A celebration of art and science. Entwined: Botany and Art and the Lost Cat Swamp Habitat

This exhibition is a unique collaboration between the John Hay Library, The Brown University Herbarium, the Rhode Island Historical Society and the Rhode Island Wild Plant Society. It is the first public showing of original watercolor paintings by Providence artist Edward Lewis Peckham (1812-1889). They will be shown together with specimens from the Brown University Herbarium.

The Brown University Herbarium includes around 100,000 dried and pressed plant specimens. Herbarium specimens provide a temporal and geographic record of botanical diversity. Their role is increasingly important as rates of habitat destruction increase and climate change precipitates rapid changes to species’ ranges and ecology.

The Rhode Island Historical Society (founded in 1822) is dedicated to honoring, interpreting and sharing Rhode Island’s past to enrich the present and inspire the future. The Rhode Island Wild Plant Society is a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to the preservation and protection of Rhode Island’s native plants and their habitats.

The featured artist, Edward Lewis Peckham was born in Providence, the son of Thomas and Sarah (Wardwell) Peckham. His father was the Deputy Collector of Customs for the Port of Providence for over 30 years. Edward did not attend college but in the 1830s he studied with local botanists Stephen T. Olney, George Hunt and George Thurber. His finished drawings appeared as early as 1829, and his corpus of over 500 illustrations were, according to botanist Asa Gray at Harvard University, the most perfect representations of New England plants he had ever seen. They are practically photographs, in many cases, of the entire plant, root, stem, leaf and flower. Peckham used pencil, India ink, sepia and watercolors. The Historical Society has an astonishing portfolio of Peckham’s botanical watercolors that are exacting studies of native Rhode Island wildflowers.

Stephen Olney, one of Peckham’s mentors, donated his entire herbarium collection to Brown University, in addition to his library of botanical texts, and funds for an endowed chair of natural history. Olney’s legacy formed the foundation of the Brown Herbarium and his bequest is the reason there is such a rich and important plant collection at Brown. The first professor of Botany at Brown, William Whitman Bailey, was charged with building on Olney’s donation and it was thanks to his effort, together with several other eminent botanists of the time, that the herbarium came into existence.

The exhibit matches some of Edward Peckham’s paintings with herbarium specimens of the same species. The paintings and herbarium specimens all come from the lost Cat Swamp habitat on the East Side of Providence. Freeman Parkway, Elmgrove Avenue and Arlington Street bound this area today. Some of the native species featured include: nodding trillium, marsh marigold, milkweed, sweet pepperbush and ladies tresses orchid among others.

For it’s size, Rhode Island has a relatively diverse flora. It is a meeting point for northern and southern plants. It has arboreal species more common further north in New England and Alleghanian species that extend down the Appalachian Mountains. There are also coastal plain and maritime species that add to our states diversity. It was this mixture, packed into such a small area that Peckham and his botanist friends found so exciting.

Cat Swamp, a local hotspot of botanical diversity, was destroyed following development of the Wayland and Blackstone neighborhoods in the early 1900s. The exhibit showcases the rich history of art and science in Providence and provokes viewers to consider the impacts of urban development on biodiversity. These plants may still exist in Rhode Island but they are almost certainly gone from the East Side. This is an ecological and aesthetic loss to Providence.

The exhibit will particularly appeal to those interested in nature, botany, conservation, local ecology, scientific illustration, as well as anyone interested in understanding the history of art and science in Rhode Island.

Link to Exhibit Website

The John Hay Library is located at 20 Prospect Street in Providence. It is open Monday–Thursday 10 am – 6 pm, Friday 10 am – 5 pm. Closed Saturday & Sunday. Parking is on the street.

 

Special Programs

Opening reception – Thursday, January 10 from 4-6 pm. Refreshments – Free.

Lecture: The History of Botanical Art From Early Times to the Present, presented by Pam Harrington, botanical illustration and horticulturist. January 19 at the John Hay Library. Free. Details

Botanical Illustration Class with Amy Bartlett Wright, professional artist, muralist and natural science illustrator. Saturday, March 16 at the RISD Nature Lab. Free. Preregistration Required. Details

Tour of the Brown Herbarium with Tim Whitfeld, Collections Manager.Friday, March 29, 2019. Free. Preregistration Required. Details

Book Review – Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast: A Natural History

by Carol Gracie, Princeton University Press 2012
This review by Pat Cahalan, originally appeared in WildfloraRI, Winter 2018

To say this book is a collection of essays on spring-blooming wildflowers of the northeastern US and adjacent Canada, while accurate, doesn’t begin to capture its appeal. Unlike so many others, this book seamlessly blends the science, culture, and beauty of these plants, illustrating it all with photographs that are almost like being in the field with a 10x lens.

The author looks at 30 or so flowers from a botanical viewpoint, letting us in on what is happening in the plant’s life and why. What’s that insect doing on that plant? Why is that bloom shaped the way it is? What’s its pollination strategy? She delves into the life stories of not just familiar favorites like trillium, columbine, and lady’s-slippers, but also less popular ones like skunk cabbage and false hellebore, saxifrage, featherfoil, and fringed polygala (also known as gaywings or bird-on-the-wing). Throughout, she relates how a particular flower compares to others in its family, citing examples not only in the northeast and other parts of the U.S. but also in far- flung lands around the world.

Gracie talks about how these wildflowers got their names, both the common and scientific, and why the scientific names are changing—how new methods of studying plants (e.g., DNA sequencing) have led to a better understanding of the relationships between plants and their subsequent reclassification. But as she says in her essay on early saxifrage, now Micranthes virginiensis, “. . . there is generally good reason for such taxonomic changes, but it can drive one crazy—a saxifrage that is not a Saxifraga!”

In many of the essays she discusses the plant’s cultural history in folklore and literature. She mentions how these plants have been used medicinally and as food by native American tribes, ancient cultures, and colonial herbalists. However, she by no means endorses these uses, pointing out the very real possibility of disastrous results from such experimentation.

In each chapter Gracie discusses the latest scientific research on that plant, and for the reader who wants to pursue the science further, she includes an extensive list of references in the back of the book. While she does use botanical terminology throughout the text, those of us who are unfamiliar with the terms will have little trouble following her, as her easy-to-read style makes clear the meanings of words within the context of the text. In addition, she includes an extensive glossary in the back of the book.

More than 500 of the author’s color photographs illustrate the book. They include both plant portraits and plants in their natural settings, and give us an intimate look at what is going on in each plant’s life. Particularly fascinating are the many close-ups highlighting the botanical details she discusses and giving us a glimpse of nature at work, including the seven photos showing interior details of a Jack-in-the-pulpit flower, a native bee hanging upside-down from the stamens of a trout lily as it collects pollen, and an ant grasping a seed of Dutchman’s breeches by its edible appendage to drag it back to its nest.

This is not a substitute for a field guide to identifying plants, nor will it tell you how to garden or landscape your property. Rather, it is simply a collection of delightful, botanically accurate stories about our spring wildflowers.