Note: Somehow "Botanical Garden" doesn't have the same feel as "zoo" or "menagerie" to me so, in naming this blog post, I borrowed the title of a famous play and took some serious license with it....
These days we have digital cameras to record plant details. With their immediate results and cheap cost per image, these wonderful cameras join a long history of technologies and methods with which we've tried to capture the beauty and uniqueness of the plant world to learn about the variety of species and to share our knowledge of plants with others.
Over a hundred years ago, the methods and technologies of recording plant information were much fewer. The classic methods were written descriptions, botanical drawings, and pressed plants. All of these methods, while still valuable, were limited. True 3-D specimens were not possible. Colors faded. Visualization from written reports was limited. Once upon a time, though, several men conspired to find another way, financed by a wealthy mother and daughter....
In the late 1800's, Harvard began to develop a Botanical Museum. Prof. George Goodale, its first director, wanted to create lifelike models of plants for display, but the only methods for modeling that he knew about were relatively crude, either papier-mache or wax. When Prof. Goodale heard of Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka, a father and son team of glass artisans who lived in Germany and created exquisite marine invertebrate models from glass, he traveled to their home to meet them and to see their work firsthand.
The Blaschkas' glass work was, indeed, amazing, so Prof. Goodale talked them into creating a few plant specimens for the newly developing Harvard Botanical Museum. These specimens were so exquisite that a wealthy Bostonian woman and her daughter offered to finance an entire collection of glass botanical specimens as a memorial to Harvard alumnus, Dr. Charles Eliot Ware. The results of this combination of generosity and artistry are available for all of us to see, if we have the opportunity and desire to visit the Harvard Museum of Natural History, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
When I heard about the Glass Flowers Collection recently, I decided this was definitely something I might enjoy glancing over. We were heading to Boston to visit our son for Thanksgiving, so I had an opportunity to "Seize the Day!", so to speak. Greg and Sean both indicated an interest as well, so last Thursday we headed over to Harvard Square on the T and wandered across the Harvard campus until we found the Museum of Natural History.
Although not botanical, the first thing that caught our attention as we entered the museum was a glass case with 3 bird skeletons in it: a rhea, a great auk, and...a dodo. This is our son, Sean, standing by the case to give you a sense of scale. The dodo is the medium sized bird in the middle.
The collection is exquisite. Truly. Even after 100+ years. As difficult as it is to believe, the specimens don't look like glass. They are all life sized and they range in type from trees (showing leaves, twigs, flowers, and fruits or nuts) to flowers to grasses to cacti. There are a few aquatic plants. There are orchids. A few of the specimens even have pest species shown as part of the display. Some of the colors are a bit faded and there is a tiny bit of breakage, but overall the condition of these delicate works of art seems pristine.
One of the first specimens to catch my eye was this pitcher plant. Each of the "pitchers" is about 9" long.
How did these specimens survive shipment from Germany to Boston?
Here is a photo of the type of equipment the Blaschkas used to create these glass marvels. Such simple and relatively crude tools to create such fine details.
I can only imagine what the family of Mrs. Ware and her daughter said upon being first told that they were underwriting the production of this superb collection of glass botanical specimens. I am deeply thankful, however, that Mrs. Ware and her daughter decided to go ahead and provide the funding, because it has given the world exquisite works of scientifically important art that are still breathtaking and unique, a century after they were made. There are certainly many, many, less lasting and less important ways to spend money.