on the colonial botanic gardens that were administered by Kew and resulted in the cultivation and dissemination of everything from rubber to cinchona to hemp worldwide (Brockway, 1979).  The conference focus was on what were designated Miscellaneous Reports that the garden directors sent to Kew.  Now digitized, these are a storehouse of information that has only begun to be mined, with interesting case studies done on cinchona, for example. 

There is also a massive correspondence archive at Kew.  J’nese Williams of Notre Dame University has used this, among many other sources, in her study of Alexander Anderson, who was curator of the St. Vincent Botanic Gardens from 1785 to 1811, and John Tyley, a free person of color, who worked there as an illustrator.  Williams presented at a conference on Natural History and Visual Art from the Margins sponsored by the Linnaean Society that also included papers by Josepha Richard of the University of Bristol on the British trader John Bradby Blake’s work with the Chinese botanical artist, Mak Sau in Canton, and by Malini Roy of the British Library on a collection of Indian zoological illustrations by an artist identified at Haludar.  These presentations required digging into the archives of a number of institutions and finding links between disparate types of information.  They are in essence treasure hunts, which make them all the more interesting.  As more archives come online, the hunts will be easier to do, but only if the data is prepared in a way that is highly searchable, and that can be linked to taxonomic databases so specimens that may be related to these stories can also be studied.  This is hardly a trivial matter.  But the stories that have been uncovered so far make is clear that the work involved is worth it to blur the line between science and the humanities. 

References

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

Das, S., & Lowe, M. (2018). Nature Read in Black and White: Decolonial approaches to interpreting natural history collections. Journal of Natural Science Collections, 6, 4–14.

Digitization: A Boost to Circulation

In the last two (1,2) posts, I’ve discussed how herbarium specimens have circulated since they were first created, and also how sometimes specimens get stuck in a limbo of uncurated collections.  Now I want to discuss how circulation has changed thanks to the massive digitization projects of the 21st century.  This is a familiar story to those in the herbarium world, but I’ll quickly review it for those who aren’t lucky enough hang around herbaria.  The upshot of digitization is that now everyone can hang around them, at least virtually. 

Digitization is very much tied to the development of computer technologies, but also to globalization that has brought an awareness that the planet we live on is a shared asset and a shared responsibility.  Over the years there have been a number of international conferences and agreements that articulated this vision and made it actionable.  The 1993 international  Convention on Biological Diversity gave each nation sovereignty over its biological wealth, which implies knowledge of that wealth.  This led to the 2002 Global Strategy for Plant Conservation with later updates and goals including a global flora of all known plants with online access, the best way to make the information widely available.  While this goal has yet to be met in full, there have been significant advances toward it.  

In the early 21st century, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation spearheaded the digitization of type specimens so that researchers around the world could access the plants that were used in describing species.  Because of the way many specimens circulated—collected in the species-rich tropics and transported to botanist-rich Europe and North America—researchers in developing nations did not have ready access to these materials.  Botanical literature was also relatively unavailable so the project digitized many publications of the past as well.  This project morphed into the portal JSTOR Global Plants and also set the stage for other large-scale digitization projects such as ADBC (Advancing Digitization of Biodiversity Collections) in the United States with its massive iDigBio portal and what ultimately became DiSSCo (Distributed System of Biodiversity Collections) in Europe.  Meanwhile GBIF (Global Biodiversity Information Facility) has aggregated data from these projects and others worldwide to create the largest portal for natural history collections along with observational data. 

While an amazing achievement, digitization has not totally solved access problems for those in developing nations.  They often do not have the hardware, software, and internet connections to make good use of these resources.  Still, digitization has broadened availability in other ways.  It was difficult for those not involved in botanical research to visit herbaria, if for no other reason than specimens’ fragility; each use opens the possibility of damage.  This is not a problem with a digital collection, so students can study specimens on the web as can curious gardeners and artists looking for new forms of inspiration, leading to greater plant awareness, a positive counter to what has been called plant blindness. 

Digital collections have already had a major impact on the ways specimens are used in research (Heberling et al., 2021).  For phenological work, botanists can now search GBIF for a particular species and by checking a specimen’s flowering or fruiting status against the date it was collected, they can see if there is a pattern of change in the dates over a period of 100 years or more.  They may check hundreds or even thousands of specimens, something that wouldn’t be possible for physical examination.  Niche or species distribution modeling, determining areas that might provide suitable habitat for a species based on what is known about its range, is another area where digital specimens are pivotal:  geographic coordinate data on where plants were collected are used to create a model of the environmental conditions that meet a species’ habitat requirements.  This research is helpful in identifying possible collection areas and also where a species might be able to grow as the climate changes. 

There’s also an increase in the use of artificial intelligence (AI) tools to recognize traits like leaf shape and even to identify species.  This work requires a great deal of computer power and sophisticated neural networking techniques, so it’s costly in both technology and human input.  However the field is advancing rapidly in exciting ways.  Botanists foresee being able to rapidly analyzing large numbers of specimens and at least sorting them into families or genera if not species.  However, at the moment even the identification of leaf shapes is still in its infancy.  When deep learning AI techniques are tested in identifying specimens, this is done on carefully selected specimen sets.  It requires a great deal of computer capacity, but the increasing frequency with which AI projects presented at conferences on digital specimens suggests that these tools will soon become widely used in biodiversity research.             

I should add that there are obviously many research areas where digital specimens cannot possibly replace the real thing.  There is no DNA in a data file.  Specimens have proved to be goldmines for those working on plant genetics.  As sequencing techniques become more sophisticated, even the rather short degraded DNA fragments found in specimens, hundreds if not thousands of years old, can provide substantial information on a plant’s relationship to other species.  But this isn’t the only reason why physical specimens need to be retained.  They can give clues on chemical changes in plants under siege from herbivores (Zangerl & Berenbaum, 2005), and more than one entomologist has found new insect species hidden away on plant specimens (Whitehead, 2016).  Each specimen is unique:  a particular plant collected at a particular place and time, and therefore irreplaceable.

References

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). https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2018093118

Whitehead, D. R. (1976). Collecting Beetles in Exotic Places: The Herbarium. The Coleopterists Bulletin, 30(3), 249–250.

Zangerl, A., & Berenbaum, M. (2005). Increase in toxicity of an invasive weed after reassociation with its coevolved herbivore. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 102(43), 15529–15532. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0507805102

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.

Herbarium: From a Writer’s Viewpoint

Field Study, Helen Humphreys

The first two entries in this series of posts (1,2) on books about herbaria were oriented to the scientific side of herbaria:  for adults and then children.  This week’s book takes a broader perspective that made it particularly interesting to me.  The author of Field Study: Meditations on a Year at the Herbarium is a novelist and poet, Helen Humphreys.  When I saw her name I recognized it right way because she wrote one of my favorite novels, The Lost Garden (2003), about young women sent to farm work on an old English estate during World War II.  There’s an overgrown garden that becomes a refuge for the narrator, and I remember feeling encircled by it as I read the book.  Humphreys has also written several other award-winning novels as well as books of poetry.  She brings depth to all her work, but she writes with a light touch, gently making the reader comfortable, in this case, with the herbarium.

Humphreys decided to write about her experiences over a year looking at all 140,000 specimens in the Fowler Herbarium at the Queens University Biological Station in Elgin, Ontario near where she lives.  From her other works, it’s clear that she is at home in the plant world, though perhaps more with the living rather than the dead.  But maybe the change was one of the attractions of the project:  “These libraries of dried plant specimens—some hundreds of years old—seem the perfect crucible in which to examine the intersection of human beings and the natural world through time” (p. 13).  She saw the herbarium as a place where “the experience of people connecting with nature is revealed” (p. 13).  That’s a bit different from a botanist’s viewpoint which is usually focused more on the plant than the collector.

Without going into anything about how the specimens are arranged, Humphreys clearly begins with the gymnosperms because she remarks on the strong scent from the cabinets holding pines.  She then moves on to the monocots, working her way through the flowering plant families.  She makes it clear that she is disappointed by the orchids.  The grasses please her much more because they seem to keep their form and color better, and don’t look that different in death than they did when alive.  As she proceeds, her dual perspective becomes clear:  she goes back and forth between plants and people throughout the book.  This is very refreshing, because she is interested in what the specimens and labels reveal about both the collected and the collectors.  She learns that when she sees the name of M.S. Bebb on a label that she is in for a treat.  He took great care in arranging a specimen so that each part was visible, and he often included pencil drawings of leaves or buds.  On the other hand, her favorite label writer was William Dore because he recorded information he gleaned from locals and gave the history of the collecting site. 

Among the oldest specimens in the Fowler Herbarium are those of the British botanist William Stewart Mitchell D’Urban who collected several hundred specimens in Quebec and Ontario in the mid-19th century, when many areas in these provinces were undeveloped.  Indigenous peoples taught him their names for the plants and an Algonquin chief helped with translations.  Here people and plants intertwine with language in a way that makes specimens particularly important.  Despite coming upon such labels with indigenous plant names, Humphreys writes near the end of the book:  “Often with writing, the very thing that is the bright idea at the beginning of a book is the thing that trips you up further in.  My idea for this project was to show the interaction between people and nature through time, but this becomes problematic when the people are mostly white colonial settlers.  Perhaps I should pay less attention to the collectors and more to the plants themselves?” (p. 190).  A year in a herbarium and botany begins to sneak into the psyche. 

While Humphreys finds the same collectors’ names recurring through the flowering plant families, different ones appear when she gets to the algae, where she also comes upon more women.  She cites Josephine Elizabeth Tilden from the University of Minnesota who collected along the Pacific Coast of British Columbia in 1900.  Tilden used her private wealth to build a field station there for summer research.  Like her, Humphreys is someone who is obviously at home in the natural world, and she describes spending hours in nature:  watching, walking, looking.  She found that her time in the herbarium made her more aware of the natural world around her and “observations have become honed and specific” (p. 218).  Humphreys’s work on this project helped her see that even with the grim changes in the living world, there needs to be a focus not only on what was lost but on what continues. 

This book changed my perspective on herbaria.  I still love looking at specimens and at labels, but it has made me step back and see the herbarium through the eyes of someone who is not accustomed to such spaces.  Humphreys sees the space as one where people and plants come together very intimately.  I have seen it more as a very ordered space, and maybe because I am a scientist, that is a comfort to me.  It is where I can easily find nature, or more correctly, a particular little piece of it.

References

Humphreys, H. (2003). The Lost Garden. New York: Norton.

Humphreys, H. (2021). Field Study: A Year in a Herbarium. Toronto: ECW.

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.

References

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). https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2018093118

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

Herbarium

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. 

Reference

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

Botany and Art: States of Preservation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

Art and Botany: John Bradby Blake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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