|Saffron, from Dioscorides's De Materia Medica, the standard European botanical textbook for 1500 years (Codex Julianae Aniciae edition, ca. 515 AD; Wellcome Collection).|
|Tomato plant from the En tibi book herbarium (ca. 1558)—"a smiling garden of everlasting flowers" made by one of Ghini's students, Francesco Petrollini. Naturalis Biodiversity Center.|
A century later, plant collecting had become popular enough that naturalist John Woodward saw fit to publish Brief Instructions for Making Observations in All Parts of the World, as also, for Collecting, Preserving, and Sending Over Natural Things (1669). His title hints at a cause of the increase: European ships were crossing the seas in global exploration. Plants were of great interest, being sources of valuable commodities such as food, flavorings, fine woods, fiber and dye, and seeds and plants for the garden. Usually there was a botanist on board.
|William Dampier ca. 1697, holding A New Voyage Round the World, the first of seven books he would write (National Portrait Gallery, London).|
|Upper left is the Equisetum Novae Hollandiae frutescens foliis longissimis mentioned above. From Dampier's A Voyage to New Holland ... in the year 1699 (courtesy Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL)).|
|Linnaeus recommended a specific design for herbarium cabinets (from Philosophia Botanica, BHL).|
More colorful characters
|"Jean" Baret, a young sailor (source).|
|José Celestino Mutis (1732-1808). Oil painting by R. Cristobal, 1930 (Wellcome Collection).|
|Mandevilla subsagittata, a rocktrumpet, by Juan Francisco Mancera, one of Mutis's illustrators. Real Jardín Botánico-CSIC|
Thiers mentions Alexander von Humbolt and other well-known explorer-naturalists only briefly, instead focusing on the under-appreciated, for example English botanist Richard Spruce. He spent 11 years in South America, in lowlands and mountains, often traveling alone. In the Andes of Ecuador, he collected seeds and plants that launched Cinchona (quinine) plantations in south Asia, to the great benefit of malaria sufferers. But Spruce's true love was liverworts (Hepaticae in his day). He studied them until his death, struggling in poor health to observe and describe their minute details.
"It is true that the Hepaticae have hardly as yet yielded any substance to man capable of stupefying him, or of forcing his stomach to empty its contents, nor are they good for food; but ... they are infinitely useful where God has placed them, as I hope to live to show; and they are, at the least, useful to, and beautiful in, themselves—surely the primary motive for every individual existence."
|Radula gottscheana, a leafy liverwort (plant in center, ~life-size); from Richard Spruce's The Hepaticae of the Amazon and the Andes of Peru and Ecuador (BHL).|
Herbaria—now a global phenomenon
In spite of being enamored with with the great 19th-century naturalists of North America, I now jump ahead to China, part of Thiers's tour of herbaria beyond Europe and the United States (she also includes Australia, Brazil and South Africa). But first, consider this mystery: Why is it that in spite of thousands of years of accumulated plant knowledge in China, long predating that of Europe, herbaria there were so long in coming? Why were Europeans the first to preserve dried plants for study? Thiers has a theory, but only a theory. Any ideas?
|From Li Shizhen's Bencao Gangmu (Compendium of Materia Medica); 1593 CE (top) and 1800 CE (source).|
The earliest surviving Chinese plant book is a 2500-year-old herbal (above, top). It contained accurate descriptions and illustrations, as well as information about cultivation and medicinal use. New editions were printed roughly every century, expanded to include more plant species and updated knowledge. So when the Europeans arrived, they found both new (to them) plants and lengthy written accounts about them. This led to trouble.
Soon Britain traders, already established in India, were determined to gain access to the Chinese interior with its many valuable plants. The led to the notorious Opium War, and the establishment of British stations across China. Plant collectors went crazy. For example, physician Augustine Henry, with the Imperial Customs Service, collected 15,000 specimens in 15 years, representing 5000 species of which 500 were new to [western] science.
|Emmenopterys henryi, a tree in the Rubiaceae "discovered" by A.M. Henry in China (BHL).|
But recovery was rapid! China now boasts 361 herbaria holding 20 million specimens, which are steadily being digitized. The 80-volume Flora Reipublicae Popularis Sinicae was completed in 2004. An English version, a collaboration between the Institute of Botany in Beijing and the Missouri Botanical Garden, was completed in 2013 and is now available online at efloras.org.
What does the future hold?
Thiers ends her book by promoting herbaria and their many uses, and by pondering their future—very much a relevant issue for Wyoming plant lovers currently. In case you haven't heard, the state of Wyoming is to receive a big chunk of Federal stimulus money. There's talk that some of it will be used to enlarge the Rocky Mountain Herbarium at the University of Wyoming! Fingers crossed!!
Herbarium: The Quest to Preserve and Classify the World's Plants, by Barbara Thiers, is available in print or digital format at the standard outlets. Originally priced at $40 and $17, prices for the print book are dropping, so shop around.