January 27, 2022

“Art and the Herbarium Today” | By Mica Mohrmann


Excerpted from exhibit essay for “Pressed: Botanical Art and the Herbarium” now on view at the Garden Gallery through mid-March 2022

With the invention and popularization of photography in the second half of the nineteenth century, artists specializing in botanical illustrations faced an existential crisis that worsened as photographic technology improved throughout the twentieth century. 

What would be the role of the botanical artist if photography could instantly produce an image of plants that could capture every characteristic while being “objective,” that is, impervious to human error and whimsy? The skillset of even the most talented artists seemed superfluous before such advances. 

It is therefore not without a certain measure of irony that “Pressed” juxtaposes artist Henry Evans’ botanical art with photographs of The Garden’s herbarium specimens, which belong to some of the most cutting-edge and democratizing efforts of circulating plant imagery. 

Beginning in the 1970s, herbaria began transcribing basic specimen information—the species, place and time of collection, and collector—into searchable electronic databases that would allow the rapid and inexpensive sharing of botanical data. Over time herbarium fully digitized their collections, using high-quality digital photography to make their specimens available for study online—a process facilitated by the flat and mostly standardized size and shape of herbarium sheets. 

Since the 2000s, multiple initiatives have consolidated these different digital archives, making approximately 81 million specimens available globally. As of 2020, for example, the iDigBio Portal, which hosts the national data portal, offers approximately 63 million specimen records for plants and fungi belonging mostly to U.S. herbaria. The Garden’s fully digitized herbarium collections of plants and lichen are available through the Consortium of California Herbaria 2 online database (www.cch2.org), which has a regional focus. 

These new ways of aggregating and sharing information that was historically dispersed across different herbaria has enabled scientists to understand a variety of phenomena, improving conservation efforts. Using specimens from centuries predating industrialization as a comparative, control group, scientists can track the impact of pollution on specific regions and plants and global shifts in carbon emissions, giving a more precise view of climate change. 

By entering collection localities of digitized specimen date into a Geographical Information System, scientists can also determine a species distribution range and ascertain its risk of extinction. The same tools also provide a clearer snapshot of species and environmental conditions that typically make up a thriving habitat, allowing for better ecological niche modeling. 

Most significantly, all herbarium specimens, dating from the Renaissance onwards, have provided invaluable DNA samples for genetic sequencing. This genetic information, when considered in light of a plant’s morphology, has enabled scientists, including The Garden’s botanists, to determine species with greater accuracy. 

Yet, despite all this technological progress and its canny applications, art was not totally displaced by the revolutionary invention of photography and its subsequent digital outgrowths. It persists in the herbarium largely in the form of illustrated manuals, such as “The Jepson Manual: Vascular Plants of California by Robert Patterson and Flora of Santa Cruz Island” by Steve Junak et al., which botanists regularly consult during their study of specimens; for, paradoxically, the information provided by photographs and specimens—their undeniable objectivity notwithstanding—can often amount to an unhelpful, unintelligible glut. 

Once again, the artist becomes a necessary intermediary, elutriating a surfeit of visual information into a more lucid ideal of a plant—something akin to Evans’s plant portraits.  

About “Pressed” 

Images of a dozen California wildflowers and flowering plants, both as specimens from The Garden’s Herbarium and as life-size linocut prints by noted artist Henry Evans, are on view in “Pressed: Botanical Art and the Herbarium” at The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden Gallery. Evans’ prints are from The Garden’s permanent art collection, part of a gift of 41 limited edition prints from Ada Wood in memory of Amy Wood Nyholm. The exhibit is open through mid-March 2022 and is free to view with Garden admission. The Garden Gallery is located on the ground floor of the Pritzlaff Conservation Center.

Full essay available upon request.

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About Santa Barbara Botanic Garden: As the first botanic garden in the nation to focus exclusively on native plants, Santa Barbara Botanic Garden has dedicated nearly a century of work to better understand the relationship between plants and people. Growing from 13 acres in 1926 to today’s 78 acres, the grounds now include more than 5 miles of walking trails, an herbarium, seed bank, research labs, library, and a public native plant nursery. Amid the serene beauty of the Garden, teams of scientists, educators, and horticulturists remain committed to the original spirit of the organization’s founders – conserve California native plants and habitats to ensure they continue to support life on the planet and can be enjoyed for generations to come. Visit www.SBBotanicGarden.org.

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