Specimens collected by British troops stationed in Salonika during World War I from The Natural History Museum, London

War and Herbaria

Maura C. Flannery—

In October 2022, the National Herbarium of Ukraine in Kiev suffered damage from Russian bombing, and similar destruction has happened to preserved plants collections called herbaria in earlier wars, since the first specimens were preserved during the Renaissance. While damage to the Ukraine collection was minor, most of the Berlin herbarium was destroyed during World War II with a loss of about five million specimens, and the Natural History Museum, London herbarium has many specimens with notations that they suffered damage during bombing raids.

Herbaria are highly valued because they provide the reference material botanists employ in identifying specimens and describing new species. Useful plants are of particular interest and during the age of exploration, specimens poured into Europe from around the world. Some plants eventually were sources of great wealth for colonial nations and great suffering for indigenous peoples who labored to grow them. Because of the importance of the collections, herbaria sometimes became spoils of war, botanical trophies. The massive collection of a Danish botanist was seized when Denmark suffered defeat by Sweden in the seventeenth century. Years later, these specimens were crucial to the great classifier Carl Linnaeus’s work. When Napoleon marched into Italy, he sent the government’s chief gardener from Paris to select the best collections and did likewise when his troops defeated Spain.

There are even cases where botanists took advantage of conflicts. At the start of the Mexican-American War, St. Louis botanist George Engelmann arranged with the United States war secretary to allow a collector to travel with troops; this was safer than going into uncharted territory alone. Since natural history was such a common interest at the time many in the military collected plants, in some cases extensively. During the Civil War a Union soldier sent a friend a “most interesting plant” gathered as Sherman’s army marched toward Atlanta. Earlier in the war, a Union surgeon wrote to the Smithsonian asking if it would accept a large plant collection saved by an officer when it was being destroyed by troops during fighting in Tennessee.

Plant gathering could serve as a diversion for the war weary. The granddaughter of a French World War I soldier found his collection long after he died. He pressed plants from battlefields throughout the war except while he was a German prisoner. When the botanist John Ramsbottom was stationed with the British medical corps in Salonika in 1918, he held a competition among the troops to collect plants for the Natural History Museum in London, where the specimens remain. The participants included ranks from private to general. Years later, Ramsbottom became head of the museum’s botany department and reported on the plant species sprouting in London bomb sites.

Soldiers with botanical training serving in the Pacific during World War II focused on collecting useful plants that might become substitutes for plant-based products like rubber and quinine. Medicinal plants were also on the mind of a German man who created an herbarium with species that could replace remedies in short supply. He kept it in a box that he carried nightly to an air raid shelter for safekeeping. The Herbarium Frisicum in the Netherlands holds a small collection of plants gathered there between 1940 and 1943 by an unnamed Jewish family. The fact that the collecting stopped in 1943 is ominous, but the beautiful calligraphy used throughout, and the careful preservation of the specimens suggests that the plant world was highly valued by the makers and perhaps a source of comfort as well. In another case, a mother who later died in the Holocaust sent her son off to England in the Kindertransport. Eventually emigrating to the United States, he kept the book of pressed flowers that they had collected together and that she had slipped into his suitcase.

While herbaria are important scientifically, especially today in documenting biodiversity and environmental changes, they have other sources of value as well. They can represent national and botanical successes and the resilience of the human spirit in difficult times. They also suggest that plant awareness can lead to the creation and preservation of wonderful artifacts.

Maura C. Flannery is professor emerita of biology at St. John’s University, New York, and research affiliate in the A. C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina. She is the author of two previous books and a blog, herbariumworld.wordpress.com. She lives in Aiken, SC.

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