Herbarium: From a Writer’s Viewpoint

Field Study, Helen Humphreys

The first two entries in this series of posts (1,2) on books about herbaria were oriented to the scientific side of herbaria:  for adults and then children.  This week’s book takes a broader perspective that made it particularly interesting to me.  The author of Field Study: Meditations on a Year at the Herbarium is a novelist and poet, Helen Humphreys.  When I saw her name I recognized it right way because she wrote one of my favorite novels, The Lost Garden (2003), about young women sent to farm work on an old English estate during World War II.  There’s an overgrown garden that becomes a refuge for the narrator, and I remember feeling encircled by it as I read the book.  Humphreys has also written several other award-winning novels as well as books of poetry.  She brings depth to all her work, but she writes with a light touch, gently making the reader comfortable, in this case, with the herbarium.

Humphreys decided to write about her experiences over a year looking at all 140,000 specimens in the Fowler Herbarium at the Queens University Biological Station in Elgin, Ontario near where she lives.  From her other works, it’s clear that she is at home in the plant world, though perhaps more with the living rather than the dead.  But maybe the change was one of the attractions of the project:  “These libraries of dried plant specimens—some hundreds of years old—seem the perfect crucible in which to examine the intersection of human beings and the natural world through time” (p. 13).  She saw the herbarium as a place where “the experience of people connecting with nature is revealed” (p. 13).  That’s a bit different from a botanist’s viewpoint which is usually focused more on the plant than the collector.

Without going into anything about how the specimens are arranged, Humphreys clearly begins with the gymnosperms because she remarks on the strong scent from the cabinets holding pines.  She then moves on to the monocots, working her way through the flowering plant families.  She makes it clear that she is disappointed by the orchids.  The grasses please her much more because they seem to keep their form and color better, and don’t look that different in death than they did when alive.  As she proceeds, her dual perspective becomes clear:  she goes back and forth between plants and people throughout the book.  This is very refreshing, because she is interested in what the specimens and labels reveal about both the collected and the collectors.  She learns that when she sees the name of M.S. Bebb on a label that she is in for a treat.  He took great care in arranging a specimen so that each part was visible, and he often included pencil drawings of leaves or buds.  On the other hand, her favorite label writer was William Dore because he recorded information he gleaned from locals and gave the history of the collecting site. 

Among the oldest specimens in the Fowler Herbarium are those of the British botanist William Stewart Mitchell D’Urban who collected several hundred specimens in Quebec and Ontario in the mid-19th century, when many areas in these provinces were undeveloped.  Indigenous peoples taught him their names for the plants and an Algonquin chief helped with translations.  Here people and plants intertwine with language in a way that makes specimens particularly important.  Despite coming upon such labels with indigenous plant names, Humphreys writes near the end of the book:  “Often with writing, the very thing that is the bright idea at the beginning of a book is the thing that trips you up further in.  My idea for this project was to show the interaction between people and nature through time, but this becomes problematic when the people are mostly white colonial settlers.  Perhaps I should pay less attention to the collectors and more to the plants themselves?” (p. 190).  A year in a herbarium and botany begins to sneak into the psyche. 

While Humphreys finds the same collectors’ names recurring through the flowering plant families, different ones appear when she gets to the algae, where she also comes upon more women.  She cites Josephine Elizabeth Tilden from the University of Minnesota who collected along the Pacific Coast of British Columbia in 1900.  Tilden used her private wealth to build a field station there for summer research.  Like her, Humphreys is someone who is obviously at home in the natural world, and she describes spending hours in nature:  watching, walking, looking.  She found that her time in the herbarium made her more aware of the natural world around her and “observations have become honed and specific” (p. 218).  Humphreys’s work on this project helped her see that even with the grim changes in the living world, there needs to be a focus not only on what was lost but on what continues. 

This book changed my perspective on herbaria.  I still love looking at specimens and at labels, but it has made me step back and see the herbarium through the eyes of someone who is not accustomed to such spaces.  Humphreys sees the space as one where people and plants come together very intimately.  I have seen it more as a very ordered space, and maybe because I am a scientist, that is a comfort to me.  It is where I can easily find nature, or more correctly, a particular little piece of it.

References

Humphreys, H. (2003). The Lost Garden. New York: Norton.

Humphreys, H. (2021). Field Study: A Year in a Herbarium. Toronto: ECW.

Herbarium

Herbarium, Barbara M. Thiers

This post marks the start of my sixtieth set of posts over five years for Herbarium World.  As you may know, I have a monthly theme with four posts.  Doing the math (which I just did), that means 240 posts, yet I’ve never titled one simply, “Herbarium,” until now.  To mark this milestone, I am going to discuss four books that celebrate herbaria, and it seems fitting to begin with Barbara Thiers’s Herbarium: The Quest to Preserve and Classify the World’s Plants.  No one is better equipped than Thiers to produce such a book.  She is the Patricia K. Holmgren Director Emerita and Honorary Curator of the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium at New York Botanical Garden (NYBG).  When I was beginning my exploration of herbaria, she graciously took time to speak with me, though she obviously had more important things to deal with in overseeing one the world’s largest herbaria, now with over 7.9 million specimens.

I know that number because it was published in the latest report from Index Herbariorum, the best source of information on the number of herbaria worldwide and the size of each collection.  Thiers is the editor of what is now an online database but began as a printed publication that was moved online by her predecessor as herbarium director, Patricia Holmgren, for whom Thiers’ endowed position is named.  They are both formidable women, both excellent botanists and administrators. 

In Herbarium, Thiers provides a highly readable tour through the history and development of plant collections and then explains why they are so essential to the future of the earth’s biodiversity.  The first thing that’s obvious is that the book, published by Timber Press, is beautifully produced.  It is filled with colored photographs of what I consider “eye candy,” that is, herbarium specimens from the 16th to the 21st century, many from NYBG, but also from collections around the world.  In addition are pages from significant publications such as Carl Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae and illustrations by great botanical artists including Georg Ehret and Pierre-Joseph Redouté, many from the holdings of NYBG’s LuEsther T. Mertz Library.  There are also photographs of plants and landscapes, pictures of botanists, and maps. 

But the meat of the book is the text.  Not surprisingly, Thiers begins with the history of herbaria, including of course the origin of cryptogamic collections since she is an expert on liverworts.  Along the way she clearly presents enough botanical information to guide the non-botanist.  Then she moves on to the age of exploration and describes both the general landscape of plant prospecting over the centuries, and also delves into a number of interesting cases.  These include the adventures and collections of the British privateer William Dampier who was the first to gather specimens in Australia and of the French botanist Philibert Commerson who traveled on a portion of Louis Antoine de Bougainville’s expedition around the world.  Commerson made many notable botanical discoveries, though he may be best known not for what he found but for whom he brought with him on the voyage:  his mistress Jeanne Baret.  Thiers tells the tale in some detail, including how Baret posed as a male seaman, and how she and Commerson eventually left the expedition in Mauritius and collected in the area until Commerson’s death.   

While the exploration chapter takes a global view, the next one deals with the development of collecting and collections in the United States from colonial times.  Naturally the 18th-century Philadelphia nurseryman John Bartram is discussed as well as the Lewis and Clark Expedition, with the winding journey taken by many of its specimens.  John Torrey and Asa Gray as key to the development of botany in the United States appear, with Thiers noting that Torrey’s specimens, donated to Columbia College (now Columbia University), eventually became the foundation of NYBG’s herbarium.  Nathaniel and Elizabeth Britton’s pivotal role in the creation of NYBG is covered as is the work of George Engelmann and Henry Shaw in founding the Missouri Botanical Garden, and West Coast botanists in creating the California Academy of Sciences herbarium.  All of these institutions are still at the forefront of botanical research today.

The last two chapters return to a global perspective, with descriptions of how collections were both made and eventually housed in Australia, Africa, India, and East Asia.  Issues of colonial exploitation obviously arise there, and in addition Thiers presents fascinating information on how herbaria around the world are now being created and developed.  This leads to the last chapter on the future of herbaria.  Thiers knows this topic well because she has been a leader in projects designed to create that future, including the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s Global Plants initiative (now JSTOR Global Plants) to image and digitize label information for type specimens, the Biodiversity Heritage Library for botanical literature online, and iDigBio, the US digitization effort that put millions of natural history specimens online, in addition to developing projects and tools to use that information in learning about the world’s biodiversity.  The challenges created by climate change and habitat loss are driving these efforts, and people like Thiers are continuing work to make the available information as useful as possible.  She makes it clear that herbaria have a wonderful future and her book is a wonderful introduction to it. 

Reference

Thiers, B. M. (2020). Herbarium: The Quest to Preserve and Classify the World’s Plants. Portland, OR: Timber.

Women and Specimens

Specimen and drawing of Erophila verna, Lightfoot Herbarium, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

In the last post, I wrote about women who were such serious gardeners that their estates and greenhouses became laboratories for learning about new species and their cultivation.  Any serious gardener is a careful observer and often a notetaker, so they can build on their expertise and use the information in the future, therefore it’s not surprising that women also took cuttings and preserved them to document what they grew.  Sometimes, as in the case of the women described by Nicole LaBouff and discussed in the last post, they sent specimens, particularly of plants in flower, to the botanists who sought their assistance.  In other cases, as for Mary Somerset in the early 18th century, a herbarium was a way to preserve a record her cultivars and the exotic plants she nurtured.  Plants and gardens are ephemeral.  Somerset’s garden in Chelsea is long gone, but her anemone varieties are preserved in Han Sloane’s herbarium (Carine, 2020). 

Later on in the 18th century, Margaret Bentinck kept a herbarium as a way to study plants and to remind herself of the different plant families she was learning about from her chaplain and botany teacher John Lightfoot.  In the 19th century, keeping an herbarium was often part of the botany curriculum for both male and female students.  Among the most elaborate sheets I’ve seen was one that Henry Noltie of the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh showed me.  It was created by George Watt, a botanist who worked in India, where he did a great deal of collecting.  But the specimen Noltie showed me was from Watt’s student days in the 1860s (see image above).  I know this post is about women’s specimens, but I just couldn’t resist including Watt’s because it puts to rest the idea that women were the only ones executing such decorative work.

From the late 18th century on, botany was considered a part of the curriculum for women, particularly for those in the upper classes who were well-schooled.  As the 19th century proceeded and middle-class girls were educated, the number of botany books directed at them increased.  The most noteworthy in the United States was Elmira Hart Lincoln Phelps’s Familiar Lectures on Botany that went through many editions.  For her, making a herbarium was a necessary part of the curriculum.  In some cases, the plants were mounted in notebooks where the students were obviously coached as to the format for recording information on scientific name and family, collection site and date, and of course, collector name, which must have been the fun part to include.  Later, special notebooks were printed with room for the specimen and then space to write in the relevant information next to preprinted prompts.  Many of these collections are now housed in herbaria and botanical libraries.  I suspect in the near future some of the more data-rich will be mined in attempts to discover what was growing in areas that are now covered with buildings and roads. 

It’s not surprising that as women learned about plants in school, some of them retained that interest as adults, since they had the intellectual tools with which to continue learning—and collecting.  Often they gathered plants close to home and corresponded with male botanists who could help them identify their finds.  Since some of these women were pioneers living in remote areas of the western United States or Australia, botanists encouraged their collecting as a way to receive plants they were unlikely to otherwise encounter (Gianquitto, 2007).  Women made discoveries that intrigued botanists, who were happy to cite the contributions of the collectors in their publications as a way to encourage more collecting. 

Sometimes attributions went awry.  Laurence Dorr (2019) writes of a collection of Madagascar lichens and plants made by Mary Pool, who along with her husband William was a missionary there from 1865-1875.  She died shortly after their return to England, and William contributed the specimens to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.  The sheets cite William as the collector, while Laurence provides detailed evidence that in fact it was Mary who did almost all of it.  This seems more a bookkeeping error than thoughtlessness on William’s part, but it is one more example of why women’s place in the history of botany is so tenuous. 

In a very different case, it was the wife who survived the husband and honored him.  Mary Strong Clemens accompanied her husband Joseph Clemens on his various assignments as a US Army chaplain.  Mary collected plants wherever they went, including their four years in the Philippines.  After he retired in 1918, they returned to the Far East and collected widely from China to Borneo.  Mary gathered the plants and William prepared the specimens for shipment; this continued until his death from food poisoning in 1936.  She recorded his death on a specimen, noting:  “It was under this tree (Myristica lancifolia var. clemensii) that my soul companion for over 40 years of wedded life, bade me farewell for the higher life.”  I found this story in a post written by Michael Gallagher from the long-defunct JSTOR Plant Science blog (August 6, 2010).  I printed it out because it was such a beautiful way for a botanist to remember her spouse.  After William’s death Mary collected in New Guinea until the start of World War II and then worked at the herbarium in Queensland.  She is representative of the transition women were making from amateur to professional botanists, and she was one of many who without much formal botanical education developed exceptional expertise.

References

Carine, M. (Ed.). (2020). The Collectors: Creating Hans Sloane’s Extraordinary Herbarium. London: Natural History Museum, London.

Dorr, L. J. (2019). Mary and William Pool and their (mostly her) Malagasy lichen and plant collections. Archives of Natural History, 46(1), 134–138. https://doi.org/10.3366/anh.2019.0561

Botany and Art: States of Preservation

Resin block with specimens of Pinus bungeana created by Sheila Magullion, in the Arnold Arboretum Library

Herbaria are usually described as collections of preserved plant material, rather than just as stacks of pressed plants because most herbaria house boxes for bulky items like pine cones, material such as orchid flowers preserved in alcohol, and maybe plant morphology slides, boxes of seeds, wood samples, and seaweed albums.  What I find interesting in visiting collections is that curators usually have such items they want to display, ones that may never be digitized or get into online catalogues but are nonetheless fascinating.  Sometimes items like albums are preserved in botanical libraries.  It seems to me that if these establishments are in the same institutions as herbaria, the libraries tend to receive treasures that have value, but are either not likely to be used by a plant taxonomist or are in some way so different in makeup from what is ordinarily the purview of herbarium curators or managers that the library is considered a better place for them.  The assumption, which is usually based in fact, is that a librarian will know how to take care of it, or will dig around until they find out how to take care of it.  Librarians know how to find answers.

That may be why a collection of 288 blocks of polyester resin, each embedded with dried plant specimens resides in the Arnold Arboretum Horticultural Library.  These were made in the 1970s at the behest of Gordon P. DeWolf, Jr., a taxonomist at the arboretum.  He envisioned such a collection as ideal for educational purposes.  Herbarium sheets are too fragile to be passed around among a group of students, but similar specimens embedded in resin are tough.  However, making them requires a great deal of work.  DeWolf convinced an arboretum volunteer, Sheila Magullion, to take on the project, and it’s her work that is now found in the library.   She wrote an article on her experience in creating this collection for the arboretum’s journal, Arnoldia (Magullion, 1975).  This was after she had several years experience and could confidently describe what did and didn’t work. 

Right on the first page, Magullion mentions the “insidious” odor of the syrupy resin.  So the work area had to be away from food, a kitchen would not do, and it had to be where the molds could be left for several days to harden undisturbed.  Also, it was best that the work surface not be made of anything too precious:  drops of resin were difficult if not impossible to remove completely.  I picture the best venue as an airy garage with an old kitchen table on its way to the dump.  What is amazing is that Magullion was not deterred by these problems and many others she encountered.  It is obvious that there was a great deal of trial and error involved.  And even if, like me, you have no intention of ever attempting such a project—and I am sure there are easier and safer ways to do something similar today—this article is a great lesson in observation of plant material and how it behaves during drying, being soaked in resin, and hardening. 

Magullion warns that the plant material has to be totally dried and the specimens should be as good as possible since imperfections appear magnified through the resin.  Also, care must be taken in the use of the catalyst that cures the resin.  The process is exothermic, and if there is too much heat released too quickly, the plant tissue can bleach and the cast crack.  But add too little catalyst and the resin could become cloudy.  There are also clear instructions on using tweezers to place the plant material on the base coat of resin, and also on sanding and polishing the finished product.  Some blocks have a card attached to the base that gives the name of the plant and the parts included.  These can be read through the resin and give the specimens a herbarium-sheet look (see image above). 

I mentioned in the first post in this series that there is no perfect way to represent a plant, and these blocks demonstrate this.  The specimens are well protected, and floating in space gives them an oddly pleasing quality.  Obviously, this technique hardly became a herbarium staple, but along with the 19th-century educational posters (Van der Schueren, 2011) and plant models that grace many herbaria and botanical libraries, they are worth preserving for their beauty as well as for what they say about the culture of a particular time when a craft in favor in the larger culture seeps into the world of plants. 

After her article on embedding, Magullion (1977) wrote another one on treating material from trees and shrubs with glycerin to preserve them without pressing.  The purpose here was primarily to create decorative arrangements that would be long lasting.  The cuttings were sprayed with glycerin, not dipped in it.  Again, through trial and error Magullion figured out what would work and what wouldn’t, so the bulk of the article is a list of plant families and what works best for each.  As she mentions:  “Some families refuse to absorb the glycerin mixture; some absorb it, but with poor results; and some are outstanding in their response” (p. 289).  She also found that timing was important.  For the smoke bush, Cotinus, “large plumy fruit panicles last very well if collected no later than July.”  For the birch family, foliage didn’t respond well if collected early in the year, but could be preserved if picked in August and September.  Again, I won’t be doing any of this, but it is interesting to read through the families and see what Magullion discovered.

References

Magullion, S. (1975). Botanical embedding. Arnoldia, 36(6), 265–275.

Magullion, S. (1977). A guide by plant family to foliage preservation. Arnoldia, 37(6), 289–304.

Van der Schueren, K. (2011). The Art of Instruction: Vintage Educational Charts from the 19th and 20th Centuries. San Francisco: Chronicle.

Botany and Art: Intimacies

Lupinus argenteus, Silver Lupine” by Susan Rubin

The last post discussed how herbarium sheets are sometimes collages with illustrations of different kinds attached along with the plant material.  There was an interesting case in Taxon recently of an illustration used to identify a type specimen (Fleischmann and Gonella, 2020).  The species in question is Drosera intermedia, an insectivorous plant found from eastern North America, through the Caribbean to tropic South America.  As with many plants, particularly those with a relatively long botanical history, nailing down the first publication of a name and the type specimen can be complicated.  The authors here wade through the literature and cite a 1798 publication by Johann Dreves and Friedrich Hayne, though a 1800 publication by Hayne is usually given.  Why I find this case interesting is that Fleischmann and Gonella argue that a specimen in the Munich herbarium is the lectotype because it so closely resembles the illustration of the plant in the 1798 publication.  It is known that Haynes himself did the drawing on which it is based. 

This seems relatively straightforward, except for the fact that there is no indication on the sheet linking the specimen to Haynes.  The handwriting on the label is that of Johann Christian von Schreber, who traded and bought plants from a number of botanists.  This sheet is part of a Schreber collection acquisitioned in 1813 by the herbarium in Munich’s Bavarian Natural History Collections.  Also on the sheet is a not in the handwriting of Albrecht Roth, who was an early proponent of the idea that plants could attract and digest insects and thus derive nourishment from them.  Schreber thought this outlandish.  Sending the plant to Schreber was less about taxonomy and more about plant physiology.  In the note Roth writes that “the incurved leaves [of the specimen] hold dead insects.”  Roth published an article in which he remarked that he had received Drosera from Haynes with insects trapped in the leaves, providing evidence for linking Haynes’s illustration to Schreber’s specimen through Roth. 

This is a case of what I would call investigative botany, practiced by those taxonomists who also have a love of history.  The “excuse” is to find type specimens for species that are untypified or mis-typified, but it is also a way to satisfy an urge to solve a mystery.  Here the hunt was made more challenging, and perhaps therefore more intriguing, because the fate of the bulk of Haynes’ herbarium is unknown, and a search of what does exist turned up nothing related to the Drosera.  It’s suggestive of the more casual attitude toward specimens used in describing a species at that time that Haynes sent at least one of them on to Roth, and then Roth passed it on to Schreber in service of his insectivore argument.  It took dogged work to link the specimen’s provenance to the illustration in the original description, which is very similar.

My other two examples of intimate relationships between specimens and art are of a different kind and definitely tend toward the artistic rather than scientific end of the spectrum.  The first is a painting I saw on the web some time ago, and it keeps coming to mind.  It is “Lupinus argenteus, Silver Lupine” by Susan Rubin.  It won the Group Gold Medal from the Royal Horticultural Society London in 2017.  It’s a work of trompe-l’oeil and shows a herbarium specimen of the lupine, with faded colors and all the associated trappings of such a sheet.  This one is stamped from the Denver Botanic Gardens (where Rubin teaches) and includes a typed label, accession number, and barcode sticker.  Overlaid on it is a fresh lupine flower with its beautiful blue-purple inflorescence and green leaves.  The cutting has a small paper label and casts a shadow on the sheet suggesting it has merely been placed there for a moment to compare the live and dead specimens. 

Not surprisingly, Rubin is a botanical artist and much of her work is more traditional, though tending toward the artistic rather than the documentary.  She has done a series of trompe-l’oeil paintings, but none of the others have a herbarium specimen.  They show illustrations, sometimes taped or pinned to an artist’s table along with notes, preparatory sketches, a pencil or two, and other tools of the trade.  Somehow, these additions make the work more lively as it seems in the act of becoming.  The lupine is an indication of the accuracy of her work, and how it is grounded in the plant itself. 

Finally, I want to mention a rather odd convergence of art and science.  This was brought to my attention by the Swedish historian of science Anna Svensson, whose dissertation is a wonderful example of how history, botany, art, and the digital environment can be interwoven.  Anna spent some time at the Botanical Garden in Florence hunting among its treasures.  One that she found was a small bound herbarium where some of the flowers were painted over to give them more color.  I’ve written about early herbaria where missing petals or leaves were painted in, but the plants themselves were unadorned.  The Florence example went a step further.  It’s definitely at the far, far end of the scientific/artistic spectrum and a very unscientific move, but fascinating nonetheless. 

Reference

Fleischmann, A., & Gonella, P. M. (2020). Typification and authorship of Drosera intermedia (Droseraceae). Taxon, 69(1), 153–160. https://doi.org/10.1002/tax.12158

Note: I would like to thank Susan Rubin for allowing me to use her art in this post.

Botany and Art: Specimens

Specimen of Planchonella spectabilis collected by J.E. Teysmann in 1877 in the National Museum of Natural History, Paris

My last set of posts was on Art and Botany (1,2,3,4).  I found so many topics I wanted to include that I’m continuing the theme for another four, with one difference.  This time, they are about Botany and Art, with plant science coming first.  I’ll begin with what may be the closest relationship between the two:  drawings on herbarium sheets.  Yes, I’ve discussed this before, but it is a fertile field in which to explore the link between science and art.  Just as textual information is necessary on a sheet, there are botanists who feel the need to include non-textual information as well.  Some botanists consider sketches important to include with specimens, particularly for traits that are less apparent in the specimen or perhaps missing altogether.  For some it is a rare addition, for others a rather common practice.  This could be considered a matter of style, just as some botanists write lengthy descriptions on labels and others are quite terse.  These differences suggest varied visions of a specimen’s role:  how much information about a plant can it convey?  There is a quote from Richard Mabey that keeps haunting me:  “The quintessence of a plant can only ever be a fantastic goal, something to travel towards but never reach” (p. 27).  No written or visual description, or the plant itself, can say it all, not even a combination of all three, but botanists continue to try.

Frequently, drawings are added later by those who have further studied the specimen, perhaps dissecting a flower.  A detailed drawings of flowers not only document what was found but also make up for the piece of tissue that might have been destroyed in the process.  There are many sheets in the Oakes Ames Orchid Herbarium at Harvard University with such pencil or ink sketches, some by Ames himself and others by botanists like Charles Schweinfurth who worked with him, as well as by those who came later.  Ames and his associates weren’t purists; many sheets in the collection have photographs, notes, and journal articles attached—anything they thought would add value to the specimen.  The most attractive additions are watercolors of live orchids done by Ames’s wife, the artist Blanche Ames.  I’ve written about this couple in earlier posts (1,2,3), so I’ll just say here that not only are Blanche’s drawings beautiful, but well document the living plant.

The British plant collector Leopold Grindon was even more avid in his additions; many of his “specimens” spread over two or three sheets, morphing into scrapbooks.  Some might consider this excessive and wasted space that could be taken up with “real” specimens, but these sheets have become historical records of the botanical and horticultural knowledge of the time and how it was recorded.  Since there are many illustrations included, the sheets provide exposure to the different ways plant art could be reproduced in the 19th century, from fine colored engravings to black and white lithographs and photographs.  Grindon’s herbarium at the Manchester Museum provides a unique take on what it means to document a species. 

To return to the more traditional linkage of specimen and drawing, an extreme example is a specimen of Begonia subhumilis from the Berlin-Dahlem herbarium.  The sheet is dominated by a drawing of a specimen with leaves and flowers, while the specimen itself is no more than fragments of flower, leaf, and bud (see image above).  I found this sheet in a Tweet post from the botanist Peter Moonlight.  It was juxtaposed with a specimen of the species that was the model for the drawing, composed of robust cuttings in the herbarium at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.  The Berlin drawing was made by Edgar Irmscher after World War II when so much of the Berlin herbarium had been destroyed and curators were attempting to replace specimens as best they could.

I found a particularly interesting juxtaposition of art and plant on a specimen of Boerlagella spectabilis (now Planchonella spectabilis) in a Taxon article on several species in the Sapotaceae family (Swenson et al., 2020).  In the Paris herbarium at the National Museum of Natural History (MNHN), it was collected by Johannes Elias Teysmann in Sumatra in 1877 and has acquired later notes and annotations.  A fruit that was originally part of the specimen was removed and dissected, with portions of it attached to a piece of a paper pasted to the sheet.  On another slip, there is a series of drawings of the dissected seed.  But what I find most interesting is that on a twig where the fruit was probably originally attached, there is a careful ink drawing of the fruit.  It is simple and lovely (see image above). 

In another Taxon article, there is a type specimen of Avena breviaristata, also from the MNHN (Gabriel et al., 2020).  Attached is a striking cross-section through the stem of this Algerian grass, obviously taken from a microscopic examination (see image below).  I think it caught my eye because it is reminiscent of some of the images drawn by the British plant morphologist Agnes Arber who specialized in monocots.  This sketch could easily hold its own as a work of abstract art, but is this comment in any way relevant to botanical science?  I think it is because aesthetics matters.  This drawing caught my eye, it pleased me, and it was one more small reinforcement of my love for plant form. 

Specimen of Avena breviaristata in the National Museum of Natural HIstory, Paris

References

Gabriel, J., Tkach, N., & Röser, M. (2020). Recovery of the type specimen of Avena breviaristata, an endemic Algerian grass species collected only once (1882): Morphology, taxonomy and botanical history. Taxon, 69(1), 142–152. https://doi.org/10.1002/tax.12187

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

Swenson, U., Lowry II, P. P., Cronholm, B., & Nylinder, S. (2020). Resolving the relationships of the enigmatic Sapotaceae genera Beauvisagea and Boerlagella, and the position of Planchonella suboppositifolia. Taxon, 69(5), 998–1015. https://doi.org/10.1002/tax.12313

Art and Botany: Tracing

Illustration of Pulsatilla vulgaris from Reichenbachs’ Icones Florae Germanicae et Helveticae, Library of the University of Vienna.

On a number of occasions in this blog I’ve written on the subject of art and botany in relation to herbaria, primarily because the topic interests me and I think it has a number of interesting facets.  Apparently some people agree, since I’ve received positive comments about such posts.  I see this as an excuse to tackle the topic again.  This time I am going to focus on specific articles that deal with the subject in a variety of ways, beginning with a piece by Marianne Klemun (2009), a professor of history at the University of Vienna.  She writes about a collection of specimens found by Bruno Wallnöfer (2002) at Vienna’s Natural History Museum.  They belonged to the German botanist, ornithologist, and physician H.G. Ludwig Reichenbach (1793-1879), who became director of the natural history museum in Dresden.

In 1834, Reichenbach began a project that was completed in 1909, 30 years after his death.  It was an illustrated guide to the plants of Germany and Switzerland.  His aim was to create a reference that could be used by a broad audience.  As natural history was gaining attention, there was a need for publications that making it easier for non-specialists to learn about plants, particularly the plants found growing around them.  Illustrations would not only make a guide more visually appealing, but would aid in identifying plants the user encountered.

Reichenbach had clear ideas about what such illustrations should look like to do the job.  That’s where the Vienna specimens come into the picture.  The collection Klemun analyzes was presumably kept separate because the sheets were different from the usual ones in terms of their composition, recorded information, and purpose.  The specimen sheets have little written information on them, just the names of the species and the number of the plate illustrating them.  This is strong evidence that the collection was made specifically for the purpose of being used as models for botanical art.  Another indication is that there are usually added pencil drawings of flowers and fruits, when the specimens lacked them; these additions also appear on the plates.  The sheets and the plates are the same size, so there would be no need to enlarge or reduce the drawings.  Also, against what was becoming standard practice by this time, there were often several species, or at least several varieties or subspecies, on a single sheet.  This allowed for comparison among similar plants and reduced the number of plates, though there were ultimately over 1,000 in the 24 volumes published.

Wallnöfer and Klemun both discuss the processes involved in converting what appears on the sheets into finished drawings for use in engraving the plates.  While Reichenbach was assisted by artists, he was himself an excellent artist so he added to and corrected the pencil drawings.  Many of the drawn additions were not taken from life but from other illustrations; copying was a common practice at the time, inherited from earlier generations of botanists (Nickelsen, 2006).  The composition of a plate was based on a tracing of the specimen, creating an outline that could be filled in.  Klemun compared the plant material with the plates and found that the illustrations were frequently simpler than the herbarium sheets.  Leaves might be removed, branches cut down, or elements more widely spaced.  The flower parts and other additions were carefully placed to avoid clutter, but essentially it was easy to match the illustrations to sheets, and having the plate numbers on the sheets corroborated the comparisons. 

Reichenbach saw aesthetic appeal as important to his mission of making botany attractive both as an intellectual pursuit and a pleasant one.   In terms of accuracy, Klemun compares his method to that recorded by the botanist Christoph Jacob Trew (1695-1769), who was also an accomplished artist, and worked with, among others, the incomparable Georg Ehret.  Trew had the painter make an outline, and Trew compared it to the specimen.  He did this again with the completed drawing, and along with the artist, made the comparison yet again with the plate image.  This routine is something that is not often recorded but it has been repeated numberless times by botanists and artists in a process that Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison (2007) call “four-eyed sight,” which I think is a great name for it.  Accuracy is the goal, and at each step vigilance is needed to ensure that nothing becomes less clear, less understandable. 

Klemun notes that Reichenbach’s ideas about plant morphology were influenced by those of Goethe, who saw the great variety of plant forms as related to an idealized plant form.  With this viewpoint, it was important to show not only the form of each species, but how they were related to each other, another reason species were placed next to each other.  She also makes the point that Reichenbach used herbarium sheets as “epistemic things,” in the sense that, the 20th-century German molecular biologist and philosopher Hans-Jörg Rheinberger (1997) uses the term.  In other words, the specimen is not simply an organism, but one that has been flattened and dried, so in that sense is human-made.  It has become a representation of knowledge and a tool for learning more about plants.  I find this an interesting idea that links to work by others on the material culture of specimens as human-made artifacts (Pedder-Smith, 2011).

References

Daston, L., & Galison, P. (2007). Objectivity. New York: Zone.

Klemun, M. (2009). Refined concentration of botanical expert knowledge and images for gaining passions for plants: From the Herbarium to the engraving via tracing. In S. Brauckmann, C. Brandt, D. Thieffry, & G. Müller (Eds.), Graphing Genes, Cells, and Embryos: Cultures of Seeing 3D and Beyond (pp. 41–55). Berlin: Max Planck Institute for the History of Science.

Nickelsen, K. (2006). Draughtsmen, Botanists and Nature: The Construction of Eighteenth-Century Botanical Illustrations. Dordrecht, Springer.

Pedder-Smith, R. (2011). The Glow of Significance: Narrating stories using natural history specimens [Thesis, Royal College of Art]. https://researchonline.rca.ac.uk/430/

Rheinberger, H.-J. (1997). Toward a History of Epistemic Things: Synthesizing Proteins in the Test Tube. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Wallnöfer, B. (2002). Über die Abbildungsvorlagen zu den Kupferstichen von Ludwig Reichenbachs “Icones Florae Germanicae et Helveticae.” Annalen Des Naturhistorischen Museums in Wien. Serie B Für Botanik Und Zoologie, 104, 553–562.

Victorian Botany: Ferns

Fern album cover (1875) created for Thomas Cranwell; Te Papa Museum of New Zealand.

Lynn Barber’s (1980) The Heyday of Natural History deals with many aspects of the Victorian age’s interest in nature.  One manifestation was a series of fads for particular plants, among them ferns.  This was sparked in part by the work of a surgeon in Jamaica, John Lindsay, who successfully grew ferns from spores.  Until then the propagation of these plants was something of a mystery because they obviously weren’t seed bearing.  Most ferns needed a moist environment and so the development of Wardian cases, discussed in the last post, made them much easier to keep alive.  Glasshouses or conservatories were another craze by mid-century.  While the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew built a massive Palm House, smaller versions, often built onto houses, soon appeared.  Along with the popular but hard to grow palms, these structures filled with ferns and toward the end of the century, orchids, another plant group that had slowly yielded up the secrets of their propagation (Endersby, 2016). 

Ferns were the easiest of this triumvirate to keep alive, and they could be easily observed and collected on forays into the countryside (Whittingham, 2009).  As with most fads, there were soon books on ferns aimed at a variety of audiences.  Thomas Moore was an expert on these plants and wrote a low-cost guide that fueled their popularity.  He was also the author of a much more expensive publication, the nature-printed Guide to the Ferns of Great Britain and Ireland (1855) in two volumes.  The prints were made by Henry Bradbury using a technique he devised that involved pressing ferns between a steel and a lead plate so the frond left an imprint on the softer lead.  The plates were printed with colored inks, essentially green for the fronds and brown for the rhizomes.  Obviously, this was a time-consuming and expensive process with a limited run, so the books were only available to the wealthy, but thanks to the Biodiversity Heritage Library, we can all enjoy them today, virtually if not physically. 

Needless to say, many of the more serious fern hunters not only tried to grow the plants, but also to make specimens from them.  It was standard to paste down the fronds with the spore side up, or at least to show both sides of the frond.  Many of the botanically minded were catholic in their tastes and collected broadly in an area, pressing flowering plants as well as ferns; others were more focused.  For those who wanted collections without the collecting, there were exsiccatae available, some geared to the botanist and others to the amateur.  Fern albums were often created in areas where ferns were most plentiful such as in the warmer and rainier parts of southern Britain and in Ireland.  However, it was in New Zealand where the greatest number of fern albums were produced.  This becomes clear in Fern Albums and Related Material by Michael Hayward and Martin Rickard (2019).  It’s a publication of the British Pteridological Society and one of my favorite books at the moment.  After all, it’s about herbaria and its full of images.

Hayward and Rickard have done a wonderful job of tracking down albums in herbaria, libraries, and museums.  The time when most of these albums were produced was relatively early in New Zealand’s colonial development; it was recognized as a British colony in 1840 with the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi between 600 Māori chieftains and the British.  The landscape of New Zealand is very different from Australia.  This nation of islands is wetter and cooler, more similar to Britain and more conducive to the growth of ferns.  In fact, New Zealand was almost covered with endemic fern species, as colonists realized when they began to clear the land for agriculture.  Producing albums, mostly for British buyers, became a way to raise extra cash.  The variety Hayward and Rickard present indicates there were several different markets.  Some collections have plain paper or cardboard covers, with labeled specimens pasted to the pages.  One style was to add moss to the bottom of the stipe, also a practice of the British botanist Isaac Balfour.  The more costly albums had bordered pages and leather covers embossed with gold.  In Auckland, Thomas Cranwell produced some of the most elaborate creations.  He teamed up with German furniture carvers who made covers from wood of the native kauri trees of the Agathis genus.  Some covers even had intricate veneers.  They were works of art, and were obviously aimed at Britain’s upper classes.  New Zealanders themselves could not have afforded them and probably wouldn’t be interesting in preserved ferns that they could see every day.  Other British colonies including Australia, India, and Jamaica got into the fern album business, but not to the same extent.  Each had a unique take, with the Jamaican versions more about artistic placement of unlabeled specimens and even displays of artfully placed fronds from several different species—definitely works of art rather than science.  Fern albums were not as popular in the United States, but Sadie Price, a naturalist in Kentucky (see earlier post), published a booklet with each black-and-white drawing of a fern opposite a blank page where the user could paste in the relevant specimen. 

References

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

Endersby, J. (2016). Orchid: A Cultural History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hayward, M., & Rickard, M. (2019). Fern Albums and Related Material. London: British Pteridological Society.

Whittingham, S. (2009). The Victorian Fern Craze. Oxford: Shire.

Specimens, Specimens: Uses

Box from John Percival’s wheat collection, University of Reading Herbarium

In this series of posts (1,2,3), I’ve been exploring herbarium specimens in a relatively fine-grained way, at the level of the individual specimen or a single person’s collection.  I want to end by giving a few examples of how useful one specimen can be.  The most obvious case is a holotype, the specimen used in the description of a species that is designated as having this role, perhaps along with others that also were involved, called isotypes.  Today, holotypes are named in the publication of the species, but this wasn’t so in the past, and the laborious process of designating holotypes, or in some cases lectotypes (when the original author did not designate a type), or other type categories continues.  In some cases, types are rediscovered.  Alex George (2018) reports on the type specimen of the Australian species, Donia formosa, the Sturt pea, described by George Don, a British botanist.  The specimen was thought to be in the herbarium of the Natural History Museum, London, but a search proved unproductive, so it was assumed to have been lost.  Now a specimen found in the herbarium of the Geneva Botanic Gardens, with an annotation by Don, has been officially designated by Alex George as the holotype.  He also clarifies that the plant was collected by Allan Cunningham on Malus Island in the Straight of Dampier off the coast of West Australia.  So this one specimen has done much to illuminate both the history and taxonomy of the Sturt pea.

Another way specimens are used in taxonomy is becoming more common as DNA sequencing technology improves.  Herbarium specimens are being mined for information on the origin and spread of cultivated species.  A specimen of sweet potato, Ipomoea batata, collected by Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander in the Society Islands in 1769 was used in a study on how the plant spread through the Pacific Islands from its origin in South America.  Obviously this wasn’t the only specimen tested, but it provided key information.  As smaller samples are required for testing and the techniques become increasingly sensitive, such work will become more common.  Of course, it depends on curators allowing removal of small samples, and this requires a serious decision, balancing present and future research needs.

Sometimes specimens are useful in telling stories to entice interest in a plant collection.  Allan Elliott, a Sibbald Fellow at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, wrote a post about an “unassuming section of trunk sitting on a desk in the herbarium office after being “discovered” in the back of a carpological cupboard.  It arrived in our collection in February 1940 and is possibly from a plant of Rhododendron arboreum grown from the very first introduction of this species in 1797.”  Elliott goes on to describe this provenance by citing a note attached to the wood, written by William Evans who worked in the herbarium from 1919 to 1944.  Evans notes that the piece was delivered to the herbarium after the tree came down by the weight of snow.  It grew at Kirkdale house, which was owned by a family whose ancestor had served in the army in India and had likely obtained the seed from Capt. Hardwicke.  He also supplied seeds to James Edward Smith who described the species.

In an later Tweet, Elliott, still on the rhododendron hunt, includes pictures of a specimen of Rhododendron disterigmoides ssp. astromontium that is “an overlooked type and the only representative of this subspecies at RBGE.”  He particularly likes the specimen because it includes a map and as well as SEM images in an attached packet.  The scanning electron microscope is another technology that can be used in studying preserved plant material.  Elliott’s fellowship involves horticulture and the RBGE’s living collection, but obviously he sees his work as tied to and enriched by the herbarium’s resources, including its long history.

There are unusual collections of plants that can give insights into social history.  I’ll present two exampled here that tell a lot about 19th-century attitudes toward plants.  The first are Biblical herbaria.  There is a video produced by the University of Leeds on this Victorian genre.  These collections were marketed as portable kits that could be used for inspirational lectures, Bible study groups, and Sunday school.  It was also common for travelers to the Holy Land to return with albums of plants, and publishers came up with the idea of marketing what were essentially exsiccatae of these plants, including descriptions of the species and citations on where they were mentioned in the Bible (Greene, 1895).

There were also many 19th century exsiccatae of grasses, some focused on their horticultural uses and others on agriculture.  Three examples from Britain are very different from each other.  M. Sutton’s Analyses of Natural Grasses is a beautiful wooden case with tiny boxes of seeds below a striking display of grass inflorescences, a rich landowners way of displaying agricultural expertise.  David Moore, director of what is now the National Botanic Garden in Ireland, produced a more traditional exsiccatae of the indigenous grasses of Ireland in 1843.  John Percival’s collection, though limited to wheats, is the most impressive80 boxes with specimens collected around the world, along with notes including archaeological details.  This complete collection is at the University of Reading’s herbarium.  And it seems a fitting way to end this ramble among specimens.

References

George, Alex. S. (2018). The type of Sturt pea found. Swainsona, 31, 49–53.

Greene, H. B. (1895). Wild Flowers of Palestine. New York: Christian Herald.

Specimens, Specimens: History

Phemeranthus teretifolius collected by William Darlington, University and Jespon Herbarium

In this series of posts (1,2) focusing on particular specimens and collections of specimens, it’s impossible to neglect the past.  At least for me, some of the most fascinating specimens are those with long histories, in terms of age, the many hands they’ve passed through, and the vagaries they’ve suffered.  One of my favorite herbarium acronyms is GOD taken from the location of the collection created at the Charterhouse School in Godalming, England.  Founded in 1611, it is an elite high school that in the 19th century created a museum for its natural history and other collections.  The herbarium contains over 8,000 specimens, including many bound volumes with both specimens and illustrations.  When the museum was closed, the herbarium eventually found a home in 2011 at the University and Jepson Herbaria at the University of California, Berkeley.  How did it end up there?  An alumnus of the school, Andrew Doran, is a curator at the herbarium and saw GOD as a valuable historical collection.  The specimens date from the late 18th and 19th centuries, most from dozens of naturalists in Great Britain.

When I visited the Jepson, Doran showed me Rev. Tullie Cornthwaite’s collection, in part to call attention to the clergyman’s lyrical name.  These specimens are in bound volumes, including one with specimens collected on the Livingstone Expedition to the Zambezi River.  There are others dating from the 1790s that Cornthwaite acquired on a trip to Switzerland.  But the specimen that caught my eye was one where I recognized the handwriting and initials.  It was a Phemeranthus teretifolius collected in 1827 in West Chester, Pennsylvania with the initials, WD, for the local botanist, William Darlington, who himself had an impressive collection.  He corresponded with botanists in Britain and the Continent, though there is no record of any correspondence with Cornthwaite.  It may be that they had a mutual contact [see above].

Another collection, also in the San Francisco area, is the 12-volume bound herbarium of Lord Robert Petre at the Sutro Library.  Petre, an 18th-century horticulturalist, received specimens, seeds, and cuttings from another Pennsylvania botanist, John Bartram.  Their go-between was Peter Collinson who did so much to introduce North American plants to England.  Some of the Bartram material has his original notes written on slips of brown paper (Schuyler & Newbold, 1987).  These and many collectors’ specimens were bound into volume by Petre, a close friend of Collinson’s.  They remained in the Petre family until the 19th century when they sold his library to Adolf Sutro, the former Mayor of San Francisco, who bought book collections in Europe for a city library.  Like the Darlington specimen, Bartram’s traveled across the Atlantic and back before landing on the other side of North America.  In both cases, the specimens are definitely well treated [see below].

Comptonia perigrine collected by John Bartram, Sutro Library

Anyone who deals with herbaria has similar, and probably, more spectacular stories of specimens moving from place to place, but it’s important to make non-botanists aware of these journeys.  Many people are surprised by how cosmopolitan even a smaller herbarium can be, though the majority of specimens may be relatively local.  In the A.C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, which I am proud to call my herbarium home, there is a specimen from Japan.  That’s no so odd; John Nelson, who for many years served as curator, fostered exchanges with herbaria in Europe, Asia, and throughout the United States.  But this specimen was sent by Asa Gray to the 19th-century South Carolina botanist, Henry Ravenel, whose collection is at A.C. Moore.

Ravenel corresponded with Gray, particularly after the Civil War when he was seeking advice on how he could make a living from botany.  Gray sent him a tiny piece of a Japanese fern.  What makes this notable is that Gray had received Japanese plant material from a friend of his with botanical interests who went on the US diplomatic mission that opened Japan to US trade.  Obviously Japanese specimens were at a premium at the time.  After studying these and other Japanese plants, Gray posited that the plants in these two areas had a common ancestry, but due to fluctuating climates, which remained most similar in eastern North America and Japan, the species were better able to survive in these regions (Dupree, 1959).  Charles Darwin, a friend of Gray’s, used this as evidence for his theory of evolution and a small piece of the story is sitting in Columbia, South Carolina.

I’ll end with a couple of even older examples of plant travels.  The Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, the Netherlands holds a bound herbarium dating from 1540 called the En Tibi that was probably created in Bologna, Italy.  Researchers in Leiden are working on genetic analyses of tomato specimens in the volume that may be the oldest preserved material of this species.  Others have identified four of the oldest tobacco specimens known, three in Ulisse Aldrovandi’s herbarium at the University of Bologna and one in the Erbario Estense in the Modena State Library (Vicentini et al., 2020).  These collections have been sitting in their respective locations for centuries with little attention paid to them until recently.  It is ironic that they are now the focus of several forms of cutting edge technology, from being imaged digitally to being analyzed chemically.  It’s not news that specimens tell stories, but it is news that such old volumes can tell such new stories.

The wonderful thing is that a number of significant herbaria created over the centuries still exist.  Some are in natural history collections, but some are secreted in libraries where they are less likely to receive scientific attention.  Digitization is one way these treasures are becoming more widely known, and thank goodness libraries are so adept at conserving and scanning fragile material.

References

Dupree, A. H. (1959). Asa Gray: American Botanist, Friend of Darwin. Harvard University Press.
Schuyler, A. E., & Newbold, A. (1987). Vascular Plants in Lord Petre’s Herbarium Collected by John Bartram. Bartonia, 53, 41–43. JSTOR.
Vicentini, C. B., Buldrini, F., Romagnoli, C., & Bosi, G. (2020). Tobacco in the Erbario Estense and other Renaissance evidence of the Columbian taxon in Italy. Rendiconti Lincei. Scienze Fisiche e Naturali.