Collections in the Future

Methods for measuring leaf shape in butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa, (Woodson 1947, p. 368)

This month’s series of posts will diverge from usual where I keep to one theme.  This time, I’ll seesaw between two topics that I, at least, see as related.  Each stems from a recent publication I found particularly noteworthy on how plant collections will be used and curated in the future.  The first is an article by Mason Heberling (2022) on “Herbaria as Big Data Sources of Plant Traits” and appeared in the International Journal of Plant Sciences.  It is a review of a topic that hasn’t received enough attention:  how herbaria can be used in functional trait analysis.  The other is Issue 8 of The Ethnobotany Assembly or T.E.A., a quarterly online journal about plant-people relationships.  It’s entitled Plant Humanities: Where Arts, Humanities, and Plants Meet and is edited and with a contribution by Felix Driver and Caroline Cornish.  There is a great deal coming out about the plant humanities and some of it I find disappointing, but not this publication.  The articles are varied and thought-provoking, but I’ll save further comments until the next post. 

Why am I juxtaposing such different types of work?  Precisely because they are so different.  Yet they both speak volumes about the possible future of herbaria if researchers of this caliber continue to give their attention to the amazing resources that plant specimens provide to so many fields.  I begin with plant traits because this topic fits squarely within biological inquiry, where recent reports like those on the Extended Specimen Network clearly put herbaria.  However, Heberling argues that specimens have been neglected by plant trait researchers who tend to look elsewhere for data.  He lays out his case in the first part of the article and also provides examples of where herbaria have made significant contributions to the field.  In the second part, which I’ll discuss later, he outlines how in the future herbaria and collecting might adapt to support this area of research. 

After his introduction, Heberling discusses community ecologists’ growing use of plant functional traits in their research during the past 20 years.  Functional traits include morphological, chemical, phenological, and physiological attributes that serve as surrogates in understanding individual fitness.  He uses as an example work on the leaf economics spectrum (LES) where characteristics such as leaf mass per area, construction costs, photosynthetic rate, and leaf life span have been found to relate to each other.  This quartet varies along a spectrum from long-lived, high construction costs, low photosynthetic rates, and large area to the other end with opposite traits.  Patterns falling outside the spectrum are thought to be maladaptive. 

Heberling notes that in most of this work “little or no explicit attention has been paid toward specimens as primary sources of trait data (p. 90).”  One reason he gives is that functional trait analyses are a recent development in plant science and preparing specimens is a technology that has been around for a long time.  In the past, noting traits like phenological status was not necessarily considered important, especially because it would be apparent to someone looking at the specimen.  This made sense until the age of digital data when researchers can be searching online databases for label information on phenological status and not finding it.  An image may not be available, and even if it were, it would be much more time efficient to simply search the data files.  Other changes in processing specimens that could aid trait research include preserving plants in different stages of development for life history research.

Also tackled are the arguments ecologists and evolutionary biologists have against using specimens, including issues of collection bias, such as toward ignoring young and immature plants and choosing those with flower and fruit.  This makes sense for taxonomic studies but not for plant life history work.  However, he contends that “we cannot assume the limits of herbaria without trying (p. 101).”  In this case, awareness of the issue could lead to changes in collection practices, with a broader selection of material chosen.  As for the idea that leaf area changes markedly over time in dried specimens, the assumption has been disproven in comparative studies.  Several traits, including amino acid and metal contents have also been validated for herbarium-based measurement.

Heberling provides an extensive table citing findings where specimens have been studied in trait research and describes many ingenious approaches used both in early studies and also more recently.  One of my favorites is a 2002 paper by Teece et al. on 11 Lewis and Clark specimens, among the earliest collected in the Western United States before development and industrialization caused substantive environmental changes.   Leaf fatty acid content was measured as was stable carbon isotope composition.  These results served as an important baseline for comparison to later specimens.  Heberling also discusses the vast literature on stomata, leaf area, herbivory, and other traits that is based on specimens.  It is a fascinating review.  However, he then notes that there is little herbarium specimen data in the two major trait databases TRY, begun in 2007 and BIEN, started in 2016.  With about 12 million records, TRY has only 10.4% of North American woody plants represented by even one specific leaf area measurement.  It is this dearth that Heberling addresses in the latter part of his article and that I’ll look at in the third post of this series. 


Heberling, J. M. (2022). Herbaria as Big Data Sources of Plant Traits. International Journal of Plant Sciences, 183(2), 87–118.

Teece, M. A., Fogel, M., Tuross, N., McCourt, R. M., & Spamer, E. (2002). The Lewis and Clark Herbarium of The Academy of Natural Sciences. Part 3. Modern environmental applications of a historic nineteenth century botanical collection. Notulae Naturae, 477, 1–20.

Woodson, R. E. (1947). Some Dynamics of Leaf Variation in Asclepias tuberosa. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden, 34(4), 353.

Many Treasure Rooms

Specimens of Iris pseudacorus, Herbarium Ratzenberger (1556-1592). Naturkundemuseum Kassel. Photo by Peter Mansfeld.

In this series of posts (1,2,3) I’m exploring what Tinde van Andel calls “treasure rooms” in museums and libraries that hold early modern herbaria.  I’ve discussed some of these in the Netherlands, Italy, and Switzerland, now I want to hunt down a few spread more widely.  One was created by Caspar Ratzenberger in Germany between 1556 and 1592.  It is preserved in three volumes in the Natural History Museum of Kassel, Germany (see figure above).  It contains plants that he grew in his garden, including some exotics such as tobacco.  In 1858, a resident of the city sought it out after reading a reference to such a collection.  He found it stored but forgotten in a government building and made a list of the plants it contained.  Little else seems to have been done on this collection. 

            While the Ratzenberger herbarium didn’t travel far from its point of origin, that isn’t true of some other treasures.  One created in 1606 by Gregorio da Reggio, who collected around Bologna, is now in the Oxford University herbarium (Marner, 2006).  It was given to William Sherard by his friend Giuseppe Monti, director of the Bologna Botanical Garden shortly before Sherard’s death.  Sherard left his collections to Oxford, but this is only part of the story.  The “gift” was meant as an exchange.  Sherard had agreed to send Monti the second volume of Hans Sloane’s Natural History of Jamaica, but died before he could do so.  Monti asked Sherard’s brother James for the book, but the sibling ignored the letter because he was miffed at being cut out of the will.  Johann Dillenius, who had become professor of botany at Oxford thanks to Sherard’s funding the position, finally sent the Sloane book to Monti (Harris, 2011).  While it is certainly a gem, it is not unique like the herbarium, which has three hundred specimens with extensive labels.  Unusual for the time, the labels contain information on locality, habitat, and in some cases even flowering times and medicinal uses as well as literature citations. 

            María Carrión (2017) of Emory University has examined a number of early herbaria and written particularly about an Italian collection in Spain’s Royal Library of El Escorial (2017, 2019).  The collector of these four volumes is unknown, but it was owned by Diego Hurtado de Mendoza, who had served as Spanish Ambassador to Venice, where he had built up an extensive library, including this herbarium.  He later fell out of favor with the king and was living in exile when the monarch, who was eager to acquire the library with its extensive collection of Greek manuscripts, offered to allow Mendoza to return home if he bequeathed his library to the king.  Since the focus was on the Greek manuscripts, the herbarium didn’t receive much attention.  Carrión has examined the collection and found discrepancies between the number of plants listed in the index to each volume and the plants actually present, with in each case the lists missing plants.  Some are off by a few plants, but for the second volume only 99 of the 209 plants are recorded.  She also found that the first volume is much more focused on medicinal uses than are the others.  As with any herbarium, without any supporting material to offer hints, it is difficult to imagine all the details that went into its construction. 

            The oldest herbarium in the National Museum of Natural History herbarium in Paris dates to 1558 and was created by Jehan Girault, a medical student at the University of Lyons.  With 81 pages and 310 plants, it was kept at the University until 1721 when it was sent to the botanist Antoine de Jussieu in Paris.  It became part of the museum’s collection in 1857, a small portion of the eight million specimens now stored there, yet it is an important piece of the history of medical and botanical education in France.  Girault was a student of Jacques Daléchamps, who in turn was a student of Guillaume Rondelet, one of the pioneers of early modern botany.  Rondelet taught at the University of Montpellier that has a rich history, and he was an early proponent of fields trips as a botanical learning tool (Ogilvie, 2006).

            I’ll end this survey with the creator of multiple herbaria that still exist.  Hieronymus Harder produced 11 extant collections, with most still in Germany, where he lived (Dobras, 2009).  Some were presentation volumes like Andrea Cesalpino’s in Florence that I mentioned in the last post.  Harder was a teacher interested in medicinal plants, and most of the plants are from the area surrounding his Bavarian home.  However, there are also specimens of tobacco, pepper, and tomato which had spread so rapidly across Europe through seed sharing among botanists.  There is also a single herbarium created by Harder’s son, Johannes, an apothecary, at the Oak Spring Garden Library in Virginia.  What makes all these volumes particularly interesting is that the Harders had the habit of “embellishing” or “improving” specimens with watercolor paints to fill in missing petals or stems, to add roots or bulbs, or create a tuft of grass to ground a plant.  The son’s work is the most heavily altered and is an example of the experiments early modern botanists tried in attempting to communicate as much information as possible through their collections.  It is wonderful that such variations still exist to give a sense of the ardor and experimentation of the period.


Carrión, M. M. (2017). Planted knowledge: Art, science, and preservation in the sixteenth-century herbarium from the Hurtado de Mendoza Collection in El Escorial. Journal of Early Modern Studies, 6(1), 47–67.

Carrión, M. M. (2019). Planting dwelling thinking. Natural history and philosophy in sixteenth-century European dried gardens. Gardens and Landscapes: Sciendo, 6, 5–19.

Dobras, W. (2009). Hieronymus Harder and his twelve plant collections. Ulm Und Oberschwaben, Journal of History, Art and Culture, 56, 46–82.

Harris, S. (2011). Planting Paradise: Cultivating the Garden, 1501-1900. Cambridge: Bodleian Library.

Marner, S. K. (2006). 400 years old! (A book herbarium from Italy). Oxford Plant Systematics], 13, 9–10.

Ogilvie, B. W. (2006). The Science of Describing: Natural History in Renaissance Europe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Swiss Treasure Rooms

Facing pages from Felix Platter’s Herbarium. Bern City Library.

This post in the series (1,2) on the whereabouts of early modern herbaria begins with two notable collections in Switzerland, Felix Platter’s (1536-1614) at the Bern City Library and Caspar Bauhin’s (1560-1624) at the University of Basel’s herbarium.  Both are significant and both were the subject of an article by Davina Benkert (2016), where she does a wonderful job of describing each and comparing them.  As with many collections this old, portions are missing.  Platter eventually bound his specimens and had 18 volumes of which nine survive.  In many cases, he pasted a plant on the right hand page and one or more illustrations on the left.  Among these are prints as well as watercolors, including 77 by Hans Weiditz, the originals of the plates used in Otto Brunfel’s 1530 Herbarum vivae eicones.  Paper being valuable, Weiditz had painted on both sides of each sheet.  Wanting to get the most out of them, Platter cut them out so he could use both plants, sometimes painting in parts that were missing.  He also at times “fiddled” with specimens, such as pasting stamens to the outside of tulip flowers to make them visible.  These practices horrify present-day art historians and botanists, but this was early modern botany and techniques had yet to be codified. 

Bauhin was Platter’s student at the University of Basel and they collected together.  Eventually Bauhin joined the faculty and worked on his plant compendium, Pinax theatri botanici published there in 1623.  They used the specimens differently, so they treated them differently.  Platter used his in teaching and as reference.  Though he had early on kept his specimens loose, he eventually preferred bound volumes because they allowed him to show his collection to visitors, something he relished, without damaging the plants.  He used Bauhin’s classification system.  Even though it hadn’t been published yet, he was obviously privy to the manuscript.   

On the other hand, Bauhin was trying to build a comprehensive collection to use in creating a planned work on taxonomy.  He kept his specimens loose, slipped between folded sheets of paper with identification slips.  This enabled him to reorganize them as his ideas about relationships among them changed, but it also meant fragments and labels could easily slip out.  It also made it easier to remove specimens.  Bauhin’s collection continued to be used for teaching and reference after his death.  His descendants allowed botanists to select specimens, which explains why two-thirds of the originals are gone (Benkert, 2016).  In 1774, what remained was purchased by Werner von Lachenel, a University of Basel botanist who integrated the sheets into his own herbarium.  When the University acquired his herbarium, they then sorted out Bauhin’s sheets, but 400 were in such poor condition they were discarded.  Here at least we have some idea of why the collection is so greatly reduced.  In many cases, the dwindling of a collection isn’t as well documented.  I should add that sometimes items are later found as when 300 of Ulisse Aldrovandi’s specimens (see last post) were discovered in a later Italian collection (Mossetti, 1990).  Again, this might seem horrifying, but it is really a form of borrowing, a common practice; it’s just that in the Bauhin and Aldrovandi cases it was done posthumously. 

Alette Fleischer (2017) has written an article with a great title Leaves on the Loose and subtitled “The Changing Nature of Archiving Plants and Botanical Knowledge” and that deals with these issues.  She notes that when herbaria were unbound all ties could be lost to the history of a sheet and who made it.  She sees the digitization of old collections as a boon to “recombining” specimens, setting them next to each other for comparison.  James Petiver, an avid British collector, amassed over 100 herbaria, which eventually become part of Hans Sloane’s herbarium, now at the Natural History Museum, London.  Fleisher writes that “According to his beliefs on order, Petiver compiled, or more precisely recompiled nearly every herbarium that came into his possession.  .  .  .  He not only took sheets from older herbaria, but also cut out bits of paper and plants and glued these together with other specimens, thereby losing labels, names, and information” (pp. 125-126).

Reading statements like this explains a lot about why the early history of herbaria is fragmentary.  It also makes what is available that much more wonderful.  Particularly wonderful is the website that has been created around Platter’s herbarium, with the pages organized by volume and by species names.  In addition there are webpages with information on Platter and the collection’s history.  It’s thrilling to be able to closely study the pages, especially those with Weiditz images.  The University of Basel herbarium website states the Bauhin herbarium has been imaged, but I could not find a link to it, so I am not sure if it is available online.  In time it probably will be, another wonderful digital treasure.  In the meantime, the Platter volumes would keep anyone with an interest in early modern botany busy for a long time. 


Benkert, D. (2016). The ‘Hortus Siccus’ as a focal point: Knowledge, environment, and image in Felix Platter’s and Caspar Bauhin’s herbaria. In S. Burghartz, L. Burkart, & C. Göttler (Eds.), Sites of Mediation (pp. 211–239). Leiden: Brill.

Fleischer, A. (2017). Leaves on the loose: The changing nature of archiving plants and botanical knowledge. Journal of Early Modern Studies, 6(1), 117–135.

Mossetti, U. (1990). Catalogue of Ulisse Aldrovandi’s herbarium: The specimens found in the herbaria of Giuseppe Monti and Ferdinando Bassi. Webbia, 44(1), 151–164.

Italian Treasure Rooms

Orchid specimens, Aldrovandi herbarium. University of Bologna.

In this series of posts I am exploring some early modern herbaria that are becoming better known in the 21st century after having been carefully preserved in collections for centuries.  Since the habit of pressing plants in all likelihood arose in Italy, with efforts by Luca Ghini to encourage his students to take up the practice, it’s not surprising that many of the oldest herbaria remain in Italy (Findlen, 2017).  In the last post, I mentioned that the oldest one, begun in 1532, is at the Angelica Library in Rome and now attributed to Ghini’s student Francesco Petrollini, who taught at the University of Bologna.  One of his students, Ulisse Aldrovandi, was also a protégé of Ghini’s.  Aldrovandi had the financial means to amass a large herbarium and a collection of botanical illustrations, as well as other natural history materials and art.  Fifteen volumes of plant material survive in Bologna.  The almost 5000 specimens they contain attest to Aldrovandi’s interest in plants that went beyond the medicinal.  He acquired plants from the eastern Mediterranean, northern Europe, the Americas, and even the Far East.  In many cases, he also had the same plants painted, many from life.

There is interest in such early herbaria because they are physical links to what botanists were looking at and studying at the time.  The botanists were often as interested in receiving seeds.  If they could coax them to germinate, then they would have both living material to study and also to preserve as dried specimens, enough specimens to share with others along with the seeds.  Seeds, unlike specimens, were botanical capital that could increase over time.  While they are less likely to survive than specimens (seeds were capital that was meant to be spent), their importance is documented in surviving letters and other archival materials.  This is how researchers working on another Petrollini herbarium, the En Tibi in Leiden (see last post), were able to find evidence that he had probably received the tomato seeds that produced the plant preserved in his collection from Ghini, who in all likelihood had received them from another of his former students Luigi Anguillara.   

It is these links that are lurking in museums and libraries.  Digitizing specimens and in some cases correspondence will make ferreting out connections easier, but it is still slow and painstaking work.  And work that requires the skills of a historian.  I hate to admit this because I am not a historian and would like to be able to easily find and use the most arcane of materials.  But Google and Wikipedia just don’t cut it.  Even much more sophisticated databases aren’t enough.  That’s why it’s such a joy to read what historians have been able to discover.  In a recent paper, Italian researchers reported finding a specimen of tobacco in the 16th century Erbario Estense preserved in the Modena State Archives (Vicentini et al., 2020).  This is one of only four tobacco specimens of that age in Italy; the others are in Aldrovandi’s collection.  The creator of this herbarium is unknown, but there is evidence that it was made in Ferrara between 1570 and 1598.  It also contains other American species including the tomato which seems to have become ubiquitous in Europe by the end of the century. 

Another important Italian herbarium, this one at the Botanic Garden of Florence, is Andrea Cesalpino’s.  Also one of Ghini’s students, he took over from Ghini as director of the Botanical Garden of Pisa when Ghini returned to Bologna the year before his death (Findlen, 2017).  Cesalpino’s herbarium is particularly important because of its organization.  It was made for a bishop as a way for him to learn about plants and their relationships.  Cesalpino was one of the first to go beyond just describing plants and attempted to organize them by similar traits.  He published on this work but with the herbarium it’s possible to see his theory in action.  Cesalpino also had other collections but this is the only one that survives (Nepi & Gusmerol, 2008). 

It is no wonder that extant herbaria are rare this early in the history of modern botany.  First, preserving specimens had yet to become an essential part of botanical practice.  Pietro Andrea Mattioli, who published a famous translation of the ancient materia medica by Dioscorides, used specimens when writing plant descriptions but then disposed of them.  He later rued this practice.  In other cases, future generations were responsible for the loss.  While Conrad Gessner’s amazing illustrated notebooks remain, his specimens do not, perhaps because his heirs saw the beautiful watercolors as more valuable than the dried “plant skeletons.”  The Neapolitan pharmacist Ferrante Imperato had an 80-volume herbarium but his collection was dispersed about 30 years after his death during a plague in 1656 and only nine volumes remained.  A political uprising in 1799 led to destruction of eight of them.  The remaining volume with 440 plants survives at the National Library of Naples.  A 1903 report on the specimens notes that the collection did not seem to be well taken care of and suffered from insect damage (Giglioli, 1903).

There is a recent update on Imperato’s specimens.  Two researchers studied specimens in the herbarium of the agriculture school at the University of Naples.  They were in the collection of the 18th century botanist Domenico Crillo, who had once owned the nine Imperato volumes.  The specimens were very different from the rest, and when analyzed with a variety of techniques including carbon dating, watermarks, and handwriting analysis, were found to probably have once been part of Imperato’s collection.  (De Natale & Cellinese, 2009).


De Natale, A., & Cellinese, N. (2009). Imperato, Cirillo, and a Series of Unfortunate Events: A Novel Approach to Assess the Unknown Provenance of Historical Herbarium Specimens. Taxon, 58(3), 963–970.

Findlen, P. (2017). The death of a naturalist: Knowledge and Community in Late Renaissance Italy. In G. Manning & C. Klestinec (Eds.), Professors, Physicians and Practices in the History of Medicine (pp. 127–167). New York: Springer.

Giglioli, I. (1903). The herbarium of Ferrante Imperato in Naples. Nature, 67(1735), 296–297.

Nepi, C., & Gusmerol, E. (2008). Gli erbari aretini da Andrea Cesalpino ai giorni nostri. Florence: Firenze University Press.

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.

Open the Treasure Rooms

Tomato specimen from the En Tibi herbarium, Naturalis Biodiversity Center, Leiden

This post’s title comes from Tinde van Andel’s inaugural lecture as Clusius Chair of History of Botany and Gardens at Leiden University in the Netherlands:  Open the Treasure Room and Decolonize the Museum.  Working with a team of researchers, the room van Andel is exploring is at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center and is indeed a particularly rich collection.  It has a number of 16th-century herbaria, including the En Tibi dated to about 1554 and attributed by van Andel and her team to Francesco Petrollini, a student of Luca Ghini who was at least an early proponent if not the originator of preserving pressed specimens (Stefanaki et al., 2019).  Petrollini is also now thought to have created a herbarium in Rome’s Angelica Library that had been attributed to another Ghini student, Gherardo Cibo.  It was begun in 1532, making it the earliest extant collection.

Also in Leiden are herbaria created by Leonhard Rauwolf who collected in France as well as in the Middle East (see earlier post).  Van Andel’s commented in her lecture that when she showed specimens of sorghum, eggplant, and pistachio that Rauwolf had found in agricultural plots in Syria, it was the first time in over 400 years that someone from the Middle East had set on eyes on them.  These plants document what was being grown at the time and may yield DNA revealing more about the history of these crops (Ghorbani et al., 2018).  That they are physical evidence for plants of the past is one reason the collections are treasures.

As another example of what these riches have revealed, van Andel, working with molecular biologists as well as historians, has taken a look at the early history of the tomato in Europe.  They have recently published on this work, presenting specimens as well as illustrations, putting together a possible timeline of how the plant spread through Europe from Spain to Italy and then to northern Europe (Andel et al., 2022).  The fact that there was quite a bit of evidence suggests interest in this strange fruit.  The specimen in En Tibi even has half a tomato attached.  A small portion of a leaf was removed and DNA extracted from it; research suggests that it was a domesticated plant.  Petrollini probably obtained seeds from Ghini, who may have gotten them from a former student Luigi Anguillara, director of the botanical garden in Padua near Venice, which was a busy port where many exotic species arrived.  So this one page of En Tibi reveals much not only about the plant’s biology but also about its history in Europe and about how a tightly knit botanical network enabled rapid transmission not only of information but of seeds and other botanical material. 

For a long time, early herbaria were ignored, as van Andel’s comment about Rauwolf’s collection indicates.  Any pre-Linnaean herbarium that had not been studied by Carl Linnaeus and therefore not used by him in naming species was considered irrelevant to modern botany, which dates from the publication of Linnaeus’s Species Plantarum of 1753.  The collections were deemed worth keeping, but not worth serious study.  This has changed recently for a number of reasons, including the renewed interest in natural history collections in general as sources of information about biodiversity.  There is also interest in botany’s social history as the second half of van Andel’s title suggests:  decolonize the museum.

The Netherlands was an important naval power with an eye on botanical riches such as nutmeg and cinnamon from the East, but any plants of interest were welcomed in the homeland by eager gardeners looking for novelty.   One collection in Naturalis was created around 1587 by an unnamed Dutch collector working in what is now Suriname.  It preserves plants native to the area and also African food plants—okra and sesame (Andel et al., 2012).  This indicates that the plantation culture, with the presence of African enslaved persons, had brought with it new species, one of many examples of the early movement of plants with links to the slave trade.  It shows how herbaria can contribute crucial evidence on cultural and political history and can help clarify portions of history that have long remained hidden, including the early pervasiveness of enslaved labor in the Americas.

I have focused on the Leiden treasure room in this post, but in the others in this series I’ll mention herbaria kept in collections throughout Europe.  Some, like part of Felix Platter’s collection in Basel, had been there for hundreds of years but had only been rediscovered in the 1930s.  Others, like Ulisse Aldrovandi’s in Bologna were cared for over the centuries, but still, it wasn’t investigated until recently.  One reason for the increased attention is that there have been efforts to digitized important cultural collections of all kinds, making the 15 volumes of Aldrovandi’s herbarium available to a wider audience and also making it much easier to compare specimens of the same species from different collections, as done in the paper on the history of the tomato. 

To me this is the exciting thing about what could be considered the renaissance of Renaissance herbaria:  allowing careful study without necessarily disturbing the very fragile originals.  I would love to experience the physical heft of En Tibi or see the pages that Rauwolf saw as he, or an assistant, reinforced/decorated them with patterned paper.  However, the very newest of technologies have made these oldest of specimens available to all, even in the age of covid.  The important thing now is to mine these works thoroughly to learn more about plants and botanists in the early modern era. 


Andel, T. van. (2017). Open the treasure room and decolonize the museum [Inaugural lecture]. Leiden University.

Andel, T. van, Veldman, S., Maas, P., Thijsse, G., & Eurlings, M. (2012). The forgotten Hermann Herbarium: A 17th century collection of useful plants from Suriname. Taxon, 61(6), 1296–1304.

Andel, T. van, Vos, R. A., Michels, E., & Stefanaki, A. (2022). Sixteenth-century tomatoes in Europe: Who saw them, what they looked like, and where they came from. PeerJ, 10, e12790.

Ghorbani, A., Wieringa, J. J., de Boer, H. J., Porck, H., Kardinaal, A., & van Andel, T. (2018). Botanical and floristic composition of the Historical Herbarium of Leonhard Rauwolf collected in the Near East (1573-1575). Taxon, 67(3), 565–580.

Stefanaki, A., Porck, H., Grimaldi, I. M., Thurn, N., Pugliano, V., Kardinaal, A., Salemink, J., Thijsse, G., Chavannes-Mazel, C., Kwakkel, E., & Andel, T. van. (2019). Breaking the silence of the 500-year-old smiling garden of everlasting flowers: The En Tibi book herbarium. PLOS ONE, 14(6), e0217779.

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.


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

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


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. 


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.


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.

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.


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. 


Fleischmann, A., & Gonella, P. M. (2020). Typification and authorship of Drosera intermedia (Droseraceae). Taxon, 69(1), 153–160.

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