How does a young woman create the most important record of Hawaiian flowers in the nineteenth century? Who helps her identify plants and find a London publisher? Why does she leave New Zealand for Niihau, the Forbidden Island? Thanks to a magnificent book in the Rare Book Collection of the Chicago Botanic Garden Library (and a little research), we can answer these questions.
With 44 delightful chromolithographed plates, Indigenous Flowers of the Hawaiian Islands is no ordinary book. Its illustrations introduced the world to an exotic, endemic, and vanishing flora. Indigenous Flowers provides a marker to measure the impact of humans on the fragile ecosystem of two Hawaiian islands, yet another signal of the Anthropocene epoch. Isabella McHutcheson Sinclair (1840–90) was probably the most unexpected ambassador for plant conservation. Her breadth of botanical experiences in the Pacific, in both New Zealand and the Sandwich Islands (better known today as Hawaii), gave her a particular vision to recognize the effects of humans on local flora and fauna.