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.


Nature Printing in the 19th Century

3 Bradbury Fern Plate 1

Plate 1 from The Ferns of Great Britain and Ireland.

Another name for nature printing is self printing because it is the inked plant itself that makes the print, rather than an artist creating marks on paper, independent of the specimen.  However, ink isn’t necessary, sometimes light itself can work, as when a plant is set down on photosensitive paper and then exposed to light.  That was how Anna Atkins produced cyanotypes of algae such as the one above (Armstrong & de Zegher, 2004).  Her first book of these is argued to be the earliest publication of any form of photography (1843-1853).  Atkins produced 400 plates in 11 years, but the process she used required a unique exposure for each copy, so it’s no surprise that there are less than a dozen copies of this work (Bridson & Wendel, 1986).  Such a project was obviously labor intensive, and over the years several printers attempted to devise ways of increasing the number of prints from one plant.  As mentioned in the first post in this series, Benjamin Franklin managed to make impressions in soft lead, but the technique was still time-consuming and messy.  Roderick Cave (2010) describes this and many other attempts in his book on nature printing.

In terms of output, the most successful nature printing technique was that developed by Alois Auer, who became director of the Austrian National Printing Office in 1841.  He experimented with gutta-percha (a gum with some properties similar to soft plastic) to make prints of fish and then create an electrotyped copy from it.  Electrotyping means employing an electric current to lay down a thin layer of copper on the print.  The copper is set on a harder metal background and used for the actual printing; it is much more durable than the original print.  However, the gutta-percha prints often looked messy.  The next approach was to pass specimens through a rolling press between plates of polished lead and steel.  This made a cleaner impression in the lead, which could then be used to create an electrotype copy.  Several large-scale botanical projects employed the method, often using colored inks.  Some of the most successful were of algae.  As I have described in an earlier post, collecting and studying seaweeds were popular pastimes in the mid-19th century, particularly among women.  Anna Atkins’s work is one indication of this.  When properly prepared, either as specimens or nature prints, seaweeds were beautifully delicate.  Since they were plants without flowers, which often didn’t print well, the prints were satisfying even when produced in a single color.  However the Auer method was also used on higher plants.  The Imperial Printing Office’s largest project produced five folio volumes of nature prints of Austrian plants (Ettingshausen & Pokorny, 1856-1873).

Auer, who had a patent on his process, was not without competition.  Carlo and Agostino Perini  created a Flora of Italy, over a span of 11 years (1854-1865) using Auer’s method, but production costs were high.  Henry Bradbury, the son of an established British printer, asked Auer if he could visit Vienna and learn about the process.  Auer agreed and was apparently quite forthcoming in showing Bradbury how the printing was done.  Upon his return to England, Bradbury took out a patent on what he claimed was a different and better technique, but Auer argued that the process was essentially the same as that used in Vienna.

A great deal of acrimony developed between Auer and Bradbury, but in the meantime, Bradbury published a few of the most impressive works in the history of nature printing.  First there was A Few Leaves Represented by Nature Printing, a brief, relatively inexpensive folio to show off the method.  The Bradbury printing style accentuated the venation of the leaves, making them seem almost transparent, an attribute that many botanists saw as misleading.  The most spectacular Bradbury publication was the large folio format The Ferns of Great Britain and Ireland (see figure above).  I have seen a copy of Ferns in the library of the Delaware State University herbarium, and it is indeed a wonder to behold.  Like ferns seaweeds seem to lend themselves to the technique, and Bradbury created a multi-volume work on algae that is spectacular in its display of beautiful forms and colors, but wasn’t as popular as the fern book.  The seaweed publication marked the end of this particular chapter in nature printing since Bradbury committed suicide in 1860.

At least a few 19th-century botanists found nature printing a useful way to document plants in the field (see last post), and there were also a few who used prints in their publications.  Not surprisingly the latter were mostly Austrians who published through Auer’s Austrian National Printing Office.  Constantin von Ettinghausen was interested in paleobotany and employed the technique in his publications for over 40 years.  He found nature printing skeletal leaves a good way to compare living plants with fossils and used the technique in his publications for over 40 years.

Despite Austrian expertise in the field, the most massive nature printing project was produced in France.  Herbier de la Flore Française (Cusin & Ansberque, 1867-1876) ran to 26 volumes with over 5,000 plants, however the printing technique used for these books created what Cave calls “rather dull” plates (2010, p. 147).  He cites many other interesting types of nature prints, including their use in decoration during the height of another 19th-century plant-related fad:  fern mania.  This brings to the fore the aesthetic appeal of nature printing that becomes the dominant focus in 20th and 21st-century printing projects, which will be the subject focus of my final post in this series.


Armstrong, C., & de Zegher, C. (2004). Ocean Flowers: Impressions from Nature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Atkins, A. (1843). Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (5 volumes).

Bridson, G. D. R., & Wendel, D. E. (1986). Printmaking in the Service of Botany. Pittsburgh, PA: Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation.

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

Cusin, M. L., & Ansberque, E. (1868). Herbier de la flore française. Lyon: s.n.

Ettingshausen, C., & Pokorny, A. (1856). Physiotypia plantarum austriacarum: Vienna, Austria: Imperial Printing Office.

Perini, C., & Perini, A. (1854). Flora dell’Italia. Trento, Italy: Tipografia Perini.

Nature Prints as Botanical Documents

Nature print of Cassia by Thomas Horsfield at the

Nature print of Cassia by Thomas Horsfield at the Academy of Natural Sciences of the Drexel University, Archives and Manuscript Collection #625

Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland are justly famous for their five-year exploration (1799-1804) of parts of South and Central America as well as the Caribbean.  They brought back thousands of plant specimens as well as rocks, fossils, and the remains of animals.  Also in the haul sent to Paris were over 200 nature prints that weren’t given much attention before the 21st century.  Even the two explorers said little about them in their journals and letters, though they did annotate them.  For several years after their return, Bonpland worked on the plant collection in conjunction with Humboldt and the German botanist Carl Kunth at the Natural History Museum in Paris.  In 1816 Bonpland decided to return to South America, taking the plant specimens with him; they were only returned to Paris 1858.  However, Kunth managed to catch up with Bonpland in La Havre before he sailed and retrieved six volumes of field notes and the nature prints.  Kunth used these reference materials in identifying some of the species Humboldt and Bonpland had discovered.  Before Kunth returned to Germany in 1829, he donated the prints to Benjamin Delessert, a wealthy amateur botanist, whose heir in turn gave them to the Institut de France where they remain.  They were highlighted in an exhibit about Delessert in 1993, and this was how the Austrian botanical historian H. Walter Lack came to know of them and write an article on them (2001).

It seems that Humboldt and Bonpland were driven to make nature prints because they lost so many herbarium specimens.  Lack quotes from a letter Humboldt wrote to the botanist Carl Willdenow in Berlin:

“Alas, almost in tears we open our plant boxes.  Our herbaria have the same fate lamented already by Sparman, Banks, Swartz and Jacquin.  The immense wetness of the America climate, the rankness of the vegetation, which makes it difficult to find fully grown leaves, have destroyed one third of our collection.  Every day we find new insects which destroy paper and plants.  Camphor, turpentine, tar, pitched boards, hanging boxes fixed on ropes in the open, all tricks devised in Europe fail here, and our patience has become tired.  After being absent for 3-4 months you hardly recognize your herbarium, you have to discard 5 out of 8 specimens (p. 220).”

Since the paper Humboldt and Bonpland used for printing had Spanish watermarks, they likely didn’t originally plan to make prints and didn’t take printing supplies with them, but bought some in the Spanish colonies they visited.  Though they were probably both involved in printing, Bonpland, whose specialty was botany, likely took the lead.  Most of the annotations are his, with a number in Humboldt’s handwriting.  The pair were among the first collectors to number their specimens and numbered the prints in the same series with the plants themselves.  The numbers indicate that prints were made over a long period of time—perhaps after a spate of specimens were lost their frustration level would again mount and lead to more printing.  Many of the prints are annotated by Kunth; he gave them determinations that were then published in the Nova genera et species plantarum.

As Lack notes at the end of his article, the use of prints by botanists remained an “isolated phenomenon,” but it wasn’t a unique one.  The American naturalist Thomas Horsfield made prints during the almost 20 years (1801-1819) he spent in Java as a surgeon working for the East India Company (EIO).  Collecting was his passion and his botanical prints were one manifestation of this.  I have written about them in a previous post, but they should be mentioned here for two reasons.  First, they are of amazingly good quality.  Roderick Cave (2010), an expert on nature prints, considers them among the best he has ever seen, which is high praise indeed.  One reason for the quality is that Horsfield used softer Chinese paper rather than firmer European paper.  Horsfield, or perhaps an assistant, inked both sides of each specimen, folded a large sheet around it, and burnished it from the back, making mirror-image prints.  One bound set of prints are at Drexel University’s Academy of Natural Sciences Library, and I’ve been fortunate enough to examine them.  Their delicacy and detail are exquisite, and the quality is consistent throughout the collection.  The book is accompanied by an index of the plants, most with at least a genus name given and in some cases the Javanese name as well; the arrangement is Linnaean.  This is one of three known copies; the other two are in England (Peck, 2014).

The other reason for mentioning Horsfield is that like Humboldt and Bonpland, he was driven to nature printing because of the difficulties in preserving specimens, though, like them, he sent thousands of specimens back to London, to his employer’s headquarters.  He eventually went to England and spent the rest of his life in the employ of the EIO working on its collections and writing up his results (Horsfield, 1990).  Along with John Bennett and Robert Brown, he published Plantae javanicae rariores (1838-1852) documenting his botanical discoveries.  The illustrations are in part based on the prints as well as on his specimens.  Here as with Humboldt and Bonpland, nature prints made a significant contribution to important works on exotic flora.  While this is only a drop in the ocean of botanical publications, it deserves attention.  In the next post, I’ll examine how botanical nature printing developed later on in the 19th century when it had its greatest influence.


Bennett, J. J., Brown, R., & Horsfield, T. (1838). Plantae Javanicae rariores. London: Allen.

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

Horsfield, T. (1990). Zoological Researches in Java, and the Neighboring Islands. Singapore: Oxford University Press.

Lack, H. W. (2001). The plant self impressions prepared by Humboldt and Bonpland in tropical America. Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, 18, 218–229.

Peck, R. M. (2014). Discovered in Philadelphia: a third set of Thomas Horsfield’s nature prints of plants from Java. Archives of Natural History, 41(1), 168–170.

Botanical Nature Prints: An Introduction

Print of Campanula by Zenobe Pacini in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France

Nature print of Campanula by Zenobe Pacini in the Bibliothèque nationale de France

Creating a herbarium specimen is an attempt to pin a plant down, to capture it on a page.  Obviously, this aim is only semi-successful.  The plant is physically present, but the life has gone out of, as has much its dimensionality and color.  Still, it contains a great deal of taxonomic information, and often DNA and other diagnostic chemicals.  Visiting a plant in the field may be impractical as is propagating every plant under study; photographs can document form and dimensionality, but they have no DNA, nor do botanical illustrations, which are time-consuming to produce.  In other words, there’s no perfect way to capture a plant.  As Richard Mabey (2015) writes:  The quintessence of a plant can only ever be a fantastic goal, something to travel towards but never reach (p. 27). But there is another answer, though again it isn’t a perfect solution.  That is the nature print, the subject of this set of posts.

Usually, a nature print of a plant involves inking one or both sides of a flattened specimen, sandwiching it between pieces of paper and applying enough pressure, either by hand or instrument, to transfer ink from plant to paper.  The process definitely has severe limitations, which is why it’s not part of most botanists’ repertoire.  Details of flower structure usually don’t show up well nor do any thick or fleshy plant parts.  Still, it can produce fascinating results, such as the prints I saw in an anonymous collection of prints at Oak Spring Garden Library (Tomasi & Willis, 2009).  It was created in Britain in the early 1700s by some avid plant collector, probably an amateur, yet one who could identify the common names for each of the specimens in a carefully created index at the beginning of the book.  While here the emphasis was on leaves, other printers included, or tried to include, stems and flowers, which often didn’t print as well.  The Oak Spring Garden Library also has a published nature print book by Christian Gottlieb Ludwig from 1760.  It has beautiful prints that have been colored, but the flowers are mostly painted in with rather stylized forms (Tomasi and Willis, 2009).  If nature printing results were often imperfect, why did the technique come into rather frequent use in the 16th century, reach an apex in the 19th, and still be popular at least among artists and amateurs into the 21st?

Answers to this question can be found in the best book I’ve seen on the subject, Roderick Cave’s (2010) Impressions of Nature: A History of Nature Printing.  He cites a print from as early as 1320 and also discusses Leonardo Da Vinci’s description of the technique, which was accompanied by a print of a single sage leaf.  As botany developed into a science in the 16th century, some of those who documented plants with illustrations and herbaria also created nature prints.  These include Conrad Gessner, Thomas Kentmann, Felix Platter, and Fabio Colonna.  There is evidence that at least the latter used prints as references in creating the illustrations for his book.  Among the most magnificent prints from this time are found in the 1520 volume created by the pharmacist and perfumer Zenobe Pacini, who enhanced the prints by coloring them and adding details in watercolor.  In the 17th century, the work of Paolo Bocconne is also remarkable; his prints are now available online and well worth examining.

It’s likely that it was Bocconne who brought the technique to England and perhaps taught it to the avid botanist, William Sherard, whom Cave suggests passed it on to his colleagues.  In the 18th century, the Spanish explorer Joanne Garcia de Chaves y Guevara, made nature prints of the plants he found in California (Cave, 2010).  And on the east coast of North America, Benjamin Franklin, who may have learned the technique in Britain, worked with Joseph Breintnall to use leaves in creating currency.  Since it would be difficult to copy the venation of a leaf precisely, they devised a way to transfer the leaf impression to type metal for printing money.  Breintnall also sold leave impressions as references for amateur botanists; he leaves he at John Bartram’s farm on the outskirts of Philadelphia.  Farther north, Jane Colden, a botany enthusiast as was her father Cadwallader Colden, created over 300 nature prints of native plants she found growing near their farm in New York State.

The Coldens were serious about the study of native plants and printing was Jane Colden’s means of documenting at least something of what these plants looked like.  It was more efficient than trying to draw them all, though she did do illustrations as well.  Nature printing was a way to hold on to something of a plant after an encounter with it.  The British notebook at Oak Spring Library that I mentioned earlier is one example of this, as is another from Germany, also anonymous but created later, in 1824 (Tomasi & Willis, 2009).  Bound into the manuscript is a pamphlet published in 1797 by Johann Friedrich Korn that presents prints of tree leaves and also describes how to make prints (Raphael, 1989).  This suggests the process was popular enough that publishers sought to profit from the interest.

While some amateur and professional botanists created herbaria, others chose to make prints or to use a combination of techniques.  For over 50 years, John Jacobs Thomas kept a notebook, now at New York Botanical Garden, recording 367 apple varieties as well as a number of other fruits (Fraser & Sellers, 2014).  For some of these, he included prints of cross sections.  In one of his field note books, the USDA botanist David Griffiths, who was exploring in the Southwest US, made prints of prickly pear fruits to document their differences.  In both cases, the prints served the serious purpose of recording what measurement along could not, and doing this for fruits that would have been difficult to preserve on a herbarium sheet.  In the next post, I will discuss botanists who were led to create nature print collections for other reasons while exploring remote parts of the world.


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

Fraser, S. M., & Sellers, V. B. (Eds.). (2014). Flora Illustrata: Great Works from the LuEsther T. Mertz Library of the New York Botanical Garden. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Korn, J. F. (1797). Sammlung von 50 in Kupfer. Breslau: Hirschberg und Liss.

Ludwig, C. G. (1760). Ectypa vegetabilium usibus medicis. Halae Magdeburgicae.

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

Raphael, S. (1989). An Oak Spring Sylva: A Selection of the Rare Books on Trees in the Oak Spring Garden Library. Upperville, VA: Oak Spring Garden Library.

Tomasi, L. T., & Willis, T. (2009). An Oak Spring Herbaria: Herbs and Herbals from the Fourteenth to the Nineteenth Centuries. Uppervil

Botany, History, and Art in BHL

4 Fuch Digitalis

Image of Digitalis from Leonhart Fuchs’s De historia stirpium, available in the  Biodiversity Heritage Library

In the last post, I discussed the Biodiversity Heritage Library’s (BHL) appeal to gardeners, a group not singled out by the library as significant users in one of its marketing images [see below], however, groups so cited include scientists, historians, and artists. I see myself as at least somewhat involved with the first two groups, and though I don’t have sufficient hubris or talent to call myself an artist, I do dabble and to a greater extent appreciate art. Botanical art is where all my interests come together, and there is no place like BHL to nurture them. I use the visual bookmarking tool Pearltrees to organize my finds, and I’m happy to share them with you. I found many of these through the Twitter account @histsciart created by Michelle Marshall that points to interesting images in the BHL collection.

My favorites include early printed herbals that the plant morphologist Agnes Arber wrote about so well more than a 100 years ago. When I first read her book in the 1980s I had to content myself with the images she had selected, now I can go to the sources and feast my eyes on entire volumes. Admittedly, it’s not the same as seeing the original text of the Otto Brunfels or Leonhart Fuchs herbals, as I have been able to do at Mertz Library at New York Botanical Garden (NYBG). However, a library isn’t always accessible, and it’s a tremendous luxury to decide at 10 pm that a Fuchs fix is in order and be able to succumb to the temptation (see figure above). Such books are more important historically than scientifically because they are pre-Linnaean, and botanical science, at least for higher plants, was completely reset with the publication of Species Plantarum in 1753. In fact, another Linnaean classic, Systema Naturae, comes in first as the most viewed book on BHL, with Species Plantarum in sixth place. As far as botany is concerned, BHL is particularly rich in taxonomic sources and it’s wonderful to be able to trace the history of the use of a particular binomial. There are links to BHL sources from both the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL) and Global Plants on JSTOR, which makes them even easier to access. That’s one of the major benefits of BHL: it has been designed to be in a variety of ways, and in fact, EOL and BHL are related projects that were created from the start to interact seamlessly. As I mentioned in an earlier post, BHL pages include taxonomic tags, making all the difference for its use in systematics.

My research progress is so slow that I have watched BHL change before my eyes. At various points, I’ve wanted to access the papers of George Engelmann, the botanist who helped to found the Missouri Botanical Garden, and there they appeared in BHL thanks to a digitization project at the garden, an original BHL member and still one of its key contributors. More recently, this has happened with John Torrey’s papers at NYBG, another BHL founder. These manuscripts are being digitized and transcribed through a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Already, letters from William Darlington, one of my “people,” are online. I often use the word “luxury” to describe such instant access, what other word really applies? The combination of manuscript and published information is wonderful, as is the ease of downloading sources as PDFs. Also, since everything in BHL is open access, I don’t have to worry about whether or not I can use a quote or an image, as long as I properly cite it. Of course, not everything is in BHL, especially more recent literature, but think about it: as I mentioned in the first post in this series, we have come a LONG way from the days when searching for sources meant pulling Biological Abstracts tomes from the shelves.

Many BHL blog posts are about how researchers use BHL—and how they are helping to improve it. Dean Janiak is an ecosystem ecologist who relies on BHL historical literature in identifying the species he encounters in his work at the Smithsonian Marine Station in Florida. Rod Page, an entomologist at the University of Glasgow, has created tools to both draw information from BHL and also enhance the accessibility of what’s in the library. He has developed BioStor to ease searching through journals at the article level, something that BHL did not originally address. Page has also argued for the use of DOIs (digital object identifiers) not only in BHL but in repositories of all kinds as a way to ensure access to individual items. It’s BHL’s willingness to take such constructive criticism that will make it even more valuable and useable in the future.

I am particularly drawn to BHL because I am interested in the intersection of different fields, and BHL, despite its name, is about a lot more than biodiversity. A case in point is the work of the philosopher Ryan Feigenbaum who created an online exhibit called Poetic Botany as a 2016 Andrew W. Mellon Fellow at the NYBG Humanities Center. It explores the work of 18th century poets and botanists, among them Erasmus Darwin, the author of several book-length poems about botany. There are links to many BHL treasures, including Darwin’s writings, many of which are held by the Mertz Library at NYBG. This is a visual and intellectual joy to explore and a perfect example of how BHL can be mined in fascinating ways. Go to it!

BHL Users and Its Blog

3 BHL users

The image above gives a decent synopsis of users of the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL), the portal I’ve discussed in the last two posts (1,2). I would add a couple: students as well as educators use it, though I guess that’s implied. Also there are gardeners for whom BHL is a goldmine, particularly for those interested in heirloom varieties. Last year BHL had a special week-long focus on gardening that showed off its collection beautifully. In what I’ve discussed so far about BHL and about its outreach efforts on social media, the one aspect I’ve neglected is its blog. That was purposeful; I wanted to save what I consider the best for later in my exposition, and specifically now when I am getting to the content. BHL has had a blog since its inception, but the posts have gotten more frequent and richer as time passed. Many entries deal with what’s new with the project, or what tools are available, or what staff have been up to. Much of the content of the two earlier posts I first learned about on the blog, but my favorite posts are those that take up some theme and explore the relevant content or discuss how specific users employ the library.

In the case of gardening, BHL staged “Garden Stories” in March 2015 as a “week-long social media event for garden lovers.” It was advertised through gardening groups and botanical gardens, and included a Twitterchat where people could ask gardening questions of staff at several BHL member institutions; there was even a Garden Stories T-shirt available for sale. However, at the heart of the event was the BHL blog. It must have been difficult for Grace Constantino, the BHL Outreach and Communication Manager, and the other contributors to select what to include. This is indicated by the length of the introduction she wrote on Monday, March 23. It cited references to everything from Emanuel Sweerts’ 1614 Florilegium and Bernard M’Mahon’s 1804 seed catalogue, the first in America in booklet form, to several catalogues from the first half of the 20th century. The latter were just a few of the more than 14,000 seed and nursery catalogs in BHL including the rich collections of New York Botanical Garden, Cornell University, and the Smithsonian. With this intro as a teaser, the second post of the day was about joining in the effort to transcribe the text of catalogues, a citizen science project that allows the BHL audience to contribute to its work.

Tuesday’s post focused on genetic modification of agricultural and garden plants, and on Wednesday, there were two posts on “Leading Ladies in the World of Seeds,” beginning with the inaugural 1900 catalogue of Miss Ella V. Baines “The Woman Florist” of Springfield, Ohio, whose establishment was still going strong in 1930. Such plants-women obviously saw their gender as a plus with the covers of their catalogues referring to “Miss” or “Mrs.” and sometimes including a photo of the owner, as well as the de rigueur image of some offerings. Part two focused on a woman whose gardening interests were more scientific. Ethel Zoe Bailey was the daughter of the horticulturalist and botanist Liberty Hyde Bailey, whom I discussed in an earlier post. There I mentioned her cataloging of where and when particular plant varieties appeared for sale, but this was just one of many tasks she performed for her father, one she continued well after his death. She also traveled widely with him and helped in plant collecting, doing most of the processing and cataloguing at his home herbarium. This was later donated to Cornell University where he spent his career. The BHL post has links to items in what is now called the Ethel Z. Bailey Horticultural Catalogue Collection that she tended for 70 years. It was interesting to learn about Ethel Bailey and about how one of the collections in BHL came to be, just one of many fascinating stories of collection development sequestered within its holdings. The next topic for “Gardening Stories” week was the use of art to sell plants, a massive topic in itself and one that was again well illustrated with BHL resources. This was a two-parter on Thursday, with the first on botanical illustrators and the second on the introduction of photography into horticultural marketing.

While it’s clear that stories on gardening could go on for much longer than a week, the series ended on Friday, March 27 with two posts, the first a discussion of the Shakers as a religious group that marketed seeds and also medicinal herbs, an aspect of the sect I hadn’t known about. I also didn’t know much about the topic of the last post of the week on how a number of BHL partners are continuing the work of digitizing horticultural collections and devising ways to increase accessibility for a variety of users. One of the behind-the-scenes difficulties is that one library may input a company’s catalogues as separate records, as books would be. Another sees the catalogue as a series, such as a journal would be. Before both can be uploaded into BHL a joint spreadsheet must be created and the differences reconciled. This is the kind of work I have no desire to do, but it’s interesting to know about because it makes users appreciate how non-trivial the building of a digital library is.

In the last post in this series, I’ll discuss some of the ways people like me take advantage of BHL. But before I end, I want to mention another useful tool BHL provides: it has organized relevant materials into collections by subject, including seed and nursery catalogues. There are now 56 of these, ranging from Charles Darwin and Antarctic exploration, to the history of cats and whales. The collection list is another great entrée into BHL.

BHL and Social Media

I have a Facebook account that I ignore. I go into it about once every six months with the intention of using it, but I can never figure out its attractions, so I abandon it yet again. However, I use Twitter a lot, not to communicate so much as to keep up on the doings at institutions that interest me such as botanical gardens, herbaria, and natural history museums. Along the way, I’ve found several people and institutions posting notable items and I follow them too. For example, Donna Young (@HerbariumDonna) of the World Museum of Liverpool tweets and re-Tweets great material, as does the herbarium at St. Andrews University, Scotland (@STA_herbarium). Needless to say, in light of my last post, I also follow the Biodiversity Library, BHL (@BioDivLibrary). This is how I can keep up with its blog and all its latest endeavors. Because it’s trying to engage with as large an audience as possible, BHL communicates through a variety of social media outlets, since, like me, people have different tastes in their favorites apps. In 2016 it added Instagram and Tumblr to its internet presence along with its more longstanding Twitter and Facebook accounts. In total, it had a 76% increase in followers between 2015 and 2016, suggesting that these efforts have been successful. Perhaps its most fruitful outreach has been through Flickr where it has posted over 100,000 images from its resources, but I’ll get back to that later. I also want to note that there was a 54% increase in the number of visits to BHL from other social media sites—almost 100,000 in all, indicating users are coming to BHL from a variety of platforms. The most notable is Pinterest; posts from its accounts provided for more than half this traffic. Obviously many Pinterest users posted images sourced from BHL directly or from its Flickr account. These numbers suggest the general expansion of the social media universe and particularly of BHL’s participation in it. They also indicate its sophisticated approach to outreach.

At the moment BHL’s efforts in this area are being substantially assisted through the work of five one-year interns in the National Digital Stewardship Residency (NDSR) developed by the Library of Congress in conjunction with the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). The five residents, now at the half-way point in their work, are at five different BHL member institutions. Pamela McClanahan at the Smithsonian Library has posted a user survey and will analyze the results, which are important to planning BHL’s future direction and where it will focus its resources. Ariadne Rehbein at the Missouri Botanical Garden has joined a Codergirl cohort in St. Louis and is also interviewing Flickr and BHL volunteer taggers about their work and how the work flows can be improved. These contributors to bettering BHL participated in a two-year grant from the NEH to develop a system for volunteers to identify and tag images in BHL volumes. This is a great example of a citizen science project where a pool of interested and committed individuals can help to enhance BHL.

At the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Marissa Kings, along with several summer interns, is creating and editing metadata for the museum’s Contributions in Science publications in preparation for uploading these and other in-house publications to BHL. She is also exploring how recently digitized museum entomology specimens and related data can be linked to the relevant literature in BHL. I have very limited experience in this area, but I know enough to realize that none of this is trivial. Having well-defined workflows and metadata can make all the difference when it comes to linking different types of data. Another intern, Alicia Esquivel at the Chicago Botanic Garden, is doing statistical analyses to estimate the size of the total amount of biodiversity literature—a difficult task to say the least. But even a rough estimate would give some idea of what percentage of that literature is now in BHL, in other words, how big its impact could be on the biodiversity research community. At Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, the fifth NDSR resident, Katie Mika is learning about adding structured bibliographic metadata in Wikidata to improve the quality of references in the Wikimedia universe and to reconcile messy data. By adding BHL IDs to Wikidata, it becomes a more robust knowledge base and improves the discoverability of BHL’s content. As you can see from these brief synopses, the NDSR program is providing BHL with expertise in several key areas and allowing it to both strengthen its foundations and move in new directions.

Before I close this post on BHL and social media, I want to get back to Flickr. BHL’s Flickr site is quite literally a joy to behold. There are now over 100,000 images from BHL content in Flickr and that number continues to rise. The contributions are arranged in albums, with each album representing one publication. For example, the album for Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, Volume 136 from 1910 has 60 images. Searching for this item in BHL will provide all these images as well as the related text, but to just enjoy the beautiful illustrations, BHL at Flickr is the way to go. All these images are copyright free and downloadable. I should note that while I gravitate to the botanical literature, Audubon’s birds are here and Gessner’s animals. Needless to say, many people stumble upon this treasure trove when they are surfing in Flickr and don’t investigate further, don’t go into BHL at all. However, some do, and that is the point of social media outreach, the more the right outlets are used, the larger the payoff.

Flickr has turned out to be an effective tool for BHL. It is also a wonderful place for a biologist to spend time on one of those days when spreadsheets and graphs make no sense and it’s easy to forget what makes biology so wonderful. Another fun way to join in is with Color Our Collections. Users can download black and white illustrations contributed by member institutions and then satisfy their urge to color them in any way they want. This project, which has become popular on the web and is continuing, grew out of a social media exchange between a librarian from the New York Academy of Medicine and a committed citizen scientist/BHL tagger from Australia—a beautiful example of BHL’s global scope (Garner, Goldberg & Pou, 2016).


Garner, A., Goldberg, J., & Pou, R. (2016). Collaborative social media campaigns and special collections: A case study on #ColorOurCollections. RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage, 17(2), 100–117.

Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL): An Introduction

I began studying biology in the 1960s and went to graduate school when a literature review meant wrestling with huge volumes of Biological Abstracts. Not only were they physically difficult to deal with, but if my topic had a long history, I tediously had to comb many volumes. After a few hours of this research, I often suffered from a syndrome I called “library malaise,” an overwhelming urge to take a nap. It was reading the Biodiversity Heritage Library’s (BHL) annual report that brought these not-so-good old days to mind. I hadn’t thought about them in a long time, because at this point they’ve faded into oblivion. No self-respecting scientist runs to the library to search for references. Now the big problem is sifting through too many citations to find the most valuable. One way to home in on what’s needed is to use the right database or portal, and for me this is often BHL. That’s because my interests are in botany and the history of botany, areas in which BHL is strong. With this series of posts I’ll explore this amazing resource and why, since its founding in 2006, it has become so valuable.

BHL’s strong points are that it’s massive, well-organized, and committed to expanding its user base. The recently published BHL 2016 annual report gives collection statistics such as: 51,460,159 pages from 196,801 volumes digitized; over 175 million taxonomic names indexed; 1,162,346 unique users, up 10% from 2015. Two new members joined this year, BHL Australia and the Natural History Museum in Paris, bringing the total to 17. There were ten original members including the Smithsonian, Missouri Botanical Garden, and the National History Museum, London—all with sizeable digital collections and digitization expertise to get the enterprise going. The Smithsonian still plays a pivotal role, with the BHL project director, Martin Kalfatovic, being a Smithsonian librarian. From the list of original members, it’s obvious that the focus is on English-language literature, though with institutions in France, Brazil, Mexico, and the Netherlands having joined, this is changing, and of course, some of the older literature is in Latin. Since all the text in BHL is available as optical character recognition (OCR) text, it is at least somewhat translatable using Google Translate (another amazing tool for someone of my vintage).

What makes BHL particularly powerful is that it’s linked to several other rich portals, making its holdings available to a broad audience. One of its new affiliates this year is Internet Archive with which it has been collaborating from BHL’s inception. Much of what’s available through BHL is also available in IA, which is a much broader storehouse. This is also becoming true for the newer Digital Public Library of America (DPLA). While a biologist might go directly to BHL to find a resource like Linnaeus’s Species Plantarum, a student doing a project on Linnaeus might not be aware of BHL, but instead use DPLA or IA. In all three cases, they will find what they need. But portal hopping can be a nuisance. Each interface is different, and it helps to become familiar with one. I’ve used BHL enough that I’m comfortable with its search functions and other tools. It provides an easy way to create a PDF of an entire document or of selected pages from it. Downloading PDFs or JPGs of images is also easy, admittedly PDFs are easier, at least for the moment. BHL is promising updates on image processing and since it has improved its interface substantially over the years, this will in all likelihood happen.

Besides working to broaden its user base, BHL has not forgotten those for whom it was originally designed: the biodiversity research community. The pages in BHL are tagged with the taxon names they contain, which means that the entire library is searchable if a user is looking for a particular genus or species. The word “miraculous” comes to mind when I consider this, and I’ve had fun testing it out with my favorite species, Darlingtonia californica. It’s good to keep in mind that because everything in BHL is open source, much of its collection dates to before 1923 and thus is out of copyright. However, since taxonomy is very much a historical science, particularly in botany, it is important to be able to trace new names back to old ones, and BHL is crucial in doing this. Also, over the past several years it has been increasing its in-copyright holdings by agreements with a number of organizations such as Arnold Arboretum, the Field Museum, and the California Academy of Sciences to host digital copies of some of their in-copyright publications. BHL is also expanding in other ways as well. It partnered with the Smithsonian’s Field Book Project that had been digitizing the field notes of Smithsonian researchers. These are absolutely fascinating and contain valuable information on where and when organisms were sighted and specimens collected. BHL is now continuing this effort as the BHL Field Notes Project by not only hosting the already digitized materials, but getting 450,000 more pages online through a Digitizing Hidden Special Collections grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources.

If all these connections that BHL has made are impressive, there are still more, including major efforts in using social media to get the word out about the riches it holds. This aspect of the portal will be the subject of my next post.

Herbaria and More

4 Platanthera psycodes

Platanthera psycodes collected in 1838, University of Michigan Herbarium

Since the cosponsor of the Digital Data in Biodiversity Research Conference (see last post), along with iDigBio, was the University of Michigan, it’s not surprising that there was a trip to its Research Museums Center south of the main campus. Along with a reception, there were tours of the various zoological, paleontological, archaeological, and botanical collections housed there. Naturally, I went on the herbarium tour offered by three botanists who work with the collection: Christopher Dick the director, Richard Rabeler collection manager, and Anton Reznicek curator. As with many large plant collections, the UM staff can only estimate its size: about 1.8 million specimens. Digitization efforts are making for more accurate estimates, but also unearthing more specimens. The herbarium is actively involved in iDigBio and the national digitization effort with more than 560,000 of its sheets digitized. Since the Research Museums Center is a converted warehouse, the herbarium has room to grow, a valuable resource for the future. The herbarium is strong in Michigan plants, including collections from 1837-1838 for a survey of natural resources made at the time Michigan gained statehood (see figure above). Many of these have habitat information, making them valuable in environmental change studies. There is also a large collection amassed by Harley Harris Bartlett, who led the UM Department of Botany from 1927-1944. He used his considerable wealth to fund explorations in the tropics, and so there are a significant number of specimens from these areas, including many wood specimens from Sumatra that are now being digitized. They are particularly important because of the dramatic changes logging has wrought in Sumatra and also because the labels include the names of the trees recorded in the indigenous language.

On my way home from Michigan, I took a rather roundabout route so I could visit the Cornell University herbarium. I wanted to go there primarily because Cornell was the long-time home campus for the botanist/horticulturalist/agronomist, Liberty Hyde Bailey (1863-1959). Bailey had incredible energy and drive during his entire life and became the first dean of Cornell’s agricultural college (Dorf, 1956). He served on Theodore Roosevelt’s National Commission on Country Life which recommended the formation of the 4-H movement, agricultural extension programs, and rural electrification. Bailey retired from the deanship in 1913 when he reached 60 and spent the next 35 years writing on agricultural and horticultural topics as well as studying the taxonomy of palms on which he published extensively.

As the herbarium’s collections manager Anna Stalter explained, Bailey left his extensive herbarium and book collection to Cornell which explains why a third of the specimens are cultivated plants. This makes it interesting horticulturally and associated materials increase its value. Bailey collected seed and plant catalogues from the late nineteenth century through the first half of the twentieth. The herbarium librarian Peter Fraissinet pulled out a selection that were fascinating historical documents. He also showed me an extensive card catalogue maintained for almost 60 years by Bailey’s daughter and assistant Ethel Zoe Bailey. There was a card for each plant variety, noting the catalogue and years it was offered. Researchers interested in heirloom plants and plant lineages still consult it.   Fraissinet also showed me some rare volumes Bailey had collected, including the oldest book in the library, an Italian translation from 1575 of Nicolas Monardes’s work on Mexican plants that includes the first known image of tobacco (see figure below). I’ve read about this treasure, but it was a thrill to see it as well as a German translation of Pietro Matthioli’s commentaries from 1678.

4a Tobacco from Monardes

Tobacco plant pictured in Monardes’s 16th-century work on Mexican plants. Bailey Hortorium Library, Cornell University

Obviously one day was not enough time to even glance at most Cornell botanical treasures, but I did get to see a few of the massive palm pods Bailey collected and was also introduced to a totally different aspect of botany at the Cornell herbarium, its plant anatomy slide collection. Curator Kevin Nixon and senior research associate Maria Gandolfo are heading the NSF-funded project called CUPAC: Cornell University Plant Anatomy Collection. The goal is to digitize the information on 200,000 slides and to image a significant portion of them, at least one from each set of serial sections, often using more than one power of magnification. They also hope to include slides from other institutions’ collections as a way to preserve and make broadly accessible a valuable research tool for future botanists. There are already many images available on their website, and in the future they hope to link the records to the relevant literature. So this is yet another government-funded digital asset available to all researchers, and also I might add, to artists as well since many of the images are stunning and include not only slides but peels of fossil plant structures.

When I left the herbarium I walked through the Cornell Botanic Gardens where living collections complement the horticultural specimens in the herbarium. It’s wonderful to have the two resources so close to each other. And close by is the plant pathology herbarium, still another treasure, but one I had to leave for the future. As my father always said on road trips: “You have to leave something for next time.” On this trip, I had seen a lot, from living plant collections, to personal collections representing place (see post), to herbaria, and the digital future (see 1, 2). I can’t wait to get on the road again.


Dorf, P. (1956). Liberty Hyde Bailey: An Informal Biography. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

3D Databases and More iDigBio

3 Museum of Paleontology UM

In my last post, I discussed some of the sessions I attended at the Digital Data in Biodiversity Research Conference held at the University of Michigan and sponsored by the University with the iDigBio project. More than half the records in the iDigBio portal are for plant specimens, and as several speakers noted, plants are easy: most specimens are relatively flat and can be scanned or photographed much as the pages of a book are. Bones are different. A 2D image leaves a lot to be desired, but 3D images are expensive to produce and also to store since the file size is so large. Daniel Fisher of the Museum of Paleontology at the University of Michigan discussed 3D surface models of mastodon bones where images have been converted into replicas. The mastodon in question was unearthed at an Indiana site and the replica is now on display at the Museum of Paleontology, so it’s a nice example of home-grown expertise. Fisher also referred to the University of Michigan Online Repository of Fossils, where even a plant-lover can become mesmerized by bones, some in 3D—and there are botanical fossils as well.

Mark Uhen continued the emphasis on large mammals with a presentation on fossil whales. However, they only take up a small part of the data portal he was instrumental in creating the Paleobiology Database (PBDB) and its well-developed user platform PBDB Navigator. His goal for the site is to document every fossil occurrence on the planet; this is the idea of a portal writ large. It’s an attractive though farsighted goal, since only a minority of fossils are databased at the moment, and the issue of data heterogeneity means that even this portion couldn’t just be loaded into a single portal. Several speakers spoke of such ambitious goals, ones that might seem like pipedreams, but with the rate at which the digitization field is progressing thanks to advances in data storage, standardizing metadata, and relying evermore on automation, looking forward is crucial to moving forward.

Still another portal, MorphoSource, is a virtual museum and digital repository for 3D specimen data. As the presenter Doug Boyer of Duke University noted: “I think there is even some plant data” in it, suggesting how extensive and democratic the portal is. Then Susan Butts of Yale University discussed a project called ePANDDA (Enhancing Paleontological and Neontological Data Discovery API). Since it deals with making data accessible to several audiences, its developers wanted an appealing acronym (yes, the logo includes a panda’s face). The project aims at linking information in iDigBio with that in PDBD and iDigPaleo. As Butts argues, there isn’t a need for a new database but for integration of databases. That was also the theme of Duke University’s Julie Winchester who discussed the challenges of integrating MorphoSource and iDigBio. I have been to a couple of iDigBio meetings in the past, and in comparison there was more emphasis here on integration, and also on larger datasets, such as those involved with 3D imaging.

This trend was also apparent in other presentations. Adam Summers of the University of Washington discussed his project on 3D scanning fish skeletons in which he scans a pile of fish—ten or more at a time—to make the process more efficient and economical. This approach obviously involves some post-scan manipulation of datasets, but the unambiguous images that result speak for themselves. Beth Brainerd of Brown University deals with even larger datasets using XROMM, X-ray Reconstruction of Moving Morphology. XROMM combines 3D models of bone morphology with movement data from biplanar x-ray videos to create highly accurate animations of bones moving in 3D space. This enables an analysis of complex processes like a bird flying and a frog jumping. Surangi Punyasena of the University of Illinois discussed 3D imaging of pollen grains to provide information on the extinction of the spruce Picea crutchfieldii during the last ice age. Detailed scans were needed to differentiate this species’ pollen from that of two other spruce species that were also present at the time. The project was interesting to me because it involved plants (Alleluia!) and very sophisticated analysis not only to detect small differences but also to correct for distortion in fossils.

After all these presentations, it was obvious why this conference was so necessary as a way to alert the natural history collection community to the direction digitization will be taking in the future. The emphasis was definitely on imaging as much as on other forms of data, and thus on large files that need to be stored, integrated with other data, and presented on portals that are both accessible and easy to use. Some solutions were suggested, particularly for paleontological databases and efforts to integrate them. Also, the pollen and biomechanics projects presented ways that databases could also be employed to manage research projects and further communication among researchers. It will be very interesting to see what’s reported at future iDigBio events. With all this data, it’s important to remember what’s at the root of iDigBio: natural history collections all over the United States. During my road trip, I got to visit two plant collections that are indicative of the riches available there. These will be the subject of my next post.