Open the Treasure Rooms

Tomato specimen from the En Tibi herbarium, Naturalis Biodiversity Center, Leiden

This post’s title comes from Tinde van Andel’s inaugural lecture as Clusius Chair of History of Botany and Gardens at Leiden University in the Netherlands:  Open the Treasure Room and Decolonize the Museum.  Working with a team of researchers, the room van Andel is exploring is at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center and is indeed a particularly rich collection.  It has a number of 16th-century herbaria, including the En Tibi dated to about 1554 and attributed by van Andel and her team to Francesco Petrollini, a student of Luca Ghini who was at least an early proponent if not the originator of preserving pressed specimens (Stefanaki et al., 2019).  Petrollini is also now thought to have created a herbarium in Rome’s Angelica Library that had been attributed to another Ghini student, Gherardo Cibo.  It was begun in 1532, making it the earliest extant collection.

Also in Leiden are herbaria created by Leonhard Rauwolf who collected in France as well as in the Middle East (see earlier post).  Van Andel’s commented in her lecture that when she showed specimens of sorghum, eggplant, and pistachio that Rauwolf had found in agricultural plots in Syria, it was the first time in over 400 years that someone from the Middle East had set on eyes on them.  These plants document what was being grown at the time and may yield DNA revealing more about the history of these crops (Ghorbani et al., 2018).  That they are physical evidence for plants of the past is one reason the collections are treasures.

As another example of what these riches have revealed, van Andel, working with molecular biologists as well as historians, has taken a look at the early history of the tomato in Europe.  They have recently published on this work, presenting specimens as well as illustrations, putting together a possible timeline of how the plant spread through Europe from Spain to Italy and then to northern Europe (Andel et al., 2022).  The fact that there was quite a bit of evidence suggests interest in this strange fruit.  The specimen in En Tibi even has half a tomato attached.  A small portion of a leaf was removed and DNA extracted from it; research suggests that it was a domesticated plant.  Petrollini probably obtained seeds from Ghini, who may have gotten them from a former student Luigi Anguillara, director of the botanical garden in Padua near Venice, which was a busy port where many exotic species arrived.  So this one page of En Tibi reveals much not only about the plant’s biology but also about its history in Europe and about how a tightly knit botanical network enabled rapid transmission not only of information but of seeds and other botanical material. 

For a long time, early herbaria were ignored, as van Andel’s comment about Rauwolf’s collection indicates.  Any pre-Linnaean herbarium that had not been studied by Carl Linnaeus and therefore not used by him in naming species was considered irrelevant to modern botany, which dates from the publication of Linnaeus’s Species Plantarum of 1753.  The collections were deemed worth keeping, but not worth serious study.  This has changed recently for a number of reasons, including the renewed interest in natural history collections in general as sources of information about biodiversity.  There is also interest in botany’s social history as the second half of van Andel’s title suggests:  decolonize the museum.

The Netherlands was an important naval power with an eye on botanical riches such as nutmeg and cinnamon from the East, but any plants of interest were welcomed in the homeland by eager gardeners looking for novelty.   One collection in Naturalis was created around 1587 by an unnamed Dutch collector working in what is now Suriname.  It preserves plants native to the area and also African food plants—okra and sesame (Andel et al., 2012).  This indicates that the plantation culture, with the presence of African enslaved persons, had brought with it new species, one of many examples of the early movement of plants with links to the slave trade.  It shows how herbaria can contribute crucial evidence on cultural and political history and can help clarify portions of history that have long remained hidden, including the early pervasiveness of enslaved labor in the Americas.

I have focused on the Leiden treasure room in this post, but in the others in this series I’ll mention herbaria kept in collections throughout Europe.  Some, like part of Felix Platter’s collection in Basel, had been there for hundreds of years but had only been rediscovered in the 1930s.  Others, like Ulisse Aldrovandi’s in Bologna were cared for over the centuries, but still, it wasn’t investigated until recently.  One reason for the increased attention is that there have been efforts to digitized important cultural collections of all kinds, making the 15 volumes of Aldrovandi’s herbarium available to a wider audience and also making it much easier to compare specimens of the same species from different collections, as done in the paper on the history of the tomato. 

To me this is the exciting thing about what could be considered the renaissance of Renaissance herbaria:  allowing careful study without necessarily disturbing the very fragile originals.  I would love to experience the physical heft of En Tibi or see the pages that Rauwolf saw as he, or an assistant, reinforced/decorated them with patterned paper.  However, the very newest of technologies have made these oldest of specimens available to all, even in the age of covid.  The important thing now is to mine these works thoroughly to learn more about plants and botanists in the early modern era. 


Andel, T. van. (2017). Open the treasure room and decolonize the museum [Inaugural lecture]. Leiden University.

Andel, T. van, Veldman, S., Maas, P., Thijsse, G., & Eurlings, M. (2012). The forgotten Hermann Herbarium: A 17th century collection of useful plants from Suriname. Taxon, 61(6), 1296–1304.

Andel, T. van, Vos, R. A., Michels, E., & Stefanaki, A. (2022). Sixteenth-century tomatoes in Europe: Who saw them, what they looked like, and where they came from. PeerJ, 10, e12790.

Ghorbani, A., Wieringa, J. J., de Boer, H. J., Porck, H., Kardinaal, A., & van Andel, T. (2018). Botanical and floristic composition of the Historical Herbarium of Leonhard Rauwolf collected in the Near East (1573-1575). Taxon, 67(3), 565–580.

Stefanaki, A., Porck, H., Grimaldi, I. M., Thurn, N., Pugliano, V., Kardinaal, A., Salemink, J., Thijsse, G., Chavannes-Mazel, C., Kwakkel, E., & Andel, T. van. (2019). Breaking the silence of the 500-year-old smiling garden of everlasting flowers: The En Tibi book herbarium. PLOS ONE, 14(6), e0217779.

Specimens, Specimens: History

Phemeranthus teretifolius collected by William Darlington, University and Jespon Herbarium

In this series of posts (1,2) focusing on particular specimens and collections of specimens, it’s impossible to neglect the past.  At least for me, some of the most fascinating specimens are those with long histories, in terms of age, the many hands they’ve passed through, and the vagaries they’ve suffered.  One of my favorite herbarium acronyms is GOD taken from the location of the collection created at the Charterhouse School in Godalming, England.  Founded in 1611, it is an elite high school that in the 19th century created a museum for its natural history and other collections.  The herbarium contains over 8,000 specimens, including many bound volumes with both specimens and illustrations.  When the museum was closed, the herbarium eventually found a home in 2011 at the University and Jepson Herbaria at the University of California, Berkeley.  How did it end up there?  An alumnus of the school, Andrew Doran, is a curator at the herbarium and saw GOD as a valuable historical collection.  The specimens date from the late 18th and 19th centuries, most from dozens of naturalists in Great Britain.

When I visited the Jepson, Doran showed me Rev. Tullie Cornthwaite’s collection, in part to call attention to the clergyman’s lyrical name.  These specimens are in bound volumes, including one with specimens collected on the Livingstone Expedition to the Zambezi River.  There are others dating from the 1790s that Cornthwaite acquired on a trip to Switzerland.  But the specimen that caught my eye was one where I recognized the handwriting and initials.  It was a Phemeranthus teretifolius collected in 1827 in West Chester, Pennsylvania with the initials, WD, for the local botanist, William Darlington, who himself had an impressive collection.  He corresponded with botanists in Britain and the Continent, though there is no record of any correspondence with Cornthwaite.  It may be that they had a mutual contact [see above].

Another collection, also in the San Francisco area, is the 12-volume bound herbarium of Lord Robert Petre at the Sutro Library.  Petre, an 18th-century horticulturalist, received specimens, seeds, and cuttings from another Pennsylvania botanist, John Bartram.  Their go-between was Peter Collinson who did so much to introduce North American plants to England.  Some of the Bartram material has his original notes written on slips of brown paper (Schuyler & Newbold, 1987).  These and many collectors’ specimens were bound into volume by Petre, a close friend of Collinson’s.  They remained in the Petre family until the 19th century when they sold his library to Adolf Sutro, the former Mayor of San Francisco, who bought book collections in Europe for a city library.  Like the Darlington specimen, Bartram’s traveled across the Atlantic and back before landing on the other side of North America.  In both cases, the specimens are definitely well treated [see below].

Comptonia perigrine collected by John Bartram, Sutro Library

Anyone who deals with herbaria has similar, and probably, more spectacular stories of specimens moving from place to place, but it’s important to make non-botanists aware of these journeys.  Many people are surprised by how cosmopolitan even a smaller herbarium can be, though the majority of specimens may be relatively local.  In the A.C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, which I am proud to call my herbarium home, there is a specimen from Japan.  That’s no so odd; John Nelson, who for many years served as curator, fostered exchanges with herbaria in Europe, Asia, and throughout the United States.  But this specimen was sent by Asa Gray to the 19th-century South Carolina botanist, Henry Ravenel, whose collection is at A.C. Moore.

Ravenel corresponded with Gray, particularly after the Civil War when he was seeking advice on how he could make a living from botany.  Gray sent him a tiny piece of a Japanese fern.  What makes this notable is that Gray had received Japanese plant material from a friend of his with botanical interests who went on the US diplomatic mission that opened Japan to US trade.  Obviously Japanese specimens were at a premium at the time.  After studying these and other Japanese plants, Gray posited that the plants in these two areas had a common ancestry, but due to fluctuating climates, which remained most similar in eastern North America and Japan, the species were better able to survive in these regions (Dupree, 1959).  Charles Darwin, a friend of Gray’s, used this as evidence for his theory of evolution and a small piece of the story is sitting in Columbia, South Carolina.

I’ll end with a couple of even older examples of plant travels.  The Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, the Netherlands holds a bound herbarium dating from 1540 called the En Tibi that was probably created in Bologna, Italy.  Researchers in Leiden are working on genetic analyses of tomato specimens in the volume that may be the oldest preserved material of this species.  Others have identified four of the oldest tobacco specimens known, three in Ulisse Aldrovandi’s herbarium at the University of Bologna and one in the Erbario Estense in the Modena State Library (Vicentini et al., 2020).  These collections have been sitting in their respective locations for centuries with little attention paid to them until recently.  It is ironic that they are now the focus of several forms of cutting edge technology, from being imaged digitally to being analyzed chemically.  It’s not news that specimens tell stories, but it is news that such old volumes can tell such new stories.

The wonderful thing is that a number of significant herbaria created over the centuries still exist.  Some are in natural history collections, but some are secreted in libraries where they are less likely to receive scientific attention.  Digitization is one way these treasures are becoming more widely known, and thank goodness libraries are so adept at conserving and scanning fragile material.


Dupree, A. H. (1959). Asa Gray: American Botanist, Friend of Darwin. Harvard University Press.
Schuyler, A. E., & Newbold, A. (1987). Vascular Plants in Lord Petre’s Herbarium Collected by John Bartram. Bartonia, 53, 41–43. JSTOR.
Vicentini, C. B., Buldrini, F., Romagnoli, C., & Bosi, G. (2020). Tobacco in the Erbario Estense and other Renaissance evidence of the Columbian taxon in Italy. Rendiconti Lincei. Scienze Fisiche e Naturali.

Seeking Plants in Seattle: Early Modern Herbaria

2 En Tibi Calendula arvensis

Specimen of Calendula arvensis from the En Tibi herbarium; the collection of the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, The Netherlands.

I wouldn’t say that the History of Science Society is a plant-focused organization, but enough historians involved in botanical history in various ways have infiltrated the association that there are always sessions of interest at its annual meeting (see last post).  One I had to attend included two speakers whose work I had read.  Fabrizio Baldassarri of the University of Bucharest organized the session.  He is also the editor of a special issue of the Journal of Early Modern Studies (2017) on Gardens as Laboratories, which included his introductory essay and one by Maria Carrión of Emory University, the other speaker I wanted to hear.  Baldassarri spoke on plant metaphors in the work of several early modern physicians who were attempting to decipher bodily functions, with both William Harvey and Marcello Malpighi drawing comparisons between seeds and eggs.

Carrión’s contribution was on “Thinking, Dwelling, Planting: Dried Gardens and Natural Philosophy in 16th-century Europe.”  It was both intellectually fascinating and visually beautiful.  Granted, I may be prejudiced toward images of herbarium specimens and especially toward very old ones, but still, she presented such a variety of examples that I wasn’t the only one in the audience who was enthralled.  Carrión is a professor of comparative literature so she looks at these botanical documents in a different light than I do, and this is what made her talk so interesting.  To her, they are cultural artifacts, and she is fascinated by their materiality.

Carrión was introduced to herbaria while doing research at the library of the El Escorial in Madrid on early modern gardens as sacred spaces.  The librarian suggested that since she was interested in gardens, she might want to see a very old “dry garden.”  It was owned by a Spanish Ambassador to Venice, Diego Hurtado de Mendoza (1503-1575).  He possessed such an impressive library that the King of Spain called him back to Madrid and purchased the entire collection.  There’s no evidence that Mendoza created the herbarium which is in four volumes; and he probably acquired it in Italy, where the specimens were in all likelihood collected.  In all it contains over 1000 specimens, some pages with multiple specimens, and there are notes in several different hands.

Seeing this treasure fired Carrión’s passion for such collections, as I can well appreciate.  She has now seen eleven 16th-century herbaria in European collections.  These include the En Tibi, another herbarium whose creator is unknown (see above).  Carrión considers it the best preserved of the ones she’s seen.  Housed at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, the Netherlands, it was created in Italy because the plants seemed to be from around Florence and Bologna.  The En Tibi is a thick volume bound in leather with 477 plants.  Carrión noted that it is inscribed:  “Here for you a smiling garden with everlasting flowers.”  I definitely like the idea of an herbarium as a smiling garden.  The watermarks date the paper to 1500-1550, suggesting it’s a very early collection.  The oldest extant herbarium dates from 1532, that of Gherardo Cibo at the Angelicum Library in Rome.

Carrión has also examined herbaria that have not been left intact, or as she puts it, have been “dislodged.”  That of Andrea Cesalpino in Florence is among these.  It has been taken out of its binding, with the loss of its original organization, and rebound in three volumes.  In terms of conservation, this was obviously a wise approach, but as she suggests, it does change the experience of studying the herbarium, especially since in its prolog Cesalpino writes on the benefits of classification.  The rearrangement of Casper Bauhin’s herbarium was even more radical.  Bauhin’s herbarium now in Basel was studied by Linnaeus when he was preparing his Species Plantarum.  The sheets were rearranged according to this new system, so this pre-Linnaean collection has a post-Linnaean organization (Benkert, 2016).

In her travels to collections throughout Europe, Carrión was guided by librarians who could show her unique features of the herbaria.  In one of the fifteen volumes of Ulisse Aldrovandi’s collection in Bologna, there was a large square cut out of a page where a specimen had obviously been removed.  There are missing specimens from many collections.  The plants and the glue holding them in place are so old, it’s not surprising that over time parts of specimens, or even an entire one, may fall off and be lost.  But in the case of the Aldrovandi page, someone very much wanted the plant pasted there.  Unfortunately, his collection has suffered worse loses with only a portion of his thousands of specimens still extant.  This holds for his other collections as well:  insects, shells, minerals, books, and artwork.  As Paula Findlen (1994) notes, Aldrovandi created one of the first museums, one of the first organized natural history collections.  Though portions have been lost over the years, it survives at all because he willed it not to heirs who might very well have auctioned it off, but to the city of Bologna.

3 Limonium sinuatum

Limonium sinuatum collected in Lebanon by Leonhard Rauwolf in 1575. The collection of the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, The Netherlands.

Carrión also saw Leonhard Rauwolf’s four-volume herbarium, with plants collected both in Europe and the Near East (see above).  It’s at the Naturalis Biodiversity Centre in Leiden and is striking because many of its pages have eye-catching paper borders and also because some of the plants are from Syria and Iraq, making them among the earliest specimens from those regions (Ghorbani et al., 2018).  Carrión plans on seeing more such treasures, in fact, she wants to see all pre-1600 herbaria—a noble goal indeed.


Baldassarri, F. (2017). Introduction: Gardens as laboratories. A history of botanical science. Journal of Early Modern Studies, 6(1), 9–19.

Benkert, D. (2016). The ‘Hortus Siccus’ as a focal point: Knowledge, environment, and image in Felix Platter’s and Caspar Bauhin’s herbaria. In Sites of Mediation (pp. 211–239). Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

Carrión, M. M. (2017). Planted knowledge: Art, science, and preservation in the sixteenth-century herbarium from the Hurtado de Mendoza Collection in El Escorial. Journal of Early Modern Studies, 6(1), 47–67.

Findlen, P. (1994). Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ghorbani, A., Wieringa, J. J., de Boer, H. J., Porck, H., Kardinaal, A., & van Andel, T. (2018). Botanical and floristic composition of the historical herbarium of Leonhard Rauwolf collected in the Near East (1573-1575). Taxon, 67(3), 565–580.