Botany and Art: Analogy

“Portrait of the Head of a Philosopher,” second century AD Roman, Art Institute of Chicago

This post on botany and art is very different from the others in this series (1,2,3), since it doesn’t involve specimens of any kind.  But I am including it because it is about what I consider an interesting tie between the two fields, a methodological connection.  It is based on an article in the online journal Aeon by Liam Heneghan, professor of environmental science and studies at DePaul University in Chicago.  He has done research and been involved in projects to restore damaged ecosystems.  In the Midwest, this often means attempting to preserve and revitalize remnant oak savannas and tall grass prairies. 

Heneghan begins with a rather discouraging story of how difficult restoration work can be.  About 20 years ago, he and an expert restorationist visited several wetland sites in Illinois.  His companion told of how these sites were actively rehabilitated for a number of years until they were flourishing communities of diverse plants and animals.  However, when the sites were no longer actively managed, they deteriorated, becoming, for example a monoculture of cattails where animal as well as plant diversity was lost.  A great deal of money, time, and effort had been pumped into these projects, but when funding dried up, so did the ecological complexity.  Heneghan points to the problem that what may appear to be a good restoration plan to those who know the science of species interactions may not succeed at all in practice.  Many who do significant fieldwork know this, but still projects fail.

This is where Heneghan brings in the art.  He began studying art, creating illustrations for one of his books, and spending significant amounts of time at the Art Institute of Chicago.  Perhaps because of his interest in damaged landscapes, he was attracted to damaged art, especially ancient sculptures that told something of their physical history.  As a case in point he discusses “Portrait of the Head of a Philosopher,” from second century AD Roman (see image above).  The life-sized marble head has no nose, gaps at the back of the head, a crack on the left side, and areas of discoloration that might be the result of burial at some point.  I have not seen this work, but I’ve seen many of comparable age in other museums and get Heneghan’s point:  this piece reveals its history.  It is not that conservators have neglected the sculpture, but that they have respected its past.

Before “Portrait of the Head of a Philosopher” was acquired by the Art Institute in 1924, its nose had been replaced, its chin repaired, and its hair curls reshaped.  Heneghan notes that such “aggressive” restoration is now a thing of the past; for today’s conservators, less is definitely more.  The nose was removed and in a sense the story of the philosopher’s journey through time was returned to him.  Heneghan sees in this a lesson for work in environmental restoration.  He argues that perhaps the goal should not be to return a habitat to its “original” condition, because how can we even know what that was, any more than we can know what the philosopher’s head looked like in the second century AD.  He suggests that it might be more judicious and feasible to stabilize an area and at least prevent further deterioration than to forge ahead with a large-scale project.  It’s important to accept that the science of environmental restoration is in its infancy, and therefore it isn’t easy to predict the consequences of an intervention, just as it was impossible for 19th-century art restorers to predict what would happen to the glues and paints they used, sometimes doing irreversible damage to artworks. 

There are any number of internet videos of restorers at the world’s great museums doing meticulous studies of masterpieces, sometimes over a period of years, before they even come up with a plan of what to do and not to do.  This research usually involves quite an expense in x-ray and other imaging equipment, chemical analysis of the layers of paint, study of surface features, etc.  And lest you think that environmental restorers face pressures from multiple constituencies including scientists, politicians, lawyers, taxpayers, and local residents that those in the insular museum world don’t have to deal with, think again.  There are some who consider that restoration of Michelangelo’s paintings in the Sistine Chapel garish, while that of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper in need of more work.

What Heneghan is saying in this article is that there is no perfect intervention in art or in nature, that humans have to accept that they go into any project with limited expertise, so it is best to go slowly and at each stage to evaluate what has worked and what hasn’t before plunging deeper into the unknown.  Just as the philosopher’s head bears its history well, so too could a prairie or woodland.  Its residents might not be those that were there 200 years ago, but they may represent a relatively staple ecosystem that, like the sculpture, will endure more change, but will still be there 200 years from now, or even a thousand.  And to put in a word about herbaria, because I can’t help myself, there are also restoration issues involved in whether to remount a specimen or repair a damaged sheet.  Here too, the art world may be of assistance.  

Victorian Botany: The Wardian Case

The Contest for the Bouquet by Seymour Guy (1866), The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The last post dealt with the rising influence of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in 19th-century botany and horticulture with the Palm House conservatory as the symbol of this sway.  Just as improvements in construction technologies made this marvel possible, another new technology, the Wardian case, helped to fill it with new wonders.  Nathaniel Ward was a physician with an interest in natural history, a common pursuit at the time.  He was fascinated by insects and experimented with taking corked bottles and putting into them leaf debris and moth larvae to study their development.  The insects did indeed flourish, and he also noticed little plants growing in the debris.  That set him thinking about nurturing not insects but plants in sealed containers, protecting them from the soot and noxious fumes of the industrial area of London where he lived.  From there his experiments moved in two directions, as Luke Keogh (2020) describes in his book, The Wardian Case.  Some cases were more in line with Ward’s first work, small glass-covered containers to grow plants and often insects and perhaps snails.  These became popular and were often decorative and designed to be focal points in Victorian parlors.  When my husband and I would visit the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, we usually spent time with Seymour Guy’s The Contest for the Bouquet: The Family of Robert Gordon in Their New York Dining(1866).  While its focus is the children’s tussle over a flower, for us it was on the Wardian in the window, an item of Victorian interior decoration. 

Keogh devotes most of the book to the Wardian case’s other use in moving plants from place to place, which he argues had a profound effect on botany, horticulture, agriculture, and present-day environmental problems.  Almost as soon as Ward created his first cases, he wanted to test them out by shipping plants to Australia.  As an avid gardener, he knew the nurseryman George Loddiges and together they packed up two strong wooden boxes of ferns, mosses, and grasses, then sealed them with glass lids.  Most of the plants survived the five-month voyage as did Australian plants that were sent back to England in the same cases.  This success caused a sensation among gardeners in Britain, particularly those in the upper classes who could afford exotics and often had greenhouses or hothouses in which to pamper them.  Since the beginning of the age of exploration, plants were transported long distances, but cultivation success rates were low.  Attempting to ship live plants from the Americas or Asia was daunting.  Fresh water was needed for the crew and usually couldn’t be spared for other uses.  If plants were kept on deck to get sunlight, they were subjected to salt breezes and the hot sun.  Yet months at sea without light was disastrous; it might work for dormant roots or bulbs, but even then most shipments rotted, as did most seeds unless they were properly dried and packaged. 

It is amazing that so many plants did make it.  Once a few examples of a species reached Europe they were carefully cultivated, with seeds and seedlings widely distributed.  That’s why by the end of the 16th century, tomatoes grew from Spain to Germany and Italy, and tobacco was the subject of more publications than any other exotic.  What the Wardian case allowed was a greater and more systematic movement of plants.  Needless to say, William Hooker made good use of cases to funnel plants into Kew where they were cultivated and then shipped to Britain’s far-flung colonial gardens.  Robert Spruce sent Cinchona plants to Kew, and these became the foundation of cinchona cultivation for quinine in the many parts of Africa and Asia where the British Empire ruled (Crawford, 2016).

Keogh writes that the cases were hardly fool-proof.  Plant mortality was still high on ocean voyages, though shipments fared better when steamships speeded travel.  The cases had a higher success rate when they were accompanied by gardeners or where crewmen with some horticultural expertise looked after them.  Eventually, the French and Germans were even more ardent users than the British, but as time went on some of the environmental consequences of large-scale plant movements became obvious.  There had been evidence of what are now called invasive species from the early years of exploration; by the 18th century there were many examples of colonial landscapes being altered by plants brought by homesick immigrants.  This became particularly apparent in 19th-century Australia and New Zealand, where their fragile ecosystems were overrun with plants that had been loved in England.

Not only plants traveled, but insects, fungi, and other soil pests tagged along and were frequently difficult to control in non-native habitats.  By the early 20th century, the ill effects of such transmission were so great that Wardian cases were used less and less.  The boxes were often destroyed after one trip to prevent further spread of organisms that could lurk in the wood.  Ironically, many of the last cases were used to transport insects that were used to control invasive plants that had earlier traveled the same way. 

Wardian case in the Economic Botany Collection at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

At the beginning of the book, Keogh tells of seeking out Wardian cases early in his research and finding very few of them; there is only one left in Britain, not surprisingly in Kew’s economic botany collection.  Later, he realized that this dearth was probably tied to the case’s later history; few survived because they were destroyed to prevent infestations, a sad end for such a clever piece of technology.  The home models fared a little better, being resurrected as terraria in the late 20th century.

References

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

Keogh, L. (2020). The Wardian Case. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Note:

I want to thank Mark Nesbitt, Curator of the Economic Botany Collection at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, for showing me the Wardian case and many other treasures during my visit in 2018.

Using Biodiversity

Seed collection at the herbarium, Penn State University

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conserving Biodiversity

One of the outgrowths of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) discussed in the last post was the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (GSPC) of 2002.  Updated 10 years ago, it has five objectives and within them 16 goals or targets.  While not all the targets have been met, there has been a great deal of work done toward them, and herbaria have been at the forefront of these efforts as have botanic gardens.  In fact, Botanic Gardens Conservation International, a global partnership, has taken a lead.  The first objective, not surprisingly was to understand plant diversity and one of the targets was an online flora of all known plants; this effort is headed by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.  Though not complete, the flora does include information on each listed species’ range, with related literature and a sampling of illustrations and herbarium specimens.

Another target was to determine, “as far as possible,” the conservation status of all known plants.  This goal is much more difficult to achieve, but the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species established in 1964 is the most comprehensive inventory of species vulnerability worldwide.  Those with economic or cultural value, and those most apparent to humans, are more likely to be included because a great deal of work goes into getting a species listed, and delisted if its status improves.  In the case of plants, evaluation includes research in herbarium collections to determine a plant’s range in the past compared to what it is now, and at times to clarify precisely what species is being listed.  To put teeth into the protection of species on the Red List, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) was presented at a Washington, DC meeting in 1973.  It controls commerce in endangered species and comes into play in botany especially with illicit trade in timber from rare trees and exotic plants such as orchids and cacti. 

About a third of the world’s plants are threatened with extinction.  Such loss could be comparable to some earlier mass extinctions including the one about 65 million years ago that brought the age of dinosaurs to an end.  But it was not just dinosaurs that disappeared, that’s not the way the living world works.  Species are so interdependent that a single extinction can result in greater loss:  the species’ parasites and predators could also suffer population crashes leading to extinction.  That’s why conservationists focus on protecting habitats and ecosystems, not individual species such as a beautiful orchid or bird.  Species that catch the human eye are linked to many others such as microscopic invertebrates and fungi that are less obvious but equally important.

The goals of the second GSPC objective are more multispecies in scope including conserving 15% of each ecological region or vegetation type and 75% of the most diverse areas, the biodiversity hotspots.  Other goals include growing 75% of threatened plant species in situ, that is, in their natural habitat and also ex situ in botanical gardens or other protected areas, preferably in the plant’s home country.  This last goal highlights the importance of botanic gardens in biodiversity conservation.  They have become safe havens for many species, places where plants can be cultivated and propagated.  In a sense, this is an outgrowth of the mission of nineteenth-century colonial botanic gardens and their mother gardens in Europe, such as Kew in London and the Jardin des Plantes in Paris.  Now there are more gardens in plants’ home countries and under the supervision of the countries’ own people, who, thanks to the CBD, can make binding decisions about how these plants will be distributed and used, including for ecosystem restoration projects.  However, the resources of gardens in developed countries are still necessary; they nurture plants on site, also sending them back to the country of origin, with the goal of having 20% of the plants available for restoration work.

In addition, botanical gardens preserve specimens to document what is grown and some saving small samples of plant material under ultra-cold conditions for future use in DNA sequencing studies.  Ideally, each sample is associated with a herbarium specimen voucher for reference.  Just as herbaria were important to economic botany in the nineteenth century, they are crucial to biodiversity research in the twenty-first.  The number of herbaria in developing nations has increased substantially in this century and the number of specimens housed is rising at an even faster pace, in part with the impetus of the GSPC.  The best resource for tracking herbaria and their growth is the annual report of the online Index Herbariorum, the definitive guide to the location and holdings of the world’s herbaria.

The GSPC’s third objective is for plant diversity to be used in a sustainable and equitable manner.  This depends on support from herbaria and from the international community in the form of the CITES treaty to prevent trade in endangered species.  Because of economic deprivation in many developing countries, there is great pressure to profit from natural resources, including plants and animals.  Uprooting rare plants does more than just reduce the population, it damages the entire habitat and makes it less likely that the plants can grow back.  Herbaria play a role in, for example, providing evidence in court cases arising from the seizure of endangered plants.  Taxonomists may be called on to verify that the species is in fact on the Red List.  The same is true of illegal trade in timber from endangered tree species, with xylarium collections’ wood samples compared to recovered timber.  CITES does have a downside as far as herbaria are concerned in terms of shipping specimens internationally.  There are forms that have to be filled out to certify that the material is only for research purposes and not for profit.  At times the red tape can be excessive, making the work of herbarium managers frustrating.

Protecting Biodiversity

Map of New Guinea

A prime reason for learning about biodiversity (see last post) is to find ways to conserve it.  One approach was developed at a meeting in Rio de Janeiro in 1993 and led to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) that gives each nation sovereignty over its biological wealth.  It aims to prevent developed nations from continuing to exploit the biota of developing nations, most of which had their progress thwarted by centuries of colonial rule.  The CBD represents a major shift in how the biological resources of a country are seen not only economically, but politically and culturally.  For example, the cinchona tree, native to Andean rainforests, is considered not only as the source of a valuable commodity, quinine, but as a resource growing in a particular place and therefore subject to the regulations of the government of that place.  Cinchona also has a long cultural history; it was Andeans who originally discovered its fever-relieving effects centuries ago and this plant has been documented with herbarium specimens, seeds, and also in poetry and art.  It is an integral part of Andean heritage, though it now grows in plantations around the world (Crawford, 2016).

Cultural connections can be found for thousands of plants worldwide, but economic and political issues often are at the fore when it comes to plant collecting.  Since the ratification of the CBD by most of the world’s nations, these issues have had a significant effect on botany, and on herbaria, just as they have had throughout the history of botany.  The difference now is the aim of equitable distribution of value.  Even non-signatory nations must comply with the procedures set down by those that have signed if they want to be allowed to collect, so this and the other international agreements have had a significant impact on how the biological wealth of nations is viewed and treated.  This is especially true since ratification of another UN-sponsored document, the Nagoya Protocol, a 2011 agreement that grew out of the CBD. It deals with the genetic resources of plants and animals, and how their benefits can be shared and used fairly and equitably.  It aims to prevent exploitation of resources, for example, by drug companies collecting plants that have medicinal uses and then developing drugs based on these plants in the companies’ laboratories without sharing profits with the country where the plant was collected and with the people who revealed its medical efficacy.

The Nagoya Protocol gives the host country the right to set strict limits not only on what can and cannot be collected, but also on how it can and cannot be used after collection.  Restrictions along with those of the CBD are meant to prevent the kind of exploitation by wealthy nations carried out for centuries, so they are attempting to right grievous wrongs.  A botanist who wishes to collect in another country must obtain a permit, or a series of permits, to do so.  These delineate what can and cannot be gathered, often only specific plant groups and in specific quantities.  Travel might also be limited to particular geographic areas.  Where possible, unless the plant is very rare, it is collected in multiples, and specimens are retained in an institution in the host country as well as in the collector’s institution. 

Requirements and procedures vary widely from country to country, and it may take months if not years to obtain necessary documents, which in some case are issued across multiple government agencies at levels going from country-wide to state, municipality, or other jurisdiction.  This sounds daunting, and it can be.  Some botanists and policy makers argue that the paperwork can be so difficult as to effectively prohibit or severely curtail collection and therefore hinder biodiversity research; requirements can have the opposite effect to what was intended.  The protocol does prevent exploitation, but in some cases it prevents research that might lead to practical benefits for the country in question.  In a commentary on a recent assessment of the biodiversity on the island of New Guinea, the authors noted that while half the island is part of Indonesia, a signatory to the protocol, the other half, Papua New Guinea, is not.  This is making the latter a more attractive location for biodiversity research (Novotny & Molem, 2020).

More mundane problems also persist.  Travel in many areas is difficult, as is transport and communications.  Shipments can get lost and may turn up eventually, or may be gone for good.  Australian customs officials destroyed type specimens sent from France over a mix-up about proper identification of the plant material (Davidson, 2017).  Restricting movement of plants into Australia is understandable.  These are definitely legitimate issues in preventing spread of invasive non-native species.  Australia, because of its remoteness, has a large number of endemic species and has suffered extinction of native plants and animals due to invasives.  But the invisibility of herbaria and their work has compounded the customs problem, since most nonscientists have never heard of herbaria and do not understand that specimens are dead, not living, plants. 

References

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

Davidson, H. (2017, May 8). Australian biosecurity officials destroy plant samples from 19th-century France. Manchester Guardian.

Novotny, V., & Molem, K. (2020). An inventory of plants for the land of the unexpected. Nature, 584(7822), 531–533. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-020-02225-4

Cataloguing Biodiversity

This series of posts deals with threats to biodiversity from a botanical perspective.  There is no lack of evidence for climate change and it’s easy to become overwhelmed and pessimistic.  But the only way forward is to learn more about what is happening and why, and then to take action based on that knowledge.  One example of the botanical community’s efforts is a report published by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, with contributions from a global roster of researchers.  State of the World’s Plants and Fungi 2020 is a useful blend of optimism and caution, presenting how biodiversity is catalogued, what is being learned about it, and how it can be preserved and also used into the future.  This latest report is supplemented with articles in a special issue of Plants, People, Planet as well as with a virtual symposium.  Earlier, Kew had published separate reports on plants and on fungi, but it made sense to combine them since this is how they are found in the world. 

It’s no surprise that Kew would have a leadership role in biodiversity research with its impressive staff and the world’s largest herbarium.  It also has a long history of studying plant diversity in developing nations, though granted, for a good portion of this history Kew’s efforts were on behalf of the world’s largest colonial power.  Garden administrators directed far-flung collectors, who relied on the expertise and labor of countless indigenous assistants and enslaved persons in finding plants that often proved economically important to the British (Brockway, 1979).  The past and future are intertwined at Kew in complex ways in its living and preserved plant collections.  Kew sponsored a symposium on the recent work of digitizing its collection of Miscellaneous Reports that colonial botanic gardens sent to Kew.  It is an important step in decolonizing its collection and was a fascinating look into how plants and plant products moved throughout the British Empire.

The present Kew report notes that 1942 new vascular plant species were described in 2019.  Many new finds were recently collected, but herbaria harbor plants awaiting identification and in some cases discovery as new species.  There is no solid estimate of the earth’s total plant diversity, of how many different plants exist.  The best record of known plants runs to around 350,000, with 325,000 of them flowering plants.  The situation with fungi is cloudier.  Almost 150,000 fungal species have been named and described; 1,886 were added in 2019.  With much research now being done on fungi, greater diversity is becoming apparent, and estimates of the number of fungal species now range from over two to nearly four million.  To me this is one of the most fascinating aspects of the report:  how the power of the fungal world is finally coming to be appreciated.  Two books that have done much for fungal publicity are Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees (2016) on how fungi support plant life and Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life (2020) on how fungi influence so much of the living world. 

The Kew report notes that the great biodiversity in tropical areas means some countries, though explored for centuries, are still yielding many discoveries.  Brazil, Madagascar, India, and South Africa have been collection areas from the sixteenth century on.  There have been a number of projects where these sites have been revisited, with older collections used in planning surveys.  The new work may recollect the same specimens, which can be used in genetic comparisons with the older plants.  Not finding some species points to changes in the habitat due to climate change or other factors, and not surprisingly there may be new species found as well.

Island ecosystems are particularly rich in endemic species found nowhere else:  83% of Madagascar’s 11,138 native plant species are limited to this island, making learning about and protecting its flora especially important.  A recent study in New Guinea reports that it has the world’s richest island flora with 13,634 species, 68% endemic (Cámara-Leret et al., 2020).  This is the first comprehensive plant list for the island, and the study could be a model for future work in other areas, though it may still be quite incomplete.  There are 3,962 tree species on the list, which seems impressive, but the number found in an inventory of the Amazon region was over 10,000.  In South America, researchers surveyed all the plants in almost 2000 study plots, a time-consuming and labor-intensive cataloguing job particularly under difficult conditions.  In New Guinea, only 300 plots were surveyed, which may explain the lower tree species count.  This suggests that discovering biodiversity is both hard work and not near its end, while these species-rich areas are under increasing threat from development (Novotny & Molem, 2020).

There are many factors involved in estimating biodiversity.  It is not just the density of sampling, but where the sampling is done.  Studies of the geographic locations on herbarium specimens has uncovered many collection biases because botanists, being human, tend to collect relatively close to home and even during exploration, find some areas easier to access than others.  For former colonies, the regions around botanic gardens were often well studied, or were along supply routes, or near seaports or other urban areas.  Species-rich regions of South Africa were explored from the 17th century (see image above), but there were no collections in some areas until the end of the 19th century when they were opened to agriculture (Cowell, 2020).  Few collections were made in highly diverse portions of Cameroon until they were surveyed over a decade beginning in 2004; 2240 plant species were found with about a tenth under threat of extinction (Demissew, 2015).

References

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

Cámara-Leret, R., Frodin, D. G., Adema, F., Anderson, C., Appelhans, M. S., Argent, G., Arias Guerrero, S., Ashton, P., Baker, W. J., Barfod, A. S., Barrington, D., Borosova, R., Bramley, G. L. C., Briggs, M., Buerki, S., Cahen, D., Callmander, M. W., Cheek, M., Chen, C.-W., … van Welzen, P. C. (2020). New Guinea has the world’s richest island flora. Nature, 584(7822), 579–583. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-2549-5

Cowell, C. R., Anderson, P. M. L., & Annecke, W. A. (2020). Historic herbarium specimens as biocultural assets: An examination of herbarium specimens and their in situ plant communities of the Agulhas National Park, South Africa. People and Nature, 2(2), 483–494. https://doi.org/10.1002/pan3.10087

Demissew, S., Beentje, H., Cheek, M., & Friis, I. (2015). Sub-Saharan botanical collections: Taxonomic research and impediments. In I. Friis & H. Balslev (Eds.), Tropical Plant Collections: Legacies from the Past? Essential Tools for the Future? (pp. 97–114). Stockholm: Scientia Danica.

Novotny, V., & Molem, K. (2020). An inventory of plants for the land of the unexpected. Nature, 584(7822), 531–533. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-020-02225-4

Sheldrake, M. (2020). Entangled Life. London: Bodley Head.

Wohlleben, P. (2016). The Hidden Life of Trees. London: Harper Collins.

Biocultural Ethnobotany

Cotton grown locally in Aiken, South Carolina

Ethnobotanical research has moved beyond just searching for medicinal plants or even food plants.  There is now a more holistic approach to indigenous plant knowledge, one tied not only to finding valuable plants but to saving biological and cultural diversity as well (Cámara-Leret & Bascompte, 2019).  This makes recording the vernacular names for plants important in field notes and even on herbarium sheets as a way to preserve knowledge.  From early in the history of plant exploration, such information has been unevenly respected, though as discussed in previous posts (1,2), some botanists were careful to record not only local names but uses for plants.  Ethnobotanists are now combing herbarium sheets and collecting journals kept in European and North American herbaria for leads in seeking out present-day knowledge held by local populations (Nabhan, 2016). 

This points to the fact that there is a significant gap between the botanical infrastructure of developed and developing nations.  Closing what in many cases is a chasm must involve more than just sending teams of experts to assist in plant collecting, and sponsoring students to attend graduate schools where large plant collections like those at Kew or NYBG are easily accessible.  The infrastructure needs to be developed where the plants are, and this is slowly happening, particularly in countries like Brazil and South Africa, where universities are educating botanists who will fill new academic positions and help to overcome the taxonomic impediment of a lack of professionals.  Assistants in the field are also being trained, with parataxonomists receiving instruction in collecting and in plant identification.  At last those who do the work of collecting are being treated as worthy of education and acknowledgment (Basset et al., 2004).  Visiting botanists can still provide valuable assistance, but they are often as likely to be learning from the permanent staff in local institutions as offering expertise.

Anthropologists and ethnobotanists working together have discovered a close link between extinction of species and extinction of local languages (Gorenflo et al., 2012).  Research shows that neighboring peoples who have different language traditions are unlikely to share plant knowledge, so with the death of a language comes an acute loss of learning.  Close observation going on for centuries has resulted in information on plant blooming and fruiting times, plant/animal interactions, and of course, a host of uses for plant material.  Indigenous expertise is invaluable and in many cases fading fast since younger generations are often less interested in traditions that might well lead the way forward in environmental conservation (Nabhan & St. Antoine, 1993).  Ethnobotanists today are helping to document this information with, among other things, herbarium vouchers, to anchor that knowledge to specific data about plants (Stepp & Thomas, 2010).

Throughout the world, herbarium collections are being formed by indigenous peoples to document the flora important to them—a way to preserve plants and the knowledge attached to them.  Two tribes in California are working with the University of California, Berkeley’s Jepsen Herbarium in making such collections, and the Newe people in Idaho have created a herbarium to document what grows on their lands.  These are manifestations of a desire to maintain their identity in a particularly important way, since plants provide so many of the resources that supported these groups and shaped their cultures.  These peoples were shaped by their ecosystems as much if not more than they shaped them, and specimens help to tell this story.

Learning about such projects and about how language, history, and ecology are woven together can also help those not part of such cultures to appreciate that they too are shaped by the plants they have relationships with.  Awareness of plant connections might generate some thought about how buying carrots in a plastic bag provides an impoverished experience of this vegetable.  If this is the only way someone sees carrots, they have no idea how beautiful their leaves and flowers are, or how good a fresh carrot tastes.  The fact that in the same country where carrots come in plastic bags, there are indigenous peoples preserving their biological heritage in herbaria, suggests how biocultural issues can vary greatly within a geographical area.  Looking at the culture of plant use across the board could make everyone more aware of how important plants are to our lives and spur finding better ways to appreciate our links to them.

In the United States, houseplant sales have increased significantly during the Covid pandemic.  So has cat and dog ownership, but let’s stick with the plants here.  In the 1980s, E.O. Wilson published Biophilia in which he argued that attraction to other species is an innate human trait.  For most of our species’ history, humans have lived intimately with nature.  It would be peculiar if we didn’t have adaptations as a result.  Also as a result of Covid there are more and more studies substantiating Wilson’s view:  time spent in natural settings improves mental health and increases a sense of wellbeing.  I can envision ethnobotanical studies, vouchered of course, that investigate how plants are used for what we term decorative purposes.  As someone who wrote an article on the biology of interior decorating (Flannery, 2005), I think this is a great idea.  What plants are sprouting in peoples’ homes?  Are they being grown from seed or purchased fully grown, in which case the ecology of big box stores and garden centers needs to be investigated.  And how long term are these plant-human cohabitations:  until the plant stops blooming, or loses all its leaves, or are they together for the long term?  Just as anthropology has broadened its focus and now investigates groups beyond the indigenous populations traditionally studied—for example, scientists—the same move would be helpful in ethnobotany (Lynch & Woolgar, 1990).  Since everyone uses plants, it would support the future of botany, and of society, to delve into the relationships of all people to plants, if for no other reason than to alleviate the problem of plant blindness.

References

Basset, Y., Novotny, V., Miller, S. E., Weiblen, G. D., Missa, O., & Stewart, A. J. A. (2004). Conservation and biological monitoring of tropical forests: The role of parataxonomists. Journal of Applied Ecology, 41(1), 163–174. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2664.2004.00878.x

Cámara-Leret, R., & Bascompte, J. (2019). Indigenous Knowledge Networks. The Ethnobotanical Assembly. https://www.tea-assembly.com/issues/2019/9/29/indigenous-knowledge-networks

Flannery, M. C. (2005). Jellyfish on the Ceiling and Deer in the Den: The Biology of Interior Decoration. Leonardo, 38(3), 239–244.

Gorenflo, L. J., Romaine, S., Mittermeier, R. A., & Walker-Painemilla, K. (2012). Co-occurrence of linguistic and biological diversity in biodiversity hotspots and high biodiversity wilderness areas. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(21), 8032–8037. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1117511109

Lynch, M., & Woolgar, S. (1990). Representations of Scientific Practice. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Nabhan, G., & St. Antoine, S. (1993). The loss of floral and faunal story: The extinction of experience. In S. Kellert & E. O. Wilson (Eds.), The Biophilia Hypothesis (pp. 229–250). Washington, DC: Island Press.

Stepp, J. R., & Thomas, M. B. (2010). Managing ethnopharmacological data: Herbaria, relational databases, literature. Medical and Health Sciences, 13, 116–123.

Wilson, E. O. (1984). Biophilia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Ethnobotany in Practice

Swamp-Pink, Helonias bullata, threatened in South Carolina, photo from USFWS

At the moment, most ethnobotanic work outlined in the last post is done in developing countries.  Despite the vast geographical expanses and travel challenges, the richer biodiversity nearer the equator remains a magnet for collectors.  However, large-scale expeditions are long gone and collecting in the developing world is now tightly regulated.  This is the result of a post-colonial world with all nations justifiably wishing to have sovereignty over their biological resources.  Several international agreements are helping to make this possible.  The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) was presented at a United-Nations sponsored meeting in Washington, DC meeting in 1973.  It controls commerce in endangered species presented in the IUCN Red List.  It comes into play in botany especially with timber from rare trees and exotic plants such as orchids and cacti.  It is the first of several international agreements on the earth’s biodiversity.  CITES regulations are strict, but depend on enforcement which varies among the signatories and with the economic value of the species.

A meeting in Rio de Janeiro in 1993 led to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) that gives each nation sovereignty over its biological wealth.  It aims to prevent developed nations from continuing to exploit the biota of developing nations, most of which had their advance thwarted by centuries of colonial rule.  The CBD represents a major shift in how the biological resources of a country are seen not only economically, but politically and culturally.  Since the ratification of the CBD by most of the world’s nations, these issues have had a significant impact on botany and on herbaria, as they had throughout the history of botany.  The difference now is the aim of equitable distribution of value.  Even non-signatory nations must comply with the procedures set down by those that have signed, so this and the other international agreements have had a significant impact on how the biological wealth of nations is viewed and treated.  This is particularly the case since the ratification of another UN-sponsored document the Nagoya Protocol, a 2011 agreement that grew out of the CBD.  It deals with the genetic resources of plants and animals, and how their benefits can be shared and used fairly and equitably.  It aims to prevent exploitation of resources, for example, by drug companies collecting plants that have medicinal uses and then developing drugs based on them in their home country’s laboratories without sharing profits with the country where the plant was collected and with the people who revealed its medical efficacy.  

Such agreements give a host country the right to set strict limits not only on what can and cannot be collected, but also on how it can and cannot be used after collection.  These restrictions are meant to prevent the kind of exploitation by wealthy nations that was carried out for centuries.  A botanist who wishes to collect in another country must obtain a permit, or a series of permits, to do so.  These delineate what can be gathered, often only specific plant groups and in specific quantities.  Travel might also be limited to particular geographic areas.  Where possible, unless the plant is very rare, it is collected in multiples, and specimens are retained in an institution in the host country as well as in the collector’s institution. 

Requirements and procedures vary widely from country to country, and it may take months if not years to obtain the necessary documents, which in some cases are issued across multiple government agencies at levels going from nation-wide to state, municipality, or other jurisdiction.  This sounds daunting, and it can be.  Some botanists and policy makers argue that the paperwork can be so difficult as to effectively prohibit or severely curtail collection and therefore hinder biodiversity research.  They contend that the requirements can have the opposite effect to what was intended.  The protocol does prevent exploitation, but in some cases it thwarts research that might lead to practical benefits for the country in question.  In a commentary on a recent assessment of the biodiversity on the island of New Guinea, researchers noted that while half the island is part of Indonesia, a signatory to the protocol, the other half, Papua New Guinea, is not.  This is making the latter more attractive for biodiversity research (Novotny & Molem, 2020).

More mundane problems also persist.  Travel in many areas is difficult, as is transport and communication.  Shipments can get lost and may turn up eventually, or may be gone for good.  This is a real concern since there are strict regulations about transporting living material, or material that was at one time living, across borders.  These are definitely legitimate issues about the possible spread of invasive non-native species.  Australia, because of its remoteness, has a large number of endemic species and has had severe problems with invasives causing extinction of native plants and animals.  The invisibility of herbaria and their work have compounded the customs problem, since most nonscientists haven’t heard of herbaria and do not appreciate that specimens are dead not living plants.  The case of Australian customs officials destroying types specimens sent from the herbarium at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris led to an international incident.

Reference

Novotny, V., & Molem, K. (2020). An inventory of plants for the land of the unexpected. Nature, 584(7822), 531–533. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-020-02225-4

Twitter Botany: Family and Quarantine Herbaria

Impatiens in sidewalk crack, courtesy of Arthur Anderson

One organization I follow on Twitter is the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (@BSBIbotany).  Recently a Welsh member Barbara Brown wrote a blog post about personal herbaria, particularly those that have become a family tradition.  She discusses one volunteer at a nature preserve in Wales, Sue Arthur, who with her mother began making a plant collection in the 1960s.  They preserved 120 species over the years, most of them common wildflowers though there are some rare plants included.  Arthur kept up the practice with her daughter who is now passing it on to her daughter.

This is a wonderful practice at so many levels.  Arthur thinks that her early exposure to nature as something valuable and worth physically preserving was instrumental in making her a long-time participant in nature preserve activities.  Also, the herbarium obviously became a thread bonding generations together, physical evidence of time spent together and memorable encounters with the living world.  In addition, It is a record of what plants were common at particular times in a particular area, a chronological and ecological document.  Such collections were frequently created by amateurs in the 19th and early 20th centuries in both Europe and the US.  Today, they are much less common, but that might be changing.  It’s a familiar observation in the age of Covid-19 that people are spending more time observing nature; they have discovered wonderful living things while walking through woods, urban parks, or even down city sidewalks.  Of course, quarantine came at a good time, as spring arrived in the northern hemisphere, but really, winter is a better time to study tree architecture and plant decay, so any time of year will do. 

At least in my botanical Twitter world, there are several manifestations of this heightened awareness of plants.  First is an uptick of interest in urban plants, that is, weeds, which seem to be in fashion right now.  Many have discovered that weeds can have beautiful flowers, not surprising when you consider that weeds often go by the name of “wildflowers.”  @concretebotany is a Twitter account based in Philadelphia that regularly posts great images of what can be found in a city landscape and has been doing so for some time.  There are British counterparts @streetbotany and @morethanweeds.  In Europe, there is also a movement to make people aware of the plants growing in sidewalk cracks, in vacant lots, and along the edges of roads by writing plant names in chalk with arrows pointing to the relevant specimens.  The Manchester Guardian ran an article on this practice, which is becoming so common right now that some are annoyed about it and calling on local governments to ban it.  Obviously there are still large pockets of plant blindness, if not downright plant hostility.  Chalk botany is a great form of public education, not only giving people names for ubiquitous plants, but also getting them to really look at these specimens. 

Some of those who stop to look at plants might be tempted to go a step further and take a few flowers home with them, to put them in water and brighten the day.  They might even take a stab at drawing them.  After all, looking closely at a beautiful bloom may actually be more enjoyable than scrolling through email or Facebook.  Artist Aimee Lee has written about creating a drawing of the same rhododendron every day as a social distancing continued in Ohio.  Jessie Wei-Hsuan Chen, who is working on a doctorate in the history of science in the Netherlands, has a blog where she discusses how her work intersects botanical art and the living world.  She has made a practice of drawing the common plants she sees growing in the world around her.  Her master’s thesis deals with the first 100 years of the Plantin Press which produced some of the most significant illustrated botanical books of the early modern era.  Chen focused on the woodblocks used for printing the illustrations and has published a fascinating open access article on her research.  For her, art is a way to relax, to carefully examine some of the same plants that are represented in the woodblocks, and to gain an appreciation for the work of the artists involved in producing these blocks. 

Beyond drawing, the next step in plant engagement would be, like Sue Arthur and her family, creating a herbarium.  That’s the idea behind Elaine Ayer’s Quarantine Herbarium project.  She is a faculty fellow at New York University and is interested in the history of botany.  She has written a number of blog posts on a wide range of topics from the difficulties of botanical artists getting their watercolors to match flowers’ hues to Richard Spruce and Victorian bryology.  Ayer has a google documents site with information on how anyone can upload photos of their pressed plants.  This idea is catching on and there are specimens from all over the world.  Many of them might be looked down upon by herbarium curators who don’t tend to use graph or notebook paper for mounting specimens.  Several institutions such as the herbaria at the Natural History Museum, London have posted videos on to press plants.  These projects are yet other ways to engage with the living world and also to document the activities that went on during a very odd, and I hope rare, period in history.  Perhaps as we now look at the peaks and valleys of Covid-19 graphs, we might in the future look at peaks and valleys of herbarium interest, with this time being the beginning of a new spike that turned into a long-lasting plateau. 

Twitter Botany: Plants in the Roman Colosseum, and in Florence

Illustration from Deakin’s Flora of the Colosseum of Rome, Biodiversity Heritage Library

When Twitter was young, I had a conversation with a librarian who was extolling the virtues of it for research.  I didn’t get it.  From what I had heard, Twitter was where people told their friends about their lives, often the more trivial aspects.  However, she convinced me to try it, with the advice to select a few people and institutions involved with plants and herbaria and follow them; they would lead me to other Twitter feeds.  That was several years ago, and while I know family members and friends have accounts, I don’t follow them.  For me Twitter is about plants.  I usually check it during breakfast and often find at least one interesting item to bookmark and investigate later.  Admittedly, I am not immune to the trivial, and sometimes there will be a retweet of something amusing.  Recently and not surprisingly, a number of these have featured animals (yikes!), and one of my favorites involves two British Labrador retrievers.  But I digress.  What I want to do in this series of posts, as I did in another recent series on miscellanea (1,2,3,4), is to share some of the unrelated items I’ve come across, which reveal Twitter to be a valuable research tool. 

There are two well-known websites that often have botanically flavored posts on relatively unknown aspects of the plant world.  One is Atlas Obscura and the other is the Public Domain Review, which as its name suggests features old publications that are out of copyright; they usually have visual appeal too.  Recently there was a post on Richard Deakin’s 1855, Flora of the Colosseum of Rome.  I had come across this book years ago after a trip to Rome when I fell in love with the city, amazed by how much to its ancient past is still visible.  After four years of Latin, I had an image of the Roman Forum and was thrilled to be able to walk through so much of it, to appreciate its size if not the splendor of its buildings.  What tickled me about Deakin’s book is that someone in the mid-19th century had taken the trouble to thoroughly explore a major ruin and record the 420 plant species he found.  There are illustrations of both the building and some of the plants.  In the copy available through the Biodiversity Heritage Library, the plant illustrations are colored.

While you might not want to know every plant in this famous ruin, you should at least read the illustrated blog post about it.  It’s reveals how nature abhors a vacuum and reinhabits places that humans have come to ignore.  That was the situation with the Colosseum two centuries ago, though by the time Deakin was doing his survey things were beginning to change.  Tourism was growing and efforts were underway to make parts of the structure more accessible and safer for exploration.  This meant removing much of the overgrowth that had accumulated.  Today the process has gone much further, and it’s difficult to envision the floral splendor Deakin experienced, thus making his book that much more valuable.  It documents yet one more ecosystem that has been severely diminished, and an odd one at that.  He found plants there that grew nowhere else in Italy.  A later observer speculated that wild beasts like lions brought from Africa to fight in the Colosseum probably carried seeds with them, so that reminders of these slaughtered animals remained for two millennia, a beautiful example of plant translocation. 

While I am discussing Italy, a blog called Herbarium World should not fail to mention another example of plant endurance in Italy:  the herbarium at the University of Florence.  It is the major focus of a beautifully illustrated book, available as a free download, about the Museum of Natural History of the University of Florence’s botanical collections.  Among them is the herbarium of Andrea Cesalpino, 16th-century student of Luca Ghini, the originator or at least popularizer of dried plant collections in the 1540s (Findlen, 2017).  Cesalpino succeeded Ghini as professor of botany at the University of Pisa and amassed a large herbarium, 15 volumes of which survive today.  He was interested in how to order plants and so arranged his collection according to the classification system he laid out in the first modern work on plant taxonomy (Morton, 1981).  This makes his herbarium a significant historical document and a contribution to a distinguished collection that includes the massive herbarium of the 19th century botanist Philip Webb, who decided to donate his collection to Florence and turn away from his British homeland and Paris where he had worked for years, because he had been treated so well in Italy. 

There are other great collections in the museum including a xylarium and an array of wax plant models.  The city was the center of a vogue in scientific wax modeling in the 18th and 19th centuries, with its anatomical models being the best known and definitely worth seeing at the La Speculo museum.  But plant anatomy, including at the microscopic level, also got its due.  Some pieces have been preserved, as well as models of apples and other fruits that were a way to document the color and shape of different varieties.  Many of these have long ago disappeared as have so much for the Colosseum flora.  We are fortunate that passionate botanists and curators have given us tokens of what has been lost.

References

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

Morton, A. G. (1981). History of Botanical Science. Academic Press.