Where the Herbaria Are: Botanical Gardens

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Staircase in the first building of the herbarium of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

All herbaria are basically the same.  They all have cabinets filled with folders, each with specimens attached to thick sheets of white paper that are almost the same size.  They may have other types of collections, but the sense you get when you enter an herbarium is usually of ranks of cabinets.  However, on my visits to herbaria I have also been struck by how different they can be:  in size, in collection strategies, in ancillary collections, and in their position within larger institutions.  So in this series of posts, I’m going to explore some of the cultural differences among plant collections that are dependent on their institutional environments.  I’ll begin with what is one of the largest categories, those affiliated with botanic gardens.

It’s probably more than coincidence that the first botanic garden, founded in 1543 in Pisa, was begun by the Italian botanist Luca Ghini who is also believed to be the originator of the herbarium somewhat earlier.  Both were used to support Ghini’s teaching of materia medica at the Pisan medical school.  He would take students out to the garden after class, pointing out the plants he had just described in lecture; sometimes he would show them the pressed specimen as well, so they could appreciate how drying changed a plant’s appearance.  The herbarium also served as a teaching aid during the winter months.  Around the time this garden was founded, Leonhart Fuchs (1542) published one of the first printed herbals with accurate plant illustrations, to supplement the information available in gardens and herbaria.  These three innovations were essential to the development of early modern botany, and it’s not surprising that they are still often found together today.

Great botanical gardens usually have great herbaria and great libraries.  This is true of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, New York Botanical Garden (NYBG), Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne, and many others.  From the very beginning, specimens have been supported by text; an unlabeled specimen is virtually useless.  But as botany developed, sources such as Fuchs were cited as ways to link name and plant description.  Books became vital references, and needed to be close at hand.  The fact that the Pisa garden was attached to a university is also important.  This was an institution where knowledge was passed on and generated, with specimens playing a role in both endeavors.  In my next post, I’ll discuss the relationship between herbaria and education, but for now, I’ll continue with the botanic garden thread.

Many of the major botanic gardens are so large that their functions are segregated into different departments, with a library director and a herbarium director being separate functions, though there is close collaboration especially because they are often housed in the same or adjacent buildings.  This is true in New York, Missouri, Kew, and Melbourne.  It is a wonderful luxury to be able to go just a few steps to check a reference or to find an illustration, either in a book or in botanical art collection also housed in these libraries.  The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and Kew have huge collections of illustrations done by native Indian artists under the direction of botanists and physicians working for the East India Company.  Such art was considered so important to systematics that these sheets were stored with the specimens.  This situation is changing, and the art has been moved to the libraries, cross-referenced with the plant name and that of the artist.

But in botanical gardens, it’s the relationship between the living and preserved collections that seems to me to be most important, and in some cases closely tied to national identity.  I felt this most keenly in Australia, where digitization of the national herbarium collections was first focused on Australian plants, where efforts to prevent the spread of invasive species are particularly rigorous, and where botanical artists often focus on native plants.  Celia Rosser did magnificent watercolors of all the species of the quintessentially Australian genus, Banksia; vouchers made from the specimens she used are housed in several of the country’s national herbaria.  There is also a sense of local pride when a garden manages to bring a particularly fussy plant into flower.  Right now, corpse flowers (Amorphophallus titanum) seem to be all the rage because of their size and the awful odor the bloom exudes.  Making specimens is difficult because of the flower’s size and bulk.  Daniel Atha at NYBG did such a good job that the multiple sheets he created were used in an exhibit on the herbarium.  More importantly, NYBG keeps a significant collection of specimens recording the cultivated plants growing in the garden, not just the celebrities.

Unfortunately, I am going to end on a sour note.  NYBG’s sister garden, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, was also linked to a magnificent library and herbarium, all three founded at the beginning of the 20th century.  However, in  2013 the garden’s director summarily closed the herbarium and downsized the library’s footprint at the same time.  The collection’s 300,000 specimens are now on “temporary” loan to NYBG, the library is still trying to wrestle with its lack of space, and the active environmental community in Brooklyn is left without an important resource.  The links that were forged in the 16th century by Ghini and his fellow botanists have been severed.  The only consolation is that these connections remain strong at many other institutions.

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


Pietro Andrea Mattioli and Luca Ghini

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Image of crocus in Mattioli’s Sinensis Medici, 1565. Biodiversity Heritage Library.

This is my final post on Luca Ghini and the botanists influenced by him.  My subject here is Pietro Andrea Mattioli (1501-1577), who was not one of Ghini’s student but definitely benefited from his mentorship.  Mattioli’s first publication was a 1544 translation and commentary on the Greek physician Dioscorides’s first-century AD book on herbal medicine, the leading reference in the field for over 1500 years.  It was copied in many different versions in Greek, Latin, and Arabic, often with notes added to include new information or to correct mistakes.  Mattioli followed in this tradition.  By the time he was writing, there were several forces at work making updating Dioscorides more difficult.  First was the problem of attempting to relate the plants the Greek described with those botanists found growing in their own localities.  It was becoming clear that biogeography had to be taken into account.  This presented a problem for physicians:  how could they know that a plant with certain medicinal properties that Dioscorides described was the plant they were looking at?  Some saw this as a philological issue, a matter of textual descriptions, and tried to work it out by editing his text and adding comments to it.  Others, and these became more common as the 16th century moved on, saw the solution in direct observation of the plants they had before them, and testing the species’ medicinal properties.

Luca Ghini obviously belonged to this second group, but he was also a product of a time when Dioscorides was still revered.  In fact, he had planned his own commentary on the earlier work and had been accumulating specimens, observations, and illustrations for it.  Yes, illustrations.  While Ghini thought that textual descriptions were necessary, he considered images valuable in communicating information about plant form.  In her article about Ghini that I’ve used as a reference for these posts, Paula Findlen (2017) writes that sometime around 1551, Ghini made the decision not to pursue work on his book.  He had too much else to do and producing a publication was a major task.  In addition, it would be a costly one if there were illustrations involved.  Instead, he freely shared his research with other botanists.  As I’ve mentioned an earlier post, he lent notes, images, and even specimens and also received loans of such materials.  This was how knowledge was shared and developed, but Ghini was particularly giving in this regard.

He was especially generous to Mattioli, who was the recipient of Ghini’s research on Dioscorides’s plants.  In 1551, Ghini completed his annotations to Mattioli’s commentary on Dioscorides.  Known as the Placiti, it was made up of 69 opinions or notes,.  He sent this to Mattioli and also recommended that illustrations be included.  There must have been correspondence between Ghini and Mattioli over these revisions, but all their letters are lost.  By 1554, Mattioli was preparing another edition, and Ghini spent four days finishing his review of the manuscript and made a list of suggested corrections, which he sent to his protégé Ulisse Aldrovandi for his comments, a great example of the communal nature of botanical inquiry.

Mattioli’s 1554 edition of Dioscorides was the first to be illustrated, including woodcuts of illustrations that Ghini had sent, as well as one made from his pressed plants.  It had quotes from the Placiti and as citations from Ghini’s letters.  Mattioli is well-known today not so much for his written commentaries but for the illustrations in the latter editions of his work on Dioscorides.  The last edition which he oversaw was published in 1565 in Venice and had over 1000 illustrations.  Remarkably, many of the carved wooden blocks used to print these images have survived and are held at a number of institutions including the Oak Spring Foundation Library, and the libraries at the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) and the Missouri Botanical Garden (Tomasi & Willis, 2009).  Oak Spring also has a copy of the 1565 edition that was printed on blue paper—one of only two in existence—with the illustrations highlighted in silver and gold (Tomasi, 2013).  I saw it on display at NYBG a few years ago, open to the page with an illustration of lavender and I found it mesmerizing (Tomasi, 2013).  And this is the point:  Mattioli is known for the beauty of his publication more than for their substance; by the time this edition came out interest in attempting to update Dioscorides and other ancient texts was fading.  Botanists like Ghini’s student Andrea Cesalpino (see last post) were writing new texts based on observation and analysis rather than on philology, analyzing the meaning of ancient texts.

The transition from one approach to the other was slow, and Mattioli was in the middle between the two traditions, with Ghini pushing him toward direct observation and visual evidence.  As Findlen remarks, Ghini’s lack of publication caused him to become rather invisible in botanical history, despite his pivotal role in early modern Italian botany.  His major claim to fame seems to be his development of the herbarium though there are some who see it as having been invented earlier.  In any case, he is the one who proselytized its use to the point where it became a relatively common means of documenting plants.  I should note however, that Mattioli, while he pressed plants and studied those pressed by others, including Ghini, didn’t keep an herbarium.  He tossed his sheets out after he was finished studying them!


Findlen, P. (2017). The death of a naturalist: Knowledge and community in late Renaissance Italy. In G. Manning & C. Klestinec (Eds.), Professors, Physicians and Practices in the History of Medicine (pp. 127–167). New York, NY: Springer.

Tomasi, L. T. (2013). The Renaissance Herbal. New York, NY: New York Botanical Garden.

Tomasi, L. T., & Willis, T. (2009). An Oak Spring Herbaria: Herbs and Herbals from the Fourteenth to the Nineteenth Centuries. Upperville, VA: Oak Spring Garden Library.

Andrea Cesalpino and Luca Ghini

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Title page of Andrea Cesalpino’s De plantis libri XVI, Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Andrea Cesalpino (1524-1603) is, I think, my favorite among Luca Ghini’s successors in botany because he most exemplifies the careful attention to detail and to observation that were hallmarks of his teacher’s work.  He also had a philosophical side that manifested itself in his great publication De plantis libri XVI or The Plant in Fourteen Books (1583).  Cesalpino had already achieved a great deal before publishing this work.  He was one of Ghini’s students at Pisa, earning his degree in medicine.  When Ghini left Pisa in 1555, Cesalpino took his place as professor of botany and director of the botanical garden there; he also adopted his mentor’s device for documenting plants for teaching and research:  the herbarium.  He created at least two, one with over seven hundred specimens which he dedicated to Bishop Alfonso Tornabuoni and which survives in the herbarium of the University of Florence.  This gives a hint that herbaria were beginning to be used for a variety of purposes.  While Ghini saw teaching and documenting species information as foremost, Cesalpino also saw the form as a way to thank and honor a patron.

From his correspondence and publications, which were extensive, we know that Cesalpino went on plant collecting field trips, created lists of the species growing in the Pisa botanical garden, and taught both materia medica and then general medicine.  He remained at Pisa until 1592 when he became professor of medicine at the University of Rome and physician to Pope Clement VIII.  This move relatively late in life was provoked by the promotion of another professor, the famous physician Girolamo Merculiale, over him at Pisa.  Cesalpino remained in Rome until his death in 1605.  While I’m interested here in his botanical research, he studied many areas of medicine including geology and the use of minerals as materia medica, as well as the circulation of blood through the heart, making the most progress in this area before William Harvey.

In all his work, but perhaps especially in botany, Cesalpino took a more theoretical view of natural history than was common at the time.  He didn’t want to just collect information and organize it, he sought out fundamental ideas behind the details.  He was Aristotelian in his approach and like Aristotle’s student Theophrastus, he attempted to formulate a system of plant classification.  However, Cesalpino didn’t publish it until after he had spent many years studying plants in the field, the botanical garden, the herbarium, and the literature.  Despite being a physician, he did not, like Dioscorides—then still the leading source of information about materia medica—focus on the medicinal properties of plants.  Instead, Cesalpino sought basic traits on which to base his taxonomy.

Theophrastus began his system by dividing plants into four categories: trees, bushes, shrubs, and herbs, noting that the division among them is not hard and fast—a deep classificatory problem that plagues systematists to this day:  living things refuse to fit into neat categories.  Cesalpino used a different, but related, four-part scheme.  He put trees and shrubs together; had a second category for seeds without coverings, namely gymnosperms; then came non-woody plants with covered seeds: the herbs and finally plants without discernable seeds.  In a letter, he described how he would shuffle through his herbarium sheets, putting them into piles based on similar traits.  This suggests that when he was working with specimens, they were not bound in volumes, but more conveniently loose for just such rearranging.

This and other interesting pieces of information are in Cristina Bellorini’s (2016) book on medicine and botany in Renaissance Tuscany, where she describes the results of Cesalpino’s studies that appeared in De plantis.  Bellorini considers Cesalpino’s system as natural in that it’s based on similarities that link plants having more than arbitrary likenesses.  Within his four basic categories, he groups species according to what he saw as their most fundamental functions:  nutrition and reproduction.  For nutrition, he looked at roots and divided them into those that became woody and those that didn’t.  For reproduction, he examined flowers, fruits, and seeds.  Cesalpino was not alone in focusing on such structures as key to understanding plant relationships.  In an earlier post, I’ve written about Conrad Gessner’s notebooks that are filled with images and notes that often highlight just such plant parts, which Florike Egmond (2016) sees as evidence that Gessner was thinking of these traits in terms of classification.

It’s important to note that Cesalpino’s book has no illustrations.  He wrote that he didn’t think they were necessary because he was less interested in differentiating among species that in illustrating ways in which they were alike.  Lack of illustrations is probably one reason why he is less known today than some of Ghini’s other associates such as Pietro Andrea Mattioli, whom I’ll discuss in the next post.  In many cases images in publications made them more popular and therefore more likely to be republished.  In the present day, early botanical works are often valued for their illustrations rather than for their texts, which is definitely the case with Mattioli.

In his history of botany, A.G. Morton (1981) regards Cesalpino’s contributions to the development of plant classification very highly.  He presents Cesalpino’s work in detail relative to how he treats many other botanists’ thought.  Morton sees Cesalpino as one of the few botanists before the 17th century to deal with fundamental questions about how to organize plant knowledge.  Obviously this issue became more urgent as more and more species became known, but even in the 16th century, plants from the Americas and Asia were being grown in Pisa.  For example, Cesalpino discusses the tomato, sunflower, and agave.  He seemed to understand the way botany was heading and felt it necessary to think deeply about plant organization.  He followed in the tradition of his teacher, Luca Ghini, in amassing specimens and information, and then subjecting it all to careful analysis.


Bellorini, C. (2016). The World of Plants in Renaissance Tuscany. Surrey, UK: Ashgate.

Egmond, F. (2016). Eye for Detail: Images of Plants and Animals in Art and Science, 1500-1630. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Morton, A. G. (1981). History of Botanical Science. New York, NY: Academic Press.

Ulisse Aldrovandi and Luca Ghini

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Website for the Herbarium of Ulisse Aldrovandi

In the last post, I discussed the life of Luca Ghini, the Italian botanist who created the first herbarium, but is little remembered because he published none of his botanical work.  However, several of his students had distinguished careers and carried on his tradition of careful observation combined with documentation in notes, illustrations, and specimens.  The one considered his heir in terms of depth of botanical knowledge is Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605), yet he never officially studied with Ghini.  Aldrovandi received his medical degree from the University of Bologna while Ghini was teaching at the University of Pisa.  However, Ghini often returned to his native Bologna where he had taught earlier, and they probably met during one of these visits.  Paula Findlen (2017) speculates that they might have been introduced sometime around 1553 by one of Ghini’s former students, Francesco Petrollini, who taught Aldrovandi and who, like Ghini, kept an herbarium.  Aldrovandi soon took up the practice, and even improved upon it, describing a paste he used to hold down the specimens on paper and help preserve their color.

After they met, Aldrovandi spent time in Pisa learning from Ghini.  Together they collected on field trips into the mountains and also investigated the plants in the Pisa botanical garden.  The younger man published a catalogue of the 620 species growing there.  Ghini shared teaching and research materials, including his class notes, which were helpful to Aldrovandi when he became professor of natural sciences at the University of Bologna.  Ghini left Pisa and returned to Bologna in 1555; by this time, he was a sick man.  Aldrovandi worked with Ghini, attempting to get his mentor’s papers in order, and thus was seen by other botanists as the person to contact about Ghini’s medical condition as well as about botanical matters.  Aldrovandi went on to live for another 50 years and had a rich career involved in a number of fields, including botany.

Ghini and Aldrovandi had much in common as botanist-physicians.  They were intent on learning about plants not only to use in treatment but as objects of curiosity—a trend that became more common as the 16th century went on (Ogilve, 2006).  They also differed from each other in many ways. They were both born in Bologna and studied there, but Ghini eventually left, while Aldrovandi spent most of his life there.  They both came from families that weren’t wealthy, however, the Aldrovandis were noblemen and their fortunes improved when a member of his mother’s family became pope in 1570.  By the time Aldrovandi died, he had amassed a reasonable fortune and a large natural history collection, which included everything from plants and minerals to insects and a variety of other animals.  He had over 14,500 specimens and 2,000 drawings of plants by 1570 (Findlen, 1994).  Like Ghini, he saw both text and image as necessary for communicating about the form of organisms; neither alone would suffice.  Aldrovandi had a large library of 4000 volumes including many of his bound collections of letters and notes.  He had an impressive network of correspondents, many times larger than Ghini’s 227.  This indicates that the perception of science as a solitary profession has never been the case:  the making of scientific knowledge has always been communal.  Even in the early modern period, no one person could know it all, though people like Aldrovandi definitely made an attempt at it.

Aldrovandi used his specimens, illustrations, and library as the basis for the many books he published, most on zoological topics.  Like Ghini, he was interested in other areas of natural history besides botany.  While I am focusing on plants here, most of Aldrovandi’s published works deal with animals, including books on birds, one on snakes, and a volume on monstrous animals.  The last is hardly surprising: curiosities and oddities remained an interest from the Middle Ages, and new and strange species were being discovered around the world.  However, Aldrovandi’s writings were based primarily on first hand observation, as was the case for his botanical work, a legacy of his time with Ghini.  He used an organizing system that was becoming common: making notes on slips of paper and pasting them into notebooks along with other relevant information, sometimes including images.  Aldrovandi did write a book on trees, Dendrologiae naturalis, which was illustrated but like most of his writings it wasn’t published until decades after his death.  That he left publication to those who followed him is probably one reason that so little about plants went into print:  books about animals seemed more fascinating, a problem that persists to this day.

Besides the fact that his work was published and Ghini’s wasn’t, another reason Aldrovandi is remembered is that his collection didn’t quickly disappear as Ghini’s did.  Aldrovandi insured its survival by willing it to the Senate of Bologna, and it was conserved in the city palace.  But in the 19th century the collection was distributed among several libraries and other institutions, leading to loss of a great deal of the material.  Some of what is left is now on display in Bologna’s Palazzo Poggi, but it is a poor remnant of its former richness.  The legacy of another of Ghini’s protégés, Andrea Cesalpino, will be the subject of the next post.


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

Findlen, P. (2017). The death of a naturalist: Knowledge and community in late Renaissance Italy. In G. Manning & C. Klestinec (Eds.), Professors, Physicians and Practices in the History of Medicine (pp. 127–167). New York, NY: Springer.

Ogilve, B. W. (2006). The Science of Describing: Natural History in Renaissance Europe. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

At the Beginning: Luca Ghini

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Portrait of Luca Ghini. Wikipedia.

I recently read an article by Paula Findlen (2017) on Luca Ghini (1490-1556), the Italian botanist credited with creating the first herbarium.  Her piece was a revelation to me.  It presented Ghini as a multifaceted individual who did so much more than press plants, and it put the herbarium into context within Ghini’s approach to the study of plants.  Findlen argues that Ghini is not better known today because he published nothing during his life, however, he was extremely influential among his students and fellow botanists throughout Europe.  In this post, I’ll discuss why he was so important in botanical circles.  In the following ones in this series, I’ll profile three significant Italian botanists of the next generation who were influenced by Ghini.

Practicing medicine throughout his career, Luca Ghini was educated as a physician at the University of Bologna.  He soon began to teach practical medicine at Bologna and started to collect plant specimens around this time.  He then lobbied to teach medical botany, doing so for the first time in 1534.  He eventually became professor of materia medica and kept this position until he moved to the University of Pisa in 1544.  There he founded the first botanical garden connected to a university, taught medical botany, and served as personal physician to Cosimo I de’ Medici.  He remained in Pisa until 1555 when he returned to Bologna where he died the following year.

Findlen begins her paper with the reaction of Ghini’s students and colleagues to his passing.  They were horrified at being without their mentor, without the person to whom they brought their botanical questions knowing he would give them solid and thoughtful answers.  How had Ghini developed such a reputation?  Findlen credits careful observation as central to his method.  His professor at Bologna, Niccolò Leoniceno, taught that it was important to correlate words with things, that observation mattered in medicine.  To make observation matter, it had to be recorded, so careful note taking was essential as was physical documentation.  That’s where botanical gardens and herbaria, both of which Ghini pioneered, came into the picture.  Ghini moved to Pisa in part because Medici was willing to finance a garden to be used in teaching.  After a lecture, Ghini would spend an hour or two walking among the plants with his students, pointing out species, structures, and medicinal traits relevant to the day’s lesson.  But when winter came and the garden was rather useless for demonstrations, Ghini could fall back on his hortus siccus, his dried garden, in the form of pressed specimens.  Since this winter garden was rather colorless and flat, Ghini also had illustrations made to preserve plant form and color.

Several students took up Ghini’s practices, and while none of his illustrations or specimens survive, some of theirs do.   Gherardo Cibo’s (1512-1600) herbarium, which was begun in 1532, is the oldest one surviving and is held at the Pontifical University Library in Rome.  Cibo also painted beautiful illustrations that are in the British Library.  They are unique in that unlike most plant images, his are painted against landscape backgrounds where the plants loom very large.  Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605), who was considered by most of his peers as the person to go to for botanical information after Ghini’s death, amassed a large herbarium and a library of 8000 natural history illustrations, some of which are still extant in Bologna (Bellorini, 2016)  The specimens of another Ghini pupil, Andrea Cesalpino (1519-1603), are in Florence.  (Aldrovandi and Cesapino will be the subjects of the following posts).

As did many of botanists of his time, Ghini considered travel and communication as crucial to the development of knowledge (Ogilve, 2006).  He took field trips during the summers, going into the mountains between Pisa and Bologna, often in the company of his students or fellow botanists, many of whom travelled to consult him.  Valerius Cordus visited from Leiden, William Turner from England, and Guillaume Rondelet from Montpelier.  Leonhart Fuchs, the author of one of the first modern herbals (1542) traded specimens, illustrations, and notes.  To facilitate the exchange of seed with other botanists, Ghini created the first seed index and circulated this list so botanists would know what they could request from the botanical garden in Pisa.  Ghini maintained correspondence with a large number of botanists including many of his former students such Bartolomeo Maranta in Naples, who dedicated his book on medicinal plants to Ghini from whom he had learned research methods.  Ghini was very generous with his knowledge and his resources, which was one reason it was difficult to organize his materials after his death—many of them were out on loan.

Around 1551, Ghini made a conscious decision not to publish any work, although he had amassed notes and illustrations for a projected natural history.  It was the herbals of Otto Brunfels (1530) and Leonhart Fuchs (1542) that convinced him of the importance of illustrations, but they were expensive to produce, and he wasn’t in a position to take the financial risk involved.  Instead, Ghini shared his writings and observations with others, so his work did in part become published in the writings of several botanists, including Ulisse Aldrovandi, Andrea Cesalpino, and most importantly, Pietro Andrea Mattioli (1501-1578).  These botanists will be presented in the next three posts.

Note:  I want to thank Paula Findlen for generously sharing the reference to her Luca Ghini article with me.


Bellorini, C. (2016). The World of Plants in Renaissance Tuscany. Surrey, UK: Ashgate.

Findlen, P. (2017). The death of a naturalist: Knowledge and community in late Renaissance Italy. In G. Manning & C. Klestinec (Eds.), Professors, Physicians and Practices in the History of Medicine (pp. 127–167). New York, NY: Springer.

Ogilve, B. W. (2006). The Science of Describing: Natural History in Renaissance Europe. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Specimen Labels: History


Specimen from the Ulisse Aldrovandi Herbarium at the University of Bologna

It’s often noted that herbarium specimens are prepared today much as they were in the 16th century when Luca Ghini (1490-1556) created the first well-documented herbarium. This lack of “progress” is because the original approach was both easy and effective: press a plant between two pieces of paper to absorb moisture and to flatten it. Plant material treated in this way can last indefinitely. Moisture encourages the growth of fungi and other agents of decay, and pressing means the plant doesn’t curl up into an irregular mass as it dries. Today, the sheets of paper may be interleafed with felt pads and cardboard sheets to hasten drying. After this the specimen is mounted on heavy white paper and labeled. It is in the labeling that significant changes have occurred over the years and continue to occur. To put it simply, the amount of information on a sheet has increased significantly, but even today, there is no “perfect” label, no standard for what be included and in what format. This may not seem like a very exciting topic to pursue, but I hope to show that following the label story tells a great deal about the history of plant collections and of plant science itself.

Ghini’s herbarium is not extant, but those of his students, Gherardo Cibo (1512-1600) and Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605) are (Nepi& Gusmerol, 2008). They are beautifully mounted, and on the latter, the plant names are written in script. There is little other notation, and this is true of most early specimens. Since herbaria were created either by or for individuals, it can be assumed that these owners knew more about the plants, could fill in the blanks, at least for many of the specimens. They felt the name was all the information they needed; there were books with species descriptions that could be referenced. However as Brian Ogilve (2006) notes, at this time the written information on plants lagged behind the illustrations and plant specimens then available. This was one of the driving forces behind the creation of herbaria: to have good visual information available for study. Plants themselves were studied first for their uses in medicine, and then as fascinating in themselves, opening the way to plant taxonomy. Geography or date of collection wasn’t considered important, nor was the name of the collector.

As time went on, labeling and specimen preparation became more standardized, but still, collections were for the most part individual rather than institutional so personal idiosyncrasies were common. This was especially the case among the wealthy who saw a herbarium as an important element of a cabinet of curiosities and a significant symbol of status. A case in point is the herbarium of George Clifford (1685-1760), which was studied and augmented by Carl Linnaeus during his time in the Netherlands. Clifford was a wealthy banker with an interest in gardening and wanted to document the range of plants he grew. Each sheet had an ornately bordered label and the bottom of the stem was covered by an engraving of a vase from which the plant was seemingly growing. In other collections, the pages were framed with a border of inked lines. The Oxford botanist Johann Dillenius (1684-1747) pasted thin strips of wallpaper around the edges of his moss specimen sheets to strengthen them. On the other hand, Hans Sloane (1660-1753) who had one of the largest pre-Linnaean herbaria, didn’t use any such devices, unless the specimens he was given or that he purchased came with them, as in the case of the herbarium of Mary Somerset, Duchess of Beaufort (Laird, 2015). He simply had the sheets mounted in volumes, 265 of which still exist in the Natural History Museum, London.

Binding was another common herbarium practice of the past that has disappeared. Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) kept his specimen sheets loose so that he could easily organize—and reorganize—them. He had a wooden cabinet constructed for his collection, and his strategy is still used today. One of his practices that hasn’t continued is writing on the back of the sheet. This is now frowned upon because accessing the information means turning over the specimen, which can lead to plant fragments falling off. Loss of fragments still occurs; this is why many sheets prepared today have a folded paper envelope attached in which any such debris can be saved. After his death, Linnaeus’s collection was sold to Edward Smith and formed the basis of the Linnean Society herbarium in London. However, other such collections were either discarded by uninterested heirs or found their way into university, botanical garden, or museum collections. Often they were just stored as they were, so the idiosyncrasies remained.

Laird, M. (2015). A Natural History of English Gardening 1650-1800. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Nepi, C., & Gusmerol, E. (2008). Gli erbari aretini da Andrea Cesalpino ai giorni nostri. Florence, Italy: Firenze University Press.
Ogilve, B. W. (2006). The Science of Describing: Natural History in Renaissance Europe. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.