Plants in Sweden: Seeing Plants

3 Dahlias

Dahlias at the Gothenburg Botanical Garden

As is evident in my last two posts (1,2), my recent trip to Gothenburg, Sweden was all about plants, and in particular about engaging people with plants so that they can come to value them more.   It’s almost impossible to bring up this topic without using the term “plant blindness.”   Sometimes I think the phrase is becoming so common that it’s losing some of its punch, in part because it has been so successful in calling attention to the green world.  Plants are coming into their own, and people are beginning to appreciate how important they are to climate stability, air quality, and even human temperament.  But I don’t think this disease has been by any means eradicated, and it has taken a long time for the term to seep into the collective consciousness.  After all, it has been around since the 1990s when it was coined by James Wandersee and Elizabeth Schussler (1998).  Interest in it remained low-keyed for years, somewhat like a dormant seed, but one that finally germinates.  A recent manifestation of its coming into its own is a good op-ed piece in The New York Times earlier this year on curing plant blindness by learning tree names.   Gabriel Popkin argues that just looking isn’t enough, the experience of trees is deepened when they can be identified and named.  My own personal plant blindness was cured by herbaria.  When I became interested in them several years ago, the world of plants opened up for me.  I wanted to learn about them and to really see them, to observe them more closely, to not just walk by a tree and name it as an oak, but carefully look at it:  acorns, leaves, buds, and bark.

Traveling gives me the opportunity to look at different plants.  I wouldn’t say that plants are all I look for.  I love to visit museums, eat nice meals, window shop, and simply walk through unfamiliar areas.  However, I do look at plants and seek them out, much more than I did before I developed my passion for plants (see photo above).  I am not much of a botanist, so I can’t identify many species, but I’m improving.  I can remember what Susan Pell, who is now deputy director as well as science and programs manager of the US Botanic Garden in Washington DC, said when I took a plant systematics course with her several years ago at New York Botanical Garden (NYBG).  She argued that learning some systematics would make it possible to begin to identify at least plant families and to make sense of taxonomy.  I didn’t think it was possible for me, but I have to admit that frequent and repeated exposure to plants and plant labels in herbaria and in botanical gardens has helped me to at least guess that what I’m looking at belongs to the Ranunculaceae, Asteraceace, Fabaceace, or one of the other large families.  And I am getting it right more and more often.  I know that isn’t much, but it’s something and something that gives me a thrill when I test myself and then look at labels in a botanic garden and find out that my guess was correct.  I’ve come to a greater appreciation for these labels recently for another reason:  a blog post from NYBG on the staff who create the labels.  It isn’t an easy task to keep up with a shifting collection,  and labels that are exposed to all kinds of weather.

When I visited the Gothenburg Botanical Garden, I was cheered to find that they too do a good job of labeling their plants, both outdoors and in their conservatory.  Also, I was grateful to Carl Linnaeus and his Latin binomial system so I didn’t have to worry about recognizing plant names in Swedish.  Going at the end of September might not seem like a great time to see flowers blooming, but there was a great perennial bed with many fall blooms (see photo above), and another of dahlias.   When I returned a few days later, the plants in this bed had been ripped out, but the flowers were given one less chance to shine:  they had been cut off and floated in a pond at the garden’s entrance (see photo below).

3b Dahlias

Dahlias floating in a pool at the Gothenburg Botanical Garden

This lovely touch is indicative of what seems to be a reverence for plants in Sweden that makes the job of countering plant blindness there somewhat easier than in other countries.  This was pointed out to me by Lauren LaFauci, who moved to Sweden two years ago and works at Linköping University.  The very fact that the Beyond Plant Blindness project at Gothenburg University received generous funding from the Swedish government is indicative of this.  In addition, two Swedish funding agencies, Mistra and Formas, are supporting our grant Herbaria 3.0 project through Seed Box, an environmental humanities collaboratory (see next post).  It aims at bringing disciplines together around environmental issues, and it’s nice to see a plant metaphor used for its name.  Obviously, Sweden has a long, dark winter, but it would be hard to tell that in late September when the days were still quite long and the weather, at least when I was there, was mild enough for outdoor dining.  The term “seed box” implies preparation for the winter and for the future, saving seed to grow next year’s plants, and in a way, our project is designed to nourish the seeds of interest in plants that I would argue hide within each of us.


Wandersee, J., & Schussler, E. (1998). Preventing Plant Blindness. American Biology Teacher, 61(2), 82-86.


Humphry Marshall and the American Grove

3 Marshall's Garden 1819

Specimen of Atriplex hortensis collected by William Darlington at Marshshall’s Botanic Garden; Darlington Herbarium at West Chester University*

In the last post, I discussed the noted colonial American nurseryman John Bartram and in the post before that, I mentioned that another Pennsylvania botanist, William Darlington, collected the correspondence of both John Bartram and Humphry Marshall in an effort to preserve their writings. Why did Darlington put these two men together? The foremost reason was that he had access to source materials for both and considered these writings worth saving. Also they were each prominent in the botanical community in colonial Pennsylvania. Finally, there were family ties: Bartram and Marshall were first cousins, and it was Bartram who had sparked Marshall’s interest in plants. As to why Marshall was important in botanical circles, like Bartram, he was a farmer and nurseryman who supplied plants and seeds to European horticulturalists. But more notably, he was the author of Arbrustum Americanum: The American Grove published in 1785 in Philadelphia, making it the first botanical book produced in America written by a native-born American on American plants.

Born in 1722, Humphry Marshall was a Quaker who lived in West Bradford, Pennsylvania in an area now called Marshallton. He became a stone mason while also working on his father’s farm which he inherited and where his skills allowed him to build a stone and brick home that still stands today. Soon after this, in 1773, he began work on a botanical garden and it became a showpiece in the area. It was modeled after his cousin’s in Philadelphia. Marshall’s garden began to deteriorate soon after his death in 1801. However, there are a number of specimens collected at Marshall’s garden in the 1820s and 1830s by the West Chester botanist William Darlington and preserved in the Darlington Herbarium at West Chester University (see earlier post and photo above).

Focusing on trees and shrubs, Marshall’s nursery trade with European horticulturalists began in 1768 with such wealthy landowners as the Quaker John Fothergill (1912-1780) who bought material from Marshall until the Revolutionary War interrupted trade. It was to build up his business after the war that Marshall began work in the early 1780s on a book about American trees.   As a member of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, having been encouraged to join by his friend, Benjamin Franklin, Marshall explored the possibility of the Society’s publishing the book, but they didn’t have the necessary funds. Even so, he dedicated the book to the officers and members of the Society, including the President, Benjamin Franklin. Marshall took on the cost of publication himself and had the book printed by Joseph Crukshank in Philadelphia in 1785. Unfortunately, as a British reviewer noted, there was a typographical error in the very first word of the title Arbrustrum Americanum; it should have been Arbustrum Americanum. As was common at the time, the information on the title page was quite extensive, but also very informative. After the subtitle, The American Grove, it went on: “or, an Alphabetical Catalogue of Forest Trees and Shrubs, Natives of the American United States, Arranged According to the Linnaean System. Containing, The particular distinguishing Characters of each Genus, with plain, simple and familiar Descriptions of the Manner of Growth, Appearance, etc. of their several Species and Varieties. Also, some hints of their uses in Medicine, Dyes, and Domestic Oeconomy. Compiled from actual knowledge and observation, and the assistance of botanical authors, by Humphry Marshall.”

That Marshall used the Linnaean System within 30 years of the publication of Species Plantarum indicates his botanical sophistication, but he stuck with an alphabetical listing of species because he wanted to make the book accessible to those who might be interested in purchasing from him the plants described. Unfortunately, the book did not sell well in the United States, though both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson owned copies. At this time the nation was suffering from economic problems due to the aftermath of the war and to a weak central government. Inflation was rampant, so the two dollar price was hardly insignificant.

However, the book did find a market in Europe. It sold well in England and was eventually translated into both French and German. There was definitely interest in American plants among European gardeners, and those with large gardens also had the money for books to feed their interest. Marshall’s book contained information not only on horticulture, but also on agricultural and medicinal uses for the plants. In a sense, he was doing what Jefferson, Franklin, and other Americans with a scientific bent were doing: attempting to convince Americans and Europeans alike that American species were hardly inferior to those in other parts of the world, as the French biologist Comte de Buffon had contended (Thomson, 2008). From Marshall’s list of clients, it would seem that his efforts were successful. Joseph Banks in England, Frederick de Beelen Bertholf, an Austria diplomat, and Jacques-Louis Descemet, a French nurseryman, would send yearly orders. Marshall also had numerous clients in the Philadelphia area and along the East coast of the United States.

After Humphry Marshall’s eyesight began to fail in the 1790s, his nephew Moses Marshall took over the correspondence for the plant business and also prepared shipments. He continued the business for a short time after his uncle died in 1801, but he did not sustain it for long, nor could he maintain the botanical garden either. Marshall’s accomplishments live on thanks to Darlington’s published memorial to him.

* I am grateful to Sharon Began at West Chester University for allowing me access to the Darlington Herbarium on several occasions.


Thomson, K. (2008). Jefferson, Buffon and the moose. American Scientist, 96(3), 200–202.