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: “Painting One’s Bentham”

Watercolor of Sonchus from Richard Dreyer’s copy of Smith’s Flora Britannica, Linnean Society Library

Since I am not a careful researcher, I don’t take note of where I come upon a particular reference.  That’s why I have no idea what led me to a brief piece in The Archives of Natural History by David E. Allen (2004) entitled “An 1861 Instance of ‘Painting One’s Bentham.’”  The Bentham in question was George Bentham, the British botanist and author of Handbook of the British Flora, first published in 1858.  Though not illustrated, it was well-received by the audience he was targeting:  those who were interested in identifying plants but didn’t have a strong botanical background.  Besides clear descriptions, the book had a useful introduction, listed common names before Latin ones, and had an easy-to-use key, which hadn’t been available earlier for British plants.  

Professional botanists, on the other hand, had several complaints about the work.  First, those who liked precise demarcations among species (termed “splitters”) were displeased with Bentham’s tendency to ignore small distinctions within what he considered a single species.  He was a “lumper” as was Joseph Dalton Hooker, his associate at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.    In addition, his critics were not impressed with Bentham’s knowledge of the British flora.  He had spent most of his youth and did most of his early botanizing on the European continent, and later did little collecting in Britain.  He relied on herbarium specimens and that was seen as a weakness.  Even the common names he cited were considered odd, since he used the rather eccentric terminology of John Stevens Henslow

Despite this, sales of Bentham’s first edition were so strong that the publisher suggested a second, revised edition with the addition of illustrations.  These were done in black and white by the distinguished botanical illustrator Walter Hood Fitch.  This version, printed in two volumes, went through a series of editions into the 20th century, with the last revisions done by Joseph Hooker after Bentham’s death.  The Fitch drawings were so clear and the paper good enough that many users took to coloring in the images of the species they encountered, and also adding notes on where and when they saw the plants.  This became known as “painting one’s Bentham.”  David E. Allen (2003) writes that it isn’t clear when this practice began, but “it was known to have a wide following among debutantes in the 1920s.” (p. 230).  He goes on to note that the practice “broadly coincided with the onset of the revulsion against collecting for herbaria.” (p. 230).  He doesn’t comment on the reason for the revulsion, though by that time the entire natural history collecting craze of the 19th century was over.  It was definitely easier to fill in drawings, than collect plants, get them safely home and then press, dry, and mount them.  There was also the issue of what to do with stacks of pressed plants, when relatively the same information could be kept in a book one already owned, with the collection data, description, and image all on the same page.

Allen followed up this article with the brief one I cited at the beginning of this post where he reports on a case of “coloring one’s Bentham” in the original unillustrated edition, a copy owned by Elizabeth Hood who lived on the Isle of Wight.  For example, in the margins of the entry for Gentiana campestris (now Gentianella campestris) she added a watercolor of the plant in flower, noting the date and place of collection on the island.  She created many other drawings throughout the book, doing a skilled job of fitting them into the one-inch margins.  Allen argues that noting the collecting information is what makes it like a herbarium, rather than just an illustrated field guide.  He also refers to other examples of artistic of additions in books including the heavily illustrated copy of James Edward Smith’s three-volume Flora Britannica (1800-1804) with watercolors by its first owner the Rev. Richard Dreyer.  It is now in the Linnean Society’s LibraryWilliam Jackson Hooker added 235 moss paintings to his copy of Dawson Turner’s Muscologiae hibernicae spicilegium (1804).  This work is illustrated, but with only 16 plates, which clearly Hooker thought was insufficient.  I am sure there are many other examples where botanists did not consider the descriptions adequate to nailing down the relevant attributes of a species. 

What particularly interested me about “coloring one’s Bentham” is that it speaks to a present-day phenomenon, so it’s another reminder that there is nothing much new under the sun.  In the past few years there has been a fad in coloring books for adults as a way to relax, relieve stress with meditative filling in, and create nice colored pictures.  The Biodiversity Heritage Library has contributed to the interest by organizing “Color Our Collections” projects with several member libraries.  This trend got a boost during the covid pandemic when everyone was looking for easy-to-access activities.  Recently, a number of herbaria, including those at Michigan State University and the Manchester Museum, have also created web-based coloring projects, examples of broadening outreach to non-botanists and enticing younger audiences.  Perhaps this will begin a trend countering the one of the early 20th-century:  people may begin to see coloring plant images as inadequate and go back to collecting specimens, or at least taking photos and recording their observations in iNaturalist or a similar app:  natural history in the ascendency once again.


Allen, D. E. (2003). George Bentham’s Handbook of the British Flora: From controversy to cult. Archives of Natural History, 30(2), 224–236.

Allen, D. E. (2004). An 1861 instance of “painting one’s Bentham.” Archives of Natural History, 31(2), 356–357.

This and That: Art and Science

4 McMahon and Case

“Layered Similarity,” print created by Taryn McMahon and Andrea Case of Kent State University

I cannot end my series of miscellaneous posts (1,2,3) without mentioning one of my favorite topics: the relationship between art and botany.  The example I want to explore here comes from a Kent State University blog post.  This institution has an Environmental Science and Design Research Initiative (ESDRI), an intriguing title for a collaboration among individuals from across the university who are interested in connections between the built and natural worlds.  One participant is Taryn McMahon, an assistant professor of print media and photography.  Concerned with plants and ecology, she was looking for someone with similar interests and was led to Andrea Case, an associate professor of biology doing research on plant reproduction.  I know from experience that individuals who share common interests but are sequestered in different colleges at a university may never find each other.  That’s why an interdisciplinary enterprise like ESDRI is so important:  it makes these links more likely to form.

McMahon was seeking to understand plants more deeply for a print-making project called “Intersecting Methods” curated by Matthew McLoughlin, a Maryland artist.  Every two years he invites a number of printmakers to each submit a piece made in collaboration with a scientist for a portfolio that is exhibited and then each participant receives a set of all the prints.  There is a website where you can see some of the earlier series.  In the course of their collaboration, McMahon and Case discussed their research interests and processes.  They came to appreciate how each approached the ideas they found intriguing.  Case, curator of the Kent State Herbarium, showed McMahon specimens to emphasize that small details in plant structure matter in terms of identification and in how plants function.  McMahon in turn was struck by the fact that her prints were about the same size as herbarium sheets and also, the plants in her prints were arranged very much like specimens as well.

There are also similarities between the working methods of print makers and scientists.  Both start with an initial idea, question, or problem to solve, then experiment to find the right techniques, refine them as they go based on experimentation, do more experiments or make more prints after changing variables, and keep doing this until they come to a final result with which they are satisfied enough to make it public.  Since Case does research on the genus Lobelia, she and McMahon decided to use plants she was growing in making the prints, work which they did together.

What I find most interesting about this collaboration is how the interests of artist and botanist coincided.  Not surprisingly, they both emphasize the importance of observation.  Case mentioned the need to be meticulous in documenting and observing plants.  McMahon noted that a drawing starts with staring at the subject and understanding it; drawing comes only after understanding the form.  One of her most important influences is the 17th-century Dutch artist Maria Sibylla Merian, known for her paintings of insects and plants.  McMahon’s work is very different but it shares Merian’s bold graphic style.  The artist also quoted the philosopher of science Bruno Latour (2004), who argues that matters of fact for scientists can become matters of concern through art.

This is a beautiful and powerful idea.  It says a great deal about both endeavors and speaks of a potent feedback loop between them.  Art makes us look more carefully and feel more deeply, in this case, reaching a different level of understanding of the plant world as a source of color and form.  This experience can make us more willing to look carefully at the plants we encounter.  Looking often leads to questioning:  why are the leaves hairy or the stems sticky or the flowers vividly colored?  Looking more makes the plants in our environment more important to us.  I know this for a fact.  Since I’ve become plant-mad, I see so much more, examine so much more, and am amply rewarded with new knowledge and new questions to answer.

McMahon also sees the scientific viewpoint in dialogue with the art:  asking questions about its meaning and its impact.  Obviously her practice and Case’s are now in conversation with each other, and I hope they will continue their collaboration in the future.  It could lead to a mutual enrichment of their respective projects, and also, perhaps most importantly, enrich their students’ learning experiences, so that the next generation will think of art and science as more closely and inextricably connected than was the case in the 20th century.  The print that the two professors produced together is called “Layered Similarity” (see above).  Bringing my own interpretation to it, as McMahon has invited, I see the dark silhouettes in the foreground as the pressed herbarium specimens and the colored forms bursting behind them as the living plants ready to jump from the page, full of life and in bloom.  Yet they too have a hint of being specimens as well, note the insect damage to the leaves.  These are plants that have been captured in the middle of their lives, warts and all—a disembodied leaf may suggest that its reverse side is being displayed.  There are both literally and figuratively many layers to this print, and if you look at McLaughlin’s site you’ll see prints from other scientist/artist collaborations that all reward careful observation.


Latour, B. (2004). Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern. Critical Inquiry, 30(2), 225–248.

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

3 K-12

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).

On the Road, Learning about Herbaria: Education and Citizen Science

BLUE Port: Biodiversity Literacy in Undergraduate Education

In the last post, I described sessions I attended at the Digital Data Biodiversity Research Conference at Yale University.  Besides presentations on portals that integrate various kinds of data and on projects to create and analyze 3-D images of specimens, there was an emphasis on education.  Now that so much specimen data and other biodiversity information is available digitally, one of the major goals of iDigBio, the National Resource for Advancing Digitization of Biodiversity Collections (ADBC) funded by the National Science Foundation, is to have this data used widely.  This requires education, both of the present research community and of its future members.  For several years, iDigBio has been holding workshops and conferences, like the one at Yale.  These have resulted in a major upswing in the number of studies and publications employing biodiversity data.  Now that many professionals are trained in how to access and analyze the available information, it’s time to leverage this knowledge.  The task is to help these experts teach the next generation.

As every teacher realizes, knowing something is very different from teaching about it.  The subject matter has to be analyzed and organized; ways into the basics have to be found; a learning structure has to be created.  For many years, I was involved with the BioQUEST Curriculum Consortium and attended a number of workshops dealing with using genomic data in teaching genetics and bioinformatics.  The portals for gene sequence data are extremely powerful, but they were built for researchers who committed a great deal of time to learning to use them effectively.  Teachers, and even more so students, do not have the time, the technical support, nor the expertise to make effective use of these portals.  That’s where BioQUEST and other initiatives came into play.  At the workshops I attended, we learned enough about the available resources to “tame” them, to download data and present it to students in a way they could understand and use.  We became part of an education community committed to bringing students into the genetic sequencing research space in a way that would make sense for them.

Now the same kinds of initiatives are being developed for biodiversity research using powerful tools like iDigBio, GBIF, NEON, and MOL discussed at the conference (see last post).  Anna Monfils of Central Michigan University is the principle investigator for an NSF-funded project called BLUE: Biodiversity Literacy in Undergraduate Education that includes participation from BioQUEST.  Monfils and members of her team led a lively session at the conference on the question of what biodiversity literacy means and how to achieve it.  As the conversation developed, it became clear that these are not easy issues to resolve.  However, the BLUE project is a great first step in defining what a biology student needs to have in terms of conceptual understanding and technical skill to tackle the vast ocean of biodiversity data now available to them.  What didn’t arise as strongly is an issue that is dear to my heart:  how do you make biodiversity data understandable and accessible to students who are not majoring in biology or environmental science?  One of iDigBio’s aims has been to broaden the community of biodiversity data users, and non-scientists make up a huge audience.  Taming data for them is very different than for those interested in science, but everyone encounters organisms in their lives every day, so why not make it easier to learn more about them?

One way into such learning is through an area that has burgeoned in the last few years and that had a larger presence at the conference than in the past:  citizen science.  The field has many different aspects from political advocacy to volunteer data entry.  Examples of the latter include the development of portals such as Notes from Nature, where many institutions with natural history collections post well-defined projects such as digitizing specimen data.  The Smithsonian has an online transcription center where notebooks, journals, and letters are posted.  All these sites have sophisticated digital architectures that allow data managers to have confidence in the input, such as by having the same data entered by more than one user and then compared.  Many of those involved have commented on how fast the projects are completed.  Sometimes thousands of individuals participate, with a number being very committed and doing a great deal of data input.  In cases like this, citizen science is another name for unpaid help or volunteering.  With an increasing number of retirees looking for something interesting to do, these projects are very attractive because there is no commute involved and fascinating things to learn.

Still another type of citizen science work is done by those who use portals such as iNaturalist to record field observations and phenological information.  These data ultimately are uploaded into GBIF, a global biodiversity portal, and the citizen science input has grown to the point where it is having a significant impact on biodiversity research.  Walter Jetz of Yale University and principle investigator for the Map of Life (MOL) project, commented on the importance of citizen science several times in his presentation.  Not surprisingly, this is particularly true in ornithological research where amateurs have always been especially welcomed by the scientific community.

Where the Herbaria Are: Museums


Stairway from the great hall of the Natural History Museum, London.

Think of natural history museums and almost invariably an image of a dinosaur will pop into your mind, though it’s unlikely that a tree fern of the same era will.  Even when plant collections are part of these museums, their specimens usually don’t get the kind of exposure in the public galleries that animals or even minerals do.  In the past, some institutions did have economic botany exhibits, but these have shrunk or disappeared completely, not being able to compete with a Tyrannosaurus or a glitzy interactive display on biodiversity that usually focuses primarily on animals.  Still, there are huge plant collections attached to many of these museums.  In Paris, the Musée National d’Histoire Naturalle has the largest herbarium in the world; the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History has over five million plant specimens and the Natural History Museum, London (NHM) houses about six million.  While the public may not be very aware of these resources, researchers are, and these institutions are crucial to work in plant systematics and to investigation of biodiversity.  In the past, many of them mounted major expeditions around the world to collect specimens and ideas for exhibits.  The days of such large-scale endeavors are over, but herbarium curators still collect.

When I visited the NHM recently, Mark Carine and Fred Rumsey had just returned from Madeira where they attended a conference to mark the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook’s visit to the island at the beginning of his first circumnavigation of the globe.  While there, Joseph Banks and David Solander, who were on the expedition, collected plants in the vicinity of Funchal.  After the conference Carine and Rumsey attempted to retrace their steps, guided by colleagues at the University of Madeira, just as the earlier botanists were aided by the resident physician, Thomas Heberden.  The dates of both visits correspond almost exactly, so it should be possible to make some comparisons, especially since the Cook expedition specimens are at NHM.  Rumsey and Carine collected 120 species and hope to compare them to what the earlier botanists had seen.  Rumsey was already busy examining some of the Banks material under a microscope so he could send information to his Madeira colleagues.  Both he and Carine see this as a great link between present-day biodiversity research and historical collections, which are becoming used more and more in such contexts.

Since outreach to the public is an essential part of a natural history museum’s mission, it’s not surprising that museum herbaria are frequently called upon to contribute to exhibitions.  Deborah Metsger, assistant curator at the Green Plant Herbarium that’s housed at the Royal Ontario Museum told me museum curators asked her to collaborate, such as on the Flower Power exhibit of floral motifs and textiles.  Being at the museum also means she has access to conservation experts who have helped her to conserve old herbarium scrapbooks.  Also,  However, I should note that the herbarium, though housed at the museum, is part of the nearby University of Toronto.  So this herbarium is sort of a hybrid.  I’m sure this makes for some interesting administrative issues, but also allows the specimens to be used in a variety of ways.

Seed Collection

H.B. Sifton Seed Collection in the Green Plant Herbarium at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto

The herbaria at the World Museum, Liverpool and the Manchester Museum have been particularly active in this regard, contributing to exhibitions by providing specimens in the form of medicinal plant sheets to slices through tree trunks to 19th-century plant models that used to be stored atop cabinets but are now treated with greater curatorial care.  The Manchester Museum is also part of the University of Manchester, so here again, there are multiple ties, and art students in particular have taken advantage of the herbarium as a source of inspiration for their projects.  It was also on a visit to this herbarium several years ago where I first heard of using Harry Potter as an herbarium lure.  The curator of botany, Rachel Webster, explained that plants mixed into various potions were the focus of displays and activities organized by the herbarium staff for an open house, complete with witches’ brooms and hats hanging from the ceiling.  Backing from museum public relations and educational programmers makes it easier for curators to mount such elaborate projects.

Natural history museums, like most cultural institutions, have faced hard financial times recently, and their herbaria are not immune.  While a botanic garden only has plant collections, living and dead, to worry about these museums have to balance the needs and wants of curators in a number of departments.  So while there are some benefits to these institutional ties, there are problems as well.  Many herbarium curators complain of what amounts to plant blindness among administrators.  The only place I’ve heard the opposite complaint is in Sweden where zoologists blame admiration for Linnaeus for what they see as botanical favoritism.  In other words, there is no perfect place for a herbarium.  Each type of institutional affiliation has its pluses and minuses.  In the last post in this series, I will discuss a number of collections that have a variety of different administrative set ups, not tied to schools, museums or botanical gardens.

Note:  I would like to thank all the people at the institutions I’ve visited for sharing their expertise with me.

Where the Herbaria: Colleges and Universities

I volunteer in the A.C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina’s main campus in Columbia.  It houses over 125,000 specimens, with the majority from within the state, though all parts of the world are represented.  Kept in separate cabinets is the Ravenel Collection, previously located at Converse College.  Henry Ravenel was a South Carolina plantation owner and botanist, who before the Civil War studied and collected plants mainly out of interest, but after the war found it necessary to try to make money from his botanical expertise.  Portions of his journals have been published (Childs, 1947), and more recently a National Endowment for the Humanities grant funded the transcription and digitization of his writings as well as his specimens.  This was a collaborative project of the herbarium along with USC’s Caroliniana Library, and the Clemson University Library.  The result is a great website with wonderful search features.  All this happened well before I arrived on the scene, but I do get to work with Ravenel specimens as well as many collected by the long-time herbarium curator John Nelson who is in the process of retiring, though he is still very actively involved.  I also work with Herrick Brown, the assistant curator, who leads the digitization efforts at USC, which is part of the SERNEC collection network and thus involved in iDigBio.

There are herbaria in educational institutions that are much larger than USC, such as Harvard University and the University of California Berkeley, and much smaller such as Salem College in North Carolina and West Virginia Wesleyan College.  However, they all have education as a major component of their mission.  Some, like the last two mentioned, focus on undergraduates, while others, such as the first two, serve a variety of students ranging up to postdocs.  The great thing about these collections is that they are onsite where classroom and laboratory learning is also taking place.  The herbarium is a readily available resource, and this means not just access to the collection but to the curators who work with it as well.  John Nelson has taught courses where students mount and label the specimens they’ve collected on field trips, and these have been added to the herbarium.  In the process of transcribing labels, I’ve encountered many of these, a history of the students whose lives have been touched by the plants that they’ve touched.

Then there are the student workers who are so vital to a herbarium’s digitization efforts.  They are a lot faster than I am at imaging specimens, and working with the plants has led some of them to become more interested in databases, ecology, systematics, or all of the above.  The USC herbarium is excruciatingly overcrowded, with metal cabinets of various types and origins filling a rabbit warren of rooms.  Other institutions have a little more space and thus can more easily host open houses and other events where students, alumni, master gardeners, and those simply interested in plants can visit and learn more about the collection.  On Twitter I follow the University of Tennessee Herbarium (@UTKHerbarium) that has an active program with many events to capture students’ attention.  Last spring I visited the Massey Herbarium (@Massey Herbarium) at Virginia Tech [see photo below] where a new curator, Jordan Metzgar, has already instituted several innovative programs to draw not only VT students into research projects, but also activities for the community, including a contest where youngsters were challenged to make Lego models of plants.  The contestants were then invited to the herbarium, thus bringing a new group of children and parents into a world most of them didn’t know existed.

2 VT Herbarium

Massey Herbarium at Virginia Tech

This kind of energy is needed to move academic herbaria into the future.  Many administrators consider collections as space hogs in locations that could be used to house more labs, dorms, or in the case of the University of Louisiana-Monroe’s entire natural history collection, a new sports facility.  The 450,000 specimens of ULM’s herbarium are going over 300 miles away to the Botanical Research Institute of Texas.  Yes, all those specimens are being preserved, but they are no longer easily available to students and faculty.  The collection holds 99% of Louisiana’s vascular flora.  Now those plants won’t be in Louisiana.  They are still available, but the sense of place will not be as strong.  Researchers can rely on loans, trips to BRIT, or online access to obtain the data they need, but students are in a different position.  Within a few years, the campus population will no longer remember that there was a natural history collection at the university.

But to end on a more positive note, there are institutions that gave up their herbaria in the past and are now creating new collections.  John Nelson at USC has been sending duplicate specimens to Oberlin College in Ohio.  It once had 200,000 specimens, but they were sold off to Ohio State and Miami Universities.  Now a young biology professor, Mike Moore, has begun a new collection, starting with specimens he had collected for his research.  Students at Oberlin are again being introduced to what a specimen looks like and what information it holds.  Stanford University also disposed of its Dudley Herbarium, sending the specimens to the California Academy of Sciences, but now a new one, the Oakmead Herbarium, has been founded at Stanford’s Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve.  The present interest in biodiversity and climate change will hopefully grow in the future, and more institutions will see the value of dedicating space, personnel, and financial resources to this vital part of biology education.

Note:  I would like to thank all the people at the institutions I’ve visited for sharing their expertise with me.


Childs, A. R. (Ed.). (1947). The Private Journal of Henry William Ravenel 1859-1887). Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.

Plants in Sweden: Herbaria 3.0

4 Herbaria 3

Herbaria 3.0 website

In the last three posts (1, 2, 3), I’ve discussed various aspects of my trip to Sweden, and now I finally want to get to why I traveled there.  I had been invited to join a group of researchers headed by Tina Gianquitto, an associate professor of literature at the Colorado School of Mines, and her co-principal investigator, Dawn Sanders of Gothenburg University in Sweden, where our group met.  Also involved are Lauren LaFauci of Sweden’s Linköping University and Terry Hodge of the University of Wisconsin, Madison.  The project is called Herbaria 3.0 and is funded by Swedish environmental agencies through the Seed Box: A Mistra-Formas Environmental Humanities Collaboratory hosted at Linköping University.  In this program, fifteen projects were awarded “seed money” to explore ways that diverse disciplines can work together on environmental issues.

The title Herbaria 3.0 is explained this way on the project’s newly-launched website, which is becoming a platform for sharing stories about plants and people:  “The original herbaria constitute the ‘1.0’ of our project; the collection of these specimens in real and digital herbaria constitute the ‘2.0.’  In ‘Herbaria 3.0,’ we offer a place for the telling and retelling of plant stories, revealing hidden histories, and provoking new narratives.  Here we aim to create a bright spot of hope, just as plants have shown resilience in the face of change.”  As to the why of the project, we wrote:  “We believe that these stories can draw our attention to the intertwined nature of human-plant relationships.  Turning to these relationships helps us to remember plants and reconnect with them, acknowledging the pivotal role plants play in our lives.”

When I say that “we wrote” this, I mean it quite literally.  Two of us (Tina and Lauren) are professors of literature, so they guided us into using words carefully.  That’s fitting, since this project is as much about words as it is about plants.  It involves people’s memories and ideas about plants put into words to share with others.  We tested out our ideas about the website by sharing some of our own stories about plants.  Terry said that he first became really aware of plants as a high school student working in a nursery.  His job was to water the trees, and he learned that he had to attend to each one of them because they had different needs; he thus began to see the trees.  Tina shared a story about a Christmas cactus Schlumbergera bridgesii that has been in her family for years.  When she told this story to Italian friends, they said that in Italy it’s not known as a Christmas cactus but as mother-in-law’s tongue.  In the US, the snake plant Sansevieria trifasciata is saddled with that name; both have sharp leaves.  For Terry and Tina, there are emotional ties in these memories, and that’s part of what we are trying to emphasize in our project:  humans have feelings about plants, and this aspect of our relationship with nature needs to be foregrounded.

In the earlier Beyond Plant Blindness project that Dawn Sanders headed (see earlier posts), researchers asked student teachers simply:  “What is your favorite plant and why?”  Irma Brkovic, a psychologist at Gothenburg University, coded the answers and found that they usually involved emotions:  words like “love” and “feel” were used often.  In many cases, as with Terry and Tina, the answers entailed memories, stories, and family.  There was real connection with the plants.  Our aim in Herbaria 3.0 is to foreground these connections in the digital world, and broaden people’s relationships with each other as well as with plants.  Here “herbaria” is being used as a metaphor for a collection of plants, plants that are linked to people.  In botanical herbaria, real plants are collected and preserved; in ours, stories about plants are collected and linked to digital herbarium records.  So a story about the Christmas cactus Schlumbergera bridgesii will link to a specimen for this species, as well as to other information about the plant and its metaphorical relationships.  There will also be other images because most of us fall in love with plants by looking at them.   Photographs, paintings, and sculptures will be used because plants are so visually appealing, they deserve to be presented in visually exciting ways.  And since the project involves a metaphor, there’ll be links to poetry and fiction.  In other words, we plan to make Herbaria 3.0 a hub for the digital humanities and sciences, a place where connections among people and disciplines can be formed through plants.  In the process, we also hope that there will be a deepening concern for the environment, for plants as fundamentals components of our lives and our ecosystems.

This seems to be a lot to ask of one website, and especially one that is being created by a small group of people with a small grant.  However, remember, this is a Seed Box grant.  Consider what an acorn eventually becomes, or a tiny orchid seed.  What better metaphor could there be for our efforts?  No wonder we are optimistic about what we can achieve.  If you want to see how we are doing, please visit the Herbaria 3.0 website and follow us Instagram (Herbaria3.0).  Also, share your plant stories and encourage others to do so.  If we are going to grow into an oak, we are going to need a great deal of fertilizer that only you can provide.

Plants in Sweden: Seeing Plants

3 Dahlias

Dahlias at the Gothenburg Botanical Garden

As is evident in my last two posts (1,2), my recent trip to Gothenburg, Sweden was all about plants, and in particular about engaging people with plants so that they can come to value them more.   It’s almost impossible to bring up this topic without using the term “plant blindness.”   Sometimes I think the phrase is becoming so common that it’s losing some of its punch, in part because it has been so successful in calling attention to the green world.  Plants are coming into their own, and people are beginning to appreciate how important they are to climate stability, air quality, and even human temperament.  But I don’t think this disease has been by any means eradicated, and it has taken a long time for the term to seep into the collective consciousness.  After all, it has been around since the 1990s when it was coined by James Wandersee and Elizabeth Schussler (1998).  Interest in it remained low-keyed for years, somewhat like a dormant seed, but one that finally germinates.  A recent manifestation of its coming into its own is a good op-ed piece in The New York Times earlier this year on curing plant blindness by learning tree names.   Gabriel Popkin argues that just looking isn’t enough, the experience of trees is deepened when they can be identified and named.  My own personal plant blindness was cured by herbaria.  When I became interested in them several years ago, the world of plants opened up for me.  I wanted to learn about them and to really see them, to observe them more closely, to not just walk by a tree and name it as an oak, but carefully look at it:  acorns, leaves, buds, and bark.

Traveling gives me the opportunity to look at different plants.  I wouldn’t say that plants are all I look for.  I love to visit museums, eat nice meals, window shop, and simply walk through unfamiliar areas.  However, I do look at plants and seek them out, much more than I did before I developed my passion for plants (see photo above).  I am not much of a botanist, so I can’t identify many species, but I’m improving.  I can remember what Susan Pell, who is now deputy director as well as science and programs manager of the US Botanic Garden in Washington DC, said when I took a plant systematics course with her several years ago at New York Botanical Garden (NYBG).  She argued that learning some systematics would make it possible to begin to identify at least plant families and to make sense of taxonomy.  I didn’t think it was possible for me, but I have to admit that frequent and repeated exposure to plants and plant labels in herbaria and in botanical gardens has helped me to at least guess that what I’m looking at belongs to the Ranunculaceae, Asteraceace, Fabaceace, or one of the other large families.  And I am getting it right more and more often.  I know that isn’t much, but it’s something and something that gives me a thrill when I test myself and then look at labels in a botanic garden and find out that my guess was correct.  I’ve come to a greater appreciation for these labels recently for another reason:  a blog post from NYBG on the staff who create the labels.  It isn’t an easy task to keep up with a shifting collection,  and labels that are exposed to all kinds of weather.

When I visited the Gothenburg Botanical Garden, I was cheered to find that they too do a good job of labeling their plants, both outdoors and in their conservatory.  Also, I was grateful to Carl Linnaeus and his Latin binomial system so I didn’t have to worry about recognizing plant names in Swedish.  Going at the end of September might not seem like a great time to see flowers blooming, but there was a great perennial bed with many fall blooms (see photo above), and another of dahlias.   When I returned a few days later, the plants in this bed had been ripped out, but the flowers were given one less chance to shine:  they had been cut off and floated in a pond at the garden’s entrance (see photo below).

3b Dahlias

Dahlias floating in a pool at the Gothenburg Botanical Garden

This lovely touch is indicative of what seems to be a reverence for plants in Sweden that makes the job of countering plant blindness there somewhat easier than in other countries.  This was pointed out to me by Lauren LaFauci, who moved to Sweden two years ago and works at Linköping University.  The very fact that the Beyond Plant Blindness project at Gothenburg University received generous funding from the Swedish government is indicative of this.  In addition, two Swedish funding agencies, Mistra and Formas, are supporting our grant Herbaria 3.0 project through Seed Box, an environmental humanities collaboratory (see next post).  It aims at bringing disciplines together around environmental issues, and it’s nice to see a plant metaphor used for its name.  Obviously, Sweden has a long, dark winter, but it would be hard to tell that in late September when the days were still quite long and the weather, at least when I was there, was mild enough for outdoor dining.  The term “seed box” implies preparation for the winter and for the future, saving seed to grow next year’s plants, and in a way, our project is designed to nourish the seeds of interest in plants that I would argue hide within each of us.


Wandersee, J., & Schussler, E. (1998). Preventing Plant Blindness. American Biology Teacher, 61(2), 82-86.