Archive for June, 2013

Botanical Scrapbooks

Collecting and preserving plants has always been a popular pastime, especially in the 19th century. Both men and women pressed flowers and foliates (leaves) to keep in botanical scrapbooks. This activity served a variety of interests, both scientific and sentimental.

Whatever their purpose, plants that were collected were prepared and added to scrapbooks in a similar fashion. Flowers typically were pressed in between the pages of a book by the amateur hobbyist while the more serious collector often used a field press. The field press was superior because of its ability to preserve a plant’s color and create a more precise specimen.  Field presses were composed of two boards of wood, leather straps and sheets of blotting paper. The process was simple: a plant or flower would be placed between two pieces of paper, then placed between boards. Leather straps would be tightly wrapped around the packet and firmly secured. When sufficiently dry, the specimen would be removed from the field press and glued, sewn, or attached with thin gummed strips to a scrapbook page.

The way in which these items were displayed depended on the type of book the collector wanted to create.  Scrapbooks for botanical study usually included a taxonomic description (family, genus and species), a physical description of the plant as well as the date and location of when and where it was collected.  Scrapbooks created for sentimental reasons might have been created as a craft project or to serve as a memento in remembrance of a person, event or place.

The Smithsonian Gardens’ Garden Furnishings and Horticultural Artifact Collection includes three examples of 19th and early 20th century botanical scrapbooks.

Scrapbook as Herbarium for Botanical Study

A botanical scrapbook (FJP.1987.364) dated 1905 was created by Margaret May Hill and is an example of an herbarium or collection of dried flowers that are labeled and described for botanical study.

Pressed pinks

Pressed pinks of the Caryophyllaceae (pink family or carnation family)

Taxonomic description of pressed pinks

Handwritten taxonomic and physical description of pressed pinks on opposite page.

Botanical Scrapbook as Memento

The botanical scrapbook titled “Flowers of Remembrance”  is a sentimental travel log of visits to sites all over Italy during the 1850s.  Instead of a travel journal with written entries, the pages are filled with flowers and plants collected from various sites as mementos. One page shows pressed flowers collected at the Roman Coliseum in 1853, 1854 and 1856 all on the same page.

DSC_0118

Botanical Scrapbook for Study and as Memento

A book of dried water ferns (Salviniales) is both scientific and sentimental as it illustrates both the incredible variety and beauty of water ferns. The front of the book reveals that it was a gift from a grandmother to her grandson (Hester Schell to Howard Schell) on November 11, 1900.

DSC_0110 DSC_0111

For further Reading:

Puckett, Sandy. Fragile Beauty: The Victorian Art of Pressed Flowers. New York: Warner Books, Inc., 1992

Whittingham, Sarah. The Victorian Fern Craze. Oxford: Shire Publications Ltd., 2009.

Janie R. Askew
Research Assistant, Smithsonian Gardens
MA Candidate, History of Decorative Arts
The Smithsonian Associates – George Mason University

June 26, 2013 at 8:00 am Leave a comment

Summer Solstice Celebrations

Friday, June 21 marks the 2013 summer solstice in the northern hemisphere, when the tilt of the Earth’s axis reaches its steepest incline towards the sun. It is the longest day of the year, as the sun hangs at its highest point. The solstice represents only an instant in time, but the day of its occurrence encompasses celebrations around the world throughout history. The day of the solstice, or midsummer, offers an excellent opportunity to celebrate the sunny days ahead as well as reflect on the approaching decline into autumn and winter.

In Western culture, midsummer has many ties to pagan magic. Folklore links many plants with the event in many magical capacities, like being able to see the fairies that emerged for the night, protection from natural and spiritual forces, and healing. St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) maintains a strong connection to the holiday. Traditional wisdom tells us that the bright yellow flowers hold the sunny energy of midsummer, making the herb effective at treating depression, and that it can protect against thunderstorms.

St Johns wort

St. John’s wort, NMNH Botany Collections

European midsummer festivities also have abundant connections to fertility. The Swedes have an excellent saying:  “Midsummer night is not long but it sets many cradles rocking.” Cultural traditions provide ample opportunities for young people to pair up and sneak into the night, such as looking for the flower of a fern that only blooms at night in Estonia. Midsummer celebrations often involve bonfires, which play an important role in many myths, such as a jumping through a fire to aid fertility.

The West does not, however, hold a monopoly on summer solstice celebrations. Eastern cultures often observe solstice festivities, as well as Native American cultures. The ancient Chinese celebrations of the summer solstice, honoring the earth, femininity, and “yin,” complemented the heavenly, masculine, and “yang” centered winter celebrations.

Native American rituals varied by culture, and some traditions survive today. The National Museum of the American Indian Heye Center (New York) hosted an event on June 15th entitled “Circle of Dance! Inti Raymi.” The event included a family-oriented activity session to create gold foil pendants to recognize the importance of the Inti (sun) to all life, as well as a lecture session on the celebration of Inti Raymi by indigenous peoples of the Andes. The traditional festival included music, dancing, colorful costumes, and the sharing of food.

Despite being the longest day of the year, the solstice isn’t necessarily the hottest day, which means it could be a wonderful day to enjoy the outdoors. Celebrate the height of summer by working in the garden, hosting an outdoor solstice party, or building your own Stonehenge.  There are plenty of beautiful flowers in bloom right in time for the solstice, like this great flower in bloom at the Smithsonian Gardens, Oenothera fruticosa ‘Summer Solstice.’  It’s vibrant “sundrop” flowers will brighten up any day!

summer solstice

Summer solstice flowers, NMNH Botany Collections

Amber Schilling

Education and Outreach Intern

June 20, 2013 at 4:00 pm Leave a comment

Armillary Spheres

This post was originally published on the Smithsonian Collections Blog.

Finale, Carmel, CA. 2009. Bonnie Brooks, photographer

Finale, Carmel, CA. 2009. Bonnie Brooks, photographer.

Like any number of inventions, the origins of the armillary sphere are debated, credited to everyone from an ancient Greek philosopher to a Roman mathematician to a Chinese astronomer. The one commonality: it was created with the faulty supposition that the earth was the center of the universe!

Armillary spheres served as a model of the heavens with intersecting rings marking everything from latitude and longitude to the tropic of Cancer. (No wonder the name was derived from the Latin word ‘armilla’ meaning bracelet or ring.) Early spheres were fabricated out of wood but as they became more complex they were made of brass which withstood the elements out of doors. As with most objects of science, armillary spheres progressed as new discoveries were made. The Chinese used them to make calendar computations and calculations. During the Middle Ages, they served as sophisticated instruments used to map the solar system. Soon rings were added to mark the equator and the rotation of the sun, moon and known planets, making these spheres some of the first complex mechanical devices.

Armillary Sphere

Marschalk-Spencer, Natchez, MS. July 2002. Sarah G. Tillman, photographer.

Because they were used outside where the sky was visible, armillary globes have become a common decorative feature in gardens. Today’s armillary spheres for garden use are strictly decorative in nature and much more streamlined than their ancient counterparts (think fewer rings inside the globe). While they no longer serve as a way to monitor the stars, they remain a symbol of progress and ingenuity throughout time.

Brittany Spencer-King
Intern, 2013

June 18, 2013 at 8:00 am 1 comment

Earth Works at the Smithsonian

This post was originally published on the National Museum of African Art Earth Matters blog.

The post today features Jonathan Kavalier, a supervisory horticulturist with Smithsonian Gardens, who was integral in making the Earth Works happen in conjunction with the Earth Matters exhibit. This partnership marks a first for the Smithsonian – never before has land art been installed on the National Mall. Learn about the process of making this amazing feat happen– with 30 million visitors to the nation’s capital looking on. 

Land Reform

Strijdom van der Merwe’s piece, Land Reform, on Independence Ave. in Washington, DC – photo courtesy Jonathan Kavalier

As a horticulturist, I don’t often have the opportunity to participate in art exhibitions. So when museum curator Karen Milbourne approached me with an idea for a collaboration between the National Museum of African Art (NMAfA) and Smithsonian Gardens, my interest was piqued. I met Karen when she attended a talk I gave on building gardens in Madagascar, a country I had the immense pleasure of living in for two years before joining the Smithsonian. Since I was already emotionally invested in Africa, the idea of collaborating with NMAfA sounded great, and definitely supported Smithsonian Gardens’ mission to enrich the Smithsonian experience through exceptional gardens, horticultural exhibits, collections, and education. What came out of many discussions was an idea to commission earthworks from several African artists in some of the Smithsonian Gardens.

Land/Displacements

Ledelle Moe’s outdoor sculpture piece, Land/Displacements, outside the National Museum of African Art – photo via Pinterest

Now two years later, this idea has finally come to fruition. My job was to manage the logistics of installing these very different earth works involving sculpture, living plants, and earth moving. Add to that the challenge of working around existing garden infrastructure and the 30 million visitors that come through the Smithsonian annually, all without compromising the artists’ visions. I am very happy to say that the earth works have all been successfully installed, and some rice planting finally happened a few weeks ago for Ghada Amer’s piece, Hunger. We’ve actually been growing rice in our greenhouses for the past two months, eagerly waiting for the warmer weather to arrive so we can plant the rice into the Earth Works exhibit.

The most challenging, and rewarding, part of coordinating these installations was working around the visiting public during what is the busiest time of year for Smithsonian Gardens. Lots of time and effort were put into ensuring the public’s safety during the course of the work, but the reward of observing visitors witnessing the creation of these exhibits was priceless.

Land Reform

Looking down Independence Ave. along the folds of van der Merwe’s Land Reform – photo courtesy Jonathan Kavalier

We hope you’ll stop by the National Mall this summer and fall and see these spectacular works of art that only could have happened with the partnership and hard work of Jonathan Kavalier and the rest of Smithsonian Gardens. They mark a true “first” for the Smithsonian, revealing the constant connection between art, humanity, and the land that each earth artist in the show has skillfully and distinctly revealed.  Don’t miss it!

June 10, 2013 at 8:00 am Leave a comment

What’s in a name?

Flower Frog
A recent donation of a flower frog to the Horticultural Artifacts Collection.

The flower frog is a handy tool used in flower arrangements made by professionals and amateurs. The metal cage flower frog–such as this recent acquisition by Smithsonian Gardens–is the most functional type of frog. Glass and ceramic versions were generally purposed for decoration rather than utility. You may wonder how a little cage came to be called a frog—so do we. The etymology of the name ‘frog’ for these flower-holding devices does not appear in dictionaries. Just as a rose by any other name will, in fact, smell as sweet, the importance of metal caged floral arrangers does not diminish with its ‘froggy’ anonymity.

In 1916, William R. Struck of Dazey Manufacturing patented the first metal cage flower frog. It was designed to be camouflaged by the stems and leaves of a floral arrangement, letting the bouquet speak for itself. Frogs were produced in a wide variety of sizes; some included multiple tiers of cages that allowed for more complex displays. Stems were inserted into the different holes, which anchored them to the device and held them at the same level, giving them equal access to water. The metal cage flower frog could achieve these feats, all while remaining virtually unseen.

Frog Cage, Beagle Mfg. Co

Frog Cage, Beagle Mfg. Co., Pasadena, CA. Height 3 1/6 in. x Diameter 7 5/8 in. Horticultural ArtifactsCollection. FJP.1987.323

 Garden clubs quickly embraced the metal cages because they permitted more artfully arranged flowers than had been previously possible. Many had complained that vases and decorative frogs made the flowers stick up straight; the metal cage addressed this limitation by allowing flower stems to be inserted at various angles. Publications also promoted these devices over their decorative predecessors because the design of the cage enabled even the amateur floral artist to create dynamic arrangements quickly and easily.These little cages were the dominant type of flower frogs used by both professional and amateur floral artists until 1954 when Oasis was invented. This water absorbent foam developed by Vernon Smithers nearly drove the metal cage flower frogs to extinction. Smithsonian Gardens is fortunate to have a number of them in its Horticultural Artifacts Collection.  Though meant to be hidden, they remain an example of one of the greatest innovations in flower arranging of their time.

See more flower frogs in the Smithsonian Gardens’ Horticultural Artifacts Collection.

For further reading: Bull, Bonnie. Flower Frogs for Collectors. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd, 2001.

Janie R Askew
Research Assistant, Smithsonian Gardens
MA Candidate, History of Decorative Arts
The Smithsonian Associates – George Mason University

June 3, 2013 at 9:00 am 3 comments


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