By Matt Pierle
Cabin fever have you ready to see flowers again? If so, you’ve got options: Brazil and Bali are nice this time of year. Or seek out plants at a world-class botanical conservatory in, say, Montreal, London or San Francisco.
If you’re short on time or prefer shoestring travel though, you could do what I did over spring (technically late winter) break and book a $26 ticket on the Megabus from Burlington to Boston. From South Station Boston walk north to Chinatown, through Boston Common, past the frozen Frog Pond, to the Longfellow Bridge, over the Charles River to Cambridge and kick it up Broadway to Harvard Street. Continue north all the way to the Harvard Museum of Natural History.
In bloom you’ll find the extensive Ware Collection of Glass Models of Plants created by Czech born Leopold Blaschka and his son Rudolf. Most people simply call the collection “The Glass Flowers.” You read that right. This collection is not of flowers under glass, it is of flowers made of glass.
These life-size and larger-than-life specimens are more than impressionistic representations of garden blossoms; they are über-accurate botanical sculptures of a diversity of wild and cultivated plants. The pieces will challenge your powers to believe that something so realistic could be made from inert, colored sand.
Who were the Blaschkas? How did they do it? And how did Harvard acquire these pieces?
The Blaschkas’ craft was not glassblowing. These pieces were created through a process called flameworking or lampworking. Glass rods were heated with the aid of paraffin and alcohol lamps, then cut with specialized scissors and shaped with tweezers, prods and other tools. Fine cooper wire provides structure for some of the daintier botanical structures, although I never once noticed the hidden metal armatures. Originally the pair worked with clear glass and then painted the models. Later they employed colored glass from the get go. Their eye for color was refined, to say the least, and a hundred or so years of display at the museum does not seem to have compromised their luster.
The artists, who worked without assistants or apprentices, came from a strong tradition of glasswork, a trade well established in their native Czech Republic. Indeed, Leopold’s father had also been a glassmaker. After Rudolf’s birth in 1857 Leopold moved the family to Dresden and established a workshop there.
From as early as 1863, Leopold earned a reputation for crafting museum quality glass invertebrates, mostly marine inverts, everything from jellyfish, and mollusks to sponges and corals. The lifelike pieces were and are held by universities, museums and aquaria the world over – a few of which can also be seen at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology.
Leopold Blaschka experimented with plant models between 1860-1862 prior to making the marine models. These early plant models went from one owner to another before eventually being destroyed in a museum fire in the city of Liege, Belgium. In 1876 Rudolf started working full-time with his father. The Blaschkas spent the next ten years focusing on marine works for until they were approached by Dr. George L. Goodale who asked them them to make a few glass plants for Harvard.
Dr. Goodale was a plant physiologist and then curator of the herbarium at Harvard. After becaming familiar with the Blaschka’s impeccable work he traveled to Europe to meet them. Goodall wanted to have plant models that would endure for teaching and demonstration purposes. The Blaschkas shipped some pieces to the U.S. on speculation. In spite of being damaged in New York by customs inspection, Goodale showed the floral pieces to the Elizabeth Ware and her daughter Mary. The Ware women were sufficiently impressed. They generously offered to fund all aspects of the artistic production of more plants in honor of their late husband and father Dr. Charles Ware, a graduate of Harvard Medical School.
According to Jennifer Brown, the collection manager, Goodale hoped there would be at least 50 pieces created. That was 1886. Over the next 50 years the father-son team produced for Harvard around 4,300 individual pieces representing 787 distinct plant species.
The pair worked from plant specimens and cuttings sent from Harvard, from live material planted around their estate and from botanical drawings. While Leopold Blaschka remained in Europe, Rudolf traveled to the Americas in 1892 and then again in 1895. On those trips, he visited the growing collection of glass flowers at Harvard and did botanical drawings in the U.S. and Jamaica.
Packed in cardboard boxes with tissue paper and excelsior (wood wool), surprisingly few pieces were damaged in transport across the Atlantic from Germany to the U.S.
At Harvard, the glass flowers are displayed in the style of herbarium vouchers
Each plant’s common and Linnaean name is shown on a tag, and smaller tags interpret oversized plant parts along with the degree of magnification (two to several hundred times). In this way, plant structures not easily seen with the naked eye are clearly displayed.
Peer into the throat of an iris to see the fine hairs lining the inner surface of the petals. See how the Nerf-football-sized male flower of a bat-pollinated banana plant dwarfs the dozens of female flowers that will develop one of our most globally important fruits.
Along with floral structures and fruiting bodies and non-reproductive plant parts like roots, leaf buds, and trichomes are presented in all of their fine scale glory.
Because of Harvard faculty interests in economic botany, later productions by the Blaschkas focused on cultivated plants from palms to figs, and from coffee to cacao.
There is even a rotting fruit series that depicts in jaw dropping accuracy stone fruits with fungus damage and apple fruit with cutaneous scab infections. Pieces emphasizing pollination feature flowers lacking one or more petals in order to show in graphic detail how foraging bees facilitating the transfer of male gametes from one plant to another.
Exquisitely lifelike and, even to a botanist’s eye, beyond botanical reproach, the glass flowers will at once delight and educate you
Delicate flowers, tangles of roots and fresh leaves are all created as if by cloning. Goodale’s interest in having a collection of precise teaching specimens has been realized.
While several glass artists have tried, no one has replicating the exacting accuracy that the Blaschkas achieved. It’s not surprising that people arrive to Cambridge from all over the world to see these masterpieces and that many suggest that a divine energy or touch must have guided their creations.
If you’re a lover of plants, sculpture or hyper-realistic art, this is a collection you’ll want to see for yourself. Kids to seasoned botanists alike will appreciate the gallery, and the nice thing is, no matter which month you visit, the glass flowers are guaranteed to be in bloom.
Right now, it could be the perfect cure for cabin fever.
Matt Pierle is a Field Naturalist candidate at the University of Vermont who has botanized from California to Cambridge.
Special thanks to Collection Manager, Jennifer Brown, Herbarium Co-Director, Dr. Charles Davis and Gallery Volunteer, David Donovan. All photos by Matt Pierle with permission from the Harvard University Herbaria and Harvard Museum of Natural History.