Uncovering Mycological History…One Sketch at a Time

illustration of fungi

Plate 12. Schweinitz, Lewis David von. Icones fungorum Niskiensium. (ca.) 1798-1802. Contributed in BHL from Botany Libraries, Farlow Reference Library of Cryptogamic Botany, Harvard University.

In the archives of the Farlow Reference Library of Cryptogamic Botany at Harvard University, there is a curious volume of 249 original watercolors of fungi species bearing the title Icones fungorum Niskiensium.

Devoid of any creator identification, the provenance and historical significance of the volume seems shrouded in mystery. A cursory examination of the work reveals a collection of charming, but often incomplete, figures and a myriad of annotations in pencil and ink, some struck through, others revealing uncertainty over species identifications or recording observations on specimen quality or coloration.

illustration of fungi

Plate 47. Schweinitz, Lewis David von. Icones fungorum Niskiensium. (ca.) 1798-1802. Contributed in BHL from Botany Libraries, Farlow Reference Library of Cryptogamic Botany, Harvard University.

In short, there is little to suggest that this sketchbook is actually an important document in the history of mycological research.

The truth, however, is that this volume is the work of the “Father of North American mycology”, Lewis David von Schweinitz (1780-1834). It served him as a sketchbook that was used to inform his monumental Conspectus fungorum in Lusatiae Superioris agro Niskiensi crescentium, e methodo Persooniana (1805), co-authored with Johannes Baptista von Albertini (1769-1831) and documenting over 1,000 species of fungi from the Niesky, Germany region, including 100 published as new-to-science. The volume is also related to a collection of six other original watercolor volumes by Schweinitz dispersed throughout several American institutions.

Illustration of fungi

Plate 11. Conspectus fungorum in Lusatiae Superioris agro Niskiensi crescentium, e methodo Persooniana(1805). Figures based on drawings by Schweinitz. Icones fungorum Niskiensium served as a sketchbook to inform this work. Contributed to BHL by the LuEsther T. Mertz Library of The New York Botanical Garden.

The history of this volume, dubbed the Harvard Icones, and its relationship to the Conspectus and Schweinitz’s other watercolor volumes, was recently examined in-depth within the article “New Light on the Mycological Work of Lewis David von Schweinitz” (2018) by Jason M. Karakehian, William R. Burk and Donald H. Pfister, published in IMA Fungus: 9(1). The article presents research made possible in-part thanks to the digital copies of the Harvard Icones and Schweinitz’s other works available in the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

We recently explored this fascinating history in our Book of the Month series. The findings presented by Karakehian et al. underscore the importance of the Harvard Icones to the development of Schweinitz and Albertini’s research and the progression of mycology in the early 19th century.

“Our research is important because the volumes of watercolor illustrations produced by Schweinitz have been little known to mycologists who worked with fungi described by Albertini and Schweinitz,” explains Karakehian. “These high-quality illustrations can help to inform our concepts of some of these species, as often times early nineteenth century verbal descriptions can be short and somewhat vague.”

photo of a man in glasses and blue shirt

Jason M. Karakehian. Master’s degree candidate at the Harvard Extension School.

Jason M. Karakehian is a Master’s degree candidate at the Harvard Extension School, studying biology with a focus on mycology and the systematics of ascomycetes or “cup-fungi.” With a background in the visual arts, Karakehian’s interest in mycology stems from his career as an artist, when he began perusing illustrated books on fungi as a creative reference point for his large, outdoor sculptures exhibited in wooded environments. This inspired him to take a short class on fungi, join a local mycological club, and begin collecting and identifying mushrooms. Eventually, he gave up his art career and embraced mycology full-time.

Karakehian’s journey down the fungi path includes serving as the archivist for the Boston Mycological Club. The task of organizing the mass of artifacts and documents held by the archives necessitated research at other libraries and archives, such as the Reference Library of the Farlow Herbarium of Cryptogamic Botany at Harvard University. He was welcomed by the Herbarium and Library staff, including Professor Donald Pfister and Judy Warnement (Head Librarian of the Harvard Botany Libraries).

Karakehian’s work at the Boston Mycological Club and the relationships he developed as part of that process led to research on other topics in mycological history, especially Schweinitz’s fungi watercolors.

The Biodiversity Heritage Library played an essential role in that research.

“I don’t think that we could have done this work without regular access to BHL,” affirms Karakehian. “BHL is invaluable to us for the wide selection of classic mycological literature that we needed to reference in our research.”

illustration of fungi

Plate 23. Schweinitz, Lewis David von. Icones fungorum Niskiensium. (ca.) 1798-1802. Contributed in BHL from Botany Libraries, Farlow Reference Library of Cryptogamic Botany, Harvard University.

That research involved indexing the more than 1,000 species treated in the Conspectus and cross-referencing them to the species figured in Schweinitz’s watercolor volumes in order to examine the relationship between the works and understand how the archival materials informed Schweinitz’s research.

This work required regular access to Schweinitz’s Conspectus and other classic mycological publications, including Christiaan Hendrik Persoon’s Synopsis methodica fungorum (1801), which outlines a systematic framework for fungi that was employed by Schweinitz and Albertini.

“For both of these volumes, we had to go through them page by page to populate spreadsheets with data that we could then collate to make inferences about the relationship between them,” explains Karakehian. “This was greatly facilitated by having high-quality electronic versions of the volumes with OCR.”

Karakehian and his colleagues also created an index to the figures in the Harvard Icones, cross-referencing them to their treatment in the Conspectus, Persoon’s Synopsis, and Schweinitz’s six other watercolor volumes. This index was published as part of their IMA Fungus article.

illustration of fungi

Plate 41. Schweinitz, Lewis David von. Icones fungorum Niskiensium. (ca.) 1798-1802. Contributed in BHL from Botany Libraries, Farlow Reference Library of Cryptogamic Botany, Harvard University.

For Karakehian, BHL’s impact is about more than just providing online access to materials. It’s the quality of the available materials that really distinguishes BHL from other online repositories.

“BHL volumes are high-quality digitizations and I am never frustrated by missing pages, cut-off words, or poor-quality digitizations of delicate line drawings in figures,” lauds Karakehian. “I often think of BHL in contrast to Google’s digitization project that is easily searchable, but the digitizations are of such poor quality that one often needs to track down the original volume somehow to understand the print or the figure that you need.”

Karakehian and his colleagues were instrumental in advocating for Schweinitz’s archival materials to be made available online and for free to the public through BHL. This not only facilitates future research on these works, but also allows more people to explore and enjoy these archives and the history they represent.

“For us, BHL is the gold standard, and for our papers on Schweinitz’s watercolor illustrations, it was important to request that the archives holding these volumes digitize them and have them available in BHL to the public,” asserts Karakehian. “We were absolutely confident that the product would be usable and high-quality. It is a true gift that they are now freely available to users.”

illustration of fungi

Plate 13. Schweinitz, Lewis David von. Icones fungorum Niskiensium. (ca.) 1798-1802. Contributed in BHL from Botany Libraries, Farlow Reference Library of Cryptogamic Botany, Harvard University.

We are honored to host a digital copy of the Harvard Icones in BHL, and are grateful to the Botany Libraries, Farlow Reference Library of Cryptogamic Botany, Harvard University for digitizing the volume and making it freely available to the world. We’re also thrilled that Schweinitz’s other archival materials and the Conspectus are freely available in the collection, and extend our sincere thanks to the Library & Archives of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, the Wilson Library of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the LuEsther T. Mertz Library of The New York Botanical Garden for digitizing these works.

Thanks to these contributions from so many libraries, BHL was able to play a vital role in allowing Karakehian and his colleagues to provide new insight into the contributions of such an important figure in the history of mycology.

“Our work broadens our knowledge of the scientist and artist that Schweinitz was,” affirms Karakehian. “He was an accomplished and prolific mycological illustrator with a keen sense of depicting his subjects in ways that would convey the maximum of biologic information as well as capturing their natural beauty.”

That “natural beauty” is now freely available for everyone to enjoy through the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Avatar for Grace Costantino
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Grace Costantino is the Outreach and Communication Manager for the Biodiversity Heritage Library. In this capacity, she developed and manages BHL's communication strategy, oversees social media initiatives, and engages with the public to excite audiences about the wealth of biodiversity heritage available in BHL.