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. https://doi.org/10.3366/anh.2019.0561