Years ago, my husband would attend meetings of the Popular Culture Association because he was interested in visual aspects of the popularization of science in 19th century magazines and books. I of course tagged along, and soon discovered that the PCA was about much more than comic books and plastic toys. There are dozens of sections and I found ones that dealt with material culture, the study of things—including two of my loves: natural history specimens and textiles. Material culture deals with human-made artifacts and would seem to exclude specimens, but that’s hardly the case. A specimen is an artifact. A herbarium sheet is more than a plant. It’s a piece of paper with at least one label, and the plant has been processed by humans to behave well in two dimensions. The botanical artist Rachel Pedder-Smith wrote about herbaria and material culture in her dissertation that accompanied her spectacular painting of Kew specimens, Herbarium Specimen Painting.
Over time, a specimen accretes greater significance as more humans interact with it. Deborah Harkness (2007) writes: “Every time a dried plant specimen changed hands it became infused with new cultural and intellectual currency as its provenance became richer, its associations greater” (p. 31). Often though not always, the transfer is noted physically on the sheet, making it easier to explain how a particular plant from, for example Germany, ended up in New Zealand, or why plants collected on a Captain James Cook expedition found a home in Philadelphia. In the last three posts (1,2,3) I’ve discussed attempts to puzzle out the provenance of herbaria, now I want to take this down to the “microhistory” level and look at the travels of individual sheets.
I got this idea from a lovely article I read in Capitulum, the recently revamped newsletter of The International Compositae Alliance (TICA). Abigail Moore (2022) writes about a single sheet at Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University that has two gatherings of what is now Grindelia ciliata(Nutt.) Spreng. The first was collected in 1819 by Thomas Nuttall, a British botanist who worked for many years in the United States and collected widely in the West. The label just gives “Arkansas” as the locale, but in the species description, Nuttall (1821) added “on the alluvial banks of the Arkansas, and Great Salt River.” The second gathering was from Samuel Woodhouse, who was like many collectors in the West, a U.S. Army surgeon/naturalist. He was on the Sitgreaves Expedition 1849-1851 to map in the same region Nuttall had visited 30 years earlier. The locale is “Cherokee Nation,” and Moore explains the technicalities of that term at the time, pointing to an area close to where Nuttall had found the first specimen. She ends by going into the rather complex nomenclatural history of this species, explaining the various names on the labels. It’s a lovely article and a reminder of how much can be learned from a single sheet.
In a very different example of the rich history that ANS specimens can reveal, Earle Spamer (1998) writes of 26 sheets there that were collected by Johann Reingold Forster and his son Johann Georg, naturalists on Captain James Cook’s second around-the-world voyage. Spamer describes how much they collected and how broadly the specimens were distributed, in most cases to British or at least European herbaria. The ANS specimens were given in 1834 by Thomas Nuttall, who apparently got them from Aylmer Bourke Lambert, an avid British botanist and collector (they are marked “Lambert Herbarium”). Some Lewis and Clark specimens at the ANS were also once part of Lambert’s herbarium but arrived by a very different route—a story for another time (Spamer & McCourt, 2002).
On the other side of the world, the herbarium of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa has a briefer history than ANS but none-the-less an interesting collection. Eighty-four of its specimens traveled from Japan to Russian to Britain before arriving back in the Pacific. The Russian botanist Carl Maximowich collected in Japan from 1860-1864 and returned to Saint Petersburg with 72 chests of specimens. The Natural History Museum, London received 1500 from this hoard, and they sent 84 on to New Zealand. At the time, New Zealand was a young colony, trying to develop its scientific infrastructure and the museum sought assistance from London.
These specimens were part of a much larger European collection of 28,000 specimens bought from NHM by the museum’s director James Hector in 1865. He thought Australian botanists needed a reference collection to aid in identification of the many non-native plants spreading through the colony, either inadvertently or purposefully brought in by settlers. As often happens in understaffed herbaria, most of this material lay in storage until the 1950s, and some of it has only recently been examined in detail. The collection was put together by three British collectors, but within it were materials collected by others, including at least one specimen of an Easter Island plant (see earlier post). There were also specimens gathered by a German botanist Johannes Flügge (1775-1816) who established a botanical garden in Hamburg. It was destroyed by Napoleon’s forces in 1813, yet here is a record of what was growing on the other side of the globe when New Zealand wasn’t even an official colony. That’s the wonder of herbaria and why I study them. I bore easily, but I am confident that there is an endless supply of examples like this to keep me intrigued.
Harkness, D. E. (2007). The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Moore, A. (2022). Grindelia ciliata (Astereae), Thomas Nuttall, and the exploration of the American West. Capitulum, 1(2). https://doi.org/10.53875/capitulum.01.2.07
Pedder-Smith, R. (2012). Herbarium Specimen Painting. Rachel Pedder-Smith. http://www.rachelpeddersmith.com/Herbarium/Herbarium.html
Spamer, E. (1998). Circumventing Captain Cook. Lewisia, 2, 2–5.
Spamer, E., & McCourt, R. (2002). The Lewis and Clark Herbarium of The Academy of Natural Sciences. Part 1. Notulae Naturae, 475, 1–46.