Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Tagging Edith Clements’s Art

“If it succeeds in opening the eyes of the passer-by to an appreciation of the flowers by the way, or in further stimulating an already awakened interest, it will have served its purpose.” Edith S. Clements, March 30, 1915

I wish I could tell Dr. Clements what I’ve been doing. Given her desire to share the joy of wildflowers, I think she would be pleased. She’s been dead for 47 years now, but if she lingers in spirit, I bet she’s not the least bit upset that I’ve been tagging her paintings.

I should explain … I do not scribble graffiti across them. Rather I mark them subtly with names in Latin and English, visible only in response a cursor. I’m a citizen scientist, part of a crowd sourced to tag (label) Flickr photos uploaded by the Biodiversity Heritage Library. It’s a symbiotic relationship. I supply tags, and BHL indulges my interest in scientific explorers of the American West, in this case, Edith Schwartz Clements.

Edith was one half of Clements and Clements, the other being her husband, Frederic. They met as students at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Both graduated in 1898—Frederic with a doctorate in botany, Edith with a bachelor’s degree in German. She then went on to obtain a doctorate in botany while minoring in Germanic philology and geology.

Edith and Frederic married in 1899, starting a long life of botanical collaboration in the American West. They would become known as pioneering plant ecologists, ardent proponents of ecological succession, and plant communities associated with specific habitats—controversial concepts then as well as now.
The Clementses in the field; note ghostly third person mid photo (American Heritage Center).
Their botanical interests extended beyond research. Edith, especially, wanted to raise awareness of and appreciation for native plants. Toward this end, they published plant identification guides aimed at both professional field botanists and plant lovers in general (1). The first was Rocky Mountain Flowers; an illustrated guide for plant-lovers and plant-users (1914, 2nd ed. 1920). The format is familiar to today’s botanists: a key to plant families; then within each family a description followed by a key to genera; and within each genus a description followed by a key to species. But there’s more. Hoping to make the book more useful and appealing, the Clementses included illustrations. The result is remarkable. With each color plate, the dull botanical text gives way to exuberant life.
A multitude of gentians.
Members of the snapdragon, bladderwort and broomrape families.
The color plates are both functional and artistic, with plant parts accurately portrayed, and multiple species beautifully arranged.
Orchids and irises.
Line drawings were used where color would be a waste of effort and cost, e.g., for the goosefoot family with its small inconspicuous flowers.
The goosefoot family (Chenopodiaceae, now part of Amaranthaceae).
In the bottom right corner of each plate (click on images to view) is the name of the artist—Edith S. Clements. Her role as illustrator is not mentioned elsewhere in the book. Were the Clementses concerned that Frederick would be considered the author, and Edith relegated to illustrator?

Edith obviously was a skilled artist (2), but I’ve yet to find anything about her training. Perhaps drawing and painting came naturally. In her memoir, Adventures in Ecology: half a million miles, from mud to macadam, she occasionally mentions botanical illustration, but gives no details as to how she started.
“Nor did it take long [after marriage] to discover that my skill with pencil and brush could be turned to good account in laboratory studies of plant life …”
Photo provided by Jon Obert (pers. comm.).

A year after the first edition of Rocky Mountain Flowers appeared, the 25 color plates—175 “of the most beautiful and striking flowers of the mountains and plains of the West”—were published as Flowers of Mountain and Plain (1915), with Edith as author. This book was “intended primarily for travelers and flower lovers who wish a short cut to recognizing flowers seen on excursions or from car windows. It may also serve as a souvenir of pleasant summer days or vacation trips.”

The format was simple: colored plates and corresponding lists of plant names. Five years later, an enlarged second edition was released, with species descriptions added.
Primrose, Primula Parryi (Plate 16, fig. 3) The red-purple blossoms of this Primrose grow in large, loose clusters on stems 6 in.-2 ft. tall. The plants are strong-scented and are found hidden away in alpine rock-clefts or along subalpine torrents at 9000-14000 ft. They bloom in early and midsummer and have a fragrance very like musk. The flowers are large and resemble those of the cultivated primroses.
Members of the primrose, wintergreen and heath families; Parry’s primrose upper left.

I discovered Flowers of Mountain and Plain while browsing the Flickr photostream of the Biodiversity Heritage Library. BHL is a consortium of the world’s leading natural history libraries, which have been digitizing their public domain holdings documenting the world’s biological diversity. The collection includes many old books and journals often difficult to access in the non-digital world. This is a fantastic resource given my interest in scientific exploration of the American West.

BHL holdings can be searched, which is extremely useful. But this generally applies only to text. The wealth of illustrations—works of art in many cases—are not always easy to discover within a particular volume. To facilitate access, and to raise awareness of what BHL offers, illustrations are being uploaded to Flickr. The BHL photostream now includes more than 120,000 images, emphasizing “historic illustrations created through traditional printing techniques.” All are available for free download and re-use.

However, photos alone won’t solve the access problem. Users still need a way to find what they want among many thousands of images. To help, BHL has created themed collections, and has turned to crowdsourcing, enlisting citizen scientists to tag (label) images with names and more.
“Ever wanted to take a break and scan through some of the cool images of flora and fauna in the BHL collection? With the BHL Flickr account, you can! … By volunteering to help us tag images, you'll be helping to transform biodiversity research.” (more at BHL on Flickr and this tutorial).
Tagging BHL plant illustrations generally is straight-forward. For the species featured, find the scientific name, perhaps on the plate itself or in the associated text, and add it as a tag; add one for common name if known; add one or more tags for geographic information; and so forth (3). Edith Clements’s illustrations provide an extra challenge because each plate includes multiple species. But BHL has an easy way around this. First, mark a single plant with a box, then add tags to the box. All tagging steps are clearly explained in the tutorial.
When the cursor moves over a box, tags are revealed—in this case for the Silvery Lupine.

If Edith Clements were with us today, I’m sure she would be thrilled that BHL has put her paintings online, and is recruiting citizen scientists to tag them (4). What a wonderful convergence of missions past and present! Clements was determined to share with the general public the beautiful and fascinating diversity of native plants, and BHL and its volunteer taggers are doing just that. As a grant reviewer noted: “They wish to realize (using contemporary technologies and media) what these 18th to early 20th century naturalists originally intended – a searchable, visual inventory of all things in the natural world, here in the form of botanic illustrations.”

Rocky Mountain bee plant, Cleome (Peritoma) serrulata.


(1) In addition to books mentioned here, the Clementses authored Flowers of Coast and Sierra (Edith, 1928) and Flower Families and Ancestors (Edith and Fredric, 1928).

(2) National Geographic published two articles featuring Edith Clement’s wildflower paintings and descriptions, a testament to her skill: “Wild Flowers of the West” (May 1927) and “Flower Pageant of the Midwest” (August 1939).

(3) BHL encourages taggers to use machine tags where applicable: “… a machine tag is a tag with special formatting to allow it to be read by computers.” With machine tags, BHL Flickr photos can be harvested and used by other biodiversity databases, for example the Encyclopedia of Life. More information available here and in the BHL tagging tutorial.

(4) BHL needs biodiversity taggers! No experience required—taggers range from fledgling citizen scientists to professionals. The collections include all kinds of organisms, so you can work on your favorite critters. For more information, see this BHL post about tagging.


Thanks to Jon Obert for detailed biographical information about Edith Clements (summarized in blog post listed below). Thanks also to Grace Costantino, Biodiversity Heritage Library Outreach and Communication Manager, for answers and explanations regarding BHL’s Flickr project.

Clements, Edith S. 1920 (2nd ed., enl.). Flowers of mountain and plain. New York: H.W. Wilson Co.
BHL Flickr:

Clements, Edith S. c1960. Adventures in ecology: half a million miles: from mud to macadam. New York: Pageant Press. Free online, HathiTrust Digital Library,

Clements, Frederic E., and Clements, Edith S. 1920 (c1914). Rocky Mountain flowers: an illustrated guide for plant-lovers and plant-users. New York: H. W. Wilson.
BHL Flickr:

Oberg, Jon H. 2013 (May). Nebraska Hall of Fame, Part II: Edith Schwartz Clements. Three Capitals,

Rehbein, A. 2017. How do you solve a problem like illustrations? NDSR at BHL.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Tree-following: we have news! (maybe)

Yesterday, late in the afternoon, I made my monthly visit to the boxelder tree I’m following, not expecting to find anything new. After all, it’s still winter. But I was wrong. The tree had changed, in fact in two ways. One is obvious, the second much more subtle (if even that).

Since last month, the sun has "moved" significantly. It now sets far enough north that it is beginning to shine into the nook where the boxelder grows.
Here comes the sun … but will it shine on the boxelder?
To see exactly how much the sun had shifted, I used SunCalc, a handy app that displays “sun movement and sunlight phases during the given day at the given location” (free, web-based). In the first diagram below, the orange curve is the sun's path back in early February. The second diagram shows how much farther north it sets now, just a month later. This is so encouraging! Yes, it happens every year  but we’re always relieved to see the days lengthen, the sun set farther north, plants come to life, etc.

When we arrived at the boxelder nook (inside corner in photo above), the sun was still far enough above the horizon that I thought it might yet shine on the tree before setting. So we made a short detour to the prairie nearby to visit a patch of Easter daisies (towndsendias), usually the earliest wildflowers to bloom here. Most plants had plump "buds" (technically composite heads of tiny buds, being members of the Asteraceae). Some heads were topped with white points—the clustered tips of ray flowers starting to emerge.
I spotted one townsendia in bloom, but it was already closing for the day. The temperature had maxed out at just 47º F, and when I photographed these plants it had dropped to 35º; the low the previous night was 6º. No wonder Easter daisies close up every evening!
Time for bed.
House keys for scale.

Meanwhile, back at the boxelder the sun had indeed reached far enough into the nook to shine on the north side of the tree, and was making shadow branches on the metal building. This is one of the two changes I mentioned at the beginning of the post.

A moment in the sun … brief now, but longer soon.

The other change is much more subtle … or maybe only wishful thinking. Are the buds showing hints of green? Or are they simply basking in the golden glow before dusk? (click on image to decide)

This is my contribution to the monthly virtual gathering of tree-followers, kindly hosted by The Squirrelbasket. More news available here. Consider joining us!