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.


  1. The botanical artwork is stunning! And you're so right that she'd be thrilled with the work of tagging her beautiful work. Great post!

    1. Thanks, Tina, glad you enjoyed it. I'm so glad there's a venue for sharing such things ... hard to imagine now life without blogging ;-)

  2. Thanks for this, Hollis! What a wonderful citizen science opportunity. Master naturalists in most states can log volunteer hours through citizen science efforts, so this would be a great option for that. The prints are incredibly beautiful! I took a quick look at the Flickr account--such a great resource! Thanks for bringing this to our attention!

    1. Thank *you* Beth -- neat to hear about master naturalist programs, and possibilities for citizen science (more questions to follow).

  3. Thank you for recognizing one of my heroes!
    And for all of your tagging work.

    How in sync we are!
    I just pulled my copy of this book off my bookshelf yesterday in preparation for next week's Women's History Month post on my UNL Gardens Facebook page.
    Clements was the first woman to receive a Ph.D. here at the University of Nebraska.

    1. That's so cool, Emily! I will check out the UNL Gardens FB page.

    2. The UNL Gardens post about Clements and Flowers of Mountain and Plain is up at

      I also added a comment about your blog post with a link and long quote. I hope that is OK.

    3. More than OK, Emily -- thanks so much. And I really enjoyed the FB posts and comments, such a fascinating person.

    4. And I'm glad to have learned about your blog. Great stuff!
      Also: thank you for doing the work of tagging Clements' drawings; it's so important.

  4. They are beautiful illustrations. And the cover is wonderful too.

  5. I've enjoyed reading this post last week. Great job to tag their drawings! I suppose they were in a way the pioneers of the wildflowers guides.

    1. Thanks, Gabriela. I agree with you -- pioneers of wildflower guides, especially for the Rocky Mountains and Great Plains.