Botany for Amateurs

“Amateur” is a word with several connotations.  It can mean someone who doesn’t get paid for what they do, or who is not very good at what they do, or who does something for the love of it.  In other words, an amateur in a particular field may be a person with wildly varied levels of expertise.  I am an amateur in the world of botany.  Yes, I have degrees in biology, but I focused on molecular biology and didn’t start seriously studying plants until a dozen years ago.  There is no way I am going to be anything but an amateur, yet botany is something I spend a lot of time studying and thinking about—because I love it.

Another issue here is that botany—or plant science if you like—is a huge field.  There are professionals—and amateurs—who focus on plant communities and ecology, others delve into native species, still others go in for plant breeding.  I myself am interested in the history of botany and its relationship to art.  There was a mathematician at my university who was a dedicated daylily breeder, participating wholeheartedly in that community.  He knew these plants and their genetics intimately, but his interest in other parts of the plant world was minimal.  What I am trying to get at here is that many amateurs have expertise about plants in narrow areas, but that doesn’t mean that their knowledge and experience should be denigrated.  Nor should this proficiency be downplayed when it isn’t considered “scientific” enough in the eyes of professionals.  Amateurs may view plants differently, but that hardly means their experiences are without value in understanding the plant world. 

The 19th century is often considered the heyday of natural history (Barber, 1980).  Where amateur botany was concerned the focus was often on women, since studying plants was considered within the bounds of feminine pursuits because of their interest in growing flowers, embroidering them, and arranging them in vases.  It was deemed appropriate for them to learn the scientific names of plants, do a little light classification, and even create herbaria to document their learning.  But how did these various plant-related activities interrelate and enrich each other?  This is an area that is receiving more attention as scholars are looking more closely at women’s experience of the plant world (Kelley, 2012). 

Since I dabble in embroidery, a friend of mine sent me Embroidered Garden Flowers by Kazuko Aoki (2017), with instructions on how to hand embroider a number of beautiful plants.  Each species was stitched on a plain background, much as a botanical illustration would be.  To add to the similarity, Aoki often included enlargements of flower parts.  It took careful observation to render these so accurately, with the added skill of having to figure out how to “paint” these with thread, of just the right color and thickness and stitch type:  “Whenever I hesitate about a detail when embroidering, I go out to the garden to check on the color or shape of the flower.  I might need a closer look at the contrast in color between flowers and leaves or a better grasp of the structure of the plant as opposed to the way its form appears.  Once I understand these things, I can convey the essence of the flowers, no matter how simplified they are” (p. 27). 

Aoki is a 21st-century artist so natural history may be moving into another heyday.  There was definitely a resurgence in nature study during the early days of COVID with even an online herbarium created by Elaine Ayers, an historian of botany at New York University.  She electronically gathered pressed plants from interested collectors who arranged their finds on everything from copy paper to notebook sheets.  In each case, the plant was SEEN and collected and arranged and pressed, and in many cases also named and it’s collection location noted.  It became a botanical document and a piece of cultural history as well.  iNaturalist is another form of participatory botany that became especially popular during COVID and remains so.  Those who are seriously involved with this platform make a real contribution through their recorded observations and in the process are learning much about the natural world.  It’s now more common to see published research that cites iNaturalist data and other “citizen science” contributions, with that term sometimes used as a fancy label for “amateur.” 

In this series of posts, I am having fun, which is something that amateurs do.  They dabble because it is enjoyable, but my point is that they are learning as they are dabbling, and that learning can be of several types and valuable in several ways.  You can’t collect plants without noticing them, you can’t name them without recognizing differences among them, and you can’t arrange them on a sheet without gaining a haptic sense of how stiff a stem is, or how much pressure it takes to get a leaf to lie flat.  Do these things over and over again, and experience becomes expertise.  You get good at identifying and pressing plants more quickly and adeptly.  I think amateurs themselves tend to denigrate their capabilities; they don’t necessarily stop to compare their present skill with what they had when they began.  In the next three posts, I’ll take a look at some of these skills and how they contribute to awareness of the plant world in sometimes significant ways. 


Aoki, K. (2017). Embroidered Garden Flowers. Boulder: Roost.

Barber, L. (1980). The Heyday of Natural History, 1820-1870. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Kelley, T. M. (2012). Clandestine Marriage: Botany and Romantic Culture. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins 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.

Gianquitto, T., & Lafauci, L. (2022). A case study in citizen environmental humanities: Creating a participatory plant story website. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences.

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.

The Plant Humanities Lab

Figure adapted from the Biodiversity Collections Network’s 2019 report: Extending U.S. Biodiversity Collections to Promote Research and Education

I’m interested in herbaria writ large, that is, how they relate not only to areas of biology beyond botany, but to the arts and humanities.  That’s why I’ve delved a bit into the field of digital humanities and how it might enrich the herbarium world.  From what I can gather the term digital humanities covers a lot of territory, but all related in some way to harnessing digital technology.  This can range from textual analyses such as tracing the frequency of use of a term in Emily Dickinson’s poetry to creating an online archive that brings together all her poems.  There’s also a great deal of work on developing new tools for visualizing social networks, linking different types of information, and creating new forms of communication.

In many cases, the humanities are doing much the same thing that the natural history community is doing:  using digital tools to not only make resources available online but to provide tools to use these resources in powerful and creative ways.  The problem is that the two are working in separate spheres and approaching similar issues in different ways, suggesting that the two cultures of C.P. Snow (1959) survive into the 21st century.  Snow (1905-1980) was a physical chemist and novelist; functioning successfully in the two spheres allowed him to appreciate what divided them.  Since he wrote, a great deal of work termed “interdisciplinary” has attempted to bridge the divide that Snow saw as dangerous, with each side unable to appreciate the other’s perspective.  Yet the problem remains.

My pet example is one that I’ve brought up here before.  What is coming to be called the Digital Extended Specimen is the vision that eventually a natural history specimen can be linked to many other types of information including species’ genome sequences, ecological data, field notes, field images, phylogenies, etc. (see figure above).   The focus in these conversations is on various scientific databases linking to each other.  This is a massive job and one that is just beginning.  But what I would like to see, even at this early stage—particularly at this early stage—is to make the job more massive by building history and art collections into the infrastructure.  Now is the time to do it, when frameworks on both sides are still being developed and haven’t yet become so complex that adaptation becomes almost impossible.  The FAIR principles for scientific data management could also apply in the other areas, making digital objects:  Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Reusable. 

While I’ve painted a rather bleak picture of two realms unable to talk to each other, there are some wonderful projects that do link science and the humanities in interesting ways.  In the botanical world, perhaps the most notable at the moment is the Plant Humanities Lab, a joint project of the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and JSTOR Labs.  This grew out of what could only be termed a summit at the library that included botanists, historians, librarians, and technology experts.  They outlined a series of different approaches to linking botanical, historical, and cultural resources (see video).  This was just a set of ideas, and over the next few years the library and JSTOR developed a plan and received funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to create the Plant Humanities Lab. 

The lab’s first manifestation was a set of narratives on such plants as boxwoods, watermelons, agaves, and bananas.  Each gives a well-written introduction to the species and outline not only its biology but its social history as well.  The narratives, richly illustrated, often with art from the Dumbarton Oaks collection, have hyperlinks to more information on everything from species descriptions to food, gardening, and colonial exploitation of crops and medicinal plants.  They do indeed connect history, art, and science, revealing how these are inseparable from each other.  These are wonderful stories for those interested in delving deeper into particular aspects of a plant.  One thing that becomes clear is that the history of plant use by humans is a long and winding road, sometimes stretching back millennia, with many problems along the way including the difficulties of breeding plants wrested from their native soils and brought to very different climates.  Then there was the use of indigenous knowledge about plants without in anyway acknowledging it and with no benefits to those who provided it.  In addition, there are the intriguing characteristics of so many of these species.  The subjects seem to be chosen carefully to provide many paths to different kinds of information in order to attract a variety of audiences who can explore them in their own ways. 

It’s obvious when using this site that it has a sophisticated framework.  Created by JSTOR labs over several years, the wonderful thing about it is that this digital tool is open access and now available to users as Juncture in the Beta version.  It does involve some knowledge of coding and accessing needed tools from GitHub, so this will pretty much eliminate people like me from using it.  However, we can still benefit from the sites created by those who do use it, and from the continuing development of new and more sophisticated plant narratives.  One problem with Juncture is that is allows linking to so many different kinds of information that there are endless rabbit holes to fall into, but each is just another wonderful aspect of the plant world.  Also it can be used to create narratives on any subject.  JSTOR is developing it as a tool of the future for education and research.


Snow, C. P. (1959). The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Herbaria for Young People

Herbaria, Kelly LaFarge

In this series of posts on books about herbaria, this entry can be a considered a companion piece to the last one on Barbara Thiers’s masterful survey of the herbarium world.  Kelly LaFarge’s (2020) Herbaria: A Guide for Young People is very different in size and intended audience.  Herbaria is a slim volume addressed to 8-12 year-olds, in comparison with Thiers’s over-300 page Herbarium.  But they both do a great job of engagingly introducing readers to the world of preserved plants.  The books are beautifully formatted, and full of great images with clearly written text.

LaFarge’s Herbaria fills a niche that has been empty until now.  Yes, there are many books about plants for children, but not about pressed plants.  She dedicated the book to her two sons, and I imagine she tried out material on them to gauge what would interest a child and what wouldn’t.  She plunges right in on the first page with a clear definition of a herbarium, also explaining the job of a botanist and the characteristics of a specimen along with a photograph of one.  Both Thiers and LaFarge discuss Luca Ghini’s role in the 16th century in promoting the use of pressed plants, and also include Lewis and Clark’s collecting and the herbarium of the 19th century poet Emily Dickinson. It’s on the page with a photograph of Dickinson that the LaFarge book gets really interesting as far as I’m concerned.  To the left of the text, there is a flap that when lifted, reveals one of her poems, “It’s All I Have to Bring Today.”  I am a sucker for flaps, pop-ups, fold-outs, and other surprises in books.  They are almost always reserved for children’s books, and I think that’s a shame.  They make books lively by forcing the reader to be active.  A few pages further on a spiral notebook page is pictured, one from a field journal, with space to record date, location, latitude/longitude, etc.  Lift up the page and there are drawings of the tools of the collecting trade—clippers, plant press, pencil, etc.  On another page, raising the cover of a “plant press” reveals a specimen underneath. 

I won’t describe all the moveable parts in the book, because there should be some surprises to look forward to when you get your own copy, which you plan to give to a child.  I have two nephews each turning nine soon, and they will get copies, but not my copy.  One of the reasons you will not give yours away is that you’ll want to study it, and to think about what LaFarge does and does not include in these pages.  Admittedly there is not a great deal of information here, but what is presented is sure to fascinate a child without being overwhelming.  On one two-page (p. 24-25) spread there is a photo of someone holding a giant coco de mer seed (referred to as a “double-coconut seed”) to give a sense of its size; another of “a corpse flower, the largest, stinkiest flower” (that will please my nephews though they’ll be disappointed that there’s no scent provided); and a third of a handful of “the world’s smallest bamboo from French Guiana, that’s less than an inch high!”  There are also photos of herbarium cabinets, seed collections, and botanists collecting in the field. 

For a child, quite a bit of information is packed into this slim package, including an explanation of all the elements on a present-day herbarium sheet, including a fragment packet.  An adult interested in herbaria will not learn a great deal here, but that’s not the point of this book.  It is for the neophyte, and not just for a young one.  Come to think of it, I might buy a copy for my sister, and my son, and some of my friends who are totally flummoxed by my herbarium fascination.  This might also be a good book to add to any herbarium’s library, so it can be pulled out for young visitors, since they are becoming more frequent in herbaria as curators are increasingly concerned with broadening interest in their institutions.

Outreach has become an important part of the herbarium world in the 21st century (see earlier post).  This can mean making collections available digitally so researchers from a larger variety of fields from ecology to geology can make use of the information (Heberling et al., 2021).  But it also means building interest in the collections among younger audiences in order to provide the botanists and ecologists of the future, since there has been much written on the need for recruits to these fields.  I think most of us who became interested in biology had early experiences with the living world that stayed with us.  LaFarge’s book could provide a clever entry into that world that might adhere to some brain cell and link to a later experience, perhaps on a high school or college field trip.  On a trip to Ireland when I was 12, I pressed some flowers that I found growing along a roadside.  I pasted them into a little booklet for my mother.  The memory of this had completely faded until more than 50 years later.  After I had fallen in love with herbaria, my sister happened to unearth this memento in my mother’s dresser.  The mind works in strange ways, and LaFarge has enough of a sense of fun and wonder to help the young mind turn to plant collections.


Heberling, J. M., Miller, J. T., Noesgaard, D., Weingart, S. B., & Schigel, D. (2021). Data integration enables global biodiversity synthesis. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118(6).

LaFarge, K. (2021). Herbaria: A Guide for Young People. St. Louis: Missouri Botanical Garden Press.

Biocultural Ethnobotany

Cotton grown locally in Aiken, South Carolina

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Cámara-Leret, R., & Bascompte, J. (2019). Indigenous Knowledge Networks. The Ethnobotanical Assembly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twitter Botany: Family and Quarantine Herbaria

Impatiens in sidewalk crack, courtesy of Arthur Anderson

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

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

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

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

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

This and That: Art and Science

4 McMahon and Case

“Layered Similarity,” print created by Taryn McMahon and Andrea Case of Kent State University

I cannot end my series of miscellaneous posts (1,2,3) without mentioning one of my favorite topics: the relationship between art and botany.  The example I want to explore here comes from a Kent State University blog post.  This institution has an Environmental Science and Design Research Initiative (ESDRI), an intriguing title for a collaboration among individuals from across the university who are interested in connections between the built and natural worlds.  One participant is Taryn McMahon, an assistant professor of print media and photography.  Concerned with plants and ecology, she was looking for someone with similar interests and was led to Andrea Case, an associate professor of biology doing research on plant reproduction.  I know from experience that individuals who share common interests but are sequestered in different colleges at a university may never find each other.  That’s why an interdisciplinary enterprise like ESDRI is so important:  it makes these links more likely to form.

McMahon was seeking to understand plants more deeply for a print-making project called “Intersecting Methods” curated by Matthew McLoughlin, a Maryland artist.  Every two years he invites a number of printmakers to each submit a piece made in collaboration with a scientist for a portfolio that is exhibited and then each participant receives a set of all the prints.  There is a website where you can see some of the earlier series.  In the course of their collaboration, McMahon and Case discussed their research interests and processes.  They came to appreciate how each approached the ideas they found intriguing.  Case, curator of the Kent State Herbarium, showed McMahon specimens to emphasize that small details in plant structure matter in terms of identification and in how plants function.  McMahon in turn was struck by the fact that her prints were about the same size as herbarium sheets and also, the plants in her prints were arranged very much like specimens as well.

There are also similarities between the working methods of print makers and scientists.  Both start with an initial idea, question, or problem to solve, then experiment to find the right techniques, refine them as they go based on experimentation, do more experiments or make more prints after changing variables, and keep doing this until they come to a final result with which they are satisfied enough to make it public.  Since Case does research on the genus Lobelia, she and McMahon decided to use plants she was growing in making the prints, work which they did together.

What I find most interesting about this collaboration is how the interests of artist and botanist coincided.  Not surprisingly, they both emphasize the importance of observation.  Case mentioned the need to be meticulous in documenting and observing plants.  McMahon noted that a drawing starts with staring at the subject and understanding it; drawing comes only after understanding the form.  One of her most important influences is the 17th-century Dutch artist Maria Sibylla Merian, known for her paintings of insects and plants.  McMahon’s work is very different but it shares Merian’s bold graphic style.  The artist also quoted the philosopher of science Bruno Latour (2004), who argues that matters of fact for scientists can become matters of concern through art.

This is a beautiful and powerful idea.  It says a great deal about both endeavors and speaks of a potent feedback loop between them.  Art makes us look more carefully and feel more deeply, in this case, reaching a different level of understanding of the plant world as a source of color and form.  This experience can make us more willing to look carefully at the plants we encounter.  Looking often leads to questioning:  why are the leaves hairy or the stems sticky or the flowers vividly colored?  Looking more makes the plants in our environment more important to us.  I know this for a fact.  Since I’ve become plant-mad, I see so much more, examine so much more, and am amply rewarded with new knowledge and new questions to answer.

McMahon also sees the scientific viewpoint in dialogue with the art:  asking questions about its meaning and its impact.  Obviously her practice and Case’s are now in conversation with each other, and I hope they will continue their collaboration in the future.  It could lead to a mutual enrichment of their respective projects, and also, perhaps most importantly, enrich their students’ learning experiences, so that the next generation will think of art and science as more closely and inextricably connected than was the case in the 20th century.  The print that the two professors produced together is called “Layered Similarity” (see above).  Bringing my own interpretation to it, as McMahon has invited, I see the dark silhouettes in the foreground as the pressed herbarium specimens and the colored forms bursting behind them as the living plants ready to jump from the page, full of life and in bloom.  Yet they too have a hint of being specimens as well, note the insect damage to the leaves.  These are plants that have been captured in the middle of their lives, warts and all—a disembodied leaf may suggest that its reverse side is being displayed.  There are both literally and figuratively many layers to this print, and if you look at McLaughlin’s site you’ll see prints from other scientist/artist collaborations that all reward careful observation.


Latour, B. (2004). Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern. Critical Inquiry, 30(2), 225–248.