More Books: Horticulture

This series of posts deals with books that approach botany from a number of different angles.  Horticulture has always been an important aspect of the discipline, from providing living material for study to being a major impetus for searching out more and more species to bring into cultivation.  Fiona Davison, who is head of libraries and exhibitions at the Royal Horticultural Society, has come up with a unique perspective.  The Hidden Horticulturalists (2019) was inspired by a single item from the RHS archives labeled “The Handwriting of Undergardeners and Labourers.”  This notebook contains entries from each of the 105 gardeners enrolled in the Society’s training program for its first six years beginning in 1823.  Each candidate had to describe their work experience from age 14.  This served to prove their literacy but also, almost 200 years later, gives insight into the gardening culture of the time.  Davison has done a great deal of research to trace the careers of these men when they left the RHS.  Many had successful careers in spheres from plant collecting, to heading nurseries, to superintending the gardens of large estates.  She also considers many who had successful though less illustrious lives as market gardeners, journeyman on estates, and caretakers for the increasing number of small suburban gardens.  It becomes obvious reading The Hidden Horticulturalists that following the men who wrote in the notebook leads to some very interesting places.

Davison begins by describing the genesis of the program.  It met an increasing need for workers who had enough expertise to take up positions of some responsibility in large gardens.  It also provided an additional workforce for the RHS garden, then located at Chiswick.  Davison goes into the society’s history and leadership, but then gets right into her real subjects, describing the work the men had already undertaken before entering the program.  Not surprisingly most had some experience with plants, though the type of work they did varied from manual labor to jobs that required considerable skill.  Most stayed at RHS for more than a year and most left with good recommendations. 

Though Davison details what they did and learned at Chiswick, the bulk of the book deals with their later work experiences.  She begins with those who became part of the horticultural elite, most notably Joseph Paxton.  Head gardener at the Duke of Devonshire’s estate at Chatsworth, he was adept at growing exotic plants in greenhouses and designed a large conservatory constructed of glass panes with iron frames.  This is where he was able to grow such exotics at the Victoria amazonica waterlily with its giant leaves.  Eventually he designed the Crystal Palace along the same lines, but much larger.  He was definitely an RHS star pupil.

A number of the gardeners traveled to other parts of the world to do their work.  Thomas Bridges aided the RHS director John Lindley during his time at Chiswick and used Lindley’s pamphlet on collecting and packing seeds when he set out for South America.  He sent specimens to Lindley and William Jackson Hooker, then a botanist at the University of Glasgow, but it was difficult to make a living at this grueling work.  He instead turned to farming, but was lured back into collecting after the introduction of the Wardian case made transporting live plants more reliable (Keogh, 2020).  The other lure was the discovery of the Victoria waterlily, which was only known from a badly degraded, though massive, leaf that its discoverer Herman Schomburgk sent back from what is now Guyana.  Bridges sent better specimens with leaves preserved in paper, flowers in alcohol, and seeds.  Hooker grew the seeds but only two plants survived and they didn’t do well.  It was Paxton who finally got plants to flower in the Chatsworth conservatory and sent one of them to its namesake, Queen Victoria.

James Traill and William McCulloch went to Egypt and worked designing and managing the garden of the Egyptian ruler Ibrahim Pasha at his palace complex between Cairo and Giza, a difficult climate in which to create an English style garden.  Traill  had correspondence with Nathaniel Ward and received some of the earliest plants transported in a Wardian case.  He even exchanged plants with British gardeners in India.  At the same time there was another kind of horticultural exchange going on.  European gardeners at elite estates were sent to RHS for training in British techniques, and they brought back not only new skills but new plants from British colonies.  Davison also tells of the adventures of John Dallachy, who traveled to Australia collecting plants there and working for the expert on Australian flora, Ferdinand von Mueller in Melbourne. 

Meanwhile the botanist Nathaniel Wallich who spent years in India, returned to England on leave.  He brought with him a young assistant, James Watson, who had to care for chests filled with living plants and seeds during the trip.  Since he had less to do once he arrived in England, Wallich sent him for training at RHS.  Meanwhile Wallich, who had brought his entire herbarium back with him, worked on identifying his vast collection.  He distributed 250,000 specimens to 66 individuals and institutions, who assisted in sorting and labeling the plants.  It’s information like this that makes Davison’s book so fascinating.  It is highly readable and very meaty; I’ve just scratched the surface here and don’t have the space to dig into the details.  And I wouldn’t be surprised if Davison is now working on another project to open up still more of the RHS Lindley Library’s treasures.


Davison, F. (2019). The Hidden Horticulturalists: The Working-Class Men who Shaped Britain’s Gardens. London: Atlantic.

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

More Books: The Vasculum

Recently I wrote a series of posts (1,2,3,4) on books about plants that view them in broad contexts.  After I finished, I realized that I still had a stack I hadn’t gotten to, so I’m doing a second series.  I’m beginning with a book I fell in love with even though I have to admit to not doing a very good job of reading it.  It’s Régine Fabri’s (2021) volume in French on the vasculum, the long metal box for collecting in the field that was the emblem of the 19th century botanist.  I heard Fabri speak on the vasculum at the joint meeting of American and European botanical librarians held at the New York Botanical Garden in 2018.  Since then she has retired as chief librarian at the Meise Botanic Garden in Belgium.  She obviously has not been idle, but this book is hardly just a work of retirement; it’s clear she has been doing research on the subject for years.

Fabri was well-prepared for the challenge with a doctorate in botany and years of research in systematics leading to the publication of the volume on umbellifers for the General Flora of Belgium.  She then moved into library work and clearly became a master of ferreting out information.  Since my French is rudimentary, I wasn’t able to fully appreciate the text.  However, from the number of topics she covers and the wide variety of images she includes (300 in all), she knows her subject literally inside out.  She must have had a great deal of fun putting this book together, but it must also have been a great deal of work.  I can’t imagine what was involved in finding and organizing 300 images.  Each one makes a contribution to bringing the vasculum back from, as she writes in her subtitle, “obscurity.”

As Fabri notes, the first published mention of using a metal box to store specimens when out collecting was made in 1704 by William Stukeley. A British antiquarian, he wrote about students of materia medica going on fieldtrips with a copy of John Ray’s catalogue of English plants and a metal candle box, a long cylindrical container with a door on its side, perfect for adding candles or plants—and about the right size to take into the field (Allen, 1965).  It’s sturdiness meant the plant material was less likely to be damaged in transport than if put into a bag or carried loose.  The idea caught on.  The candle box eventually was fitted with a leather strap to make it easy to carry over the shoulder and morphed into a vasculum, from the Latin for vase.  By the 19th century it was marketed along with plant presses and hand lenses not only to botanists, who were becoming more and more professionalized, but also to the ever-increasing number of natural history enthusiasts.

Increased demand led to specialization.  The vasculum was produced in different sizes, including one three feet long for those who didn’t want their specimens folded and were willing to tote the giant around—or were collecting by horseback or carriage.  There were also small ones made for young collectors to start them off on the road to botany.  These were often decorated with paintings of young children going plant hunting.  There were other versions painted with more sophisticated art to appeal to feminine tastes.  The vasculum became an attractive accessory, so much more becoming than carrying a tin simply painted black or green.  Fabri includes dozens of photos of vasculums, including many from her own collection.  I remember her saying in her lecture that there were a few she coveted but which were beyond her budget, indicating that the antique vasculum market must be hotter than that for new ones, which are still for sale in natural history catalogues.

Some of the most intriguing images in the book depict the vasculum being used in the field.  These range from a painting of Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland collecting near Mt. Chimborazo in Peru, where Bonpland is sitting with his vasculum at his side, to 19th-century genre paintings picturing rather inept collectors attempting to look like they know what they are doing.  There are also many prints, newspaper cuttings, book illustrations, and advertisements culled from publications in many different languages.  This is where Fabri’s library skills shine.  She knew how to find even the most obscure references, and I suspect, how to use her social skills to get the help of fellow librarians who enjoyed joining in the hunt. 

The very ordinary plastic bag was one of the chief reasons for the decline in the use of the vasculum.  It was lighter, waterproof, and less likely to crush specimens.  But Fabri makes it clear that it is simply not as much fun.  As you can see I loved this book, despite the language barrier, or maybe because of it:  I spent more time pouring over the images.  Amazon doesn’t seem to cater to the Francophile, so I bought a copy from the Meise Botanic Garden online bookshop.  At 25 Euros, it was a bargain.  I got my book within a couple of weeks after I ordered it.  I don’t think you will be disappointed, and the next time you go out collecting, you might feel a twinge of regret that you don’t have a vasculum handy for your cuttings.


Allen, D. E. (1965). Some further light on the history of the vasculum. Proceedings of the Botanical Society of the British Isles, 6, 105–109.

Fabri, R. (2021). Le vasculum ou boîte d’herborisation: Marqueur emblémetique du botantiste du XIX siècle, objet désuet devenu vintage. Meise, BEL: Jardin Botanique de Meise.

Mark Catesby at 300

In the last post, I discussed Henrietta McBurney’s (2021) presentation at the University of South Carolina, Columbia on Mark Catesby’s art.  This was followed several weeks later by a symposium to accompany the University’s Catesby in the Carolinas exhibition running through August and sponsored by its Mark Catesby Centre.  These events celebrate the 300th anniversary of Catesby’s arrival in South Carolina on his second trip to North America.  (There is more on Catesby in earlier posts: 1,2,3).  Catesby’s two-volume Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands covers so much ground not only geographically but scientifically and culturally, that the symposium took a broad view.  It began with Chris Judge’s presentation on South Carolina’s indigenous people in the early 18th century.  Assistant director of Native American Studies at the University of South Carolina, Lancaster, Judge remarked on the rich information Catesby included on the people he met, their customs and their uses for plant and animals. 

Then came two presentations by affiliated faculty of the Catesby Centre who work in the Bahama Islands.  A botanist at the Leon Levy Native Plant Preserve on Eleuthera,  Ethan Fried, spoke on the plant life in the Bahamas, commenting on what Catesby discussed.  Krista Sherman, a marine biologist at the Perry Institute for Marine Science, presented on the rich sea life around the islands, particularly the reefs.  This first session of the meeting ended with Suzanne Hurley, an expert on South Carolina history, describing what Charleston was like when Catesby arrived.  It was an important port, a center for the slave trade and for export of the rice and indigo grown on nearby plantations as well as for the importation of products, particularly from Britain.  The city had a few residents interested in natural history and gardening; they were able to orient him and suggest areas to explore and how to go about navigating the terrain.

The second session began with Herrick Brown, director of the A.C. Moore Herbarium at the university.  Several of those who volunteer at the herbarium were there, myself included, but he really didn’t need to pack the audience.  He presented Catesby’s botany in the context of the biodiversity of the southeast, and tied it to Catesby’s over 2000 herbarium specimens now at British institutions and to his art.  While most of Catesby’s renderings of plants and animals are very accurate and make it easy to recognize the species, there are lapses.  Some experts like the botanist Robert Wilbur (1990) complain that there is not enough detail for taxonomists.  Brown tackled a case where Catesby presents as one species, what is really two, with one not accurately pictured.  He speculates that the artist might have been working from a defective or mislabeled specimen.  He also noted that it’s important to keep in mind the many years that lapsed between Catesby’s trip from 1722-1725 and when he finally completed publication of his opus in 1743.

Next came Leslie Overstreet, curator of natural history rare books at the Smithsonian, who spoke on Catesby in London, his life after his return to England.  She is an expert on the history of publication of the Natural History, which went through three editions.  She discussed how Catesby learned to etch, where he sourced his paper, and how he found subscribers.  Since the other speakers had focused on the content, it was interesting to hear about the books as physical objects.  Catesby produced the work in sections or fascicles of 20 plates with descriptions.  Subscribers were instructed not to bind them until they had all five for the first volume.  Binding was the owner’s, not the publisher’s responsibility; this explains the heterogeneity in the bindings, some much more opulent than others.  However, when Catesby sent out the fifth fascicle, he instructed recipients to wait on binding because he wanted to add an introductory essay.  It took years to complete and a number of owners didn’t wait, explaining why some copies of the first edition do not include the essay.  Information like this makes book history fascinating.

The last presentation of the day was the keynote by John Rashford, a professor emeritus of anthropology at the College of Charleston and a distinguished ethnobotanist.  He spoke on a species of strangler fig Ficus citrifolia pictured in the Natural History and native to the West Indies.  He described why it is revered there as a sacred tree because it begins life as an epiphyte on the branches of other trees.  Then it sends out long roots that dangle down as if from heaven and eventually take root and produce trunks that can strangle the host.  However, Rashford began his talk not with the fig but with the African baobab Adansonia digitata, a tree obviously not pictured by Catesby.  However its seeds were brought to the Americas by enslaved African people, and he showed images of several in Brazil and the West Indies that date back to around the time Catesby arrived in Carolina.  Like the fig this is a tree associated with heaven because of the life-giving water it stores in its massive trunk and because of its many uses as food and medicine.  Rashford brought the two species together with a photograph of a Brazilian baobab festooned with ficus growing down from its branches.  He then went on to describe how important it is to value plants culturally as well as scientifically if we are to preserve into the future the biodiversity that Catesby catalogued.


MacBurney, H. (2021). Illuminating Natural History: The Art and Science of Mark Catesby.  New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Wilbur, R. L. (1990). Identification of the plants illustrated and described in Catesby’s Natural History of the Carolinas, Florida and the Bahamas. Sida, 14(1), 29–48.

Note: I would like to thank David Elliott and everyone involved in the Mark Catesby Trust at the University of South Carolina, Columbia for allowing me to be part of this great project.

Catesby’s Travels

Yellow pitcherplant (Sarracenia flava) and Southern toad (Anaxyrus terrestris) by Mark Catesby, Vol. 2 Illus. 69 in Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands

In the last post, I discussed the University of South Carolina’s Mark Catesby Centre and its work to bring Catesby’s legacy into the 21st century.  Now I want to dig a little more deeply into that legacy and how it developed.  Every discussion of Catesby begins with the disclaimer that not much is known about his life, and to a certain extent this is true.  There is little information about his early years with somewhat more his life after he returned to England.  However, the more historians have studied existing records about him and put these together with what they can glean from others’ correspondence and journals, Catesby has, in a sense, has come more to life.  One expert is the botanist E. Charles Nelson (2018), a member of the Centre’s affiliated faculty, who has delved into what books were in Catesby’s library.  Nelson also researched Catesby’s relationship with his uncle, Nicholas Jekyll who was a gardener and was friendly with John Ray and with Samuel Dale, a supporter of Catesby’s travels.  This is likely where Catesby developed his interest in plants and learned the basics.  However, there is no record of his having any formal education, though he came from a family that was comfortable if not wealthy. 

The next phase of Catesby’s life was his first trip to North America from 1712 to 1719.  He accompanied his sister to get her safely settled with her husband, a physician serving the governor of Virginia at Williamsburg.  It’s assumed Catesby spent much of his time working on his brother-in-law’s farm, but he also developed a friendship with two men who had a serious interest in plants, William Byrd II and John Custis.  Byrd had a large library and a greenhouse, Custis a variety of exotic plants growing in his garden.  Catesby traveled up the James River toward the Appalachian Mountains and also made other trips closer to home.  He gathered seeds and various plant materials, sending them to Dale who was impressed with them and with Catesby’s knowledge (Nelson & Elliott, 2015). 

When Catesby returned to England, Dale put him in touch with other botanists of the day such as William Sherard and Hans Sloane.  They encouraged Catesby to return to North America and more systematically collect specimens, seeds, and seedlings.  They also encouraged his artistic talent and his ability to write vividly on natural history.  These three men, along with 9 others, sponsored his second trip which was focused further south.  Many were members of the Royal Society, and Catesby later presented a report on his travels at an RS meeting.  After he visited with the botanical minded in Charleston, he began to explore the area, particularly north of Charleston where there were several large plantations as well as much wild country.

Catesby had brought supplies for painting watercolors of the organisms he found and also for making collections, particularly of plants, though he did collect shells, skins of birds and other animals, and insects as well.  He wrote of Native Americans he encountered and their uses for plants, especially for medicinal purposes.  He traveled down the coast of Carolina and then inland, perhaps as far as Clemson probably using Native American trails (Brown, 2022).  He also visited Fort Moore, across the river from what is now Augusta, Georgia on three occasions, and explored central Carolina.   Georgia was then considered part of Florida.  Finally, Catesby sailed to the Bahama Islands where he remained for a year before traveling back to England.  This is a hurried travelogue, but I want to get to his artistic work after his return because without that there would probably not be a Catesby Centre.

Catesby presented his sponsors with the fruits of his voyage in terms of plant material and correspondence, but he did not want to relinquish his drawings until he had used them to create the illustrations for the book he was planning.  He quickly discovered that to publish a work on the scale he envisioned would be very costly.  He couldn’t afford to have an expert create etched plates, so he learned from a master of the art Joseph Goupy and made his own, as well as writing the text in both English and French and advertising for subscribers.  He even hand-colored some of the prints in the first volume himself.  This volume was completed in 1731 and the second in 1743.  Each volume had 100 spectacular etchings, and there was an additional 20 in an Appendix to the second volume that was published four years later. 

While working on this opus, Catesby collaborated with nurserymen who were cultivating a number of the plants he brought back.  At times, the Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands reads almost like a catalogue where he extols the virtues of a North American tree or shrub now grown by one of his associates.  After the second volume was published he began work on something of a spin-off, Hortus Europae Americanus, with plates based on portions of the original plates.  Published posthumously, It focused on trees and shrubs and was much closer to a nurserymen’s publication in that it included practical information on growth habits and conditions for the pictured species.  This is a much less spectacular work, but I find It very pleasing to look at, with each plate divided into four sectors picturing four species. 


Brown, H. (2022). Catesby in Carolina. South Carolina Wildlife, January/February, 4–11.

Nelson, E. C., & Elliott, D. J. (Eds.). (2015). The Curious Mister Catesby: A Truly Ingenious Naturalist Explores New Worlds. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.

Mark Catesby in South Carolina

The naturalist, author, and artist Mark Catesby landed in Charleston, South Carolina on May 3, 1722 on his second visit to North America.  To celebrate the 300th anniversary, the Mark Catesby Centre at the University of South Carolina, Columbia presented a symposium, Catesby at 300.  The Centre is part of the University Libraries, and its Rare Book Collection has mounted a special exhibition running, Catesby in the Carolinas, which also includes exhibits at the university’s McKissick Museum with its extensive natural history collection; it runs through August.  The University Libraries holds five copies of Catesby’s Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands representing all three editionsSince there were less than 200 copies printed of the first edition and about 100 survive, this is an amazing treasure and well worth showing off.  This fine collection is one reason the rare print collector Herbert Fitzgerald decided to augment it by donating over 120 Catesby prints to the university and also why the independent Catesby Commemorative Trust found a new home there as the Catesby Centre.

David Elliott founded the Trust 20 years ago and was pleased to have it become part of the university so it can continue its already significant achievements in making Mark Catesby’s legacy better known today.  I first learned about its work when the Trust sponsored a six-day tour of Catesby-related sites from Washington, DC to Charleston in 2012.  It was a unique opportunity to travel with a group of participants and presenters that included the botanists James Reveal and Ghillean Prance who spoke of the plants Catesby encountered.  Charlie Jarvis (2007), who wrote the definitive work on Carl Linnaeus’s type specimens, discussed the plants that Carl Linnaeus named based on Catesby specimens and prints.  The two even exchanged letters and met when Linnaeus was in London early in his career.  Stephen Harris presented via video on the Catesby specimens at the Oxford University Herbaria.  They are part of the collections of Charles Dubois and William Sherard who were among those sponsoring his trip.  In return, they received specimens and seeds. 

At the Smithsonian, we saw its copies of Catesby’s books and heard from Leslie Overstreet who has done extensive work on the extant copies, including how they vary across the editions and even within an edition.  One cause of variations is that the volumes were not sold bound, but sent to subscribers in fascicles of 20 prints each along with a page of text for each print.  The copy that is now in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle was purchased by King George III and includes an original Georg Ehret painting.  This was among the interesting information provided by Henrietta McBurney who had been a curator at the Royal Library and had written a book on the 240 original Catesby watercolors also purchased by the George III.  They had not been given much attention over the years until McBurney and others on the staff examined them along with several other important natural history art collections.

Besides tours of a number of historic homes in Richmond, Virginia and Charleston that held original Catesby prints, we also took a boat trip along the Kiawah River in areas that Catesby visited.  This was a wonderful experience because we went through a large nature preserve that is a sanctuary for sea birds.  We saw not only many species, but large populations of them.  It really gave at least some sense of what South Carolina was like when Catesby visited.  I would like to reminisce more about this wonderful tour, but I want to mention other contributions made by the Catesby Commemorative Trust including the publication of the award winning book, The Curious Mister Catesby (Nelson & Elliott, 2015).  It includes chapters based on presentations given during the tour as well as other essays covering everything from Catesby’s biography, to his relationship to the horticulture trade between Britain and the colonies and his activities during the year he spent in the Bahama Islands.  The book was edited by David Elliott and E. Charles Nelson, an Irish botanist, writer, and editor who has been an integral part of the work of the Trust and now of the Catesby Centre.  He and Elliott are putting together a new book that will include a catalog of the Catesby prints donated by Fitzgerald as well as essays on the plants, birds, insects, and fishes pictured in Natural History.  These include those mentioned in Catesby’s introductory essay, “An Account of Carolina and the Bahama Islands,” but not pictured in any of the prints.  Since established within the University Libraries, the Centre has also overseen the digitization of the first edition Catesby as well as the Fitzgerald prints.

I am fortunate to have been invited to be part of the Catesby Centre’s work as affiliate faculty along with Herrick Brown the director of the A.C. Moore Herbarium in the university’s biology department, Christian Cicimurri curator of collections at the McKissick Museum, Rudy Mancke the university’s natural in residence, and Michael Weisenberg associate director of Rare Books and Special Collections in the University Libraries.  The entire list of those contributing to this effort are listed here.  I have learned a great deal from this project, and I’m very grateful to be a part of it.  I consider myself lucky to have landed at the university shortly before the Centre did.  In the following posts, I’ll discuss some of the latest discoveries about Catesby’s life and art, and end with a recap of the symposium held in May. 


McBurney, H. (1997). Mark Catesby’s Natural History of America: The Watercolors from the Royal Library Windsor Castle. Houston: Museum of Fine Arts.

Nelson, E. C., & Elliott, D. J. (Eds.). (2015). The Curious Mister Catesby: A Truly Ingenious Naturalist Explores New Worlds. Athens, GA. University of Georgia Press.

Broadening Botany through Books: Women

This last post in this series on books (1,2,3), deals with one that was published over 20 years ago, but I just read it recently and think it is still timely.  In Revealing New Worlds: Three Victorian Women Naturalists, Suzanne Sheffield (2001) focuses on how Margaret Gatty, Marianne North, and Eleanor Ormerod created original scientific contributions as well as works of science popularization.  They were British, well-off financially, and middle-aged when their natural history endeavors blossomed.  Sheffield writes:  “All three women saw science as an intellectual pursuit to provide them with the thrill of discovery and to bring meaning to their lives through productive work beyond the usual female roles dictated by society” (p. 153).  She makes clear that they did this while heeding many of the dictates of that society.  If this book were written today, I think the societal constraints would be examined more deeply since there has been much research done in this area relatively recently.  However, I don’t see Sheffield’s approach as a defect, since it pays attention less to cultural constraints and more to what these women were actually able to accomplish

When Margaret Gatty (1809-1873) was 39 and exhausted after the birth of her seventh child, she went to a seaside resort to recover.  The change from a bustling household routine left her with time on her hands.  As she walked on the beach, she found herself noticing the algae washed up on the sand.  One of her acquaintances lent her a book on seaweed and that was all it took to push her into an entirely new world.  She returned home rejuvenated and equipped with books on algae and equipment for collecting macroalgae in addition to pressed specimens and a few in jars of seawater.   Of course, she still had seven children, but she enlisted them in later collecting trips and also entertained them with books she wrote for young readers not only on seaside creatures but on other areas of natural history.  A devout Christian, she framed her narratives in terms of nature as a reflection of God’s power and goodness. 

But there was also another side to Gatty’s writings.  In order to learn more about algae, she began to correspond with botanists in the field, including William Henry Harvey.  These men maintained contact because, while they helped her identify specimens and guided her to new sources of information, she in turn sent them species that were rare and in some cases new to science.  She also wrote careful descriptions of the areas where she found them.  She produced a guide to seaweed based on Harvey’s A Manual of the British Marine Algae, but she included her own comments on each species.  She also amassed a collection of specimens now held at the University of St. Andrews herbarium in Scotland. 

I’d like to write more about Gatty, but I’ve got two other exceptional women to discuss.  Like Gatty, Marianne North (1830-1890) saw a major change in her life at age 39.  Until that time she had remained in the family home to care for her widowed father.  When he died, she was financially comfortable and could continue to travel, as she had done a number of times with him.  Though she did produce a memoir on her travels, her talents were not so much in writing but in painting.  She didn’t take her art seriously until after her father’s death, when she began to focus on painting plants.  Her approach was different from most botanical artists.  She worked in oils, not in watercolors, and she painted plants in situ, not against a blank background, but rather as they appear in nature surrounded by their peers. 

North traveled extensively and painted what she saw.  She was a very careful observer and a good artist.  She even painted some species that were new to science.  Since she had the financial resources, she left money for a building at Kew to house hundreds of her paintings.  The North Gallery has two rooms on the first floor with a balcony gallery above one of them.  The walls are literally covered with paintings, a very 19th-century exhibition style.  The effect is almost overwhelming and may be one reason her work is sometimes denigrated:  it is difficult to attend to any one piece.  But as Sheffield points out, North was prescient in presenting plants as they exist in nature; she was also aware of how humans were degrading nature.  In her memoir, she wrote of the destruction of habitats as plantations were created in British colonies.

I am giving short shrift to the third Sheffield subject Eleanor Ormerod (1828-1901) not because she doesn’t deserve better, but she worked in entomology, not botany.  While she became interested in insects while in her twenties, she came into her own at 45 after her father died.  As Sheffield describes her, Ormerod was a “convincing popularizer and a closet professional” (p. 173).  In relation to the latter, she published 22 Reports of Observations of Injurious Insects, in which she drew on the expertise not only of scientists, but also of farmers and laborers who had firsthand knowledge of insect behavior and damage.  In addition, she experimented in her garden.  Since she prized her professionalism, it was very important to her that at the end of her life she received the first honorary degree awarded to a woman by the University of Edinburgh.


Sheffield, S. L.-M. (2001). Revealing New Worlds: Three Victorian Women Naturalists. New York: Rutledge.

Broadening Botany through Books: China

It’s obvious that modern botany developed in a Western context and it is also apparent that today, Chinese botanists are excelling in this field.  It’s also clear that looking at botany in a broader culture context, including a more global one, is important to the field’s future.  This makes Nicholas Menzies’s (2021) book Ordering the Myriad Things: From Traditional Knowledge to Scientific Botany in China very timely.  Though he sets it in a wider context, he deals primarily with the period from the opening of China to foreign influence after the 1842 Treaty of Nanking to the mid-20th century.  Though there had been some Western plant collectors and botanists in China, they had little impact on Chinese natural history.  The Jesuits began significant missionary work in China in 1582.  In 1658, Michel Boym published an illustrated Chinese flora and in the 1700s Pierre d’Incarville sent back seeds and specimens which are thought to be the oldest from China; they are now in the National Museum of Natural History herbarium in Paris and are labeled with both Chinese and Latin names. 

Many of the classical Chinese writings on plants dealt with materia medica, and the complex work of updating traditional plant names with Linnaean nomenclature began in the latter part of the 19th century.  Menzies explains just how difficult it was.  It was more than a question of linguistics; there were issues of what counts as a good textual description of a species.  One approach was to translate English-language botany books into Chinese.  This happened in the 1890s and by 1898, the first introductory botany text in Chinese was published.  Then as Menzies describes it, “The momentum moved from creating a new vocabulary for the science of botany to identifying Chinese plants, classifying them, and correctly assigning Chinese names that conformed to international nomenclature” (p. 74).

Once the Chinese interior was opened to foreigners, Western plant collectors financed by herbaria such as at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew or by nurseries began to explore many parts of the country, especially in the mountainous East, with its rich flora of rhododendrons and other flowering shrubs that were particularly attractive to gardeners.  Collectors like Augustine Henry, George Forrest, and Ernest Wilson relied on local collectors and indigenous knowledge to locate hundreds of new species and varieties, with all these seeds and specimens sent back home, where the plants were identified and given Linnaean names.  This knowledge only slowly seeped back to the East (Mueggler, 2011). 

Early in the 20th century Chinese students began to study in the West and then returned to train others.  Qian Chongshu earned degrees at the University of Illinois and the University of Chicago and went back to China in 1916 to work at an agricultural college.  There he founded what is thought to be the first Chinese herbarium.  Chinese botanists also began going on collecting expeditions and eventually leading them.  Zhong Guanguang is considered the earliest Chinese botanist to carry on collecting in a systematic fashion.  His specimens formed the start of what would become the Flora of China.  He supported thorough documentation with local uses, common names, and other data.   Menzies writes that “for the first part of the 20th century the collector was also the laboratory scientist; there was no old lineage of practitioners.  In the United States and Europe, field and laboratory parted ways in the 19th century” (p. 77).

When it came to publishing, there were problems early on with multiple names for the same species, and also difficulties with distinguishing between genera and species.  This was more than about translation, it was about conceptualization across a language and cultural divide.  There was also the issue of Japanese names for many of the same plants.  Another difficulty was the need not only for clear text but for illustrations.   A long tradition existed of using images in Chinese books of material media, the earliest dates to 1061 and the first in color from 1220.  But most of these images would not count as scientific illustrations.  An early proponent of clear and accurate plant art was the artist Cai Shou who developed standards for natural history drawings.  He worked in both color and in ink-and-wash in a style that was a hybrid of traditional art and scientific illustration.  His images provide information on the flower and on both sides of leaves, but he rarely added dissections or enlargements. 

The later artist Feng Chengru (1898-1968) developed a less traditional style, but one that was not totally Western either.  He used very fine lines and little shading or perspective.  His drawings are both clear and exquisite.  Feng wrote a manual on scientific drawing that was based on lecture notes he employed in his long teaching career.  He taught a group of botanical artists who became important to the work of the Flora of China.  This influence combined with his book meant that he had a significant effect on botanical communication in Asia.  His work is also a good way to end this discussion of modern Chinese botany, which now continues a long tradition of plant study with the latest of Western techniques.  In the 21st century, Chinese botanists are playing a significant role in plant genetics and molecular biology, while investigating the country’s rich biodiversity, which is still being revealed through collecting and systematic treatments.  Menzies provides a great introduction to how the present state of affairs came to be. 


Menzies, N. (2021). Ordering the Myriad Things: From Traditional Knowledge to Scientific Botany in China. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Mueggler, E. (2011). The Paper Road: Archive and Experience in the Botanical Exploration of West China and Tibet. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Broadening Botany through Books: Physician’s Gardens

In this series of posts, I’m writing about books that look at botany more broadly, that is not just scientifically, but also in terms of various aspects of cultural history.  Here I want to explore a recent book by Clare Hickman (2022), The Doctor’s Garden: Medicine, Science, and Horticulture in Britain.  Hickman has chosen an interesting lens through which to examine gardens.  She looks specifically at those created by wealthy British physicians in the 18th and early 19th centuries when botany was an important part of medical education.  But these men invested in their gardens for many reasons beyond their profession.  Gardens were considered important status symbols and were also significant sites for both entertainment and experimentation.  Hickman covers all these aspects.

A major focus is on John Coakley Lettsom (1744-1815), born in a West Indian Quaker colony and sent to England for his education.  He developed an early interest in botany, acquiring a copy of John Gerard’s Herball and starting a herbarium that eventually grew to 62 volumes.  He was befriended by the Quaker physician and gardener John Fothergill who arranged for Lettsom’s medical training at a London hospital.  Lettsom had to return to the islands when his father died.  As an avid abolitionist, he freed the slaves on his father’s plantation and started a medical practice.  He did well and returned to Europe to receive his medical degree at Leiden University in the Netherlands, since Cambridge and Oxford Universities were not open to Quakers.  Thus early in life his development was shaped by the culture in which he was immersed. 

Lettsom eventually practiced in London and bought an estate close by called Grove Hill where he developed an impressive garden.  He kept in touch with John Fothergill, who had an extensive garden with greenhouses and over 3,400 species of exotic plants as well as 3,000 other plant species.  When Fothergill died, Lettsom was allowed to move the latter’s greenhouses as well as 2000 plants to Grove Hill, creating a solid horticultural foundation for his estate.  He designed a walk lined with 400 European species arranged according to the Linnaean system which had become popular in England. 

One of Hickman’s major points is that gardens served a multiplicity of purposes among physicians, who were supported by experienced gardeners behind the scenes.  Gardens were used for experimentation in hybridization, in cultivating delicate species by finding the right mix of conditions, and in manipulating conditions to increase crop yields including with the addition of compost and fertilizer.  There were also experiments on increasing the amounts of active ingredients in medicinal plants.  As Hickman notes, botany, medicine, and agriculture overlapped in doctor’s gardens. 

Gardens were also important sites for social interactions.  A garden displayed not only an owner’s wealth in importing expensive exotics and the expertise to select and grow them.  Visiting gardens became a common pastime among the wealthy, in part to cement social, economic, and political ties, but also to pick up ideas for their own gardens.  When for a short time Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were both on diplomatic missions to England they took the opportunity to visit a number of estates for all these reasons, as well as for the simple pleasure of being in beautiful surroundings (Wulf, 2011).  Hickman emphasizes the sensual aspects of gardening beyond the visual.  She cites the influence of a late 17th-century physician John Floyer who argued that a great deal about plants could be learned from smell and taste.  The latter was “not mere recreational grazing;” it could aid in identifying medicinally useful plant material (p. 21). 

Gardeners like Lettsom also supported the colonial enterprise by raising exotic plants and then passing on seeds and seedlings in trade with other gardeners, so that more of them could experiment with and learn about a species—how to cultivate it and whether it had commercial potential.  Fothergill financially supported collectors, including John and William Bartram on their tour of the Southern colonies.  He also paid William Bartram not only to collect plants but also to draw and write about them, financing William’s later trip South.  So gardeners’ spheres of influence were indeed broad.  Many documented their choice plants by having them painted by botanical illustrators, often keeping volumes of drawings in their libraries along with extensive collections of botanical works. 

Lettsom was so proud of his garden that he wanted others to know about it.  He wrote several editions of a guide to visiting Grove Hill, describing the distinctive plants found in different areas of the estate.  This was not only for visiting friends, but also for wider distribution, including for those attending on open days when the public could roam the grounds.  This became a popular custom, sometimes as a form of noblesse oblige with fees charged in support of a charity .  The success of these events led to the development of several urban gardens, such as one created by William Curtis, founder of Curtis’s Botanical Magazine.  He sold subscriptions to the garden as a way to support it.  Eventually, free public gardens in cities replaced most of these sites.  In tracing such trends from doctor’s gardens, Hickman ends her study with an essay on the continuing significance of gardens and the benefits of simply walking through them.  She also stresses the importance of “leaping the fence of disciplines,” to deepen our understanding of the garden’s place in our culture.


Hickman, C. (2021). The Doctor’s Garden: Medicine, Science and Horticulture in Britain. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Wulf, A. (2011). Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation. New York: Knopf.

Broadening Botany through Books

This series of posts is on books I’ve encountered recently that forced me to look at botany in wider cultural contexts, to examine how the science relates to other parts of society.  Most of these works were published fairly recently and reflect the trend toward examining issues of gender, colonialism, economics, and social structures.  I tend to evaluate books that deal with plants in terms of what they can tell me about botany, but I’m becoming more aware that learning about botany can mean learning about many other things along the way.  The first book is a case in point:  Sara Neville’s Early Modern Herbals and the Book Trade: English Stationers and the Commodification of Botany (2022). 

Right away, commodification puts me outside my comfort zone.  I want to learn about William Turner, John Gerard, and John Parkinson, not their publishers.  However, Neville makes the case that early modern botany and the publishing business are inextricably linked, and that the names of these botanists would not be remembered today without the work of printers.  At the time, the people who traded in paper, the stationers, were connected to the printing trade as a way to sell more of their commodity.  In the 16th century, English paper production was less sophisticated than on the continent, so stationers were involved in trade relationships throughout Europe and thus knew of the latest trends in publishing as well. 

By the 1540s, there were several good herbals available in Latin from German and Dutch publishers, so it made sense that one should be printed in English.  The first was produced by the stationer Richard Bankes in 1525 with the title Herball.  No author was given since it was a translation based on an anonymous medieval manuscript in Latin called Agnus Castus.  This was a short text introducing plants, mostly of medicinal interest, in alphabetical order making it easy to use for reference.  There were no images and it was printed in a small, affordable format.  It went through several editions and was a financially successful venture.  The next year Peter Treveris published The Grete Herball, and true to its name it had more text and four hundred illustrations.  The latter were not of high quality, and readers recognized this.  Neville makes a point about the importance of readership in publishing:  word gets around if a book is not up to snuff.  Making botany public knowledge involved a complex social network of which botanists were only a small part, especially in the early years of printed herbals when the texts being produced were often simply copies of ancient texts. 

After dealing with these anonymous publications, Neville goes on to discuss William Turner’s A New Herball­, released in three volumes (1551-1561).  Turner is identified on the title page as gatherer rather than author.  In other words, he had gleaned information from a variety of sources:  ancient texts, personal observations and experiences, and facts gathered in his European travels.  His work was large and well-illustrated; it was printed in the Netherlands, where higher quality books were produced.  The text received much more attention over the years than the earlier anonymous works, even though they had sold well. 

After Turner, the next important herbal was John Gerard’s Herball or General Historie of Plants (1597).  The saga of this 1,400-page tome has been told many times (Arber, 1938; Harkness, 2007) including evidence that Gerard had cavalierly used the work of others, particularly Matthias de l’Obel with whom he was at first collaborating.  Neville sees the story differently, focusing on the communal aspects of the publication and production of early modern books.  The publisher began the enterprise seeking out L’Obel and Gerard as botanical experts.  Both were in London, and Gerard had a garden where he grew and observed a large number of plants.  In a book of this size, errors were inevitable, and Neville sees some of them as being unavoidable because of how the book was put together.  She also argues that movement of information from one writer to another was not uncommon at the time.  Writing was seen more as a pooling of ideas with one writer commenting on and building on the works of others.  She sees the same thing happening with images, which were the most costly elements in publishing.  It made sense to reuse woodblocks from earlier works.  Knowledge of a plant may change over time, but what it looks like wouldn’t.  Why not use a good image if one were available?

Neville goes on to discuss Thomas Johnson’s revisions to the Gerard herbal which he was asked to undertake by the same publisher when the defects of the original became apparent.  It was the focus on these issues that planted the idea in the historical record that Gerard was less that a competent botanist.  I am in no position to weigh in on either side, but I did enjoy being presented with a different perspective, in part because it reminded me that in history as in life there are always at least two sides to a story.  Broadening horizons is what reading is all about, and this book definitely helped me to see stationers as part of the story of botany in the early modern era. 


Arber, A. (1938). Herbals: Their Origin and Evolution, A Chapter in the History of Botany, 1470-1670 (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Harkness, D. E. (2007). The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Neville, S. (2022). Early Modern Herbals and the Book Trade: English Stationers and the Commodification of Botany. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.


Vegetal Entanlgements, Antennae Issue 51

To end this series on the work of Giovanni Aloi and others in critical plant studies, I want to cover a lot of ground.  So far, I’ve gravitated toward art and literature, but philosophy is very much a part of this field as well.  This is an area with which I am less familiar, though I have read a few books on the topic that I found interesting, including Matthew Hall’s (2011) Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany.  I always enter a piece of writing by a philosopher with a bit of hesitancy:  am I going to be able to understand it?  In this case, I was soon put at ease.  Hall’s argument is clearly laid out and makes sense.  He explores perceptions of plants within different world views.  In the West, plants are seen as passive resources, while in Hindu texts, for example, plants are presented as fully sentient beings.  A multiplicity of views means that there are multiple ways of considering plant being, including as “persons,” which Hall defines as autonomous, perceptive, and intelligent beings, deserving of respect as other-than-human persons (p. 14). 

I should note, that by “intelligent” here, Hall means able to change behavior based on incoming information, something that plants do despite their lack of a central nervous system.  This deficiency is seen by some as precluding intelligence and consequently personhood.  I am not qualified to pass judgment on any of this, however I think raising such questions is important.  Thinking about plants in different ways leads to seeing in different ways and to questioning assumptions and perceptions.  It’s easy to consider plants as inactive, particularly in a herbarium which is essentially a plant morgue; not a lot of singing and dancing going on in the aisles.  However, the plant on a sheet entails so much more than just a set of characteristics to be noted and measured; it represents a “relational” being connected to many other beings, including ourselves, in a myriad of ways.

Still another philosophical perspective on what such relations involve is described by Emanuele Coccia (2019) in The Life of Plants: A Metaphysics of Mixture.  Coccia questions not cultural assumptions as Hall does, but rather looks to the biology of plants to understand how we relate to them at the most basic level, that of breath.  He writes:  “Plants are the breath of all living beings, the world as breath.  In turn, any breath is evidence of the fact that being in the world is, fundamentally, an experience of immersion.  To breathe means to be plunged into a medium that penetrates us in the same way and with the same intensity as we penetrate it” (p. 53).  That is definitely a profound yet fundamental way of thinking about our connections with plants.  While Hall looks at plants as they relate to human culture, Coccia looks at how living things share resources and the space in which they exist.  It is very interesting that the same organisms can generate such different worldviews and makes me think that I might need to investigate philosophy a little further in order to get a better perspective on plants, and life in general. 

I’ll end this ramble into viewpoints on plants that are outside my comfort zone by returning to where I began this series of posts (1,2,3) with Giovanni Aloi who seems to explore so many facets of the plant world.  He is the co-founder and editor of Antennae, a quarterly online journal that is open access.   I mentioned it in an earlier post, but it deserves attention here, because just as Hall and Coccia have expanded my view of the plant world, Antennae has done the same, in very different ways, for the living world in general.  Some Antennae issues such as Number 17 (Why Look at Plants?) and then Numbers 51-53 (Vegetal Entanglements) focus on plants.  These are definitely worth spending some time with.  They are all visually stunning, which is not surprising since Antennae is “The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture.” 

As an art critic and a plant studies expert, Aloi knows where to look for wonderful work by contemporary artists, including a couple of photographers who are exploring issues around seed collections.  But there are also articles on historical works such as Mary Delany’s (Number 51) 18th-century paper cutouts of plants and Gherardo Cibo’s (Number 51) 16th-century botanical illustrations set against landscapes, a novel twist for the time.  There are also articles giving attention to indigenous knowledge of plants and indigenous ways of honoring them.  Even if you don’t read every word of an issue, you will be richly rewarded by the images which are not only visually stunning but thought-provoking.  All issues are free and available in PDF format that is easy to view and to download for future reference.  What more could you ask of publication that, even in issues that are not devoted solely to plants, usually have some fascinating articles on them.  In any case, keep an eye on Giovanni Aloi if you want to expand your view of what plants are all about.


Coccia, E. (2019). The Life of Plants: A Metaphysics of Mixture (D. J. Montanari, Trans.). Cambridge: Polity.

Hall, M. (2011). Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.