In the Herbarium: Beginnings

Photograph of Agnes Arber, 1911

Yale University Press has just published my book In the Herbarium: The Hidden World of Collecting and Preserving Plants.  In this series of posts, I’m going to try to describe how I got to this point.  In part this is obviously a way to promote sales.  While admitting that, I also promise to cease promoting when this series ends.  And don’t worry, like all the other series, it will only be four posts, not a hundred and four.  Equally important to me is that this series gives me the opportunity to acknowledge and thank people who supported me in so many ways to get here. 

As I have admitted many times in this blog, I am not a botanist, though I did learn a love of plants from my mother, who nurtured them in our house and yard.  She was very proud of winning the All-Ireland prize in botany when she was in high school, before immigrating to the US.  So I guess there is botany in my blood.  However, for most of my life in biology I was in love with cells, not plants.  For extra reading in my freshman biology course, we were assigned a book full of electron microscope images of cells.  I don’t remember anything I read, but the images stuck with me.  I was intrigued that there could be so much going on in such a tiny world.  Molecular biology and microbiology became my focus.  After completing my master’s, I took a job teaching nonscience majors at St. John’s University and started a doctoral program in biology at New York University.  I soon discovered that it took a lot of work to lure students into the world of cells and molecules, so I had to broaden my horizons.  As I did, plants and animals and human physiology began to creep into my consciousness and into my classroom.

This opening of my world took another turn in 1980 when my husband Robert Hendrick came into my life, and we began a wonderful 23-year-long relationship.  He taught history at St. John’s (very convenient) and had a passion for art history.  I began to learn about art and more importantly about really looking at art.  Having Bob in my life also gave me the courage to do something I had wanted to do:  write about biology.  In 1982, I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to publish a monthly column called “Biology Today” for The American Biology Teacher.  I did so for 30 years and this work forced me to broaden my view of biology still further.  I would write about genetics one month, and animal behavior the next, then tropical plants, then . . . .  As I became more interested in art, the visual aspects of biology crept in as well. 

However, all these wonderful parts of my life caused a problem.  Though I had finished the course work for a biology doctorate, I couldn’t see myself doing laboratory research while still teaching and having a married life.  I eventually entered a doctoral program in science education at New York University.  I chose it because they offered a Ph.D. as well as an Ed.D. option, and I wanted to have the rigor of the former.  Also, it offered a number of courses in the history and philosophy of science.  Two fortuitous things then happened over the next couple of years.  First, I came upon a book in the St. John’s library entitled On Aesthetics in Science (Wechsler, 1978).  Wow, who knew the two went together?  That same day I decided this would be the subject of my dissertation.  I had the blueprint right there.  Needless to say, it wasn’t that easy.  Shortly afterwards Cecily Cannan Selby became a member of the science education department after a distinguished career in electron microscopy research and then in science administration.  Cecily had long been fascinated by the relationship between art and science, so almost instantly I had a thesis adviser. 

In my research I soon came across a book called The Mind and the Eye by Agnes Arber (1954) where she discusses her experiences in plant morphology research and in drawing her own illustrations.  Through these she became convinced that art and science were intimately related.  When Bob and I were each asked to contribute essays to a volume on women in biology (Grinstein et al., 1987), I chose Arber as my subject and he chose Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps.  Then I began sliding down the slippery slope of botany through Phelps’s immensely popular 19th-century textbook on botany and Arber’s influential book on early modern herbals (1938).  This eventually led me to take botanical illustration courses at New York Botanical Garden, further deepening my interest in art and plants.   

Bob and I had fun doing our own research and slowly becoming more interested in each other’s disciplines.  At conferences, I soon learned that co-presenting was not the way to go.  We would each present, but on related topics such as Louis Pasteur from the scientific and science popularization perspectives or the art and ecology in the 19th century landscapes of Frederic Church.  Then Bob was given a dire cancer diagnosis.  The next morning he said:  “The worst thing about this is that I’ll die, and you’ll remarry.”  I laughed in his face.  I had thought of a thousand things over the last 24 hours and that was definitely not one of them!  However, several years after his death in 2003, he did allow me to fall in love again.  How I was moonstruck by herbaria is the subject of my next post.


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

Arber, A. (1954). The Mind and the Eye: A Study of the Biologist’s Standpoint. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Grinstein, L., Biermann, C., & Rose, R. (Eds.). (1997). Women in the Biological Sciences Women in the Biological Sciences—A Biobibliographic Sourcebook.  Norwalk, CT: Greenwood Press

Wechsler, J. (Ed.). (1978). On Aesthetics in Science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Specimens: Curators’ Choices

Mrs. Thring’s specimen of Centaurea montana, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

When herbarium curators select specimens to display, either virtually or physically, what kinds of specimens do they choose?  They might pick out “beautiful” specimens.  Clare Drinkell, a botanist at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew posted one with the comment:   “Sometimes a beautifully pressed specimen just stops me in my tracks.  Mrs Thring’s Centaurea montana collected in Switzerland ‘between the years 1845 and 1855.’”   Jo Wilbraham, curator of algae at the Natural History Museum, London also has a good eye, posting an “elaborately pressed” specimen of the seaweed Mesogloia vermiculata, collected by Edward George in 1895 on the Isle of Man.  When she was asked what was the “most exotic” specimen in the collection of over a million, she “immediately retrieved a folder of Claudea elegans,” including a specimen collected in Australia by the Irish botanist William Henry Harvey

Curators also have an eye for the unusual which explains why Wilbraham posted a very long specimen of Alaria that fills seven sheets—and still required folding the specimen.  It was again collected by Edward George, this time while he was on vacation in Whitby in 1866.  She adds: “Probably the largest specimen in Algae @NHM_Botany. . . . Imagining him trying to press this in a local guest house.”  Also displayed by many curators are their collections’ oldest specimens.  The very active herbarium at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville started a flurry of Tweets when it announced:  “What are your oldest #specimens? We used to think ours was a 𝘏𝘢𝘮𝘢𝘮𝘦𝘭𝘪𝘴 𝘷𝘪𝘳𝘨𝘪𝘯𝘪𝘢𝘯𝘢 collected in Ohio in 1836, but yesterday a student found this 𝘛𝘩𝘶𝘪𝘥𝘪𝘶𝘮 𝘱𝘩𝘪𝘭𝘪𝘣𝘦𝘳𝘵𝘪𝘪 collected in Germany in 1819!”  The herbarium at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Madrid countered with a specimen of Buffonia tenuifolia from 1789.  Then the State Herbarium of South Australia presented a fern Leptopteris hymenophylloides collected in 1768 in New Zealand on Captain James Cook’s first around-the-world voyage.  However, all were silenced when the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh Tweeted about  a 1697 Stoebe cutting from South Africa.

An announcement from the Marie-Victorin Herbarium at the Montreal Botanical Garden began with the statement:  “Digitization of biological collections has numerous advantages, including making discoveries of remarkable material hidden away within them!”  It went on to describe a find made by a volunteer entering label data:  a specimen of Carex longerostrata collected in 1779 on the Kamchatka Peninsula by David Nelson during Capt. James Cook’s third voyage. Until then, the oldest known specimens in the herbarium were collected by Andrew Holmes in Montreal in the early 1820s.  As the article notes:  “The Marie-Victorin Herbarium just got 40 years older!”  Earlier, the specimen had been in the collection from the National Museum of Natural History in Paris.  Digitization also led to the discovery of surprisingly old specimens in the herbarium of Claude Bernard University in Lyon.  It houses the massive collection of Roland Bonaparte (1858-1924), a great-grandnephew of Napoleon I.  All 760,000 of his specimens have recently been digitized, leading to the discovery of plants from 1799, and what the herbarium described as “a real surprise.” 

In all these announcements, there is a sense of  the thrill of finding something new and out of the ordinary.  It is one of the reasons I love herbaria; they are full of such wonders, and digitization is definitely bringing many of them to light, while also making them available for a much broader audience to appreciate.  Of course there are some unpleasant discoveries including what are termed “curation crimes,” with Scotch tape being among the most common.  At RBGE the tip of a very long leaf that wouldn’t fit on the front, was taped to the backLaura Jennings at Kew was distressed to find an inflorescence so covered in glue that it couldn’t be identified.  She also retweeted Brittany Sutherland’s crime-watch post on a pine specimen filed in an Illicium folder; her remark:  “This is why people are not allowed to reshelve their own library books.” 

The University of Reading’s complaint was the use of a ballpoint pen and a felt tip marker on a label, but with the comment that the specimen was “well-pressed.”  I was told by a curator of the Sloane collection that even a few of its stately pages were annotated with ballpoint pen.  Other crimes have also been reported by the NHM, including one where the statute of limitations may very well have run out.  At least two sheets from the herbarium of Miss C. M. Cautley have large gaps where specimens have obviously been cut out, paper and all.  These are included in a project called LoveLincsPlants where specimens collected in Lincolnshire were sent to NHM to be digitized and become part of the museum’s collection, but with a website for this collection so that in one way it retains its identity.  In addition, the project involves continued collecting to document the Lincolnshire area as it changes over time.

I’ll end not so much with a crime but a misadventure that the perpetrator readily admitted to.  Yvette Harvey, a skilled botanist and able curator of the Royal Horticulture Society’s herbarium, attempted to press hyacinth specimens.  She reported:  “First attempt at pressing hyacinths into blotting paper…. epic fail no. 1… specimens turned to mush and drying room had a rather exotic fragrance.”  The next day:  “Second attempt… 34 new specimens pressed in parchment and swapped cardboard corrugates for aluminum ones…. epic failure no. 2….. specimens turned to mush, drying room had an intoxicating aroma and I spent a morning removing mould from the corrugate.”  Harvey then decided to admire hyacinths from a distance.

Specimens: Multiples

Jany Renz’s specimens of Serapias orchids, Basel Herbarium at the University of Basel, Switzerland

It is considered good practice in herbaria today to place just one collection on a sheet.  This might include more than one plant, if they are small, but these are the result of one collection event, in one location.  That wasn’t always the case in the past, and even today some curators, conscious of the high cost of herbarium sheets, hate to see a great deal of space go to waste.  If the specimen is small, it might be positioned on a sheet so that there is room for at least one other specimen of the same species collected sometime in the future.  But if the plant is very small the temptation may remain, and result in rather interesting sheets.  At one point on Twitter, there seemed to be a contest to see who could come up with the most crowded sheet, with one entry from the Natural History Museum, London (NHM) a sheet with six specimens, followed by the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh with eight fern specimens.

Then NHM countered with a nine-specimen example, where the barcodes seemed more obvious than most of the plants.  They also upped the ante by noting that one of the specimens had been collected by the great British ecologist Charles Elton.  Later, the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew entered the fray with another nine-specimen sheet, this time of orchids, made more crowded with lengthy accompanying notes.  All these sheets were of flowering plant specimens.  When it comes to mosses, at least in the past, such examples multiply, with several packets attached to a sheet.  Now many curators favor envelopes or packets stored in boxes or drawers, and much work has been done, often in combination with digitization projects, to remove packets from sheets.

Sometimes it is not entire specimens that are pasted on sheets, but multiples of some plant part, often to show variation.  On a visit to the Basel Herbarium, the visual artist Bea Eggli saw pages of orchid flowers and Tweeted that “I always find a piece of my identity in herbaria.”  To me, this is rather cryptic, yet I can relate to it; the order and variation of form are intriguing (see image above).  The flowers from several species of Serapias were preserved by the botanist Jany Renz in the 17th century to show variation within and among species.  They were displayed by the Basel Herbarium during a 2022 conference to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the publication of Caspar Bauhin’s Flora of Basel.

A somewhat similar approach was taken more than 400 years later by Norman Douglas Simpson (1890-1974) with leaves of Hedera ivy species and cultivars.  This reminds me of work done in the tradition of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, with variations on a theme or type.  They display just how much variation there can be even within a single specimen, let alone in genera, and also different kinds of variation from size to wide variations in shape; these leaves vary from entire to having from three to five lobes in various forms. 

There is yet another play on the unity and variety theme.  That’s when collectors amass a number of specimens from the same area at the same time.  Most commonly, the aim is to provide duplicates, herbarium coinage, to be sent to other institutions as insurance against a future calamity, or in trade to build species or geographic diversity in a collection.  But in a post from his lab, Mason Heberling, curator of botany at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Pittsburg, discussed five specimens of large-flowered trillium (Trillium grandiflorum).  All of them remain in the herbarium because they are vouchers for a study the collectors, Frederick Utech and Mashashi Ohara, published along with Shoichi Kawano in 1984.  Each sheet shows a different stage in the species’ life cycle, from small seedlings to large plants with flowers.  Since this plant is a spring ephemeral, such a wide variety of stages is more likely to be found in one place.  Heberling notes that Utech and Ohara were ecologists, not taxonomists, so they were more interested in life history.  They found that many herbarium collections did not provide specimens that adequately documented different developmental stages.  So their collections were an attempt to collect differently, and their article an argument for why others should do the same so ecologists would find more valuable material in herbaria and thus become more likely to use what could be an excellent research resource. 

Heberling himself does ecological studies and has published a good review of why ecologists have tended to underutilize herbarium collections and what can be done to make them more useful to this community (Heberling, 2022).  Documenting life history is one strategy and obviously not a new one.  Also used in the past was something that botanist and corn expert Edgar Anderson and W.B. Turrell wrote about in 1935:  mass collections.  This involves supplementing specimens with large numbers of a particular plant part.  One example would be collecting regular specimens from two or three maple trees at a site, and then gathering one leaf from each of 30-50 trees.   In other cases, inflorescences or fruits might be saved.  These could allow studies of the frequency of variations, any discontinuities in these variations, and also correlations between variations.  In other words, multiples matter.


Anderson, E., & Turrill, W. B. (1935). Biometrical studies on herbarium material. Nature, 136 (3451), 986.

Heberling, J. M. (2022). Herbaria as big data sources of plant traits. International Journal of Plant Sciences, 183(2), 87–118.

Specimens: Sloane’s Collections of Herbaria

Specimen of Anemone thalictroides in the Sloane Herbarium, Natural History Museum, London

In the last post, I discussed Hans Sloane’s herbarium at the Natural History Museum, London (NHM) and work being done on exploring its contents.  In this post, I want to highlight some of the fascinating specimens found by Brad Scott in his doctoral research on the collection.  I’ll begin with medieval philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas, not the likeliest person to come to mind in relation to herbaria.  However, Scott found labels on James Cuninghame specimens cut from what Scott has identified as a 1567 edition of Aquinas.  Using scrap paper for labels or for pressing specimens was not uncommon since paper was often scarce particularly for a shipboard surgeon like Cuninghame who traveled twice to China.  The book may have been abandoned by him or someone else, and served as a ready source of scrap paper.  The fact that Scott hunted down the paper’s provenance suggests the thoroughness of his work.  He did something similar with scraps the physician and botanist Leonard Plukenet employed in making packets for seeds he attached to sheets along with the specimens.  In one case, the paper seems to be an advertisement for “Nendick’s P,” with the rest ripped off.  Scott couldn’t find the exact same version, but did discover another praising the benefits of Nendick’s Popular Pills for scurvy.  This speaks to aspects of material culture relating to specimens.  Beyond their scientific value, sheets often hold revelations about the culture of a period well beyond their scientific value.   

Another indication of careful research is a recent lecture Scott gave on George Handisyd, also a ship’s surgeon who was involved in plant collecting, particularly in South America and around the Straits of Magellan.  To flesh out the information on the specimens, Scott also examined ship logs and Handisyd’s correspondence to correlate items with specific dates and locations.  In another case, he examined the correspondence of Charles Preston to learn more about a package of 70 mosses that the Edinburgh botanist had sent to Sloane.  And going even farther afield, Scott went to the French Academy of Sciences in Paris to look at an album of specimens from Aleppo, Syria to compare it to a similar album in the Sloane Herbarium.  It turned out that the two were almost identical not only in binding, but in the specimens included and how they were arranged.  Apparently they were both created by an apothecary in Aleppo, Jean Bigot, and possibly brought to Paris by the traveler and botanist Jean Thévenot and sold to collector like Sloane who later donated one of his two copies to the Academy. 

William Courten, also known as Charleton, created some of the tiniest labels in the Sloane Herbarium.  Besides the normal labels with species information, in some cases each specimen—and there were often several on a page—had a tiny dot of paper with a cipher he used.  In other cases, ciphers were affixed to the sheets.  Scott has been able to decode many of them and found that they often cite from whom Courten received the specimens or the geographic locations where they were collected.  He was apparently secretive in part because he was hounded by creditors, but he may also have found that this shorthand saved space and time. 

Scott is not the only one who has been finding interesting items in the Sloane collection.  The NHM botanist Sandy Knapp posted about pages of blighted leaves she saw along with Mark Carine, the NHM curator responsible for the Sloane collection and a major investigator for the Sloane Lab project (see last post).  This might not seem like an exciting find, but think about it:  an opportunity to study what was obviously a serious infection from centuries ago.  And there are other examples of non-plants that made their way into the volumes.  Scott reported on finding hake egg cases and even a starfish.  I remember reading about a woodpecker scull secreted in one volume (Jarvis, 2014), and there are also a number of cases of insects not infesting sheets after the fact, but purposefully placed.  Mark Carine notes that the insects often seem to be used as decoration and are not labeled.  However, he did post on a page where the insects were labeled and most of the plants weren’t.  In the British Library, one of Sloane’s books on insects has specimens pasted into the relevant pages, suggesting it’s impossible to sort a collection like this into absolute categories. 

The Sloane collection is definitely full of surprises, and I am sure there are more to be unearthed because what one researcher might find uninteresting, might very well tickle the fancy of another.  A page fragment from Thomas Aquinas comes to mind as something that could definitely be valued differently by different scholars.  I’ll close with one specimen I found interesting almost in its nonexistence.  It is a typotype specimen for Anemone thalictroides named by Leonard Plukenet and recognized as a species by Linnaeus.  Brad Scott describes it as “barely existent type specimen” (see photo above). 

Note: Much of the information for this post came from Brad Scott’s Twitter feed @Trichocolea.  I realize that Twitter is now a platform with many issues, to say the least.  However, as a recent Nature article noted (Insall, 2023), scientists have found it a useful way of sharing information and ideas.  I’ve learned so much from Twitter posts like Scott’s and many others, that I am not ready to give up that link.  I remain @flannerm, though I’m also on Mastodon at


Insall, R. (2023). Science Twitter—Navigating change in science communication. Nature Reviews Molecular Cell Biology, 1–2.

Jarvis, C. E., & Cooper, J. H. (2014). Maidstone’s woodpecker – an unexpected bird specimen in the herbarium of Sir Hans Sloane. Archives of Natural History, 41(2), 230–239.

Specimens: The Sloane Herbarium

Portrait of Hans Sloane in seaweed specimens alongside his initials and date; pages from the Sloane Herbarium, Natural History Museum, London.

Over a year ago I wrote a series of posts on herbarium specimens (1,2,3,4) I found particularly interesting.  I’ve encountered many more since then, so it’s time to take up the topic again.  One particularly rich mine is the 265-volume herbarium of Hans Sloane (1660-1753) in the Natural History Museum, London (NHM).  The museum’s principle herbarium curator Mark Carine is one of the investigators involved in the Sloane Lab which aims at digitally linking the Sloane collections at the NHM, the British Library (BL), and the British Museum (BM).  The latter was founded to house the specimens—animals and vegetable—as well as the books, coins, art works, and anthropological materials Sloane had amassed (Delbourgo, 2017).  Eventually the BM’s growing collections were dispersed to new institutions:  the NHM in the 19th century and the BL in the 20th

These rearrangements made sense organizationally, but caused logistical problems for researchers.  For example, after a career in digital publishing, Brad Scott is now a doctoral student at the University of London studying the Sloane Herbarium as part of Sloane Lab.  However, if he wants to consult many of Sloane’s papers, he has to go to the British Library.  Reconnecting Sloane is working on an infrastructure for digitization of the various collections to make this rich trove of material available to a much large audience, not only of researchers but others who are living in a world very much shaped by Sloane and his peers.  He was longtime president of the Royal Society, so he influenced scientific inquiry and exerted political sway over the economic development of Britain’s growing colonization efforts.

All this can be seen through the lens of the Sloane Herbarium, and Brad Scott is going through its volumes, examining the more than 100 collections represented there.  He estimates that only about 3% of the specimens were actually gathered by Sloane.  Most of these are from early in his career while he was studying to be a physician, first in England and then in France, where he was taught by the great French botanist Joseph Pitton de Tournefort.  A few years later he went Jamaica as physician to the governor and collected plants and animals with the assistance of locals, including enslaved and indigenous peoples.  But as his interest in plants grew, so did his collections.  Some were given him by friends at times as bequests, many were purchased, and others were acquired in trade.  While the herbarium specimens are primarily pre-Linnaean, and most do not include updated nomenclature, they are still valuable in documenting how plants moved geographically.  Also, some of them may be sources of DNA that could shed light on plant traits and evolutionary changes.   

A significant portion of Sloane’s wealth came from plantations in Jamaica that had been left to his wife by her first husband.  This wealth was dependent on the labor of African enslaved persons as well as on indigenous peoples, some of whom were also enslaved.  Since he was interested in the increasing number of exotic plants being discovered around the world, he also had many dealings with those involved in shipping and commerce, some involved in slave trade (Murphy, 2020).  So Sloane’s collection can definitely be seen through the lens of exploitation and colonization, making it rich in the kind of information being sought by those involved in what has become known as decolonizing collections (Das & Lowe, 2018). 

The present studies are hardly the first on the herbarium.  In the late 19th century, a botanist at the NHM James Britten compiled an annotated list of the herbaria in Sloane’s collection along with brief biographies of the principal contributors.  This work was never published.  A later NHM botanist James Edgar Dandy revised and added to the manuscript which appeared in 1958.  It is still the premier reference on the collection, and Scott uses it in his research, making further revisions.  There is no other comprehensive catalogue of the herbarium, but what is invaluable is Sloane’s own copy of John Ray’s three-volume Historia Plantarum, annotated by Sloane with the volume and page number for each species he had in his collection, with additions for those plants not listed in Ray.  It is still used to this day, along with an annotated copy of Sloane’s Natural History of Jamaica that has the same kinds of notations, along with later ones written by the Carl Linnaeus’s student Daniel Solander who was hired by the BM to update the names with Linnaean nomenclature (Rose, 2018). 

It has taken me so long to set the stage for Scott’s work that I will have to dig into it in the next post.  I realize that I haven’t written about even one individual specimen in a post purportedly on specimens.  So I’ll end with two that were Tweeted about by Mark Carine.  They may not be of much scientific value but they are definitely interesting (see above).  The first is apparently a portrait of Sloane done in seaweed, and the other has his initials and the year 1707.  They seem like the kind of thing created in the mid-19th century when there was a craze for algae collecting and preparing scrapbooks of specimens, sometimes with a greater emphasis on design than on science.  I suspect Sloane got a kick out of these, though who made them is unknown.  This may not be the most significant outcome from the Sloane Lab, but I think it is a great reminder that there can be joy and humor in herbaria as well as botanical and cultural revelations.


Das, S., & Lowe, M. (2018). Nature read in black and white: Decolonial approaches to interpreting natural history collections. Journal of Natural Science Collections, 6, 4–14.

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

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

Rose, E. D. (2018). Specimens, slips and systems: Daniel Solander and the classification of nature at the world’s first public museum, 1753–1768. The British Journal for the History of Science, 51(2), 1–33.

Taxon and Nomenclature

Turland et al., 2018, published by Koeltz Botanical Books

In my last post in this series (1,2,3) on articles in Taxon, the journal of the International Association for Plant Taxonomy, I want to discuss a group of “perspective” articles on a thorny nomenclatural issue.  The first, by Gideon Smith and Estrela Figueiredo (2022) of Nelson Mandela University in South Africa, dealt with the scientific plant names that refer to people or ideas that can be considered offensive, particularly in a post-colonial context.  The example they use is the root “rhodes-“ to commemorate Cecil Rhodes who made a fortune from diamond mining in South Africa and was prime minister of the Cape Colony from 1890-1896.  He was a symbol of British imperialism and exploitation of indigenous people.  The authors used this example because it was related to a South African movement begun in 2015 called “Rhodes Must Fall,” referring to a statue on the University of Cape Town campus that was eventually removed.  However, the movement developed beyond that and came to embody disposing of lingering reminders of colonialism in other contexts, including botany.  They also mentioned that the Portuguese dictator Antonio Salazar is commemorated in the name, Kalanchoe salazarii, native to the former Portuguese colony of Angola.  In addition they cited an earlier article (Knapp et al., 2020) that brought up the problematic word, caffra, derived from the Arabic for infidel, that is considered an awful racial slur in Africa yet appears in various forms in many botanical epithets. 

Smith and Figueiredo note that the present International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants (Turland and Wiersema, 2018) does not allow for a name change for reasons of offensive language.  They call for a change in the code to address this problem, and in fact, a proposal for such a change was published in the December 2021 issue of Taxon.  (This article was published online after the Rhodes article, but there were difficulties publishing paper editions during COVID, so not all the paper issues were published in sequence).  It was written by two Australia systematists, Timothy Hammer and Kevin Thiele.  They cited the examples of caffra and of hibbertia, commemorating George Hibbert a British slave trader and owner who was also a strident anti-abolitionist.  They proposed that the language in the code stating that a name or epithet cannot be rejected “merely because it is inappropriate or disagreeable, or because another is preferable” be changed.  Also, a new article should be added stating that a legitimate name or its epithet may be rejected as culturally offensive or inappropriate.  The actual proposal gives more detail but that is its essence. 

In the April 2022 issue of Taxon, Sergei Mosyakin, director of the Kholodny Institute of Botany in Ukraine wrote a rebuttal to Smith and Figueiredo.  He notes that his country has suffered from colonialism and ethnic oppression, but argues that dealing with such history through nomenclatural change is fraught with difficulties.  Allowing changes could lead to a “slippery slope” and looks like “a new form of politically motivated scientific totalitarianism and censorship” (p. 251).  Mosyakin goes on at some length about the difficulties in evaluating what is inappropriate and how this is to be decided.  He makes valid points but overall his language is more strident than that in the other articles, and needless to say it provoked a response.

The next article in what was becoming a series was published in the December 2022 issue of Taxon and was written by Smith, Figueiredo, Hammer and Thiele.  It was brief, measured, and to the point, though they do write that Mosyakin “severely misrepresented” their views and proposals.  They address three of his contentions, the first being the slippery slope argument.  The Hammer and Thiele proposal for amending the Code included the creation of a permanent committee, like several others within the Nomenclatural Section, to deal with proposed changes in an orderly fashion.  This would be in keeping with the standard way changes are handled.  The authors admit that there will be some proposed changes that might be considered in a “gray area” between extremes, but contend that this is true of most complex issues and shouldn’t be an argument against dealing with them at all.

The authors also reject the idea that their proposal involves politically motivated censorship.  They see as “far-fetched” the view that the Nomenclatural Section will be conducting “purges” or become a totalitarian regime:  “In our view, if a community of end-users formally decides that a mechanism should be established to restrict the use of some scientific names and epithets for the greater good, this process is not ‘censorship’” (p. 934).  Finally, they don’t think their proposals “erase history” because of how nomenclatural change works.  The previous names do not disappear, but rather, move into synonymy.  This move doesn’t expunge the name but acknowledges that it is no longer considered culturally acceptable.  I think this is the strongest of their arguments.  Whether the change will lead to a slippery slope and what some would consider censorship will only be determined if the Code is amended and proposals for name rejections considered.  In the meantime, this discussion is a fruitful one; it fits well into the much larger conversation about efforts to move toward decolonial natural history collections and beyond that to decolonial societies. 

Since I wrote the first draft of this post, I’ve come upon two more articles on this subject in the December 2022 issue of Taxon, one by Mosyakin and one by Thiele et al.  Not surprisingly they don’t change their positions but do elaborate on them, especially Mosyakin.  He gives several examples of where name change could lead and what new problems it could produce in the future.


Knapp, S., Vorontsova, M. S., & Turland, N. J. (2020). Indigenous Species Names in Algae, Fungi and Plants: A Comment on Gillman & Wright (2020). TAXON, 69(6), 1409–1410.

Smith, G. F., & Figueiredo, E. (2022). “Rhodes-” must fall: Some of the consequences of colonialism for botany and plant nomenclature. TAXON, 71(1), 1–5.

Hammer, T. A., & Thiele, K. R. (2021). (119–122) Proposals to amend Articles 51 and 56 and Division III, to allow the rejection of culturally offensive and inappropriate names. TAXON, 70(6), 1392–1394.

Mosyakin, S. L. (2022). If “Rhodes-” must fall, who shall fall next? TAXON, 71(2), 249–255.

Smith, G. F., Figueiredo, E., Hammer, T. A., & Thiele, K. R. (2022). Dealing with inappropriate honorifics in a structured and defensible way is possible. TAXON, 71(5), 933–935.

Mosyakin, S. L. (2022). Defending Art. 51 of the Code: Comments on Smith & al. (2022). TAXON, 71(6), 1141–1150.

Thiele, K. R., Smith, G. F., Figueiredo, E., & Hammer, T. A. (2022). Taxonomists have an opportunity to rid botanical nomenclature of inappropriate honorifics in a structured and defensible way. TAXON, 71(6), 1151–1154.

*The references are given in the order in which they were first published that is, online.

Taxon and the Flora of Madeira

Map of Madeira, 1904, Edward Stanford; David Rumsey Historical Map Collection

This series of posts deals with the articles found in the systematic botany journal Taxon that deal with topics beyond conventional taxonomic treatments.  Among my favorites are those with an historical slant, like a recent one dealing with the plant collections of Richard Thomas Lowe (1802-1874) on the island of Madeira (Mesquita et al., 2022).  To put his work in context Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander visited there and made collections in 1768, early in James Cook’s first voyage around the world.  Francis Masson also did so a decade later.  Lowe was the next botanist to make significant collections on Madeira and the other islands of its archipelago, but his work was not confined to a brief visit.  He lived on Madeira from 1826 until 1852, much of that time as a clergyman.  He spent the rest of his life in England, but returned to Madeira for several months almost yearly.  When he died in a shipwreck in 1874, he was still working on his flora of Madeira that was published in several volumes. 

The Taxon paper covers the authors’ research on 2,280 of Lowe’s specimens that they were able to georeference, most now at the herbaria of the Natural History Museum, London and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.  Positional uncertainty was noted.  Lowe’s locale descriptions varied in specificity but more than half rated as very high or high.  During his years of collecting, he had managed to visit most parts of the island, though not surprisingly, areas with steep slopes, of which there are many, were not visited.  His later work often involved returning to areas where he could find plant groups that posed taxonomic problems.  He was someone who came to know his research area well as is revealed in his writings.  His specimens were from 1350 locations and represented about 800 different taxa.  Lowe visited many locations a number of times, including at different times of the year.  He sent duplicates to several other botanists with exchanges of information on many taxa.  His correspondents included William Jackson Hooker, John Henslow, Robert Brown, Augustin de Candolle, and Philip Webb.  The researchers conclude:  “As a result of Lowe’s sustained and systematic approach, he is the single most prolific contributor to the study of Madeira’s endemic flora (p. 876).” 

Lowe’s work is an important contribution to biodiversity research because oceanic islands like Madeira have high proportions of endemic species and provide examples of rapid evolutionary radiations.  Also, because of the island’s size, populations are relatively low for many species, so having a historical record of occurrence in the past is helpful for present-day conservation efforts.  The fact that there were areas that Lowe found too remote or impossible to explore, including the many areas of cliffs, mean that these are good places in which to search for new species.  Equipment for scaling rock faces has improved, and even drones can be employed in survey work.   

There is much more to the article than I can recount in this post.  The number and content of the figures indicate how much analysis went into this paper and thus how much it says about Lowe’s contributions.  Maps are key, including the first figure, a topographic map with place names for Madeira and indicating just how much elevation variability exists there.  Next are more detailed historical maps and then a series of maps showing where Lowe’s georeferenced specimens were collected noting first locations, then precision of locations, followed by vegetation zones, and slope.  For slope, there is also a bar graph showing the relationship between slope and the amount of area at that slope. 

Then comes my two favorite graphics, or at least the ones I found most telling.  Figure 9 shows six maps of the island representing the itineraries for extended trips in six different years ranging from 1827 to 1860, including two Lowe made when he was no longer living there.  These are color-coded to show the months when each location was visited.  This is a good example of a well-designed graphic, as is figure 10, a graph that tracks with a line the number of specimens collected each year.  Then for each year it also gives bars indicating the percent of specimens from the six most common families on the island.  In most years, Lowe collected in all these families, but there are indications that, as mentioned in the text, he was focused on particular groups at certain points.  For example, in 1872, near the end of his collecting, Poaceae and Lamiaceae specimens were particularly well-collected.  Not coincidently they were the two families that had yet to be published in A Manual Flora of Madeira, which was left unfinished at the time of his death in a shipwreck that occurred when he was again bound for Madeira. 

I had never heard of Richard Lowe before I read this article, but it pains me that his flora was left unfinished.  The researchers who produced this work used the extensive data they generated from painstaking georeferencing and analysis to create not only a work of science but of history.  They created a portrait of a botanist and of work that will inform biodiversity research in the future and also support further study of the history of botany in Madeira.  They used specimen data and also delved deeply into Lowe’s correspondence and notes in a beautiful example of bioinformatics meeting the digital humanities.


Mesquita, S., Carine, M., Castel-Branco, C., & Menezes de Sequeira, M. (2022). Documenting the flora of a diversity hotspot: Richard Thomas Lowe (1802–1874) and his botanical exploration of Madeira island. TAXON, 71(4), 876–891.

Herbarium Stories: Ukraine

A broken window in the Schmalhausen & Rogowicz Memorial Herbaria Room of the National Herbarium of Ukraine (Mosyakin and Shiyan, 2022)

So far the herbarium stories I’ve told in this series of posts are about discovering hidden collections and bringing more order and attention to them.  The story in this post is about an orderly collection that has been thrown into disorder.  The National Herbarium of Ukraine (KW) at the M.G. Kholodny Institute of Botany in Kyiv was hit by a Russian missile strike on October 10, 2022.  The specimens themselves were spared damage as were the staff members, but windows were broken, debris strewn around, walls and ceilings crumbled.  The staff worked to return things as close to normal as they could:  boarding up windows, cleaning up fallen plaster, getting things back into some semblance of order.  In fact, there were even plans to begin some restoration work in November, but by that time it was clear that materials and tools wouldn’t be available for the foreseeable future. 

As with so much of the devastation in Ukraine, this was an obvious attack on a civilian target.  You can’t get much more nonmilitant than an herbarium.  The same was true for the entire area surround the Kholdny Institute:  university buildings, museums, the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, and other facilities.  All this is outlined in an article by Sergei Mosyakin of the Institute of Botany and Natalia Shiyan of the National Herbarium.  They include photographs of the interior and exterior damage.  The trauma of the attack is palpable in their descriptions.  As with any such destruction, they kept discovering new problems, such as a leaky roof with the first rain after the bombing. 

It is apparent from the herbarium’s website, and from the information on Index Herbariorum as of this post, Ukraine has a sizable botanical infrastructure, with 26 active herbaria, though the activity has slowed to a trickle since the war began.  There are no loans being exchanged, though if possible curators will send digital images.  The herbarium at Karazin University in Kharkiv had been hit on March 3, 2022 also with infrastructure damage, but no harm to personnel.  Across Ukraine, scientific endeavors of all kinds have been seriously impacted by the war, mirroring what has happened to all aspects of Ukrainian life.  Yet botanists are still attempting to protect their collections, so this is a story of hope as well as devastation.

The National Herbarium, which celebrated its hundredth anniversary in 2021, holds over two and a quarter million specimens, the largest collection in Eastern Europe.  Some specimens date to the 18th century.  Obviously, there is an impressive collection of Ukrainian plants, with others from around the world, particularly from countries in the former Soviet Union.  It was an active collection too.  In the ten years before the war, there were a hundred thousand accessions.  One of the great things about investigating the herbarium world, is that, as I’ve mentioned in the earlier posts in this series, it increases geographical awareness.  Unfortunately, war has a similar effect.  I am now much more aware of the countries surrounding Ukraine, because of the large-scale movement of refugees across its borders, and the areas of support and threat that lie there.  The present situation in Ukraine is a reminder that herbaria in many parts of the world have precarious existences.  This is also true of collections in Europe and North America, where a few herbaria continue to be threatened with extinction, but in some parts of the world, the threatened collections can make up the majority.

There was a recent article in Plant Systematics and Evolution about a survey of Balkan Peninsula herbaria (Jogan & Bacic, 2020).  The authors sent out a survey to each of the area’s 57 herbaria listed in Index Herbariorum to assess their activity and resources.  Over 50% responded and the results were quite discouraging.  Now almost every herbarium administrator feels overworked and coping with insufficient resources, but the circumstances seem particularly severe in the Balkans.  Even something as basic as pest control doesn’t meet minimal standards in many cases, and two thirds of facilities have no air conditioning.  There are very low rates of specimen exchanges and loans.  Databases are often not accessible to the public, and many collections are largely undigitized.  This speaks to a weakened botanical community that includes notable institutions such as the Budapest Herbarium with a significant historical collection among its over 2 million specimens.  Geographically, these areas have long fascinated botanists like John Sibthorp who traveled there twice at the end of the 18th century (Harris, . 

It is easy to find stories on the web about what is going on at the Kew or Missouri Botanical Garden herbaria, but it’s important to remember that there are about 3,250 active herbaria according to Index Herbariorum.  Each one is a jewel, each one containing a history of plant life at particular places and times.  No specimens are really replaceable.  Yes, an herbarium that has been damaged such as the one at Berlin-Dahlem in World War II can be partially restored by the gifting of duplicates that had been sent to other institutions, but then these institutions are less rich (Hiepko, 1987).  Those in the herbarium world are making their institutions more public-facing so people outside the botanical world become aware of the scientific and cultural importance of their collections.  However, I think they also have an obligation to communicate with and about institutions that have too long been undervalued, no matter where in the world they may be.


Harris, S. (2007). The Magnificent Flora Graeca: How the Mediterranean Came to the English Garden. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hiepko, P. (1987). The collections of the Botanical Museum Berlin-Dahlem and their history. Englera, 7, 219–252.

Jogan, N., & Bačič, M. (2020). Balkan herbaria: Do we have to worry about them? Plant Systematics and Evolution, 306(2), 12.

Mosyakin, S. L., & Shiyan, N. M. (2022). The M.G. Kholodny Institute of Botany and the National Herbarium of Ukraine (KW), Kyiv: Damage due to the missile strikes on 10 October 2022. Ukrainian Botanical Journal, 79(5), 339–342.

Herbarium Stories: Galls

A. Gall specimens stored in clear plastic folders within a 2-ring binder. B. Gall specimen stored in a cardboard box with no lid. C. Gall specimens stored in an insect drawer. SMNS, Stuttgart (Mertz et al., 2022)

Humans like to organize information into categories to make it easier to deal with.  The problem with the living world is that it’s unruly; some things just defy being put into neat boxes.  Among these are galls, plant structures, often on leaves or stems, formed in response to invasion by another organism.  This is frequently an insect, but other culprits include mites, nematodes, fungi, bacteria, and even parasitic plants.  Usually galls are stored within entomology collections, and thus by the insect species involved.  But any herbarium collection is likely to contain galls, whether they are noted in the label description are not

A recent article describes efforts at the State Museum of Natural History in Stuttgart, Germany to deal with the ecological complexity of galls and also to begin to bring greater order to its 1000-2000 specimen gall collection, most of which was unsorted and kept in three large metal cabinets (Mertz et al., 2022).  Some were on herbarium sheets, many were in paper or plastic envelopes, but there were also specimens in albums, file folders, boxes, and newspapers.  In addition there was an early 19th century collection in drawers, and some galls were in the dried insect collection pinned next to the insects that emerged from them.  The last time the collection had been studied was in 1995, and it had never been completely catalogued.  Every natural history collection is overflowing with specimens, many crying for needed attention, but it makes sense that if no one had been interested in it in nearly 30 years, it would not be on anyone’s priority list. 

It’s thanks to the renewed interest in specimens as sources of biodiversity data that collections like this are now being examined and organized.  Galls, precisely because of their classification complexities, are of more interest at present.  Not only are they objects of botanical and entomological interest, but ecological as well.  The authors of this paper decided to systematically organize the 490 specimens collected in the home state of the institution, Baden-Württemberg, and assess the suitability of the different storage options they encountered.  There was single bound album made in the 1970s with browned and cracking Scotch tape holding down the galls:  not a good option.  Some specimens were in boxes, good for large or oddly shaped items, but not great for saving space.  The galls collected in the 19th century were in insect drawers, which were orderly and kept the specimens safe but again, space hogs. 

Envelopes, on the other hand, provided efficient use of space.  The paper ones kept the specimens secure, but they had to be opened for examination:  time consuming and could lead to damage.  Plastic envelopes allowed visibility, though some deteriorate rapidly.  The same holds for a set of specimens kept on paper in plastic sleeves and stored in a binder.  Finally there were the specimens stored on herbarium sheets.  Interestingly, they were not all of standard size, but they kept the specimens safe, unless they were attached with the dreaded Scotch tape.  It is not surprising that when the team evaluated the storage methods, albums and binders with plastic folders were not deemed viable.  Boxes were only considered appropriate for large items, often the case with galls on fungi. Pinning to trays was superior when drawer space was ample.  Herbarium sheets were optimal for digitization and host plant identification, though not appropriate for large galls.  Also, sheets required “appropriate infrastructure,“ meaning herbarium cabinets, which were different from those usually found in entomology departments.  Envelopes were the best option if space is at a premium.  These recommendations all make sense, and provide a guide for those facing an update of gall collections. 

There were other interesting findings.  Aside from the 19th century collections, no organisms were associated with the other galls studied.  As the authors note:  “It is often possible to determine the gall inducer from the appearance of the gall, but it is preferable to store galls along with their inhabitants. (p. 7)”  Insects were identified as the cause of 72% of the gall specimens.  Because oak galls are conspicuous on leaves and easily collected, they were well-represented.  Though galls were collected throughout the year, August, September, and October were the most common months.  Again, oaks come into play, because this is when their galls would be most obvious on fallen leaves.

In terms of future directions for this work, the article ends with lessons learned including the difficulties in digitization, updating species determinations, georeferencing specimens, and dealing with old place names and other outdated terminology.  The authors added:  “The ultimate arrangement of the gall collection is yet to be determined.  One possibility is to organize galls by host plant, which would facilitate research at the ecological level (p. 9).”  This presents another issue.  Who will identify the host plants?  Where should such a collection be housed:  in the entomology department or in the herbarium?  After all, many herbaria already have lichen collections that are made up of two biological kingdoms, why not have some plants and animals stored together as well?  Or just to put it out there, perhaps in an ecology collection?  Maybe this will be the wave of the future, and a way to get ecologists to become more interested in the specifics of the organisms encountered in their work.  It is at least an option worth considering, especially in institutions like the Stuttgart museum that house multiple collections dealing with many forms of life.


Mertz, A.-K., Awad, J., Wendt, I., Dalitz, C., & Krogmann, L. (2022). Curation and digitization of insect galls in the collection of the State Museum of Natural History Stuttgart. Integrative Systematics: Stuttgart Contributions to Natural History, 5(2), 193–202.

Herbarium Stories: Texas

Heliopsis helianthoides collected by Barton Warnock Nov. 4, 1983; photo by Bill Ward

In the last post, I admitted to knowing little about New Zealand geography, and I am afraid the same is true of Texas.  I recently rediscovered a blog post I’d saved years ago.  It was written in 2010 for the Native Plant Society of Texas by Bill Ward, a retired geologist, who obviously had a broad interest in nature.  He lived in Boerne, north of San Antonio, and his wife had brought home a pile of herbarium specimens from the nearby Cibolo Nature Center where she volunteered.  The staff thought she might be able to use them in “Nature Boxes” that volunteers took to elementary schools.  Obviously they were considered disposable, though not really appropriate for the boxes.  When Ward examined them, he recognized the collector’s name:  Barton Warnock who had taught botany at Sul Ross State University in what is called the Trans-Pecos region of Texas, mountainous land of the Chihuahua Desert west of the Pecos River on the other side of the state from San Antonio. 

After his retirement in the early 1980s, Warnock spent many years collecting plants for “ranch herbaria,” which he set up for many large Trans-Pecos ranches.  He thought ranch families and managers should know and appreciate what was growing on their land.  The 130 specimens Ward was examining had labels with Warnock’s name and that of “Pamela Bevier Las Encinas Ranch, Kendall County,” where Boerne is located.  They were collected in 1983-1984, so Warnock must have surveyed at least one ranch outside of the Trans-Pecos.  Needless to say, Ward was anxious to find out more about these specimens.  Like most, they give tantalizing information that is not quite enough.  Who was Pamela Bevier and where was Las Encinas Ranch?  Through friends, Ward was able to identify Bevier as owner and operator of the ranch from 1979 to 1995 when the new owner changed its name.  Bevier lived in New York and San Antonio, where she was a public health researcher at the University of Texas Science Center. 

Further hunting led Ward to a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department botanist Jason Singhurst whose wife turned out to be Bevier’s niece.  Ward learned that Bevier once lived in Alpine, Texas the site of Sul Ross State University and was good friends with the Warnocks, obviously good enough to persuade Barton to travel east and create an herbarium for the ranch.  Ultimately, Ward arranged for the specimens to be given to the Billie L. Turner Plant Resources Center at the University of Texas, Austin so they could document what was growing at the ranch in the 1980s.

Another Texas story involves the E.L. Reed Herbarium at Texas Tech University in the more northerly part of the state, at Lubbock.  Founded in the early years of what was then Texas Technical College, the herbarium was little used from the 1990s on until Matt Johnson joined the university as herbarium director in 2017.  His first job was to clean and organize the facility and in the process a collection from Guadalupe Mountains National Park was unearthed.  While this was going on, Jonena Hearst, the science program manager for the park was trying to track down specimens that had been collected there.  By law, specimens gathered at national parks are National Park Service property.  Researchers are allowed to take them to their home institutions for study, but the material is supposed to be returned.  Each year national parks are to survey the institutions to track the material. 

Over the years, this system has not been carefully attended to because it is difficult to keep track of the many specimens and institutions involved.  If a researcher dies or loses interest in a project, the specimens can be misplaced or even thrown away.  In her survey, Hearst was only able to locate about 30% of the material from the park.  That’s why she was very pleased when she called Johnson at Texas Tech to ask about 120 specimens that should have been there.  She learned that they had many more than that, and when the collection was digitized, the number turned out to be about 5,000.  Texas Tech professor and herbarium director David Northington and a master’s student Tony Burgess collected in the park from 1971-1977, soon after it was founded.  Here was a wonderful record of what was growing there at the time, especially since Burgess visited remote locations and took detailed notes, which meant that the specimens could be georeferenced. 

A plan was developed to designate certain institutions as repositories for park collections, not just botanical, but zoological, mineralogical, and paleontological material.  They had to be research institutions that were active in the field, with curators to maintain the collections and to provide access to interested researchers.  The E.L. Reed Herbarium fit the bill for botanical collections.  So an agreement was signed officially making it the repository for plant specimens from Guadalupe Mountains National Park.  After collectors have completed their research, specimens must be sent to Texas Tech, which can loan them to other researchers and extract DNA from them.  Not only will this make Hearst’s job a little easier, it also ensures that the collection, available through the Texas Oklahoma Regional Consortium of Herbaria (TORCH) database, will be accessible in the future.