Humanistic Uses of Herbaria

Secret of the Ferns by Anselm Kiefer in the Margulies Collection

This series of posts (1, 2) is highlighting projects sponsored by the Dumbarton Oaks Museum and Research Library.  I’ve already mentioned their Zoom presentations.  One particularly notable one was held in March 2021 and dealt with Humanistic Uses of Herbaria.  It was hosted by New York Botanical Garden Humanities Institute along with Dumbarton which is home of the Plant Humanities Initiative along with JSTOR Labs.  There were four speakers that day, all stars in their respective fields.  First was Barbara Thiers, now Director Emerita of the NYBG herbarium, leader in many endeavors to digitize herbarium collections, and author of Herbarium (see earlier post).  She gave a great introduction to the history and importance of herbaria and was followed by Pam Soltis, curator at the University of Florida’s Museum of Natural History, one of the leads on the iDigBio project to digitize specimens, and an expert on evolutionary genetics and ecology.  She presented on the future of research using herbarium specimens.  Anatole Tchikine, curator of rare books at Dumbarton, was the next speaker and discussed herbaria in the collection including a very interesting manuscript by the landscape architect Samuel Parsons, Jr., Leaves of Hardy Oaks and Maples.  He created it early in his career as a way to study leaf form and how this might affect the shade a tree produced. 

Yota Batsaki, executive director of Dumbarton Oaks, gave the last presentation on “The Apocalyptic Herbarium: Anselm Kiefer’s Secret of the Ferns (2007).”  She dealt with the herbarium as metaphor for the deterioration of life, particularly plant life, on earth.  Kiefer is among the most noted postwar German artists and often uses plants in his works.  He was born in 1945 in a Berlin bunker and played in ruble as a child, so it is not surprising that the war and the holocaust have been among his major themes.  Many of his paintings, often multimedia works, are devastated landscapes, with thick layers of paint, sometimes splashed with molten lead and embedded with dried plants (Biro, 2013). 

As Batsaki noted, more recently Kiefer has turned to other forms of devastation, including thoughtless abuse of the earth.  In dealing with this theme he uses some of the same tropes he employed in earlier work.  In particular, she discusses a large installation, Secret of the Ferns, that fills a room at the Margulies Collection in Miami.  At the center of the room are two concrete bunkers that have seen much wear and tear.  A two-story one is at the back and in front of it is one with a pile of coal at its entrance.  Along the left and right walls are hung large framed works in two ranks on each side, 48 in all towering over the viewer. 

Kiefer’s installations are complex; there are many layers to them and many details.  I was intrigued by Batsaki’s presentation but I knew I was missing some of the nuances.  I hoped that she would publish on this topic, and she has, in an article in Environmental Humanities (2021).  Through the text and images of the work, I was able to dig more deeply into it.  While I was somewhat familiar with Thiers and Solitis’s work, this was another realm.  Here were plants being used in a very different way, not to reveal information about genetics or environmental change, but to get at deep questions of what humans value and how they relate to other forms of life on earth.  Batsaki does a great job of “interrogating” the work.  This is a term that scholars in the humanities use regularly, but it is sort of foreign to me.  Interrogating living things seems rather aggressive and is a verb seldom used by biologists, though many of their techniques can be quite aggressive.  It is an example of how science and the humanities have to learn each other’s language and attitudes if they are to do more than just meet occasionally as at the March seminar.

Hanging to the left and right of the bunkers, many of the frames hold large pressed fern fronds against a dark background, in some cases, with the stipe appearing to rise from dried, cracked earth.  Each is encased in what Batsaki describes as a vitrine and framed in lead, a common material for Kiefer, who is intrigued with its role in alchemy.  The ferns relate to the installation’s title which is from a Paul Celan poem.  Celan’s work, often dealing with aspects of German history and the holocaust, has proved a rich reservoir of inspiration for Kiefer.  The artist is drawn to ferns because of their long history on earth as the earliest vascular plants and one source of the organic material in coal.  Their presence in the frames is tied to the coal by the bunker:  a reminder that burning coal has led to disastrous changes in the earth’s atmosphere that threatens the long-resilient ferns and all life on earth, what Batsaki describes as the “slow violence of extinction.” (p. 394). 

In this short post, it’s impossible to do justice either to the artwork or to the essay.  There is a great deal here as Batsaki investigates a variety of themes including that of transformation, examining how ferns were long thought to be mysterious because they did not form seeds and so their mode of reproduction was unknown until their tiny spores were studied in the mid-19th century.  One line from her essay that I find particularly memorable is: “If the herbarium started as an aide to memory [in the early modern era], the installation transforms it into a vehicle for memorialization.” (p. 409).  Unfortunately too many sheets in herbaria serve the same function for extinct species.


Batsaki, Y. (2021). The Apocalyptic Herbarium: Mourning and Transformation in Anselm Kiefer’s Secret of the Ferns. Environmental Humanities, 13(2), 391–413.

Biro, M. (2013). Anselm Kiefer. New York: Phaidon.

Art and the Herbarium: Galleries and Museums

Evil Flowers, National Gallery of Victoria

Anselm Kiefer’s Evil Flowers at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Herbarium specimens are kept in many museums, museums of natural history, that is.  They almost never end up in art museums.  Almost never.  At both the beginning and end of his career, the German artist Joseph Beuys used pressed plants in his work.  Herb Robert (1941) is a notebook page with a list of medicinal plants in pencil and two dried and pressed flowers of Geranium robertianum pasted on top of the list.  Ombelico di Venere–Cotyledon Umbilicus Veneris (1985) is a series of ten pages of pressed specimens of Cotyledon umbilicus-veneris L. (now Umbilicus rupestris).  The first part of the title is the plant’s Italian common name, navel of Venus, for its navel-shaped leaves.  Beuys’s “specimens” are labeled with both common and scientific names and also where and when he collected them.  They may look like rather poor specimens made by an amateur, but they are considered works of art and have been sold separately to a number of collectors.  I don’t know how much they cost, but I suspect that I couldn’t afford one.  Beuys was influenced by, among others, Marcel Duchamp, who was famous for taking everyday objects like a urinal and exhibiting them as works of art, thus blurring the definition of art.

One of Beuys’s students, Anselm Kiefer, has used dried plants more extensively in his work, though not in ways as closely tied to herbarium specimens.  I first encountered his art years ago during a museum visit with my husband, who stopped in his tracks when he saw a Kiefer work.  I asked him why he was so struck by a painting that I saw as bleak and rather monotonous (you can tell which of us was an art historian).  Bob informed me that Kiefer was one of the great German painters of the post-World War II era, whose art addressed issues of that time.  I remembered the painting and the artist’s name, but I didn’t seek out his work.  Years passed, Bob died, I fell in love with herbaria, and on a trip to Melbourne, I saw Kiefer’s Evil Flowers (1985-1992) at the National Gallery of Victoria (see above).  Pasted to an oil painting, and almost completely obscuring it, were dried sprays of delphiniums covered in shellac.  Now I was stopped in my tracks.  These were not nicely pressed plants; they were brown and the flowers gone to seed.  But they were still tall and stately, though the title suggests an ominous story, as does much of his work.

For Kiefer, dried plants are not a matter of science but of metaphor.  He was born in Germany in March 1945, not surprisingly in an air-raid shelter.  He remembers thinking it normal as a child to play in piles of rubble (Dermutz, 2019).  But Kiefer’s work is not totally about destruction and death, it is also about memory and preservation.  He has a work called For Paul Celan – Ukraine (2005) that resembles an herbarium, a massive pile of lead sheets with aluminum sunflowers pressed between them, their flower heads and stems sticking out at each end.  It is as if the plants are struggling to leave the confines of the sheets and find the sun.  There is hope here, as in many of Kiefer’s works that incorporate sunflowers—real dried plants, real seeds, and painted or sculpted representations.  His work is complex, and though I’ve read some art criticism about him, I can’t say I understand it.  Yet I have come to appreciate it, be moved by it, and see the importance of dried plant material in artistic expression as well as in botanical science.

Another example of herbarium specimens in an art context is Tarin Simon’s Paperwork and the Will of Capital (2015).  This is a complex conceptual work in which Simon recreated bouquets decorating tables where important international agreements were signed, a political example of botany as interior decoration (see last post).  After taking a series of photographs of each bouquet, she pressed the plants from the arrangements and attached them to herbarium sheets, without labels.  She had sought technical assistance from the mounting staff at New York Botanical Garden.  For each bouquet/agreement, the photographs were stacked on top of pages from the treaty, along with a stack of the related herbarium specimens.  Each assemblage was presented in a glass case resting on a concrete plinth.  For Simon, this work was a commentary on how nature is used to support and display power, and her installation itself created a powerful statement when it was displayed at the 2015 Venice Biennial; quite a prestigious venue for herbarium sheets (Simon, 2016).

There are too many artists working with plant material in the herbarium tradition to mention them all here.  I’ll end with two who take very different approaches from the anthropological to the whimsical.  Lindsay Sekulowicz is an artist who had an exhibit at the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew in 2018 that included a selection of items from Kew’s economic botany collection.  Entitled Plantae Amazonicae, the show was made up of items that the 19th-century botanist Richard Spruce obtained from indigenous peoples of the Amazon.  It also presented some of the specimens he collected, including one of the tree Licania octandra, whose wood was mixed with river mud to make pottery.  Also dealing with material from the past, the artist Margherita Pevere found a folder with unmounted specimens that had been collected along the Croatian coast many years ago.  They had suffered insect and fungal damage, but Pevere felt this increased their visual and expressive interest so she mounted and labeled them.  She sees this collection as a memento mori for pondering issues of life and death, much in the style of Kiefer.


Dermutz, K. (2019). Anselm Kiefer (T. Lewis, Trans.). London, UK: Seagull.

Simon, T. (2016). Paperwork and the Will of Capital. Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz.

Herbaria and Art: Diversity


Alberto Baraya, a prominent contemporary artist in Columbia, has taken up this herbarium theme in a different way than any of the artists I discussed in the last three posts. He has a long-term project called the Herbarium of Artificial Plants (Herbario de Plantas Artificiales) which he began in 2002. He collects artificial plants—made with plastic, paper, fabric—and mounts them on herbarium sheets. He includes “dissected flowers,” pasting them in the lower part of the sheet much as botanical illustrators include enlargements of flower features in their drawings. In addition, there is at least one small photo of where the plant was “collected.” This is a colorful group of works because these plants don’t loose their color, and in that sense remain more aesthetically pleasing than herbarium specimens do. There is something eerie about this: that the artificial remains more “real.” Also, it is suggestive of invasive species, since plastic-leaved ficus trees, for example, are found in hotel lobbies the world over. Baraya’s method of collection—often surreptitiously lifting plants from restaurants or waiting-rooms—is reminiscent of the collections made by colonials: no permission asked.

In a blog post on Columbian artists including Baraya, the art critic Tom Jeffreys notes that botanical illustration was one of the first independent threads in the development of modern Columbian art. This was largely through the work of the Spanish priest and botanist José Celestino Mutis who led a collecting expedition to Columbia and stayed there for the remainder of his life. His project, which lasted more than 30 years, resulted in sending thousands of specimens and illustrations being sent back to Spain (Bleichmar, 2011). Most of the art was done by native Columbians trained by European artists. Their work is strikingly beautiful and accurate, while definitely having a style of its own. Baraya’s herbarium is in part a commentary on how botany has changed since the late 18th century when Mutis arrived in Columbia. The artificial has replaced the real, providing a poor substitute for the green world humans crave. The rich botanical environment that Mutis experienced has changed into a gaudy unreal show.

Disappearance of species is also one of the messages of Mark Dion’s Herbarium, a portfolio of seven photogravures the size of herbarium sheets. To create this work, Dion mounted seaweed specimens on herbarium paper that had been stamped in purple ink: “Herbarium Henry Perrine.” There is also a green stamp: “Marine Algae.” Each sheet has a label attached with the heading: “Ex. Herb. H. Perrine, Indian Key, Florida,” but aside from this the labels are blank, no information on the specimens is given. Much of Dion’s oeuvre is a commentary on the history of natural history and of collecting. Here he is alluding to Henry Perrine, an early 19th-century plant collector who died in a raid on his Florida land which also destroyed his plant collection. Dion’s work suggests what Perrine’s collection might have looked like, but the blank labels also tell of what was lost.

While Dion’s art references herbaria directly, often the relationship between plant specimen collections and art is more subtle. Paul Klee, for example, created a herbarium as reference material for his drawings. His specimens are definitely “unscientific.” They are mounted on paper he has painted dark brown, several species per page, with no labels. Klee was interested in plants from an early age, doing botanical drawings at age ten. At one point, he writes in his journal that he looks forward to seeing his herbarium after being away on a trip: “It surprises me that these treasures of form have been apart from me for so long” (Baumgartner & Moe, 2008, p. 16). It is the forms, not the details, of plant structure that fascinated him, and this comes through in his art. Several hundred of his pieces relate to plant growth, including Botanical Theatre which he worked on for ten years.

Two 20th-century German artists took a more direct approach and actually used pressed plants in their works. Joseph Beuys did a series of what can only be called herbarium specimens: pressed plants pasted to paper with a penciled title, Ombelico di Venere, or the umbilical cord of Venus, the name of the attached species Cotyledon Umbilicus Veneris (now botanically designated Cotyledon rupestris) (Tempkin & Rose, 1993). In some of these, Beuys must have moved the plant after pressing it to the paper because there are stains where water from the plant was absorbed. This is not good herbarium technique but it adds to the texture of the piece and is reminiscent of some of Beuys’s other works where he employed plant material such as moss to color the paper’s surface. The use of plant material suggests life and regeneration, important themes in Beuys’s post World War II work.

Anselm Kiefer, Beuys’s student, uses a great deal of dried plant material in his art. The closest he comes to suggesting a herbarium, a bound herbarium, is For Paul Celan-Ukraine, a stack of lead-paged book sculptures with aluminum sunflowers sticking out from them. In earlier work, he pasted dried plants to painted canvases, in what Matthew Biro (2013) suggests is a form of biographical memorialization. In others pieces, Kiefer employed straw to suggest both death and new life emerging beneath this covering. For a very different setting, a vitrine, a pressed algal specimen sits amid gold-plated organs including a heart. Obviously the plant form is being used metaphorically, both in looking like an abstract ribcage and in implying that all life is related, that we are an amalgam of plant and animal material.

What is clear in the variety of examples and contexts I’ve explored here and in the last three posts is that pressed plants can have multiple layers of meaning, that they are important sources of inspiration for artists as well as sources of information for botanists. I come back to the first post in this series and Victoria Crowe’s ideas of fragility and timelessness, the pairing of these seems to be the essence of what makes herbaria so attractive as symbols, combined with their aesthetic appeal. While I have mentioned a wide variety of artists here, there are many more I haven’t cited, including Joanne Kaar’s work with the herbarium of the Scottish baker-botanist Richard Dick, John Walsh’s (2016) prose/herbarium piece The Arctic Plants of New York, and M.F. Cardamone’s surreal takes on herbarium sheets. Fortunately, there are many artists working in this area.


Baumgartner, M., & Moe, O. H. (2008). In Paul Klee’s Enchanted Garden. Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz.
Biro, M. (2013). Anselm Kiefer. New York, NY: Phaidon.
Bleichmar, D. (2011). Visible Empire: Botanical Expeditions and Visual Culture in the Hispanic Enlightenment. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Tempkin, A., & Rose, B. (1993). Thinking Is Form: The Drawings of Joseph Beuys. Philadelphia, PA: Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Walsh, J. (2016). The Artic Plants of New York City. New York, NY: Granary.