Herbarium Story: Veronica

Veronica, collected in Dec. 1922 by H.L. Darton, [Cultivated] Lawrence, New Zealand. CC BY 4.0. Te Papa

As became clear in the last series of posts (1,2,3,4) on my herbarium “home” at the University of South Carolina, every plant collection is replete with stories.  Discovering them is an exhilarating experience that may play out over a period of time as the story’s elements are pieced together.  The digitization of collections is one way many stories are now being unearthed as was the case described in a blog post from the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.  The herbarium staff held an informal “botany blitz” for two weeks during which they devoted themselves to tackling some of the unsorted material that’s a staple of most collections.  Among the finds was a folder labeled Veronica hartiana, but digging failed to come up with any information on this species, so it must never have been published.   

The New Zealand species of Veronica used to belong to a separate genus called Hebe, but these plants were found to be monophyletic with Veronica; hebe is still the common name and also the name of over 800 cultivars.  The six specimens in the folder in question were collected by Henry Darton in 1922-1923 and annotated by Donald Petrie.  Darton taught at the local high school in Lawrence, on New Zealand’s South Island.  He and his friend Henry Hart were plant collectors and breeders who had a nursery where they grew many native species.  Donald Petrie was a Scottish botanist who spent nearly 50 years in New Zealand, working a school inspector for the state of Otago that includes Lawrence.  He named a species of Veronica for Darton, and from the evidence in the folder planned to name one for Hart as well. 

Heidi Meudt, who wrote the blog post, is a curator at the herbarium and went on to investigate this story further.  Scientists and historians have much in common.  Both groups want to answer questions, and in a case like this both science and history are involved.  Petrie noted on the specimen that it had a prostrate growth habit and designated it Veronica hartiana sp. Nov.  He added that “It certainly came from the Chatham Islands and was first grown by a solicitor in Timaru to whom it was sent by Mr. Cox.”  Meudt found that Felix Cox, a sheep farmer, lived in the Chatham Islands, over 600 miles east of New Zealand, and sent many specimens to botanists.  Timaru is on the South Island, a few hours north of Lawrence, so it is likely that the solicitor, who probably was a horticultural enthusiast, had contact with Darton. 

Checking further, Meudt discovered a 1941 letter from Erica Baillie, secretary of the New Zealand Alpine Rock Garden Society.  It accompanied a hebe specimen identified as Veronica chathamica that was “absolutely prostrate.”  She asked that it be identified, noting that someone named Baker said that Captain Hooper of the Amokura brought it back from one of the outlying Chatham Islands.  Meudt points out that two decades after Petrie’s notes, the plant was being cultivated by Baillie, who lived in Wellington on the North Island, so it had gotten around.  The fact that it was prostrate suggests what was identified as Veronica chathamica might be the same or similar to what Petrie proposed as Veronica hartiana

More digging revealed that from 1907 to 1921, George Hooper was captain of the Amokura, a training vessel for young men who wanted to become sailors.  He was interested in natural history and there are several of his plant specimens in the herbarium.  At the end of her post, Meudt summarizes:  “We still don’t know for sure if Veronica ‘Hartii’ is the same as V. chathamica, but these specimens seem to fit well within the variation seen in the specimens in the V. chathamica box at Te Papa, and they match most of the characters in other botanist’s descriptions of V. chathamica.”  She thinks that perhaps more information about the plant will come out of the Darton Hart Project aimed at recreating some of the gardens at Lawrence. 

This is definitely a New Zealand story from start to finish and suggests how herbarium specimens can provide windows into the way plants move around and become part of human culture, of horticulture.  It also reveals how people in diverse walks of life:  a sheep farmer, a ship’s captain, a lawyer, and a school teacher all contributed to the movement and cultivation of this species.  And Meudt was able to document this with specimens.  It would be difficult to ferret out all the stories lurking in herbarium cabinets, but it’s nice to see ones like this come to light.  Meudt not only took the time to investigate but then cared enough to document her work in this fascinating post.  What I didn’t mention is that she also gives a good description of what cultivars are and how they are named. 

I have to admit that I also learned a lot from digging into this story.  My knowledge of New Zealand geography was almost nil.  Yes, I knew there was a North and a South Island but I didn’t know that the Chatham Islands are a NZ Territory.  I had heard of Otago, but didn’t know it was region of New Zealand or that the country is divided into regions, not states.  As always, specimens have ended up making me a slightly more educated person, not only in terms of botany, but in this case, history, geography, and horticulture.

Discussing the Plant Humanities: Botany

Pentsemon haydenii

I want to end this series of posts (1,2,3) on the Plant Humanities Conference at Dumbarton Oaks Museum and Library by discussing the plants.  Ned Friedman, a Harvard University biology professor and director of the Arnold Arboretum saw one of the conferences goals as decentering the human in the plant humanities.  He did this with four plant vignettes at time scales that moved further and further from the human.  First, he introduced a single tree at the arboretum, a sand pear, Pyrus pryrifolia, native to East Asia.  The life history of this tree is recorded at the arboretum, and its life expectancy while greater than that of humans, means that visitors 30 years ago saw a much less mature tree.

Then Friedman jumped to discussing the American beech Fagus grandifolia and how pollen cores from thousands of years ago show no evidence of the beech in New England, while cores from more southern regions do.  This record of northern movement of the species is evidence of the warming that occurred after the last ice age, something well beyond human memory.  Stretching the time scale still further, he described two species of tulip tree, Liriodendron tulipifera from North America and the Asian species Liriodendron chinense.  They are closely related genetically and will form hybrids if grown near each other even though their ranges have been separated geographically for 14 million years.  Finally, Friedman moved on to the hundreds of millions of years involved in the evolution of plant stem and branch structures, leaving his audience breathless from the journey in time and what it means for the presence of plants in our world.

Toward the conference’s end, Rosetta Elkin, a landscape architect at Pratt Institute in New York, discussed the difficulties involved in conservation management through a case study of blowout beardtongue, Pentsemon haydenii, an endemic of blowouts, windswept hollows, of the Nebraska sandhills.  It is an endangered species that has received quite a bit of attention from conservation ecologists.  However, none of their interventions have worked, though they have discovered much about the plant’s life cycle.  This species is a lesson in botanical humility, reminding us of how little we know about plants and of how much there is to learn about a single species.

Elkin is also the author of Tiny Taxonomies (2017), a book with the same title as several of her landscape exhibitions that feature waist-high chrome tubes standing on end.  Each is about a foot in diameter and displays tiny plants.  I was drawn by the book’s title and loved it with its great closeups of many species she used.  But even more, I liked Elkin’s ideas including that she considers smallness a design opportunity and has set up the displays so the clumps of tiny plants are easy to observe closely.  She also noted that when plants are this small, they don’t survive as individuals, but in clusters to trap warm air and moisture.  She sees first-hand experience with plants as a form of research, which I think explains why some people have green thumbs.  They observe and record at least mentally what the plants feel like as they are transplanted, and the minute changes that occur from day to day. 

Some of Elkins ideas I find less positive, including her assertion that the herbarium specimen “has gradually expired as a useful tool for expressing the behavioral and mutable characteristics of plants” (p. 54).  Like a gardener with a green thumb, a sharp eyed and minded botanist can learn a lot from observing a specimen, especially as more focus is being put on using specimens for trait measurements (Heberling, 2022).  I agree more with her view that  “When faced with an herbarium specimen, it is impossible not to feel a sense of loss, as plant life is seemingly obliterated on the sheet.” (p. 54)  However, I do think obliterated is too strong a word.  Despite this, Tiny Taxonomies is a small treasure.

The ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan (1993, 2009) of the University of Arizona used a phrase I loved:  botany needs to dance with the humanities.  I haven’t yet investigated the depths of this metaphor but I see it as involving slow dancing where the couple get to know each other gradually, intimately, and memorably.  It is full of aesthetic nuances directed toward the idea that academic and indigenous botanists need to be in dialogue toward a contemplative ecology of caring for creation.  This is definitely an aspirational goal, but we have too long discounted the aspirational as a driver of change in favor of economic and pragmatic goals that often fall short. 

John McNeill, a Georgetown University historian, again brought up the issue of timescale toward the end of the conference as Ned Friedman had at the beginning.  McNeill thinks that historians and scientists have different timescales, that historians deal in particular moments while scientists look for regularities that persist over time.  He also touched on a topic that pervaded the conference:  the ownership of plants, and what precisely does that mean, or does it really have any meaning across the species divide?  Like the dancing metaphor, this term definitely requires more consideration, as does so much discussed at the conference. 

Note: In describing as much as I have, I still didn’t tell of the beautiful gardens at Dumbarton Oaks, the great meals we had, and the fascinating conversations.  I am grateful to have been part of it all.  I am particularly grateful to Yota Batsaki and Anatole Tchikine for inviting me to attend this event. 


Elkin, R. S. (2017). Tiny Taxonomy. New York: Actar.

Heberling, J. M. (2022). Herbaria as Big Data Sources of Plant Traits. International Journal of Plant Sciences, 183(2), 87–118. https://doi.org/10.1086/717623

Nabhan, G. (1993). Songbirds, Truffles, and Wolves: An American Naturalist in Italy. Pantheon.

Nabhan, G. (2009). Where Our Food Comes From: Retracing Nikolay Vavilov’s Quest to End Famine. Island Press.

More Books: City Plants

In February Sumana Roy, author of How I Became a Tree (2021), hosted an online symposium on the Plant Humanities at Ashoka University in India where she teaches.  One of the speakers was Timur Hammond of Syracuse University, who presented on the trees of Istanbul, especially Ailanthus altissma, the tree of heaven, a weedy species native to Asia that has spread around the world.  It’s familiar to most of us, which was one of Hammond’s points, and he described how in Istanbul it’s likely to be found in neglected areas like empty lots and untended graveyards.  Hammond argued that it is a part of the urban landscape and urban culture, and therefore deserves more attention.  Later, I contacted Hammond and he told me about a related book called The Botanical City edited by Matthew Gandy and Sandra Jasper (2020).  It’s the subject of this last post in a series (1,2,3) on books that look broadly at cultural aspects of botany.

            More and more attention is being given to urban botany as more land is taken over by cities and more of the world’s population is found in them.  Many see this as a positive step toward managing climate change in that resources can be used more effectively in areas of high population density, allowing areas outside cities to be better managed as green spaces.  The Botanical City focuses on the plant life present in cities, how it functions there both botanically and culturally.  A number of articles are in the spirit of Hammond’s work:  looking more closely at plants that many of us have long taken for granted or even disparaged.  A quintessential example is the dandelion.  Alexandra Toland’s essay, “Dandelions at Work,” focuses on how its flowers filter particulate matter from the air.  Studies have shown that they capture most dust on the outer third of their circumference.  In addition, the barbs of their achenes catch dust.  Dandelion replicas made from microfibers also filtered the air, but dandelions do it much more beautifully and effortlessly.  This species is hardly unique; anyone with an urban garden knows how different plants can look after a good rain.  It’s not just that they may be standing up straighter, they also look brighter after a cleansing shower. 

            Mark Spencer, forensic botanist (Spencer, 2019) and former curator at the Natural History Museum, London, has an essay on the urban plants of London.  He and several other contributors mention how cities tend to be hotter, drier, and windier than surrounding areas.  He has been a student of London biota for years as evidenced by his observations on wall lettuce (Mycelis muralis).  It is most abundant in areas north of the Thames River where there are many Georgian and Victorian brick buildings where lime mortar was used.  Since this plant naturally grows in rocky soils with limestone, it does better here than in areas of newer construction with cement.  This is a beautiful example of the diversity of microhabitats found in cities.

            Seth Denizen’s essay on the flora of bombed areas also deals with London.  He writes of a talk given right at the end of World War II by director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew Edward Salisbury.  He described the botanical diversity of the city’s bomb craters, a great example of the power of curiosity to make something positive out of devastation.  Salisbury spoke of fireweed (Chamaenerion angustifolium) that “empurpled” these areas in the summer.  He noted that this plant was apparently ubiquitous because of industrialization: “The bombing was a continuation of processes that had begun with industrialization that produced ash, fire, and bare soil” (p. 43).  The plant was rare in London in the 18th century when William Curtis wrote his Flora Londinensis(1771).  After the massive fire that engulfed the city in 1666, it wasn’t fireweed but London rocket (Sisymbrium irio) that grew in the rubble.  

            As these examples indicate, The Botanical City deals a great deal with urban ecology.  It also explores the reality that urban wastelands with weedy areas are more likely found in economically impoverished sections.  Examples are given from Houston, with its oil industry installations and in Lahore, India with abandoned railyards.  Weeds can definitely have a cultural significance that we often ignore; they contribute to the unsightliness of neighborhoods that we would rather not see anyway. 

            In a section called “Botanizing the Asphalt” Livia Cahn has an essay on Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica, was Polygonum cuspidatum), its properties, and specifically how its flourishes in Brussels, Belgium.  Like many weedy species, the knotweed grows fast on disturbed ground.  The type found in Europe doesn’t produce fertile seeds, so it reproduces asexually.  It creates rhizomatic root networks that spread down into the soil to three meters and out over seven meters.  Even a small portion of root can produce a new plant in 10 days—impressive, if rather disturbing.  Cahn describes how this knotweed can blanket disturbed land, and how goats have been brought in to keep it under control in a Brussels cemetery.  They can’t kill it, but their aggressive feeding cuts it back so much that it grows more slowly, and the goats get fed and provide fertilization in the bargain.  This is hardly nature at its most pristine, but it is nature, and for those who live in cities, it is a form that needs to be more appreciated and, shall I say, cultivated.


Gandy, M., & Jasper, S. (Eds.). (2020). The Botanical City. Berlin: Jovis.

Roy, S. (2021). How I Became a Tree. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Spencer, M. (2019). Murder Most Florid: Inside the Mind of a Forensic Botanist. London: Quadrille.

More Books: Biltmore

When I began to delve into the herbarium world, I was surprised at the variety of people and institutions that collected plants.  The 19th century British writer and artist John Ruskin pressed plants from Chamonix in France, the philosopher John Stuart Mill’s family had a room built to house his extensive collection (Pearce, 2006), and the Nobel-Prize-winning physician Baruch Blumberg (1998) had one at the Fox Chase Cancer Center to archive plants tested for antiviral agents.  It fascinates me when people and places I associate with other fields, also had plant collections.  Take for example George W. Vanderbilt II’s Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina with its huge and magnificent home surrounded by gardens to match.  I’ve never been there, but visitors describe it in superlatives.  So I was tickled to discover that there was an herbarium at Biltmore and distraught to learn that a great deal of it was destroyed by a flood in 1916. 

That’s all I knew about this collection until Nina Veteto, who lives in Asheville and visits Biltmore regularly, told me about a book on the estate’s botanical activities during its heyday in the late 19th century:  The Biltmore Nursery: A Botanical Legacyby Bill Alexander (2007).  Vanderbilt had originally come to the area with his ailing mother since this mountain region was becoming a health resort for wealthy Northerners.  At 26, he began buying parcels of land, including rather degraded property that had been overgrazed or deforested.  He envisioned building a house and also devoting some of the thousands of acres he acquired to forestry, along with an arboretum.  Like many seeking to lay out estates or parks at that time, he turned for direction to landscape architect Frederick Olmsted, the creator of Central Park.

Olmsted did more than just design a plan for the gardens and arboretum.  He also proposed development of the forest as a business and of a nursery to serve the massive needs of the estate.  Once it was established and production became robust, the nursery generated revenue by offering a large variety of trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants for sale.  Alexander’s book includes a reprint of the entire 1912 nursery catalogue, which runs to 177 pages.  Everything at Biltmore was on a large scale.  Olmstead also recommended the creation of an herbarium to document the plants that grew on the estate before development as well as the many species introduced from around the world.  He even suggested tracking plants that flourished after coming in with other plants, often as seeds.

For the herbarium to be useful it would need a broad collection of reference specimens, so many duplicates were produced and trades made with herbaria around the world.   Frank Boynton was hired as a collector for both the herbarium and the nursery at the recommendation of Charles Sprague Sargent.  Collections were made in many areas of the east and a collector was even sent out west.  Chauncey Beadle was director of the nursery, as well as the herbarium.  He worked to create a xylarium with collections of with seeds, nuts, and examples of diseases along with wood sections showing bark.  Obviously, Olmstead also saw a botanical library as a must, and book buying began in 1890 at the same time the nursery was set up.  Alvan Chapman, a well-known Florida botanist nearing the end of his life, sold some of his books and specimens to Vanderbilt.  And in 1896, records show a shipment of 9 cases of books from London; others came from a book seller in Philadelphia. 

The heyday for collection at Biltmore was over by about 1901.  Though the library and herbarium continued to function, they were no longer actively enlarged.  In its heyday, the herbarium had about 100,000 specimens.  Three quarters of them were lost in the 1916 flood that also destroyed the nursery.  However, by this time the herbarium’s future was already uncertain since George Vanderbilt had died of appendicitis two years earlier, and his widow was seeking a new home for the collection.  The remaining specimens, including most of Chapman’s, were given to the Smithsonian.  However, as Alexander notes, so many Biltmore specimens were exchanged with other institutions there are Biltmore sheets in a number of collections in the United States and Europe.  One indication of the extent of exchange is that in 1897 5,000 copies of the Biltmore herbarium exchange catalogue were printed.  Many were sent to collectors and institutions around the world including in Russia, Austria, Australia, and of course, Britain. 

The herbarium project at Biltmore lasted about 25 years, but its impact continues through the many specimens at the United States National Herbarium at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.  It recently announced that its entire collection of over 5 millions sheets has now been digitized and is available online, so at least some of what was documented on the Biltmore estate can now be used in studies on habitat change over the past 100 years.  But the story of the Biltmore herbarium also speaks to how much a wealthy individual valued nature in the late 19th century.  Yes, Vanderbilt saw plants as a source of further wealth but he also valued information about them in the form of specimens and publications, and he saw the value of connections to the broader botanical community as valuable for learning more about them.

Note: I am very grateful to Nina Veteto for our discussion on Biltmore, herbaria, and plants in general as well as her post on the Biltmore Herbarium.


Alexander, B. (2007). The Biltmore Nursery: A Botanical Legacy. Charleston: Natural History Press.

Blumberg, B. S. (1998). Case Study of Plant-Derived Drug Research: Phyllanthus and Hepatitis B Virus. In T. R. Tomlinson & A. Olayiwola (Eds.), Medicinal Plants: Their Role in Health and Biodiversity. (pp. 3–10). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Pearce, N. R. (2006). John Stuart Mill’s botanical collections from Greece (a private passion). Phytologia Balcanica, 12(2), 149–164.

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.

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.

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.

Women and Horticulture

Pineapple from Maria Merian’s Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, Biodiversity Heritage Library

As I mentioned in the last post, the role of women in Western culture was hidden in part because they didn’t published about their knowledge.  There are of course exceptions to this, but when women did publish, it was often in forms that were not considered of interest to the intellectual elites, such as formulas for herbal medicines rather than more formal herbals or books of advice on domestic issues like cooking or housekeeping or gardening.  These were often published locally and unlikely to be republished in successive editions, so the few copies that may remain are known only to those steeped in the history of a field.

In some cases, women did not want to get into print.  It was considered vulgar to display expertise in public and not done by women of the upper classes.  This is one explanation Nicole LaBouff (2020) gives for why three 18th-century British noblewomen, Lady Amelia Hume, Jane Barrington, and Mary Watson-Wentworth, are so little known even though they made important contributions to the work of noted male botanists such as Joseph Banks, James Edward Smith, and William Roxburgh.  At one point LaBouff notes that “these women wrote themselves out of the botanical record when they either internalized or outwardly conformed to a cultural belief that the worlds of print and public dialogue were not appropriate places for modest ladies” (p. 30).  I hesitate to even use this quote since by doing so I might contribute to further enshrining this view, but not including it would make it more difficult to understand why these women chose to downplay their expertise, and they did indeed have botanical expertise. 

They were wealthy women who engaged in gardening on their estates on an impressive scale and like the many males dedicated to horticulture, were always looking for new and exceptional plants to nurture.  They also had the means to amass extensive libraries of botanical and gardening books for reference, to employ teams of gardeners, to have hothouses and other contrivances to grow delicate species from the tropics, and to not only purchase material from nurseries specializing in exotic plants but also from plant collectors who shipped directly to their estates.  They used all their resources as well as their intellects honed by their education, reading, conversations with likeminded men and women, and observations on the plants they wanted so much to successfully cultivate.  In many cases their expertise exceeded that of professional nurserymen, and male botanists appreciated that.

Smith and Banks visited the gardens of noblewomen not only to see what was growing there but to obtain specimens to study and seeds or cuttings to cultivate, and perhaps more importantly, to learn from these women’s observations.  Two references LaBouff cites are Dorinda Outram (1996) on “sedentary fieldwork” and James Secord (2007) on conversation as central to the formation of scientific knowledge during the period of polite science in the 18th century.  She argues that this is why “it is crucial to recognize the home garden as a museum-like space in which women actively shaped scientific dialogue through their interaction with other experts. (LaBouff, p. 23)”  While such women did not usually put their knowledge into print, their male colleagues did, and James Smith among others was careful to give the three women LaBouff highlights credit for their contributions.  He dedicated a volume of his writings to each of them. 

I use LaBouff’s work here to exemplify an area of female expertise that was much more widespread than just in 18th-century England.  The early modern botanist Carolus Clusius had an extensive correspondence with women gardeners in which the information was freely exchanged in both directions (Egmond, 2010).  In the 17th century Hans Sloane, James Petiver and John Ray all visited the Duchess of Beaufort Mary Somerset’s gardens and hothouses to see plants they would otherwise only know from dried specimens (see earlier post).  At about the same time, Agneta Block, a wealthy Dutch widow, was using her hothouse to coax pineapples to flower and fruit from small, rather dull looking tufts of leaves obtained from the Leiden Botanical Garden.  While the plant grew in the garden, it hadn’t flowered, which is not surprising since the Netherlands’ climate is very different from the pineapple’s native home in the South American tropics.

Like her British counterparts, Block had the combination of knowledge, observational skills, and horticultural expertise to be successful.  I can’t help making an overtly sexist comment here:  she may have called on a dose of feminine patience as well.  She success increased her status among other Dutch naturalists who visited her garden and greenhouses, including the botanist Jan Commelin and the naturalist/painter Maria Merian.  Block commissioned paintings from Merian and also from another noted artist, Alida Withoos, who did a watercolor of the pineapple to commemorate its flowering.  The painting doesn’t survive, though one by Merian does (see image above).  In a blog post on Block, there is more information on her connections with gardeners, naturalists, and artists, as well as more information on the pineapple.  It became such an object of interest that Block’s success was repeated in many botanical gardens and private estates.  Still, the pineapple remained so difficult to cultivate that the rich would sometimes rent one to display on a dinner table for a particularly important event.  Who knew plant rentals went back that far?    


Egmond, F. (2010). The World of Carolus Clusius: Natural History in the Making, 1550-1610. London: Pickering and Chatto.

LaBouff, N. (2020). Public science in the private garden: Noblewomen horticulturalists and the making of British botany c. 1785–1810. History of Science, 0073275320961908. https://doi.org/10.1177/0073275320961908

Outram, D. (1996). New spaces in natural history. In N. Jardine, J. A. Secord, & E. C. Spary (Eds.), Cultures of Natural History (pp. 249–265). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Secord, J. A. (2007). How scientific conversation became shop talk. Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 17, 129–156.

Art and Botany: Methods of Recording

Watercolor of Neopolitan apple (1904) by Bertha Heiges, U.S. Department of Agriculture Pomological Watercolor Collection. 

In this series of posts on botany and art (1,2,3), I’m looking at a number of ways botanists have documented plants, from Ludwig Reichenbach having herbarium specimens traced to create illustrations (1), to Joseph Banks using the works of Chinese artists as guides in plant collecting (2).  In this post, I focus on recording the attributes of fruits.  My reference is an article from the first issue of the British Journal of Pomology and Horticultural Science, published in 1919.  I cannot recall how I came to this carefully researched piece.  The author is Herbert E. Durham, President of the Herefordshire Association of Fruit Growers and Horticulturalists.  Fruits, particularly apples I would say, were important to Durham, and he was not happy with the inaccuracies he found in illustrations which were supposed to distinguish among varieties. 

Durham considered it difficult if not impossible to communicate the precise placement of structures within the fruit without illustrations, and even illustrations could miss the mark.  He writes of a book on British apples in which a plate is described as presenting round fruits where the diameter and height were about equal, yet the height of one fruit was given as 72 mm and the width 85; another fruit referred to as oblong had a height of 80 mm and a diameter of 82 mm.  He adds that he himself has “often been surprised when measuring” (p. 30).  After introducing other types of errors in illustrations of whole fruits as well as sections through them, Durham presents several approaches to getting dimensions and placement right.  I am definitely not going into all the details here; much of the article reads like an instruction manual.  But I will briefly note some of the techniques to give a flavor of the care Durham took in his work of representing different varieties, documenting them for the future.  Many of the varieties he cared so much about no longer exist, but his working method says a lot to future horticulturalists and botanists about the importance of precision in any form of representation.

To draw the shape of a fruit accurately, Durham devised a simple wooden tool into which a pencil was inserted; this “projection tracer” allowed drawing the circumference and picking up any unevenness in it.  Needless to say, he describes not only his method, but how to construct such a tool.  He also presents a device, essentially a blade, to cut longitudinal and transverse sections through the fruit to reveal the seeds, intercarpellary space (which he calls the axial sac), and the stalk attachment.  The blade has to be very thin, sharp, about 6 inches long, and attached to a bow so it can be accurately placed to get an ideal central longitudinal cut.  Durham has unkind words about some drawings made from cuts that were off-center.

Of course, Durham provides illustrations to show what should be revealed in each cut, using apples and pears as examples.  The images also demonstrate what he thinks a good illustration should and should not include.  These are very simple line drawings with just a surface outline, and the positioning of the seeds and sac wall.  Really they are diagrams, extremely clear and understandable.  They would not be considered works of art, but they are meticulously drawn for accuracy and clarity, Durham’s chief criteria.  He is trying to represent rather subtle differences among varieties, but only in regards to particular traits.

This approach is very different from that used in another set of fruit illustrations that I find particularly satisfying.  They are the pomological watercolors created by artists for the USDA in the early part of the 20th century and now preserved in its National Agricultural Library.  There is an unofficial Twitter feed (@pomological) that posts images from this digitized collection.  I love to look at these illustrations, most picture the whole fruit along with a cross section that even Durham would admire.  There are also images of fruit with pathologies and many of these are strangely beautiful.  Now a book of the illustrations has been published (Landy, 2021).

After all this emphasis on accuracy, I want to end with another way to record fruit form that intrigues me.  I read about it a number of years ago in a blog post from the Smithsonian Institution’s Field Book Project.  Emily Hunter, one of the transcribers, described a notebook kept by a US Department of Agriculture botanist, David Griffiths (1867-1935) during a collecting trip to Texas and Mexico in 1905.  He was focusing on the Opuntia genus of cacti, and specifically on their fruit which are fleshy—I think Durham would describe them as oblong.  On several pages, there are blotches stamped, and they vary in size and shape with the species discussed in the accompanying notes.  While Griffiths doesn’t identify what they are, Hunter surmises that they were made by cutting the fruit in half and pressing the cut surface to the paper.  Each pressing is outlined in pencil and the central fleshy area is also outlined.  This was a rough-and-ready form of nature printing, but an effective one.  Griffiths had neither the tools nor probably the time to make measurements and diagrams like Durham’s, but he figured out how he could quickly get the basic information down in his notebook.  I think of their respective images as a link between these two horticulturalists, in different countries, with very different interests and methods, but united in wanting to do justice to the forms they studied.


Durham, H. E. (1919). The Recognition of Fruit—Graphic Records. Journal of Pomology and Horticultural Science, 1(1), 28–36.

Landy, J., United States, & Department of Agriculture. (2021). An illustrated catalog of American fruits & nuts: The U.S. Department of Agriculture Pomological Watercolor Collection. Los Angeles: Atelier.

Victorian Botany: The Wardian Case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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