This and That: Travels of Sophora toromiro

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Toromiro, Sophora toromiro (Phil.) Skottsb, collected 28 June 1800, H. Herrenhus. [possibly Hannover Herrenhausen Royal Gardens], Germany. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Te Papa (SP107845)

As with most of the posts in this series of miscellanea (see last post), this story begins with a Tweet, one linked to a blog post and a research article connecting four countries over 250 years.  I’ll try to keep it as simple as possible, by starting in the middle.  In 1877, James Hector, director of the Colonial Museum in New Zealand (now the Museum of New Zealand: Te Papa), asked the British Museum (BM) for a collection of European plant specimens to compare with European plants colonists had brought into the country and were now flourishing, sometimes to the point of being nuisances.  Hector received 28,000 specimens collected by three British amateur botanists: a husband and wife, Silvanus and Bridget Thompson, and Thompson’s student, James Baker.  Most specimens were from cultivated plants gathered in German botanic gardens and the Cels nursery in France between 1764-1864.  Hector never got around to sorting through this gift from the BM; it remained in its original packaging until the 1950s; even today, the only vascular plants to be processed are the orchids.

Recently six specimens of Sophora were found in the collection.  Sophora is a small genus of 17 species in the Fabaceae family and native to the South Pacific.  With eight species, New Zealand is its center of diversity, hence the interest in these sheets that were dated from 1796 to 1822 and were presumably from cultivated plants.  This was surprisingly early for Sophora to be growing in Europe.  Until now, it was thought that the Sophora in Europe were all descended from seeds collected from the 1920-1950s.  There was little plant collecting in the South Pacific until the early 1800s, though Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander had gathered seeds of two Sophora species on Captain James Cook’s first round-the world voyage.  These were planted at Kew by 1772, and there were a few other early cultivations.

The six specimens of interest are in the herbarium of the descendent of the Colonial Museum, the Museum of New Zealand, with the Maori name, Te PapaCarlos Lehnebach, botany curator, and Lara Shepherd, research scientist specializing in DNA sequencing, decided to learn more about the genetics of these six specimens from the 19th-century BM gift.  When Shepherd got the results of her analysis, she was shocked:  one of the specimens, collected in 1800, had genes of Sophora toromiro, a species endemic to Easter Island, Rapa Nui.  It became extinct in the wild in the 20th century, though it is cultivated at several botanic gardens.  At first Shepherd couldn’t believe the results, but when she and Lehnebach looked at the specimen, they found that it did in fact have characteristics of the Rapa Nui plant.  But how did it end up growing in Germany in 1800?

The researchers speculate that seeds may have been collected during Captain Cook’s second round-the-world voyage (1772-1775), when the expedition stopped at Rapa Nui.  The botanists on that trip were Johann Reinhold Forster and his son Georg, with the Linnaean pupil Anders Sparrman as their assistant.   They were the first Europeans to collect specimens on the island, and Sparrman was known to have collected seeds.  He may very well have collected them from this plant, since it grew in thickets and was the only native shrub on the island.  If S. toromiro seeds were planted in the late 1770s, then the shrub would have been established enough to yield cuttings in 1800.  In looking for other Sophora specimens, Lehnebach and Shepherd have found one at the herbarium of the Botanic Garden and Botanical Museum Berlin-Dahlem that could be S. toromiro.  It has no collection date, but it is part of Carl Ludwig Willdenow’s (1765-1812) collection, and a large number of Forster specimens were included in it.  Willdenow had one of those bad habits that frustrates later curators:  he removed the old labels and replaced them with his own, often neglecting to transcribe what’s now considered essential information.

Admittedly, there are suppositions holding this story together, but further work, including analysis of chromosomal DNA from the Willdenow specimen, may make the picture clearer.  In any event, this case study presents a good argument for curating specimens that have been moldering in boxes for decades if not centuries.  This situation is not the result of bad management but of overworked curators without time to deal with the substantial work involved in mounting specimens and providing them with up-to-date identifications.  However, this example suggests the exhilaration that can result from the effort.  Though not every find is a jewel, that’s true of cleaning out any attic.  However, one never knows when a first edition book or a valuable art work might come to light.  My favorite statistic at the moment is that when the herbarium at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris was cleared out prior to renovations about 10 years ago, 830,000 unmounted specimens were found.  Most of them have since been mounted by an outside contractor called in for the massive job (Le Bras, 2017).  But the specimens still need to be curated and filed, a job that amounts to organizing a good-sized herbarium.


Le Bras, G., Pignal, M., Jeanson, M. L., Muller, S., Aupic, C., Carré, B., Flament, G., Gaudeul, M., Gonçalves, C., Invernón, V. R., Jabbour, F., Lerat, E., Lowry, P. P., Offroy, B., Pimparé, E. P., Poncy, O., Rouhan, G., & Haevermans, T. (2017). The French Muséum national d’histoire naturelle vascular plant herbarium collection dataset. Scientific Data, 4(1), 1–16.

This and That: Ehrenberg’s Diatoms

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Images from E. César’s Tweet on the Ehrenberg Collection at the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin.

Though I have more time to think deeply right now than ever in my life, I’m finding it difficult to do; everything is so different from usual that it’s unsettling.  That’s why I’m not focusing on one topic for a month’s worth of posts as I usually do, but flitting from one topic to another from week to week.  In part this is because of Twitter, my lifeline to the botanical world at the moment.  Thank goodness botanists are interesting people and post interesting ideas.  Most days I find at least one item worth bookmarking and then delving into more deeply.  That’s how I discovered Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg (1795-1876).  I must have come across his name in the past, especially when I was reading about Alexander von Humboldt because Ehrenberg accompanied the explorer on his trip to Siberia in 1829.

A Tweet on Ehrenberg by Edgley César, curator of diatoms at the Natural History Museum, London, included the image above.  It was the photo on the upper right that first caught my eye—obviously old data—and the illustration on the lower left was another lure.  César took the pictures at the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin where he had spent a week examining specimens of a genus Ehrenberg had described and was amazed by how much work this “founding father” of diatom research had done and how well he drew.  As the thread continued, someone asked about Ehrenberg and César pointed them, and me, to a series of papers published in 1998 dealing with his life, work, and collections.

Ehrenberg was definitely productive throughout his life.  Born near Leipzig, he attended the university there, completing his doctorate on fungi in 1818.  His fungal herbarium is in the Botanic Garden and Botanical Museum Berlin-Dahlem.  From 1820-1825, Ehrenberg participated in an expedition to the Middle East, during which he and his friend Wilhelm Hemprich amassed 114 boxes with 46,000 plant and 34,000 animals specimens as well as seeds, fossils, minerals, and of course, mummies.  Yet the trip was grueling, with three-quarters of team dying, including Hemprich.  Ehrenberg published, Symbolae Physicae, a multivolume work on all aspects of the collection and including 800 plates, many based on his drawings.  He did not describe many of the plants he collected and left the world of higher plants to concentrate on microscopic work, on what were called infusoria, organisms found in decaying matter.  However, he did teach all his children to press plants and create their own herbaria.

A great deal of Ehrenberg’s research was on radiolaria and diatoms.  He considered them all tiny animals and carefully studied their internal structures, which he interpreted as digestive, reproductive, and muscular.  He thought that when better microscopes were developed, these organelles would be seen more clearly.  It is interesting that when diatoms were finally recognized to be more closely related to plants than animals, interest in their internal structures waned, and their taxonomy became based primarily on their elaborate silicate shells that come in a dizzying array of patterns.  The assumption became that there was little difference among these organisms internally; plant cell structures were just not that interesting.  Ancient shells found in diatomaceous earth have long been used in geological exploration, since they are related to oil deposits, but even present-day species are often dried, and just their shells examined.

Ehrenberg made extremely detailed and exquisite illustrations of these organisms and in 1838 published a book with 64 plates on Infusoria in all of their complexity.  He also kept detailed notes on his work, as well as retaining the specimens he’d examined.  Glass slides and coverslips were expensive, so he used small mica discs with a bit of Canadian balsam, a shorthand term for a thick liquid made from the tree’s resin that was a mainstay for 19th-century microscopists because of its optical properties.  Ehrenberg highlighted interesting organisms with small circles, and then with a little more balsam, stuck the discs to his notes.  These have been preserved for almost 200 years, though not without difficulties.

The Ehrenberg Collection at the Museum für Naturkunde consists of 40,000 microscope preparations, 5,000 raw samples, 3000 illustrations, and 800 letters.  It is the combination of different kinds of information that makes it so impressive and valuable, but also daunting.  Most of Ehrenberg’s vascular plant herbarium was at the Berlin-Dahlem botanic garden and was lost when its herbarium was bombed during World War II.  The infusoria, on the other hand, were at the museum and survived but in what would become East Berlin.  The collection was not curated or organized until after German reunification when new resources became available.  It was in light of this that the 1998 article collection was published to showcase Ehrenberg’s work and how the collection could be used, just as César is now using it.  The notes are now beautifully curated (see below), but this required a great deal of work.  The balsam has become brittle, and the mica discs are fragile and difficult to handle.  Over the years some had become unstuck, shifted, and were crushed.  Conservation was necessary because the records contain many type specimens, though as David Mann notes in the last article in the collection, types can present difficulties in terms of hunting them down in a compilation this vast and with all the vagaries it has been through.

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Photo of portion of conserved Ehrenberg Collection at the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin.

As someone who is fascinated by diatoms, the Ehrenberg Collection is definitely a treasure (see video), along with the diatom collections at the Academy of Natural Sciences herbarium in Philadelphia (see earlier post) and at the Natural History Museum, London.  If you are interested in these beautiful organisms that are classified as algae, you might want to look at Martyn Kelley’s long-running Microscopes and Monsters blog where he deals with microscopic algae and environmental monitoring.

Opening Up Herbaria: Higher Education


Website for BLUE: Biodiversity Literacy in Undergraduate Education

When I majored in biology in the late 1960s, the focus was on cellular biology.  Our year-long intro biology course concentrated on molecules, cells, genetics, and human physiology.  Taxonomy was almost completely skipped over.  This was probably worse than eliminating it completely because a quick tour was head-spinning, and we were left with little more than the idea that the living world is full of exotic creatures with tongue-tying names, definitely an aspect of biology to avoid.  During the fall semester, I fell in love with electron microscope images of cells and that set my educational course.  If I could see a living thing, I wasn’t interested in it.  Out of fifteen biology majors in my cohort, only one went into organismal biology, becoming an oceanographer studying copepods.

While many of my generation continued on to careers in ecology, few ended up in systematics, and the movement away from this discipline remains a trend to this day.  The result is that there are not many botanists and zoologists who have expertise in accurate species identification.  This is particularly ironic because species are still being discovered.  However among plants, a quarter are left undescribed for 50 years or more after they were first found (Bebber et al., 2010).  With the dawn of the 21st century, targeted efforts have been underway to bring back what can broadly be called natural history:  studying biology at the organismal level.  In part this trend is the result of the massive NSF project over the past 10 years to work toward digitizing information on the nation’s natural history collections.

As collections are scrutinized, many discoveries are made, and just the scope of the collections has reawakened interest in them, in what they say about the natural world.  The Society of Herbarium Curators is playing a larger and larger role in this work, as it encourages interest in herbaria among many constituencies, including young people considering careers in systematics and botanical biodiversity.  One of the more disturbing discoveries is the number of species known from old collections that haven’t been found again in the 20th and 21st centuries.  Another is that scientific species names are a foreign language for most of us.  I definitely include myself here.  Until I got on my botany kick, I knew more bacterial than plant genera.  Catching up isn’t easy but it feels good when I can identify a species and name it correctly.  And it’s that good feeling, among other things, that botanists are attempting to pass on to more of today’s students.

In the last post, I wrote about bringing natural history into K-12 classrooms.  Here I want to mention programs to do the same in higher education.  This is a huge topic because it has several different strata.  Among undergraduates, there are some who will major in biology and go on to work in ecology, systematics, and related fields.  But the vast majority will not.  These are the students I taught and that I still worry about.  If they are interested in anything biological, besides issues of health, it is organisms they can see.  Yet much of biology education is devoted to cells and molecules.  The first semester I taught I was shocked to find that my nonmajors did not find protein synthesis fascinating, and they still don’t.  I tried to find ways to make it tantalizing, and finally turned to dealing with another problem:  plant blindness.  I found this an easier sell.  Students were much more likely to find trees on campus to observe than to stumble on a ribosome.  There are now many natural history activities geared to such students including a project developed at the Université catholique de Louvain that could be adapted in many ways.  In addition, Brad Balukjian has written persuasively on why he has just begun a natural history and sustainability program at a California community college.

For those majoring in biology, there is definitely an upswing of interest in fields focused on biodiversity.  The NSF-sponsored program, BLUE: Biodiversity Literacy in Undergraduate Education, aims at developing a set of biodiversity competencies for undergraduates.  These would include not only a focus on organismal biology and ecology, but also on digital literacy and bioinformatics, which will be essential for future professionals.  It is exciting to see a field form around these ideas, some of which are centuries old, and some only beginning to gel.   Natural history collections are essential to these efforts because they hold a great deal of the history of the natural world.  They are also where the living world of today will be recorded.  As I have mentioned a number of times, I volunteer at the A.C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, Columbia.  It is alive with undergraduate students who as student workers and interns have learned a great deal about botany by digitizing label information and imaging specimens.  Among the specimens are those collected in the mid-19th century by the planter and botanist Henry Ravenel.  These are on permanent loan from Converse College, and provide a picture of the flora of South Carolina of the past.  There are also graduate students in environmental studies who are contributing specimen vouchers from their work in the field.  Herrick Brown, the A.C. Moore Curator, whose doctoral work dealt with seed dispersal and climate modeling (Brown & Wethey, 2019), has plans to foster participation by more students in the herbarium’s activities.  It is an exciting place to be!


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

Brown, H. H. K., & Wethey, D. S. (2019). Observations on anthesis, fruit development, and seed dispersal in Gordonia lasianthus (theaceae). Journal of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas, 13(1), 185–196.

Opening Up Herbaria: K-12 Education

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iDigBio resource page for K-12 education

As I mentioned in the last post, many of those responding to herbarium outreach programs are senior citizens with time and expertise to share.  As a member of this population I obviously consider their contributions significant.  But let’s face it, we are short-term participants in the herbarium renaissance.  To build a firm foundation for the herbaria of the future, young people’s interest must be captured and nurtured.  In my post on outreach, I mentioned a number of clever ways herbaria, botanic gardens, and natural history museums are luring youngsters into the world of plant preservation and conservation.  In this post, I want to look at programs to integrate natural history into the K-12 curriculum.

For obvious reasons, animals are often the focus of natural history education.  I am hardly going to dis an entire kingdom, especially because many botanists tell of being fascinated by bugs, snakes, or small rodents when they were young.  Hunting for these eventually led them to see the plants that many animals call home.  At this point, plant blindness has almost become a cliché in biology, though I think it is still real, at least among adults.  Children are physically closer to the ground and therefore to the world of plants, and this is one reason that early education about plants makes sense (Sanders et al., 2014).

I also think that simple is better.  The artist Georgia O’Keeffe became fascinated by flowers when she was seven years old, when a teacher distributed tulips to examine.  It opened a new world for O’Keeffe and led to her amazing floral works.  When I was a freshman in high school, where I had my first exposure to real science education, our teacher sent us home for spring break with the assignment to simply notice the changes of spring.  This was memorable for me in part because it wasn’t “real” homework:  no reading or writing required.  But what really struck me was how much there was to see:  tulips opening with so much inside each bloom that I had never noticed before, buds on trees, weeds springing up in sidewalk cracks.  I didn’t become an artist because of this experience, but I did realize that close observation was fun; this might have been the start of my becoming a biologist.

To bring herbaria into this, I think pressing plants is a great way to observe them.  The first step is selecting a specimen.  This means looking for a good candidate:  are there flowers or berries, is this a representative sample?  Just looking might lead to discovery of more traits like tendrils, or hairs on the leaves, or small features of the flower.  Then wrestling the specimen into place on a sheet of newspaper so it presses well can lead to other discoveries, such as the thickness of the fruit or how easy or difficult the stem is to bend.  In other words, collecting leads to knowing a plant, having a tactile relationship with it as well as a visual one.  There might even be scent involved.  Yes, the specimen does need to be identified and labeled, but this should be done with gentle encouragement rather than as a hurdle to be overcome or a quiz to be passed.

I am not arguing that children’s exposure to nature should be just about observation and nothing more, but I think direct experience should definitely be at the core of any exercise.  The University of Reading recently staged a day-long symposium called “The Big Botany Challenge.”  There were 80 participants from 50 different schools, botanic gardens, research institutions, conservation organizations, etc.  By the end of the day, the room was abuzz with ideas that had been shared among the presenters and other participants.  One speaker, Nigel Chaffey, advocated for “botany by stealth.”  Since many students aren’t interested in plants, he asks:  “Why not smuggle bits of plant information into lessons on geography, history, art and computing?”  Coincidently, I recently heard Rudy Mancke, the naturalist in residence at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, make a similar suggestion, but for a different reason.  He argued that since humans are part of nature, every subject is related to it:  the natural world is the thread the runs through all disciplines, and they should be taught with this in mind.

Because interest in natural history education is rising, there is a wealth of information on the web to guide teachers.  It is ideal if projects deal with plants from nearby areas.  It’s difficult for students to relate to a tropical plant if they are living in Maine, in the sense that their learning won’t be reinforced by coming upon such plants in the outdoors.  There are several sites that offer diverse activities, such as iDigBio in the United States and the Big Botany Challenge in Britain.  Canada has the Children and Nature Network and Australia has activities through its Atlas of Living Australia.  While the plants may be different in far-off lands, the activities may provide novel ideas that could be adapted to any ecosystem.

I want to end this post with a niggling thought from the very back of my mind.  A number of historians of natural history, including Lynn Barber (1980), argue that the 19th-century rage for natural history started to dim when the subject began to be taught in schools.  Then it became work.  While I don’t think this means that natural history should not be a part of a student’s education, it should cause teachers to think twice before making forays into nature too focused on standards and not on joy.


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

Davies, P., Sanders, D. L., & Amos, R. (2014). Learning in cultivated gardens and other outdoor landscapes. In C. J. Boulter, M. J. Reiss, & D. L. Sanders (Eds.), Darwin-Inspired Learning (pp. 47–58).

Opening Up Herbaria: Outreach

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“Frankenstein” specimen created at Halloween 2019 event at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh

One reason I stay fascinated by herbaria is that they are changing so rapidly; there is always something new to discover, especially with the continuing digitization of collections, but there are a number of other intriguing trends as well.  Herbaria are becoming more present on social media, making it easier to find out what’s going on.  I have never gotten hooked on Facebook, but I am a devoted Twitter user, more a reader than a tweeter.  I can’t say that I follow a huge number of herbaria, but I’ve come to enjoy several run by dynamic curators; Mason Heberling (@jmheberling) at the Carnegie Natural History Museum, Jordan Metzgar (@MasseyHerbarium) at Virginia Tech, and Jessica Budke (@UTKHerbarium) at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville are among these.  Heberling and his coauthors have written a seminal paper tracking the changing uses of herbarium data in journal articles.  He also frequently tweets about a specimen collected “on this date” from the Carnegie Museum Herbarium’s rich collection.  Metzgar is energetic in luring students and the general public into the Massey Herbarium through a variety of activities, including making plant-related Lego models.  Budke lets her students do most of the tweeting, and they write about collecting trips and events like Tea and Scones in the herbarium as ways to lure their fellow students to a place that has become important to them.

Anyone interested in herbaria knows that most people are not, and that’s a problem.  Herbaria are by definition full of plants, so herbarium blindness is just one more aspect of plant blindness.  And herbarium blindness can lead to herbarium closures.  The curators I’ve just mentioned are aware of this, and they are using a number of tools, including Twitter and other social media platforms, to make not only the existence but the value of their collections known.  Many herbaria now have short videos telling about what a herbarium is and why theirs is particularly interesting.  They range in tone from informative to fun, and target various audiences, including children.

The idea of children running around a herbarium might make some systematists cringe, but if young visitors are engaged in activities, such experiences can be memorable and bode well for the future of botany.  In some cases, the events aren’t in the herbaria, but in other venues on site.  A number of botanical gardens and herbaria have staged Harry Potter related events, with presentations on the plants mentioned in the books.  Other activities include making herbarium specimens, from simple pasting specimens on paper for children, to adult classes on how to mount, label, and georeference specimens that could be added to a scientific collection.  Different lures attract different groups.  Sometimes, adult participants become captivated enough to volunteer as specimen mounters or digitizers.  Children might have had so much fun that they can’t wait to go back to the garden or museum.  In every case, participants know more about herbaria than they did before the event.

Craft activities are also used to spread the word about herbaria.  For Halloween, the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh advertised:  “Come along this weekend & create a “Frankenstein” specimen with the RBGE herbarium team part. This event is fun crafts, then digitize your creation (+ a touch of info about our specimens & herbaria). Suitable for all ages.”  The image above is a sample of what they had in mind.  I think the “specimen” digitization is a nice feature.  Georgia Southern University’s herbarium tweeted recently that they use leftover plant material that doesn’t get mounted in paper craft projects, reminiscent of the tradition of making arrangements of pressed flowers simply for their beauty rather than as scientific specimens.  This is an old craft that can be directly related to plant knowledge.  As a useless piece of information, Grace Kelly, the actress and Princess of Monaco, made pressed flower arrangements and wrote of how much she learned about plants in pursuing this hobby (Robyns, 1980).

Traditionally, curators have given limited tours of herbaria, though these are of necessity restricted to small groups because of space constraints.  However, tours and open houses are becoming more common, and there are other forms of publicity as well.  At the A. C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, Columbia where I volunteer, the curator Herrick Brown and the curator emeritus John Nelson lead monthly botanical tours of the “Horseshoe” the historical center of campus that boasts an array of beautiful trees and shrubs.  They also speak to conservation groups and garden clubs whose members may then follow-up by visiting the herbarium.  I have even seen John Nelson strike up a conversation with two parents visiting USC who asked for directions.  He got them geographically oriented, and then invited them to see the herbarium, after he told them what it was.  With time on their hands, they agreed, and thus John served as an ambassador for the university and for botany.  Now that’s outreach.  John Nelson is also the originator of the bumper sticker “it’s not HIS barium. . .”  Perhaps the best indication of his interest in getting out the word is that the URL for the USC herbarium is, which he was foresighted enough to acquire very early in the internet’s history.

Outreach is also related to the other topics I’m covering in this series of posts—citizen science, k-12 education, and higher education—as herbaria are involved in all of these endeavors.  The next post will be on citizen science, an exciting topic in itself, and even more so when the science deals with specimens.

Note:  I want to thank John Nelson and Herrick Brown for welcoming me into the A.C. Moore Herbarium and patiently answering my many questions.


Heberling, M., Prather, L. A., & Tonsor, S. (2019). The changing uses of herbarium data in an era of global change. BioScience, 69(10), 812–822.

Robyns, G., & Grace, P. of M. (1980). My Book of Flowers. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Sadie Price in the Herbarium

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Sadiee Price’s drawing of Asplenium spinulosum in the library archives, Missouri Botanical Garden.

Since I am interested in the relationship of science and art, I am intrigued by the connections between drawings and herbarium specimens, as in the case Blanche Ames’s watercolor sketches attached to Oakes Ames’s sheets of orchid specimens (see earlier post).  There are also many instances where loose drawings and botanical prints were stored in folders along with specimens in herbarium cabinets.  In other words, they were seen as works of science more than of art.  This practice is less common today, when the same items are considered more as artworks that need to be protected from the chemicals in plant material that could discolor or damage them.  At the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, many illustrations are still housed in the herbarium but in separate boxes from the specimens.  At the Royal Botanical Garden, Edinburgh former curator Henry Nolte acidulously went through the herbarium folders removing illustrations and then attempted to reorganize them according to artist or to the collector who had created a particular collection.

Such separation is now common practice.  At the Field Museum, Christine Niezgoda showed me a file of illustrations she has found amid herbarium folders.  She said she was more likely to find them in folders from plant groups that are not under intensive studies by museum botanists—these just aren’t accessed often.  She discovered a beautiful collection of prints filed with Japanese specimens.  At the Missouri Botanical Garden (MOBOT), Doug Holland, director of the library, told me a similar story.  While their tropical collections are heavily used, this is less true of American plants.  However in preparing a flora of Missouri, George Yatskievych, then at MOBOT now at the University of Texas, came upon a number of drawings by a Kentucky amateur botanist and botanical illustrator, Sadie Price (1849-1903).  Most were the size of a herbarium sheet, and some even had herbarium labels.  Since the sheets had acquisition numbers, Yatskievych was able to track down hundreds of them, that are now kept in the MOBOT archives along with Price’s beautiful drawings of insects and other animals.

When I visited the Sachs Museum at MOBOT (see last post), I then went over to the library and looked at some of the Price botanical illustrations.  She had done a book on ferns as a guide for collecting, and for most of the species presented there, matching drawings can be found among her artwork.  Usually there are two per species, one a preparatory sketch and then a finished drawing.  The sketch is often almost as detailed as the drawing, though the latter has a herbarium label giving the Latin name and order of the fern, the date and place of collection and the collector’s name (see image above).  In many cases, the labels are printed with room for the information to be written in.  At the top there is a line for “Herbarium of . . . ” and there Price wrote in the county where the plant was found.  This is an interesting way to present a drawing.  It is useful because it indicates that a living plant was used as the model and provides information relating to it.  If the plant were a new species, this would be particularly important.  And in fact, Sadie did discover more than one new species of flowering plant, for example, Apios priceana, Price’s groundnut.

None of the fern drawings are in watercolor, but many flowering plants are.  Usually it is not the entire drawing, but portions—including the flower and/or fruit to striking effect (see figure below).  The rest of the drawing is done in pencil; Price rarely used ink except for her initials.  When I met Doug Holland at a meeting last year, he told me about the Price collection, and I was intrigued by her use of the herbarium sheet format.  I became more interested after I went through many of her drawings.  Even when she didn’t paste on labels, she often replicated the label format either on a handwritten scrap pasted to the sheet, or else she drew a rectangular box in pencil and filled the information in there.

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Sadie Price’s drawing of Aesculus octandra in the library archives, Missouri Botanical Garden

Price was determined to have her drawings look like specimen sheets, yet this wasn’t because they replaced specimens for her.  She also collected plants, and many of her specimens are now at MOBOT, in some cases of the same plants she drew.  All her natural history materials along with a scrapbook were given to the garden by her sister after her death.  The scrapbook is filled with interesting letters, newspaper cuttings, notes, etc., including an article from the Bowling Green Advocate announcing Price’s gold medal for her herbarium display, the best among 100 entries at the Chicago World’s Fair.  This suggests that her specimens were as elegant as her drawings, and also that creating herbaria was still a common pursuit among natural history buffs at the end of the 19th century.

The Advocate article proudly noted that the award was an indication that “Miss Price is in the first rank of scientists in the nation.”  I am not sure that university-trained botanists would have agreed, but Price would have been pleased with the compliment.  I think that her use of specimen labels on her illustrations was an attempt to both increase their scientific value and also to suggest that the artist knew enough botany to understand why identification of place and time as well as species was important.

Note:  I would like to thank Doug Holland for sharing information about Sadie Price with me and showing me so much of her art.

The Sachs Museum

3 Sachs ceiling

Upper gallery and ceiling of the Sachs Museum at the Missouri Botanical Garden

It bothers me when I can’t get into a museum.  I don’t mean because I got there on a day it’s not open, but because it’s permanently closed.  When my husband and I visited Paris in 1983, this was the case with the National Museum of Natural History, which had been shuttered for years.  So it was particularly thrilling 12 years later when we were able to see the entire building and experience its Grand Gallery of Evolution with a parade of organisms spread across it.  It was also exciting recently when I was able to tour the Stephen and Peter Sachs Museum at the Missouri Botanical Garden.  When I was at the garden several years ago, the museum was closed, as it had been for years.   It only opened once a year on Henry Shaw’s birthday to celebrate the garden’s founder.  When Peter Wyse Jackson became President of MOBOT in 2010, he spearheaded an effort to renovate and reopen the museum.  An adjacent facility was added to provide better access and the entire interior was conserved and refurbished.  I was lucky enough to tour it with curator, Nezka Pfeifer, who was particularly proud of the first exhibition mounted since the museum’s opening, “Leafing Through History: Plants that Make Paper.”  We began in the lower level, originally an area for labs and offices.  It is now a gallery, at that moment filled with paper art, including origami done by a number of notable artists in this medium, among them Robert J. Lang.  In the center of the room were striking large flower sculptures made by the artist Megan Singleton from paper she created from lotus plants.  Fortunately, there is a catalogue of the exhibit available as a pdf.

When we went upstairs to the main gallery, my eyes immediately focused on the ceiling with its elaborate trompe d’oeil mural that resembles a conservatory roof with a trellised balcony filled with plants (see image above).  This is a refinished version of the original created by the Italian artist Leon Pomarede who had emigrated to St. Louis in 1831 and became known for his panoramas and landscapes.  Shaw commissioned him to create this work for the museum’s opening in 1859, and when it was repainted, some plants were added or rendered more botanically correct.  There are now 96 species represented, and they can be found on a story map.  But the mural is only the first of many wonders in the two-tiered main hall.  The museum was built in the style of one of the economic botany museum buildings at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, the major source of inspiration for Shaw in creating many aspects of his garden.

Early in his planning, Shaw got in touch with William Jackson Hooker, director of Kew, and among his queries was where he could find a botanist to assist him.  Hooker informed him that the perfect person for the job was already in St. Louis:  George Engelmann, a German physician who had arrived in St. Louis in 1835.  Engelmann had collected plants on several tours of his adopted land, and had made contact both with collectors like his countrymen Augustus Fendler and Ferdinand Lindheimer and botanists like John Torrey and Asa Gray.  Engelmann encouraged Shaw to not only create a garden that would delight the city, but also a research institution.  In the mid-19th century there weren’t models for such an enterprise in the United States, however, Kew fit the bill.  Shaw made several trips to Europe, and he also sent Engelmann to buy books for a botanical library.  While there Engelmann bought the 60,000 specimen herbarium of Johann Bernhardi, that was rich in tropical as well as European species.  Along with Engelmann’s own large herbarium collection, this became the foundation for MOBOT’s now nearly seven million specimens.

Since Hooker had created the first economic botany museum that eventually spread over four buildings at Kew, Shaw wanted such a facility as well.  As at Kew the glass-faced wooden cases on both levels of his museum were filled with specimens and plant products.  Now, the upper cabinets have a display of beautiful ceramics, but there is no public access because the balconies are fragile.  Hanging from the balcony railings are portraits of distinguished botanists of the past including, of course, Carl Linnaeus and also Engelmann and Gray.  On the main level at the time of my visit, most of the cabinets were filled with displays related to the paper exhibit, including copies of herbarium specimens for plants used in paper making, various paper products, and books on papermaking from MOBOT’s extensive library.  There were also two cabinets dedicated to the great Alexander von Humboldt to recognize the 250th anniversary of his death (see earlier posts, 1,2,3,4).

Behind the main hall is a smaller room, with a vaulted ceiling that had been covered over at some time in the past.  When the covering was removed, the restorers were surprised to find three painted panels, with small portraits of none other than Gray and Engelmann to either side of Linnaeus.  These have been beautifully restored.  This room held another portion of the paper exhibit; Michael Powell created abstract works in handmade paper, based on the colors of different areas within the garden, during the day and at night.  The entire exhibit on paper was a great way to introduce visitors to this extraordinary building, and the next exhibition is now open.  It’s focus is on the potato.  My heritage, like that of Wyse Jackson, makes me think that there couldn’t be a better subject.  Nezka Pfieffer develops this concept beautifully through art and the wonderful resources in MOBOT’s herbarium, library, and economic botany collections.

Note:  I would like to thank Nezka Pfeifer at the Sachs Museum for spending so much time guiding me through the museum and telling me about its history.


What Gets Collected in a Herbarium: Wood

1 Field wood

Wood specimens in the herbarium library at the Field Museum, Chicago.

In this series of posts, I’m continuing my exploration of different kinds of herbarium collections.  Some time ago, I wrote on xylaria, collections of wood specimens (1,2,3,4).  These are often part of herbaria.  Sheets mounted with flattened plants, though making up the bulk of herbarium specimens, are hardly the only kind of material found in these assemblages.  I was reminded of this recently when I visited the herbarium at the Field Museum in Chicago where I met with the collections manager, Christine Niezgoda, who ushered me into the library to sign the guest book.  Displayed there were several massive logs as well as cross sections representing different tree species (see photo above).  They were originally exhibited in the museum, and as with many such displays of what was called economic botany, these were removed and given a second life in this cozier area.  The museum also had a large collection of wood specimens and wood anatomy slides that were donated to the Wood Products Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, when there was no longer anyone at the herbarium who studied wood anatomy.

The massive logs reminded me of the account I’d read in the Kathryn Mauz (2018) book on Cyrus Pringle’s collecting trips to the Southwest and Pacific coast from 1880-1884, in part to collect wood specimens for Charles Sprague Sargent of the Arnold Arboretum in Boston.  Sargent was working with Morris Jesup of the economic botany department at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York to gather specimens for a display on the riches of US forests.  Jesup financed the project, but Sargent organized it.  Pringle was tasked with finding representative timber for Southwest species—five-foot long cuts through the trunk as well as cross sections—and having the material shipped back East.  Pringle arrived in Tucson, his base, on one of the first trains into the area; it was the railroad that made shipment of these massive specimens possible.  Sargent eventually gave up collecting for Sargent because of the latter’s unrealistic demands.  On his way West, Pringle visited George Engelmann at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, and Engelmann then wrote to Sargent:  “He [Pringle] has queer instructions from you!  To get trunks of well grown trees 5 feet long, even if 2 or 3 feet diam. on muleback, if no wagon reaches to the localities.  I asked him whether he might not get sections; he thought not.  Well you have to be more definite in your instructions and he must act according to circumstances” (Mauz, 2018, p. 32).

It wasn’t just the size of the specimens that was a problem, so was the pace of collection.  In his second year, 1882, Pringle went to California in July with Sargent expecting him to find, collect, and ship specimens of 40 species, all before the Fall blooming period in Arizona.  Sargent complained repeatedly at Pringle’s failure to meet deadlines, and even withheld payments for work that had been done.  Eventually Pringle quit, and spent the next two seasons in the Southwest collecting selections of specimens for a number of different individuals and institutions.  After having seen the trunks at the Field Museum, I realize just how massive Pringle’s assignment from Sargent was.  The material hadn’t just to be collected but carefully boxed for shipment so the bark wouldn’t be ruined.  Even though Pringle was able to hire assistants, it was still a massive and physically challenging job.

Trees were an significant part of economic botany exhibits, because wood products were so crucial to the nation’s economy.  These included not just timber and paper, but resins, rubber, medicines like quinine, and foods:  fruits, vegetables, and even the basis of chewing gum.  Just as the Field Museum and the AMNH had extensive displays on trees, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew had not one but two museums of forestry, one for British species, and one for trees of the world (Cornish et al., 2014, 90, 98).  The latter was very much about the riches of the British Empire, and other countries followed suit, with Belgium founding a forestry museum around 1900 to display the riches of their colonial holdings (Diagre‐Vanderpelen, 2018).  But not all the exhibitions were about economics.  My most vivid memory of the forestry exhibit at AMNH is a cross-section through a giant sequoia, with dates of significant events in human history marked on its rings to emphasize its age.  The Natural History Museum in London and other institutions had similar displays, powerful visual representations of longevity and size.

When I visited the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library, collection assistant Taylor Johnson brought out a volume of Romeyn Hough’s collection of cross sections through wood.  The interest in wood was so great that he produced a series of volumes over a period of 40 years.  On each page are transverse, longitudinal, and tangential sections of one species.  The sections are so thin that they are translucent.  Hough also published a less expensive version with photographs rather than actual specimens.  He even sold printed cards made from the thin sections for those in the wood industry to advertise their wares.  The fascination with wood is a reminder that this was also the time when the first national forests were being created in the US.  In Man and Nature (1864), George Perkins Marsh had made Americans aware of the riches they still possessed in their forests, and also of how fast these were disappearing.  He had spent time in Europe, knew how little forest land remained there, and warned of the same fate at home.  Despite the disappearance of many economic botany exhibits, the need for awareness of the importance of forests remains.  We rely more on direct experiences of nature and virtual ones to provide the spur for conservation, but a massive sequoia cross section is still a powerful symbol.


Cornish, C., Gasson, P., & Nesbitt, M. (2014). The wood collection (xylarium) at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. IAWA, 35(1), 85–104

Diagre‐Vanderpelen, D. (2018). The rise and fall of the Belgian Forestry Museum and Geographic Arboretum (1900–1980): A political origin and a winning opportunity for science? Centaurus, 60(4), 333–349.

Mauz, K. (2018). C.G. Pringle: Botanist, Traveler, and the “Flora of the Pacific Slope” (1881-1884). New York, NY: New York Botanical Garden Press.

Note:  I would like to thank Christina Niezgoda at the Field Museum and Taylor Johnson at the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library for all their assistance on my visits.

Oakes Ames at Harvard

Specimen of Malaxis dentata with watercolor by Blanche Ames in the Oakes Ames Orchid Herbarium at Harvard Univeristy

Now that I’ve introduced Oakes and Blanche Ames in the previous posts (1,2), I want to discuss some of Oakes’s contributions to botany at Harvard University.  As a student he was already obsessed by orchids and visited the great herbaria, including Kew.  He also kept adding to his own living collection.  After receiving his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Harvard, the latter in 1899, he devoted himself full-time to orchid systematics.  Within a few years he became known as an expert on orchids, having hired assistants and set up a laboratory, herbarium, and library in his home.  He published work as coming from the “Ames Botanical Laboratory,” contributing the orchid section to the seventh edition of Gray’s New Manual of Botany (1908) and to the Cyclopedia of American Horticulture (Bailey, 1909).  An indication of his seriousness about systematics is that in 1906 he donated his living collection of orchids to New York Botanical Garden and concentrated on building his herbarium, which eventually grew to over 60,000 specimens.

Ames held a variety of appointments at Harvard.  First, he was assistant director and then director of Harvard’s Botanic Garden.  He gave up the position in 1922 because he was discouraged by the lack of support it received.  He thought that was the end of his connection with the university, but the next year he was hired as curator of the Harvard Botanical Museum and served in various capacities there, including director and later associate director until his death 1950.  He was responsible for reorganizing the famous Ware Collection of Blaschka glass models of plants from an alphabetical to a phylogenetic arrangement.  He also wrote a booklet about them that became a best seller at the museum, with 200,000 copies printed (Ames, 1947).

Ames’s other roles at the university are almost too numerous to mention.  Over the years he rose from instructor to professor of botany.  He became head of the Arnold Arboretum in 1927 after the sudden death of the long-time director, Charles Sprague Sargent.  This involved a diplomatic problem in that the administration feared that the British-born Ernest Wilson, a famous plant collector and Sargent’s assistant, wouldn’t be happy with being passed over for the position.  Ames met with him and proposed to make him Keeper of the arboretum.  British-born Wilson was thrilled with this very British title.  It is no wonder that Ames was given to several administrative jobs including ten years as Chairman of the Division of Biology (Plimpton, 1979).

For many years, Ames taught a graduate course in economic botany into which he poured much time and effort.  In the last post, I mentioned that his artist-wife Blanche produced posters for the class.  These remained hanging in the classroom for many years and are now preserved in the Botanical Libraries at Harvard.  A number of illustrious botanists took the course including Edgar Anderson, a noted plant geneticist who wrote Plants, Man and Life (1952), a book that is still worth reading.  It includes a chapter called “Uneconomic Botany,” about Ames’s course and his rather unique take on the subject that he also described in his book, Economic Annuals and Human Cultures (1939).  Anderson explains that Ames was leery of the anthropological evidence that agriculture had arisen a few thousand years ago.  Ames thought its origins were much older, because it would have taken a great deal more time for plants to evolve from their wild to cultivated forms.

Ames also contended that once humans discovered a useful plant, they usually found it was good for more than one thing:  a food might also have medicinal properties such as seed oil employed as a salve.  Anderson admits that at the time he took the course, while he loved it, he thought it was useless.  However, when he worked in a botanical garden and had to interact with the public, he found Ames’s interesting information very helpful.  Many of the plants Ames discussed produced psychoactive substances:  tobacco, tea, cannabis.  These intrigued another of his students, Richard Schultes, who became a leading expert on hallucinogenic plant products, discovering many of these plants during field trips to South American rainforests where he lived with indigenous peoples and learned from them.

Besides enlivening the intellectual life of Harvard students, Ames wrote over 300 research papers and seven volumes on the Orchidaceae.  Many of these books were published by the Harvard Botanical Press, which Ames set up at his own expense in the Botanical Museum’s basement.  At the end of his career, it published Orchids in Retrospect (1948), a collection of Ames’s essays that Schultes and his colleagues at Harvard edited.  In a forward to the second edition, Schultes wrote proudly that they were able to put the volume together without Ames finding out about it and managed to go through it so thoroughly that there were no printing errors.  A much later volume, Orchids at Christmas (2007), is a tribute to both Oakes and Blanche and includes the orchid etchings that Blanche created and that they sent as Christmas cards between 1937 and 1949.  It is a beautiful little book, with reminiscences by family members as well as photos, including one of the memorial gravestone that Blanche sculpted with some of Oakes’s favorite orchids (see image above).


Ames, O. (1939). Economic Annuals and Human Cultures. Cambridge, MA: Botanical Museum of Harvard University.

Ames, O. (1947). The Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants in the Botanical Museum of Harvard University,. Cambridge, Mass.: Botanical Museum of Harvard University.

Ames, O. (1948). Orchids in Retrospect: A Collection of Essays on the Orchidaceae. Cambridge, MA: Botanical Museum of Harvard University.

Ames, O., & Ames, B. (2007). Orchids at Christmas (Reprint edition). Cambridge, MA: Botanical Museum of Harvard University.

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

Plimpton, O. (Ed.). (1979). Oakes Ames: Jottings of a Harvard Botanist. Cambridge, MA: Botanical Museum of Harvard University.

Humboldt and Bonpland

2 Bonpland Cinchona

Nature print of Cinchona made by Humboldt and Bonpland, in the Institut de France, Paris.

Since Alexander von Humboldt’s training was in geology and Aimé Bonpland’s in botany, it’s not surprising that Bonpland took the lead in plant collecting on their Latin American expedition (see last post).  However, because they were essentially on their own, picking up assistants along the way, their work in processing specimens, in taking meteorological and astronomical readings, etc., was usually a team effort.  They were overwhelmed by the exciting new plants they saw and within the first few months had already amassed 4000 specimens.  They had to order more paper, since they were using it up so quickly.  It is impossible to say how many plants they collected in total, but the number is over 60,000 including 6,000 species, over half of them new (Lack, 2009).  None of these numbers are precise because many of the plants passed through several different hands, but the record is clearer than for many collections of the era because the two kept careful records that became a model for later expeditions.  They numbered each specimen and recorded it in a journal along with a tentative ID, a description, and locality information.  As time went on, the entries became more detailed.  While they sent back a number of shipments divided among several ships to guard against loss, they kept a small herbarium with them as a memory aid for what they had seen.

Needless to say, none of this work was easy.  Humboldt and Bonpland were traveling through rough, often mountainous terrain in hot and humid equatorial regions where they were driven mad by insects.  These conditions damaged or destroyed many of their specimens, and at one point they were so discouraged by the losses that they made to nature prints to document the plants.  Over 200 of these are preserved at the Institut de France in Paris (Lack, 2001).  However, they persisted in collecting because they just couldn’t ignore all the new species they encountered.  Through much of their trip they were in areas that the eyes of trained botanists had never seen so they were inundated with novelty.  Along with all the environmental data they had amassed, this treasure trove made them anxious to return to Europe and begin writing up their findings.  After leaving South America, they spent a year in Mexico, then returned to Cuba to pack up their specimens for shipment to Paris.  Humboldt decided to live there rather than to return to his native Prussia, because Paris was an intellectually alive city at the time with the National Museum of Natural History (MNHN) as the center of the country’s botanical research.  There was a great herbarium there, as well as a botanical library and experts to assist them.

Humboldt and Bonpland organized and divided up the collection so they each had a set of specimens.  Humboldt arranged for Bonpland to receive a pension from the French government to support him.  Bonpland became botanist to the Empress Joséphine at Malmaison estate, where he oversaw the gardens, provided her with new exotics, and saw to the lavish publications on her plant collection.  It soon became obvious to Humboldt that even with frequent nudging, Bonpland wasn’t getting anywhere with describing their plants.  So in 1813, eight years after they returned, Humboldt invited Carl Kunth, a young German botanist, to come to Paris and work on the collection.  Kunth remained for over six years and eventually published seven volumes with descriptions of over 4,500 plant species, among which 3,600 were new to science (Lack, 2009).  However, this summary makes the process seem more clear cut than it was.

In 1814, Empress Joséphine died, and Bonpland decided to return to South America; he felt more comfortable exploring for new plants.  He took his herbarium with him, and perhaps more importantly, he packed the botanical journals where the specimens were catalogued.  Humboldt and Kunth were aghast, and Kunth hurried to the port of Le Havre to intercept Bonpland before his ship sailed.  Bonpland didn’t give up his specimens, after all Humboldt had a collection too, but he did return the notebooks to Kunth, making it possible for the latter to continue his taxonomic work (Lack, 2004).  Eventually, Bonpland returned his sheets to the herbarium at the MNHN in Paris, where they were filed in the general collection rather than kept separately as the Humboldt collection is.

Another wrinkle was that, while still in South America, Humboldt had sent specimens and seeds to his mentor Carl Willdenow, who wrote descriptions of a number of species.  Some of these were published by others after Willdenow’s death, and his herbarium was sold by his heirs to the Berlin herbarium.  Because of the hostility between France and German, Berlin botanists refused to share specimens with Kunth, who then named some of the same plants, causing years of nomenclatural difficulties.  Kunth returned to Germany after completing most of his work for Humboldt, and when he died his herbarium was also sold to the Berlin-Dahlem Botanical Garden.  During World War II, the Willdenow specimens were considered valuable enough to be stored in a vault offsite and survived the bombing that destroyed most of the herbarium’s collection, including the Kunth specimens.  Lest you assume that by now all of the Humboldt-Bonpland plants had been identified, that may not be the case.  In 2007, a new species, Solanum humboldtianum, was described from a relatively recent collection, but researchers discovered that Humboldt and Bonpland had collected it, and it had lain unidentified for two centuries (Granados-Tochoy et al., 2007).  This is all fodder to feed my love of herbaria.


Granados-Tochoy, J. C., Knapp, S., & Orozco, C. I. (2007). Solanum humboldtianum (Solanaceae): An endangered new species from Colombia rediscovered 200 years after its first collection. Systematic Botany, 32(1), 200–207.

Lack, H. W. (2001). The plant self impressions prepared by Humboldt and Bonpland in tropical America. Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, 18(4), 218–229.

Lack, H. W. (2004). The botanical field notes prepared by Humboldt and Bonpland in tropical America. Taxon, 53(2), 501–510.

Lack, H. W. (2009). Alexander von Humboldt and the Botanical Exploration of the Americas. New York, NY: Prestel.