Libraries and Botany: New York, New York

4 Diospyros virginiana

Specimen of Diopyros virginiana collected from the site of the Elgin Botanic Garden in 1829, New York Botanical Garden Steere Herbarium

Since the joint CBHL/EBHL meeting (see earlier post) was held in New York, it’s not surprising that there were several presentations related to the metropolis.  It seems fitting to end this series of posts with a review of them.  After a welcome from Susan Fraser, director of NYBG’s Mertz Library, the first major speaker of the conference was Eric Sanderson of the Wildlife Conservation Society, headquartered across the street from the New York Botanical Garden, at the Bronx Zoo.  For many years Sanderson has had a leading role in research on what New York was like before Henry Hudson sailed into the mouth of the Hudson River in 1609.  The indigenous people called the large island he found Mannahatta, and that became the name for Sanderson’s endeavor and the title of the book he published in 2009.  Using mapping technology coupled with old maps, historical accounts of the area, specimens collected there in the past, and what is known about the ecology and geology of the island, Sanderson’s team identified 54 different ecosystem types on Mannahatta.  This is a large number for that sized piece of land, and the result of its extensive wetlands along with its varied geological features.  There were also an estimated 600 species of plants.

More recently Sanderson has led an effort to produce the same kind of modeling for New York City’s other four boroughs.  Called Welikia, it too has a website that is still under construction, but includes all the information from the Mannahatta Project.  These are not just interesting exercises in environmental history, they aim at helping the citizens of New York understand the biodiversity that once existed there and how to preserve and nurture as much of it as possible.  It is unlikely that bears will again roam Manhattan, but red-tailed hawks are flourishing (Winn, 1998), and I’ve seen a coyote ambling inside NYBG’s fence as I was stuck in traffic trying to get there.

On the second day of the conference, the botanical illustrator Bobbi Angell presented on the formidable botanical art collection housed at NYBG.  Angell has spent her life creating pen-and-ink drawings to illustrate the scientific work of the garden’s botanists, including many for the seven volume Intermountain Flora: Vascular Plants of the Intermountain West, USA.  The last volume was just recently published (2017) and includes not only some of Angell’s illustrations but biographies of her and other illustrators and botanists who worked on this project that was first envisioned by Bassett Maguire in the 1930s.  There will be more on the editors, Patricia Holmgren and Noel Holmgren, in a future post.

Angell didn’t dwell on her accomplishments, but instead discussed some of the other contributors to the 30,000 pieces in the NYBG art collection.  These include the great French botanical painter Pierre-Joseph Redouté with 10 paintings on linen, but Angell concentrated on 20th and 21st-century artists, including Alexandria Taylor and Frances Horne who did illustrations respectively for Elizabeth Britton and Nathaniel Lord Britton.  Both were distinguished botanists and Britton was NYBG’s founding director.  Angell spoke reverently of artists whom she knew including Anne Ophelia Todd Dowden, who left her finished works to the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation in Pittsburgh, and her working drawings to NYBG, an interesting division.  Then there was Rupert Barneby a self-taught botanist and artist who did research at the garden and became an expert on legumes.   He created his own illustrations until he injured his hand.  Angell ended with a plea for more of the botanical art in library collections to be made available online and a mention of the American Society of Botanical Artists, which has a wonderful journal for members as well as a website on which they can present their work.

The final presentation of the meeting was a public lecture by Victoria Johnson to celebrate the publication of her book, American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic (2018).  She began the book and her talk very effectively by telling the story of how David Hosack, a physician, treated a New York boy dying of fever in 1797.  Hosack had tried everything he could without success, and so decided to lower the boy into warm bathwater with cinchona bark mixed in.  Several of these treatments led to the patient’s recovery and to a tearful thank you from his father.  Johnson then paused, and revealed that the father was Alexander Hamilton.  After this surprise, she went on describe some of what she writes about in her book:  how Hosack trained as a physician in the United States and Britain where he developed an interest in botany, even studying with James Edward Smith the founder of the Linnean Society; how he set up a medical practice in New York, obviously attracting an elite clientele; how he developed a plan to create a botanical garden in the city as a way to nurture, study, and teach about medicinally useful plants.  He used his own money to buy 20 acres of land in what is now midtown Manhattan, but was then over three miles north of the city.  He called it the Elgin Botanic Garden after the Scottish town where his family originated.  He built a wall around the property as well as greenhouses and then bought an impressive selection of plants.

Hosack had a long and successful life as a physician, but his story is definitely bittersweet.  He was the attending physician when his friend Alexander Hamilton was shot in the duel with Aaron Burr (it turns out they both were interested in gardening).  The garden, begun in 1801, was destroyed in the 1820s after it had been bought by New York State and then handed over to Columbia College (now Columbia University) for management.  It was neglected and eventually leased by Columbia as real estate prices in that part of Manhattan started to soar. Eventually, it became the site of Rockefeller Center.  However, to end on a happier note, there are a few Elgin Garden specimens in the NYBG herbarium including Diosyros virginiana (see above).

Note: I would like thank all those involved in the wonderful CBHL/EBHL meeting, particularly Susan Fraser, Kathy Crosby, Esther Jackson, and Samantha D’Acunto.  I am also grateful to the participants from whom I learned so much, to Pat Jonas who nudged me to attend, and to Amy Kasameyer who introduced me to CBHL.

References

Holmgren, N. H., & Holmgren, P. K. (2017). Intermountain Flora: Vascular Plants of the Intermountain West, U.S.A (Vol. 7). New York, NY: New York Botanical Garden.

Johnson, V. (2018). American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic. New York, NY: Norton.

Sanderson, E. W. (2009). Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City. New York: Abrams.

Winn, M. (1998). Red-Tails in Love: A Wildlife Drama in Central Park. New York: Pantheon.

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Libraries and Botany

1 NYBG Rose Garden

Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden at New York Botanical Garden

I recently went to New York, my old stomping ground, for a meeting of the Council of Botanical and Horticultural Librarians (CBHL).  They were celebrating their 50th anniversary and were meeting jointly with the European Botanical and Horticultural Libraries Group (EBHL), celebrating 25 years.  Despite my lack of library expertise, I went because I’m a CBHL member, induced to join by its great website, listserv, and newsletter.  I learn a lot from librarians, particularly when they are involved in things that interest me, namely plants.  I definitely learned a great deal at this conference, ate some great meals, and saw many beautiful plants.  We met at New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) in the Bronx and also spent a day at Brooklyn Botanic Garden (BBG), both possessors of amazingly beautiful gardens and libraries.  Fortunately, the weather was wonderful.  This meeting was in mid-June so both gardens were at their best, and it was great to be able to stroll around them between sessions (see photo above).

On the way to BBG, participants had the opportunity to see another impressive garden, the High Line.  This is an almost 1.5 mile “linear park” on the West Side of lower Manhattan created out of an elevated railway line that had been unused for years.  During that time plants “invaded” the 30-foot-wide expanse, in many areas turning it into green swards.  Residents had climbed onto it illegally to enjoy the greenery and began an effort to make it a park.  I can remember when this effort began.  It seemed quite unrealistic, but it kept gaining support, particularly after 9/11 when the city was looking for ways to restore itself.  The High Line is now an amazing horticultural attraction, with beautiful plants and interesting architectural features.  After being at NYBG the day before, with its 265 acres, it was very interesting for participants to see what can be done within , literally, much narrower constraints.

Then it was on to Brooklyn where we visited the library, which is located in the original administration building and has a small though beautiful reading room.  BBG gave up its science program and herbarium several years ago, a very disturbing decision; its specimens are now on long-term loan to NYBG.  The herbarium and storage for the library were located in a building across the street from the garden.  The structure needed repair so the herbarium was closed, and the librarians had to either de-acquisition material or move it into the original library’s tight quarters.  The process of organizing these resources is still going on.  A beautiful room has been built for BBG’s amazing rare book and botanical illustration collection (see photo below).  It includes the very large format, 34-volume Banks’ Florilegium of plants from Captain Cook’s first voyage around the world.  The head librarian, Kathy Crosby, also displayed a sampling of botanical illustrations created by members of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden Florilegium Society that includes many of the best botanical artists working today.

1 BBG special collections

Special Collections at Brooklyn Botanic Garden

Needless to say, everyone had another feast for the eyes at NYBG.  At the moment, the garden is celebrating the art that Georgia O’Keeffe created in Hawaii, with a number of her works in its art gallery and a display of the plants that inspired her in the conservatory.  During our tour of the library, the archivist Stephen Sinon displayed some of its treasures including its oldest book, a manuscript of the herbal Circa Instans from the  late 12th century, and one of my favorite’s Johannes Gessner’s Tabulae phytographicae, a guide to flowers using the Linnaean system that has wonderful illustrations.  Equally wonderful was a display of herbarium treasures by its director Barbara Thiers, including specimens collected by John Muir, Charles Darwin, and even Thomas Edison.  Since the herbarium has about 7.8 million specimens, this gave just a hint of the wonders it contains, including the work of such 20-21st century botanists as Pat and Noel Holmgren who recently completed the seventh and final volume of Intermountain Flora: Vascular Plants of the Intermountain West, USA (2017).

Since this was a library conference, there were presentations on the latest at a number of institutions.  Amy Kasameyer, archivist at the University of California, Berkeley Herbarium discussed the development of The Silva Center for Phycological Documentation.  Named for Paul Claude Silva (1922-1014), an expert on algae, it includes a library and archives that has been created within the herbarium.  This center is a wonderful adjunct to the herbarium’s extensive phycological collection, the second largest in the country.  Along with this example of physical collection development, there were also a number of presentations on virtual collections.  One was by Deirdre Ryan and Jason Przybylski of JSTOR, which provides access to journals in many fields as well to Artstor for art images and JSTOR Global Plants for botanical journals and over 2 million type specimens, scanned as part of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s Global Plants Initiative.

JSTOR now plans to build on this foundation with a collection called JSTOR Plants & Society that would present botanical, horticultural, and ethnobotanical materials making them useful not only to scientists but to students and to the broader public as well.  In developing this project, JSTOR worked with the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection to host a workshop on Botany and the Humanities to explore what is most needed for future collaborations.  There’s a fascinating video where the participants discuss the exciting ideas that came out of their meetings.  It’s a great window into some wonderful plans for the future particularly about integrating various digital platforms.  I hope at least a few of them come to fruition as soon as possible!

Reference

Holmgren, N. H., & Holmgren, P. K. (2017). Intermountain Flora: Vascular Plants of the Intermountain West, U.S.A (Vol. 7). New York, NY: New York Botanical Garden.

Beautiful Images

From the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum

From the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum

When things get dull, or downright annoying, it is good to take an art break, to simply visit a website that is feast for the eyes.  When I do this, I am not analyzing the images or trying to learn something from them.  I am simply feeding my soul.  I’ve bookmarked several of these sites, so I am ready when I need an aesthetic booster shot.  Among my favorites are the botanical illustration collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Anna Laurent’s Art + Botany blog, and the collection of botanical watercolors and sketches in the Ruskin Library.  All these sites are well worth visiting.

Libri Picturati

The Libri Picturati is a collection of 16th-century natural history watercolors, now housed in the Jagiellonian Library in Kraków, Poland.  There are 15 volumes, 13 of them picturing plants, the remainder animals.  A few years ago, a massive book, Drawn After Nature (KNNV Publishing, 2008), was published with reproductions of all the plant images in the collection.  Some of the illustrations are full-page; most are presented several to a page.  The overall effect is awesome.  There are also essays on an array of aspects of the collection including who served as patron, who did the painting, and who wrote the extensive annotations.  None of these questions have totally unambiguous answers, which just makes the collection more fascinating.  The authors here come to the conclusion that the patron was Charles de Saint Omer, that there were several artists involved with the major contribution made by Jacques vanden Corenhuyse, and that the annotations were by Carolus Clusius who received patronage from Omer and had been a guest at his estate.  In any case, the collection is a wonderful example of the important connection between realistic renditions of plants and the documentation of botanical knowledge in the 16th century.  Drawn After Nature makes the art accessible to a much wider audience, including scholars who are studying the development of botanical art and its connection to the science of botany.