More Books: The Vasculum

Recently I wrote a series of posts (1,2,3,4) on books about plants that view them in broad contexts.  After I finished, I realized that I still had a stack I hadn’t gotten to, so I’m doing a second series.  I’m beginning with a book I fell in love with even though I have to admit to not doing a very good job of reading it.  It’s Régine Fabri’s (2021) volume in French on the vasculum, the long metal box for collecting in the field that was the emblem of the 19th century botanist.  I heard Fabri speak on the vasculum at the joint meeting of American and European botanical librarians held at the New York Botanical Garden in 2018.  Since then she has retired as chief librarian at the Meise Botanic Garden in Belgium.  She obviously has not been idle, but this book is hardly just a work of retirement; it’s clear she has been doing research on the subject for years.

Fabri was well-prepared for the challenge with a doctorate in botany and years of research in systematics leading to the publication of the volume on umbellifers for the General Flora of Belgium.  She then moved into library work and clearly became a master of ferreting out information.  Since my French is rudimentary, I wasn’t able to fully appreciate the text.  However, from the number of topics she covers and the wide variety of images she includes (300 in all), she knows her subject literally inside out.  She must have had a great deal of fun putting this book together, but it must also have been a great deal of work.  I can’t imagine what was involved in finding and organizing 300 images.  Each one makes a contribution to bringing the vasculum back from, as she writes in her subtitle, “obscurity.”

As Fabri notes, the first published mention of using a metal box to store specimens when out collecting was made in 1704 by William Stukeley. A British antiquarian, he wrote about students of materia medica going on fieldtrips with a copy of John Ray’s catalogue of English plants and a metal candle box, a long cylindrical container with a door on its side, perfect for adding candles or plants—and about the right size to take into the field (Allen, 1965).  It’s sturdiness meant the plant material was less likely to be damaged in transport than if put into a bag or carried loose.  The idea caught on.  The candle box eventually was fitted with a leather strap to make it easy to carry over the shoulder and morphed into a vasculum, from the Latin for vase.  By the 19th century it was marketed along with plant presses and hand lenses not only to botanists, who were becoming more and more professionalized, but also to the ever-increasing number of natural history enthusiasts.

Increased demand led to specialization.  The vasculum was produced in different sizes, including one three feet long for those who didn’t want their specimens folded and were willing to tote the giant around—or were collecting by horseback or carriage.  There were also small ones made for young collectors to start them off on the road to botany.  These were often decorated with paintings of young children going plant hunting.  There were other versions painted with more sophisticated art to appeal to feminine tastes.  The vasculum became an attractive accessory, so much more becoming than carrying a tin simply painted black or green.  Fabri includes dozens of photos of vasculums, including many from her own collection.  I remember her saying in her lecture that there were a few she coveted but which were beyond her budget, indicating that the antique vasculum market must be hotter than that for new ones, which are still for sale in natural history catalogues.

Some of the most intriguing images in the book depict the vasculum being used in the field.  These range from a painting of Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland collecting near Mt. Chimborazo in Peru, where Bonpland is sitting with his vasculum at his side, to 19th-century genre paintings picturing rather inept collectors attempting to look like they know what they are doing.  There are also many prints, newspaper cuttings, book illustrations, and advertisements culled from publications in many different languages.  This is where Fabri’s library skills shine.  She knew how to find even the most obscure references, and I suspect, how to use her social skills to get the help of fellow librarians who enjoyed joining in the hunt. 

The very ordinary plastic bag was one of the chief reasons for the decline in the use of the vasculum.  It was lighter, waterproof, and less likely to crush specimens.  But Fabri makes it clear that it is simply not as much fun.  As you can see I loved this book, despite the language barrier, or maybe because of it:  I spent more time pouring over the images.  Amazon doesn’t seem to cater to the Francophile, so I bought a copy from the Meise Botanic Garden online bookshop.  At 25 Euros, it was a bargain.  I got my book within a couple of weeks after I ordered it.  I don’t think you will be disappointed, and the next time you go out collecting, you might feel a twinge of regret that you don’t have a vasculum handy for your cuttings.


Allen, D. E. (1965). Some further light on the history of the vasculum. Proceedings of the Botanical Society of the British Isles, 6, 105–109.

Fabri, R. (2021). Le vasculum ou boîte d’herborisation: Marqueur emblémetique du botantiste du XIX siècle, objet désuet devenu vintage. Meise, BEL: Jardin Botanique de Meise.

Libraries and Botany: Hidden Collections

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Child’s vasculum circa 1900, photo by Régine Fabri / Wikimedia Commons

On the last day of the horticultural and botanical library conference I attended in New York recently (see last post), there was a session entitled “Hidden Collections—unveiling treasures through research.”  The first speaker was Régine Fabri, head of the library at the Botanic Garden Meise in Belgium who presented her preliminary work on the history of the vasculum (see photo above).   Most botanists are familiar with this tool of the trade, basically a metal box to hold specimens collected in the field, but most, like myself, haven’t given it much thought now that portable plant presses and plastic bags have pretty much replaced it.  However, Fabri has taken it on with a passion.  She discovered that the first reference to such a device was in 1704, when it was called a candle box, and this was probably its origin, a repurposing of a water-proof metal container for candles, with a door wide enough to lift them in and out.  As with plants, botanists gave it a Latin name, vasculum, meaning container.

By the 19th century, the vasculum had become signature equipment for botanists, and Fabri presented numerous paintings and drawings of plant collectors with their boxes.  She also had photos of Darwin’s vasculum as well as those of Joseph Dalton Hooker and John Torrey.  This last we later saw in the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) library since it is part of their collection.  Fabri ended by noting the vasculum’s decline.  A 1910 scientific supply catalog offered two different models in an array of seven dimensions.  Today, one type is available in only one size.  However, there are many beautifully decorated antique versions on the market if you are interested, and Fabri left us wanting more with a photo of her own collection.

The next presentation was in a very different vein.  Brent Elliot, the retired Royal Horticultural Society librarian, drew on the resources of this institution for his research into the different associations of the word “nature” in Britain and America.  He focused on how the 19th-century garden cemetery movement played out in the two countries.  In America, cemeteries like Green-Wood in Brooklyn, New York  and Mount Auburn in Boston provided parklike settings for graves, with their creators emphasizing the idea that these sites were natural areas in which to remember and honor departed loved ones.  In Britain however, such cemeteries were seen not as natural but as human-made works of art, with an emphasis on the contrivances of landscaping used to create a peaceful atmosphere.  Elliot showed wonderful photographs and engravings of many of these sites in both countries to illustrate his theme, providing a great blend of art and textual analysis.

The third speaker was Florence Tessier, botanical librarian at the National Museum of Natural History (MNHN) in Paris.  She spoke about Marie Fortier (1844-1931) who created artificial “herbaria” from silk.  She was a student in the laboratory of practical botany at the MNHM and made silk flowers as a way to teach botany.  At the time, these were popular adornments for women’s dresses, and there were many ateliers in Paris creating them with time-consuming cutting and shaping processes.  Fortier learned these skills and applied them in a very different way by arranging whole flowers and flower parts on herbarium sheets and labeling them.  As Tessier notes, Fortier’s work probably grew out of an idea that developed during the last days of the French monarchy.  François Le Vaillant, who made two expeditions to southern Africa between 1781 and 1784 collected animal skins, particularly of birds, and plant specimens as well.  When he returned to France he became critical of the way flowers were presented in just two dimensions in botanical illustrations and herbarium specimens, compared to vivid taxidermied birds.  He had seen the beautiful artificial silk flowers that Joseph Wenzel had created for Marie Antoinette and wanted to use Wenzel’s expertise to produce three-dimensional plant displays for the botanical museum in the king’s garden in Paris.  Unfortunately, it’s impossible today to know what Wenzel’s productions looked like.  Unlike wax flowers preserved in some economic botany collections and the glass flowers of Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, we don’t have any remains of the project, swept away along with so much else during the French Revolution.  But stories of his plan may very well have inspired Fortier, working as she did in the same museum and with the silk flower industry still thriving in Paris.

Fortier’s sheets were sold in sets through an arrangement she had with the publisher Hachette; they cost one to ten francs per plant, and in all 110 were created.  After her contract with Hachette ended, she decided to work on her own and had regular sales to Paris primary schools from 1886 to 1908.  When this arrangement no longer proved lucrative, the sets were sold as drawing lesson aids.   Fortier also created a diorama for a forestry museum in Vincennes, outside of Paris.  Tessier presented photos of Fortier’s beautiful specimens, emphasizing that they were made as works of science, but also have great aesthetic appeal.  Tessier herself has obviously fallen in love with them, and with her subject.  She has found that there are examples of Fortier’s flowers at Madrid’s Instituto Cardenal Cisneros; they were bought in Paris by a Spanish botanist to use in Madrid’s secondary schools, and they have been preserved.  So Tessier’s work also had an impact outside of France.