Herbarium aesthetics

November 27, 2023

Nuts, great big washers, second-hand socks and bricks. These were not exactly the objects that I expected to see when visiting the Tasmanian Herbarium last week.

Having botanised together on our side of the Tasman earlier in the year, I was keen to meet up with Miguel de Salas (Curator of Botany at the Herbarium) for a drink, and I was fortunate enough to look around the herbarium as a prelude to a beer in a Hobart bar.

From an aesthetic perspective, the most intriguing sight for me was the accidental Constructivist composition pictured above – compiled by one of Miguel’s colleagues for the preparation of a specimen (with nuts and washers).

Gravity is a matter of some importance in herbaria, due to the need to press plants for long-term preservation. Amidst a working environment containing an array of specialised technology, methods for achieving this can be delightfully analogue – including the sock-clad bricks providing compression to the stack of specimens in the image above, right.

One has to be particularly organised when dealing with an ever-expanding range of specimens and records within a finite space. We could see this clearly in the labelling of many boxes within the sliding Compactus shelving, denoting whether they were either full or approaching capacity.

As discussed in a talk that I recently attended, regarding the manner by which the earliest botanists in Aotearoa went about collating and refining information, a high degree of organisation has always been an important quality for natural historians (whether in a ship’s cabin or a modern purpose-built herbarium).

This includes the maintenance of accurate collection data, which is recorded in small collection books that are made in a variety of sizes and colours for different collectors. The way in which these books are arranged on the shelves (Miguel’s books can be seen in the middle shelf of the image below, left) is just one more factor that contributes to the distinctive scientific aesthetic permeating the herbarium.

As we were shown a range of interesting herbarium records, including some of the earliest collections from New Zealand and Australia, my eye was drawn to one box with samples of botanists’ handwriting (in the image below). At first glance, this seemed like an odd fit, but it makes complete sense when one considers that botanical records do not always contain all standard information – including the name of the collector on occasions.

One look at some of the idiosyncratic, and often beautiful, handwriting within these samples, demonstrates that there’s no mistaking some writing styles. The example on the left, below, is a particularly strong example of this.

With letters that look similar to runes, one needs to concentrate to discern what has been recorded, but there is little room for ambiguity regarding the identity of this collector.

The final images below show specimens of Isophysis tasmanica – an unusual member of the Iridaceae that has been identified as one of the most primitive extant species within this family – including the rare yellow colour morph that sometimes occurs within this species.

This is the closest that I have come to seeing this plant in flower to date – an omission that will need to be redressed in a future trip to this botanically fascinating island.