Botanical Britain: Place

4a Cyclamen

Cyclamens growing in the rock garden at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

While I was in Edinburgh and London recently (see earlier posts 1,2,3), I was reminded several times of my mother’s favorite plants, all ones that thrive in the British Isles.  She was born on the south coast of Ireland in a seaside town called Tramore.  Her family was upper middle class, but fell on hard times because of her father’s financial blunders.  She emigrated with her mother and siblings in 1928, just in time to face the depression in New York City.  While she later married my father and had two wonderful children, if I do say so myself, she never really felt at home in the United States and made her opinion known on many occasions.  I remember her often mentioning plants that grew well in the gardens of Ireland but didn’t flourish in the US.  I was reminded of this while walking by a park in Edinburgh and seeing Cyclamens blooming (see photo above).  My mother would buy them in pots as houseplants, but they didn’t grow in our garden.  She had the same problem with primroses and Fuchsia (see photo below).  From time to time she would buy a potted Fuchsia, and after she kept it alive inside, would plant it outdoors.  It never did well.  All these plants like mild and moist conditions; a New York City backyard just didn’t provide the right environment.

4b Fuchsia

Fuchsia growing near a sidewalk in Edinburgh, Scotland.

When we visited Ireland I finally understood her problem and was also introduced to another of her favorites the monkey puzzle tree Araucaria araucana (see photo below).  What I didn’t know at the time was that none of these genera, except for the common primrose, Primula vulgaris, are native to Ireland and Britain.  Yes, they thrive there, but Fuchsia was sent back by Charles Plumier from the Caribbean, Cyclamen is native to the eastern Mediterranean, and the monkey puzzle is South American.  Their naturalization in Ireland was the result of avid gardeners wanting to extend their repertoire of species, and these particular plants, among many others, ended up thriving in areas warmed and watered by the Gulf Stream.

4c Monkey Puzzle Edinburgh

Monkey puzzle tree, Araucaria araucana, at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

The connection of plants and place—both their native and adopted ranges—is a discussion had many times among those involved in the Herbaria 3.0 project.  This initiative, which has been funded by Seed Box: A Mistra-Formas Environmental Humanities Collaboratory in Sweden and Colorado School of Mines in the US describes itself as “a platform for sharing stories about plants and people. We believe that these stories can draw our attention to the intertwined nature of human-plant relationships. Turning to these relationships helps us to remember plants and reconnect with them, acknowledging the pivotal role plants play in our lives.”  The website now has a rich selection of stories in which the relationship between plants, place, and peoples’ lives are very evident.  But as was the case with my mother, the place the writer describes is often not within the plant’s native range.  This is indicative of how much the ecology of the entire globe has been changed by plant exchanges over hundreds and thousands of years.  It also signals how people’s emotional lives are influenced by the plants with which they share a space.  Attempting to grow Fuchsia in New York was important to my mother; she was trying to make her home a little more like what she considered her real home in Ireland.

My mother’s childhood home, a horse farm, was burnt down when she was nine years old.  We’ve visited the site, which is marked by little more than rubble.  On my recent trip I got to visit the intact childhood home of one of my intellectual “mothers,” Agnes Robertson Arber, a noted plant morphologist of the first half of the 20th century and the third woman elected to the Royal Society.  I’ve mentioned her in earlier blog posts (1,2) because she wrote two of my favorite books, The Mind and the Eye (1954) on the philosophy of biology including the relationship of art to inquiry, and Herbals: Their Origin and Evolution a Chapter in the History of Botany, 1470-1670 (1938), which is still an important reference in the field.  When I contacted Mark Nesbitt of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew about seeing the economic botany collection (see earlier post), he said that he had recently talked to Xandra Bingley who had inquired about Agnes Arber since Bingley lives in the house into which the Robertsons, Agnes’ parents, moved when she was eleven.  Bingley is a long-time resident but didn’t know about the connection until English Heritage decided to mount a commemorative blue plaque for Arber on the building.  Since I’ve written on Arber (Flannery, 2005), Nesbitt thought Bingley and I should get together.

Xandra invited me to her home for lunch, which lasted well into the afternoon.  She thinks that the location of the house, just steps from Primrose Hill, a park adjacent to Regent’s Park, and the lovely, long narrow garden in the rear must have stimulated Robertson’s interest in plants.  I know that while Agnes Robertson was living there, her father brought home an early edition of Henry Lyte’s English translation of the Flemish botanist Rembert Dodoens’s herbal, because a friend wanted advice on whether to buy it.  In Herbals, Arber writes that seeing the book is what kindled her interest in the history of botanical illustration.  Again, place and plants come together, but in a very different way, and I left Xandra’s house with a better sense of how one of my favorite botanists embarked on her career.  Herbals was Arber’s first book, written while she was also working on plant morphology, and weaving together strands that were to grow stronger throughout her life.

Reference

Arber, A. (1938). Herbals: Their Origin and Evolution a Chapter in the History of Botany, 1470-1670 (2nd ed.). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Arber, A. (1954). The Mind and the Eye: A Study of the Biologist’s Standpoint. Cambridge: University Press.

Flannery, M. C. (2005). Agnes Arber in the 21st century. The Systematist, 24, 13–17.

Note: The most fun I had in England was in Xandra Bingley/Agnes Robertson’s home.  I can’t thank Xandra enough for being willing to greet me so warmly and entertain me with such wonderful conversation.

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Plants in Sweden: Herbaria 3.0

4 Herbaria 3

Herbaria 3.0 website

In the last three posts (1, 2, 3), I’ve discussed various aspects of my trip to Sweden, and now I finally want to get to why I traveled there.  I had been invited to join a group of researchers headed by Tina Gianquitto, an associate professor of literature at the Colorado School of Mines, and her co-principal investigator, Dawn Sanders of Gothenburg University in Sweden, where our group met.  Also involved are Lauren LaFauci of Sweden’s Linköping University and Terry Hodge of the University of Wisconsin, Madison.  The project is called Herbaria 3.0 and is funded by Swedish environmental agencies through the Seed Box: A Mistra-Formas Environmental Humanities Collaboratory hosted at Linköping University.  In this program, fifteen projects were awarded “seed money” to explore ways that diverse disciplines can work together on environmental issues.

The title Herbaria 3.0 is explained this way on the project’s newly-launched website, which is becoming a platform for sharing stories about plants and people:  “The original herbaria constitute the ‘1.0’ of our project; the collection of these specimens in real and digital herbaria constitute the ‘2.0.’  In ‘Herbaria 3.0,’ we offer a place for the telling and retelling of plant stories, revealing hidden histories, and provoking new narratives.  Here we aim to create a bright spot of hope, just as plants have shown resilience in the face of change.”  As to the why of the project, we wrote:  “We believe that these stories can draw our attention to the intertwined nature of human-plant relationships.  Turning to these relationships helps us to remember plants and reconnect with them, acknowledging the pivotal role plants play in our lives.”

When I say that “we wrote” this, I mean it quite literally.  Two of us (Tina and Lauren) are professors of literature, so they guided us into using words carefully.  That’s fitting, since this project is as much about words as it is about plants.  It involves people’s memories and ideas about plants put into words to share with others.  We tested out our ideas about the website by sharing some of our own stories about plants.  Terry said that he first became really aware of plants as a high school student working in a nursery.  His job was to water the trees, and he learned that he had to attend to each one of them because they had different needs; he thus began to see the trees.  Tina shared a story about a Christmas cactus Schlumbergera bridgesii that has been in her family for years.  When she told this story to Italian friends, they said that in Italy it’s not known as a Christmas cactus but as mother-in-law’s tongue.  In the US, the snake plant Sansevieria trifasciata is saddled with that name; both have sharp leaves.  For Terry and Tina, there are emotional ties in these memories, and that’s part of what we are trying to emphasize in our project:  humans have feelings about plants, and this aspect of our relationship with nature needs to be foregrounded.

In the earlier Beyond Plant Blindness project that Dawn Sanders headed (see earlier posts), researchers asked student teachers simply:  “What is your favorite plant and why?”  Irma Brkovic, a psychologist at Gothenburg University, coded the answers and found that they usually involved emotions:  words like “love” and “feel” were used often.  In many cases, as with Terry and Tina, the answers entailed memories, stories, and family.  There was real connection with the plants.  Our aim in Herbaria 3.0 is to foreground these connections in the digital world, and broaden people’s relationships with each other as well as with plants.  Here “herbaria” is being used as a metaphor for a collection of plants, plants that are linked to people.  In botanical herbaria, real plants are collected and preserved; in ours, stories about plants are collected and linked to digital herbarium records.  So a story about the Christmas cactus Schlumbergera bridgesii will link to a specimen for this species, as well as to other information about the plant and its metaphorical relationships.  There will also be other images because most of us fall in love with plants by looking at them.   Photographs, paintings, and sculptures will be used because plants are so visually appealing, they deserve to be presented in visually exciting ways.  And since the project involves a metaphor, there’ll be links to poetry and fiction.  In other words, we plan to make Herbaria 3.0 a hub for the digital humanities and sciences, a place where connections among people and disciplines can be formed through plants.  In the process, we also hope that there will be a deepening concern for the environment, for plants as fundamentals components of our lives and our ecosystems.

This seems to be a lot to ask of one website, and especially one that is being created by a small group of people with a small grant.  However, remember, this is a Seed Box grant.  Consider what an acorn eventually becomes, or a tiny orchid seed.  What better metaphor could there be for our efforts?  No wonder we are optimistic about what we can achieve.  If you want to see how we are doing, please visit the Herbaria 3.0 website and follow us Instagram (Herbaria3.0).  Also, share your plant stories and encourage others to do so.  If we are going to grow into an oak, we are going to need a great deal of fertilizer that only you can provide.