The University Record, April 2, 1996

Clements Library exhibition traces botanists in 18th century 

By Joanne Nesbit
News and Information Services

From the lowly milkweed to tomatoes and chocolate and from the Carolinas to the Caribbean, "Listening the Secrets of the Vernal Grove: Botany in Early America 1721&endash;1804" illustrates the trials, tribulations, and successes of American and European botanists who roamed the prairies, climbed the mountains and slogged through the swamps to record the flora of the "New World." The exhibit at the Clements Library runs through June 10.

"The discovery of the New World fundamentally challenged European concepts of the world," says David Michener of the Matthaei Botanical Gardens and curator of the exhibit. "What had the Creator accomplished in this New World; and of the plants, what were their virtues? Since so many plants were new to Europeans and thus to science and useful industry, the description and cataloging of this Creation was worthy. Add to this the prospect of financial gain for one's backers, and the chase for useful knowledge was on."

As early as 1597, Gerarde and his contemporaries barely knew the common milkweed, but what they did know convinced them that "native peoples ought to spin the seed hairs into fine silk cloth to cover their nakedness."

These texts, along with hand-colored illustrations of botanical specimens of the Americas, include work by Jane Colden, the first woman botanist in colonial America; Mark Catesby, an English naturalist sent to America by the Royal Society in the l ate 17th and early 18th centuries to collect specimens of plants and animals; and William Bartram, who traveled through Cherokee country as well as the Creek Confederacy and Chocktow territory.

Jane Colden was the daughter of a New York governor, himself a distinguished scientist, who made impressions of leaves on paper using printer's ink. William Bartram, a botanist and philosopher and son of America's first botanist, John Bartram, was a student at the Philadelphia Academy when his talent for drawing natural objects became obvious. His accounts of his "Travels" became such a literary sensation in 1791 that it was immediately reprinted and translated into three languages. Mark Catesby, an artist and ornithologist as well as a botanist, returned to London in 1726 after a year's exploration in the Carolinas and the Bahamas, studied with a French engraver and then both engraved and colored the plates for "The Natural History"a feat that consumed 20 years.

In England the ownership of horticultural rarities became a significant status symbol, the Bartrams being the major, but not exclusive, seed agents in America. Pullein's tract of 1759 is one of the few detailing not only how to pack the seeds for shipment, but also how to intersperse them with shards and poisons to protect them from the "predations of vermin and desperate sailors" since some natural history objects were known to be preserved in rum.

John Ellis, the King's agent for West Florida in 1767, promoted drug, fiber and dye plants as those that would garner the most profit in the Colonies. Two of the recommended varieties were "gossypium," or cotton, which eventually formed the economic base of the South, and "rhamnus," now a widespread weedy shrub which can be observed at the Nichols Arboretum.

The exhibit at the Clements is open noon&endash;2:30 p.m. weekdays. Admission is free. Group tours can be arranged by calling 764-2347.