At first glance, there’s nothing to suggest that these Mountain Laurels aren’t real, freshly plucked from nature itself…except, of course, that Mountain Laurels don’t grow in my neck of the woods, nor do they bloom in March. If you had to guess how I saw such fresh-looking flowers as these this weekend, you’d probably suppose I saw them in a greenhouse or at a florist. Surely you wouldn’t guess (as I wouldn’t have) that these flowers are not only fake but that they are somewhere between seventy and more than a hundred years old, crafted during the period between 1886 and 1936 out of glass.
Before this weekend’s trip to the Harvard Museum of Natural History, I’d heard about the famous glass flowers on display there…but nothing anyone had told me prepared me for what this exhibit would really be like. Hearing the phrase “glass flowers,” I imagined the objects on exhibit would look like glass first and flowers second: pretty, colorful, and entirely artificial looking, more art than science. What I found instead was a serious botanical exhibit where entire plants and magnified plant parts are depicted in meticulous three-dimensional detail: had I not known these models were crafted from glass, I would have never guessed it.
Harvard’s glass flowers were made by Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka, a father-and-son team working near Dresden, Germany in the nineteenth century. Trained in the Bohemian tradition of glass- and jewelry-making, the Blaschkas were enlisted in 1886 by Professor George Lincoln Goodale to make scientific models for Harvard’s newly established botanical museum. As absurd as it seems today to make botanical models out of glass, Goodale and the Blaschkas lived in an era before plastic, back when botanists relied upon wax or papier-mache models to study the structure of plant parts.
Financed by Mrs. Elizabeth C. Ware and her daughter Mary Lee Ware, the Ware collection of glass flowers was given to Harvard as a memorial to Dr. Charles Eliot Ware. Although non-botanists might think it odd to spend good money on fake flowers, these models represent more than 830 species and thus allow students and scientists alike to study plant parts (the kind of schematic I found in the leaf litter of Beech Hill) all year and in the temperate climate of Cambridge, Massachusetts.
It’s one thing to study botany from a book; it’s another to study plants face-to-face. If you can’t travel to where cacti grow, a quick trip to the Harvard Museum of Natural History will show you what several species look like up close and personal. Having expected an exhibit of merely pretty posies, I was shocked by how botanically accurate these models were: smaller species are depicted life-size and in their entirety, flowers growing atop leaved stems that look like they’ve been freshly yanked from the ground, soil nearly clinging to still-living rootlets. To my casual yet plant-accustomed eye, I couldn’t tell that these models had been crafted from blown and heated glass, their colors either mixed into molten glass itself or baked on afterward. To my eye, the glass flowers looked like actual plants that had been preserved with a wax-like epoxy, even the tiniest detail of miniscule flower ray and stem-hair preserved in fragile perfection.
Throughout the room that houses the Ware collection of glass flowers, signs remind you not to lean upon the cases that house these delicate handiworks, and I spotted several leaves that had broken, the only indication of these models’ true fragility. As much as I marvel at the Blaschkas’ craftmanship in making these botanic masterpieces, I wonder how workers managed to transport the collection from Dresden to Harvard: how many specimens were shattered in transit, how many beads of sweat and frustrated tears shed?
As much as a museum full of bones and boobies makes me marvel at Nature’s handiwork, the Ware collection of glass flowers leaves me in awe of the ability of art to assist science. The Blaschkas’ flowers, leaves, and plant parts are both artful and scientifically accurate in their meticulous attention to natural detail. Even if you’ve never seen a New England autumn–and it’s not clear whether Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka, working in Dresden, ever did–you get a crystal-clear sense of how miraculously wonderful a forestful of changing maple leaves must be, judging from how a mere armful of fall foliage glows from its enclosed museum case. Both flowers and foliage are ephemeral: the ones you pick today will be wilted by tomorrow, and the pressed specimens botanists collect quickly lose their vibrant color. But the silly insistence of science makes life linger on, the works of artists now dead showing curious visitors the wondrous growing things that carpet God’s green earth.