The University Record, October 16, 1995

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 di