The Plant Family Tree

In class this morning I showed the video, The Plant Family Tree, that was created at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in 2014. It’s a lovely eight-minute film that focus on Kew’s herbarium and on how it documents plant diversity and phylogeny. I use it to introduce students to the work of a herbarium and as a review of the history of taxonomy and evolution. It covers the place of Linnaeus and Darwin in this history as well as the new work on DNA sequencing that has led to a revision of the plant family tree. This is not an information-heavy presentation, but it does show how these subjects relate to each other. Also, it’s such a beautifully produced work that it holds the students’ attention, and I like to think that this reinforces what they have already learned.
What makes the film so attractive is the clarity of the narration, the wit of the staging, the background music, and the way all of these are integrated. The feature I like best is the hardest to describe. Through the second half of the presentation, as the cabinets in the herbarium are panned over, herbarium sheets seem to leap from them. However, the sheets are transparent, with the specimen and its information in white. Toward the end, when the tree of plant phylogeny is constructed before your eyes, it is decorated with many of these transparent sheets. They are not really legible, but the technique does get the point of relatedness and diversity across. The novelty of this presentation adds to the video’s appeal.

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Showing Off Botanical Illustrations

The husband and wife team of historians of science, Helen and William Bynum, recently published Remarkable Plants That Shape Our World (University of Chicago Press, 2014).  It is based on their broad knowledge of the history of how plants have been used, particularly as medicines, and also on their thorough knowledge of the collections at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.  All of the illustrations are drawn from Kew collections–from its herbarium, economic botany collection, library, and botanical art.  The text is quite interesting.  The Bynums pack quite a bit into the plant descriptions that run to about a page in length.  They cover the history of the plant’s use as food, medicine, etc. and provide other intriguing botanical information as well.  However, the illustrations are definitely what make the book so noteworthy.  Besides drawing from such well-know works at those of Fuchs and Redouté, they also include unpublished original paintings, many by indigenous artists, particularly for illustrating Indian plants, since several 19th-century botanists hired native artists to help them to document the rich flora of the subcontinent.  There are also a number of herbarium specimens pictured, something not often seen in such richly illustrated books that usually focus on botanical prints and watercolors.  Finally, there are items from the economic botany collection, which itself has a rich history, being founded by William Hooker and developed by Joseph Dalton Hooker in the 19th century, the heyday of such collections.  It is the combination of these different kinds of images that makes this book particularly alluring.

There have been two other books published recently that show off the botanical collections of noteworthy institutions.  One is Flora Illustrated (Yale, 2014) edited by Susan Fraser and Vanessa Sellers of the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG).  They and the other contributors cover a wide range of topics, from the illustrations of early modern botany to seed catalogues of the 19th and early 20th centuries.  However, there is nothing from the garden’s massive herbarium and few illustrations that aren’t from published sources.  There are some notebooks highlighted, those of the botanists John Torrey and William Whitman Bailey, as a reminder of the libraries’ archival treasures.  But essentially, this is a book about books.

A different approach to a vast collection is Flora: An Artistic Voyage Through the World of Plants (2014) by Sandy Knapp of the Natural History Museum, London, which published this book.  This has a wonderful text with fascinating illustrations but here most are from the Museums’ vast collection of art.  Knapp takes the interesting tack of focusing on particular genera or families and providing a dozen or so images of each along with a commentary about the plants’ structure, physiology, habitat, and cultivation.  One annoying feature of the book’s organization is that the descriptions of the illustrations, which are very useful, are gathered at the end of the chapter, given along side a thumbnail of each illustration.  This makes for much paging back and forth within a chapter.  As in the NYBG book, the herbarium is almost ignored here.  However, I must add that Knapp is author of another book, also called Flora (Schirmer/Mosel, 1997) with spectacular photos of specimens done by Nick Knight.  There too Knapp provides commentaries on the plants, but they are less lengthy than those in her new book.  The photos are definitely works of art, rather than herbarium documents, since the backgrounds are cleaned up and sheet labels and notations have been erased.