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.

Plants in Sweden: Seeing Plants

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Dahlias at the Gothenburg Botanical Garden

As is evident in my last two posts (1,2), my recent trip to Gothenburg, Sweden was all about plants, and in particular about engaging people with plants so that they can come to value them more.   It’s almost impossible to bring up this topic without using the term “plant blindness.”   Sometimes I think the phrase is becoming so common that it’s losing some of its punch, in part because it has been so successful in calling attention to the green world.  Plants are coming into their own, and people are beginning to appreciate how important they are to climate stability, air quality, and even human temperament.  But I don’t think this disease has been by any means eradicated, and it has taken a long time for the term to seep into the collective consciousness.  After all, it has been around since the 1990s when it was coined by James Wandersee and Elizabeth Schussler (1998).  Interest in it remained low-keyed for years, somewhat like a dormant seed, but one that finally germinates.  A recent manifestation of its coming into its own is a good op-ed piece in The New York Times earlier this year on curing plant blindness by learning tree names.   Gabriel Popkin argues that just looking isn’t enough, the experience of trees is deepened when they can be identified and named.  My own personal plant blindness was cured by herbaria.  When I became interested in them several years ago, the world of plants opened up for me.  I wanted to learn about them and to really see them, to observe them more closely, to not just walk by a tree and name it as an oak, but carefully look at it:  acorns, leaves, buds, and bark.

Traveling gives me the opportunity to look at different plants.  I wouldn’t say that plants are all I look for.  I love to visit museums, eat nice meals, window shop, and simply walk through unfamiliar areas.  However, I do look at plants and seek them out, much more than I did before I developed my passion for plants (see photo above).  I am not much of a botanist, so I can’t identify many species, but I’m improving.  I can remember what Susan Pell, who is now deputy director as well as science and programs manager of the US Botanic Garden in Washington DC, said when I took a plant systematics course with her several years ago at New York Botanical Garden (NYBG).  She argued that learning some systematics would make it possible to begin to identify at least plant families and to make sense of taxonomy.  I didn’t think it was possible for me, but I have to admit that frequent and repeated exposure to plants and plant labels in herbaria and in botanical gardens has helped me to at least guess that what I’m looking at belongs to the Ranunculaceae, Asteraceace, Fabaceace, or one of the other large families.  And I am getting it right more and more often.  I know that isn’t much, but it’s something and something that gives me a thrill when I test myself and then look at labels in a botanic garden and find out that my guess was correct.  I’ve come to a greater appreciation for these labels recently for another reason:  a blog post from NYBG on the staff who create the labels.  It isn’t an easy task to keep up with a shifting collection,  and labels that are exposed to all kinds of weather.

When I visited the Gothenburg Botanical Garden, I was cheered to find that they too do a good job of labeling their plants, both outdoors and in their conservatory.  Also, I was grateful to Carl Linnaeus and his Latin binomial system so I didn’t have to worry about recognizing plant names in Swedish.  Going at the end of September might not seem like a great time to see flowers blooming, but there was a great perennial bed with many fall blooms (see photo above), and another of dahlias.   When I returned a few days later, the plants in this bed had been ripped out, but the flowers were given one less chance to shine:  they had been cut off and floated in a pond at the garden’s entrance (see photo below).

3b Dahlias

Dahlias floating in a pool at the Gothenburg Botanical Garden

This lovely touch is indicative of what seems to be a reverence for plants in Sweden that makes the job of countering plant blindness there somewhat easier than in other countries.  This was pointed out to me by Lauren LaFauci, who moved to Sweden two years ago and works at Linköping University.  The very fact that the Beyond Plant Blindness project at Gothenburg University received generous funding from the Swedish government is indicative of this.  In addition, two Swedish funding agencies, Mistra and Formas, are supporting our grant Herbaria 3.0 project through Seed Box, an environmental humanities collaboratory (see next post).  It aims at bringing disciplines together around environmental issues, and it’s nice to see a plant metaphor used for its name.  Obviously, Sweden has a long, dark winter, but it would be hard to tell that in late September when the days were still quite long and the weather, at least when I was there, was mild enough for outdoor dining.  The term “seed box” implies preparation for the winter and for the future, saving seed to grow next year’s plants, and in a way, our project is designed to nourish the seeds of interest in plants that I would argue hide within each of us.


Wandersee, J., & Schussler, E. (1998). Preventing Plant Blindness. American Biology Teacher, 61(2), 82-86.