The 18th-Century Passion for Botany: Women

2a Passiflora laurifolia

Paper cutout of Passiflora laurifolia by Mary Delany, in the collection of the British Museum

The last post was on the enthusiasm for gardening that flourished in the 18th century.  One aspect of this trend was the increasing interest in horticulture among women, especially those with the wealth to satisfy it.  A prominent example was Margaret Bentinck, Duchess of Portland (1715-1785).  She was curious about all aspects of natural history and was an prodigious collector not only of animals, plants, and minerals, but also of paintings and the decorative arts.  After her husband’s death in 1762, she devoted more time to bringing exotic plants to the gardens of her estate at Bulstrode Park and learning as much as she could about natural history.  She had impressive collections in conchology, entomology, and ornithology, but I’ll concentrate on the plants.  Bentinck knew Peter Collinson (see last post) and received North American plants from him.  He also suggested that she hire Daniel Solander, Carl Linnaeus’s former student who had recently arrived from Sweden, to arrange her collections according to the Linnaean system.  She may have had massive numbers of organisms, but unlike many other collectors, they were well-organized (Laird, 2015).

Bentinck also hired another émigré, the botanical artist Georg Ehret, not only to paint plants she grew, but also to teach art to her daughters.  Another member of her household was the Reverend John Lightfoot, who served as chaplain and naturalist, giving special attention to her shells and plants.  She financed his collecting in various parts of Britain and took botany lessons from him.  The duchess was obviously more than just a plant lover; she had a sophisticated appreciation of botany, and not surprisingly, kept a herbarium.  In fact, none other than the French philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, gave her two portable herbaria.  As I’ll discuss in the last post in this series, he became passionate about botany toward the end of his life, had a herbarium, and created others for patrons such as the Duchess, whom he visited while in England in 1767.

Bentinck was not the only woman with broad intellectual pursuits.  She was loosely connected with the original group of bluestockings, who met to discuss their mutual intellectual interests.  She was particularly close to another member, Mary Delany, also a gardening enthusiast whose knowledge of botany deepened with time.  Delany came from a less wealthy line of nobility, but this still gave her access to royal circles.  She had a dreadful first marriage, and eventually found love and contentment with an Irish clergyman and friend of Jonathan Swift’s.  She developed their garden near Dublin and led a satisfying life until the Rev. Delany’s death in 1768.  Like many women of her time, she took an interest in drawing, and combined with her gardening passion, it’s not surprising that she drew flowers.  Among her accomplishments was the design of floral embroidery patterns including those used on a gown she wore when presented at court.  Though she did needlework, the gown was made by professional embroiderers and precisely displayed about 200 identifiable species (see image below).  It was so magnificent that portions were preserved and passed down through her family for generations (Hayden, 1994).

2b Delany mantua

Segment of the embroidered court gown designed by Mary Delany

After her husband’s death, Delany spent months at a time visiting Bulstrode Park, working with the Duchess on her plant collections and studying with Rev. Lightfoot.  They would press plants, draw them, and dissect them using a microscope, another not uncommon aspect of botanical interest at the time.  Naturally, they also walked through the gardens regularly, but in 1772, Delany had a sore foot that kept her sidelined.  She occupied her time by coloring pieces of paper and then cutting them out to form pictures of flowers.  These were very much in the tradition of botanical illustrations: a single branch against a plain background, though instead of the usual white, she used black.  They could be likened to herbarium specimens, having more depth and texture than an illustration does.  There are even a couple of cases where she added real leaves to a work.  Delany, and presumably the Duchess, were pleased with her compositions, and so she continued.  Over time the pieces became more elaborate.  At first, she would paint in details, but later she cut out tiny pieces of paper to form minute structures.  One particularly amazing example was used on the cover of a catalogue for an exhibition on Mrs. Delany and Her Circle (Laird & Weisberg-Roberts, 2009).  It presents the passionflower, Passiflora, in all its glory (see figure at top).

During the next 10 years Delaney completed over 900 cutouts, with the Linnaean name for each species written on the back.  When King George III and his wife Queen Charlotte, another devoted gardener, visited Bulstrode, they marveled at Delany’s work and within months she was given access to plants at Kew Gardens.  There the King’s confidante, Joseph Banks, was converting the garden to the study of exotic species.  Delany also received plants from a number of other sources, including the Quaker gardener John Fothergill, a patron of the American nurseryman John Bartram, and William Pitcairn, who sponsored plant collecting in the East and West Indies (Laird, 2015).  Her work is a notable example of how women combined botanical knowledge with the arts.  The next post will focus on the artwork resulting from the passion for plants in the 18th century.

References

Hayden, R. (1993). Mrs. Delany: Her Life and Her Flowers. New York: New Amsterdam.

Henderson, P. (2015). James Sowerby: The Enlightenment’s Natural Historian. Kew, UK: Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Laird, M. (2015). A Natural History of English Gardening 1650-1800. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Laird, M., & Weisberg-Roberts, A. (2009). Mrs. Delany and Her Circle. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

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Linnaeus Beyond the Netherlands

4 Chelsea Garden

Chelsea Botanical Garden, London

This is the last of a series of posts about Carl Linnaeus’s three-year stay in the Netherlands and how it shaped his future career.  While there he had two opportunities to travel to other parts of Europe and meet leading botanists of the day.  It was while living on the estate of George Clifford at Hartekamp and working on cataloging his collection (see last post), that Linnaeus took time off for a month in England to look into what he had heard to be a vibrant botanical community there.  Clifford agreed to this hiatus and even financed it, with the stipulation that Linnaeus return with new plants for his estate.

Not surprisingly, Linnaeus first visited Hans Sloane, then an aged icon among collectors, who opened his herbarium to the Swede.  Jan Frederik Gronovius had already sent Sloane a copy of Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae, and Herman Boerhaave wrote a letter of introduction in which he put Linnaeus on a par with Sloane, describing them as “a pair of men whose equal is hardly to be found in all the world” (quoted in Blunt, 1971, p. 110).  Sloane didn’t quite see things that way and didn’t pay that much attention to Linnaeus who later described Sloane’s herbarium as disorganized.  His first meeting with Philip Miller, the head of the Chelsea Physic Garden, was also less than a success, but eventually Miller gave Linnaeus a good selection of plants to take back to Clifford, as well as herbarium specimens that William Houston had collected in Central America.

In London, Linnaeus met another key member of the botanical confederacy, Peter Collinson, who had already begun a long-term correspondence with John Bartram, the Philadelphia naturalist and nurseryman.  Over a 30-year period, Bartram sent a large array of specimens, seeds, and cuttings to Collinson, who in turn distributed them to a number of the leading gardeners of the day who were anxious to have the latest finds from North America.  Collinson got along well with Linnaeus, and they continued to correspond over the years, with Linnaeus examining some Bartram specimens that thus became types for Linnaean species.  Linnaeus must have met up with Georg Ehret in London, since the artist wrote that he had given him plates to finish Clifford’s catalogue.  In addition, John Martyn, a professor of botany at Cambridge and a London physician, was impressed enough with Linnaeus that their meeting led to a regular correspondence.

Linnaeus also managed time for a trip to Oxford where Johann Jacob Dillenius was professor of botany.  As with several other Linnaean first meetings, this one did not go well because Dillenius had read some of Linnaeus’s early publications, and he felt they threw botany into confusion.  After a few frosty meetings, they finally reconciled when Linnaeus showed Dillenius that he was wrong about his description of the genus BlitumThen Dillenius finally appreciated the depth of Linnaeus’s knowledge, and they had a lively conversation and continued to correspond afterwards.  Obviously Linnaeus’s time in England was very fruitful and provided him with several important contacts who would continue writing to him with information for years to come.

When Linnaeus left Hartekamp in fall of 1937 after finishing the catalogue that would become Hortus Cliffortianus, he went back to Leiden and spent the winter there, working with Adriaan van Royen in the botanic garden, classifying plants according to his sexual system (Rutgers, 2008).  In the spring, he started out for his return to Sweden by going in the opposite direction, to Paris, to visit the famous Jardin des Rois where he met the de Jussieu brothers.  Antoine was older, a professor of botany at the Jardin and a physician; he was a busy man.  He had one meeting with Linnaeus and introduced him to Bernard who then served as his guide.  Bernard de Jussieu showed him the herbarium, and they went through Joseph de Pitton Tournefort’s specimens, a broad collection that included plants from his voyages to the Middle East as well as to the Caribbean area.

Linnaeus also worked in the Jardin’s botanical library, where there were many books of which he had been unaware.  He prepared a ‘wish list’ and later procured a number of these titles.  At the Jardin, he met two of the most accomplished botanical artists of the day, the elderly Claude Aubriet, who had worked with Tournefort, and his pupil Françoise Madeleine Basseporte.  Aubriet showed Linnaeus the large collection of paintings of plants in the Jardin done over the years, so again, as with the time he spent with Georg Ehret, Linnaeus developed a taste of what the best botanical art looked like.  Paris allowed him to deepen still further his knowledge of botany in terms of specimens, living plants, books, and art.  All these were to figure in his future work, and he left for Sweden having made the best possible use of his three years away from home.  Those who read the first post in this series might remember that Linnaeus’s journey had in part been urged upon him by his future father-in-law who agreed to his daughter’s engagement only with the proviso that there be a three-year hiatus in their relationship.  Having fulfilled the agreement, Linnaeus was still an ardent suitor, and when he got back to Sweden, plans for the wedding proceeded.

References

Blunt, W. (1971). The Compleat Naturalist: A Life of Linnaeus. New York, NY: Viking.

Rutgers, J. (2008). Linnaeus in the Netherlands. TijdSchrift Voor Skandinavistiek, 29, 103–116.

Linnaeus in the Netherlands: Mentors

2 Claytonia virginica

Specimen of Claytonia viriginia collected by John Clayton, courtesy of the Natural History Museum, London.

In the last post, I outlined the early days of Linnaeus’s three years of travel (1735-1738) and mentioned his early meetings with Herman Boerhaave, a physician and retired director of the Leiden botanic garden, and Jan Frederik Gronovius, a botanist with a large herbarium.  Linnaeus was much younger than them, and he learned a great deal from both, especially because they allowed him to study their specimen collections.  So they deserve more attention in this series of posts on Linnaeus’s travel experiences (Blunt, 1971).

For many years, Herman Boerhaave taught medicine at the University of Leiden and elevated the institution’s stature.  He then headed the university’s botanical garden and worked to increase its holdings of exotic plants.  He was aided in this by his contacts with the Dutch East India Company ( VOC), one of the leaders at the time in trading with Asia.  Following company instructions, surgeons and captains on VOC ships brought back cuttings, seeds, and specimens of plants they encountered on their travels.  Boerhaave was able to add many of these to his garden and herbarium, four volumes of which are now in the Sloane Herbarium at the Natural History Museum, London.  In addition, he published descriptions of new species and built on the work of botanists such as John Ray and Joseph de Pitton Tournefort in attempting to develop a natural classification system (Rutgers, 2008).  It is no wonder that with this background Boerhaave appreciated what Linnaeus was attempting to do with his Systema Naturae, which he had already sketched out by the time he went to Leiden.

Jan Gronovius was a student of Boerhaave’s.  He was an avid specimen collector and kept up a wide correspondence with naturalists in Europe and beyond.  It was through this network that he obtained John Clayton’s specimens from Virginia (see figure above).  Clayton became interested in botany and plant collecting after meeting Mark Catesby on his second trip to the American Southeast collecting for what became the impressive The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama IslandsAfter Catesby returned to England, Clayton shipped him specimens, which Catesby then passed on to Gronovius.  Eventually Clayton sent specimens and letters directly to Gronovius.

At this time, “sending a letter” across the Atlantic could mean waiting months to a year or more for a response, if indeed a response ever came.  Also at that time there was great interest in North American plants and not only because of their novelty.  Since the climate there was temperate as was that of Europe, species were more likely to acclimatize well and could be introduced into gardens.  Wealthy landowners were clamoring for the latest novelties, and botanists wanted to be the first to describe new species.  This helps to explain why Gronovius published a book, Flora Virginica, based on Clayton’s manuscript and specimens without letting him know about it ahead of time and gaining his permission.  This sounds rather dubious, but he did credit Clayton with finding the plants and sending him information on them along with the specimens.  Also, later observers have noted that because Gronovius was so well connected, his publication likely made Clayton’s work more broadly known than if Clayton himself had written on them.  As a case in point, Gronovius allowed Linnaeus to study the Clayton specimens, and so they became type specimens for a number of the North American plants Linnaeus described in Species Plantarum.  Linnaeus spent the winter of 1737-1738 with Gronovius right before returning to Sweden.  They worked on Clayton’s 1737 shipment of plants, to which they gave Linnaean names, a very early use of his system.

Gronovius was also in touch with another American botanist, John Bartram in Philadelphia.  They were originally connected by Bartram’s patron in England, Peter Collinson, another adept networker.  Bartram sent material to Gronovius, who again allowed Linnaeus to examine it.  This was later than with the Clayton material; Linnaeus by then had his long-term academic position in Uppsala and the two sent packages of specimens back and forth between them.  Eventually Gronovius and Bartram corresponded directly, as did Gronovius and Cadwallader Colden, a New York naturalist whose daughter Jane Colden was also involved in botany and produced an illustrated manuscript on New World plants (Colden, 1963).

One last name that should be mentioned as a Linnaean mentor is someone of his own age whom he had worked with while studying at the university in Uppsala.  There they planned to develop a system to organize all living things.  They divided up different groups between them.  For example, Linnaeus opted for most of the plants, and Peter Artedi selected fish and the Brassicaceae as among his favorites.  Finishing their studies, they went their separate ways, then met by chance in Amsterdam and took up where they left off.  Unfortunately, Artedi soon drowned in one of the city’s canals.  Linnaeus saw to the publication of Artedi’s manuscript on fish, and the approaches they developed to classification greatly influenced Linnaeus’s future work.  This is one of those cases where it’s interesting to speculate on what they would have achieved if they had been able to work together for years.

While the three individuals discussed here were important to Linnaeus’s career, it could be argued that the most important individual of his Netherlands sojourn was George Clifford with whom Linnaeus lived and worked for over two years.  Clifford will be the subject of the next post.

References

Blunt, W. (1971). The Compleat Naturalist: A Life of Linnaeus. New York, NY: Viking.

Colden, J., Rickett, H. W., & Hall, E. C. (1963). Botanic Manuscript of Jane Colden, 1724-1766. New York: Garden Club of Orange and Dutchess Counties.

Rutgers, J. (2008). Linnaeus in the Netherlands. TijdSchrift Voor Skandinavistiek, 29, 103–116.

Linnaeus in the Netherlands

 

1 Systema Naturae

Title page of Carl Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae (1735), courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

There is a great deal of talk about the European Union these days, and the advantages of open travel among nations.  Freedom of movement is a wonderful concept in any age, and it’s one experienced by Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) when he was in his late 20s.  Having completed his education in Uppsala, Sweden and having become engaged to a woman whom he very much desired, he set out for three years of study and travel.  This wasn’t entirely his own idea.  His future father-in-law was not thrilled with his daughter’s beloved, a physician with few financial resources, so he would only bless the match by having Carl agree to a three-year hiatus.  Linnaeus might not have been a man of means, but he was a man who had already learned a great deal about botany and had developed original ideas about how plant diversity should be organized.  He also had some experience of travel having spent a few months exploring Lapland, the northern reaches of Scandinavia.  So in 1735 he took his manuscripts, packed his bags, and headed to the Netherlands, traveling through Germany on the way.  His experiences in Holland and elsewhere in Europe did a great deal to form his ideas and shape his career.  This series of posts will look at some of those influences (Blunt, 1971).

It seems that Linnaeus did not make a good first impression on many people.  There are a number of stories about men who were put off by his self-possessed manner, and then, as they realized what a good mind lurked behind the bravado, became good friends with him.  This was the case with Johannes Burman, a professor of botany and director of the Amsterdam botanic garden.  Burman, who was the same age as Linnaeus, had been at the garden for several years working on the Flora of Ceylon, using primarily the herbarium of Paul Hermann, who had collected there in the 1670s.  After this brief meeting where Burman was unimpressed by Linnaeus, it would probably have been difficult for either of them to predict that they would be lifelong friends.  At this time Linnaeus also visited Albertus Seba who had amassed a large cabinet of curiosities including materials he collected on trips to the East and West Indies.  During these years the Netherlands was an important naval power with far-flung mercantile interests, so along with trade goods—like spices and silks, exotic plants, animals, and artifacts also poured into Dutch ports.  Even though Seba had sold his original massive collection, he was able to build another and showed some of it to Linnaeus on two visits to his home.  He later asked Linnaeus to assist him in preparing a book he was writing on his holdings, but by then the Swede had made other connections (Rutgers, 2008).

Linnaeus next spent two weeks in Harderwijk, the site of a university where for a week’s residency he qualified as a doctor, submitting a thesis he had written in Sweden.  Then he went to Leiden and showed his manuscript of Systema Naturae to the Dutch botanist Jan Frederik Gronovius, who was so impressed with the work that he arranged for its immediate publication as a thin volume of 14 pages that set out the rudiments of Linnaeus’s taxonomic system.  Gronovius also gave him a letter of introduction to Herman Boerhaave, who had retired as head of the Leiden Botanic Garden.  As with Burman, their relation did not begin smoothly, but eventually Boerhaave appreciated Linnaeus’s intelligence and energy.  However, none of these meetings landed him a position where he could earn enough money to allow him to remain in the Netherlands.  He told them that he would have to return home.  That’s when Boerhaave offered to fund a trip to Cape Town, South Africa which was then under Dutch control and was proving to be a botanically rich area.  Linnaeus, however, after his Lapland expedition, did not much relish a long journey with many probable hardships; Sweden was a safer and easier option.

There are more twists to this story.  On his way home, Linnaeus stopped in Amsterdam and again visited Burman, this time with a letter of introduction from Boerhaave.  Burman paid more attention to his visitor, especially after Linnaeus was able to identify a rare plant Burman showed him.  The latter offered to pay Linnaeus for helping to prepare the Flora of Ceylon, and also convinced him that he should definitely call on George Clifford, a wealthy merchant and horticulturalist who lived near Haarlem.  Clifford and Linnaeus got on well because Linnaeus identified many of his hosts’ Indian plants and was sorely tempted by Clifford’s offer to live and work on his estate, with access to his garden and herbarium.  But Linnaeus was committed to Burman.  In the end, Burman and Linnaeus visited Clifford, and Burman agreed to free Linnaeus if Clifford would give him a very desirable book displayed in his library: the second volume of Hans Sloane’s Natural History of Jamaica.  Clifford and Linnaeus were both very fortunate, with the gardener/financier getting an expert to bring order to his collection of specimens, properly name his plants—those in the herbarium and those in the garden—and help in producing a catalogue to make public his botanical treasures.  Linnaeus, on the other hand, was freed of economic worries, had a very comfortable place to live, and great resources to work with, including a first-class library.  What happens then will be the subject of a later post.

References

Blunt, W. (1971). The Compleat Naturalist: A Life of Linnaeus. New York, NY: Viking.

Rutgers, J. (2008). Linnaeus in the Netherlands. TijdSchrift Voor Skandinavistiek, 29, 103–116.

Vicki Funk: Thinking Big about Collections

4 ala

This is a last in a series of posts [1,2,3] on the plant systematist Vicky Funk and her recent review article on collections-based research.  Since Funk is a research scientist and curator in the National Museum of Natural History’s (NMNH) Botany Department, it isn’t surprising that she begins a section on the future use of collections with stats on herbaria.  The NMNH, part of the Smithsonian Institution, is home to the U.S. National Herbarium, with a collection of over five million specimens.  The goal there and at many herbaria is to digitize the data for all specimens and in some cases to also image them.  If this could be done at every herbarium, the data would serve as a potent research tool not only for taxonomists but for ecologists, conservationists, and researchers in other fields who never before considered using the information about plants available in herbaria.

One burgeoning field based on the availability of digital specimen images is computer vision and machine learning techniques that make automated plant identification possible.  It is sort of face recognition for plants and is developing to the point that herbarium specimens can be sorted rather well, though the processes are hardly at the point where identification is as good as that done by taxonomists.  However, machine sorting could be employed as a way to narrow down the number of specimens a researcher would have to look at in hunting for new species.  One recent report the computer was able to distinguish between moss groups better than the human eye could.

Funk cites several successful digitization projects, noting that the Atlas of Living Australia is a particularly comprehensive one that has resulted in online access to all records of Australian plant specimens held in the country’s national herbaria.  Australia is also at the forefront in developing software tools to assist researchers in extracting as much information as possible and in the most effective ways.  However, Funk sees the future as going beyond national or even regional databases:  “A Central Portal so all resources are available to everyone is critical.  It is particularly important that these efforts are making the data and images available to researchers in the countries where the specimens were collected, thereby supporting research in those countries” (p. 185).  She is referring to the fact that the bulk of specimens collected in developing countries, particularly during their colonial pasts, are held in European and North American herbaria.  A first attempt to make these specimens broadly available was the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation funding of type specimen digitization, the results now accessible through JSTOR Global Plants along with a great deal of supporting botanical literature.

But what Funk visualizes is something more comprehensive, and as an example, she describes a project funded by the Powell Center of the US Geological Service.  It focuses on the approximately 2500 species of North American Compositae (Asteraceae) and the location data on hundreds of thousands of specimens aggregated from GBIF (includes information from institutions outside the US), BISON (from US government institutions) and iDigBio (US private institutions).  Funk notes that this data is not only aggregated but “cleaned” to make sure it is of high quality, an issue that critics of aggregation emphasize.  The data is then integrated with environmental and geophysical data on geochemistry, climate, topography, etc., as well as phylogenetics—including gene sequences from GenBank.  Think of the power of this:  linking specimens with sequence and environmental data.   This is truly a harbinger of a new age in collections-based research.  It is amazing that ten years ago, just digitizing data and imaging specimens was considered a feat, with the Paris Herbarium’s plan to digitize most of its specimens considered daring.  Now the assembly line method they used has become relatively common, and other large herbaria have substantial percentages of their collections digitized and imaged.

Linking natural history collections to genetic data banks means uniting the two great arms of bioinformatics.  It is a biologist’s dream come true, and this connection will become even more powerful when environmental data is brought into the mix—a much more complex process.  But Funk has seen the digital world burgeon and has been one of the forces behind making it applicable to systematics.  She has also helped make systematics valuable to other fields such as phylogenetics and the growing discipline of phylogenomic—being able to sequence and compare entire genomes.  This is the result of new sequencing techniques that utilize fragmented DNA, just the type available in herbarium specimens.  Drawing on an example from the Asteraceae, Funk cites a study in which the entire genomes of 93 of 95 Solidago, goldenrod, herbarium specimens were sequenced with the plants ranging in age from 5-45 years (Beck & Simple, 2015).

In closing Funk notes:  “One exciting trend is the developing field of Integrative Systematics where collections-based systematics is combined with extensive field studies, phylogenetics, phylogenomics, detailed morphological studies, biogeographic inferences and diversification analysis to present a more comprehensive global” (p. 187).  She also argues for the maintenance of collections in educational institutions to insure the instruction of future generations of systematists; the digitization of cleared leaf slides, anatomy slides, pollen images, chromosome count images, and illustrations to fill out the information available to researches; and finally a series of symposia on the Tree of Life where systematists can map out a research agenda for the rest of the 21st century.

References

Beck, J. B., & Semple, J. C. (2015). Next-Generation Sampling: Pairing Genomics with Herbarium Specimens Provides Species-Level Signal in Solidago (Asteraceae). Applications in Plant Sciences, 3(6), 1500014.

Vicki Funk: The Age of Tree Thinking

3 idigbio

In the last post, I began my discussion of Vicki Funk’s (2018) recent article on “Collections-Based Science in the 21st Century” that I’ll continue here.  In this review, she terms the first 15 years of the 21st century “An Age of Tree Thinking,” in other words a time of investigating evolutionary relationships and the use of phylogenies.  This is a major interest of Pam and Douglas Soltis of the University of Florida, two other leaders in the field of collections-based research (Allen et al., 2019).   Funk gives examples of what she means by this term, beginning with evolutionary medicine.  This field’s work includes tracing changes in viruses as they are transmitted through a population and even within one body over time.  Funk notes that museum specimens of woodrats have been found to harbor viruses similar to those causing Chagas disease.  She also touches on food safety, beginning with GenomeTrakr a pathogen database set up by the Food and Drug Administration.  It hosts whole genome sequences for pathogens, mostly those implicated in food poisoning.  When an outbreak occurs, the pathogen involved can now be quickly sequenced, and then compared to sequences in the database; this helps to identify the source of contamination and speed control of the outbreak.

Moving on to evolutionary ecology, Funk cites a number of examples of how phylogenetics can illuminate ecological questions.  For example, DNA was sequenced from ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia) specimens collected through time, both before and after deforestation in particular areas.  Pollen core data suggest that ragweed, an aggressive weed, was uncommon before deforestation.  The DNA sequencing data indicates that there was a hybridization before deforestation that may have permitted the hybrid to grow more aggressively when trees were removed.  This is a good example of pairing historical data with molecular analysis.

Funk’s paper also explores the idea of DNA barcoding, a technique that her colleague John Kress at the Smithsonian has fostered.  For plants, it involves sequencing two regions of the chloroplast genome that serve as a fingerprint for species identification.  Kress and his colleagues (2009) barcoded all tree species growing in a plot on Barro Colorado Island in Panama, a long-term Smithsonian study site.  The resulting phylogenies are being employed to investigate the relationship between habitat and community structure.  Barcodes are also used to monitor illegal traffic in endangered species, for example, as a way to identify illegal shipments of rare woods.  Since her article’s title, “Collections-Based Science in the 21st Century,” doesn’t limit Funk to only plants, she slips in a reference to molecular phylogenetics in human evolution studies, noting how DNA extracts from fossils of Neandertals and of a hominin population called the Denisovans found in the Siberian Altai Mountains, as well as from present-day humans, were employed to work out the relationship among them, with Neanderthals and today’s humans more closely related to each other than to Denisovans.  In an example relevant to botany, medically important plants have been barcoded over the past ten years, and molecular phylogenetics can be used to test the purity of ingredients in herbal medicines.  This is a perennial problem due to varying levels of quality control for these materials, resulting in impure or ineffective products.

What these examples of tree thinking have in common is that they involve DNA sequencing and the storage of that information so it can be used in future studies.  In other words, there is a summative process going on here, and these databases, if properly maintained and utilized will only become more and more valuable and effective.  In the next section of her article, Funk deals with the future, and calls it “An Age of Thinking Big.”  This theme is also taken up by a group of European researchers (Besnard et al., 2018).  Funk discusses not only collections of DNA sequences, and the voucher specimens that back them up, but also the increasing availability of online data about natural history specimens as well as images of them.  Digitization has been going on for years, especially since the development of BISON, which is a database for specimens from US government facilities such as the Smithsonian, and iDigBio, for private research and educational collections.  While more and more information is coming online, there is still a great deal to do.  To date, less than half of all plant specimens are databased, and that percentage is even lower for animals—there are an awful lot of insects out there, which were relatively easy to collect, but not so easy to image, to say nothing of jellyfish, etc.

Funk considers some of the questions that could be tackled if all specimen data were available to researchers:  “What parts of the world need additional collecting expeditions?  How many species are rare?  How many species have not been collected in the last 50 years and may be extinct?  Are there certain areas that have a lot of rarely collected species and are these areas endangered ecosystems?  How fast have invasive species moved into new areas?  How has community composition changed through time?” (p. 182).  This list is reminiscent of Funk’s “100 Uses for an Herbarium.”  With her vast experience she is very good at thinking about why collections are valuable as research tools, and this analysis is especially useful today as many collections are facing uncertain futures.  In an earlier post I cited one example of Funk’s writing on this topic.  Here I’ll end with another citation, a review article she wrote with several of her colleagues on what collection based systematics should look like in 2050 (Wen et al., 2015).  Her answers to this question will be covered in the next and last post in these series.

References

Allen, J. M., Folk, R. A., Soltis, P. S., Soltis, D. E., & Guralnick, R. P. (2019). Biodiversity synthesis across the green branches of the tree of life. Nature Plants, 5(1), 11–13.

Besnard, G., Gaudeul, M., Lavergne, S., Muller, S., Rouhan, G., Sukhorukov, A. P., … Jabbour, F. (2018). Herbarium-based science in the twenty-first century. Botany Letters, 165(3–4), 323–327.

Kress, W. J., Erickson, D. L., Jones, F. A., Swenson, N. G., Perez, R., Sanjur, O., & Bermingham, E. (2009). Plant DNA barcodes and a community phylogeny of a tropical forest dynamics plot in Panama. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(44), 18621–18626.

Wen, J., Ickert‐Bond, S. M., Appelhans, M. S., Dorr, L. J., & Funk, V. A. (2015). Collections-based systematics: Opportunities and outlook for 2050. Journal of Systematics and Evolution, 53(6), 477–488.

Vicki Funk: The History of Collections-Based Science

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In the last post, I introduced Vicki Funk, a plant systematist who is a research scientist and curator at the U.S. National Herbarium, part of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History.  There I mentioned that Funk had recently published a review article called “Collections-Based Science in the 21 Century,” published in the May 2018 issue of the Journal of Systematics and Evolution.  As with most review articles, it begins with a historical perspective.  The first sentence is a bold claim:  “Major revolutions in scientific thought have occurred because of collections-based research” (p. 175).  Funk is in a position to know both because she works in an institution with a premier natural history collection, and because she herself has contributed to today’s revolution in how collections are accessed and utilized.

Funk begins with the age of classification and Carl Linnaeus’s heavy reliance on natural history collections in creating his artificial system of classification and nomenclatural reform.  Michel Adanson and Antoine Laurent de Jussieu, working at the botanical garden in Paris with its notable herbarium, devised natural classification schemes that in various forms eventually replaced the Linnaean artificial system.  The 19th century, Funk notes, began with Alexander von Humboldt’s expedition to Latin America that gave him the perspective to develop the field of biological and physical geography, along with ecology and meteorology.  He and his traveling partner Aimée Bonpland collected 50,000 specimens, documenting many new genera and species as well as the relationship between geography and species distributions.  Later, Charles Darwin, Joseph Dalton Hooker, and Alfred Russel Wallace not only collected specimens but used them to build on Humboldt’s work and to document the concept of species change.  With examples like this Funk makes clear the connection between collection and theory building, as well as the importance of great natural history museum collections, many of which were built in the 19th century.

Funk terms the 20th century the “Age of Synthesis” in reference to the evolutionary synthesis that developed at mid-century and to “four collection-based ideas and methods that changed . . . the way we do science” (p. 178).  The first was the concept of continental drift and with it the idea that land bridges between continents had existed in the past.  Both Humboldt and J.D. Hooker argued for these from the similarities among organisms in areas that are now separated by great distances.  Second was the development of phylogenetic systematics or cladistics, a field to which Funk has contributed a good deal both theoretically (1991) and in terms of her research, especially on the Asteraceae.  Cladistics deals with using derived characters to objectively construct relationships, then grouping taxa so all are descended from a single common ancestor without omitting any of its descendants.  This is a complex field, and as a recent issue of the American Journal of Botany (August 2018) on fossil plants reveals, there are problems that arise when only living species are used in creating monophyletic groups, so fossil collections are crucial to the process.

Under the third 20th-century trend, Funk lists databasing collections, biodiversity science, and niche modeling.  This is a huge triumvirate, but with its parts closely tied together.  Databasing collection data—specimen identification as well as place and time of collection—makes it possible to more easily assess data on the biodiversity of a region as well as on how it may be changing over time.  It also allows rigorous niche modeling, a term for techniques employing occurrence data to model the possible spatial extent of a species based on geographical and climatic data.  Ecology has always been a field using sophisticated mathematical models but the availability of digital data and high-speed computing have caused an explosion in research.  And this is really only the beginning, as more collection data and analytic tools come online.

The final concept Funk cites as developing in the 20th century is molecular phylogenetics, the analysis of gene sequences as a way to discover phylogenetic relationships.  She writes:  “Collections are an excellent source of material for the extraction of DNA, but they are also important because they provide the vouchers of the DNA sequences, and their presence allows us to check the identification of samples and to gather the data needed to ask questions about character evolution and modes of speciation” (p. 180).  These vouchers usually contain at least some geographic information, bringing in the biogeography she mentioned earlier.  Molecular systematics helped to clear up some arguments about derived characters used in cladistics and resulted in a major reorganization of plant phylogenetics.  As will become apparent in the next two posts, sequencing techniques have changed rapidly during the latter part of the 20th and into the 21st century, increasing the efficacy of DNA analysis with herbarium specimens.  These tools now allow sequencing of species for which no fresh material is available because the species are rare, inaccessible, or even extinct.  If historical material is available, they also enable work on how the genetics of a species may have changed over the last few hundred years.

Vicki Funk and the Uses for a Herbarium

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Montanoa hibiscifolia, photo by Forest & Kim Starr.

Early in my romance with herbaria I came across an article by Vicki Funk called “100 Uses for an Herbarium (Well at Least 72).”  Learning about the many ways plant collections can be utilized got me even more excited about them.  I also felt I had met a friendly member of the herbarium community, someone with a sense of humor.  She came up with a great title for her piece and then stuck with it even though she didn’t quite get to the magic number her title promised.  In the piece, Funk lists herbarium functions from verifying plant Latin names in issues of nomenclature, to serving as a repository for voucher specimens, to making specimens available to students and interested members of the public.  This article was written in 2004, and I am sure that Funk could come up with many more roles today.  She in fact does move in that direction in a major review article she recently published on “Collections-Based Science in the 21st Century” (2018).  I plan to use that article as the basis for this series of posts, but first I’ll say a little more about Vicky Funk, who seems to me to be the epitome of a plant systematist in the 21st century.

Focusing on Funk’s work right now is particularly timely because she has won the 2018 Asa Gray Award, the American Society of Plant Taxonomists’ highest honor.  The fact that her nomination was accompanied by 18 letters of support suggests just how deserved this recognition is.  Funk is a research scientist and curator at the U.S. National Herbarium in the Department of Botany at the National Museum of Natural History, part of the Smithsonian Institution.  She is an expert on the Asteraceae or Compositae and is lead editor for the 2009 Compositae: Systematics, Evolution, and Biogeography of the Compositae.  This is a massive work in every sense of the term because it treats one of the largest flowering plant families.  She has also been involved in the creation of the digital Global Compositae Checklist.

Funk received her Ph.D. from Ohio State University for work on Montanoa, a genus of plants with daisy-like flowers in the Heliantheae or sunflower tribe of the Asteraceae.  They are native to Central and South America, but since then Funk has worked in Hawaii, Guyana, and a number of other places, and perhaps most importantly in the developing field of phylogenetics.  She has also been an important figure in the development of plant cladistics and is coauthor of the classic, The Compleat Cladist.  While doing all this research, she has been a good citizen of the plant systematics community as president of both the American Society of Plant Taxonomists and the International Association of Plant Taxonomists.  I have yet to meet Funk, in part because I am in awe of her.  However I have heard her speak; her passion, intelligence, and good sense come through along with her deep and comprehensive knowledge of the field.

Funk has also been a hard working member of the Smithsonian scientific community.  I keep up with her through the pages of the U.S. National Herbarium’s newsletter that has the great title The Plant Press and is available online.  The first issue I read was from 2007 when she had the lead article on the 20-year project of the National Museum of Natural History called the Biological Diversity of the Guiana Shield program.  As Funk describes it, the shield is a geological formation of igneous and metamorphic rock that underlies the northeast corner of South America and includes parts of Venezuela, Guyana, Surinam, French Guiana, Brazil, and Columbia.   At the point when she was writing, the Shield plants checklist, of which she was an editor, was in press.  It has proven to be an important resource since its publication in 2007.  I should note that her article includes a photo of herself and two colleagues doing what is stated to be their “best” imitation of a jacana, a South American marsh bird, standing on one leg.  In a later issue of The Plant Press, (April-June 2011), she is pictured more sedately with the University of the District of Columbia students she was mentoring.  In most photos Funk is wearing Hawaiian patterned shirts replete with large tropical blooms, seemingly to remind herself of her work on Hawaiian plants and to provide others with a pleasant aesthetic experience.

But while Funk can be light-hearted, she can also be deadly serious, as she was in the October 2014 issue of The Plant Press with the opening lead article:  “The Erosion of Collections-Based Science: Alarming Trend or Coincidence?”  She unfortunately sides with the first alternative, citing a number of disturbing cases over the prior years, including elimination of the science program at the Milwaukee Public Museum, dwindling support for scientific research at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Florida, closing of the science program at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and diminishment of programs and staff at the California Academy of Sciences, the Field Museum in Chicago, and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.  Funk then goes on to outline the results of these cuts:  less projects in developing nations to assist in their scientific and economic development, weakening of education programs in the life sciences, and reduction in research on such crucial topics as climate change.  As the following posts will illustrate, these were hardly Funk’s last words on these topics.  She is in the forefront of the effort to support the future of systematics and environmental studies.

References

Funk, V. A., & International Association for Plant Taxonomy. (2009). Systematics, evolution, and biogeography of Compositae. Vienna, Austria: International Association for Plant Taxonomy, Institute of Botany, University of Vienna.

Book Tour: The Art of Naming

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Specimen of Gaga marginata (Kunth) Fay W.Li & Windham (formerly Cheilanthes marginata) from the United State National Herbarium

This is the last post in a series (1,2,3) on books I read on a recent trip.  I found The Art of Naming by Michael Ohl (2018) on an earlier trip and brought it along on this one.  Ohl is a German entomologist at the Natural History Museum of Berlin, and he tackles many aspects of the question: how do species get named?  This is a work about nomenclature and taxonomy that sometimes borders on the technical, but always in a way that’s accessible to the general reader.  Of course, there is the issue of whether or not the general reader really wants to know this much about nomenclature, but Ohl provides enough good stories along the way to keep his audience engaged.  This work was translated from the German by Elisabeth Lauffer, and I think she is also partly responsible for its readability, though there is always a slight hint of the difficulty of smooth translation.

While understandably Ohl takes most of his examples from the insect world, or at least from zoology, I found this a fascinating book because he is so good at describing the ins and outs of taxonomy, a field in which I am definitely not an expert.  Yes, the rules of nomenclature are different in zoology and botany, but most of the problems are similar.  For example, at one point he deals with the issue of those who have named a great many taxa, thousands of them.  Here he refers to an article by Daniel Bebber and coauthors (2010) in which they describe “big hitters,” those who collected many new species.  In their study Bebber’s group found that just 2% of plant collectors were responsible for over half the type specimens in a sample of 100,000 types.

Ohl found “big hitters” in entomology as well, but they were not collectors, rather those who described and named new species.  There are such individuals in botany as well, and in both cases, their reputations are not all stellar.  A Ohl notes, taxonomy seems to cause a certain mania in some practitioners, a passion for naming as many new species as possible.  A number of these individuals are considered “splitters,” focusing on small differences and tending to write brief descriptions.  In naming so many species, it’s not surprising that they might name the same species twice or even three times, and a taxonomist’s rate of synonymy is considered a measure of reliability, the lower the better.  Ohl relates several stories of taxonomists gone wild, but tempers his criticism by mentioning all the good work these individuals did as well.  This sense of balance is what makes the book so interesting; he is not afraid to look at both sides of nomenclatural debates.

One topic Ohl covers in detail is what makes a name acceptable or not.  The rules here vary somewhat from those in botany, but many are similar:  not naming a species after oneself, following rules of Latin or Greek grammar, and not applying a name that has already been used.  He relishes the subject of naming as a way to draw attention to a species, or to the one for whom it’s named.  I know there is a fern genus named after Lady Gaga, but now I know that there’s a spider named for David Bowie.  Ohl also tackles the topic of naming as fund-raising, which apparently has been going on for some time.  The German organization BIOPAT was founded in 1999; it makes undescribed species available to donors.  Rates start at 2,600 euros per species and depend on what the market will bear, in other words how attractive in some way the species is.  By 2013, the organization had raised 620,000 euros.  But there are other approaches, including an auction in 2005 to name a new titi monkey species in Bolivia’s Madidi National Park.  The British biologist describing it, Robert Wallace, decided to set up the auction to raise money for the Park.  Ultimately, the name was “sold” for $650,000 to the Golden Palace online casino, and now the monkey is Callicebus aureipalatti.  There are auctions on eBay to name plants, but the stakes are definitely not that high.  In this survey, Ohl again balances questions about naming-for-money against the sadly underfunded world of conservation biology.

Besides telling such fascinating stories, Ohl also deals with fundamental issues:  “getting at the essence of a species is one of the most difficult, controversial, and yet most important questions in biology” (p. 84).  He explores the issue in terms of deciding on a type specimen or specimens and what this designation signifies:  “Type species are not representatives of biological species from representations of names of biological species” (p. 108).  He points out how types have become essential in taxonomy and discusses the ins and outs of designating a lectotype (in zoology, a type designated after the species has already been named) for humans.  It was in fact a botanist, William Stearn, who chose Carl Linnaeus’s remains as representative for all Homo sapiens.  While Ohl doesn’t deal much with the digitization of natural history collections and using bioinformatics to bring order to nomenclature, that may be because these projects are farther along in botany than in zoology.  In any case, this was definitely a good read on a rather “interesting” trip north.

References

Bebber, D. P., Carine, M. A., Wood, J. R. I., Wortley, A. H., Harris, D. J., Prance, G. T., … Scotland, R. W. (2010). Herbaria are a major frontier for species discovery. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(51), 22169–22171.

Ohl, M. (2018). The Art of Naming. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Stearn, W. T. (1959). The background of Linnaeus’s contributions to the nomenclature and methods of systematic biology. Systematic Zoology, 8(1), 4–22.

Book Tour: Gardens

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Looking out on Oak Spring from the Oak Spring Garden Foundation Library (photo by author)

In December I headed north to visits relatives and friends in New York and Connecticut.  I had only reached New York when my sister called from a hospital (never a good sign) to say that she had broken her wrist and shoulder.  To make a very long story short, I spent the next ten days visiting her in the Connecticut hospital where various complications kept her.  We definitely had time for good conversations, and when I wasn’t with her, I had time to read at the hotel.  I had brought a couple of books with me and acquired a few along the way.  This series of posts will be on some of what I read.  Though none of these works are about herbaria, they all have links to them in various ways.  My sister is back home and so am I.  Now I have time to consider what I learned about gardens, botanical history, tropical plants, and taxonomy.

This post deals with The Gardens of Bunny Mellon, a large tome filled with photographs by Roger Foley and a relatively brief text by Linda Jane Holden (2018).  I bought this the day I visited the Oak Spring Garden Foundation Library in Virginia, at the start of my trip.  I have been there before, and it is the closest thing I know to botanical heaven.  Rachel (Bunny) Mellon loved gardening from a young age and was able to indulge her interest because she came from a wealthy family and then married the philanthropist Paul Mellon.  The book deals with the gardens she created at their homes in Manhattan, Cape Cod, Nantucket and Antiqua, but most of all, with the gardens surrounding the house the Mellons built in the 1950s at Oak Spring, and adjacent to which they added a library in the early 1980s.

The first time I visited the library, Nancy Collins gave me a tour of the garden which has been maintained by the Foundation since Rachel Mellon’s death in 2014.  The photographs in the book do a great job of communicating the atmosphere of the garden as well as the plants growing there.  The word I would use to describe it is homey rather than palatial, but there is definitely a sense that everything is planned, from the allée of crab apple trees to the herbaceous beds to the vegetable garden.  It is simply a wonderful place to be.  Mellon created her library in support of her passion for plants.  She studied the great gardens and garden writers of the past.  Holden lists Mellon’s “Pentateuch” of books that informed her designs (p. 160):  The Compleat Gard’ner by Jean-Baptiste de La Quintinie (1693), Phytographia curiosa by Abraham Munting (1714), The Flower-Garden Display’d by Robert Furber (1734), Le Jardin Fruitier by Loise Claude Noisette (1821), and Flower Guide: Wild Flowers East of the Rockies  by Chester Albert Reed (1920).

These reside in the library along with 16,000 other books, manuscripts, and art works; there are even a few herbaria.  They include a scrapbook made as a Christmas gift for the Mellons from horticulturalists Charles and Katherine Pecora.  The plants were collected at Oak Spring and the adjacent Rokeby Farm in 1968.  Katherine worked as a secretary at the farm for many years, and this collection is very much in the tradition of creating a presentation volume for patrons.  Other herbaria include one of algae assembled by Eliza French during the 19th-century seaweed craze, and one of New Zealand Ferns by George Davenport, again a product of a fad of the time.  There is also a printed herbarium catalogue produced by the 19th-century German nurseryman Carl Jeppe that lists those who subscribed to the volume, beginning with the local gentry.  Another is a sumptuous 18th-century herbarium of medicinal plants attributed to Carlo Sembertini and described in one of four volumes on the library collections published by Oak Spring (Tomasi & Willis, 2009, pp. 334-339).

Gardens also covers a number of other Mellon homes, each site’s plants and design adapted to its particular location.  Besides these Mellon also created several for friends including two at the White House.  John F. Kennedy asked her to redesign the Rose Garden outside the oval office.  Working with the President and the National Park Service she managed to develop an environment that has pleased White House occupants for decades and served as a backdrop for many important governmental events.  The garden was so successful that Jacqueline Kennedy invited Mellon to also remake the East Garden on the opposite side of the White House, a more private space.  This wasn’t accomplished until Lady Bird Johnson was First Lady.  She also worked with Mellon and the result was called the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden.

Mellon was a Francophile and a good friend of her favorite fashion designer, Hubert de Givenchy.  She developed gardens for his Château du Jonchet and then worked with him on a much more public project, recreation of the Potager du Roi, the king’s kitchen garden at the Palace of Versailles.  It was originally designed between 1678 and 1686 by one of her favorite garden writers, Jean-Baptiste de La Quintinie, to provide fruits and vegetables for the royal table.  Givenchy was the head of the World Monuments Fund France, which wanted to revive the garden that was in decay, and he brought Mellon to see the “plot,” much larger than an ordinary kitchen garden.  She collaborated with him on the design, and the Mellons paid for the entire project including an irrigation system, basin and fountain, and the King’s Gate.

Rachel Mellon is in the tradition of the great garden designers and plant lovers who have enkindled fervor for plants and contributed so much to our knowledge and appreciation of them.  Her passion lives on in the Oak Spring Garden Foundation and its wonderful library.  The Foundation is now expanding its mission to reach a broader community of plant lovers.

References

Holden, L. J. (2018). The Gardens of Bunny Mellon. New York, NY: Vendome.

Quintinie, J. de Le, & Evelyn, J. (1693). The Compleat Gard’ner: Or, Directions for Cultivating and Right Ordering of Fruit-gardens and Kitchen-gardens; with Divers Reflections on Several Parts of Husbandry. In Six Books. London, UK: Gillyflower.

Tomasi, L. T., & Willis, T. (2009). An Oak Spring Herbaria: Herbs and Herbals from the Fourteenth to the Nineteenth Centuries. Upperville, VA: Oak Spring Garden Library.