Aesthetics as Suspect

Gentiana ligustica, photo Botanical Garden of Fribourg

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

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

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

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

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

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


Adamo, M., Chialva, M., Calevo, J., Bertoni, F., Dixon, K., & Mammola, S. (2021). Plant scientists’ research attention is skewed towards colourful, conspicuous and broadly distributed flowers. Nature Plants, 7(5), 574–578.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Schmidt-Lebuhn, A. N., Knerr, N. J., & Kessler, M. (2013). Non-geographic collecting biases in herbarium specimens of Australian daisies (Asteraceae). Biodiversity and Conservation, 22(4), 905–919.

Troudet, J., Grandcolas, P., Blin, A., Vignes-Lebbe, R., & Legendre, F. (2017). Taxonomic bias in biodiversity data and societal preferences. Scientific Reports, 7(1), 9132.

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

Weaving Together Plant Humanities and Ethnobotany in the Future

From The Ethnobotanical Assembly, Issue 8

This series of posts is about the future of plant studies in the broadest sense.  In the first and third posts, I looked at Mason Heberling’s work on the future of herbaria, particularly in relation to plant trait research.  Between them, I wrote a post on an issue of The Ethnobotanical Assembly or T.E.A. on the plant humanities.  Several of its articles deal directly or indirectly with plant collections.  In their essay, the issue’s editors, Felix Driver and  Caroline Cornish of the University of London, include a diagram with Plant Humanities at the center of a wheel (see above) with spokes that include health, creative arts, culture, landscapes, stories, plant matter, which includes biocultural (economic botany) collections, and plant thinking, the idea that plants are sentient beings that should not be dismissed as “lower” forms of life but rather as different and equally interesting forms as animals, including humans. 

Herbaria and biocultural or economic botany collections are where many of these themes can be explored.  Author of The Plant Hunter (2021) Cassandra Quave is herbarium director and associate professor at Emory University.  She has been intrigued by the medicinal uses of plants since her college days and writes of one example of why she finds working with indigenous practitioners so important.  In another T.E.A. article called “The Herbarium as a Workshop,” Luciana Martins, a cultural historian, and Lindsay Sekulowicz, an artist, describe their collaboration on an exhibit at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew entitled Plantae Amazonicae.  They worked in both the Kew herbarium and its economic botany department on collections from the Amazon region made by the 19th-century British botanist Richard Spruce.  They uncovered many interesting items used in the display, and Sekulowicz also created several artworks that commented on the collection.  These included a drawing done in ink made from pigments in the arils of seeds from the achiote shrub Bixa orellana, native to Amazonia.  Their collaboration is a beautiful example of how botanical history, indigenous culture, and art can be interwoven under the plant humanities umbrella. 

Another example of several themes tightly interwoven are found in Steeve Buckridge’s article on Jamaican lacebark from the tree Lagetta lagetto.  The species is native to the Caribbean and its inner bark has a net-like structure that made is useful as cloth.  It was employed by enslaved people who had little access to woven cloth for apparel.  It was also made into lacey decorative items that were popular among the upper classes and ultimately with tourists.  Many herbaria with biocultural collections have examples of collars, fans, and other items made from the lacebark.  But Buckridge digs deeper into the story and finds that there were multiple uses for the inner bark including twisting it into rope or weaving it to make baskets and hammocks.  The enslaved were sometimes flogged with whips made from strips of bark, so there was a dark side to its products as well.  Finally the bark had medicinal properties such as easing joint pain and healing damaged skin. 

Buckridge’s insights make a collection of objects come alive, enriched by the stories adhering to them.  His article is a good example of what can be revealed about items that are sometimes considered little more than oddities in a botanical collection.  Linking them to stories and the spokes of Cornish and Driver’s plant humanities wheel emphasize their cultural value.  This is also the theme of Mark Nesbitt’s article “Repurposing Economic Botany for the Twenty-First Century.”   Nesbitt is curator of the Economic Botany Collection at Kew and has written extensively on it and on the significance of what he terms biocultural collections in general (Nesbitt, 2014).  He reviews the history of Kew’s collection that dates back to the time of Joseph Banks and by 1910 was spread over four museum buildings, including two housing wood specimens and products.  However, as interest in the field dwindled along with Britain’s colonial empire on which it was built, the public displays became smaller and smaller.  Today, they are reduced to a few display cases in a café housed in one of the former museum buildings. 

However, the collection itself is alive and well, stored in a facility built at Kew in the 1980s, and the number of items has actually grown by a quarter under Nesbitt’s curatorship.  It is now being used in many ways, as evidenced by several articles in this T.E.A. issue.  Almost all this work involves crossing disciplinary boundaries, and Nesbitt makes the point that there are various levels to these connections.  He quotes work by the curator Henriette Pleiger who distinguishes among the concepts of multi-, inter-, and transdisciplinarity.  Multidisciplinary work is the most superficial and informal, perhaps one or more meetings among those with different expertise.  Interdisciplinary research is more interactive, long-term, and organized; it is usually more fruitful.  Nesbitt sees much of the work of the Economic Botany program at Kew as in this vein.  Finally, transdisciplinary work describes projects that seek disciplinary synthesis.  He considers this a possibility that might arise out of work Kew is doing with indigenous people in Amazonia to acquaint them with the items Richard Spruce collected in Brazil and to learn from them how these objects relate to their lived experience and history.  This seems a hopeful idea that can arise from digging deeply into biocultural collections with peoples to wh they are tied. 


Nesbitt, M. (2014). Use of Herbarium Specimens in Ethnobotany. In J. Salick, K. Konchar, & M. Nesbitt (Eds.), Curating Biocultural Collections: A Handbook (pp. 313–328). Richmond, UK: Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Quave, C. L. (2021). Plant Hunter. New York: Penguin.

Plant Specimens in the Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Heberling, J. M. (2022). Herbaria as Big Data Sources of Plant Traits. International Journal of Plant Sciences, 183(2), 87–118.

Heberling, J. M., & Isaac, B. L. (2018). INaturalist as a tool to expand the research value of museum specimens. Applications in Plant Sciences, 6(11), e01193.

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

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

Many Treasure Rooms

Specimens of Iris pseudacorus, Herbarium Ratzenberger (1556-1592). Naturkundemuseum Kassel. Photo by Peter Mansfeld.

In this series of posts (1,2,3) I’m exploring what Tinde van Andel calls “treasure rooms” in museums and libraries that hold early modern herbaria.  I’ve discussed some of these in the Netherlands, Italy, and Switzerland, now I want to hunt down a few spread more widely.  One was created by Caspar Ratzenberger in Germany between 1556 and 1592.  It is preserved in three volumes in the Natural History Museum of Kassel, Germany (see figure above).  It contains plants that he grew in his garden, including some exotics such as tobacco.  In 1858, a resident of the city sought it out after reading a reference to such a collection.  He found it stored but forgotten in a government building and made a list of the plants it contained.  Little else seems to have been done on this collection. 

            While the Ratzenberger herbarium didn’t travel far from its point of origin, that isn’t true of some other treasures.  One created in 1606 by Gregorio da Reggio, who collected around Bologna, is now in the Oxford University herbarium (Marner, 2006).  It was given to William Sherard by his friend Giuseppe Monti, director of the Bologna Botanical Garden shortly before Sherard’s death.  Sherard left his collections to Oxford, but this is only part of the story.  The “gift” was meant as an exchange.  Sherard had agreed to send Monti the second volume of Hans Sloane’s Natural History of Jamaica, but died before he could do so.  Monti asked Sherard’s brother James for the book, but the sibling ignored the letter because he was miffed at being cut out of the will.  Johann Dillenius, who had become professor of botany at Oxford thanks to Sherard’s funding the position, finally sent the Sloane book to Monti (Harris, 2011).  While it is certainly a gem, it is not unique like the herbarium, which has three hundred specimens with extensive labels.  Unusual for the time, the labels contain information on locality, habitat, and in some cases even flowering times and medicinal uses as well as literature citations. 

            María Carrión (2017) of Emory University has examined a number of early herbaria and written particularly about an Italian collection in Spain’s Royal Library of El Escorial (2017, 2019).  The collector of these four volumes is unknown, but it was owned by Diego Hurtado de Mendoza, who had served as Spanish Ambassador to Venice, where he had built up an extensive library, including this herbarium.  He later fell out of favor with the king and was living in exile when the monarch, who was eager to acquire the library with its extensive collection of Greek manuscripts, offered to allow Mendoza to return home if he bequeathed his library to the king.  Since the focus was on the Greek manuscripts, the herbarium didn’t receive much attention.  Carrión has examined the collection and found discrepancies between the number of plants listed in the index to each volume and the plants actually present, with in each case the lists missing plants.  Some are off by a few plants, but for the second volume only 99 of the 209 plants are recorded.  She also found that the first volume is much more focused on medicinal uses than are the others.  As with any herbarium, without any supporting material to offer hints, it is difficult to imagine all the details that went into its construction. 

            The oldest herbarium in the National Museum of Natural History herbarium in Paris dates to 1558 and was created by Jehan Girault, a medical student at the University of Lyons.  With 81 pages and 310 plants, it was kept at the University until 1721 when it was sent to the botanist Antoine de Jussieu in Paris.  It became part of the museum’s collection in 1857, a small portion of the eight million specimens now stored there, yet it is an important piece of the history of medical and botanical education in France.  Girault was a student of Jacques Daléchamps, who in turn was a student of Guillaume Rondelet, one of the pioneers of early modern botany.  Rondelet taught at the University of Montpellier that has a rich history, and he was an early proponent of fields trips as a botanical learning tool (Ogilvie, 2006).

            I’ll end this survey with the creator of multiple herbaria that still exist.  Hieronymus Harder produced 11 extant collections, with most still in Germany, where he lived (Dobras, 2009).  Some were presentation volumes like Andrea Cesalpino’s in Florence that I mentioned in the last post.  Harder was a teacher interested in medicinal plants, and most of the plants are from the area surrounding his Bavarian home.  However, there are also specimens of tobacco, pepper, and tomato which had spread so rapidly across Europe through seed sharing among botanists.  There is also a single herbarium created by Harder’s son, Johannes, an apothecary, at the Oak Spring Garden Library in Virginia.  What makes all these volumes particularly interesting is that the Harders had the habit of “embellishing” or “improving” specimens with watercolor paints to fill in missing petals or stems, to add roots or bulbs, or create a tuft of grass to ground a plant.  The son’s work is the most heavily altered and is an example of the experiments early modern botanists tried in attempting to communicate as much information as possible through their collections.  It is wonderful that such variations still exist to give a sense of the ardor and experimentation of the period.


Carrión, M. M. (2017). Planted knowledge: Art, science, and preservation in the sixteenth-century herbarium from the Hurtado de Mendoza Collection in El Escorial. Journal of Early Modern Studies, 6(1), 47–67.

Carrión, M. M. (2019). Planting dwelling thinking. Natural history and philosophy in sixteenth-century European dried gardens. Gardens and Landscapes: Sciendo, 6, 5–19.

Dobras, W. (2009). Hieronymus Harder and his twelve plant collections. Ulm Und Oberschwaben, Journal of History, Art and Culture, 56, 46–82.

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

Marner, S. K. (2006). 400 years old! (A book herbarium from Italy). Oxford Plant Systematics], 13, 9–10.

Ogilvie, B. W. (2006). The Science of Describing: Natural History in Renaissance Europe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Swiss Treasure Rooms

Facing pages from Felix Platter’s Herbarium. Bern City Library.

This post in the series (1,2) on the whereabouts of early modern herbaria begins with two notable collections in Switzerland, Felix Platter’s (1536-1614) at the Bern City Library and Caspar Bauhin’s (1560-1624) at the University of Basel’s herbarium.  Both are significant and both were the subject of an article by Davina Benkert (2016), where she does a wonderful job of describing each and comparing them.  As with many collections this old, portions are missing.  Platter eventually bound his specimens and had 18 volumes of which nine survive.  In many cases, he pasted a plant on the right hand page and one or more illustrations on the left.  Among these are prints as well as watercolors, including 77 by Hans Weiditz, the originals of the plates used in Otto Brunfel’s 1530 Herbarum vivae eicones.  Paper being valuable, Weiditz had painted on both sides of each sheet.  Wanting to get the most out of them, Platter cut them out so he could use both plants, sometimes painting in parts that were missing.  He also at times “fiddled” with specimens, such as pasting stamens to the outside of tulip flowers to make them visible.  These practices horrify present-day art historians and botanists, but this was early modern botany and techniques had yet to be codified. 

Bauhin was Platter’s student at the University of Basel and they collected together.  Eventually Bauhin joined the faculty and worked on his plant compendium, Pinax theatri botanici published there in 1623.  They used the specimens differently, so they treated them differently.  Platter used his in teaching and as reference.  Though he had early on kept his specimens loose, he eventually preferred bound volumes because they allowed him to show his collection to visitors, something he relished, without damaging the plants.  He used Bauhin’s classification system.  Even though it hadn’t been published yet, he was obviously privy to the manuscript.   

On the other hand, Bauhin was trying to build a comprehensive collection to use in creating a planned work on taxonomy.  He kept his specimens loose, slipped between folded sheets of paper with identification slips.  This enabled him to reorganize them as his ideas about relationships among them changed, but it also meant fragments and labels could easily slip out.  It also made it easier to remove specimens.  Bauhin’s collection continued to be used for teaching and reference after his death.  His descendants allowed botanists to select specimens, which explains why two-thirds of the originals are gone (Benkert, 2016).  In 1774, what remained was purchased by Werner von Lachenel, a University of Basel botanist who integrated the sheets into his own herbarium.  When the University acquired his herbarium, they then sorted out Bauhin’s sheets, but 400 were in such poor condition they were discarded.  Here at least we have some idea of why the collection is so greatly reduced.  In many cases, the dwindling of a collection isn’t as well documented.  I should add that sometimes items are later found as when 300 of Ulisse Aldrovandi’s specimens (see last post) were discovered in a later Italian collection (Mossetti, 1990).  Again, this might seem horrifying, but it is really a form of borrowing, a common practice; it’s just that in the Bauhin and Aldrovandi cases it was done posthumously. 

Alette Fleischer (2017) has written an article with a great title Leaves on the Loose and subtitled “The Changing Nature of Archiving Plants and Botanical Knowledge” and that deals with these issues.  She notes that when herbaria were unbound all ties could be lost to the history of a sheet and who made it.  She sees the digitization of old collections as a boon to “recombining” specimens, setting them next to each other for comparison.  James Petiver, an avid British collector, amassed over 100 herbaria, which eventually become part of Hans Sloane’s herbarium, now at the Natural History Museum, London.  Fleisher writes that “According to his beliefs on order, Petiver compiled, or more precisely recompiled nearly every herbarium that came into his possession.  .  .  .  He not only took sheets from older herbaria, but also cut out bits of paper and plants and glued these together with other specimens, thereby losing labels, names, and information” (pp. 125-126).

Reading statements like this explains a lot about why the early history of herbaria is fragmentary.  It also makes what is available that much more wonderful.  Particularly wonderful is the website that has been created around Platter’s herbarium, with the pages organized by volume and by species names.  In addition there are webpages with information on Platter and the collection’s history.  It’s thrilling to be able to closely study the pages, especially those with Weiditz images.  The University of Basel herbarium website states the Bauhin herbarium has been imaged, but I could not find a link to it, so I am not sure if it is available online.  In time it probably will be, another wonderful digital treasure.  In the meantime, the Platter volumes would keep anyone with an interest in early modern botany busy for a long time. 


Benkert, D. (2016). The ‘Hortus Siccus’ as a focal point: Knowledge, environment, and image in Felix Platter’s and Caspar Bauhin’s herbaria. In S. Burghartz, L. Burkart, & C. Göttler (Eds.), Sites of Mediation (pp. 211–239). Leiden: Brill.

Fleischer, A. (2017). Leaves on the loose: The changing nature of archiving plants and botanical knowledge. Journal of Early Modern Studies, 6(1), 117–135.

Mossetti, U. (1990). Catalogue of Ulisse Aldrovandi’s herbarium: The specimens found in the herbaria of Giuseppe Monti and Ferdinando Bassi. Webbia, 44(1), 151–164.

Italian Treasure Rooms

Orchid specimens, Aldrovandi herbarium. University of Bologna.

In this series of posts I am exploring some early modern herbaria that are becoming better known in the 21st century after having been carefully preserved in collections for centuries.  Since the habit of pressing plants in all likelihood arose in Italy, with efforts by Luca Ghini to encourage his students to take up the practice, it’s not surprising that many of the oldest herbaria remain in Italy (Findlen, 2017).  In the last post, I mentioned that the oldest one, begun in 1532, is at the Angelica Library in Rome and now attributed to Ghini’s student Francesco Petrollini, who taught at the University of Bologna.  One of his students, Ulisse Aldrovandi, was also a protégé of Ghini’s.  Aldrovandi had the financial means to amass a large herbarium and a collection of botanical illustrations, as well as other natural history materials and art.  Fifteen volumes of plant material survive in Bologna.  The almost 5000 specimens they contain attest to Aldrovandi’s interest in plants that went beyond the medicinal.  He acquired plants from the eastern Mediterranean, northern Europe, the Americas, and even the Far East.  In many cases, he also had the same plants painted, many from life.

There is interest in such early herbaria because they are physical links to what botanists were looking at and studying at the time.  The botanists were often as interested in receiving seeds.  If they could coax them to germinate, then they would have both living material to study and also to preserve as dried specimens, enough specimens to share with others along with the seeds.  Seeds, unlike specimens, were botanical capital that could increase over time.  While they are less likely to survive than specimens (seeds were capital that was meant to be spent), their importance is documented in surviving letters and other archival materials.  This is how researchers working on another Petrollini herbarium, the En Tibi in Leiden (see last post), were able to find evidence that he had probably received the tomato seeds that produced the plant preserved in his collection from Ghini, who in all likelihood had received them from another of his former students Luigi Anguillara.   

It is these links that are lurking in museums and libraries.  Digitizing specimens and in some cases correspondence will make ferreting out connections easier, but it is still slow and painstaking work.  And work that requires the skills of a historian.  I hate to admit this because I am not a historian and would like to be able to easily find and use the most arcane of materials.  But Google and Wikipedia just don’t cut it.  Even much more sophisticated databases aren’t enough.  That’s why it’s such a joy to read what historians have been able to discover.  In a recent paper, Italian researchers reported finding a specimen of tobacco in the 16th century Erbario Estense preserved in the Modena State Archives (Vicentini et al., 2020).  This is one of only four tobacco specimens of that age in Italy; the others are in Aldrovandi’s collection.  The creator of this herbarium is unknown, but there is evidence that it was made in Ferrara between 1570 and 1598.  It also contains other American species including the tomato which seems to have become ubiquitous in Europe by the end of the century. 

Another important Italian herbarium, this one at the Botanic Garden of Florence, is Andrea Cesalpino’s.  Also one of Ghini’s students, he took over from Ghini as director of the Botanical Garden of Pisa when Ghini returned to Bologna the year before his death (Findlen, 2017).  Cesalpino’s herbarium is particularly important because of its organization.  It was made for a bishop as a way for him to learn about plants and their relationships.  Cesalpino was one of the first to go beyond just describing plants and attempted to organize them by similar traits.  He published on this work but with the herbarium it’s possible to see his theory in action.  Cesalpino also had other collections but this is the only one that survives (Nepi & Gusmerol, 2008). 

It is no wonder that extant herbaria are rare this early in the history of modern botany.  First, preserving specimens had yet to become an essential part of botanical practice.  Pietro Andrea Mattioli, who published a famous translation of the ancient materia medica by Dioscorides, used specimens when writing plant descriptions but then disposed of them.  He later rued this practice.  In other cases, future generations were responsible for the loss.  While Conrad Gessner’s amazing illustrated notebooks remain, his specimens do not, perhaps because his heirs saw the beautiful watercolors as more valuable than the dried “plant skeletons.”  The Neapolitan pharmacist Ferrante Imperato had an 80-volume herbarium but his collection was dispersed about 30 years after his death during a plague in 1656 and only nine volumes remained.  A political uprising in 1799 led to destruction of eight of them.  The remaining volume with 440 plants survives at the National Library of Naples.  A 1903 report on the specimens notes that the collection did not seem to be well taken care of and suffered from insect damage (Giglioli, 1903).

There is a recent update on Imperato’s specimens.  Two researchers studied specimens in the herbarium of the agriculture school at the University of Naples.  They were in the collection of the 18th century botanist Domenico Crillo, who had once owned the nine Imperato volumes.  The specimens were very different from the rest, and when analyzed with a variety of techniques including carbon dating, watermarks, and handwriting analysis, were found to probably have once been part of Imperato’s collection.  (De Natale & Cellinese, 2009).


De Natale, A., & Cellinese, N. (2009). Imperato, Cirillo, and a Series of Unfortunate Events: A Novel Approach to Assess the Unknown Provenance of Historical Herbarium Specimens. Taxon, 58(3), 963–970.

Findlen, P. (2017). The death of a naturalist: Knowledge and Community in Late Renaissance Italy. In G. Manning & C. Klestinec (Eds.), Professors, Physicians and Practices in the History of Medicine (pp. 127–167). New York: Springer.

Giglioli, I. (1903). The herbarium of Ferrante Imperato in Naples. Nature, 67(1735), 296–297.

Nepi, C., & Gusmerol, E. (2008). Gli erbari aretini da Andrea Cesalpino ai giorni nostri. Florence: Firenze University Press.

Vicentini, C. B., Buldrini, F., Romagnoli, C., & Bosi, G. (2020). Tobacco in the Erbario Estense and other Renaissance evidence of the Columbian taxon in Italy. Rendiconti Lincei. Scienze Fisiche e Naturali.

Open the Treasure Rooms

Tomato specimen from the En Tibi herbarium, Naturalis Biodiversity Center, Leiden

This post’s title comes from Tinde van Andel’s inaugural lecture as Clusius Chair of History of Botany and Gardens at Leiden University in the Netherlands:  Open the Treasure Room and Decolonize the Museum.  Working with a team of researchers, the room van Andel is exploring is at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center and is indeed a particularly rich collection.  It has a number of 16th-century herbaria, including the En Tibi dated to about 1554 and attributed by van Andel and her team to Francesco Petrollini, a student of Luca Ghini who was at least an early proponent if not the originator of preserving pressed specimens (Stefanaki et al., 2019).  Petrollini is also now thought to have created a herbarium in Rome’s Angelica Library that had been attributed to another Ghini student, Gherardo Cibo.  It was begun in 1532, making it the earliest extant collection.

Also in Leiden are herbaria created by Leonhard Rauwolf who collected in France as well as in the Middle East (see earlier post).  Van Andel’s commented in her lecture that when she showed specimens of sorghum, eggplant, and pistachio that Rauwolf had found in agricultural plots in Syria, it was the first time in over 400 years that someone from the Middle East had set on eyes on them.  These plants document what was being grown at the time and may yield DNA revealing more about the history of these crops (Ghorbani et al., 2018).  That they are physical evidence for plants of the past is one reason the collections are treasures.

As another example of what these riches have revealed, van Andel, working with molecular biologists as well as historians, has taken a look at the early history of the tomato in Europe.  They have recently published on this work, presenting specimens as well as illustrations, putting together a possible timeline of how the plant spread through Europe from Spain to Italy and then to northern Europe (Andel et al., 2022).  The fact that there was quite a bit of evidence suggests interest in this strange fruit.  The specimen in En Tibi even has half a tomato attached.  A small portion of a leaf was removed and DNA extracted from it; research suggests that it was a domesticated plant.  Petrollini probably obtained seeds from Ghini, who may have gotten them from a former student Luigi Anguillara, director of the botanical garden in Padua near Venice, which was a busy port where many exotic species arrived.  So this one page of En Tibi reveals much not only about the plant’s biology but also about its history in Europe and about how a tightly knit botanical network enabled rapid transmission not only of information but of seeds and other botanical material. 

For a long time, early herbaria were ignored, as van Andel’s comment about Rauwolf’s collection indicates.  Any pre-Linnaean herbarium that had not been studied by Carl Linnaeus and therefore not used by him in naming species was considered irrelevant to modern botany, which dates from the publication of Linnaeus’s Species Plantarum of 1753.  The collections were deemed worth keeping, but not worth serious study.  This has changed recently for a number of reasons, including the renewed interest in natural history collections in general as sources of information about biodiversity.  There is also interest in botany’s social history as the second half of van Andel’s title suggests:  decolonize the museum.

The Netherlands was an important naval power with an eye on botanical riches such as nutmeg and cinnamon from the East, but any plants of interest were welcomed in the homeland by eager gardeners looking for novelty.   One collection in Naturalis was created around 1587 by an unnamed Dutch collector working in what is now Suriname.  It preserves plants native to the area and also African food plants—okra and sesame (Andel et al., 2012).  This indicates that the plantation culture, with the presence of African enslaved persons, had brought with it new species, one of many examples of the early movement of plants with links to the slave trade.  It shows how herbaria can contribute crucial evidence on cultural and political history and can help clarify portions of history that have long remained hidden, including the early pervasiveness of enslaved labor in the Americas.

I have focused on the Leiden treasure room in this post, but in the others in this series I’ll mention herbaria kept in collections throughout Europe.  Some, like part of Felix Platter’s collection in Basel, had been there for hundreds of years but had only been rediscovered in the 1930s.  Others, like Ulisse Aldrovandi’s in Bologna were cared for over the centuries, but still, it wasn’t investigated until recently.  One reason for the increased attention is that there have been efforts to digitized important cultural collections of all kinds, making the 15 volumes of Aldrovandi’s herbarium available to a wider audience and also making it much easier to compare specimens of the same species from different collections, as done in the paper on the history of the tomato. 

To me this is the exciting thing about what could be considered the renaissance of Renaissance herbaria:  allowing careful study without necessarily disturbing the very fragile originals.  I would love to experience the physical heft of En Tibi or see the pages that Rauwolf saw as he, or an assistant, reinforced/decorated them with patterned paper.  However, the very newest of technologies have made these oldest of specimens available to all, even in the age of covid.  The important thing now is to mine these works thoroughly to learn more about plants and botanists in the early modern era. 


Andel, T. van. (2017). Open the treasure room and decolonize the museum [Inaugural lecture]. Leiden University.

Andel, T. van, Veldman, S., Maas, P., Thijsse, G., & Eurlings, M. (2012). The forgotten Hermann Herbarium: A 17th century collection of useful plants from Suriname. Taxon, 61(6), 1296–1304.

Andel, T. van, Vos, R. A., Michels, E., & Stefanaki, A. (2022). Sixteenth-century tomatoes in Europe: Who saw them, what they looked like, and where they came from. PeerJ, 10, e12790.

Ghorbani, A., Wieringa, J. J., de Boer, H. J., Porck, H., Kardinaal, A., & van Andel, T. (2018). Botanical and floristic composition of the Historical Herbarium of Leonhard Rauwolf collected in the Near East (1573-1575). Taxon, 67(3), 565–580.

Stefanaki, A., Porck, H., Grimaldi, I. M., Thurn, N., Pugliano, V., Kardinaal, A., Salemink, J., Thijsse, G., Chavannes-Mazel, C., Kwakkel, E., & Andel, T. van. (2019). Breaking the silence of the 500-year-old smiling garden of everlasting flowers: The En Tibi book herbarium. PLOS ONE, 14(6), e0217779.

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.


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. 


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.


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).

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.