“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.