The Herbarium as Personal

3 Irish Flowers

Some Irish Flowers, my “herbarium”

In 2011, shortly after my herbarium fixation began, my sister was excavating our mother’s bedroom dresser, a slow process that began with her death in 1988.   On this particular dig, Aideen discovered a very small collection of pressed plants that I had made on our trip to Ireland when I was 13 years old [see image above].  It was about as bad as an herbarium can get.  There is a title page “Some Irish Flowers” in my attempt at calligraphy, and seven pages of specimens, usually more than one per page, but no plant names, no locations, no dates, not even the name of the collector.  The pages are tied together with a ribbon—green of course—and the specimens are decorated with various, now faded, ink flourishes.  I do remember making this exsiccatae, but I soon lost track of it; I had no idea my mother kept it.  I should have known she would.  It was a souvenir of our trip to Ireland, her first trip “home” since she had left as a teenager 32 years earlier, a departure she always rued.  This rather pathetic collection was a reminder for her of the Irish wildflowers, such as primroses, that flourish in Ireland but not in a tiny backyard in New York City.

There are any number of such personal collections tucked away in herbaria and botanical libraries around the world.  Usually they are more attractive, substantial, and sometimes even botanically useful than mine.  I am definitely not going to attempt to foist it off on any institution, or even on one of my relatives.  I mention it here in part as a homage to my mother and her homeland, as well as that of my father.  On the same trip, we visited the farm where he was raised and I recall being in awe of the many different wildflowers along a road bank.  That may be where I got the idea for my collection.  An additional reason for bringing it up is that I recently saw another childhood herbarium, definitely better constructed than mine and one that presaged the maker’s later career.

I have discussed the plant morphologist Agnes Arber (1879-1960) a number of times in this blog because she has been one of my intellectual mentors, beginning long before my herbarium phase.  Her views on the relationship between science and art are riveting (Arber, 1954).  Arber’s archives are at the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.  I did some research in Arber’s papers years ago and remembered seeing the herbarium, so I decided to take another look.  Arber’s specimens are in a notebook, and on the first page, she wrote, in script to be expected of a child her age:  “Agnes aged eight, 4th May 1886.”  This is followed by nine pages with a single specimen on a page, all but one labeled with the plant’s common name.  Someone ruled the blank paper to guide her writing and probably also made the careful razor slits through which the stems were slipped in.  It is a very neat little work.  Arber was growing up in the Victorian era when creating such books was almost a given for children, especially girls.

About forty years earlier, the poet Emily Dickinson created a much more substantial plant collection and at age thirteen she wrote to a friend: “Have you made an herbarium yet? I hope you will if you have not, it would be such a treasure to you; ‘most all the girls are making one.”  Pasted onto 66 pages, there are 424 specimens, all but 60 of them with Latin binomials (Dickinson, 2006).  Because of its provenance, Dickinson’s herbarium is of much greater interest than the average adolescent collection and was digitized so that it could be studied without damage to the fragile original.  Housed at Harvard University’s Houghton Library, it is a beautiful work with the plants arranged not according to any plant classification scheme but with an eye for symmetry and balance on the page.  In an article entitled “Weaving and Breathing,” Sheena Calvert (2019) of the University of the Arts, London writes that Dickinson presents the plants, “through the lens of her experiences and desires, introducing ‘the human.’”  I think this could be said of any herbarium sheet, even those most replete with taxonomic information.  Each is a human artifact with a human choosing the specimen and perhaps the same person also selecting how to place it on the sheet.

Examining personal herbaria is a way of learning something about the maker, a small window into what caught their eye, a manifestation of the human urge to hold on to things:  images, scents, and memories of place as well as the plant itself.  Arber kept her herbarium even though, according to her daughter Muriel, she destroyed many of her papers a few years before she died (Flannery, 2005).  I can imagine Agnes leafing through it, thinking back to when she made it and who had helped her with its construction—a small memory of plants that was one building block in the foundation of her life’s work.  In visiting herbaria, I have seen a number of such collections.  There are many scrapbooks with algae, a great subject of collecting in the late 19th century; many have no attribution and no specimen labels.  They are still beautiful artifacts that deserve to be preserved, not only because of the plant material they contain but because of the human spirit they document.


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

Calvert, S. (2019). Weaving and breathing. INKQ, (6).

Dickinson, E. (2006). Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium: A Facsimile Edition (R. B. Sewall, Ed.). Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Flannery, M. C. (2005). Agnes Arber in the 21st century. The Systematist, 24, 13–17.


I would like to thank Nancy Janda for her assistance on my visit to the Hunt Institution for Botanical Documentation.  She was very helpful and I appreciate her patience.

Botanical Britain: Place

4a Cyclamen

Cyclamens growing in the rock garden at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

While I was in Edinburgh and London recently (see earlier posts 1,2,3), I was reminded several times of my mother’s favorite plants, all ones that thrive in the British Isles.  She was born on the south coast of Ireland in a seaside town called Tramore.  Her family was upper middle class, but fell on hard times because of her father’s financial blunders.  She emigrated with her mother and siblings in 1928, just in time to face the depression in New York City.  While she later married my father and had two wonderful children, if I do say so myself, she never really felt at home in the United States and made her opinion known on many occasions.  I remember her often mentioning plants that grew well in the gardens of Ireland but didn’t flourish in the US.  I was reminded of this while walking by a park in Edinburgh and seeing Cyclamens blooming (see photo above).  My mother would buy them in pots as houseplants, but they didn’t grow in our garden.  She had the same problem with primroses and Fuchsia (see photo below).  From time to time she would buy a potted Fuchsia, and after she kept it alive inside, would plant it outdoors.  It never did well.  All these plants like mild and moist conditions; a New York City backyard just didn’t provide the right environment.

4b Fuchsia

Fuchsia growing near a sidewalk in Edinburgh, Scotland.

When we visited Ireland I finally understood her problem and was also introduced to another of her favorites the monkey puzzle tree Araucaria araucana (see photo below).  What I didn’t know at the time was that none of these genera, except for the common primrose, Primula vulgaris, are native to Ireland and Britain.  Yes, they thrive there, but Fuchsia was sent back by Charles Plumier from the Caribbean, Cyclamen is native to the eastern Mediterranean, and the monkey puzzle is South American.  Their naturalization in Ireland was the result of avid gardeners wanting to extend their repertoire of species, and these particular plants, among many others, ended up thriving in areas warmed and watered by the Gulf Stream.

4c Monkey Puzzle Edinburgh

Monkey puzzle tree, Araucaria araucana, at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

The connection of plants and place—both their native and adopted ranges—is a discussion had many times among those involved in the Herbaria 3.0 project.  This initiative, which has been funded by Seed Box: A Mistra-Formas Environmental Humanities Collaboratory in Sweden and Colorado School of Mines in the US describes itself as “a platform for sharing stories about plants and people. We believe that these stories can draw our attention to the intertwined nature of human-plant relationships. Turning to these relationships helps us to remember plants and reconnect with them, acknowledging the pivotal role plants play in our lives.”  The website now has a rich selection of stories in which the relationship between plants, place, and peoples’ lives are very evident.  But as was the case with my mother, the place the writer describes is often not within the plant’s native range.  This is indicative of how much the ecology of the entire globe has been changed by plant exchanges over hundreds and thousands of years.  It also signals how people’s emotional lives are influenced by the plants with which they share a space.  Attempting to grow Fuchsia in New York was important to my mother; she was trying to make her home a little more like what she considered her real home in Ireland.

My mother’s childhood home, a horse farm, was burnt down when she was nine years old.  We’ve visited the site, which is marked by little more than rubble.  On my recent trip I got to visit the intact childhood home of one of my intellectual “mothers,” Agnes Robertson Arber, a noted plant morphologist of the first half of the 20th century and the third woman elected to the Royal Society.  I’ve mentioned her in earlier blog posts (1,2) because she wrote two of my favorite books, The Mind and the Eye (1954) on the philosophy of biology including the relationship of art to inquiry, and Herbals: Their Origin and Evolution a Chapter in the History of Botany, 1470-1670 (1938), which is still an important reference in the field.  When I contacted Mark Nesbitt of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew about seeing the economic botany collection (see earlier post), he said that he had recently talked to Xandra Bingley who had inquired about Agnes Arber since Bingley lives in the house into which the Robertsons, Agnes’ parents, moved when she was eleven.  Bingley is a long-time resident but didn’t know about the connection until English Heritage decided to mount a commemorative blue plaque for Arber on the building.  Since I’ve written on Arber (Flannery, 2005), Nesbitt thought Bingley and I should get together.

Xandra invited me to her home for lunch, which lasted well into the afternoon.  She thinks that the location of the house, just steps from Primrose Hill, a park adjacent to Regent’s Park, and the lovely, long narrow garden in the rear must have stimulated Robertson’s interest in plants.  I know that while Agnes Robertson was living there, her father brought home an early edition of Henry Lyte’s English translation of the Flemish botanist Rembert Dodoens’s herbal, because a friend wanted advice on whether to buy it.  In Herbals, Arber writes that seeing the book is what kindled her interest in the history of botanical illustration.  Again, place and plants come together, but in a very different way, and I left Xandra’s house with a better sense of how one of my favorite botanists embarked on her career.  Herbals was Arber’s first book, written while she was also working on plant morphology, and weaving together strands that were to grow stronger throughout her life.


Arber, A. (1938). Herbals: Their Origin and Evolution a Chapter in the History of Botany, 1470-1670 (2nd ed.). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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

Flannery, M. C. (2005). Agnes Arber in the 21st century. The Systematist, 24, 13–17.

Note: The most fun I had in England was in Xandra Bingley/Agnes Robertson’s home.  I can’t thank Xandra enough for being willing to greet me so warmly and entertain me with such wonderful conversation.

Plants in Toronto: History of Science

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Conrad Gessner: Drawing for the Eye and the Mind


Saw-Wort and Black Pea. Gessner Notebook 2, page 341r: University Library Erlangen.

As I noted in the last post, Conrad Gessner (1516-1565) kept voluminous notes on plants in anticipation of publishing a major work on as many species as possible. Usually, he devoted one page to each species. These notes were both textual and visual. He cited ancient writers as well as his contemporaries. The drawings were almost all in pen-and-ink with watercolor washes over some portion of them to indicate what the plants looked like in life. He had in fact seen many of them growing either during his field trips or in his garden, where he planted as many species as he could acquire from colleagues. He also had an herbarium, which is how I have justified to myself devoting posts to Gessner on a blog called HerbariumWorld. None of it has survived, but there are references to it in his correspondence, and it had a communal aspect, with lending and trading going on among his peers (Kusukawa, 2012). Thomas Penny, who worked on Gessner’s notebooks, had an herbarium, as did Ulisse Aldrovandi, Pietro Andrea Mattioli, and Leonhart Fuchs, all of whom were in contact with Gessner.

There was also trafficking in images. He pleaded with correspondents to send drawings if they couldn’t send the plants themselves. He would even pay for having the image drawn, but was careful to mention that he only wanted rare plants, ones he hadn’t already recorded (Egmond, 2016). Yet he did often need more than one drawing of a plant since he wanted to record the different stages of its life cycle, as well as close-ups of significant structures such as buds, flowers, fruit, and seeds. It is these drawings that I want to focus upon here, and in particular, I will argue that they were at the heart of his research. This is hardly a new idea; several authors mentioned in this and the following posts have made it. However, I want to slightly broaden the context by citing both early 20th-century work on the relationship between art and science, as well as recent research on drawing-as-discovery.

Agnes Arber (1879-1960), a British plant morphologist, was trained as an artist by her father, a professional landscape painter. She created all the illustrations for her dozens of articles and three monographs on monocot morphology. Toward the end of her life she produced a work on the philosophy of biology called The Mind and the Eye (1954). She argues that for plant morphologists, there is no divide between art and science. Art is key to this work because there is much about the visible characteristics of a plant that cannot be put into words: “Artistic expression offers a mode of translation of sense data into thought, without subjecting them to the narrowing influence of an inadequate verbal framework; the verb, to illustrate, retains, in this sense, something of its ancient meaning—to illuminate.” (Arber, 1954, pp. 121). In Gessner’s time students of botany were relying on ancient texts for information on plants, and this was proving inadequate for two reasons. First, the plants described were Mediterranean species that didn’t necessarily grow in northern Europe. Also, the information focused on medicinal uses, while Gessner and his colleagues wanted broader data; they were becoming interested more generally in plant characteristics—in plants for their own sake (Ogilve, 2006). They learned by really looking at plants, recording their observations, and also studying plants in the field. Drawing was integral to this process. They did not yet have the words to describe all they saw, and as Arber wrote, words could “narrow” or distort the observations.

The work of another scientist/philosopher from a different time and discipline can also illuminate Gessner’s work. Investigating the astronomical research of John Herschel and William Parsons on nebulae during the first half of the 19th century, Omar Nasim (2013) argues that drawing was essential to the discovery process, that in a very real sense nebulae as scientific objects were created by sketches because “drawings are productive epistemic explorations and avenues into the nature of something” (p. 35). Nasim contends that nebulae were so gossamer and difficult to observe, let alone describe, that they only became real to those, like Herschel, who observed them, by being pinned down in drawings. He writes that drawing was crucial to the development of the concept of the nebula because this practice involves “exploratory, attention-directing, discriminating, and stabilizing activities” (p. 37), all necessary for discovery.

Like Gessner and Arber, Herschel’s art was his research. It wasn’t just how he communicated his ideas, it was how he created them. His observations became real and more understandable through drawings: “The process begins at the intimate level of an individual observer as he begins to mark down, usually in a manner peculiar to him, a variety of inscriptions in his observing notebook. Familiarization at this personal, visceral, and haptic level therefore acquaints one with what is being seen, with how to draw what is seen, and with the object’s known, unknown, and challenging features” (Nasim 2013, p. 16). Gessner’s notebooks indicate such a process. It’s obvious that drawings were central to his work, that they made looking concrete. Sachiko Kusukawa (2012) notes, the drawing then became an object of further study. In the next post, I want to examine why I consider these ideas so important.


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

Egmond, F. (2016). Eye for Detail: Images of Plants and Animals in Art and Science, 1500-1630. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Kusukawa, S. (2012). Picturing the Book of Nature: Image, Text, and Argument in Sixteenth-Century Human Anatomy and Medical Botany. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Nasim, O. W. (2013). Observing by Hand: Sketching the Nebulae in the Nineteenth Century. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Ogilve, B. W. (2006). The Science of Describing: Natural History in Renaissance Europe. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.