Poetic Botany: A Digital Exhibition Celebrating the History of Botany

‘Queen of the dark, whose tender glories fade
In the gay radiance of the noon-tide hours.’

‘That flower, supreme in loveliness, and pure
As the pale Cynthia’s beams, through which unveiled
It blooms, as if unwilling to endure
The gaze, by which such beauties are assailed.’

These elegant lines are quoted in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine (v. 62, 1835) as part of the description for the Night-blowing (Blooming) Cereus (Selenicereus grandiflorus) and serve as an artful conveyance of the species’ nocturnal blooming. But these lines represent more than just a whimsical representation of plant behavior. They are a reflection of the eighteenth century Poetic Botany movement that saw botany become the subject of poetry.

The Poetic Botany movement began with Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles Darwin, who, in 1789, published The Loves of the Plants, a poem that in essence was a versification of Linnaean botany, where each plant in the garden is personified as a Greek god or goddess whose characteristics and interactions are meant to elucidate the Linnaean sexual system of plant classification. This highly successful poem was eventually republished along with a second poem by E. Darwin, The Economy of Vegetation, in 1791 as The Botanic Garden, A Poem in Two Parts, thus launching a movement that was proliferated by such authors as Frances Arabella Rowden, Charlotte Smith, and Robert John Thornton.

Selenicereus grandiflorus is one of nine species featured in the online exhibition Poetic Botany. Using these plants as a lens through which to highlight the Poetic Botany movement, the exhibition introduces the botanists and works that constituted this period. These botanists were concerned with not just the art of their verse but also with the scientific study of their plant subjects, and thus the Poetic Botany movement reflects a beautiful union of art and science.

The Poetic Botany exhibition was created by Ryan Feigenbaum as part of a 2015-2016 Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship at the Humanities Institute of the LuEsther T. Mertz Library of The New York Botanical Garden. NYBG, a founding BHL Member who has contributed over 3.9 million pages to the BHL collection, hosts the exhibit.

Feigenbaum, who has a BA in philosophy from DePaul University in Chicago, an MA in philosophy from Villanova University, and is currently completing a PhD in philosophy at Villanova University, researches the history and philosophy of biology. As evidenced through Poetic Botany, this research eventually led him down a botanical path.

“My dissertation, ‘The Epistemic Foundations of German Biology, 1790–1802,’ analyzes the emergence of biology as a science by tracing the genealogy of the organism concept,” explains Feigenbaum. “I came to the history of botany as an offshoot of this project; specifically, I was interested in the eighteenth-century opinion of plants, i.e., their ontological status. Whereas plants had long been regarded as devoid of intelligence, sensitivity, and locomotion, naturalists like Erasmus Darwin began to challenge these views, spurred on by the ‘discovery’ of plants like the Drosera and Mimosa pudica that challenged longstanding prejudices.”

Feigenbaum’s interest in the “life sciences” and the history of botany grew naturally out of his research on philosophy, for these two subjects have historically been intimately connected.

“The separation of philosophy and science is a relatively recent phenomenon,” affirms Feigenbaum. “Descartes, for instance, contributed to mathematics and physics beyond his cogito ergo sum, and much of Aristotle’s corpus focuses not on metaphysics or ethics but natural science. In this vein, I’ve been committed to studying not only eighteenth-century philosophy, but also its life science for the past five years or so. I say ‘life science’ because biology did not yet exist; the word ‘biology,’ in fact, was not used in its modern meaning until 1802. The how and why of biology’s emergence at this time is one focus of my dissertation.”

It was this extension into the ‘life sciences’ that eventually brought Feigenbaum to BHL.

“As my study of the history of philosophy incorporated more and more of the study of the history of science, BHL became a resource I relied on time and again,” asserts Feigenbaum. “At first I would search via Google for a particular eighteenth-century text, but I found it so often on BHL that I ended up using its website portal directly, sparing me the trouble of having to sift through Google results.”

BHL played an important role in the development of Poetic Botany, allowing Feigenbaum to discover and access relevant texts, many of which are linked from the exhibit.

“BHL provides smart access to knowledge that wouldn’t be otherwise available,” lauds Feigenbaum. “My favorite feature is the ability search by species. Since the digital exhibition is organized around species, this ability revealed new sources of which I’d been unaware. It is quite amazing that you can instantly see in which texts a species like Canna indica appeared according to date and then be taken to the exact pages of the reference. Without this resource, my workflow would have been much slower; it would’ve required me to visit multiple archives and search through texts one by one. While such an approach isn’t without its benefits, it inevitably limits what the researcher can do and extends the time required to do it.”

While there are many texts featured in Poetic Botany, one of Feigenbaum’s favorites is John Thornton’s New Illustration of the Sexual System. According to Feigenbaum,

“This perennial favorite is often acclaimed for its indisputably beautiful illustrations, perhaps some of the most iconic in existence. However, the accompanying text is also marvelous, giving the reader insights into eighteenth-century botany, snippets of poetry, and whole disquisitions on culture, religion, and other topics.”

This title is also consistently a favorite among BHL’s online audiences. Thanks to the citizen science efforts of Michelle Marshall, this entire work has also been taxon tagged in Flickr, making it easy for you to identify and search for the species contained within it.

We encourage you to take some time to explore Poetic Botany and marvel at the elegant and profound union of art and science represented in the exhibit and texts. Who would have thought that poetry and science could fit together so naturally?


This post may contain the personal opinions of BHL users or affiliated staff and does not necessarily represent the official Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) position on these matters.

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Grace Costantino served as the Outreach and Communication Manager for the Biodiversity Heritage Library from 2014 to 2021. In this capacity, she developed and managed BHL's communication strategy, oversaw social media initiatives, and engaged with the public to excite audiences about the wealth of biodiversity heritage available in BHL. Prior to her role as Outreach and Communication Manager, Grace served as the Digital Collections Librarian for Smithsonian Libraries and as the Program Manager for BHL.