Natural History in 17th-Century Britain: John Ray

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Title page of John Ray’s Historia Plantarum, from the Biodiversity Heritage Library

I’ve written a number of posts about 16th-century naturalists who opened the field of early modern botany, especially about Luca Ghini, an early advocate for the herbarium, and those who worked with him (1,2,3,4).  In this series, I want move on to the 17th century and discuss a circle of naturalists working in Britain.  They knew each other, as least causally, in part because they were all members of the Royal Society of London (RS), which was founded in 1660.  This was in the latter days of a turbulent time in Britain when kings had been killed, Oliver Cromwell took over the government, and finally the monarchy was restored by bringing Charles II to the throne.  Part of this political turmoil was religious as well, with Catholics and different Protestant factions at odds with each other—and with the government.

But what does this have to do with plants?  Well, quite a bit, because many of those interested in natural history were products of Cambridge and Oxford Universities, which were then religious institutions devoted primarily to training clergy.  They were affected by the political upheavals, especially when Cromwell.  When King Charles II reached the throne, those working at the universities was asked to sign a loyalty oath to the Church.  John Ray (1627-1705), a naturalist who had been teaching at Oxford for 13 years, refused and lost his job.  He responded by not only leaving the university but the country and spent the next three years traveling in Europe, most of the time with Francis Willughby  and Philip Skippon, both of whom he had tutored.

Ray and Willughby had already made several collecting trips to areas in Britain, and Ray had published a Flora of Cambridgeshire (1660), the first of its kind for the British Isles and one that served as a model of such books.  This came to my attention recently when I read Tim Dee’s (2015) Four Fields, one of which is in Cambridge where he lives.  Dee writes of Ray’s work:  “I can think of nothing more thrilling, nothing that our species has done better, than this benign capture and permanent vivifying of a season, a pathway and a field edge, and its simpling, or its lovable mapping of what might be in front of us” (p. 236).  In other words, Ray makes the nature of Cambridge come alive.  Early his book, Dee himself writes that as a child he was enchanted by the world of books and found that books about the living world made that world more vivid and real.

Ray’s interests, like those of most naturalists of his time, extended well beyond plants.  With Willughby, he investigated birds, insects, and fish, publishing the results of their work after Willughby’s early death.  There will be more on Willughby in the next post.  For now I want to stick with Ray’s major work, his massive three-volume Historia Plantarum (1686-1704).  Agnes Arber (1943) suggests that its size, as well as its Latin text, led to its lack of popularity, but it’s nonetheless an important resource.  Ray is credited with one of the best pre-Linnaean classification schemes.  He built on the much earlier work of Andrea Cesalpino and still divided plants into trees, shrubs and herbs, but he also differentiated between monocots and dicots, and between angiosperms and gymnosperms.  These were not totally new discoveries, and much of the terminology came from the writings of Joachim Jung.  But Ray’s genius was in gathering all this information together and presenting it in a clear, organized way.  His work is considered one of the forerunners of Antoine Laurent de Jussieu’s natural system of classification.

Alexander Wragge-Morley (2010) argues that Ray’s descriptions were a form of picturing, they “enjoyed the same epistemic status as graphic representations, because they provoked images—and knowledge—of the same sort.  An image revealed immediately, a verbal description, more slowly” (p. 174).  Ray himself wrote that images can enhance the intelligibility of text, but can’t replace it because there is information about a species that can’t be conveyed in an engraving.  This was an opinion Ray shared with others like Robert Hooke and Nehemiah Grew, both of whom did use illustrations in their publications.  One reason Ray didn’t was their cost, but he also seemed to gravitate toward words.  He didn’t think much of herbaria, though there is one in the Sloane Herbarium at the Natural History Museum, London containing plants he collected on his European tour.  He doesn’t seem to have kept specimens relating to his Historia, though he did examine plants in a number of herbaria including those of Hans Sloane, Leonard Plukenet, and James Petiver.

Ray wrote a number of other works, including some I’ll mention in the next post on Francis Willughby.  He also produced a collection of translations of travel writings by authors who had toured parts of the Middle East.  The major portion was a translation by a German writer into English of Leonhard Rauwolf’s travelogue, noting the many plants he encountered along the way (see earlier post).  Ray also wrote a theological tract.  Throughout his life he remained religiously fervent, like many of his day, and saw the study of nature as a way to learn more about the creator.


Arber, A. R. (1943). A seventeenth-century naturalist: John Ray. Isis, 34, 319–324

Dee, T. (2015). Four Fields. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint.

Ray, J. (1660, 1975). Ray’s Flora of Cambridgeshire. Hitchin, UK: Wheldon and Wesley.

Wragge‐Morley, A. (2010). The work of verbal picturing for John Ray and some of his contemporaries. Intellectual History Review, 20(1), 165–179.


Vicki Funk: Thinking Big about Collections

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This is a last in a series of posts [1,2,3] on the plant systematist Vicky Funk and her recent review article on collections-based research.  Since Funk is a research scientist and curator in the National Museum of Natural History’s (NMNH) Botany Department, it isn’t surprising that she begins a section on the future use of collections with stats on herbaria.  The NMNH, part of the Smithsonian Institution, is home to the U.S. National Herbarium, with a collection of over five million specimens.  The goal there and at many herbaria is to digitize the data for all specimens and in some cases to also image them.  If this could be done at every herbarium, the data would serve as a potent research tool not only for taxonomists but for ecologists, conservationists, and researchers in other fields who never before considered using the information about plants available in herbaria.

One burgeoning field based on the availability of digital specimen images is computer vision and machine learning techniques that make automated plant identification possible.  It is sort of face recognition for plants and is developing to the point that herbarium specimens can be sorted rather well, though the processes are hardly at the point where identification is as good as that done by taxonomists.  However, machine sorting could be employed as a way to narrow down the number of specimens a researcher would have to look at in hunting for new species.  One recent report the computer was able to distinguish between moss groups better than the human eye could.

Funk cites several successful digitization projects, noting that the Atlas of Living Australia is a particularly comprehensive one that has resulted in online access to all records of Australian plant specimens held in the country’s national herbaria.  Australia is also at the forefront in developing software tools to assist researchers in extracting as much information as possible and in the most effective ways.  However, Funk sees the future as going beyond national or even regional databases:  “A Central Portal so all resources are available to everyone is critical.  It is particularly important that these efforts are making the data and images available to researchers in the countries where the specimens were collected, thereby supporting research in those countries” (p. 185).  She is referring to the fact that the bulk of specimens collected in developing countries, particularly during their colonial pasts, are held in European and North American herbaria.  A first attempt to make these specimens broadly available was the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation funding of type specimen digitization, the results now accessible through JSTOR Global Plants along with a great deal of supporting botanical literature.

But what Funk visualizes is something more comprehensive, and as an example, she describes a project funded by the Powell Center of the US Geological Service.  It focuses on the approximately 2500 species of North American Compositae (Asteraceae) and the location data on hundreds of thousands of specimens aggregated from GBIF (includes information from institutions outside the US), BISON (from US government institutions) and iDigBio (US private institutions).  Funk notes that this data is not only aggregated but “cleaned” to make sure it is of high quality, an issue that critics of aggregation emphasize.  The data is then integrated with environmental and geophysical data on geochemistry, climate, topography, etc., as well as phylogenetics—including gene sequences from GenBank.  Think of the power of this:  linking specimens with sequence and environmental data.   This is truly a harbinger of a new age in collections-based research.  It is amazing that ten years ago, just digitizing data and imaging specimens was considered a feat, with the Paris Herbarium’s plan to digitize most of its specimens considered daring.  Now the assembly line method they used has become relatively common, and other large herbaria have substantial percentages of their collections digitized and imaged.

Linking natural history collections to genetic data banks means uniting the two great arms of bioinformatics.  It is a biologist’s dream come true, and this connection will become even more powerful when environmental data is brought into the mix—a much more complex process.  But Funk has seen the digital world burgeon and has been one of the forces behind making it applicable to systematics.  She has also helped make systematics valuable to other fields such as phylogenetics and the growing discipline of phylogenomic—being able to sequence and compare entire genomes.  This is the result of new sequencing techniques that utilize fragmented DNA, just the type available in herbarium specimens.  Drawing on an example from the Asteraceae, Funk cites a study in which the entire genomes of 93 of 95 Solidago, goldenrod, herbarium specimens were sequenced with the plants ranging in age from 5-45 years (Beck & Simple, 2015).

In closing Funk notes:  “One exciting trend is the developing field of Integrative Systematics where collections-based systematics is combined with extensive field studies, phylogenetics, phylogenomics, detailed morphological studies, biogeographic inferences and diversification analysis to present a more comprehensive global” (p. 187).  She also argues for the maintenance of collections in educational institutions to insure the instruction of future generations of systematists; the digitization of cleared leaf slides, anatomy slides, pollen images, chromosome count images, and illustrations to fill out the information available to researches; and finally a series of symposia on the Tree of Life where systematists can map out a research agenda for the rest of the 21st century.


Beck, J. B., & Semple, J. C. (2015). Next-Generation Sampling: Pairing Genomics with Herbarium Specimens Provides Species-Level Signal in Solidago (Asteraceae). Applications in Plant Sciences, 3(6), 1500014.

Vicki Funk: The Age of Tree Thinking

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In the last post, I began my discussion of Vicki Funk’s (2018) recent article on “Collections-Based Science in the 21st Century” that I’ll continue here.  In this review, she terms the first 15 years of the 21st century “An Age of Tree Thinking,” in other words a time of investigating evolutionary relationships and the use of phylogenies.  This is a major interest of Pam and Douglas Soltis of the University of Florida, two other leaders in the field of collections-based research (Allen et al., 2019).   Funk gives examples of what she means by this term, beginning with evolutionary medicine.  This field’s work includes tracing changes in viruses as they are transmitted through a population and even within one body over time.  Funk notes that museum specimens of woodrats have been found to harbor viruses similar to those causing Chagas disease.  She also touches on food safety, beginning with GenomeTrakr a pathogen database set up by the Food and Drug Administration.  It hosts whole genome sequences for pathogens, mostly those implicated in food poisoning.  When an outbreak occurs, the pathogen involved can now be quickly sequenced, and then compared to sequences in the database; this helps to identify the source of contamination and speed control of the outbreak.

Moving on to evolutionary ecology, Funk cites a number of examples of how phylogenetics can illuminate ecological questions.  For example, DNA was sequenced from ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia) specimens collected through time, both before and after deforestation in particular areas.  Pollen core data suggest that ragweed, an aggressive weed, was uncommon before deforestation.  The DNA sequencing data indicates that there was a hybridization before deforestation that may have permitted the hybrid to grow more aggressively when trees were removed.  This is a good example of pairing historical data with molecular analysis.

Funk’s paper also explores the idea of DNA barcoding, a technique that her colleague John Kress at the Smithsonian has fostered.  For plants, it involves sequencing two regions of the chloroplast genome that serve as a fingerprint for species identification.  Kress and his colleagues (2009) barcoded all tree species growing in a plot on Barro Colorado Island in Panama, a long-term Smithsonian study site.  The resulting phylogenies are being employed to investigate the relationship between habitat and community structure.  Barcodes are also used to monitor illegal traffic in endangered species, for example, as a way to identify illegal shipments of rare woods.  Since her article’s title, “Collections-Based Science in the 21st Century,” doesn’t limit Funk to only plants, she slips in a reference to molecular phylogenetics in human evolution studies, noting how DNA extracts from fossils of Neandertals and of a hominin population called the Denisovans found in the Siberian Altai Mountains, as well as from present-day humans, were employed to work out the relationship among them, with Neanderthals and today’s humans more closely related to each other than to Denisovans.  In an example relevant to botany, medically important plants have been barcoded over the past ten years, and molecular phylogenetics can be used to test the purity of ingredients in herbal medicines.  This is a perennial problem due to varying levels of quality control for these materials, resulting in impure or ineffective products.

What these examples of tree thinking have in common is that they involve DNA sequencing and the storage of that information so it can be used in future studies.  In other words, there is a summative process going on here, and these databases, if properly maintained and utilized will only become more and more valuable and effective.  In the next section of her article, Funk deals with the future, and calls it “An Age of Thinking Big.”  This theme is also taken up by a group of European researchers (Besnard et al., 2018).  Funk discusses not only collections of DNA sequences, and the voucher specimens that back them up, but also the increasing availability of online data about natural history specimens as well as images of them.  Digitization has been going on for years, especially since the development of BISON, which is a database for specimens from US government facilities such as the Smithsonian, and iDigBio, for private research and educational collections.  While more and more information is coming online, there is still a great deal to do.  To date, less than half of all plant specimens are databased, and that percentage is even lower for animals—there are an awful lot of insects out there, which were relatively easy to collect, but not so easy to image, to say nothing of jellyfish, etc.

Funk considers some of the questions that could be tackled if all specimen data were available to researchers:  “What parts of the world need additional collecting expeditions?  How many species are rare?  How many species have not been collected in the last 50 years and may be extinct?  Are there certain areas that have a lot of rarely collected species and are these areas endangered ecosystems?  How fast have invasive species moved into new areas?  How has community composition changed through time?” (p. 182).  This list is reminiscent of Funk’s “100 Uses for an Herbarium.”  With her vast experience she is very good at thinking about why collections are valuable as research tools, and this analysis is especially useful today as many collections are facing uncertain futures.  In an earlier post I cited one example of Funk’s writing on this topic.  Here I’ll end with another citation, a review article she wrote with several of her colleagues on what collection based systematics should look like in 2050 (Wen et al., 2015).  Her answers to this question will be covered in the next and last post in these series.


Allen, J. M., Folk, R. A., Soltis, P. S., Soltis, D. E., & Guralnick, R. P. (2019). Biodiversity synthesis across the green branches of the tree of life. Nature Plants, 5(1), 11–13.

Besnard, G., Gaudeul, M., Lavergne, S., Muller, S., Rouhan, G., Sukhorukov, A. P., … Jabbour, F. (2018). Herbarium-based science in the twenty-first century. Botany Letters, 165(3–4), 323–327.

Kress, W. J., Erickson, D. L., Jones, F. A., Swenson, N. G., Perez, R., Sanjur, O., & Bermingham, E. (2009). Plant DNA barcodes and a community phylogeny of a tropical forest dynamics plot in Panama. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(44), 18621–18626.

Wen, J., Ickert‐Bond, S. M., Appelhans, M. S., Dorr, L. J., & Funk, V. A. (2015). Collections-based systematics: Opportunities and outlook for 2050. Journal of Systematics and Evolution, 53(6), 477–488.

Vicki Funk: The History of Collections-Based Science

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In the last post, I introduced Vicki Funk, a plant systematist who is a research scientist and curator at the U.S. National Herbarium, part of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History.  There I mentioned that Funk had recently published a review article called “Collections-Based Science in the 21 Century,” published in the May 2018 issue of the Journal of Systematics and Evolution.  As with most review articles, it begins with a historical perspective.  The first sentence is a bold claim:  “Major revolutions in scientific thought have occurred because of collections-based research” (p. 175).  Funk is in a position to know both because she works in an institution with a premier natural history collection, and because she herself has contributed to today’s revolution in how collections are accessed and utilized.

Funk begins with the age of classification and Carl Linnaeus’s heavy reliance on natural history collections in creating his artificial system of classification and nomenclatural reform.  Michel Adanson and Antoine Laurent de Jussieu, working at the botanical garden in Paris with its notable herbarium, devised natural classification schemes that in various forms eventually replaced the Linnaean artificial system.  The 19th century, Funk notes, began with Alexander von Humboldt’s expedition to Latin America that gave him the perspective to develop the field of biological and physical geography, along with ecology and meteorology.  He and his traveling partner Aimée Bonpland collected 50,000 specimens, documenting many new genera and species as well as the relationship between geography and species distributions.  Later, Charles Darwin, Joseph Dalton Hooker, and Alfred Russel Wallace not only collected specimens but used them to build on Humboldt’s work and to document the concept of species change.  With examples like this Funk makes clear the connection between collection and theory building, as well as the importance of great natural history museum collections, many of which were built in the 19th century.

Funk terms the 20th century the “Age of Synthesis” in reference to the evolutionary synthesis that developed at mid-century and to “four collection-based ideas and methods that changed . . . the way we do science” (p. 178).  The first was the concept of continental drift and with it the idea that land bridges between continents had existed in the past.  Both Humboldt and J.D. Hooker argued for these from the similarities among organisms in areas that are now separated by great distances.  Second was the development of phylogenetic systematics or cladistics, a field to which Funk has contributed a good deal both theoretically (1991) and in terms of her research, especially on the Asteraceae.  Cladistics deals with using derived characters to objectively construct relationships, then grouping taxa so all are descended from a single common ancestor without omitting any of its descendants.  This is a complex field, and as a recent issue of the American Journal of Botany (August 2018) on fossil plants reveals, there are problems that arise when only living species are used in creating monophyletic groups, so fossil collections are crucial to the process.

Under the third 20th-century trend, Funk lists databasing collections, biodiversity science, and niche modeling.  This is a huge triumvirate, but with its parts closely tied together.  Databasing collection data—specimen identification as well as place and time of collection—makes it possible to more easily assess data on the biodiversity of a region as well as on how it may be changing over time.  It also allows rigorous niche modeling, a term for techniques employing occurrence data to model the possible spatial extent of a species based on geographical and climatic data.  Ecology has always been a field using sophisticated mathematical models but the availability of digital data and high-speed computing have caused an explosion in research.  And this is really only the beginning, as more collection data and analytic tools come online.

The final concept Funk cites as developing in the 20th century is molecular phylogenetics, the analysis of gene sequences as a way to discover phylogenetic relationships.  She writes:  “Collections are an excellent source of material for the extraction of DNA, but they are also important because they provide the vouchers of the DNA sequences, and their presence allows us to check the identification of samples and to gather the data needed to ask questions about character evolution and modes of speciation” (p. 180).  These vouchers usually contain at least some geographic information, bringing in the biogeography she mentioned earlier.  Molecular systematics helped to clear up some arguments about derived characters used in cladistics and resulted in a major reorganization of plant phylogenetics.  As will become apparent in the next two posts, sequencing techniques have changed rapidly during the latter part of the 20th and into the 21st century, increasing the efficacy of DNA analysis with herbarium specimens.  These tools now allow sequencing of species for which no fresh material is available because the species are rare, inaccessible, or even extinct.  If historical material is available, they also enable work on how the genetics of a species may have changed over the last few hundred years.

Vicki Funk and the Uses for a Herbarium

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Montanoa hibiscifolia, photo by Forest & Kim Starr.

Early in my romance with herbaria I came across an article by Vicki Funk called “100 Uses for an Herbarium (Well at Least 72).”  Learning about the many ways plant collections can be utilized got me even more excited about them.  I also felt I had met a friendly member of the herbarium community, someone with a sense of humor.  She came up with a great title for her piece and then stuck with it even though she didn’t quite get to the magic number her title promised.  In the piece, Funk lists herbarium functions from verifying plant Latin names in issues of nomenclature, to serving as a repository for voucher specimens, to making specimens available to students and interested members of the public.  This article was written in 2004, and I am sure that Funk could come up with many more roles today.  She in fact does move in that direction in a major review article she recently published on “Collections-Based Science in the 21st Century” (2018).  I plan to use that article as the basis for this series of posts, but first I’ll say a little more about Vicky Funk, who seems to me to be the epitome of a plant systematist in the 21st century.

Focusing on Funk’s work right now is particularly timely because she has won the 2018 Asa Gray Award, the American Society of Plant Taxonomists’ highest honor.  The fact that her nomination was accompanied by 18 letters of support suggests just how deserved this recognition is.  Funk is a research scientist and curator at the U.S. National Herbarium in the Department of Botany at the National Museum of Natural History, part of the Smithsonian Institution.  She is an expert on the Asteraceae or Compositae and is lead editor for the 2009 Compositae: Systematics, Evolution, and Biogeography of the Compositae.  This is a massive work in every sense of the term because it treats one of the largest flowering plant families.  She has also been involved in the creation of the digital Global Compositae Checklist.

Funk received her Ph.D. from Ohio State University for work on Montanoa, a genus of plants with daisy-like flowers in the Heliantheae or sunflower tribe of the Asteraceae.  They are native to Central and South America, but since then Funk has worked in Hawaii, Guyana, and a number of other places, and perhaps most importantly in the developing field of phylogenetics.  She has also been an important figure in the development of plant cladistics and is coauthor of the classic, The Compleat Cladist.  While doing all this research, she has been a good citizen of the plant systematics community as president of both the American Society of Plant Taxonomists and the International Association of Plant Taxonomists.  I have yet to meet Funk, in part because I am in awe of her.  However I have heard her speak; her passion, intelligence, and good sense come through along with her deep and comprehensive knowledge of the field.

Funk has also been a hard working member of the Smithsonian scientific community.  I keep up with her through the pages of the U.S. National Herbarium’s newsletter that has the great title The Plant Press and is available online.  The first issue I read was from 2007 when she had the lead article on the 20-year project of the National Museum of Natural History called the Biological Diversity of the Guiana Shield program.  As Funk describes it, the shield is a geological formation of igneous and metamorphic rock that underlies the northeast corner of South America and includes parts of Venezuela, Guyana, Surinam, French Guiana, Brazil, and Columbia.   At the point when she was writing, the Shield plants checklist, of which she was an editor, was in press.  It has proven to be an important resource since its publication in 2007.  I should note that her article includes a photo of herself and two colleagues doing what is stated to be their “best” imitation of a jacana, a South American marsh bird, standing on one leg.  In a later issue of The Plant Press, (April-June 2011), she is pictured more sedately with the University of the District of Columbia students she was mentoring.  In most photos Funk is wearing Hawaiian patterned shirts replete with large tropical blooms, seemingly to remind herself of her work on Hawaiian plants and to provide others with a pleasant aesthetic experience.

But while Funk can be light-hearted, she can also be deadly serious, as she was in the October 2014 issue of The Plant Press with the opening lead article:  “The Erosion of Collections-Based Science: Alarming Trend or Coincidence?”  She unfortunately sides with the first alternative, citing a number of disturbing cases over the prior years, including elimination of the science program at the Milwaukee Public Museum, dwindling support for scientific research at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Florida, closing of the science program at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and diminishment of programs and staff at the California Academy of Sciences, the Field Museum in Chicago, and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.  Funk then goes on to outline the results of these cuts:  less projects in developing nations to assist in their scientific and economic development, weakening of education programs in the life sciences, and reduction in research on such crucial topics as climate change.  As the following posts will illustrate, these were hardly Funk’s last words on these topics.  She is in the forefront of the effort to support the future of systematics and environmental studies.


Funk, V. A., & International Association for Plant Taxonomy. (2009). Systematics, evolution, and biogeography of Compositae. Vienna, Austria: International Association for Plant Taxonomy, Institute of Botany, University of Vienna.

Book Tour: The Art of Naming

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Specimen of Gaga marginata (Kunth) Fay W.Li & Windham (formerly Cheilanthes marginata) from the United State National Herbarium

This is the last post in a series (1,2,3) on books I read on a recent trip.  I found The Art of Naming by Michael Ohl (2018) on an earlier trip and brought it along on this one.  Ohl is a German entomologist at the Natural History Museum of Berlin, and he tackles many aspects of the question: how do species get named?  This is a work about nomenclature and taxonomy that sometimes borders on the technical, but always in a way that’s accessible to the general reader.  Of course, there is the issue of whether or not the general reader really wants to know this much about nomenclature, but Ohl provides enough good stories along the way to keep his audience engaged.  This work was translated from the German by Elisabeth Lauffer, and I think she is also partly responsible for its readability, though there is always a slight hint of the difficulty of smooth translation.

While understandably Ohl takes most of his examples from the insect world, or at least from zoology, I found this a fascinating book because he is so good at describing the ins and outs of taxonomy, a field in which I am definitely not an expert.  Yes, the rules of nomenclature are different in zoology and botany, but most of the problems are similar.  For example, at one point he deals with the issue of those who have named a great many taxa, thousands of them.  Here he refers to an article by Daniel Bebber and coauthors (2010) in which they describe “big hitters,” those who collected many new species.  In their study Bebber’s group found that just 2% of plant collectors were responsible for over half the type specimens in a sample of 100,000 types.

Ohl found “big hitters” in entomology as well, but they were not collectors, rather those who described and named new species.  There are such individuals in botany as well, and in both cases, their reputations are not all stellar.  A Ohl notes, taxonomy seems to cause a certain mania in some practitioners, a passion for naming as many new species as possible.  A number of these individuals are considered “splitters,” focusing on small differences and tending to write brief descriptions.  In naming so many species, it’s not surprising that they might name the same species twice or even three times, and a taxonomist’s rate of synonymy is considered a measure of reliability, the lower the better.  Ohl relates several stories of taxonomists gone wild, but tempers his criticism by mentioning all the good work these individuals did as well.  This sense of balance is what makes the book so interesting; he is not afraid to look at both sides of nomenclatural debates.

One topic Ohl covers in detail is what makes a name acceptable or not.  The rules here vary somewhat from those in botany, but many are similar:  not naming a species after oneself, following rules of Latin or Greek grammar, and not applying a name that has already been used.  He relishes the subject of naming as a way to draw attention to a species, or to the one for whom it’s named.  I know there is a fern genus named after Lady Gaga, but now I know that there’s a spider named for David Bowie.  Ohl also tackles the topic of naming as fund-raising, which apparently has been going on for some time.  The German organization BIOPAT was founded in 1999; it makes undescribed species available to donors.  Rates start at 2,600 euros per species and depend on what the market will bear, in other words how attractive in some way the species is.  By 2013, the organization had raised 620,000 euros.  But there are other approaches, including an auction in 2005 to name a new titi monkey species in Bolivia’s Madidi National Park.  The British biologist describing it, Robert Wallace, decided to set up the auction to raise money for the Park.  Ultimately, the name was “sold” for $650,000 to the Golden Palace online casino, and now the monkey is Callicebus aureipalatti.  There are auctions on eBay to name plants, but the stakes are definitely not that high.  In this survey, Ohl again balances questions about naming-for-money against the sadly underfunded world of conservation biology.

Besides telling such fascinating stories, Ohl also deals with fundamental issues:  “getting at the essence of a species is one of the most difficult, controversial, and yet most important questions in biology” (p. 84).  He explores the issue in terms of deciding on a type specimen or specimens and what this designation signifies:  “Type species are not representatives of biological species from representations of names of biological species” (p. 108).  He points out how types have become essential in taxonomy and discusses the ins and outs of designating a lectotype (in zoology, a type designated after the species has already been named) for humans.  It was in fact a botanist, William Stearn, who chose Carl Linnaeus’s remains as representative for all Homo sapiens.  While Ohl doesn’t deal much with the digitization of natural history collections and using bioinformatics to bring order to nomenclature, that may be because these projects are farther along in botany than in zoology.  In any case, this was definitely a good read on a rather “interesting” trip north.


Bebber, D. P., Carine, M. A., Wood, J. R. I., Wortley, A. H., Harris, D. J., Prance, G. T., … Scotland, R. W. (2010). Herbaria are a major frontier for species discovery. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(51), 22169–22171.

Ohl, M. (2018). The Art of Naming. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Stearn, W. T. (1959). The background of Linnaeus’s contributions to the nomenclature and methods of systematic biology. Systematic Zoology, 8(1), 4–22.

Book Tour: Francis Hallé

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In this series of posts, I’m discussing books I read during my trip to northern states visiting relatives.  On the way I stopped in Philadelphia (see last post) and went to the Joseph Fox Bookshop, one of my favorites.  I always find surprising and interesting books there.  One of the discoveries on this trip was Atlas of Poetic Botany by Francis Hallé (2018), professor emeritus of botany at the University of Montpellier in France.  He is noted for his research on tropical plants, particularly trees.  He coauthored a book on the architecture of trees in the tropics (1978), and he envisioned studies in the forest canopy.  His first idea was to use a dirigible to move through the upper reaches of trees, but winds made this impractical.  Then he worked with a group of engineers and botanists to create a raft suspended from a dirigible.  Others produced alternative designs with systems of pulleys and cranes.  These technologies made it possible for biologists to finally spend more time in the upper reaches of tall tropical trees, studying the animals and plants living there and the intricate relationships among them.

Hallé is now 80 years old, but he is still passionate about tropical plants, as his Atlas reveals.  This is a book aimed at the general reader and its illustrations, drawn by the author, are as fascinating as the text.  In his introduction, he makes a strong case for the continuing need for botanists to draw despite access to photography that can record a plant’s form and color in a second.  For Hallé, the advantage of drawing is what others would see as its disadvantage—it takes time:  “To seize an ephemeral moment, as photography does, is to content oneself with limited information.  The extended time required for drawing, on the other hand, amounts to a dialogue with the plant” (p. 8).  That’s a lovely phrase, “a dialogue with the plant,” and isn’t that what botanical research is about?  Hallé also points out that this process involves the relationship not only between plant and observer, but between the observer’s hand and brain.  He then adds that botanical drawings give rise to emotions, luring the observer into further investigation of the subject.

A first glance at Hallé’s drawings might be disappointing to those accustomed to standard botanical illustrations.  His might be considered naïve but that’s their charm:  they are meant to teach, to be understandable to nonbotanists.  Hallé’s chief tool is a pencil and not a very sharp one at that.  Once he has the basic drawing down, he goes over the pencil lines with pen and ink, sometimes adding color.  He might introduce a figure into the drawing, a human or an animal, to give a sense of scale.  He does follow a few botanical illustration conventions such as adding enlargements of flowers or other pertinent structures.  Some drawings are very diagrammatic, but almost all have a slight sense of whimsy.  At times Hallé plays with scale as when he emphasizes the gigantic size of Gunnera peltata by adding a small artist drawing the plant, one who is in reality squirrel-sized in relation to the leaves (see photo).  There are a couple of videos on the web that illustrate his technique.  One was done in conjunction with an exhibit at the Montreal Botanical Garden of poster-sized enlargements of his work scattered through the garden.  The other was in a series made along with a documentary on conserving tropical rainforests.  This was a collaboration between Hallé and the filmmaker Luc Jacquet who created another documentary, March of the Penguins.

In the videos and the book, Hallé’s passion for tropical botany is evident.  He is fascinated not just by the trees, but by all the life connected to them.  He is intrigued by plants that have developed what might be considered odd adaptations to survive in unusual environments.  He notes that the flowers of the Amazonian tree Duguetia calycina are not to be found in its canopy.  Instead, its lower branches hang down to the ground, grow underground to some distance from the trunk, and then produce flowers with a pleasant fragrance.  They are probably pollinated by flying insects, but little is known about the tree or its relationships.  Hallé adds that a totally different species from another family and growing in Cameroon, Caloncoba flagelliflora, has a similar habit, producing tiny white flowers on the forest floor.  Another of my favorites is a parasitic laurel, Cassytha filiformis.  A tropical vine, it looks like a typical laurel when young, but once it finds a plant to crawl on, most of its chlorophyll disappears, and it fades to a yellow color after it punctures the host’s bark to extract nutrients.  This vine can engulf a tree to the point that, as Hallé writes, huge mango trees in Thailand were “covered by a Cassytha; they looked like they were wearing giant yellow wigs” (p. 60).

I hope I’ve given some sense of how “poetic” in a visual as well as verbal sense this book is.  It introduced me to an author and to plants that are equally intriguing.  And it reminded me once again of how important art is to botanical science.  If you want to learn more about Hallé’s approach, there is a booklet online that describes a workshop he gave, along with Peter Del Tredeci, on tree architecture to students in the University of Virginia’s Landscape Architecture program.


Hallé, F. (2018). Atlas of Poetic Botany. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Hallé, F., Oldeman, R. A. A., & Tomlinson, P. B. (1978). Tropical Trees and Forests: An Architectural Analysis. Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer Berlin Heidelberg.

Book Tour: William Bartram

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Barnyard at Bartram’s Garden, Philadelphia, PA (photo by the author)

This series of posts is about books I read on my recent trek to New York and Connecticut.  I first visited the Oak Spring Foundation Library in Virginia (see last post) and then headed to Philadelphia to have lunch with my friend Jan Yager, an artist and goldsmith.  She has created many amazing pieces including the Invasive Species Tiara, now in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  Coincidentally, I had brought with me a book about William Bartram (1739-1823), an earlier Philadelphia resident.  Called Fields of Vision: Essays on the Travels of William Bartram (Braund & Porter, 2010), it deals primarily with his trip to southern areas in colonial America in the years leading up to the Revolutionary War.  Bartram was the son of the farmer and nurseryman, John Bartram, who developed a business selling novel plant species on both sides of the Atlantic.  Between 1734 and 1766 John made at least 14 long journeys throughout the colonies, along with countless shorter ones, collecting plant specimens and seeds.  He had a particularly good eye for new species (Hoffmann & Van Horn, 2004) and wrote that he rarely found new plants in areas where he had already collected (McLean, 1992).

William Bartram accompanied his father on his 1765-1766 trip south to Florida.  The French and Indian War had just ended, and this territory was now under British control.  British gardeners like Peter Collinson, who managed Bartram’s shipments to England, encouraged him to go south and explore this relatively unknown territory.  He even arranged for Bartram senior to be named King’s Botanist, a title that came with a small stipend.  William was living in North Carolina at the time in a failed attempt to start a business there, so he was more than willing to accompany his father.  They traveled to Charleston, South Carolina and stayed for a few weeks, connecting with fellow naturalists and nurserymen.  They then made their way through Georgia to Florida and explored along the St. John’s River.  William remained there to set up a farming venture that also eventually failed, and he returned to Philadelphia.

By 1773, John was in failing health, but William was willing to make another collecting trip south at the behest of the British gardener John Fothergill who at Collinson’s death had taken over his role as the Bartrams’s go-between with their British patrons.  Impressed by William’s natural  history sketches, Fothergill financed the trip and suggested that the younger Bartram keep a journal and make sketches of what he saw.  William set out, again stopping in Charleston and visiting friends he had made there earlier.  However the times were different; these were the years leading up to the War of Independence, and Charleston was a major colonial city.  William’s acquaintances were on both sides of the issue, which must have made for some uneasy conversations, especially when he revisited the city toward the end of his trip in late 1776.

Edward Cashin has written about this journey from a political perspective in William Bartram and the American Revolution on the Southern Frontier (2000).  His major point is that Bartram did not waste many words on the looming clash but instead focused on observations on the natural history of the areas he visited.  He was also interested in the native Americans he encountered and went out of his way to learn about them.  He left Charleston to attend a meeting with native American leaders in Augusta, Georgia and described in detail his experiences there and with other Indian tribes he met further south.  As Cashin notes, in Georgia the colonists were more concerned about relations with Indians than with the British.  Clashes with the former were a more immediate threat.

From Georgia, Bartram moved further west, eventually reaching the Mississippi River, although he only remained there a short time.  He then made his way east through what was called West Florida, encountering members of several Indian tribes and settlers who were creating new outposts in these areas.  By the time he returned to Charleston, the Revolution was underway, and his father was very ill, so he quickly returned to Philadelphia in early 1777.  Throughout his trip, he had been sending notes, specimens, seeds, and drawings back to Fothergill.  However, William didn’t begin his book until 1786 when he badly fractured his leg falling from a tree and was bed-ridden for some time.  The book was illustrated with his drawings and became a classic in American natural history literature, but as Cashin points out, it is about more than natural history.  It is a chronicle of what the South was like at the point when the United States was being created.  Several of the essays in Fields of Vision note that Bartram had a keen eye not only for plants but for human behavior, and yet seemed to hold back from describing the more vicious forms he encountered.  In other words, he attempted to present the new nation in a good light, to make of it something of which its citizens could be proud.

Bartram never undertook another long journey, though Thomas Jefferson suggested he join the Lewis and Clark Expedition.  Instead, he continued to work on the Bartram farm.  He was also active in the Philadelphia botanical community, creating illustrations for the landmark American book on plants, Benjamin Barton’s Elements of Botany.


Braund, K. E. H., & Porter, C. M. (Eds.). (2010). Fields of Vision: Essays on the Travels of William Bartram. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press.

Cashin, E. J. (2000). William Bartram and the American Revolution on the Southern Frontier. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.

Hoffmann, N. E., & Van Horne, J. C. (Eds.). (2004). America’s Curious Botanist: A Tercentennial Reappraisal of John Bartram 1699-1777. Philadelphia, PA: American Philosophical Society.

McLean, E. P. (1992). John and William Bartram: Their importance to botany and horticulture. Bartonia, 57, 10–27.

Book Tour: Gardens

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Looking out on Oak Spring from the Oak Spring Garden Foundation Library (photo by author)

In December I headed north to visits relatives and friends in New York and Connecticut.  I had only reached New York when my sister called from a hospital (never a good sign) to say that she had broken her wrist and shoulder.  To make a very long story short, I spent the next ten days visiting her in the Connecticut hospital where various complications kept her.  We definitely had time for good conversations, and when I wasn’t with her, I had time to read at the hotel.  I had brought a couple of books with me and acquired a few along the way.  This series of posts will be on some of what I read.  Though none of these works are about herbaria, they all have links to them in various ways.  My sister is back home and so am I.  Now I have time to consider what I learned about gardens, botanical history, tropical plants, and taxonomy.

This post deals with The Gardens of Bunny Mellon, a large tome filled with photographs by Roger Foley and a relatively brief text by Linda Jane Holden (2018).  I bought this the day I visited the Oak Spring Garden Foundation Library in Virginia, at the start of my trip.  I have been there before, and it is the closest thing I know to botanical heaven.  Rachel (Bunny) Mellon loved gardening from a young age and was able to indulge her interest because she came from a wealthy family and then married the philanthropist Paul Mellon.  The book deals with the gardens she created at their homes in Manhattan, Cape Cod, Nantucket and Antiqua, but most of all, with the gardens surrounding the house the Mellons built in the 1950s at Oak Spring, and adjacent to which they added a library in the early 1980s.

The first time I visited the library, Nancy Collins gave me a tour of the garden which has been maintained by the Foundation since Rachel Mellon’s death in 2014.  The photographs in the book do a great job of communicating the atmosphere of the garden as well as the plants growing there.  The word I would use to describe it is homey rather than palatial, but there is definitely a sense that everything is planned, from the allée of crab apple trees to the herbaceous beds to the vegetable garden.  It is simply a wonderful place to be.  Mellon created her library in support of her passion for plants.  She studied the great gardens and garden writers of the past.  Holden lists Mellon’s “Pentateuch” of books that informed her designs (p. 160):  The Compleat Gard’ner by Jean-Baptiste de La Quintinie (1693), Phytographia curiosa by Abraham Munting (1714), The Flower-Garden Display’d by Robert Furber (1734), Le Jardin Fruitier by Loise Claude Noisette (1821), and Flower Guide: Wild Flowers East of the Rockies  by Chester Albert Reed (1920).

These reside in the library along with 16,000 other books, manuscripts, and art works; there are even a few herbaria.  They include a scrapbook made as a Christmas gift for the Mellons from horticulturalists Charles and Katherine Pecora.  The plants were collected at Oak Spring and the adjacent Rokeby Farm in 1968.  Katherine worked as a secretary at the farm for many years, and this collection is very much in the tradition of creating a presentation volume for patrons.  Other herbaria include one of algae assembled by Eliza French during the 19th-century seaweed craze, and one of New Zealand Ferns by George Davenport, again a product of a fad of the time.  There is also a printed herbarium catalogue produced by the 19th-century German nurseryman Carl Jeppe that lists those who subscribed to the volume, beginning with the local gentry.  Another is a sumptuous 18th-century herbarium of medicinal plants attributed to Carlo Sembertini and described in one of four volumes on the library collections published by Oak Spring (Tomasi & Willis, 2009, pp. 334-339).

Gardens also covers a number of other Mellon homes, each site’s plants and design adapted to its particular location.  Besides these Mellon also created several for friends including two at the White House.  John F. Kennedy asked her to redesign the Rose Garden outside the oval office.  Working with the President and the National Park Service she managed to develop an environment that has pleased White House occupants for decades and served as a backdrop for many important governmental events.  The garden was so successful that Jacqueline Kennedy invited Mellon to also remake the East Garden on the opposite side of the White House, a more private space.  This wasn’t accomplished until Lady Bird Johnson was First Lady.  She also worked with Mellon and the result was called the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden.

Mellon was a Francophile and a good friend of her favorite fashion designer, Hubert de Givenchy.  She developed gardens for his Château du Jonchet and then worked with him on a much more public project, recreation of the Potager du Roi, the king’s kitchen garden at the Palace of Versailles.  It was originally designed between 1678 and 1686 by one of her favorite garden writers, Jean-Baptiste de La Quintinie, to provide fruits and vegetables for the royal table.  Givenchy was the head of the World Monuments Fund France, which wanted to revive the garden that was in decay, and he brought Mellon to see the “plot,” much larger than an ordinary kitchen garden.  She collaborated with him on the design, and the Mellons paid for the entire project including an irrigation system, basin and fountain, and the King’s Gate.

Rachel Mellon is in the tradition of the great garden designers and plant lovers who have enkindled fervor for plants and contributed so much to our knowledge and appreciation of them.  Her passion lives on in the Oak Spring Garden Foundation and its wonderful library.  The Foundation is now expanding its mission to reach a broader community of plant lovers.


Holden, L. J. (2018). The Gardens of Bunny Mellon. New York, NY: Vendome.

Quintinie, J. de Le, & Evelyn, J. (1693). The Compleat Gard’ner: Or, Directions for Cultivating and Right Ordering of Fruit-gardens and Kitchen-gardens; with Divers Reflections on Several Parts of Husbandry. In Six Books. London, UK: Gillyflower.

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

Seeking Plants in Seattle: Biotopia and Seeds

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Webpage for Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank Seed List

To complete this series of posts on my trip to Seattle for the History of Science Society meeting (1,2,3), I’ll discuss two presentations dealing with 20th and 21st century botany.  Jim Endersby  of the University of Sussex in Britain spoke on “A Visit to Biotopia: Genre, Genetics, and Gardening in the Early Twentieth Century,” based on his recently published article (Endersby, 2018).  He began with E.T. Brewster’s 1908 essay in The Atlantic Monthly, “Nature against Nurture” in which the author wrote about the wonders that would be coming soon from the new science of genetics.  This was only seven years after Hugo de Vries published his work on primrose genetics and introduced Gregor Mendel’s research to a large audience.  Brewster cited work on breeding experiments with cattle, insects, and plants to show how fast the field was developing.

Endersby moved on from there to discuss more literary utopian visions that also featured plants prominently.  These include Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (1979) and H.G. Wells’s Men Like Gods (1923).  In both novels, farming was important to sustaining these futuristic communities, and genetics was used to create better crops.  Endersby’s point was that genetics quickly entered the public imagination, and writers sensed this and augmented to the trend.  There was a definite optimism about the possibilities:  a better world based on better plants was indeed possible.  He returned to the more scientific end of the topic by taking up the work of Luther Burbank and its public reception.  Here was someone who wasn’t just writing about possible futures but was helping to create them.  Endersby noted that the public saw Burbank, as Gilman herself did, as someone who could bring about human control over nature.  Burbank still has some botanical name recognition, but most of us would be hard put to remember more about him than that he was a plant breeder.  Endersby’s presentation was a useful reminder of how important Burbank was in shaping 20th century American horticulture and agriculture.

In some ways, Xan Chacko’s (University of California, Davis) presentation was closely related to Endersby’s in that she, too, discussed a rather utopian project, or at least one that has been described in those terms.  Her paper, “Post-Colonial (bio)Prospects: Founding a Seed Bank for Kew Gardens,” dealt with the Millennium Seed Bank (MSB), established by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in 2000, hence its name.  For this endeavor, which aimed at banking seeds for 25% of the world’s plant species, Kew received substantial support from the Wellcome Trust.  Chacko’s research at the MSB was part of a larger project on how Kew was able to recast itself from an arbiter of colonial plant knowledge under people like Joseph Dalton Hooker to defender of the world’s biodiversity.

The MSB is located at Wakehurst, a Sussex garden Kew manages.  While I knew about it and its work from Kew blog posts (1,2), I did not know much about how it came to be.  Though in Kew literature 2000 was its official start, Chacko explained how its origins could be traced back to around 1970, when a new science director looked critically at Kew’s seed program.  Essentially, it consisted of saving seeds for about 4-5,000 species, most collected from plants growing at Kew and used primarily for propagating more plants on site.  Some were also shared with other botanical gardens.  However, there had been complaints of low germination rates and inaccurate labeling.  Needless to say, the proposed solution involved more funds and more personnel; to justify such support a plan was drawn up to expand the bank.

While the seed unit had been part of the plant physiology department, it gained more autonomy when it moved to Wakehurst in 1974.  Over the years, it expanded and set the goal of saving seeds from all United Kingdom species.  In the meantime, conserving biodiversity had become more urgent as the 20th century came to a close.  In looking for a project to fund that would address this issue, the Wellcome Trust was attracted to the infrastructure Kew had already built and the expertise it had developed, and so supported the building of a dedicated facility for banking seeds.  A big occasion was celebrated in 2010 when 10% of the world’s plants were represented in the MSB.

Chacko cast a questioning eye on what does this really mean, what has been saved at MSB, how viable are the seeds, and what is Kew doing with them?  She compared the MSB to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway that has the mission of primarily bank seeds for food crops and for crop wild relatives.  Another difference is that Svalbard is a backup to seedbanks around the world; countries send portions of their own seed reserves as a way to insure survival.  This is one of the requirements for Svalbard accepting seeds.  Also, there are projects to test seed viability and to renew the “deposits” as needed.  The MSB is less concerned with these issues, though it is carrying out research to earmark seeds from certain species as being particularly important to store.  These include work with the UK National Tree Seed Project to collect and store seed from the country’s woodlands.  There is also a crop wild relatives project to save the genetic diversity of species closely related to crop species.  It’s interesting to think of such endeavors as growing out of the Kew bureaucracy that was once headed by Joseph Banks who saw plants as sources of wealth for the future of his nation (see last post).


Brewster, E. T. (1908). Nature against nurture. Atlantic Monthly, 102(1), 120–125.

Endersby, J. (2018). A visit to Biotopia: genre, genetics and gardening in the early twentieth century. The British Journal for the History of Science, 51(3), 423–455.

Perkins, C. G. (1979). Herland. New York, NY: Pantheon.

Wells, H. G. (1923). Men Like Gods. London, UK: Cassell.