Orchids beyond Oakes Ames

Watercolor of Phalaenopsis grandiflora by John Day, in the Art Archives of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

As I’ve investigated Oakes Ames’s passion for orchids in writing the last three posts (1,2,3), I’ve become more interested in these plants myself.  Interested, but not obsessed, which may be the result of a gender bias.  In several items I’ve read, the male-centeredness of orchid fascination is noted.  In The Orchid Thief (1998) Susan Orlean writes that in 19th-century Britain  “the breeders, the botanists, the hunters, and the collectors, were all men.  Victorian women were forbidden from owning orchids because the shapes of the flowers were considered too sexually suggestive for their shy constitutions” (p. 75).  Orlean notes, however, that Queen Victoria herself was an orchid fancier; yet, male bias in the field seems to extend to the present day.  When Jon Dunn (2018) was developing his plan to see all the native orchids of Britain in one year, a female friend said she would be interested to find out how many women he encountered on this pilgrimage.  The answer was not many.

This masculine turn seems to extend to the plant’s very name, which is derived from the Greek word for testicle:  some species have twin tubers that resemble a pair of testes.  Orchid flowers can also be erotically suggestive, though more reminiscent of female rather than male genitalia.  But with over 50,000 orchid species, the flowers are suggestive of many things: monkey faces, insect rear ends, and bird beaks.  They also have a broad range of cultural connotations as discussed in two recent books.  Monsters under Glass (Desmarais, 2018) deals with hothouse flowers, so orchids are well represented.  This is despite the fact that in the mid-19th century, Joseph Paxton upended orchid horticulture when he argued that attempting to grow orchids in a hot, humid environment was fatal to these plants.  Most tropical orchids were epiphytes the grew up on tree limbs where the air was fresher, and also many of them were from mountainous areas.  What they needed was drier and less torrid conditions.  This did the trick.  Increased viability led to a surge in orchid enthusiasm in the latter part of the 19th century.  Still, orchids remained a symbol of the tropics, and of dark, rather forbidding jungles, as Jim Endersby (2016) discusses in his cultural history of orchids.

While Desmarais focuses on the literary, Endersby is more expansive and describes everything from the first image of a New World orchid, Vanilla planifolia, to Raymond Chandler’s (1939) mystery novel, the Big Sleep, that features a sinister orchid fanatic.  Endersby also brings up another notable piece of orchid trivia, James Bateman’s The Orchidaceae of Mexico and Guatemala that measured 30 by 22 inches and weighed 39 pounds, the largest botanical book with lithographic plates ever produced.  Many of the illustrations were created from watercolors by Sarah Drake, who was also a long-time artist for another orchid expert, John Lindley.

My favorite orchid painter is John Day, a businessman who eventually retired with enough money to dedicate himself to orchids, growing and breeding many himself.  Producing hybrids was a serious interest among many orchid breeders and remains so to the present day (Orlean, 1998).  They anxiously await the results of their crosses to see what forms and colors appear.  They have to be patient because it usually takes seven years or more for an orchid to grow from seed to flowering.  What makes Day interesting to me is that he produced 53 scrapbooks with 2800 pages of watercolor sketches.  He even got permission from Joseph Hooker to visit greenhouses at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew outside of visitor hours so he could paint undisturbed.  Kew now owns his drawings, which have been on display in one of their galleries (see image above), and there is also a book with many examples of his work (Cribbs & Tibbs, 2004).  I love to leaf through it because the sketches contain notes on the orchids’ characteristics and radiate a passion in the process of being fulfilled.  However, Day must not have considered his art satisfactory because he hired Cornelius Durham, a miniaturist, to paint 300 watercolors of his plants.

In a single post there is no way to do orchids justice.  They have such fascinating properties from luring pollinators by mimicking insect forms to usually having pedicels that twist their zygomorphic flowers in place, with the labellum or lip underneath the other petals.  Then there is the diversity of their habitats; some even live underground, have no chlorophyll, and derive nourishment from the roots of other plants or from fungi (Bernhardt, 1989).  The topic of the relationships between fungi and orchids is wide-ranging; orchids’ miniscule seeds can only flourish with fungal assistance, while other orchids parasitize fungi.  There is almost no subject in plant biology that doesn’t include fascinating information about at least a few orchids.  A recently described Brazilian species has flowers that are less than a millimeter  wide.  And don’t forget that even Charles Darwin wasn’t immune to their charms.  He was yet another 19th-century Victorian man who grew them, experimented with them, and wrote about them.

I’ll end with an orchid expert whose name comes up in many accounts of orchids, including Oakes Ames’s, and that’s Heinrich Reichenbach, one of the most noted orchid taxonomists of the 19th century, with John Day among others sending him plants to identify.  Reichenbach died in 1889, and his will stipulated that his herbarium be closed for 25 years, and only then could it be consulted.  Taxonomists were aghast at this prohibition, an apparent slap at Robert Allen Rolfe, a Kew botanist whom Reichenbach loathed.  In a letter to Blanche while he was on a trip to Europe with his assistants to visit other collections, Oakes Ames wrote of their amusing themselves with an idle discussion about breaking into the Reichenbach herbarium in Vienna.  Needless to say, they didn’t follow through, but Oakes was waiting at the door of the herbarium on the morning the collection finally opened for viewing (Garay, 2007).


Bernhardt, P. (1989). Wily Violets and Underground Orchids. New York: William Morrow.

Chandler, R. (1939). The Big Sleep. New York: Macmillan.

Cribb, P., & Tibbs, M. (2004). A Very Victorian Passion: The Orchid Paintings of John Day 1863-1888. London, UK: Thames and Hudson.

Desmarais, J. (2018). Monsters under Glass: A Cultural History of Hothouses Flowers from 1850 to the Present. London, UK: Reaktion.

Endersby, J. (2016). Orchid: A Cultural History. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Garay, L. (2007). The orchid herbarium of Oakes Ames. In Orchids at Christmas (pp. 41–50). Cambridge, MA: Botanical Museum of Harvard University.

Orlean, S. (1998). The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Obsession. New York, NY: Ballantine.

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.

Living with Orchids: Blanche Ames

Chart entitled “Economic Plants of the Archichlamydeae” created by Blanch Ames, in the collection of the Harvard University Botany Libraries

In the last post I discussed Oakes Ames, the Harvard botanist and orchid expert who was married to Blanche Ames Ames.  Yes, her maiden name was Ames, but they weren’t related.  They met while in college and married in 1900, a year after Blanche’s graduation with a degree in art.  They both came from wealthy families, but instead of starting out on their own, they went to live with Oakes’s widowed mother on her estate in Easton, Massachusetts.  It had several attractions, at least for Oakes.  There were greenhouses for the orchids he studied, and he had space for his growing herbarium, as well as plenty of room for Blanche to create orchid illustrations for Oakes’s publications.  In 1901 their first daughter Pauline was born, in 1902, the couple’s first work together was published, and in 1903 a son Oliver arrived.

Even with two children, there was still ample space for a growing family at his mother’s house.  But there was a crisis in August 1904 when the children’s nurse came down with pneumonia, a frightening infection in the pre-penicillin era.  To keep the children safe, Blanche decided to take them to her parents’ home in Lowell, MA.  Oakes did not take kindly to this as a series of letters between them documents.  Anne Biller Clark studied the correspondence for her book on Blanche (2001, pp. 71-73).  Oakes thought his wife should have gone to stay with his brother who also lived in Easton.  Though her fears “had no foundation in fact,” she could not see her way clear to “remain under a few inconveniences.”  Then he raises the real problem:  he insists that she must finish the drawings for his book and not “fritter away time with gossip.”

Not surprisingly Blanche, an ardent suffragette and what her husband called a “new woman,” responded in kind:  “You did not take the trouble to put down your herbarium sheet and your glass, but with one eye screwed up and other on a dried flower, you answered me in scarcely more than monosyllables. . . . A few moments in the herbarium showed me that I could expect no aid.”  Unfortunately, my husband Bob and I were rarely apart, so our exchanges of like kind are not preserved for posterity, but most married couples can come up with similar examples of infuriation.  What makes the Ames’s case particularly interesting to me is that the herbarium is at the center of the ruckus.  In the last post, I quoted Oakes’s enthusiasm at seeing type specimens in Paris, another passionate but very different herbarium encounter.  Herbaria are usually seen as important resources for scientific research, but I think it’s important to point out that they are nothing without the humans who work with them and cannot check their personal lives and feelings at the door, even if they wanted to.  There is a human element to herbaria and that’s one of their big attractions for me.

After this fiery encounter of 1904, it may come as a surprise to learn that Blanche and Oakes remained married for 50 years, until Oakes’s death in 1950.  They had two more children, and after living at his mother’s home for six years, they moved six miles away at Blanche’s instigation.  His mother showed her displeasure by having her servants prevent Oakes from taking his live orchid collection from the greenhouses; this particularly galled him because he had bought them himself.  She also told him that she no longer wanted to receive milk from his cows.  Eventually she relented, and mother and son reconciled.  Oakes and Blanche designed a castle-like home on their 1200-acre estate called Borderland.  The house was constructed of cement and covered in granite:  it had to be fireproof to protect not just Oakes’s family, but his herbarium.  It also housed his two-story library (Plimpton, 1979).

As she was raising her family, Blanche was an ardent suffragette, drawing political cartoons and arranging rallies that were attended by Oakes, as well as by her mother and even her mother-in-law.  Shortly before this fight was won, Blanche took up the cause of birth control as important in women’s path to autonomy.  Still, she continued to play a significant role in Oakes’ research.  She traveled with him on collecting trips to South America, Asia, and Europe.  In Berlin, they were met at the train station by the noted orchid expert Rudolf Schlecter who held an orchid bloom, Stanhopea ruckeri, in his hand to identify himself.  Over the next few days, Blanche worked alongside Oakes in Schlecter’s lab (Angell & Romero, 2011).  She drew watercolors, including of the Stanhopea, while Oakes pressed specimens.  At Harvard’s Oakes Ames Orchid Herbarium, there are a number of sheets that include watercolor and specimen.  After Oakes retired they spent more time in Florida, and worked on a book of Blanche’s illustrations paired with his commentaries; it was prepared to go along with a lecture she gave at the orchid society (Ames, 1947).

Blanche did more than draw orchids.  She also painted landscapes and portraits, including one of her husband, looking his very serious self.  After Oakes died, she sculpted his gravestone, including reliefs of orchids.  The works of hers that I like most are watercolor charts created for his economic botany class, such as one with a phylogenetic tree of useful plants (see above).  It is full of wonderful details including a squirting cucumber caught in the act.  I like to think of the couple collaborating on this, discussing what plants to include and how to represent them.


Ames, B. (1947). Drawings of Florida Orchids. Cambridge, MA: Botanical Museum of Harvard University.

Angell, B., & Romero, G. A. (2011). Orchid Illustrations at Harvard. The Botanical Illustrator, 17(1), 20–21.

Clark, A. B. (2001). My Dear Mrs. Ames: A Study of Suffragist Cartoonist Blanche Ames Ames. New York, NY: P. Lang.

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

Falling in Love with Orchids: Oakes Ames

Portrait of Oakes Ames by Blanche Ames, photography from Historic Images of Easton, MA

I fell in love with Blanche and Oakes Ames (1874-1950) years ago when I came across a book in the library, Jottings of a Harvard Botanist (1979), a collection of Ames’s letters and other writings complied by his daughter, Pauline Ames Plimpton.  I enjoy reading about the human side of science and this book filled the bill.  It was so memorable that years later when I fell in love with herbaria, I visited the Oakes Ames Orchid Herbarium at Harvard, the collection he donated to the University after a long career there investigating orchid systematics.  What was particularly striking to me was that the collection includes sheets with watercolor drawings of orchids done by his wife Blanche, whom I already “knew” from Jottings.  In this series of posts, I want to write about both of them and the plants that were so much a part of their lives.

Oakes Ames did most of his research in the 20th century, but in terms of lifestyle, he was in the 19th century tradition of the gentleman botanist.  He came from a family that had made its money on shovels supplied to the California gold rush, the Union Army, and construction of the Union Pacific Railroad in which the family invested heavily.  In an autobiographical sketch, Ames wrote:  “There was no precedent in our family to be devoted to botanical research.  My father, his brother and his cousin took the usual interest in herbaria, . . .  gardens and greenhouses” (Plimpton, 1979, 64).  In other words, at that time, men of their class routinely had a curiosity about plants, with Ames’s uncle having a significant orchid collection, but Oakes’s dedication was at a different level.

When Ames was a teenager, his father’s health was failing, and to occupy time his father and a nurse would drive through the countryside, collect plants, and bring them home to identify.  Ames became intrigued and joined in.  One day he was struck by how the light shone on dendrobium flowers in his father’s room, and that set him on the path of trying to learn as much as he could about orchids, a passion that motivated him for the rest of his life.  He attended Harvard University, vowing to take every botany course they offered.  At home, he built a collection of orchids in the family’s greenhouses and also started a herbarium.  After Oakes completed his master’s degree,  George Goodale, one of his professors and Asa Gray’s heir as Harvard professor of botany, offered Ames a position as assistant director of Harvard’s Botanic Garden.  Ten years later, Ames became director, a post he held until 1922 when he resigned out of frustration because the university failed to properly support the garden.  There will be more on Ames’s career as a Harvard botanist in a future post.  For now, I want to divert the story to romance.

While at Harvard, Ames attended a social event at Smith College accompanied by a friend, Butler Ames, no relation.  Butler’s sister Blanche (1878-1969) was a Smith student studying art, and Oakes was smitten.  For her 21st birthday, he sent her a 17-volume set of art books specially bound in hand-tooled yellow leather, an over-the-top gift considered inappropriate for someone to whom he was not betrothed.  He soon remedied this by proposing to her, and they were married in 1900.  By 1902 they had had their first child, Pauline, and their first publication for which Blanche had done the illustrations, a role she was to play for the rest of her life (Clark, 2001).  Unlike many artist-spouses, Blanche was always given due credit since she initialed even the smallest sketch.  She often accompanied Oakes on collecting trips to Latin America, the Philippines, and Europe.  Again, I’ll put off saying more about her here since I’ll dedicate my next post to her work in and out of botany.  It will become clear that being married to an orchid taxonomist, even a wealthy one, was not always easy.

Oakes’s dedication to his chosen field was indeed intense.  He built up his herbarium not only through his own collecting but by buying collections, including material from the Philippine Bureau of Science, which eventually asked him to write the orchid section of a flora of the Philippines (Merrill, !928).  As Leslie Garay (2007) describes it, when Ames received this request he immediately made plans to sail to Europe.  This might seem rather odd, except for the fact the great European herbaria held most orchid type specimens:

One of the thrills of my career came in Paris when I turned with breathless interest to the Richard and Goleatti types and drawings to see at last just what was meant by hopelessly obscure words.  And then to pin up these precious relics and photograph them in the dim light which filters through dusty window glass. . . .  You’re in a sense of happiness I shall not attempt to describe.  Once a systematist becomes a slave of types, his contempt for guesswork reaches dizzy heights.  Never again can he become content with the uncertainty of words and identification by supposition.  Surely the unrest in my soul, caused by doubt, made me determined to represent in my herbaria by every possible means the types of orchids (Plimpton, 1979, 75).

This quote is a good reminder that in the days before digitization, travel to collections was an essential part of a taxonomists life, and photographs, if they could be had, were the next best thing.


Clark, A. B. (2001). My Dear Mrs. Ames: A Study of Suffragist Cartoonist Blanche Ames Ames. New York, NY: P. Lang.

Garay, L. (2007). The orchid herbarium of Oakes Ames. In Orchids at Christmas (pp. 41–50). Cambridge, MA: Botanical Museum of Harvard University.

Merrill, E. D. (1928). Flora of the Philippines. Manila, Philippines: Bureau of Printing.

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