Plants in Toronto: History of Science

The History of Science Society (HSS) met in Toronto in November, and there were enough plant-related papers on the program to keep me happy.  The trip also gave me the opportunity to visit  the Green Plant Herbarium at the Royal Ontario Museum and investigate its history.  This series of blogs will report on my experiences, beginning with a summary of some the sessions I attended.

For me, the conference was a success because there was a paper about Agnes Arber (1879-1960), a noted plant morphologist who also delved into the history and philosophy of science.  I’ve studied her work for years (Flannery, 2005), but learned something new from Andre Hahn’s paper on her approach to analogy in science.  He is a graduate student at Oregon State University, investigating the influence of Goethe’s botanical work on 20th-century botanists.  Arber (1946) not only produced a translation of Goethe’s The Metamorphosis of Plants, but also used his work as the basis for her morphological argument in The Natural Philosophy of Plant Form (1950).  Hahn focused on Arber’s views on analogy as central to biological inquiry that are outlined not only in this book, but in the later The Mind and the Eye: A Study of the Biologist’s Standpoint (1954).

In the same session, Darryl Brock of the City University of New York described the long-term research Nathaniel Lord Britton, the first director of the New York Botanical Garden, oversaw in Puerto Rico in the early part of the 20th century.  The next day, Elaine Ayers, a grad student at Princeton University, spoke on Rafflesia arnoldii, one of the plants referred to as a corpse flower because of the fetid odor it releases.  It’s also notable for the size of its flower and parasitic habit, but Ayers focused instead on how the plant came to be known in Europe despite the fact that live specimens were impossible to transport from its native Sumatra.  On Saturday there was a session on Pharmacology and Plant Medicine in Global Context that included two papers on Indian medicinal plants.  Both highlighted issues of language, for example, translating not only information but plant names from Persian and Sanskrit into European languages and associating scientific names with names used locally.  One problem was that often the same name was used for different plants in different parts of the India, not surprising because of the country’s size and breadth of ethnic diversity.

Besides these sessions on specific historical topics there was also a wonderful program on 19th–century history of science resources on the web.  Several months ago, I wrote a post in which I described my dreams of digital botanical resources in the future.  At the HSS meeting I was introduced to at least part of that dream coming true.  At the moment, it doesn’t include any herbarium specimens, obviously a major oversight at far as I‘m concerned, but it does link a number of resources that were either not accessible on the web at all, or not available from one portal.

I should say at the outset that this project, called Epsilon, does not yet have an open website, but the developers expect to make it public in September 2018.  It’s definitely something to look forward to.  Epsilon stands for “Epistles of Science in the Long Nineteenth Century,” and this Greek letter is used as a variable in many branches of science and has meanings including “set membership” and “elasticity.”  These last were attractive to Epsilon’s developers because they see this “collaborative digital framework for c19 letters of science” as being flexible in that it can expand and include many nineteenth-century scientists, so membership in the set will increase over time.  This enterprise grew out of the Darwin Correspondence Project, which began in the 1970s with the aim of publishing all letters that could be found to or from Charles Darwin.  The publication of the last of 30 volumes will be completed by Cambridge University Press in a few years.  Open online access follows four years after the publication of each volume.  The letters have not only been transcribed but also heavily footnoted with background information and references.

At the moment, Epsilon plans to include the Darwin correspondence as well as that of John Stevens Henslow, Joseph Dalton Hooker, Michael Faraday, and John Tyndall.  Leaders of the Epsilon project presented at the HSS meeting because they wanted to make it better known among historians of science who would of course be major users of its resources.  As Epsilon is expanding beyond Darwin and beyond biology, it also hopes to expand beyond British science.  Obviously, John Torrey and Asa Gray came to my mind immediately.  Their correspondence, held by New York Botanical Garden and Harvard University respectively, has already been transcribed and is digitally available through these institution’s library websites and also through the Biodiversity Heritage Library.  If this is the case, what would be the advantage of adding them to Epsilon as well?  The most obvious answer is that they would be searchable at once along with all the other correspondence, including that of Darwin and Hooker with whom Torrey and Gray exchanged many letters.  Also, the interface for Epsilon will introduce new search features making it easier to delve deeply into these collections.  It is definitely something to look forward to in 2018.  Until then, botanists can find the Hooker correspondence at the website of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew and the Henslow papers through the Darwin Correspondence Project site.


Arber, A. R. (1946). Goethe’s botany. Chronica Botanica, 10, 63–126.

Arber, A. R. (1950). The Natural Philosophy of Plant Form. Cambridge: University Press.

Arber, A. R. (1954). The Mind and the Eye: A Study of the Biologist’s Standpoint. Cambridge: University Press.


Plants in Sweden: Herbaria 3.0

4 Herbaria 3

Herbaria 3.0 website

In the last three posts (1, 2, 3), I’ve discussed various aspects of my trip to Sweden, and now I finally want to get to why I traveled there.  I had been invited to join a group of researchers headed by Tina Gianquitto, an associate professor of literature at the Colorado School of Mines, and her co-principal investigator, Dawn Sanders of Gothenburg University in Sweden, where our group met.  Also involved are Lauren LaFauci of Sweden’s Linköping University and Terry Hodge of the University of Wisconsin, Madison.  The project is called Herbaria 3.0 and is funded by Swedish environmental agencies through the Seed Box: A Mistra-Formas Environmental Humanities Collaboratory hosted at Linköping University.  In this program, fifteen projects were awarded “seed money” to explore ways that diverse disciplines can work together on environmental issues.

The title Herbaria 3.0 is explained this way on the project’s newly-launched website, which is becoming a platform for sharing stories about plants and people:  “The original herbaria constitute the ‘1.0’ of our project; the collection of these specimens in real and digital herbaria constitute the ‘2.0.’  In ‘Herbaria 3.0,’ we offer a place for the telling and retelling of plant stories, revealing hidden histories, and provoking new narratives.  Here we aim to create a bright spot of hope, just as plants have shown resilience in the face of change.”  As to the why of the project, we wrote:  “We believe that these stories can draw our attention to the intertwined nature of human-plant relationships.  Turning to these relationships helps us to remember plants and reconnect with them, acknowledging the pivotal role plants play in our lives.”

When I say that “we wrote” this, I mean it quite literally.  Two of us (Tina and Lauren) are professors of literature, so they guided us into using words carefully.  That’s fitting, since this project is as much about words as it is about plants.  It involves people’s memories and ideas about plants put into words to share with others.  We tested out our ideas about the website by sharing some of our own stories about plants.  Terry said that he first became really aware of plants as a high school student working in a nursery.  His job was to water the trees, and he learned that he had to attend to each one of them because they had different needs; he thus began to see the trees.  Tina shared a story about a Christmas cactus Schlumbergera bridgesii that has been in her family for years.  When she told this story to Italian friends, they said that in Italy it’s not known as a Christmas cactus but as mother-in-law’s tongue.  In the US, the snake plant Sansevieria trifasciata is saddled with that name; both have sharp leaves.  For Terry and Tina, there are emotional ties in these memories, and that’s part of what we are trying to emphasize in our project:  humans have feelings about plants, and this aspect of our relationship with nature needs to be foregrounded.

In the earlier Beyond Plant Blindness project that Dawn Sanders headed (see earlier posts), researchers asked student teachers simply:  “What is your favorite plant and why?”  Irma Brkovic, a psychologist at Gothenburg University, coded the answers and found that they usually involved emotions:  words like “love” and “feel” were used often.  In many cases, as with Terry and Tina, the answers entailed memories, stories, and family.  There was real connection with the plants.  Our aim in Herbaria 3.0 is to foreground these connections in the digital world, and broaden people’s relationships with each other as well as with plants.  Here “herbaria” is being used as a metaphor for a collection of plants, plants that are linked to people.  In botanical herbaria, real plants are collected and preserved; in ours, stories about plants are collected and linked to digital herbarium records.  So a story about the Christmas cactus Schlumbergera bridgesii will link to a specimen for this species, as well as to other information about the plant and its metaphorical relationships.  There will also be other images because most of us fall in love with plants by looking at them.   Photographs, paintings, and sculptures will be used because plants are so visually appealing, they deserve to be presented in visually exciting ways.  And since the project involves a metaphor, there’ll be links to poetry and fiction.  In other words, we plan to make Herbaria 3.0 a hub for the digital humanities and sciences, a place where connections among people and disciplines can be formed through plants.  In the process, we also hope that there will be a deepening concern for the environment, for plants as fundamentals components of our lives and our ecosystems.

This seems to be a lot to ask of one website, and especially one that is being created by a small group of people with a small grant.  However, remember, this is a Seed Box grant.  Consider what an acorn eventually becomes, or a tiny orchid seed.  What better metaphor could there be for our efforts?  No wonder we are optimistic about what we can achieve.  If you want to see how we are doing, please visit the Herbaria 3.0 website and follow us Instagram (Herbaria3.0).  Also, share your plant stories and encourage others to do so.  If we are going to grow into an oak, we are going to need a great deal of fertilizer that only you can provide.

Plants in Sweden: Seeing Plants

3 Dahlias

Dahlias at the Gothenburg Botanical Garden

As is evident in my last two posts (1,2), my recent trip to Gothenburg, Sweden was all about plants, and in particular about engaging people with plants so that they can come to value them more.   It’s almost impossible to bring up this topic without using the term “plant blindness.”   Sometimes I think the phrase is becoming so common that it’s losing some of its punch, in part because it has been so successful in calling attention to the green world.  Plants are coming into their own, and people are beginning to appreciate how important they are to climate stability, air quality, and even human temperament.  But I don’t think this disease has been by any means eradicated, and it has taken a long time for the term to seep into the collective consciousness.  After all, it has been around since the 1990s when it was coined by James Wandersee and Elizabeth Schussler (1998).  Interest in it remained low-keyed for years, somewhat like a dormant seed, but one that finally germinates.  A recent manifestation of its coming into its own is a good op-ed piece in The New York Times earlier this year on curing plant blindness by learning tree names.   Gabriel Popkin argues that just looking isn’t enough, the experience of trees is deepened when they can be identified and named.  My own personal plant blindness was cured by herbaria.  When I became interested in them several years ago, the world of plants opened up for me.  I wanted to learn about them and to really see them, to observe them more closely, to not just walk by a tree and name it as an oak, but carefully look at it:  acorns, leaves, buds, and bark.

Traveling gives me the opportunity to look at different plants.  I wouldn’t say that plants are all I look for.  I love to visit museums, eat nice meals, window shop, and simply walk through unfamiliar areas.  However, I do look at plants and seek them out, much more than I did before I developed my passion for plants (see photo above).  I am not much of a botanist, so I can’t identify many species, but I’m improving.  I can remember what Susan Pell, who is now deputy director as well as science and programs manager of the US Botanic Garden in Washington DC, said when I took a plant systematics course with her several years ago at New York Botanical Garden (NYBG).  She argued that learning some systematics would make it possible to begin to identify at least plant families and to make sense of taxonomy.  I didn’t think it was possible for me, but I have to admit that frequent and repeated exposure to plants and plant labels in herbaria and in botanical gardens has helped me to at least guess that what I’m looking at belongs to the Ranunculaceae, Asteraceace, Fabaceace, or one of the other large families.  And I am getting it right more and more often.  I know that isn’t much, but it’s something and something that gives me a thrill when I test myself and then look at labels in a botanic garden and find out that my guess was correct.  I’ve come to a greater appreciation for these labels recently for another reason:  a blog post from NYBG on the staff who create the labels.  It isn’t an easy task to keep up with a shifting collection,  and labels that are exposed to all kinds of weather.

When I visited the Gothenburg Botanical Garden, I was cheered to find that they too do a good job of labeling their plants, both outdoors and in their conservatory.  Also, I was grateful to Carl Linnaeus and his Latin binomial system so I didn’t have to worry about recognizing plant names in Swedish.  Going at the end of September might not seem like a great time to see flowers blooming, but there was a great perennial bed with many fall blooms (see photo above), and another of dahlias.   When I returned a few days later, the plants in this bed had been ripped out, but the flowers were given one less chance to shine:  they had been cut off and floated in a pond at the garden’s entrance (see photo below).

3b Dahlias

Dahlias floating in a pool at the Gothenburg Botanical Garden

This lovely touch is indicative of what seems to be a reverence for plants in Sweden that makes the job of countering plant blindness there somewhat easier than in other countries.  This was pointed out to me by Lauren LaFauci, who moved to Sweden two years ago and works at Linköping University.  The very fact that the Beyond Plant Blindness project at Gothenburg University received generous funding from the Swedish government is indicative of this.  In addition, two Swedish funding agencies, Mistra and Formas, are supporting our grant Herbaria 3.0 project through Seed Box, an environmental humanities collaboratory (see next post).  It aims at bringing disciplines together around environmental issues, and it’s nice to see a plant metaphor used for its name.  Obviously, Sweden has a long, dark winter, but it would be hard to tell that in late September when the days were still quite long and the weather, at least when I was there, was mild enough for outdoor dining.  The term “seed box” implies preparation for the winter and for the future, saving seed to grow next year’s plants, and in a way, our project is designed to nourish the seeds of interest in plants that I would argue hide within each of us.


Wandersee, J., & Schussler, E. (1998). Preventing Plant Blindness. American Biology Teacher, 61(2), 82-86.

Plants in Sweden: Specimens and Photos

2 Gothenburg BG

Gothenburg Botanical Garden, September 2017

As I wrote in my last post, I recently spent a week in Sweden at a planning meeting for a grant on increasing people’s awareness of plants.  Among those I met was Eva Nyberg, a senior lecturer in biology in the Department of Pedagogical, Curricular and Professional Studies at Sweden’s University of Gothenburg.  When she learned that I was interested in herbaria, she mentioned her surprise at discovering that when another professor took over a course that she had taught and had always included students’ collecting plants and making herbarium specimens, they were now taking photographs of plants rather than collecting specimens.  She thought there was something lost in this shift and I totally agree.  Here I want to discuss what’s lost, which I think is considerable.  However, in the interest of full disclosure, I also have to admit that during my Scandinavian visit, I took many photos of plants, especially to record what I saw in botanic gardens (see photo above), and I produced no herbarium specimens.  Of course, I didn’t have permission to collect nor to bring foreign plant material back into the US.  But leaving that out of the picture, it is also much less time consuming to take a picture, even though I was careful to label each, something I wasn’t so conscientious about than in the past.  I also made a few sketches, a much slower process, but one that requires more observation and therefore more learning and experiencing of plant form.

When it is possible to make specimens, it’s an experience that isn’t replicated by photography or drawing.  A student has a very different physical relationship with a plant in taking a photo of it versus making a specimen of it.  The latter is a far richer way of knowing the plant.  Photography is about distance, about not getting too close to the subject, and it really doesn’t make much difference what the subject is, almost anything can be photographed.  Not everything can be preserved by being pressed between sheets of newspaper.  Also, the physical contact with the plant provides much sensory engagement:  the smell of leaves and flowers, the sticky or velvety or prickly feel of stems, the snap sound of breaking off a dry branch.  What I am talking about is the materiality of the plant, and materiality of almost everything is something we tend to take for granted or neglect to appreciate, especially in our increasingly virtual world.   There is also the process of selection: what is to be collected, what constitutes a good specimen  Yes, selection decisions are also made in taking a photo—angle, proximity, inclusiveness—but these decisions are often done in a matter of seconds and usually don’t involve as much physical rummaging amid the plant material.

Then there is the crucial tactile process of arranging the material for pressing.   This requires a combination of knowledge of what needs to be displayed and of how this particular specimen responds to manipulation, as well as manual dexterity in setting all parts of the specimen in place.  Though an important skill, such manual work is less and less common today.  An art professor I know bemoans the fact that art students come to college much less adept at the physical manipulation of materials than they were in the past.  If art students are deficient, where does that leave students in less hands-on fields?  Then there is all the work involved in arranging the dried specimens on a sheet, labeling them properly, and gathering stray material in a small envelope attached to the sheet.  When I made my first specimen labels I felt a sense of responsibility that I don’t feel when I name a photograph.  The label seems a more public record, something that could last a long time and be seen by many eyes, something with my name attached.  The metadata is not just virtual as it is with a digital photo, it’s right there in black and white.

I would also argue that there is a greater sense of accomplishment in producing five or ten herbarium sheets compared to five or ten photographs of plants.  Again, there is the physicality which is more multifaceted than are photos, even if printed.  Also, in many cases, the specimens, if they are well done, are added to the permanent collection of the institution’s herbarium.  In digitizing specimens at the University of South Carolina’s A.C. Moore Herbarium, I often come across specimens that were created by students 10 or 20 or more years ago.  I assume they are students, because the collection numbers are in the single digits.  They many not have gone on to further work in botany, but they have left a permanent record at their alma mater.

There is one more issue I want to mention:  pressed doesn’t mean totally two-dimensional.  Flattened specimens still have depth and texture, they give a much better sense of the materiality of a plant than any photograph could (Flannery, 2012).  They almost invite inspection because of their physicality.  They have more of a presence than a photograph does.  This is something that a student might not be fully aware of, but nonetheless, it has a subliminal effect on their experience of the plant.   That was what was at the heart of my conversation with Eva Nyberg:  how to most effectively engage students with plants, and the more multisensory experience involved, the better.  In my next post I’ll continue with this theme.

Plants in Sweden: Specimens and Art

1 Santalum

Specimen of Santalum fernandezianum from the University of Gothenburg Herbarium

In September I spent a week at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.  I participated in planning meetings for a project called Herbaria 3.0, which I’ll describe in the last post in this series.  But first I want to delve into some of the plants and people I met along the way.  On my first day in Gothenburg, I caught up with two members of our group.  Terry Hodge is a graduate student in the horticultural program at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where his research deals with tomato breeding.  Dawn Sanders is a senior lecturer in the Department of Pedagogical, Curricular and Professional Studies at the University of Gothenburg and the lead researcher on a project called “Beyond Plant Blindness: Seeing the Importance of Plants for a Sustainable World.”  This was an interdisciplinary endeavor focusing on student teachers’ perceptions of plants and on finding ways to foster appreciation of the importance of plants for a sustainable world.

One aspect of the project involved the Gothenburg Botanical Garden where we headed to meet Claes Gustafsson, the curator at the University’s herbarium which is housed adjacent to the garden.  The collection has about 1.6 million specimens, though as with most large herbaria, the exact number is still unknown.  The type specimens have been scanned and digitized as part of the Global Plants Initiative and are available on the web through JSTOR Global Plants and also at Sweden’s Virtual Herbarium.  The herbarium also includes specimens from one of the most noted botanists at Gothenburg, Carl Skottsberg (1880-1963), who founded the herbarium and who collected in Antarctica and South America as well as in the Pacific, including on the Hawaiian Islands and on Easter Island.

Dawn Sanders asked Claus if he had any good plant stories to share about the specimens in the collection, since the focus of our project is on stories that link plants and people.  It only took Claus a minute to decide on what he wanted to show us.  He produced a specimen of a tree in the sandalwood family, Santalum fernandezianum F.PH., which is now extinct but was collected in 1908 by Skottsberg on Más Afuera, one of the Juan Fernandez Islands, where Robinson Crusoe was set (see photo above).   The tree was native to these islands off the coast of Chile, and this specimen is from the last known tree of that species.  It was the only one left on the island and none have been found since.   Claus showed us the article Skottsberg wrote about his visit and about the tree; he was also able to find the original photograph used in the article, and a slice of wood taken from a dead branch of the tree (See photo below).  The wood, with the species name scrawled in pencil across it, has a label attached and still retains a little of the sandalwood scent even though the hook protruding from it suggests it hung in Skottsberg’s office for many years.  Claus mentioned that Skottsberg was well known among Hawaiian botanists because of his work on those islands, and I have found a book he wrote that was translated into English, The Natural History of Juan Fernandez and Easter Island.  We left thinking that the sad story of the Juan Fernandez sandalwood would definitely be highlighted in our project.  Discovering a story like this is what I love about visiting a herbarium.  And I’m sure that Claus could have shared many more if we had had the time.

1b Santalum wood

Slice of S. fernandezianum wood from the University of Gothenburg Herbarium

After our meeting, we stayed at the garden to see parts of an art installation done by Bryndis Snaebjörnsdóttir and Mark Wilson.  There were three separate elements, in three different areas of the garden.  Unfortunately, we arrived at the tail end of the exhibit, and one part had already been dismantled.  It was an eight-meter long tapestry depicting a scanning electron microscope (SEM) picture of a Stipa pennata seed, a long graceful structure adapted to be wind dispersed.  I would have loved to have seen this work because it was made from an image constructed with 26 separate scanning electron microscope (SEM) scans.  At the reception building was the second part of the exhibit, a series of SEM scans of the seeds of 14 other species.  In the background of each was a grayed-out photo of the plant itself, and beneath the scan, a description of the plant written by a long-time Gothenburg gardener.  The artists’ aim was to help the viewer see plants in a different way, to focus on the seed when usually the adult plant is what’s most apparent.  To further illustrate the connection between the two, the exhibit also included pots where seeds of each species were grown, some more successfully than others.  The exhibit’s third part was further into the garden, and on the way we passed the garden’s café where Dawn introduced us to the Swedish custom of Fika, or an afternoon snack, of which we all approved.  That readied us for the climb to a wooden shelter where two photographs of a field of wild flowers including Stipa pennata had been printed on Plexiglas and mounted in the open areas of the shelter (see photo below).  Outside there was also a patch of the grass growing so a visitor could experience the same plant in different ways.

1c Wildflower installation at Gothenburg BG

Installation by Bryndis Snaebjörnsdóttir and Mark Wilson at the Gothenburg Botanical Garden

This garden tour was a wonderful way to prepare for the work on our project.  We had experienced plants in many different ways—as dried specimens, as art, and as living beings.  The visit also gave us a taste of what Dawn’s plant blindness project was aiming to achieve, and what our project could add to that effort.  In my next post, I will write about another biology educator at the University of Gothenburg and our discussion of herbarium specimens.

Books Old and New, Part 4: Gods of Nomenclature

4 Gods

University of Chicago Press, Chicago. (2008)

As I was packing books for my move, which was the impetus for this series of posts on books (1, 2, 3) I’ve acquired in the past and more recently, I came across excellent books by the St. Louis University botanist, Peter Bernhardt.  The first was Wily Violets and Underground Orchids (1989) that drew on his general knowledge of botany and also on his orchid research, particularly in Australia.  Then came Natural Affairs (1993) on relationships between plants and humans and The Rose’s Kiss (1999) that dealt with flower structures and how they function, particularly in luring pollinators.  All these books made the cut and are now safely on bookshelves in my new home, though I couldn’t tell you their precise location—there is little order to the collection at the moment.

The latest Bernhardt book for the general reader is God’s and Goddesses in the Garden: Greco-Roman Mythology and the Scientific Names of Plants (2008).  This too made the trip and is the one I most wanted to reread.  I’ve done that now and want to share some of its gems with you.  This is probably the most technical of Bernhardt’s books because of its topic.  In order to make his point that the names of plants are in many cases as fascinating as the organisms themselves, he introduces the basics of taxonomy and botanical nomenclature—and of mythology as well.  Because he is such a good writer, Bernhardt does this admirably.  I may be prejudiced in his favor since he begins the first chapter with a section called “Inside the Herbarium.”  He starts with a passage from Ovid’s Metamorphosis in which the poet quotes the one-eyed mythic monster the Cyclops on the fruits growing in the garden and why it’s impossible to give precise scientific names to some of them, particularly the plums.  It would be necessary to have more information, and ideally a voucher, a herbarium specimen of the plant cited.  That’s Bernhardt’s clever segue into the importance of scientific names as the only way to be sure of what a writer is really talking about.

Next comes, not surprisingly, a section on Linnaean nomenclature, where Bernhardt not only explains the basis of binomial nomenclature and why it was so needed, but also describes how Carl Linnaeus is responsible for so many of the mythological plant names.  Linnaeus was not exactly a new Adam, although he has sometimes been described this way.  While every scientific plant name used today dates from 1753, the date of publication of his Species Plantarum, or later, he didn’t begin with a totally clean slate.  He adapted many plant names that had long been in use, which is why names in 16th and 17th-century herbals often seem familiar.  However, he still had to supply many new genus names, and for this he chose to rely on Greco-Roman mythology.

Where plant names come from is the subject of Bernhardt’s second chapter.  He begins with the easiest category, plants named after people, real people not mythological ones.  Some genus and particularly species names are given to honor a noted botanist, though at times the honor is bestowed on a statesman, a spouse, or even a celebrity:  Lady Gaga has a fern genus named after her.  Also common are species names derived from geographical locations where the plant was found.  Then there are the descriptive names, telling something about the plant, such as that it has glossy leaves or a large flower.  While these may be used for either genera or species, most classical names designate genera.

How did Linnaeus choose names from myth?  The answers provide the heart of Bernhardt’s book.  After the two introductory chapters, he starts each of the following with a brief exposition of a classical myth, including the names of the characters and what happens to them.  Then he describes how these names have ended up associated with plants.  He begins with the Greek creation myth related by the poet Hesiod in which day and night are given names, with night called Nyx.  This explains Nyctaginia or night blooming flower and Nyctocalos, beautiful at night.  In some cases the names have less straightforward allusions, as with the banana genus Musa.  This is an Asian plant, but it was Arab traders who brought it to the West, and Linnaeus is referring to that connection in the name.  Also, Muslims call bananas trees of paradise, so Linnaeus named the common banana of the time Musa paradisiaca and even wrote a book about it in 1736.  In regaling the reader with these stories, Bernhardt notes that some of the most intriguing names are no longer botanically accurate because of nomenclatural changes.  Since many of these names were given by Linnaeus, it stands to reason that over the years more and more of them will fade due to name changes for taxonomic reasons, despite their beauty and ingenuity.

This is a book that is best dipped into rather than read straight through.  It’s extremely rich in names, stories, and plant information, and might cause intellectual indigestion if experienced in high doses.  However, for anyone who loves plants, it’s definitely worth reading because it fosters an appreciation for botanical nomenclature which often seems unwieldy to say the least.  Bernhardt’s book may even drive you to other sources on the subject such as Stearn’s Botanical Latin (1992) and Lorraine Harrison’s Latin for Gardeners (2012).


Bernhardt, P. (1989). Wily Violets and Underground Orchids. New York: William Morrow.

Bernhardt, P. (1993). Natural Affairs: A Botanist Looks at the Attachments between Plants and People. New York: Villard.

Bernhardt, P. (1999). The Rose’s Kiss: A Natural History of Flowers. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bernhardt, P. (2008). Gods and Goddesses in the Garden: Greco-Roman Mythology and the Scientific Names of Plants. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Harrison, L. (2012). Latin for Gardener’s. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Linnaeus, C. (1736). Musa Cliffortiana. Leiden, The Netherlands.

Stearn, W. T. (1992). Botanical Latin (4th ed.). Portland, OR: Timber Press.

Books Old and New, Part 3: Irish Natural History

3 Ireland

McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal, Canada (1997)

This series of blog posts (1, 2) is called “Books Old and New” because I’m covering some that I read years ago and others that are recent publications.  A book that was published 20 years ago, but is new to me is Nature in Ireland (Foster, 1997), a collection of essays that runs the gamut from geological history to present-day issues in forest conservation.  There is botany here, but I didn’t read this book primarily for that, but rather because I am attempting to finally get to know my parent’s native land from the biological perspective.  I’ve been steeped in its culture and history from birth, and since my mother did win a school prize in botany, I learned something of its plant life.  However, this mostly amounted to her complaining about plants that grew well in Ireland, such as primroses, but had to be coaxed in hotter and drier New York.

My mother learned in school that the Irish terrain resembled a soup bowl in that most of the mountains were along the coast with flat plains in the center.  Nothing is that simple, of course, but the first essay, “The Testimony of the Rocks” by John Feehan explains why this is so.  Feehan does a good job of illustrating how the Irish landscape came to be, and why the land in many areas is so rugged and filled with limestone.  His work is a good reminder that in order to understand plants, it’s necessary to understand the substrate on which they grow.  The most intriguing thing I learned here is that oldest known land plant, Cooksonia, can be found in Silurian fossils (428 Ma) from Devil’s Bit Mountain, a name I remember because my grandmother came from near there, and my mother explained that the gap in the mountain was said to be caused by the devil taking a bite out of it.

Several chapters deal with the history of Irish nature study, noting that the first written accounts date from a St. Augustin (not the St. Augustine) in the 8th century, a work studied by the biologist/polymath D’Arcy Thompson.  The next such treatment was by a visitor named Giraldus in the 12th century; some of the information there may have come from natives.  The first report of Irish plants to go into print appears to be that of Richard Heaton, a British cleric posted to Ireland in 1630.  By this time the country was well under Britain’s thumb, so much of the work that follows was done by Anglo-Irish or British botanists.  Arthur Rowdon was a prominent landowner with one of the first greenhouses in Ireland.  He is important to botany because he was a friend of the botanical collector Hans Sloane through whom the British botanist William Sherard came to live at Rowdon’s estate, perhaps as a tutor for his sons.  Sherard studied Irish plants and eventually became professor of botany at Oxford.  He was a friend of another Irishman, Thomas Molyneux, who acquired a herbarium created by the 17th-century pharmacist Antoni Gaymans.  This collection was annotated by Sherard and is still extant (Heniger & Sosef, 1989).  These are the kinds interesting side paths that run through the book.

Another one involves Caleb Threlkeld, who wrote the first Irish flora in 1727.  There is evidence that he must have seen a copy of Heaton’s work, and some of his text is derivative, using material from John Ray’s treatment of Irish plants.  However, Threlkeld made a real contribution of his own by noting when and where he saw the plants he described.  Also, present-day Irish botanists have studied old specimens at the Trinity College, Dublin herbarium and make a case that these were collected by Threlkeld, thus substantiating his observations (Doogue & Parnell, 1992).  The Trinity herbarium was also home base for the algologist William Henry Harvey, who added substantially to its collection with specimens from South Africa and Australia, including his reference herbarium from his visit to the latter.

When I met the Trinity herbarium’s present keeper, John Parnell, he emphasized that Harvey did many of his own illustrations, even to the point of making the engravings, because he wanted to insure the accuracy of what went into print.  Harvey’s work is magnificent, but it is not among the few botanical illustrations reproduced in the book, which is generally short on images.  There is, however, a chapter on “The Art of Nature Illustration” by Martyn Anglesea that cites several noted Irish artists, and highlights two who worked at another Dublin herbarium, that of the National Botanic Gardens of Ireland.  I have seen some of the work of Lydia Shackelton and Alice Jacob at the garden and it is amazing, especially the watercolors they did of orchids for Frederick Moore—a herbarium curator and expert on the family.

Before leaving this book, I have to mention Robert Lloyd Praeger who wrote The Way I Went, what some consider the best book for the general reader on the natural history and topography of Ireland.  He is most noted for his leadership of the Clare Island Survey (1909-1915), which involved over 100 amateurs and professionals and resulted in a landmark publication that set the bar high for future such European studies (Jones & Steer, 2009).  The Royal Irish Academy added to its value by funding a new survey of the island to mark the hundredth anniversary of the first.


Doogue, D., & Parnell, J. (1992). Fragments of an eighteenth century herbarium, possibly that of Caleb Threlkeld, in Trinity College, Dublin (TCD). Glasra, 1(2), 99–109.

Foster, J. W. (Ed.). (1997). Nature in Ireland. Montreal, Canada: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Heniger, J., & Sosef, M. S. M. (1989). Antoni Gaymans (ca 1630–1680) and his herbaria. Archives of Natural History, 16(2), 147–168.

Jones, R., & Steer, M. (2009). Darwin, Praeger and the Clare Island Surveys. Dublin: Royal Irish Academy.

Praeger, R. Ll. (1937). The Way That I Went. Dublin, Ireland: Hodges, Figgis.

Threlkeld, C. (1727). Synopsis stirpium Hibernicarum alphabeticæ dispositarum. Dublin, Ireland: Powell.

Books Old and New, Part 2: Botanical Monkeys and a Suitcase

2 Corner

Landmark Press, Singapore (2013)

The last post was the first in a series on books I’ve encountered—both recently and in the past—and found interesting.  This entry focuses on two books with intriguing titles.  The first is Botanical Monkeys, published by E.J.H. Corner in 1992.  The title is more literal than you might think.  It deals with this British botanist’s use of southern pig-tailed macaques or beroks, Macaca nemestrina, to collect specimens in Malaya (now part of Malaysia) in the 1930s.   In an earlier post, I dealt with the frustration of botanists whose specimens get destroyed by insects and mold in rainforest environments.  Another cause of frustration in such areas is the difficulty of obtaining specimens of hard-to-reach species, particularly epiphytes living high up in the tree canopy.  Today there are sophisticated rope and pulley systems that make the forest’s upper reaches more accessible, but when Corner was collecting there was no such technology.  He found small trees scalable, it was in obtaining flowers and fruits from mid-sized and very tall trees that he needed help.  He had to wait for foresters to fell large trees before he could obtain canopy plants.

As early as 1929, Corner had noted that a berok would climb a tall coconut tree and twist off the nuts.  When he suggested using the monkeys for collecting, his colleagues discouraged him by noting that even if the animals could be taught to grab specimens, these would probably get caught in the lower tree limbs when they threw the plants down.  But he remembered the idea.  Later he saw a berok pull flowering twigs from a mango tree and select a bunch of fruit from a rambutan tree, related to the lychee.  With its teeth it also tugged off a pigeon orchid from a branch and some mistletoe.  When they were dropped, none got caught on the way down.  While other monkeys also foraged in the trees, beroks seemed particularly good candidates to become collectors because they liked to hear material crashing down.

To put his plan into operation, Corner captured a few young beroks and taught them to twist off palm nuts.  He would keep a collector on a rope and slap the trunk of the next tree to get it to move on, at the same time loosening the cord.  He also gave verbal commands, and one monkey knew 24 Malay words.  Merlah, the first one he trained, collected specimens from more than 300 species of trees.  In appreciation, Corner named a species after him.  Another collector, Putch, was so well-trained that he was allowed to go off on his own.  Sometimes Putch would spend 15 minutes collecting, eating, and playing before reemerging.  Corner would take notes and then shout and hit the next tree.  Needless to say, there were sometimes problems.  For example, the animals were trained to rip off branches with leaves, but they would ignore the flowers; it took time to get them to collect both.

This botanical and zoological experiment ended, as does Corner’s book, with the Japanese invasion of Malaya.  However, this is where another oddly titled book gets interesting.  A few years ago I read a review of My Father in His Suitcase by John K. Corner (2013), who is E.J.H. Corner’s son.  It cost $100 at the time and I wasn’t that intrigued, but I kept checking its price on used book websites until it came down to about $30; then I was willing to satisfy my curiosity.  There is a great and difficult story behind this odd title.  Even though E.J.H. didn’t die until 1996, John Corner, who was called Kay, left home in 1960 at the age of 19 and never saw his father again.  E.J.H. was divorced from Kay’s mother and his second wife did not relate well to Kay, who also had a difficult relationship with his father.  Because of this deep estrangement, Kay was surprised when a cousin received a suitcase stuffed with papers shortly after E.J.H.’s death.  It was labeled: “To Kay, wherever he might be.”  That was the only message, and Kay was so bitter that it was years before he even opened the bag.  Despite urging from his wife and other family members, he couldn’t bring himself to do it until he had retired and they had moved to Australia.  In the case he discovered an odd combination of letters, school reports, scientific articles, and other memorabilia.  He became intrigued by what he found, carefully studying the material and contacting relatives as well as those who had known his father to learn more about this man whom he had mentally attempted to bury for so long.

Kay’s book is hardly a conventional biography.  It’s main sources came out of that suitcase and were the means through which he came to know his father better.  The son writes of his father’s years working in Malaya, including his stormy marriage to Kay’s mother, his botanical research, and his work in Japanese-occupied Malaya.  This last is a difficult subject because many consider the senior Corner a traitor for his collaboration with the Japanese who allowed him to maintain the botanical garden he headed.  Kay defends E.J.H.’s work saving important Malay plant collections and then describes some of his father’s later contributions to botany including his years as a professor of tropical biology at Cambridge University, but it is the personal side that dominates.  It’s a most affecting and unusual portrait of a botanist.  In the end, it doesn’t seem that John Corner has come to like his father, but his views are much richer and more ambivalent than they were when he first undid the suitcase’s clasps.


Corner, E. J. H. (1992). Botanical Monkeys. Edinburgh, UK: Pentland Press.

Corner, J. K. (2013). My Father in His Suitcase. Singapore: Landmark.

Books Old and New, Part 1: Notebooks and Sketchbooks

1 Notebook

Firefly Press, Buffalo, NY (2016)

I recently moved house after 30 years and decided it was a good time to cull my books.  Years ago I had read that Doris Grumbach, a writer, professor of literature, and professional book reviewer, tried to de-acquisition half her books every time she moved.  I attempted to follow suit, no small task.  I did pretty well, and one outcome of the exercise is that I was reminded of books I had read and loved in the past, but hadn’t considered in some time.  In this series of blogs I want to share a couple of them because I think they are worth passing on.  Also, I have to admit that since moving, I’ve bought a few more books.  After all, any collection—of herbarium specimens or books—grows stagnant if not “curated” and nourished.  So I’ll cover a couple of these, too.

One of the latter is Explorers’ Botanical Notebook (Thinard, 2016).  When I leafed through it in the library, I decided I had to own it.  It’s an obvious choice for this blog because it’s full of photos of herbarium specimens drawn from the collections of the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew in Britain and the University of Montpellier in France.  As the title implies, the book is about exploration and is organized as two-page spreads, with the description of an expedition on the left, and the photo of a related herbarium specimen on the right.  Many obvious voyages are included such as Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander on Captain James Cook’s first circumnavigation of the globe, the Lewis and Clark expedition, and Charles Darwin on the Beagle.

For each voyage there is a relevant specimen.  The problem is that the level of relevance varies, one reason being that the book includes very early travels dating back long before the development of herbaria—and I do mean very early.  The first is the expedition Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt mounted around 1465 BCE to search for sources of myrrh and frankincense for embalming.  This shows that plant hunting definitely has a long history, but the frankincense (Boswellia carterii) specimen pictured is from 1875.  In this case, as for the discussion of Alexander the Great’s plant finds during his conquests (334-325 BCE) and Marco Polo’s travels on the Silk Road, there is obviously no physical botanical evidence to display.  However, for other exploits there are, even relatively early ones such as the pirate William Dampier’s plants collected in Western Australia in 1699 and Joseph Pitton de Tournefort’s specimens from the Levant at about the same time.  I assume that they are not pictured because there were no relevant specimens in the two collections used as source material.  However, there is another disconnect that may or may not be related to availability of relevant sheets.  For example, there is a four-page spread on David Livingstone and John Kirk’s exploits on the Zambezi River, but the plants pictured aren’t mentioned in the text.  This is frustrating and makes the presence of the specimen much less compelling, even though they were collected by Kirk.

I know that I’ve been rather negative about this book, so why do I even bother to review it here?  Well, it does provide an opportunity to look at some beautiful and historically important specimens.  While the Kew and Montpellier collections have certain deficiencies, they also have remarkable strengths.  After all, Kew is one of the most comprehensive herbaria in the world and some of its treasures are displayed here, including specimens collected by  Charles Darwin and Joseph Dalton Hooker.  There are also wonderful stories such as that about the specimens of Jacques Julien La Billardière who traveled from France to the Pacific.  Neither he nor his plants had an easy time of it.  He was a French royalist and when word reached the ship in Java that Louis XVI had been guillotined, the republicans on board rebelled and handed La Billardière over to the Dutch who imprisoned him and confiscated his collections.  The Dutch ship carrying his specimens was captured by the British, and the Frenchman’s specimens ended up with the British botanist Joseph Banks.  In a noteworthy example of international solidarity among scientists, even when their countries were at war, Banks sent the crates back to France without even opening them.

I had read this story before, but it’s worth revisiting, and the same is true of many of the book’s entries.  If you are well-versed in the history of botany, there isn’t much to learn in these brief treatments, but for those with an amateur interest in plants, there’s a great deal of good material here.  Two other books I bought recently are related to this one.  Explorers’ Sketchbooks (Lewis-Jones & Herbert, 2017) gives examples from a variety of fields.  There are a number with botanical material included, some with which I wasn’t familiar such as Philip Georg von Reck’s (1711-1798) notebook.  He went with James Oglethorpe to Georgia in 1734 on the latter’s second trip to develop the Georgia colony.  Von Reck made some of the earliest records of plants and animals in the area.  I found many of the geologists’ sketches equally fascinating; it’s interesting to see how they dealt with great differences in scale from massive geological formations to the texture of individuals pieces of rock.  Botanical Sketchbooks (Bynum & Bynum, 2017) is also spectacular.  This is a book I hope to keep, not matter how much I may have to pare my library in the future.  Again, there is a mixture here of the usual suspects like Joseph Hooker and also Sydney Parkinson, Joseph Banks’ artist on Captain Cook’s first round the world voyage, in addition to the less well known such as Hellen and Margaret Shelley, sisters of the poet Percy Shelley, and Charles Maries who studied mangoes in India.


Bynum, H., & Bynum, W. (2017). Botanical Sketchbooks. New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press.

Lewis-Jones, H., & Herbert, K. (2017). Explorers’ Sketchbooks. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle.

Thinard, F. (2016). Explorers’ Botanical Notebook. Buffalo, NY: Firefly.

Nature Prints as Art

4 Eden

Announcement for Propagating Eden exhibit at Wave Hill, Bronx NY

I firmly believe that art and science can’t be separated, and that this is particularly true in botany.  Plants are simply beautiful, and that beauty has attracted many people to study them more closely, even in this age of “plant blindness.”  For some, nature printing has become an absorbing hobby, with the Nature Printing Society having several hundred members.  It publishes a newsletter that focuses on techniques as well as reviews of published works with nature prints.  The Society has also produced an informative guide to nature printing, not only of plants but of animals as well, particularly fish (Huffman, 2016).  For the latter, the primary technique is Japanese gyotaku that creates stunning works that even a botanist could love.

Since I’m interested in the fabric arts, particularly quilting and embroidery, I’ve gotten a couple of books on nature printing on fabric as well as paper (Bethmann, 2011; Dahl, 2002).  I’ve used the technique just enough to know that, like creating herbarium specimens, there is quite a bit of expertise involved that only practice will make anywhere near perfect.  However, the basic idea is simple; it’s something that a child can do with a sturdy leaf covered with marker ink on one side and pressed on a sheet of paper.  There is a magic to this because it’s a way to make venation a focus of attention.  I keep coming back to the Mabey (2015) quote with which I began this series of posts to the effect that no technique can capture the essence of a plant perfectly.  However, nature printing can very effectively highlight certain aspects of that essence.

Several years ago, there was an exhibit at the Wave Hill estate in the Bronx, NY on nature printing in botany and art.  It was there that I fell in love with the technique because this rather small exhibit captured the history of nature printing so thoroughly.  It included some of the earlier works that I’ve already cited such as those of Franklin, Atkins, Auer, and Bradbury.  But what really grabbed my attention were the various ways in which 20th and 21st-century artists have employed nature printing.  Kiki Smith was represented by a lithograph with pressed leaves.  Another striking example was Ed Ruscha’s Clock of 1994 with what appears to be dried grass glued to the page, but is actually a print made by a proprietary technique called Mixografia, a relief color printing process.

In conjunction with this exhibit, there was a symposium on several aspects of nature printing:  Karen Reeds (2006) spoke on the technique’s history, including her research on Leonardo Da Vinci’s role, Patricia Jonas compared nature prints with herbarium specimens, and Michele Oka Doner described using nature prints in her art.  In the show was a striking Doner print of what looked like the tree of blood vessels in the lungs, but was in reality a print made with roots of banyan trees that she collected from the beach near her Florida home.  This work a beautiful example of how branching patterns are ubiquitous in nature, as are her massive prints of the human body.  As an aside, I have to add that several months later I encountered her work again, this time at the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids, MI.  Doner designed the floor of the visitor’s center—an installation called Beneath the Leafy Crown (2009)—with 1600 “prints” of plants and invertebrates done in bronze and embedded into terrazzo (Becherer, 2010).

In his extensive historical review of nature printing, Roderick Cave (2010) cites other nature printers who were artists rather than botanists.  Most notable is the surrealist Max Ernst who used what he called frottage:  making rubbings from the surface of wood or other materials, especially in his series Histoire naturelle of 1926.  Arthur Rushmore, an American print maker, developed his own technique for creating what he called “hay prints,” which influenced later artists.  The British artist Morris Cox also employed prints imaginatively, combining them with his poems.  Some are quite fanciful, such as a human figure of printed grass, others are more reminiscent of 19th-century colored prints of flowers.  He sometimes also included a favorite subject of earlier printers: lace.

I want to end with the work of one of my favorite contemporary nature printers, one who unfortunately passed away shortly after publishing an amazing book that I mentioned in an earlier post on xylaria and tree rings.  It’s Woodcut by Bryan Nash Gill (2012), a collection of, quite literally, wood prints.  Gill would cut a slice through a tree trunk, meticulously sand it, apply ink, and make relief prints of the wood’s raised grain.  He printed not only cross sections of trunks, but cuts through milled planks as well, often juxta-positioning them in interesting patterns.  His works are definitely in the realm of art not science, but for the botanist they are still wonderful reminders of the beauty and mystery beneath the surface of a tree, beneath the bark.  This reminds me, that bark, too, can be a subject for the nature printer, and this will be my next art project.  I doubt that it will result in a great work of either art or science, but I am sure I will learn something more about the printing process and about the wonders of bark texture.


Becherer, J. (2010). Michele Oka Doner. Grand Rapids, MI: Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park.

Bethmann, L. D. (2011). Hand Printing from Nature. North Adams, MA: Storey.

Cave, R. (2010). Impressions of Nature: A History of Nature Printing. London: British Library.

Dahl, C. A. (2002). Natural Impressions. New York, NY: Watson-Guptill.

Gill, B. N. (2012). Woodcut. New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press.

Huffman, S. (2016). The Art of Printing from Nature: A Guidebook from the Nature Printing Society. Lake Shore, MN: Nature Printing Society.

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

Reeds, K. (2006). Leonardo da Vinci and botanical illustration: Nature prints, drawings, and woodcuts ca. 1500. In Visualizing medieval medicine and natural history, 1200-1550 (pp. 205–237). Burlington, VT: Ashgate.