Flowers with Deep Latin American Roots Bloom in Cambridge

 

The Glass Flowers at the Harvard Museum of Natural History

by | Dec 9, 2005

Photo courtesy of Harvard Museum of Natural History

The spiky jaws of the Deioaea Miscupula (Venus’ flytrap) leaves and the gaping, pouch-like bodies of theNepenthes sanguinea (Pitcher Plant) conjure up child hood tales of carnivorous appetites within the plant kingdom. Then there are the dead ringers for insects among the various orchid species, which have adapted themselves conspicuously to seduce insects into the pollination cycle. These botanical curiosities as well as frilly ornamentals, elaborate fruit blossoms, and elegant grasses represent only a sampling of the more than 840 species of flowering plants in the Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants—best known, simply, as “The Glass Flowers.” Of the more than 4,300 models in the collection, over 3,000 detailed models of flowers and plant sections are on exhibit at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. To the delight of entomologists, precise models of numerous insects critical to the pollination process are also included among the thousands of emerging buds, showy and wilted blooms, hair-thin roots, and the dewy, leathery, and fleshy leaves of plants.

Commissioned in 1885 to be used as teaching tools in Harvard botany classes, these stunningly lifelike models were crafted meticulously by German artisan Leopold Blaschka and his son, Rudolf. Often referred to as an “artistic marvel in the field of science and a scientific marvel in the field of art,” the project took nearly half a century to complete. Since then the collection has been an indispensable educational reference for educators and students alike. For the non-scientists among the nearly 120,000 visitors to the exhibit annually, the models are an artistic wonder. The powdery appearance of pollen and the gritty texture of dirt clinging to tangles of roots are nearly “unbelievable” in their realism, visitors often remark. With an intriguing history that includes the apparent obsession of the artisans, the often colorful experiences related to the transport of the delicate models from Germany to Cambridge over the years, the acquisition of plants as reference specimens for the models, and the passion of those working to slow their deterioration, the collection has much to say about plants, people, and the intersection of the two.

Poet Marianne Moore begins her 1924 work, “Silence,” with “My father used to say, ‘Superior people never make long visits, have to be shown Longfellow’s grave or the glass flowers at Harvard.'” More recently, avante garde Los Angeles photographer, Christopher Williams, featured 27 black and white photographs of the models in his show, “Angola to Vietnam*.” Each flower represented is native to a country listed in Amnesty International’s 1986 report of countries that had practiced political disappearances as a means of political control. These sometimes highly abstract, occasionally blurred images were taken under the direction of Williams and are each labeled with the flower’s country of origin, archival number, and specific botanical details. “Like votive candles in a chapel, these straightforward images memorialize the disappeared, casting new light on the uses of representation as a means of witness,” states Edward Leffingwell in Art in America.

Art critic Arturo Silva notes of the exhibition that “These are not standard ‘beautiful’ flower photographs?Williams implicates whole worlds in his work: the world of universal knowledge denoted by the flower archive; the worlds of myths and expectations concerning photography and ‘nature’ and beauty; and the world of political and social control that even ‘innocent’?glass flowers are a part of.” Among the 27 photographs within the show, 15 represent Latin American countries.

The Williams show reflects the extraordinary impact of The Glass Flowers collection, which has fueled imaginations by reminding us of the incalculable influence that many of these plants have had on the lives of peoples for millennia. About 16 percent of the flora represented in the collection are native to Latin America, with about 50 plants originating in Central America and 80 in South America, according to Susan Rossi-Wilcox, curatorial associate and administrator of The Glass Flowers collection. The countries represented are Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Brazil, Venezuela, Peru, Colombia, and Argentina. General areas on other labels are designated as “tropical America” and the Andes Mountains. In 1892, Rudolf Blaschka traveled to Jamaica to study certain plants, and planned to travel to Mexico a few years later to collect reference specimens, although the trip did not materialize. Many of the plants in the Glass Flowers collection, such as Coffea arabica(Coffee), normally associated with Latin American countries today, in fact, are native to other regions. Although Brazil and Colombia are now the world’s greatest producers of coffee, the plant originated in Abyssinia.

Among the specimens native to Latin America alone, the collection includes plants with their own captivating histories closely tied to the development of modern civilization. Beyond their prominence as primary food sources and ornamentation, these flowers and plants have played both symbolic and tangible roles since prehistory, with great social, medicinal, religious, political, and economic significance. They’ve served as monetary units and as inspiration for art; they celebrate birth and memorialize death; they seduce and cast spells. Zea mays (Corn), of tropical Mexican origin, andSolanum tuberosum (Potato), which originated in the Andes sometime between 5000 and 2000 B.C., are examples of plants in the collection that have historically had an enormous impact on Latin American countries and, eventually, have transformed the world.

One of the most technically accurate models among the economically important plants in the collection is that ofTheobroma cacao—translated as “food of the gods”—(Cacao Tree) from which chocolate is derived. Perhaps the most universally popular culinary delight, chocolate has a vibrant and complex 3,000-year history spanning the rise of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican civilizations to the present. Originating in the Amazon Basin, cacao trees were first cultivated for their fruit and beans by the Maya and Aztec Indians. Throughout the centuries, chocolate figured prominently in colonialism, the slave trade and the rise and fall of political and religious powers within Latin American cultures and beyond, finally extending its religious, social, medical, economic and gastronomic importance worldwide. In some respects, the fact that it was available mainly to the elite and wealthy for many centuries also contributed to its broad influence. A crop with humble beginnings in ancient Mesoamerica is today the basis for a multibillion dollar industry worldwide. In a dramatic shift from the crop’s early history, West Africa now produces more than 67 percent of the world’s crop. Among Latin American countries, only Brazil is one of its leading producers.

Such histories chronicling the ways in which flowers and plants have helped form civilizations are only a small part of the importance of—and continuing fascination with—The Glass Flowers collection. As digital images increasingly enhance classroom learning, the glass models remain the most technically accurate botanical teaching tools available, some hundred years after they were first created. And, for those who simply appreciate exceptional craftsmanship, the glass flowers are an example of some of the most exquisite and exacting artistry ever accomplished. Say it with flowers? These flowers speak for themselves.

Fall 2004/Winter 2005Volume III, Number 1

Ann Barger Hannum, project manager and nonprofit consultant, was affiliated with Harvard for twelve years, most recently at the Harvard AIDS Institute. She thanks Susan Rossi-Wilcox; Donald H. Pfister, Asa Gray Professor of Systematic Botany and Director of the Harvard University Herbaria; John Smith, Assistant Director of Collections and Exhibitions at The Andy Warhol Museum; and Matthew Siegle, archivist at the David Zwirner Gallery in New York City.

The Glass Flowers collection is owned by the Botanical Museum Harvard University Herbaria and is exhibited in the Harvard Museum of Natural History. HMNH is open to the public daily 9-5 (closed holidays). For more information go to:www.peabody.harvard.edu/museum_botanicala

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