Where the Herbaria Are: All Over the Place

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A portion of the Marybeth Wheeler Herbarium at Wilton Library

Before I knew them, my stepsons lived in Wilton, Ct.  Many years later, when they had long left the area, I came upon a book called Ferns and Flowering Plants of Wilton at a book sale.  For a dollar, I was willing to check out their old stomping ground.  The book was put together by the local garden club, and in it was mention of a herbarium they had created that was housed at the Wilton Library.  A little digging led me to the library’s history room, and there it was, a collection numbering over 1,000 sheets.  The collection’s foundation was the donation of 200 sheets by Anna Carpenter (1833-1933) to the Wilton Garden Club.  Carpenter had spent the last 42 years of her life in Wilton and often collected in the area, which at the time was rural but is now definitely suburban.  She presented the rest of her collection to the Connecticut Botanical Society herbarium now housed at the Yale Herbarium in the Peabody Museum of Natural History.  There are 665 of her specimens listed in the herbarium’s online database.

In 1981, the Wilton Garden Club moved the collection into the Wilton Library History Room to make it more accessible.  This was part of a larger herbarium project, which had begun in the 1960s and which resulted in several hundred sheets being added to the collection.  Most of the collectors were members of the Wilton Garden Club, most notably Marybeth Wheeler, for whom the herbarium is now named.  When I visited in 2012, Scotty Taylor of the Wilton Historical Society showed me a well-cared-for collection stored in archival boxes.  She said that it was little used, but since then the library has mounted an exhibit of some of the sheets to make this treasure better known in the community.  I use the Wilton herbarium as an example of herbaria that are not in the usual places for such collections—botanical gardens, educational institutions, museums—the places I’ve described in the last three posts (1,2,3).  This last post in the series is sort of a catch-all for collections, large and small, that live in a variety of settings.

Unlike the one in Wilton, many herbaria that end up in libraries are in bound volumes.  One of my favorite examples is the 16-volume collection of Lord Robert Petre in the Sutro Library at San Francisco State University.  Petre was an avid gardener and one of the early patrons of John Bartram who sent Petre plants, including seeds and cuttings, through Peter Collinson the great British plant broker.  This connection is what makes the Petre herbarium particularly interesting.  There are Bartram plants in two of the volumes, some with Bartram’s original labels written on small pieces of brown wrapping paper.  In the 1980’s Schuyler and Newbold (1987) of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia examined these specimens and gave them updated scientific names, in addition to the pre-Linnaean ones written in beautiful script on the sheets.  All the volumes have been removed from their bindings and carefully conserved, indicating once again that a library can be a good home for herbaria.  Though botanists worry about collections that are outside of herbaria where insect infestation is carefully monitored, this collection seems to be doing very well at the Sutro.  It was purchased in the late 1800s by Adolph Sutro who had been mayor of San Francisco.  He went  on a buying spree in Europe, acquiring volumes to create a world-class library in his city.  That’s how an East-Coast collection got to the West Coast, via England.

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Volume III binding for the Petre Herbarium in the Sutro Library at San Francisco State University.

There is one case where a herbarium led to the founding of an institution, and that is the Linnean Society of London, organized around the herbarium—and library—of Carl Linnaeus, which the British botanist James Edward Smith bought from Linnaeus’s widow.  It is now stored in an underground vault built after World War II.  What has grown up around this collection is a larger herbarium including Smith’s specimens, as well as a remarkable library and archives with material from Smith, Alfred Russel Wallace, and Francis Buchanan-Hamilton.  The archives include many botanical illustrations and all of this material is stored in the Society’s headquarters in Burlington House, a huge mansion that’s also home to the Royal Academy of Art.

Needless to say, the Linnaean collection, which is full of type specimens, is often visited by botanical researchers and historians—and also by people like me who are lucky enough to just breathe the vault’s rarified air.  However, small collections like those in the Wilton and Sutro libraries are also scientific and cultural gems that reveal something about the passions of gardeners down through the ages.  I have not scratched the surface here of alternate sites for herbaria.  Just a few miles from Wilton is a collection at the Bartlett Arboretum and Gardens, which was originally owned by the Bartlett Family who began the company now known as Bartlett Tree Experts.  The site was used as a laboratory and arboretum by the company’s founder, Francis A. Bartlett, and was sold it to the State of Connecticut in 1965.  The herbarium contains specimens from the 1880s when the Bartletts began their work, and these have been augmented by others.  Several national forests have herbaria as does Yellowstone National Park, where there are about 16,000 specimens, though not the one collected by President Chester A. Arthur during a fish trip in the park in 1883; that’s at the National Herbarium in Washington.  At the other end of the size spectrum is the herbarium at the Botanical Research Institute of Texas, created as a stand-alone institution to support plant research and conservation; it now has about 1.5 million specimens.  And I should note the countless collections, large and small, housed in homes by avid collectors who relish finding plants, preparing specimens, and often sharing their duplicates with others.  In other words, you never know where a herbarium is going to pop up.

Note:  I would like to thank all the people at the institutions I’ve visited for sharing their expertise with me.

References

Ferns and Flowering Plants of Wilton. (1992). Wilton, CT: Wilton Garden Club.

Schuyler, A. E., & Newbold, A. (1987). Vascular plants in Lord Petre’s herbarium collected by John Bartram. Bartonia, 53, 41–43.

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Libraries and Botany: Digital Resources

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Second edition of Basil Soulsby’s catalog of the works of Linnaeus, Biodiversity Heritage Library

One of the attractive features of the meeting of botanical and horticultural librarians that I attended in New York recently (see the last two posts 1,2) is that it included both Europeans and Americans.  Since Europe is home to so many historical collections of specimens, manuscripts, and botanical art, it was great to learn more about these treasures.  It was even better to discover how many of these resources are now available digitally.  One of the high points of the meeting for me was the presentation by Félix Alonso, head librarian at the Royal Botanic Garden in Madrid.  I already knew that this library has a magnificent collection because many of its treasures are available through the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL), and I was glad to hear that the institution is developing a new interface to make it more user-friendly.  Accessibility was Alonso’s major theme, as he outlined plans to move the library from a collection-centered to a service-centered focus, including opening it to children for the first time in its 250-year history.

Yet another group meeting at NYBG along with the European and American librarians, was the Linnaeus Link Project, an international collaboration among libraries with significant holdings dealing with Carl Linnaeus.  It is funded, maintained, and coordinated by the Linnean Society of London, which holds the bulk of Linnaeus’s specimens, manuscripts, and books, bought from his widow by the British botanist James Edward Smith in 1784.  However, a number of institutions also have substantial holdings, and the project aims to make all the Linnaeus material available through a union catalog.  Lynda Brooks and Isabelle Charmantier of the Linnean Society Library presented on Linnaeus Link and that’s how I was introduced to “Soulsby numbers” used to identify each record.  Basil Soulsby produced the second edition of his Catalogue of the Works of Linnaeus in 1933, recording all Linnaean writings and works about Linnaeus published up to 1931; the last entry was number 3874.  Linnaeus Link uses these numbers to identify items in the Union Catalogue and is also assigning post-Soulsby numbers to items not mentioned by Soulsby; there are over 400 of these.  This project gives a glimpse into the world of librarianship and the meticulous processes involved in coordinating materials spread out over several countries.

Isabelle Charmantier also presented on the work being done to digitize the Linnean Society collections, which go well beyond those of Linnaeus and include the herbarium of the society’s founder James Edward Smith, as well as his seed collection that is now being conserved.  The seeds are still enclosed in their original wrappers that include letters, sermons, newspapers—obviously of value in themselves.  There are also the archives of Linnean Society Fellows such as Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, and art including the watercolors of Nepalese plants that were done by an Indian artist under the direction of Francis Buchanan Hamilton.  He traveled to Nepal in 1802-1803 and recorded over a thousand species there.  Charmantier noted that at the moment, the Society has data on three platforms with variable metadata and would like to undertake the major task of uniting them, thus making the information available to users through a single search engine.

Another great botanical library is at the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew and the head of the library, Fiona Ainsworth, described its massive holdings: 300,000 books and pamphlets, 200,000 works of art, and 7,000,000 archive sheets.  At the moment, there is no digital catalog for the art collection, and it would be ideal to have it along with the herbarium and economic botany collections cataloged in one system with the library.  That is part of Kew’s plans for the future.  For the present, it is working on a five-year project to digitize and transcribe over 2000 Joseph Dalton Hooker letters, that are available on the Kew Library website.  This is a tremendous resource, especially when seen in relation to the letters of two great American botanists Asa Gray, whose correspondence has been digitized at Harvard University, and John Torrey, whose letters are now being digitized and transcribed at New York Botanical Garden (NYBG).

Stephen Sinon, NYBG’s archivist and curator of Special Collections, described the ongoing Torrey Transcription Project.  The noted 19th-century botanist John Torrey spent his life in New York and taught at both Columbia and Princeton.  He gave his letters and herbarium to Columbia College (now Columbia University), but these were transferred to NYBG when it was founded in 1898.  Most of the Torrey letters are incoming correspondence.  Almost ten thousand pages have been digitized and over 2,500 transcribed by volunteers through a crowdsourcing website.  This massive undertaking is being funded by NEH and the Carnegie Foundation of New York.  The resulting digital images are available not only through the NYBG’s Mertz Library website, but on BHL, Archive.org, and the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA).  Mentioning this project moves me away from my focus on Europe in this post, but it’s a reminder that botany knows no borders and has always been a global enterprise.  Torrey, Gray, and Hooker knew each other, wrote extensively among themselves, and visited each other’s countries.  The Americans and the British were also rivals in describing American plants, with Hooker and his colleague George Bentham avidly courting collectors, particularly in Canada, but they did not spurn US collections as well.  Torrey and Gray were well aware of this; the letters between them have many mentions of needing to name American plants quickly to prevent the British from doing it first.