Living with Orchids: Blanche Ames

Chart entitled “Economic Plants of the Archichlamydeae” created by Blanch Ames, in the collection of the Harvard University Botany Libraries

In the last post I discussed Oakes Ames, the Harvard botanist and orchid expert who was married to Blanche Ames Ames.  Yes, her maiden name was Ames, but they weren’t related.  They met while in college and married in 1900, a year after Blanche’s graduation with a degree in art.  They both came from wealthy families, but instead of starting out on their own, they went to live with Oakes’s widowed mother on her estate in Easton, Massachusetts.  It had several attractions, at least for Oakes.  There were greenhouses for the orchids he studied, and he had space for his growing herbarium, as well as plenty of room for Blanche to create orchid illustrations for Oakes’s publications.  In 1901 their first daughter Pauline was born, in 1902, the couple’s first work together was published, and in 1903 a son Oliver arrived.

Even with two children, there was still ample space for a growing family at his mother’s house.  But there was a crisis in August 1904 when the children’s nurse came down with pneumonia, a frightening infection in the pre-penicillin era.  To keep the children safe, Blanche decided to take them to her parents’ home in Lowell, MA.  Oakes did not take kindly to this as a series of letters between them documents.  Anne Biller Clark studied the correspondence for her book on Blanche (2001, pp. 71-73).  Oakes thought his wife should have gone to stay with his brother who also lived in Easton.  Though her fears “had no foundation in fact,” she could not see her way clear to “remain under a few inconveniences.”  Then he raises the real problem:  he insists that she must finish the drawings for his book and not “fritter away time with gossip.”

Not surprisingly Blanche, an ardent suffragette and what her husband called a “new woman,” responded in kind:  “You did not take the trouble to put down your herbarium sheet and your glass, but with one eye screwed up and other on a dried flower, you answered me in scarcely more than monosyllables. . . . A few moments in the herbarium showed me that I could expect no aid.”  Unfortunately, my husband Bob and I were rarely apart, so our exchanges of like kind are not preserved for posterity, but most married couples can come up with similar examples of infuriation.  What makes the Ames’s case particularly interesting to me is that the herbarium is at the center of the ruckus.  In the last post, I quoted Oakes’s enthusiasm at seeing type specimens in Paris, another passionate but very different herbarium encounter.  Herbaria are usually seen as important resources for scientific research, but I think it’s important to point out that they are nothing without the humans who work with them and cannot check their personal lives and feelings at the door, even if they wanted to.  There is a human element to herbaria and that’s one of their big attractions for me.

After this fiery encounter of 1904, it may come as a surprise to learn that Blanche and Oakes remained married for 50 years, until Oakes’s death in 1950.  They had two more children, and after living at his mother’s home for six years, they moved six miles away at Blanche’s instigation.  His mother showed her displeasure by having her servants prevent Oakes from taking his live orchid collection from the greenhouses; this particularly galled him because he had bought them himself.  She also told him that she no longer wanted to receive milk from his cows.  Eventually she relented, and mother and son reconciled.  Oakes and Blanche designed a castle-like home on their 1200-acre estate called Borderland.  The house was constructed of cement and covered in granite:  it had to be fireproof to protect not just Oakes’s family, but his herbarium.  It also housed his two-story library (Plimpton, 1979).

As she was raising her family, Blanche was an ardent suffragette, drawing political cartoons and arranging rallies that were attended by Oakes, as well as by her mother and even her mother-in-law.  Shortly before this fight was won, Blanche took up the cause of birth control as important in women’s path to autonomy.  Still, she continued to play a significant role in Oakes’ research.  She traveled with him on collecting trips to South America, Asia, and Europe.  In Berlin, they were met at the train station by the noted orchid expert Rudolf Schlecter who held an orchid bloom, Stanhopea ruckeri, in his hand to identify himself.  Over the next few days, Blanche worked alongside Oakes in Schlecter’s lab (Angell & Romero, 2011).  She drew watercolors, including of the Stanhopea, while Oakes pressed specimens.  At Harvard’s Oakes Ames Orchid Herbarium, there are a number of sheets that include watercolor and specimen.  After Oakes retired they spent more time in Florida, and worked on a book of Blanche’s illustrations paired with his commentaries; it was prepared to go along with a lecture she gave at the orchid society (Ames, 1947).

Blanche did more than draw orchids.  She also painted landscapes and portraits, including one of her husband, looking his very serious self.  After Oakes died, she sculpted his gravestone, including reliefs of orchids.  The works of hers that I like most are watercolor charts created for his economic botany class, such as one with a phylogenetic tree of useful plants (see above).  It is full of wonderful details including a squirting cucumber caught in the act.  I like to think of the couple collaborating on this, discussing what plants to include and how to represent them.


Ames, B. (1947). Drawings of Florida Orchids. Cambridge, MA: Botanical Museum of Harvard University.

Angell, B., & Romero, G. A. (2011). Orchid Illustrations at Harvard. The Botanical Illustrator, 17(1), 20–21.

Clark, A. B. (2001). My Dear Mrs. Ames: A Study of Suffragist Cartoonist Blanche Ames Ames. New York, NY: P. Lang.

Plimpton, O. (Ed.). (1979). Oakes Ames: Jottings of a Harvard Botanist. Cambridge, MA: Botanical Museum of Harvard University.

Falling in Love with Orchids: Oakes Ames

Portrait of Oakes Ames by Blanche Ames, photography from Historic Images of Easton, MA

I fell in love with Blanche and Oakes Ames (1874-1950) years ago when I came across a book in the library, Jottings of a Harvard Botanist (1979), a collection of Ames’s letters and other writings complied by his daughter, Pauline Ames Plimpton.  I enjoy reading about the human side of science and this book filled the bill.  It was so memorable that years later when I fell in love with herbaria, I visited the Oakes Ames Orchid Herbarium at Harvard, the collection he donated to the University after a long career there investigating orchid systematics.  What was particularly striking to me was that the collection includes sheets with watercolor drawings of orchids done by his wife Blanche, whom I already “knew” from Jottings.  In this series of posts, I want to write about both of them and the plants that were so much a part of their lives.

Oakes Ames did most of his research in the 20th century, but in terms of lifestyle, he was in the 19th century tradition of the gentleman botanist.  He came from a family that had made its money on shovels supplied to the California gold rush, the Union Army, and construction of the Union Pacific Railroad in which the family invested heavily.  In an autobiographical sketch, Ames wrote:  “There was no precedent in our family to be devoted to botanical research.  My father, his brother and his cousin took the usual interest in herbaria, . . .  gardens and greenhouses” (Plimpton, 1979, 64).  In other words, at that time, men of their class routinely had a curiosity about plants, with Ames’s uncle having a significant orchid collection, but Oakes’s dedication was at a different level.

When Ames was a teenager, his father’s health was failing, and to occupy time his father and a nurse would drive through the countryside, collect plants, and bring them home to identify.  Ames became intrigued and joined in.  One day he was struck by how the light shone on dendrobium flowers in his father’s room, and that set him on the path of trying to learn as much as he could about orchids, a passion that motivated him for the rest of his life.  He attended Harvard University, vowing to take every botany course they offered.  At home, he built a collection of orchids in the family’s greenhouses and also started a herbarium.  After Oakes completed his master’s degree,  George Goodale, one of his professors and Asa Gray’s heir as Harvard professor of botany, offered Ames a position as assistant director of Harvard’s Botanic Garden.  Ten years later, Ames became director, a post he held until 1922 when he resigned out of frustration because the university failed to properly support the garden.  There will be more on Ames’s career as a Harvard botanist in a future post.  For now, I want to divert the story to romance.

While at Harvard, Ames attended a social event at Smith College accompanied by a friend, Butler Ames, no relation.  Butler’s sister Blanche (1878-1969) was a Smith student studying art, and Oakes was smitten.  For her 21st birthday, he sent her a 17-volume set of art books specially bound in hand-tooled yellow leather, an over-the-top gift considered inappropriate for someone to whom he was not betrothed.  He soon remedied this by proposing to her, and they were married in 1900.  By 1902 they had had their first child, Pauline, and their first publication for which Blanche had done the illustrations, a role she was to play for the rest of her life (Clark, 2001).  Unlike many artist-spouses, Blanche was always given due credit since she initialed even the smallest sketch.  She often accompanied Oakes on collecting trips to Latin America, the Philippines, and Europe.  Again, I’ll put off saying more about her here since I’ll dedicate my next post to her work in and out of botany.  It will become clear that being married to an orchid taxonomist, even a wealthy one, was not always easy.

Oakes’s dedication to his chosen field was indeed intense.  He built up his herbarium not only through his own collecting but by buying collections, including material from the Philippine Bureau of Science, which eventually asked him to write the orchid section of a flora of the Philippines (Merrill, !928).  As Leslie Garay (2007) describes it, when Ames received this request he immediately made plans to sail to Europe.  This might seem rather odd, except for the fact the great European herbaria held most orchid type specimens:

One of the thrills of my career came in Paris when I turned with breathless interest to the Richard and Goleatti types and drawings to see at last just what was meant by hopelessly obscure words.  And then to pin up these precious relics and photograph them in the dim light which filters through dusty window glass. . . .  You’re in a sense of happiness I shall not attempt to describe.  Once a systematist becomes a slave of types, his contempt for guesswork reaches dizzy heights.  Never again can he become content with the uncertainty of words and identification by supposition.  Surely the unrest in my soul, caused by doubt, made me determined to represent in my herbaria by every possible means the types of orchids (Plimpton, 1979, 75).

This quote is a good reminder that in the days before digitization, travel to collections was an essential part of a taxonomists life, and photographs, if they could be had, were the next best thing.


Clark, A. B. (2001). My Dear Mrs. Ames: A Study of Suffragist Cartoonist Blanche Ames Ames. New York, NY: P. Lang.

Garay, L. (2007). The orchid herbarium of Oakes Ames. In Orchids at Christmas (pp. 41–50). Cambridge, MA: Botanical Museum of Harvard University.

Merrill, E. D. (1928). Flora of the Philippines. Manila, Philippines: Bureau of Printing.

Plimpton, O. (Ed.). (1979). Oakes Ames: Jottings of a Harvard Botanist. Cambridge, MA: Botanical Museum of Harvard University.