Electric Eel

These dead plants have a lot to say

Issue 048
December 03, 2019

Nybg1 web

I make a point of visiting the botanic gardens and conservatories in cities I’m lucky enough to visit. The greenhouse at Shinjuku Gyo-en Gardens in Tokyo houses a towering bird of paradise with leaves as large as playground slides. Because it was winter when I visited the gardens at Charles University in Prague, I wandered alone among leafless trees and bare plant beds, happy to have the sprawling grounds to myself. At the Bosque de Chapultepec in Mexico City, I was delighted to discover gigantic, old growth succulents, the ancestors of the same—if comparatively diminutive—species growing in pots in my apartment in Brooklyn. The International Rose Test Garden in Washington Park in Portland, Oregon, boasts over six hundred (!) varieties of roses, resulting in an astonishing array of colors. Predictably, the air there smells really nice.

When I have no upcoming travel plans, and when the weather in the northeast gets too nasty for spending a meaningful amount of time in Prospect Park or the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, my favorite local spots for hanging out with green things, I browse the virtual herbaria of conservatories around the world. One of the most impressive is the C.V. Starr Herbarium, which is housed at the New York Botanic Garden in the Bronx, and free for anyone to access. Look at this swooning prairie clover, collected in 1964, with much of its purpled blush still intact. I like this tufted milkvetch, from 1958, mostly because it sounds like an insult. This is what a common echeveria succulent looks like, if it were pretending to be a pancake. And these furry cypress leaves were collected in 1933, less than fifty miles from where I grew up.

Because the C.V. Starr Virtual Herbarium hosts over 2 million images (!) and counting, I can’t conceivably grow exhausted of exploring it. Of all the virtual herbaria I view, this one is by far the largest, and it offers the most user-friendly experience for the general enthusiast. That is, you don’t need to know a species’ scientific classification to search for it — try “cactus.” Most importantly, there’s more that unfurls between these pages. Quite often, the location descriptions read like poetry: “Narrow canyon bottom with some water flow and slight riparian growth, chaparral, coastal sage scrub.” The botanists’ beautiful and tidy handwriting is a lost art of its own. And this stevia plant looks uncannily like one of my own arms, botanical tattoo and all.

In fact, employees of the NYBG have curated hundreds of sets of images in a section of the Herbarium called The Hand Lens. Here, you can view specimen gathered in the 1760s by Jeanne Baret, the first woman to circumnavigate the globe (although her findings were initially credited to a man). This collection features photos of botanists next to the plants they collected, for scale. These two specimen are waving at you, this collection is a real mood, and this one doubles as an abecedarian. I suggest brewing these ingredients for a cup of mulled cider and exploring the C.V. Starr Virtual Herbarium on your own. It’s wild. —Naomi Huffman, Digital Director, MCD×FSG