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.

Discussing the Plant Humanities: Colonization

Caesalpinia pulcherrima, Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, v.25-26 (1807)

A term that has become better known in the last few years is “decolonization” including in terms of investigating the untold stories of colonization around the world, including how natural history collections were acquired.  However, these “untold” stories have in fact been told for decades, though there are more and more studies now being published (Osseo-Asare, 2014; Murphy, 2020).  At the recent Plant Humanities Conference at Dumbarton Oaks Museum and Library, there were presentations by two historians who have been active in this field for some time.  Londa Schiebinger from Stanford University is the author of Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World(2004) and Secret Cures of Slaves: People, Plants, and Medicine in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World (2017).  She spoke on a South American plant called the peacock flower, Caesalpinia pulcherrima, which became known in Europe as a garden plant because of its attractive blooms.  The naturalist and artist Maria Merian wrote about it in her book on the plants and insects of Surinam after her trip there.  She included information on its use by enslaved and indigenous women as an abortifacient.  It was a way for women to exert some control over their lives spent working on plantations.  They could not free themselves but they could try to prevent having children who would be doomed to the same fate. 

The colonial doctors who practiced in Surinam, also knew of these medicinal effects and in fact did research on them.  What Schiebinger emphasized was that despite the knowledge they acquired, they did not communicate it in their home countries.  Schiebinger brought up the sociological term agnotology:  the study of deliberate, culturally induced ignorance.  Inhibiting fertility was not considered a subject to discuss in polite society and also, doctors did not want to discourage population growth among the educated classes at home.  In all the discussion about transfer of knowledge, this is an interesting topic that doesn’t usually come up.

Another topic that’s gaining attention is the agency of indigenous and enslaved people in the face of colonial power.  The use of peacock flower is one example and another was discussed by Judith Carney of the University of California, Los Angeles.  She’s the author of In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World (2009), a book that gave me a new perspective on the international movement of plants.  While the emphasis has been on the transfer of species from around the world to Europe, Carney highlighted how African plants were transported to the Western hemisphere via the slave trade.  Much of the evidence for this is circumstantial.  African species like the yam Dioscorea rotundata were grown in the American colonies from almost the beginnings of the slave trade.  Some seeds might have been brought by the traders to grow food for the enslaved people, who might themselves have smuggled some seeds.  At the same time, traders brought seeds of American crops to Africa. 

As the plantation culture developed it became more organized, and many enslaved persons were given small plots of land to grow their own food.  This alternative to the plantation farming system was encouraged by some planters as a way to lessen their need to supply slaves with food.  These plots were much more diverse and when successful could provide surplus fruits and vegetables for sale, giving the growers a small amount of profit to use as they wished.  This form of control over their lives allowed both the enslaved and former slaves to attempt to create decent lives under challenging conditions. 

The story of oppressed groups struggling to survive is repeated over and over again in colonial contexts.  It is hardly news, but I don’t think it can be reiterated too often because everyone living today is experiencing its consequences.  We need to be aware of it in order to be impelled to repair as far as possible the damage it has done.  Another presentation at the conference, “The Visible Hand: Coconuts, Capital, and Racial Colonialism,” discussed oil seed production in Mexico.  Jayson Porter, an environmental historian and postdoctoral fellow at Brown University, reported on his research on a number of oil seeds (Porter, 2021).  This is a massive topic because the world seems to have an insatiable thirst for plant oils, not only for cooking but for soap and many other products. 

The demand has led to the creation of large plantations with, again, the wholesale movement of species.  The area Porter discusses is the Mexican state of Guerrero on the Pacific coast.  It’s climate is ideal for oil seed production, not only of palm oil, but cannabis, sesame, and other species.  Coconut palms are native to Southeast Asia, cannabis to Central and South Asia, and cultivated sesame to India.  They were all brought to Mexico because they could thrive there on a large scale.  Such plantations inevitably required vast amounts of labor, first to clear the land then to plant and harvest crops.  It is this labor that interests Porter, in part because he has family roots in Mexico.  He described his archival work in Mexican institutions and what information he could find, and what he couldn’t—the perpetual problem for historians, with both sides of the coin telling a lot about what of the past was considered worth recording and keeping.  He also linked his research to environmental issues of the present-day, the heritage of plantation culture.


Carney, J. A., & Rosomoff, R. N. (2009). In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World. Berkeley, CA: University of California 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. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsnr.2019.0011

Osseo-Asare, A. D. (2014). Bitter Roots: The Search for Healing Plants in Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Porter, J. M. (2021). This May Contain Coconut Oil. NACLA Report on the Americas, 53(3), 226–232. https://doi.org/10.1080/10714839.2021.1961499

Schiebinger, L. (2004). Plants and empire: Colonial bioprospecting in the Atlantic World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Schiebinger, L. (2017). Secret Cures of Slaves: People, Plants, and Medicine in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Discussing the Plant Humanities: Indigenous Knowledge

The yam, Ipomoea batatas, from Mark Catesby’s The Natural History of Florida, Carolina and the Bahama Islands, Vol. II, Plate 60

In September 2022, Dumbarton Oaks Museum and Library presented a three-day conference on the Plant Humanities, the capstone event for it’s Plant Humanities Initiative that was funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.  The initiative included research by a number of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows on topics that explored a broad array of areas linking plants to the indigenous peoples who had discovered their uses, the artists and writers who were inspired by them, and the scientists who studied them.  There was also funding for a project with JSTOR Labs to develop software called Juncture, which allows users to create online presentations that combine text in interesting ways with images, maps, timelines, and charts.  Though it is still being developed, there are a number of essays in this format on the Plant Humanities Lab site, and it’s definitely worth visiting.  I have written about this project before (1,2) but after the conference, I have a much richer perspective on it that I want to share in this series of posts.

I don’t think I’ve ever been to a conference where the talks were so well presented.  The first session was in the late afternoon, not usually a time for maximum focus, at least for me, but all the speakers were wonderful.  In this post, I’ll mention two.  First was Jessica B. Harris, a professor emerita at Queens College in New York who is noted for her research on African-American foods, including her book High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America (2011).  She spoke about the rather complicated connections between two root vegetables, the African yam Dioscorea rotundata with a whitish tuber and the Latin American sweet potato Ipomoea batatas with yellowish pulp.  In the United States, the two are often confused with sweet potatoes inaccurately called yams.  Besides a similarity in form, another reason for this mix-up is that both were used as food by enslaved people, who brought the yam with them from West Africa where it had long been cultivated.  In turn, cross-Atlantic trading carried the sweet potato to Africa and to the southern parts of North America.  Harris did a great job of describing these basics and much more, and she’s written about the “candied yams” of Thanksgiving as a misnomer. 

Robin Wall Kimmerer, like Harris, joined via Zoom.  She is an environmental biologist, a member of the Potawatomi Nation, and the author of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (2013), a book that connects her heritage with her science.  This is also what she did in her presentation.  She noted that in her native language, Mshkikineck is the word for plants in general, but it means medicinal plants, because this is how plants are seen in her culture.  Mshkiki means strength of the earth, something plants imparted to the humans who used them.  Kimmerer also said that Native Americans consider plants as persons, as animate beings, a concept that is now more widely discussed in the plant humanities.  As to the sweetgrass (Hierochloe odorata) in her book’s title, it is a sacred ceremonial plant among the Potawatomi.

Later in the conference, there were two more presentations about indigenous uses of plants.  Elizabeth Hoover of the University of California, Berkeley discussed her work with Native American food networks and efforts to revive their agricultural practices and heirlooms crops.  Rosalyn LaPier of the University of Montana described her studies on the environmental history of the lands in the Northern Great Plains that were the home of the Blackfeet Nation to which she belongs.  LaPier’s background is interesting.  She has an undergraduate degree in physics and years later, as she became more aware of her culture and its ties to the land, returned to school, earning a doctorate in environmental history.

LaPier is working with tribal members to discover more about their religious understanding of the plant world.  She has interviewed tribal elders of the Blackfeet Nation, focusing on plants that are used in cleansing ceremonies including smudging.  This is a ritual designed to expel negativity from an individual and involves the burning of specific plants.  Religion and plants was a theme that came up in several contexts during the conference and is something that I for one tend to ignore in my conception of the plant world.  This was one of the benefits of the meeting:  it encouraged the participants to broaden their views of plants, no matter from what perspective they were coming. 

In her work LaPier made a list of 40 plants that were employed in smudging in the past and documented how they were used.  Since the Blackfeet now have access to only a small portion of the land they originally occupied, they can no longer find many of the plants with narrow ranges.  Today sage, sweetgrass, and tobacco are most commonly used.  The ritual involves burning the plant material with the person putting their hands over the smoke, collecting it, and then “washing” with it, starting with the face.  In the past, this was often done at the beginning of any religious ceremony as a form of preparation, now it is frequently considered a ceremony in its own right.  LaPier’s presentation on this portion of her nation’s traditions, like that of Kimmerer’s, was infused with the reverence and respect of someone who is an embodiment of an ancient and still living culture.


Harris, J. B. (2011). High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America. New York: Bloomsbury.

Kimmerer, R. W. (2013). Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. Minneapolis: Milkweed.

Mark Catesby at 300

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Broadening Botany through Books

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Vegetal Entanlgements, Antennae Issue 51

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Critical Plant Studies and Phytogenesis

Purple Aquilegia Anthotype: Painswick Rococo Garden, Gloucestershire, by Nettie Edwards

As I discussed in the first post in this series, I recently discovered a talk hosted by Giovanni Aloi from a series Botanical Speculations that has been going on for some time.  He mentioned that there was an upcoming online symposium, Phytogenesis II, sponsored by Plymouth University in England.  As its title implies, it is the successor to a similar event held last year.  I had attended some of the sessions at the time, but found myself overwhelmed with the stream of metaphors used to describe human relationships with plants, and the emphasis on the stranger attributes of plants.  It seemed to me that people interested in critical plant studies and looking at the cultural implications of plants, gravitate toward species that tend to have seemingly unplantlike characteristics, such as Rafflesia that lacks chlorophyll and is therefore parasitical, carnivorous like the Venus fly trap (Dionaea muscipula),  or extra-large like the corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanum), which has the added “lure” of smelling like rotting flesh.  Orchids also get a lot of attention because their sexual structures can mimic everything from monkey’s faces to animal genitals.  With hundreds of thousands of flowering plants to choose from, not to mention cryptogams, it seems narrow to focus on the bizarre and presents a skewed view of what the plant world is about. 

That being said, I decided to attend Phytogenesis II when I saw that the word “herbarium” was in the title of the first session:  “The Herbarium: Coloniality, Indigenous Knowledge and the Eucalyptus: Challenges for Critical Plant Studies.”  The first speaker was Prudence Gibson of the School of Art and Design at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.  She has received a grant for her project: “Exploring the Cultural Value of Sydney’s Royal Botanic Garden Herbarium Collection Using an Environmental Aesthetic.”  Gibson plans to collaborate with artists and writers along with the herbarium’s botanists in examining the collection in new ways.  She explained one important aspect of her work:  to focus attention on the plant names inscribed on specimen labels.  As with so many collections formed by colonizers, the labels usually do not include the names of the indigenous collectors who so often found the plants, nor the names they used for the species.  Usually just scientific names are recorded and at times the English common names of the colonizers. 

Gibson is arguing for “tri-naming,” as the herbarium standard.  This is hardly a unique situation; herbarium curators around the world are grappling with this issue, and it will require a great deal of work to address.  However, one benefit will be to draw new communities to herbaria, those with indigenous knowledge who can enrich specimen information and also learn more about the plants with which they have many deep connections.  One example of the kinds of links Gibson hopes to forge was described by her colleague Fabri Blacklock, a textile artist and associate professor at UNSW.  She works with natural dyes, including those derived from native eucalyptus species.  She discussed her projects in creating fabric artworks with fellow indigenous artists while also learning about the long history of eucalyptus use in Australia, a history that had been masked until recently. 

The next several Phytogenesis II presentations dealt with photography, such as William Arnold’s work collecting “wild” apple varieties in Britain from trees that seemingly have sprung up from seeds strewn here and there, definitely never part of an orchard.  This is a nice example of looking more closely at parts of the plant world that are overlooked, yet have interesting connections to everything from plant genetics to Johnny Appleseed.  The photographer Nettie Edwards discussed her long-term project on the anthotype, a photographic process using plant pigments to make light-sensitive prints.  It was developed in the 19th century when so many experiments were done employing light and chemicals in different ways to create images.  Mary Somerville originated the technique, but couldn’t get her work published, so John Herschel, the astronomer and photography pioneer, presented it to the Royal Society in her name, but the technique came to be more connected with him than Somerville. 

Edwards has experimented extensively with the process, using a variety of light-sensitive plant pigments and found that they create soft rather than crisp images.  Because natural pigments are used, it’s not surprising that they fade over time, ultimately disappearing.  That’s okay with Edwards.  She sees this slow disappearance as a metaphor for the disappearance of nature from our lives and of species from the biosphere.  Her work tells a story of the beauty of plants and of loss.  It was clear from her presentation that she had done a great deal of research on plant pigments, on how to prepare them for use in her photographic processes, and how best to use them to represent aspects of plant form.  I found this project particularly fascinating.  To me, it represented critical plant studies in a way that was both accessible and deeply meaningful. 

Edwards prepared me for Giovanni Aloi’s keynote at the end of the symposium.  I was ready for a deeper dive into the field of critical plant studies that had become less foreign to me, and definitely worth exploring.  There are so many people in literature, the arts, history, and philosophy engaged with plants it seems that those of us who are interested in the scientific side of plants should pay some attention to how others view these organisms that we find so fascinating.

Critical Plant Studies

Giovanni Aloi’s Botanical Speculations

In the last post, I wrote about a conversation between Randy Malamud (2021) author of Strange Bright Blooms: A History of Cut Flowers and Giovanni Aloi as part of Aloi’s Botanical Speculations series, which began in 2017 as a symposium at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where Aloi teaches courses in art history and visual culture.  A collection of essays resulted (Aloi, 2018), presentations continued, and with covid they became virtual.  Aloi is involved in a number of other projects in what is called critical plant studies (CPS), that is looking at plant-human interactions from the viewpoints of literature, art, and philosophy. 

As I’ve mentioned before, I have not delved deeply into this area in part because I don’t have a grounding in these fields, particularly literature and philosophy.  My one serious foray into literature occurred 25 years ago when I attended a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute at Vassar College on “The Environmental Imagination: Issues and Problems in American Nature Writing.”  There I learned to read in an entirely new way (Flannery, 1997).  Before that, I read like a scientist:  absorbing content, not paying much attention to word choice as long as it was understandable.  I knew something about mitochondria, so that word conjured up a particular image and set of attributes.  To me, this was not a nuanced word with metaphorical meanings, the thing literary scholars look for.  Many of the words in the essays, stories, and poems we were asked to read had such nuances.  It took a while for me to catch on and appreciate that such reading is slow and ruminative, with a lot of moving back and forth, revisiting earlier passages in the light of later ones. 

Doing this for six weeks was a wonderful experience, and I have never read anything—literature or science—in quite the same way since.  Words and their layers of meaning have become more important to me.  But I never came close to appreciating more theoretical discussions of post-structuralism, which questions many cultural structures and assumptions, including the idea of plants being less alive, complex, and responsive than animals.  The philosopher Michael Marder have contributed much to this conversation on critical plant studies, as has Aloi from the art history perspective and many from the literary side, including two colleagues of mine Tina Gianquitto and Lauren La Fauci, who recently published an article (2022) on the Herbarium 3.0 project we worked on several years ago with support from Linköping University in Sweden and Colorado School of Mines.

Critical plant studies deserves attention from those in the life sciences.  It is quite a large field in part because it involves researchers from several disciplines.  Essentially it looks at plants through different lenses that illuminate them in ways that scientists should not ignore.  A favorite quote of mine from Richard Mabey (2015) is relevant here:  “The quintessence of a plant can only ever be a fantastic goal, something to travel towards but never reach” (p. 27).  This field plumbs depths of the plant world where botanists seldom venture:  into the many relationships with humans as well as among plants and animals, investigating cultural meanings and the consequences of long-entrenched practices.  Those in plant studies get to know plants in many different ways, and these often border on the scientific in approaches that might be a surprise to those in botany and ecology.  Some examples will be the topic of my next post. 

Right now I want to spend a little more time on Aloi’s work in art criticism.  I first encountered his writing several years ago when I read an article about Greg Pryor, an Australian artist who had done a body of work related to herbaria (Aloi, 2011).  In one project, Flora Nullius (2005), he spent months at the Vienna Natural History Museum studying specimens that had been collected in Australia and given scientific names, while the original indigenous names were not recorded.  He then took old herbarium papers, discarded when the specimens were remounted, to create an artwork that presented them as blank remnants of what they had held.  In Iron Ball Taxonomy (2007), he displayed a row of specimens in a glass case, with an iron ball-and-chain running across the top to signify the indigenous labor that had been used to clear the land where these native plants were collected.  My favorite work of Pryor’s is Black Solander (2005), referencing Daniel Solander, the Swedish botanist who collected in Australia with Joseph Banks on Captain James Cook’s first voyage there.  Pryor made drawings of specimens with black ink on black sugar paper.  They represent of the 10,500 plant species known in Western Australia, suggesting the hidden toll of colonization on plants and indigenous people.

Finally, I want to mention one of Aloi’s books that I’ve written about before (see earlier post).  Lucian Freud Herbarium (2019) is an example of where the word herbarium is used metaphorically.  To my knowledge the painter, who is noted for his portraits of often less-than-beautiful people, never had a collection of pressed plants.  However, he painted plants throughout his career, sometimes including them in portraits, and in other cases focusing on them alone.  As Aloi writes:  “The book’s title comes from Renaissance dried plant collections as well as illustrated herbals. It ultimately summons a desire to see more deeply into the essence of plants.  In contrast to the classical tradition, Freud painted not precious cultivars, but weeds, undervalued survivors of the botanical world.  Like his human sitters, his plants are never perfected, or idealized; they are what they are” (p. 14).


Aloi, G. (2011). Gregory Pryor: Postcolonial botany. Antennae, 18, 24–36.

Aloi, G. (Ed.). (2018). Botanical Speculations. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars.

Aloi, G. (2019). Lucian Freud Herbarium. Munich: Prestel.

Flannery, M. C. (1997). Learning to read in Poughkeepsie. The American Biology Teacher, 59(8), 528–532. https://doi.org/10.2307/4450371

Gianquitto, T., & Lafauci, L. (2022). A case study in citizen environmental humanities: Creating a participatory plant story website. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13412-021-00744-8

Mabey, R. (2015). The Cabaret of Plants: Forty Thousand Years of Plant Life and the Human Imagination. New York: Norton.

Malamud, R. (2021). Strange Bright Blooms: A History of Cut Flowers. London: Reaktion.

Marder, M. (2013). Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life. New York: Columbia University Press.

Cut Flowers and Botanical Speculations

Randy Malamud’s Strange Bright Blooms

I have written about aspects of the plant humanities before (see 1,2,3), but I have tended to stay away from critical plant studies because I feel more at ease on the scientific side of the plant studies fence rather than on the literary and philosophical side.  I see the relationship of art and history to plants as occupying a middle ground, which I do love to explore but haven’t felt comfortable beyond that point.  However, plants are so important to all areas of human experience that this is an untenable position if I am going to appreciate all aspects of plant/human interactions. 

As with so many other parts of life, covid brought a change in my perspective.  I became more active on social media, began attending virtual conferences and seminars, and became connected to groups such as the Literary and Cultural Plants Studies Network through its listserv.  While I don’t follow every lead they send, I have looked into a few.  Recently, there was a message about a Botanical Speculations conversation between Giovanni Aloi, who hosts the series, and Randy Malamud (2021), author of Strange Bright Blooms: A History of Cut Flowers.  It turned out to be an interesting event, a casual interchange between the two about the book, which I had read. 

Hearing a writer speak about his work can put it into a new perspective.  As the subtitle suggestions, Malamud focuses not on growing plants, but on those whose reproductive development, and perhaps even their life histories, have been interrupted by human intervention, often simply for the pleasure of bring blooms inside to be appreciated in a different and perhaps manipulated context:  crowded together with other species, shown off in splendid isolation in a vase, or hung up to dry to become fall or winter decorations.  The book moves quickly from one topic to the next, with a thread running through the chapters going from flowers in writing and art to flower sellers:  the girls and women who sold flowers in the Victorian era and the mass production of flowers in former imperial colonies today.  Then there’s a chapter on gender, sexuality, race, and class, and finally a very affecting chapter on flowers and war, something not often touched upon.  The emphasis throughout the book is literature with references to poetry, novels, stories, and essays, which is not surprising since Malamud is a professor of literature at Georgia Southern University.

This romp made more sense after listening to Malamud, who joyfully jumped from topic to topic in speaking with Aloi.  This was obviously a byproduct of his absolute enchantment with his subject.  Enthusiasm bubbled out of him, and I could picture him sitting down to write about all the flower-related topics that caught his attention, from the daffodils in T.S. Eliot’sThe Wasteland” to William Shakespeare to Emily Dickinson, all within a few pages.  In the book, Dickinson comes up several times and her bound herbarium is mentioned.  After all, it is made up of cut flowers.  Malamud and Aloi explored what it means to cut a flower, to dismember a living thing, to impose human will over the plant.  I think people in the plant humanities consider this question much more closely than do botanists collecting in the field who are more focused on labeling what they’ve cut and getting the material into plastic bags or between sheets of paper for preservation. 

At the end of his free-ranging discussion with Malamud, Aloi asked for questions and comments from the Zoom audience.  One observation came from the artist Melissa Oresky, whose work was unfamiliar to me.  When I looked her website, I found that she does amazing art, including sculptures, collages, and prints, all with imaginative use of plant forms.  She has even created artists books (2016, 2020) based on herbarium specimens.  So my introduction to Botanical Speculations was definitely a positive experience, which I will write more about in the next posts, along with more on some of Aloi’s other projects.  These include a quarterly online journal he edits called Antennae, which is freely available on the web and combines critical plant and animal studies in fascinating ways that weave science and the arts together. 

I gravitate toward the scientific approach with efforts to learn about plants and save biodiversity.  However, I am beginning to understand that those in critical plant studies think otherwise.  They see their work in probing human-plant interactions as vital to human and ecosystem survival and health.  These relationships include everything from writing poems about plants to growing them in gardens to examining the roles of plants in indigenous cultures.  Some investigate the results of botanical imperialism in former colonies including environmental disruption, changes in food culture, and the aftereffects of plantation economies.  Corinne Fowler (2020) a British writer has recently written a rather unusual book that makes a case for how slavery and colonialism shaped not just British colonies but Britain itself.  She uses both historical records and literary works to make her case.  In addition, she includes examples of literary works, some her own, to broaden the perspective and to show that these can definitely make the argument richer, deeper, and more memorable.  Like Malamud’s book, hers is flooded with information and ideas, and her argument is well-documented.    


Fowler, C. (2020). Green Unpleasant Land: Creative Responses to Rural Britain’s Colonial Connections. Leeds: Peepal Tree.

Malamud, R. (2021). Strange Bright Blooms: A History of Cut Flowers. London: Reaktion.

Oresky, M. (2016). Ghosts. Brooklyn: Kayrock.

Oresky, M. (2020). Finder. Brooklyn: Kayrock.

Ethnobotany and Plant Humanities in the Future

Issue 8, The Ethnobotanical Assembly

In this series of posts, I’m dealing with two topics:  plant collections in functional trait research (see last post) and plants from the humanities perspective.  This post presents Issue 8 of The Ethnobotanical Assembly or T.E.A. on the Plant Humanities.  It is freely available online and definitely worth reading.  There are nine articles that include poetry and visual art as well as botany and history.  I cannot say that I had a favorite because I found each of them striking and memorable in some way, and all extremely well written and thought out.  Kate Teltscher, author of Palace of Palms (2021, see earlier post), writes about the Napoleon Willow, a specimen of Salix babylonica or weeping willow that grew at the graveside of Napoleon Bonaparte on Saint Helena where he was exiled by the British after his defeat at Waterloo.  The island is in the South Atlantic on British trading roots and had a botanical garden where species from throughout the empire were acclimatized.  That’s how this weeping willow native to Northern China ended up there. 

The grave became a tourist stop for French mourning the loss of their leader and British reminding themselves of his sorry end.  Cuttings from the willow were sold as souvenirs, and soon the caretakers planted a grove of trees to increase production.  Since the species is easily propagated from cuttings many scions thrived in Europe and the tree became popular in the United States.  The willow was often planted in graveyards, as a sign of mourning and rebirth since it regenerated vegetatively.  The species was also grown in such British colonies as South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia where it flourished to the point of now being considered a noxious invasive.  Genetic evidence indicates that the trees in these three countries are all descended from those around Napoleon’s grave. 

Teltscher’s essay is a wonderful blend of history, horticultural, and symbolism.  All the articles in this issue are mélanges of several fields.  Yota Batsaki Executive Director the Dumbarton Oaks Museum and Library writes about an art installation at the Kunstverein in Braunschweig, Germany by the South African artist Lungiswa GquntaBenisiya Nadawoni, Return to the Unfamiliaris a complex statement about immigration, colonization, ethnobotany and the sensory experience of plants.  Lengths of razor wire were stretched diagonally across a room from floor to ceiling making it tricky but not impossible for a visitor to navigate through the space.  The wire was wrapped with sage leaves held together with string and there was a scent of burning leaves.  The room was well-lit and had pale green walls that, along with the scent, gave a calm feel that balanced the rather intimidating wire. 

The work’s title Benisiya Nadawani means “where were you headed to?” in the isiXhosa language and is a quote from the philosopher Anton Wilhelm Amo who was born in West Africa and brought to Germany as a child in 1707.  He earned degrees in philosophy and law and taught at German universities.  He returned to West Africa in 1748.  With the wire, Gqunta references Amo’s immigration and the xenophobia he faced, while the sage leaves and the incense refer to his writings on the relationship between mind and body.  She used sage on the wire because it was more readily available than the impepho or licorice plant (Helichrysum petiolare) that was burnt.  The latter is native to Africa and used in spiritual practices to prepare a space for ancestors.  Taking all these elements into account in this complex work, Batsaki does a wonderful job of making this piece come alive and weaving together culture and history. 

Reading any one of these essays easily leads on to the next.  They bounce off each other and evoke deep thinking about the subject at hand and those treated in other articles.  The weeping willow and impepho are both plants with significant cultural meanings.  They made me more attuned to “Finding the Plantness within Ourselves.”  Danielle Sands and Daniel Whistler’s article begins with a quote from Monica Gagliano (2018):  “How can a plant readily know us when we are hardly aware of the plantness within ourselves?”  That really stuck with me even though I’m not quite sure what it means.  As a biologist, it made me think of all the physiological processes and basic chemicals that I share with plants, that make up my plantness.  Many in the field of critical plant studies emphasize the environmental responses of plants to light, pressure, etc. as resembling those of animals, but I have been thinking about similarities at a different level and trying to imagine my plantness in terms of respiration, production of starch, synthesis of proteins.  My cells may look different from those of a plant, but they still have a lot in common.  My plantness is fundamental, submicroscopic, and silent.  This might seem like a form of dreaming, but to me it is a form of connection with organisms that I have never thought about that way—such broad thinking is something that the plant humanities encourages. 

One last contribution to mention here is Redell Olsen’s poem called “Moonflower, 2021 or, a scarlet transfer For Margaret Mee (1909-1988),” in which she writes of Mee’s finally capturing the night blooming moonflower in a painting.  Olsen also compares Mee’s notes on the destruction of the Brazilian rainforests in the 1960s to the 1980s with the destruction Olsen witnessed in today’s Brazil.  Reading this poem was a very different experience from reading a report on habitat loss:  much more complex, visceral, intense, and memorable.


Teltscher, K. (2020). Palace of Palms: Tropical Dreams and the Making of Kew. London: Picador.