Botany and Art: States of Preservation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Art and Botany: John Bradby Blake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Victorian Botany: Ferns

Fern album cover (1875) created for Thomas Cranwell; Te Papa Museum of New Zealand.

Lynn Barber’s (1980) The Heyday of Natural History deals with many aspects of the Victorian age’s interest in nature.  One manifestation was a series of fads for particular plants, among them ferns.  This was sparked in part by the work of a surgeon in Jamaica, John Lindsay, who successfully grew ferns from spores.  Until then the propagation of these plants was something of a mystery because they obviously weren’t seed bearing.  Most ferns needed a moist environment and so the development of Wardian cases, discussed in the last post, made them much easier to keep alive.  Glasshouses or conservatories were another craze by mid-century.  While the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew built a massive Palm House, smaller versions, often built onto houses, soon appeared.  Along with the popular but hard to grow palms, these structures filled with ferns and toward the end of the century, orchids, another plant group that had slowly yielded up the secrets of their propagation (Endersby, 2016). 

Ferns were the easiest of this triumvirate to keep alive, and they could be easily observed and collected on forays into the countryside (Whittingham, 2009).  As with most fads, there were soon books on ferns aimed at a variety of audiences.  Thomas Moore was an expert on these plants and wrote a low-cost guide that fueled their popularity.  He was also the author of a much more expensive publication, the nature-printed Guide to the Ferns of Great Britain and Ireland (1855) in two volumes.  The prints were made by Henry Bradbury using a technique he devised that involved pressing ferns between a steel and a lead plate so the frond left an imprint on the softer lead.  The plates were printed with colored inks, essentially green for the fronds and brown for the rhizomes.  Obviously, this was a time-consuming and expensive process with a limited run, so the books were only available to the wealthy, but thanks to the Biodiversity Heritage Library, we can all enjoy them today, virtually if not physically. 

Needless to say, many of the more serious fern hunters not only tried to grow the plants, but also to make specimens from them.  It was standard to paste down the fronds with the spore side up, or at least to show both sides of the frond.  Many of the botanically minded were catholic in their tastes and collected broadly in an area, pressing flowering plants as well as ferns; others were more focused.  For those who wanted collections without the collecting, there were exsiccatae available, some geared to the botanist and others to the amateur.  Fern albums were often created in areas where ferns were most plentiful such as in the warmer and rainier parts of southern Britain and in Ireland.  However, it was in New Zealand where the greatest number of fern albums were produced.  This becomes clear in Fern Albums and Related Material by Michael Hayward and Martin Rickard (2019).  It’s a publication of the British Pteridological Society and one of my favorite books at the moment.  After all, it’s about herbaria and its full of images.

Hayward and Rickard have done a wonderful job of tracking down albums in herbaria, libraries, and museums.  The time when most of these albums were produced was relatively early in New Zealand’s colonial development; it was recognized as a British colony in 1840 with the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi between 600 Māori chieftains and the British.  The landscape of New Zealand is very different from Australia.  This nation of islands is wetter and cooler, more similar to Britain and more conducive to the growth of ferns.  In fact, New Zealand was almost covered with endemic fern species, as colonists realized when they began to clear the land for agriculture.  Producing albums, mostly for British buyers, became a way to raise extra cash.  The variety Hayward and Rickard present indicates there were several different markets.  Some collections have plain paper or cardboard covers, with labeled specimens pasted to the pages.  One style was to add moss to the bottom of the stipe, also a practice of the British botanist Isaac Balfour.  The more costly albums had bordered pages and leather covers embossed with gold.  In Auckland, Thomas Cranwell produced some of the most elaborate creations.  He teamed up with German furniture carvers who made covers from wood of the native kauri trees of the Agathis genus.  Some covers even had intricate veneers.  They were works of art, and were obviously aimed at Britain’s upper classes.  New Zealanders themselves could not have afforded them and probably wouldn’t be interesting in preserved ferns that they could see every day.  Other British colonies including Australia, India, and Jamaica got into the fern album business, but not to the same extent.  Each had a unique take, with the Jamaican versions more about artistic placement of unlabeled specimens and even displays of artfully placed fronds from several different species—definitely works of art rather than science.  Fern albums were not as popular in the United States, but Sadie Price, a naturalist in Kentucky (see earlier post), published a booklet with each black-and-white drawing of a fern opposite a blank page where the user could paste in the relevant specimen. 


Barber, L. (1980). The Heyday of Natural History. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Endersby, J. (2016). Orchid: A Cultural History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hayward, M., & Rickard, M. (2019). Fern Albums and Related Material. London: British Pteridological Society.

Whittingham, S. (2009). The Victorian Fern Craze. Oxford: Shire.

Victorian Botany: Conservatories

This series of posts is on plants and plant technologies that were popular in Victorian Britain and its spheres of influence, which means just about everywhere.  What started me on this topic was coming upon several books that fitted the theme including Kate Teltscher’s (2020) Palace of Palms: Tropical Dreams and the Making of Kew.  It deals with the transformation of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew from a failing establishment to the hub of a horticulture empire in the mid-19th century.  She begins with the botanical politics involved in rescuing Kew in the 1830s.  At that point it was composed of 11 acres that abutted the much larger Royal Pleasure Grounds.  It was directed by William Aiton who had been there for years and who wouldn’t share plants with other botanical gardens and even refused to label plants after several prized specimens had been stolen. 

It seemed to many that Kew was not worth saving, but there was push back and a commission was formed to investigate the situation.  It was comprised of John Lindley from the Royal Horticultural Society, Joseph Paxton gardener for the Duke of Devonshire, and John Wilson, gardener for the Earl of Surrey.  While the first two were well-known and respected in botanical and horticultural circles, Wilson was a political appointee.  With much behind-the-scenes maneuvering, the commission recommended that the garden be saved and converted from royal to governmental control.  The next step was finding someone to direct it, with Aiton staying on as director of the pleasure grounds.  Lindley wanted the job, but it ultimately went to William Jackson Hooker, professor of botany at the University of Glasgow.  He brought with him a library and a herbarium of over a million specimens, the largest in Britain at the time.

Teltscher does a great job of describing how Hooker set about improving Kew’s reputation in the botanical and horticultural communities.  He sent John Smith, the curator of living collections, on a tour of gardens throughout the United Kingdom to learn about novel practices, pick up design ideas, and let it be known that Kew was interested in sharing its duplicate stock with gardens that could reciprocate.  Smith returned with a feeling of accomplishment and a greater willingness to work with Hooker, who had gotten the job Smith  thought he should have.  Relatively early in this new regime, plans began for a new palm house, since Kew’s palms were pushing through the roof of their greenhouse.  A new glass and iron conservatory was modeled on the one that Paxton had designed for the Duke of Devonshire’s estate at Chatsworth.  I had known of Paxton’s involvement, but I knew nothing of the role played by Richard Turner, an engineer with a foundry in Dublin.  He devised a new type of iron framework for the glass panes and also designed a heating and ventilation system.  Just as in describing Kew’s rescue, Teltscher is good at laying out the intricacies involved in building this massive structure that covered over half an acre.

When the Palm House was completed in 1848, it fell to Smith to fill the vast space.  Massive palms had to be moved from their old venue and from several other greenhouses.  Still, this left the side aisles bare in the early days, as fast-growing species were nurtured in the emptied structures.  However, the public was thrilled with what they saw, and visitors to Kew increased as did its reputation in horticultural circles.  The garden now had a focal point, a symbol of its botanical wealth and reputation.  Meanwhile, Hooker was building the garden in other ways.  Aiton had retired in 1845 and Hooker was given control over the pleasure grounds, which meant that Kew had grown from 11 acres to over 200.  Plant exchanges continued to enrich the garden’s variety of plants, as Kew was encouraging donations not only from other botanic gardens but from those who traveled widely.  Hooker also maintained correspondence with botanists and plant collectors who sent him specimens from around the world.  Vast collections came from botanists working in gardens in India, Australia, and other British colonies.  Kew became a hub for the global transfer of plants including, of course, palms. 

Palms were sources of fruits like dates and coconuts, as well as oil, building materials, and fiber for ropes, baskets, and even cloth.  Though Aiton had stored economic botany materials that Joseph Banks had sent to Kew as evidence of the financial potential of exotic species, the materials had never been organized or catalogued until John Smith employed his son to do the job.  Eventually Alexander Smith became curator of the collection and in charge of the Museum of Vegetable Products opened in 1847.  This was soon renamed the Museum of Economic Botany and eventually grew to spread over four buildings in its heyday (Nesbitt & Cornish, 2016). 

Despite all this garden administration, Hooker still found time to continue his studies on ferns and produce a multi-volume work.  In addition, he nurtured the botanical career of his son, Joseph Dalton Hooker.  The Hooker family was not wealthy, so Joseph had to earn a living.  His father engineered his appointment to an expedition to India, and later Joseph became assistant director at Kew.  At his father’s death, Joseph was named director, and after some negotiations, William Hooker’s herbarium and library were sold to Kew, thus providing Joseph with a modest inheritance and Kew with solid scientific resources.  This is essentially where Teltscher’s story ends, though Kew continued to move from strength to strength, always with the Palm House as its symbol.


Teltscher, K. (2020). The Palace of Palms: Tropical Dreams and the Making of Kew. London: Picador.

Using Biodiversity

Seed collection at the herbarium, Penn State University

To continue with the discussion of the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (GSPC) targets from the last post, they deal with not only conserving plant species, but using them.  The rising human population exacerbates environmental problems and the demand for resources.  Sustainability is a term that suggests a solution:  employing resources in a way that can be stably continued over time and relying on resources that can be stably renewed.  Many themes come into play in this effort from saving seeds to using plants’ genetic diversity and the rich plant knowledge base of indigenous peoples. 

Seeds have always been of interest to botanists; they are an easy way to transport and share plants.  Luca Ghini did not just create one of the first herbaria, he also kept a catalogue of the seeds he collected from plants at the botanical garden of Pisa he founded.  He sent the list to other botanists and offered them seeds of any listed species.  However, seed saving was going on long before that.  Farmers kept seed to plant the next year’s crops, taking those from the best performing plants, thus selectively breeding for particular traits.

As agriculture scaled up and became more mechanized, a different model developed, with farmers buying seed from companies that grew plants for seeds, often with limited genetic variation.  Recently, seeds for many crops are from genetically engineered plants with traits like increased nutrient levels, resistance to pests, or faster growth.  Using these seeds decreases genetic variation in crop plants, with resulting susceptibility to pathogens.  With greater genetic diversity, at least a portion of the plants would survive.  Some farmers and gardeners have saved seed from what are called heirloom varieties or landraces, strains that were developed to grow well in particular areas, rather than being mass-produced.  These growers were doing a service to the larger community by conserving and propagating biodiversity and are now more appreciated. 

Many herbaria have seed collections; they were popular early in the century, and were often sold in custom-made cases, with each seed type in a small labeled vial.  These samples were not meant for propagation—seeds usually lose their viability rather quickly.  Instead, the seeds aided in identifying species that might have been collected with seeds.  In most cases the seeds are so old that they will not germinate, though they can be a source of DNA.  Seedbanks, on the other hand, are designed to save seed for future planting and some are of long standing.  They are crucial in preserving genetic diversity of crop plants and their wild relatives, and also of plant biodiversity in general.  Many nations have seeds banks, especially for agricultural crops and also for horticulturally important species.  The Russian botanist Nikolai Vavilov created an early bank for the many seeds he collected during his surveys of regions where various crop plants had originated.  The massive Svalbard Global Seed Bank built into permafrost within the Arctic Circle focuses on crop species, their wild relatives, and landraces.  It was created as a backup facility for seed collections throughout the world, in case any suffer damage.  The largest seed repository is the Millennium Seed Bank managed by Kew that aims to store seed for as many wild plant species as possible extending beyond the useful.

At the Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding Research, the Ross Potato Herbarium was founded after its namesake collected specimens as well as seed potatoes in South America in 1959, and it grew as additional material was added.  The USDA has a number of facilities for germplasm (seeds, cuttings, and plant tissue) throughout the country, and the National Arboretum in Washington, DC hosts the USDA’s herbarium.  In the United States, many crop-related specimens are housed in the institutions that grew out of the nineteenth-century land grant colleges.  These herbaria often have large collections of cultivated plant specimens because of their strong horticulture and agriculture programs.  The University of California, Davis is known for these, and being in California, it had a viticultural herbarium of grape vine specimens that has now been incorporated into the general herbarium. 

Some herbaria, particularly those with ties to indigenous peoples and to the high-diversity areas where many reside can be particularly focused on species that have agricultural and medicinal uses.  These communities are also the source for many plant varieties that are now of interest because they are landraces grown for generations and are outside of the agricultural-industrial complex.  It makes sense that if biodiversity is important for sustainable agriculture, then focus needs to be put on working with local communities, as has been done for many years in collecting potato varieties in the Andes for the International Potato Center in Lima, Peru.  This center and others around the world that focus on specific crops such as rice, wheat and corn not only store valuable genetic material but also do research on plant varieties with increased nutrients and other useful characteristics.  They also work with local populations in finding ways to make agriculture sustainable.  There are efforts to move away from concentrating on a single crop and create agricultural practices less damaging to soil and surrounding ecosystems.  Mixing crops including within forest environments instead of completely cutting down the trees are becoming more common initiatives and definitely in line with the GSPC. 

Gardens and Herbaria: Acclimatization and Cultivation

Panax quinquefolius, Mark Catesby, The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands,  Biodiversity Heritage Library

In the age of exploration, growing exotic plants in gardens, botanic or personal, could be a challenge and “acclimatization” became an important goal:  to have a plant from one climate and ecosystem thrive in a different one.  Mary Somerset (see earlier post) did this on a small scale, but to introduce a plant into agriculture or horticulture required much more time and a larger operation.  In 1652, the Dutch created a botanical garden at Cape Town, a trading post for the Dutch East India Company (VOC).  Like many colonial gardens, its function changed over time, as the needs of the colonial government did.  At first, it produced fresh vegetables, mostly European varieties, to supply VOC ships stopping at the Cape.  Later many European and Indian food plants were grown there.  When the garden was enlarged, it had a dedicated space for flowering plants and eventually a program for acclimatizing promising species collected from the parts of Asia involved in Dutch trade.  In the 1690s, Henrik Bernard Oldenland worked for the VOC exploring parts of South Africa and collecting plants.  Later he was superintendent of the Cape Town garden and created a 14-volume herbarium from the plants he collected, especially those he then cultivated in the garden.  It is now at the Geneva Botanical Garden Herbarium (Gunn & Codd, 1981).

Successful cultivation at garden’s like Oldenland’s made more plants available for distribution to other colonies and to the home country.  There were also studies on whether or not related species, or ones that were thought to be related, had similar properties.  This issue arose with a form of cinnamon, now identified as Laurus cinnamomum, found in South America that was ultimately a disappointment to those looking for a new source of the expensive Asian spice from Cinnamomum ceylanicum native to Ceylon, now Sri Lanka (Bleichmar, 2017).  Ginseng from Asia, Panax ginseng, with a root resembling a human form, had been highly prized in Europe for centuries, and when a similar plant, ultimately designated Panax quinquefolius, was found in North America, it spurred the hope that this new supply source would provide ginseng at a greatly reduced price (see image above).  But did it have the same medicinal properties?  For this work, there was no substitute for growing the plants and testing their potency, coupled with herbarium specimens for documenting precisely what was grown.  Eventually, the two plants were deemed different species, though with similar medicinal properties (Stearns, 1970).

The story of Cinchona lancifolia, source of quinine and native to the Andes, is an example of how difficult it was to work out a plant’s chemistry.  The Spanish struggled to learn both to extract the active ingredient from the tree’s bark and to find cinchona varieties that were particularly rich in it.  In 1783, when Spain was seeking to better use their colonies’ botanical resources, the viceroy of New Granada asked one of his governors to supply “skeletons,” herbarium specimens, of the local cinchona trees, ones from which the precious bark was harvested.  The governor was suspicious of this request, judging rightly that the botanists in Bogota, the capital, wanted to compare these specimens with ones from trees they were growing.  There was a great deal of debate about the quinine level in different trees, and even how to measure it, with some arguing for chemical tests, and others seeing medical effectiveness as the only valid measure.  One problem was that there were several species of the Cinchona genus that had varying quinine levels; purification also resulted in unpredictable yields (Crawford, 2016).

While South America was the only source for cinchona worldwide, other countries were attempting to raise the trees in their colonies.  The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew grew cinchona seeds collected by Richard Spruce, a nineteenth-century British collector.  The garden was also offered seed from a British expatriate living in Peru, Charles Ledger.  Kew turned him down, not knowing the origin of the seeds, but the Dutch were willing to take a chance.  Ledger’s seeds were from what was found to be a different species, now named Cinchona calisaya, that produced more quinine, allowing the Dutch in Java to corner the market until World War II.  While Britain never competed in the international quinine trade, the Kew experiments led to transfer of Cinchona succirubra plants from Kew to Britain’s colonies in Africa and Asia that were plagued by malaria, so they could avoid paying the high Dutch prices (Brockway, 1979).

In the nineteenth century, Kew was center of a network of botanical gardens in British colonies with acclimatization as a major aim.  As with the French and Dutch, some of these gardens had already been founded in the eighteenth century, such as one in Calcutta.  The Calcutta Botanic Garden and others in India were under the control of the East India Company (EIC), a quasi-governmental body ruling large areas of India.  Among the major interests of the EIC was forestry.  Britain had long ago decimated many of its own forests, while its need for lumber continued to expand.  Trees were an important element of economic botany in the colonies.  In India, the exploitation and destruction of forests became so intense, it caused fears of future shortages and also environmental change:  cutting down trees led to changes in local weather patterns, loss of soil fertility, and consequently environmental deterioration in large areas of the country (Noltie, 2016).  Botanic gardens were used as experimental stations to study trees that might be grown on plantations to produce lumber and for reforestation projects.  At one point the Singapore Botanic Gardens focused on growing large numbers of plants, particularly rubber trees, to be distributed throughout the country and to other parts of the British Empire (Barnard, 2016).  In order to document what was grown and to understand the differences among various species and subspecies, herbarium specimens, wood samples, and drawings were collected.


Barnard, T. P. (2016). Nature’s Colony: Empire, Nation and Environment in the Singapore Botanic Gardens. Singapore: National University of Singapore Press.

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

Brockway, L. B. (1979). Science and Colonial Expansion: The Role of the British Royal Botanic Gardens. Interdisciplinary Anthropology, 6(3), 449–465.

Crawford, M. J. (2016). The Andean Wonder Drug: Cinchona bark and imperial science in the Spanish Atlantic, 1630-1800. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Gunn, M., & Codd, L. E. (1981). Botanical exploration of Southern Africa. Cape Town: Balkema.

Noltie, H. J. (2016). Indian Forester, Scottish Laird: The Botanical Lives of Hugh Cleghorn of Stravithie. Edinburgh: Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

Stearns, R. P. (1970). Science in the British Colonies of America. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Gardens and Herbaria: Women

Embroidery of cherry tree by Bess of Hardwick, Oxburgh Hall, Norfolk, UK

This series of posts is on gardens and the herbaria that document what has been grown in them.  Most gardeners do not preserve specimens of their favorite plants, though some might press a flower or beautiful leaf between the pages of a gardening guide.  In the past however, some gardeners were so tied into botanical networks that pressing plants was an important part of their practice.  I am thinking specifically of two British noblewomen who gardened on a grand scale.  The first is Mary Somerset, Duchess of Beaufort (1630-1715), who traded plant information with such botanical notables as Hans Sloane, William Sherard, and James Petiver.  Even John Ray consulted her herbarium in writing some of his plant descriptions.

Somerset had the wealth to pay collectors for exotic plants from around the world and also to create conditions in which these plants could flourish.  She and her gardeners gave delicate plants a great deal of attention.  She was among the first to have a stove or heated greenhouse with large windows and heating under a stone floor provided by an open fire in a mobile cart on tracks so it could be moved around under the floor.  Botanists like Petiver enjoyed visiting her because of the plants he found flourishing, some of which he only knew from pressed specimens.  Somerset was assisted by William Sherard, a botanist who later worked at Oxford and whom she hired as her grandson’s tutor.  He schooled her in botany, used his connections to add many exotics to her garden, and developed her herbarium as she worked side by side with him (Davies, 2016).

The Duchess kept track of both the rare and familiar plants she grew, and in her herbarium there are pages of anemone flowers, for example, from varieties that have long since disappeared and for which the collection provides a permanent physical record of their existence.  There are few such horticultural herbaria, particularly from this period.  It is not surprising that the 12-volume Somerset herbarium is now part of Sloane’s at the Natural History Museum, London (NHM).  Later in life when she moved from her estate in Beaufort to a house and garden in Chelsea, she was Sloane’s neighbor.  Anxious to get plant names right, she corresponded with Sloane and others, admitting that neither she nor her gardener knew Latin, yet Sloane thought so highly of her cultivation skills and facilities that he had her grow medicinal plants for the Royal College of Physicians (McClain, 2001).

Somerset documented her successes not only in her herbarium but by having her plants drawn by artists including Everhard Kick, who had painted the Jamaican plants in Sloane’s collection.  Kick spent from 1703 to 1705 at Somerset’s estate depicting species she was growing.  One was a Polygala or milkwort species from the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa that was not introduced into British horticulture until 1707, suggesting that Somerset had received a plant directly from the collector, a sign of her status in the botanical network (Cottesloe & Hunt, 1986).

Somerset used Kick’s paintings and those of others as templates for embroidery designs.  She was a skilled needleworker, as were many upper-class women of her time, and flowers were a favorite subject.  In an article on Mary Queen of Scots and Bess of Hardwick, Nicole LaBouff (2018) argues that women used embroidery as a way to display and also increase their botanical knowledge.  Among the references for these women’s work was Andrea Mattioli’s herbal from Mary’s library.   They considered sewing another form of study, a way to learn about plant form and structure, an adjunct to working in the garden or creating a herbarium.  Each enriched their understanding of plants.  Since women were limited in their educational opportunities, they used such outlets to grow intellectually through what were considered feminine arts.

Years later, the constraints remained but the number of women horticulturists had grown.  The Duchess of Portland Margaret Bentinck (1715-1785) was another wealthy woman who used plants as a way to develop her intellect, her aesthetic sense, and her gardens.  Like Somerset, she had a leading botanical artist, Georg Ehret, document her plants in watercolors and teach her daughters painting.  Bentinck was also a patron to the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who later in life studied botany, seeing it as calming the emotions by focusing the mind on something outside itself.  Botany became an important manifestation of his interest in nature, especially in common species rather than exotics and horticultural “monstrosities.”  When Rousseau visited England, he stayed at Bentinck’s estate and botanized with her.  He gave her two portable herbaria since he considered a plant collection a way to reinforce botanical knowledge (Laird, 2015).

Mary Delany, known for her exquisite floral embroideries and even more for her floral paper cutouts, was a good friend of Bentinck and spent months at a time visiting her.  They studied Linnaean botany with the Rev. John Lightfoot, who organized Bentinck’s specimens, collected for her, and served as her chaplain (Laird & Weisberg-Roberts, 2009).  Through her work with Lightfoot, Delany was familiar with specimen preparation and so with arranging a plant on paper, flattening it out, and making sure all its essential features were displayed.  With her cutouts she was doing something similar and often depicted both sides of a plant’s leaves, common practice in mounting a specimen.  Delany’s collages can be likened to herbarium specimens in having more depth and texture than an illustration; there are even a few cases where Delany added real leaves to a work (see above).  Botany, specimen preparation, and art sharpened her observations and drove her to look closely and to become more connected with flower form.


Cottesloe, G., & Hunt, D. (1983). The Duchess of Beaufort’s Flowers. Exeter, UK: Webb and Bower.

Davies, J. (2016). Botanizing at Badminton: The botanical pursuits of Mary Somerset, First Duchess of Beaufort. In D. Optiz, S. Bergwik, & B. Van Tiggelen (Eds.), Domesticity in the Making of Modern Science (pp. 19–40). London: Palgrave Macmillan.

LaBouff, N. (2018). Embroidery and Information Management: The Needlework of Mary Queen of Scots and Bess of Hardwick Reconsidered. 81(3), 315–358.

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.

McClain, M. (2001). Beaufort: The Duke and his Duchess. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Collection Furnishings

Cabinets designed by Mark Dion for the Schildbach wood collection, Kassel Natural History Museum

In the last post on Mark Dion’s artistic commentaries about natural history collections, I failed to mention the many pieces of furniture used in his installations.  In some cases, these pieces were specially designed for displaying collections, such as a cabinet with drawers filled with specimens Dion assembled as part of his Travels of William Bartram—Reconsidered (2008) exhibit, which also included a repurposed old wood-and-glass library cabinet housing a display of alligator-related souvenirs and postcards.  Dion also built cabinets to permanently display the impressive xylotheque or wood library created in the 1780s by Carl Schildbach and now in the Natural History Museum in Kassel, Germany (see image above).  Like paper, which I discussed in an earlier series of posts (1,2,3,4), cabinets are so much a part of herbarium life they are taken for granted unless one of two things happen:  there’s no more room in these, or there are resources available to buy new equipment and/or enlarge a herbarium.

The first is definitely more likely to occur than the second, and the problem usually creeps up slowly.  Sometimes it’s possible to rearrange cabinets and fit in yet another one.  I am thinking specifically of the A.C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, my herbarium home.  It is composed of a rabbit warren of rooms, all but one with cabinets.  They are all metal, but that’s were resemblances end.  The 19th-century Henry Ravenel Collection, previously at Converse College, is housed in cabinets purchased with a NSF Collections Improvement Grant which funded the majority of the herbarium’s cabinets.  But also interspersed throughout the facility are cabinets of varying vintages and provenances.  Along with the standard-height ones there are several of counter height.  Curator emeritus John Nelson traveled to Washington DC to pick them up when the National Arboretum was disposing of them.  They were well worth the trip.  Bordering on the antique, they are beyond sturdy and double as great work tables.

To me one of the hallmarks of an active herbarium is unmatched cabinets, unless of course an herbarium has been funded, often in part with a NSF grant to buy new furnishings and perhaps move into a larger space, and often equipped with compactors—heaven, but only for a time.  The plants keep coming.  The herbarium at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew has been enlarged several times.  However, there is evidence of efforts to make do between additions.  In the oldest building, still with wooden cabinets, there were extra cabinets built on top of the original ones to provide more storage.  The same thing happened at Trinity College Herbarium in Dublin.  A rolling ladder is a necessity with such a setup.  In many herbaria where this hasn’t been attempted, the room on top of the cabinets is where cardboard boxes of unmounted and uncatalogued specimens reside.

Standard herbarium cabinets are hardly suitable for many kinds of collections.  Envelopes of lichens or mosses are often better kept in cabinets with drawers.  Something similar accommodates boxes of slides and vials, the majority of items in the Diatom Herbarium at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University in Philadelphia.  In the herbarium at the National Botanic Garden in Ireland, there are neatly arranged boxes with pine cones and other large tree-related materials collected by Augustine Henry, co-author with Henry John Elwes of The Trees of Great Britain and Ireland (1906).  His wife hit on the idea of shop boxes used in the clothing stores of the time.  They were sturdy and had cord pulls to make them easy to access.  Many herbaria also have collections of fruits and flowers in jars of solution.  They require a totally different type of care, including a heavier floor to withstand the weight and a door frame with a lip at the bottom, so if there is spillage inside the room, it won’t leak out.

While they are not common in the United States, boxes are used in many herbaria to store herbarium sheets.  Kew uses them in some areas and the National Herbarium of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia does too—they are all red.  Just as there are endless arguments about how kitchen cabinets should or should not be designed, the same is true of herbarium furnishings.  While most herbaria have closed cabinets, often with special seals to keep out pests and moisture, some institutions have open shelves.  The herbaria at the National Museum Natural History in Paris and the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, both have open shelves in their newer compactor storage facilities.  These are among the largest herbaria in the world, and omitting doors meant less space wasted and greater ease of access.  Since these facilities are temperature controlled and surveilled for pests, this solution seemed the best.

Walking into such spaces sparks a feeling of awe:  a herbarium cathedral.  However, walking into the A. C. Moore Herbarium, gives a different, and perhaps even more wonderful response:  a sense of comfort like entering a home with mismatched, well-used, and well-loved furniture.  In this environment, it is also easier to sense the history that resides there:  the decades upon decades represented and the many places in South Carolina where collections have been made repeatedly, providing data on what has changed over time.  A.C. Moore definitely needs more room, and it would be great to have “a state of the art” facility for the state’s largest collection of South Carolina plants, but I hope one of those old National Arboretum cabinets could also make the move.

Notes: I want to thank Herrick Brown and John Nelson for all their help and their graciousness in allowing me to be part of the A.C. Moore Herbarium family.


Conceptualizing Collections

A print from Herbarium H. Perrine (2010) by Mark Dion

The artist Mark Dion creates works that comment on natural history, collecting, and what doesn’t get collected.  He has been exhibiting for thirty years, producing an impressive body of work.  Just how impressive is documented in a book edited by Ruth Erickson (2020) with commentaries on his art.  It’s called Mark Dion: Misadventures of a 21st– Century Naturalist.  The title hints at Dion’s often self-deprecating approach, the underlying wit in many of his pieces, and the challenges to being a naturalist in the digital age.

I have seen a few of his works including a set of photogravure prints called Herbarium H. Perrine (2010), supposedly of marine algae specimens collected in Florida by Henry Perrine (1797-1840).  As with all of Dion’s work, this one has a complex backstory and several layers of meaning.  Most obviously, it comments on the 19th-century interest in collecting seaweed, in part fed by a general interest in natural history and also by the opening up of sea shores to tourists and vacationers (Barber, 1980).  Perrine arrived in the Florida Keys in 1838, relatively early in the area’s development.  He had been a United States consul in Mexico where he became intrigued by tropical plants.  He and he family went to the Keys to wait out the end of the Second Seminole War and then planned to move to a land-grant property where he hoped to create a settlement and cultivate tropical species.  In preparation, he planted seeds of Mexican plants and studied their growth while he also collected widely in the area.  In 1840 his home was attacked by Seminole defending their rights to the land.  Perrine was killed, his house—and specimens—burnt.  So there are no extant Henry Perrine specimens.

Dion collected algae and mounted them on herbarium sheets.  They were exhibited as the Herbarium Perrine (Marine Algae) in 1996 and became the basis of the prints Dion made later.  Like any self-respecting herbarium sheet, these are stamped with the name of the herbarium and have a “Marine Algae” stamp (see image above).  Each sheet also has a printed label with the heading:  “Ex. Herb. H. Perrine,” with lines to fill in place and date of collection, but the labels are blank, there is no information, a gesture to the missing specimens.  The irony is that Dion is highlighting a man who brought exotic plants to a fragile ecosystem; some of them later became difficult-to-control invasive weeds.  As with so much of the history of botany, this is a story about a complex passion for plants, particularly unusual ones, an interest in economic botany, colonization, humans as an invasive species, and the inherent beauty of algae.

To give the saga one more twist, the herbarium itself became part of another Dion work, an installation called South Florida Wildlife Rescue Unit: Mobile Laboratory (2006).  It included what appears to be a food truck, painted yellow, with its side panel open as if ready to sell hotdogs.  But on the counter are tools for examining specimens that would apparently be collected by biologists wearing outfits like those on two manikins alongside the truck.  This is a commentary on the continuing damage being done to Florida ecosystems by developers and by poachers looking for rare plants, particularly orchids (Orleans, 1998).  Two biologists with gear are hardly a match for such forces.

The only other Dion installation I’ve seen was part of the Carnegie Museum of Art’s biennial exhibit in 1999.  Actually, the piece was placed in the adjacent Carnegie Museum of Natural History.  There is free access between the two institutions, which makes for a wonderful blend of art and science.  Dion’s work was called Alexander Wilson—Studio, and it was just that:  a log cabin filled with what a bird artist in early 19th-century Pennsylvania would need for his work.  There were stuffed birds, a rifle, a table with art materials, clothing, a cot, etc.  Wilson emigrated from Scotland, worked as a teacher, and eventually met another famous Pennsylvania naturalist, William Bartram, who encouraged Wilson to use his obvious artistic talent in painting American birds.  Over the course of several years Wilson documented hundreds of species, discovering 26 new ones, and published nine volumes of American Ornithology.  He was followed just a few years later by John James Audubon, whose work was considered superior because birds were in more natural poses with realistic landscapes.  Dion’s tribute to Wilson is a reminder that forerunners like Wilson face unique obstacles, such as crude living conditions, lack of recognition, and difficulties in understanding subjects before painting them.  It was said that Wilson’s death at age 47 was the result of dysentery, overwork, and poverty (Kastner, 1977).  Dion does a good job of making those conditions come to life.

I’ll close by mentioning one more work of dozens that make this book well worth reading.  It is one I didn’t see, but when I read about it, the idea stuck with me.  It is called The Great Munich Bug Hunt (1993) and involved Dion and an entomologist investigating a huge tree trunk in an art gallery; they were looking for and collecting insects.  The focus was on creatures that are so often missed:  rotting wood is not always appreciated.  The fact that the two were dressed in lab coats sent the message that this was serious scientific work as well as an art installation designed to change the viewer’s sense of what is significant in nature.


Barber, L. (1980). The Heyday of Natural History. New York: Doubleday.

Erickson, R. (n.d.). Mark Dion: Misadventures of a 21st-Century Naturalist. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Kastner, J. (1977). A Species of Eternity. New York: Knopf.

Orlean, S. (1998). The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Obsession. New York: Ballantine.

Decolonizing Collections

One of James Petiver’s publications where he cited the collectors who provided him with specimens

Over the past year I have spent more time than usual on social media and Zoom presentations.  Since I am interested in plant collections, I tend to come across programs related to natural history museums.  A persistent theme that has gotten even more attention since the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, is the idea of decolonizing collections.  This is hardly a new concept, but events have made it a more obvious and pressing concern.  Because so many institutions were physically closed, curators and the public had a chance to step back and ask questions about the future of collections and how they are used.

I hesitate to even broach this topic because I am an old, white woman who some would consider privileged:  educated and comfortably retired.  Despite my limit perspective, I am writing about this issue because I can’t not write about it.  One Zoom presentation I attended was sponsored by the Digital Library Federation and featured staff from New York Botanical Garden .  Regina Vitiello, project coordinator for the garden’s Steere Herbarium, discussed the issue of labels with place names that would now be considered culturally inappropriate.  There are a number of issues here ranging from who finds these—is it enough just to wait until someone happens upon a problem or should curators be actively searching for them.  Then, who decides they are inappropriate and what to do about them:  are they expunged—both on the specimen and online—or are they left, but with a notation.  Vitiello notes that this work becomes a communal project within the herbarium, requiring discussions among those responsible for the collection.

Rashad Bell, collections maintenance associate at the NYBG Mertz Library, covered similar issues with the library catalogue.  In searching for items for a patron, he found a 1950 biography of George Washington Carver called The Ebony Scientist, a title that would not even be considered today.  However, the book is still a useful resource, so it should remain in the collection and in the online catalogue.  What, if any, notation should be made on the entry?  Neither Bell nor Vitiello had answers for all the questions they probed, but that is in part what made their presentation useful.  It showed the layers of examination and work involved in actually opening up collections, laying out how they reflect past cultural influences, and what is involved in making them more welcoming to all.

Bell also participated in a presentation at Science Museum Fridays at New York University.  The session was called Decolonizing Living Collections and also included Laura Briscoe, NYBG herbarium collections manager.  After the event,  Bell and Nuala P. Caomhánach wrote about interviews with the participants for the Journal of the History of Ideas blog (1,2).  They are worth reading to get a sense of the complexity of the issues involved.

“Decolonizing collections” can mean many things but a major thrust is to ask new questions of what is available, including what collections and their attendant archives can reveal about the role of indigenous and enslaved peoples in building them.  One collection that is receiving special scrutiny is that of Hans Sloane, the British physician who assembled not only a large herbarium but also books, art, coins, anthropological and zoological materials from around the world, that became the founding collection of the British Museum (see last post).  Sloane’s wealth came in part from his marrying a wealthy widow who had inherited her husband’s Jamaican plantations that employed enslaved people.  Sloane met her while he was physician to Jamaica’s British governor and spent his spare time amassing a natural history collection.  He was aided by British landowners as well as indigenous and enslaved people.  The latter two groups were those most engaged with the land and its organisms (Delbourgo, 2017).  Careful scrutiny of Sloane’s letters and notebooks could reveal interactions and information not recorded in his Natural History of Jamaica.

Sloane’s herbarium is composed of collections by over 280 individuals, with the most specimens coming from James Petiver who himself had acquired 100 herbaria and had a network of collectors around the world.  Important sources were the captains and surgeons on slave ships that sailed a triangular route from Britain to Africa carrying goods that were sold there and then conveying enslaved Africans to be sold in the West Indies and from there in the American colonies.  On the return trip, the ships carried sugar, coffee, and tobacco to Britain.  Though Petiver’s collection had a worldwide scope, the geography of slavery shaped it in that many of his specimens came from West Africa, the Caribbean, and southern American colonies.  The role of slavery here is now being more carefully scrutinized along with other colonization practices (Murphy, 2020).

Petiver published regularly, describing new species that his network had sent him .  He rewarded contributors by mentioning their names in print, but needless to say, the names of many who had actually found the plants and imparted information about them are forgotten.  (see image above)  To me, this is what decolonizing collections is about, attempting to unearth the people and information that never made it into publications.  In most cases, names are lost, but hidden in the archives are references to where collectors obtained plants and plant stories, some of them about a species’ uses or religious significance.


Delbourgo, J. (2017). Collecting the World: The Life and Curiosity of Hans Sloane. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Murphy, K. S. (2020). James Petiver’s ‘Kind Friends’ and ‘Curious Persons’ in the Atlantic World: Commerce, colonialism and collecting. Notes and Records: The Royal Society Journal of the History of Science, 74(2), 259–274.

Note:  I would like to thank Ray Pun, instruction/research librarian at the Alder Graduate School of Education in California, for providing the link to the Digital Library  Federation presentation from NYBG.  This is only one of many resources he has pointed me towards and for which I am grateful.