Visualizing Natural History: “Wild About Wildflowers,” Lloyd Library and Museum, September 9-November 18, 2017

October 29th, 2017  |  Published in October 2017

Though the show is titled “Wild About Wildflowers,” the Lloyd’s current show is constrained in many ways. It is a truly small exhibit, taking up little more than a half dozen standing cases, though it is also an absorbing show: there was a guy who was there when I arrived still looking at things when I left. The exhibition is designed to honor the 100th anniversary of the founding, through the energy of Dr. E. Lucy Braun, of the Cincinnati Wild Flower Preservation Society, the local chapter of a national organization begun in 1902. The organization takes as its mission the need to appreciate and not disturb unduly the beauty of flowers native to southwest Ohio. It has a strong educational and outreach component and doesn’t mind telling you that it’s celebrating a century of telling kids to look but not touch.

The Lloyd Library and Museum is one of downtown Cincinnati’s treasures that has over the past few years been sharing its extraordinary collections of books, prints, and documents about plants. Though some of their holdings are spectacular, such as Maria Sibylla Merian’s illustrated books about the flora and fauna of Surinam, their shows are thoughtful rather than gaudy, such as a show focused around a single botanical book owned and annotated by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The wildflower exhibit is a bit on the casual side—not everything in it was labeled, for example–but it’s taking on an important and interesting question: sets of visual codes and conventions may come and go, but what do nature and natural history look like?

Georg Dionysius Ehret, “Iris,” from Plantae Selectae (1750-1773)

The Lloyd is an ideal place to ask such a question. Its roots are in the working library of John Uri Lloyd and his two brothers, pharmacists all. There are few practitioners left of the eclectic medicine favored by the Lloyds, but their collections of books are rich in several centuries of the best botanical science and art. Though their holdings go back a good deal earlier, this exhibit picks up with a couple of volumes from the mid to late 18th century, when illustrations of New World plants were becoming more common. One case holds a copy of Plantae Selectae (1750-73), open (on the day I saw it—pages are changed out regularly so as not to damage the lovely but delicate inks) to a monumental Iris drawn and engraved by Georg Dionysius Ehret, an artist who worked with Linnaeus. It is striking how much elegance is acquired by adding white space and giving the foliage a chance to twist and curl, just as an actual specimen might in your garden. (This is perhaps best illustrated by a reproduction of the page showing Ehret’s version of the Round-Leaved Sundew—a native carnivorous species—which has more white space than it has actual plant matter, capturing something both cartoonish and sinister about this insect-eating plant.) As befits the Age of Enlightenment, the plants are examined with a kind of low-key but kinetic curiosity, showing in miniature some cross-sections of its flowers and seeds; a thing is its anatomy.

Most of the illustrations on view are from the 19th century, done in engravings towards the beginning of the century and lithographs towards the end, each a way to use available technology to capture the feel of a sketch. The tools favor artists’ and publishers’ efforts at objectivity, though it is clear—and perhaps part of the point of the show—that just what this means is variable, to say the least. In an 1889 illustration of the Eastern Prickly Pear (a cactus common to the eastern United States), it’s possible to see a bit of the elegant stylization of natural forms that inform and shape Art Nouveau. It seems fair to say that advances in scientific knowledge and understanding contributed to the artistic styles of the period (and really to any period), and that the artistic styles of a period contribute to the ways the scientific hand and imagination depicted things. Objectivity—epitomizes in this show by the quest for an image designed to help identify and distinguish one species from another—is culturally bound.

We can see this as well in the photographs that accompany the show, which has drawn on the contemporary work of Brian Jorg, manager of the Native Plant Program at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, and images taken decades earlier by Elizabeth Brockschlager (a schoolteacher, naturalist, and colleague of Lucy Braun) of some of the same species. Jorg’s work is remarkable, each picture of a flower a stand-alone portrait. The images float beautifully, set free from any horizon line. If flowers had wedding pictures taken of them, this is what they’d hope to look like. He works with a long lens, blurring the background and focusing typically on one shallow plane. It looks like he prefers to work on bright overcast days so that there are minimal shadows and no distractions (or exposure problems) from bright but uneven highlights. In most of them, we see the plant as if we were no taller than the specimen; our point of view might be that of a single-minded approaching insect. Our interaction with each flower preserves a lovely sort of privacy. The white trillium is perfect, neither withered nor devoured. Where its three white leaves join, there is a touch of yellow—perhaps from pollen?—as fine and intense as if it were a hand-wiped color engraving. Jorg’s flowers look the way flowers would look in a great book about flowers. Brockschlager’s flowers, by contrast, are less elegant, less technically savvy, and less athletically captured. They record the flowers as one might encounter them on a woodland walk, sometimes almost disappearing into a crowded background. They tend to capture that “aha!” moment of a dedicated hiker having come across a species that has allowed itself to be found.

Brian Jorg, “Dodecatheon meadia”

This miniature exhibit at the Lloyd has still another way to document wildflowers in the dried and mounted specimens from the Margaret H. Fulford Herbarium housed at the University of Cincinnati, which includes specimens gathered by the Lloyd brothers and Lucy Braun, among others. The collection, begun in the 1920s and which has grown to some 125,000 examples, features the ghosts of actual plants, drained of color, looking like the whole world does in late fall. Dead and now fastened to archival paper, these ought to be the ultimate in realism—since they are not representations or approximations, but the actual, barely three-dimensional thing itself. Even so, there is an elegance to their design. Constrained to fit on a single page, the specimens have been tilted or trimmed in their stems or roots, and turned into compositions in themselves. The specimen of the Shooting Star has had its root structure surgically abbreviated and at the end of its long stem, there are a few schematic shapes that once were flowers. We can compare that with the static elegance of Henrik Witte’s 1868 lithograph of the Shooting Star. The flowers are all facing in the same direction, their centers pointing earthward and the petals spreading above them, like an elaborate candelabra. By contrast, Jorg’s photograph of them focuses on just four blooms, which are facing right and slightly downward and oddly capture the way each blossom imitates the blaze of a meteor, fire first, plume trailing afterwards, as they flare across the sky.

Henrik Witte, Shooting Star (1868)

The text of the exhibition tells us that there was a story among the early settlers of the United States that the Shooting Star tends to point west, guiding their journeys on cloudy days (or perhaps just encouraging them to see their westbound destinies echoed by the natural world around them). In some ways, the punchlines of the show are in its condensed and informative labels, which thoughtfully contextualize the flowers among their fellow (and rival) species and in the ways they have entered our world (or we have entered theirs). The pawpaw, for example, is a delicious fruit native to this area but pleasant to eat for such a short time that no stores will carry them; they are the reward of naturalists, professional and amateur. Elsewhere we are told that there are more species of wild orchids in Hamilton County than there are in Hawaii.

It is fair to say that many of these stories do not end well for the plants. There are species last seen in Ohio in 1837 when their habitats were destroyed by the building of the Miami-Erie Canal. Then there is the story of the swamp milkweed, sometimes known as silkweed, depending on whether you focus on the latex or the seeds. The milk that the plant produces is unpleasant to birds, and thus serves to protect the monarch butterfly caterpillars that feed and shelter there. Milkweed, we are told, used to thrive along fence lines, but as farms grew bigger or were incorporated into subdivisions, fences came down, and with them, the preferred habitat of the adaptable milkweed. And so this miniature show holds our interest, encouraging us to think about both parts of the term “natural history”: it is exemplary about both the nature and the history. Together, they support a range of images which chronicle our early and recent encounters with the flowers around us.

–Jonathan Kamholtz

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