Oakes Ames at Harvard

Specimen of Malaxis dentata with watercolor by Blanche Ames in the Oakes Ames Orchid Herbarium at Harvard Univeristy

Now that I’ve introduced Oakes and Blanche Ames in the previous posts (1,2), I want to discuss some of Oakes’s contributions to botany at Harvard University.  As a student he was already obsessed by orchids and visited the great herbaria, including Kew.  He also kept adding to his own living collection.  After receiving his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Harvard, the latter in 1899, he devoted himself full-time to orchid systematics.  Within a few years he became known as an expert on orchids, having hired assistants and set up a laboratory, herbarium, and library in his home.  He published work as coming from the “Ames Botanical Laboratory,” contributing the orchid section to the seventh edition of Gray’s New Manual of Botany (1908) and to the Cyclopedia of American Horticulture (Bailey, 1909).  An indication of his seriousness about systematics is that in 1906 he donated his living collection of orchids to New York Botanical Garden and concentrated on building his herbarium, which eventually grew to over 60,000 specimens.

Ames held a variety of appointments at Harvard.  First, he was assistant director and then director of Harvard’s Botanic Garden.  He gave up the position in 1922 because he was discouraged by the lack of support it received.  He thought that was the end of his connection with the university, but the next year he was hired as curator of the Harvard Botanical Museum and served in various capacities there, including director and later associate director until his death 1950.  He was responsible for reorganizing the famous Ware Collection of Blaschka glass models of plants from an alphabetical to a phylogenetic arrangement.  He also wrote a booklet about them that became a best seller at the museum, with 200,000 copies printed (Ames, 1947).

Ames’s other roles at the university are almost too numerous to mention.  Over the years he rose from instructor to professor of botany.  He became head of the Arnold Arboretum in 1927 after the sudden death of the long-time director, Charles Sprague Sargent.  This involved a diplomatic problem in that the administration feared that the British-born Ernest Wilson, a famous plant collector and Sargent’s assistant, wouldn’t be happy with being passed over for the position.  Ames met with him and proposed to make him Keeper of the arboretum.  British-born Wilson was thrilled with this very British title.  It is no wonder that Ames was given to several administrative jobs including ten years as Chairman of the Division of Biology (Plimpton, 1979).

For many years, Ames taught a graduate course in economic botany into which he poured much time and effort.  In the last post, I mentioned that his artist-wife Blanche produced posters for the class.  These remained hanging in the classroom for many years and are now preserved in the Botanical Libraries at Harvard.  A number of illustrious botanists took the course including Edgar Anderson, a noted plant geneticist who wrote Plants, Man and Life (1952), a book that is still worth reading.  It includes a chapter called “Uneconomic Botany,” about Ames’s course and his rather unique take on the subject that he also described in his book, Economic Annuals and Human Cultures (1939).  Anderson explains that Ames was leery of the anthropological evidence that agriculture had arisen a few thousand years ago.  Ames thought its origins were much older, because it would have taken a great deal more time for plants to evolve from their wild to cultivated forms.

Ames also contended that once humans discovered a useful plant, they usually found it was good for more than one thing:  a food might also have medicinal properties such as seed oil employed as a salve.  Anderson admits that at the time he took the course, while he loved it, he thought it was useless.  However, when he worked in a botanical garden and had to interact with the public, he found Ames’s interesting information very helpful.  Many of the plants Ames discussed produced psychoactive substances:  tobacco, tea, cannabis.  These intrigued another of his students, Richard Schultes, who became a leading expert on hallucinogenic plant products, discovering many of these plants during field trips to South American rainforests where he lived with indigenous peoples and learned from them.

Besides enlivening the intellectual life of Harvard students, Ames wrote over 300 research papers and seven volumes on the Orchidaceae.  Many of these books were published by the Harvard Botanical Press, which Ames set up at his own expense in the Botanical Museum’s basement.  At the end of his career, it published Orchids in Retrospect (1948), a collection of Ames’s essays that Schultes and his colleagues at Harvard edited.  In a forward to the second edition, Schultes wrote proudly that they were able to put the volume together without Ames finding out about it and managed to go through it so thoroughly that there were no printing errors.  A much later volume, Orchids at Christmas (2007), is a tribute to both Oakes and Blanche and includes the orchid etchings that Blanche created and that they sent as Christmas cards between 1937 and 1949.  It is a beautiful little book, with reminiscences by family members as well as photos, including one of the memorial gravestone that Blanche sculpted with some of Oakes’s favorite orchids (see image above).


Ames, O. (1939). Economic Annuals and Human Cultures. Cambridge, MA: Botanical Museum of Harvard University.

Ames, O. (1947). The Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants in the Botanical Museum of Harvard University,. Cambridge, Mass.: Botanical Museum of Harvard University.

Ames, O. (1948). Orchids in Retrospect: A Collection of Essays on the Orchidaceae. Cambridge, MA: Botanical Museum of Harvard University.

Ames, O., & Ames, B. (2007). Orchids at Christmas (Reprint edition). Cambridge, MA: Botanical Museum of Harvard University.

Anderson, E. (1952). Plants, Man and Life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

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