Botanical Illustrations from the Harvard University Herbaria

The beauty of botany and the importance of scientific accuracy come together in these original works of art in the archives of the Harvard University Herbaria. These collections overseen by the Botany Libraries date from the early 1800s to the mid-1900s and include works by Harvard botanists, professional artists, “amateur” women who studied plants, and others.

A searchable subset of the botanical illustrations is available on the Harvard Library CURIOSity Digital Collections platform.  



Scientifically accurate representations of plants are critical to the field of botany, particularly when describing new species and distinguishing between similar species.  Scientists and artists use living plants and specimens to create lifelike art that records the fine details of plants.

Metrosideros tomentosa (Pohutukawa). New Zealand flora, undated. Botany Libraries, Gray Herbarium Library, Harvard University.
Botanical art often accompanies published text, conveying additional information to the reader.  These may take the form of pencil or pen and ink drawings, watercolor or oil paintings, and other formats.


The archival collections of the Botany Libraries are rich in original artwork that represents the scientific work of Harvard botanists, including illustrations by Jacob Bigelow and watercolors by Charles E. Faxon.

Lilium philadelphicum L. Wild flowers of eastern North America illustrations, 1887-1934. Botany Libraries, Gray Herbarium Library, Harvard University


The collections also include China trade export paintings, some executed on pith paper, and hundreds on English watermarked paper, illustrations and a list of South African plants sent by Clemenz H. Wehdemann, and several collections of art created by “amateur” women botanists who illustrated the plants and fungi that they studied.

Included in the collections are drawings, sketches, and proof plates in addition to final works.


Icones Farlowianae

The creation of Icones Farlowianae: Illustrations of the Larger Fungi of Eastern North America was a long and complex journey. It involved no less than four botanists, two professional artists, two commercial printers, one warehouse, and numerous photographers and editors. The work spanned more than forty years and cost an estimated $50,000 at a time when a lavish new house cost less than $9,000.

Icones, from the Latin “icon,” meaning an image or figure, is a collection of illustrations representing a specific object or subject. Icones Farlowianae was an important project for Professor William Gilson Farlow who, although carrying a full teaching and administrative schedule for most of the years he labored over it, believed that it would serve as a much needed guide to the fungi of eastern North America, especially for those who did not possess a large collection of fungi to use in conjunction with identification.


Web Exhibit Created 2000, Updated 2003 by Lisa DeCesare.

Special thanks to Professor Donald Pfister, Judith Warnement, and Gretchen Wade.



The creation of Icones Farlowianae: Illustrations of the Larger Fungi of Eastern North America was a long and complex journey. It involved no less than four botanists, two professional artists, two commercial printers, one warehouse, and numerous photographers and editors. The work spanned more than forty years and cost an estimated $50,000 at a time when a lavish new house cost less than $9,000.

An icones, from the Latin icon meaning an image or figure, is a collection of illustrations representing a specific object or subject. The Icones Farlowianae was an important project for Professor William Gilson Farlow who, although carrying a full teaching and administrative schedule for most of the years he labored over it, believed that it would serve as a much needed guide to the fungi of Eastern North America, especially for those who did not possess a large collection of fungi to use in conjunction with identification.

Following Farlow's death in 1919 two of his former students, Roland Thaxter and Edward Angus Burt along with Carroll William Dodge, the Curator of the Farlow Library and Cryptogamic Herbarium, assumed the responsibility of publishing the guide. This however, proved to be no easy task. Both Thaxter and Burt suffered from ill health, Burt lost much of his money in the 1920s stock market, and all had numerous other commitments that included teaching, research, and their own publishing. There were also problems with the printers and the plates themselves; many were worm eaten or stained while in storage. Burt explains, in his introduction, that it was worth all of the hardship to honor the memory of Dr. Farlow.

[It is] the present writer to whom criticism should be directed for all shortcomings or errors which exist in the descriptive text, but it is his hope that none such may be found, for he would contribute these pages, as would his fellow students of those former days, as a wreath to the memory of our revered and inspired teacher and friend who taught us to aim always for the utmost in accuracy and excellence.
Edward Angus Burt, St. Louis, Missouri
February 22, 1928

The Work Begins

In the 1870s when William Gilson Farlow was studying under Asa Gray at Harvard, there were no facilities in America for the study of cryptogams. Farlow traveled to Europe to study under leading scientists and return to share what he had learned. This drive to acquire knowledge and to share it with others seems a common theme in Farlow's life. He was a fascinating and inspiring teacher known for being helpful to all his students. G.P. Clinton (1867-1937) writes, "...but even more important than his lectures was his work with students in research. Here his inspiring personal teaching - for he never left them to an assistant - developed many distinguished students." [1] This drive to help others learn is seen again in the concept of Farlow's Icones.

In his introduction to Icones Farlowianae, Farlow explained that he hoped the book would allow more people access to the study of fungi.

One of the aims of the author in preparing the present work has been to furnish to those who are not in the possession of large libraries and collections the means of identifying the more striking and characteristic of our larger fungi [2].

Unfortunately the other aspects of this work are not as easy to trace as Farlow's purpose. His initial conception of the project is much more difficult to pinpoint. Farlow did not record the date he decided a book of the larger fungi of New England was needed, nor did he mention in any correspondence when he began to collect materials for this book. However, using specimens, correspondence, notes, drawings, and ephemera that was left behind, it is possible to estimate when Farlow's idea became a reality.

The real work on the book appears to have begun in the mid to late 1880's. This seems a reasonable estimate for two reasons. First, Farlow's earliest notes regarding types of fungi that appear in the Icones date from the mid-1880s. Second, in early March of 1889 Farlow met Joseph Bridgham of Providence, Rhode Island. Bridgham was a natural history artist of some renown and an entomologist with a special interest in lepidoptery. It is unclear how they met although it might have been through Alexander Agassiz (1835-1910) or Professor Samuel Henshaw (1852-1941), both of Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology, who Bridgham also drew for [3]. At their meeting Farlow discussed his need for an artist to create drawings of specimens for him. Bridgham wrote to Farlow on April 16, 1889, asking about the work they had discussed.


Professor Farlow
May I trouble you enough to ask a few questions in regard to drawing, according to the conversation we had about 6 weeks since. At the time I supposed that, when you were ready, you would send me some preliminary drawings to make but perhaps you expected me to call again. I shall be in Boston in about two weeks unless you wish me sooner, but as I would like to make arrangements as soon as possible to fill my time, I was anxious to know what amount of work I could look for from you [4].

Bridgham and Farlow came to an agreement and in a letter dated June 11, 1889, Bridgham discusses his salary for the work he is doing for the museum, probably the Museum of Comparative Zoology. He states "I have made the price $5.50 per day - which is almost 75 cents per hour for a day of 7 1/2 hours. My agreement with you for [work] is somewhat under that rate." [5] Whatever the exact rate, Farlow and Bridgham agreed it was fair and work was begun. Beginning in August 1889, Farlow began to make periodic trips to Providence to drop off specimens and review drawings in progress.

Farlow assembled as much information as possible for Bridgham, and later his second artist L.C.C. Krieger, with a detailed account of the fungus. Pictures were made of the fresh specimens and copious notes were collected regarding color, size, characteristics, and habitat. If possible Farlow also provided spore prints, a print of the gill pattern of a mushroom made by placing the mushroom cap on a small piece of card stock and allowing it to sit so that the spores fall out and mark the card.

Farlow also kept very detailed notes as to which items Bridgham was working on and which had been completed. It was quite a lot to keep track of considering that Bridgham drew over 303 different fungi during the 10 years that he drew for Farlow.
Each time Bridgham took possession of new materials to make a drawing, Farlow drew up a dated receipt (the image to the left), for Bridgham to sign. Farlow also kept track of the work in notebook (the image to the right ) where he marked down exactly what images were to be done, in progress, and completed[6]

Farlow's next step was to find a printer. In his correspondence with Nathaniel Britton (1859-1934), of the New York Botanical Garden, he discusses his problems in finding someone suitable. In a letter dated July 30, 1889 Farlow tells Britton that he has to go to Providence to visit his artist because, while the drawings are good the engravings made from them are very poor [7]. He goes even farther in a letter dated January 17, [1891] stating "Printers are dreadful. Some are nominally cheaper than others, but, if accuracy in setting up scientific papers is needed, the extra corrections make the cheaper men nearly as dear as the more expensive and the result is, on the whole, not a success. At least, my own attempts at economy in printing have been expensive and sometimes mortifying. I am now ready to pay more to a man close at hand and practically under my thumb, which means someone whom I can scold and bully." [8] Farlow was most likely referring to the Boston Heliotype Printing Company, the company that he hired to print up the final plates.

1. Cryptogams are the large subdivision of the plant kingdom which includes plants which reproduce by methods other than flowers and seeds. This group includes bryophytes, algae, fungi etc.


Printing the Plates

Farlow worked with Mr. Donald Ramsey, the head of the Boston Heliotype Printing Company (BHPC), on producing the lithographs to be used in the Icones. The BHPC had never produced plates like these before but were very interested in the work and an agreed to attempt it.

The art of lithography was invented by Alois Senefelder in 1798 in Austria. Previous to its creation, color was a time consuming affair with various techniques involved, but all required the hand labor of inking plates individually. Lithography is the process of printing by placing ink on a series of metal or stone ("lithos") carvings which are really reliefs of color regions on the print. Multiple stones are used, one for each color, and the print goes through a printing press as many times as there are stones. The problem for the printers was keeping the image in register, making sure that it would be lined up exactly each time it went through the press so that each color would be in the correct position and the overlaying colors would merge correctly. Part of the allure to the Farlow plates are that they were among the best examples of this process of any ever produced.

Farlow delivered Bridgham's first set of plates to the BHPC in 1891 and Ramsey worked one-on-one with Farlow to help make them as accurate to the drawings as possible. Unfortunately Mr. Ramsey died suddenly. The rest of the BHPC staff tried to maintain the standards set by Ramsey but a problem arose.

The problem occurred in late 1892 when the BHPC assigned a set of numbers to the lithographs they had produced. Unfortunately, each drawing already was represented by an Arabic number that Bridgham had assigned. Farlow kept careful track of where each plate was by this Arabic number and the species name in a small notebook. This was essential as items were constantly moving back and forth between Bridgham's studio in Providence, Farlow's office in Cambridge, the BHPC in Boston, and the Cambridge Safety Vaults Company.

This number was also put on all of the specimens, notes, and photographs corresponding to each plate so that all of the information regarding each fungus could very easily be pulled together.


The new numbering system that the BHPC assigned made a complex undertaking even more difficult. As of 1893 Farlow's records indicate that there were ten boxes of drawings in storage or at his home with drawings for approximately eight to ten mushrooms per box [9]. Farlow's solution was indicated in his notebook (at left). He recorded the BHPC number next to the original Arabic numbers for each of the completed lithographs.

Today each plate has a confusing set of at least 4 or 5 numbers:

  • a Roman numeral indicating in what order it was sent to the artist
  • an Arabic number assigned by the artist
  • A BHPC number
  • a plate number from the finished Icones
  • numbers assigned to the photographs of the original specimen.

After this the work progressed quietly and at a steady pace for the next few years. In 1896 Farlow retired from undergraduate teaching at Harvard and in January of 1900 he married Lilian Horsford who later was instrumental in getting Icones Farlowianae published.

There is not much correspondence dealing with the book during these years. In 1898, however, Bridgham stopped working for Farlow. It is unclear why Farlow decided to take a break from the book. It is possible Farlow was occupied with issues surrounding the settling of his father's estate and his upcoming marriage but no written explaination exists. In 1898 Bridgham sent his final batch of illustrations to Farlow and the last mention of his working for Farlow occurred in August 1898 [10].

One of Bridgham's final letters to Farlow is from February 28, 1899. He states:

Is there any prospect of the book coming out this spring? Have you been too busy too attend to it, or are you waiting for better figures of the porosus and pictus? I shall be glad to try again, or if you have despaired of my being able to do them, I will look with interest to see what another man can do with them. I have had a very great many inquiries into the book [11].


Unfortunately none of Farlow's correspondence to Bridgham is available and so there is no record of his response to this offer.

Bridgham's last letter to Farlow, dated October 28, 1899, does not do much to clear up the mystery. It appears that Farlow told him of his upcoming marriage and Bridgham offers him heartfelt congratulations, and again refers to the species he felt he was unable to capture. He states "I have a feeling that you are delaying the publication until you can get a better picture of these two representative species." [12]. However, this is not the last word. In 1901 in a letter to Dr. Thaxter Farlow mentions going to Providence to talk to Bridgham [13]. No mention is made of the purpose or outcome of this meeting and in June of 1902 Farlow hired L.C.C. Krieger as his new artist.


On June 1, 1901 L.C.C. Krieger wrote a letter of introduction to Dr. Farlow and included some photographs of watercolors he had done. It is unclear if Farlow was actively seeking a new artist to continue work on the Icones at this time or not. Whatever the circumstance, Farlow was interested and, after viewing some of Krieger's watercolors, they came to an agreement. 

On June 6, 1902, almost exactly one year from their initial contact, Krieger sent Farlow a formal letter of acceptance. The salary they agreed upon was $1,200 per year and Krieger promised to arrive in Cambridge in time to start work on July 1, 1902 [14].

Krieger worked with Farlow from 1902 until 1911 illustrating over 340 different fungi. During this time Farlow worked closely with Krieger on the plates and collected supplemental materials and notes as well. In 1906 Farlow asked a colleague, Charles H. Peck (1833-1917), with whom he had been corresponding regarding the identification of specific species, to look over the completed lithographs with him [15]. Because of other demands on his time however Farlow did not begin to work on the accompanying text.

On June 3, 1919 Professor William Gilson Farlow died after a brief and unexpected illness. Only a few weeks before he had written to Thaxter about Herbarium business that he would need to work on once he was well again. Unfortunately he died without finishing his Icones or indicating a plan of action for finishing the work. At the time of his death the only completed text found was a preface written in the 1890's prior to Krieger employment and copious amounts of notes.

Farlow left 500 copies of 103 plates ready for binding. The cost of producing each plate was between $100 and $250 each, or between $10,300 and $25,750 total [16]. These were kept in storage at the Cambridge Safety Vaults Company in Cambridge, MA. No receipts from this company survived but other receipts from storage vaults that Farlow dealt with indicate that the cost of the space was approximately $50.00 per year. The plates were stored there from from 1893 to 1919 at a cost of $1,300. When this is added to the salaries of Farlow's two artists (approximately $21,350) the total equals $32,950 to $58,000. These numbers become even more startling when analyzed by an on-line inflation calculator. The $32,000 to $58,000 that Farlow spent would be equal to $593,000 to $1,044,000 today [17]. This total does not include any of the work on the unwritten text or binding of the book itself. It is readily apparent why such an ambitious book has not been published since. (For a complete breakdown of the cost of publishing see part 5)

The Work Continues

A few years after Farlow's death his widow, Lilian Horsford Farlow, contacted Dr. Roland Thaxter, a close colleague and friend of Farlow's. She decided to pursue the publication of the Icones and believed that Thaxter would offer her assistance in this task.

He agreed and contacted E.A. Burt, a mycologist at Washington University who had studied under Thaxter and Farlow in the late 1800s. Thaxter indicated to Burt Mrs. Farlow's interest and that Farlow himself had wanted Burt to complete the text using his notes. On December 13, 1923 Burt replied that he was unaware of Farlow's wishes but that he would be honored to write the accompanying text [18].

Burt was not able to begin this work as quickly as Mrs. Farlow would have liked because he suffered some financial setbacks and was forced to rethink his plans of moving from St. Louis to Cambridge to work on Farlow's text. On behalf of Mrs. Farlow, Thaxter wrote to Burt in 1924 and 1925 asking him to set a date to begin work. He also assured him that his expenses as well as time and labor would be taken care of [19]. Finally on February 16, 1926 Burt wrote to Thaxter that he was ready to come to Cambridge to "learn the plan of treatment of text which Dr. Farlow contemplated." He also explained that because of his rough financial situation he would be forced to stay in St. Louis and bring the plates and notes there [20].

Burt faced a difficult task. He gathered together Farlow's copies of the plates along with his notes and the preserved specimens and brought them to his home in St. Louis. Unfortunately, while Farlow had left copious notes, they were not always easy to decipher and were occasionally inaccurate.


Farlow's notes for Icones Farlowianae

In a letter to Thaxter in January 1930 Burt explains that he had discovered in some cases the preserved specimens were not the ones on which the drawings were based. Also occasionally Farlow's notes refer to different specimens than the ones that were kept. [21]

Burt finished the preliminary text for the Icones in late 1927. He wrote up a description by hand for each plate and then made changes and typed the finished copy. It is interesting to note that he used old advertisement correspondence for this purpose so his notes provide an interesting view of 1920s commercial culture.

Below are his notes for plate 14, Armillaria imperialis, including the ad it was written on.

Burt's written notes for plate 14

Burt's typed notes for plate 14

Advertisement on the back of plate 14

Now that the text was well underway Thaxter needed to find a printer who could do justice to the work.

Finding a Publisher

Thaxter enlisted the help of C.W. Dodge, the current Curator of the Farlow Library and Herbarium, to begin searching for a printer and, in late 1927 decided that a local press would be the best solution and concentrated their efforts in the Boston area. [22] Their search soon focused on a choice between Harvard University Press of Cambridge and the Merrymount Press of Boston. On November 14, 1927 Dodge reported to Burt to tell him that they had chosen to use Merrymount Press which had a reputation for doing excellent work. Harvard University Press, on the other hand, was characterized as "capable but lazy." [23]

Meanwhile Burt concentrated his efforts on a format of the book to present to the prospective publisher for an accurate cost estimate. He told Thaxter that he believed the best way to lay out the figures and text would be the format of Bresadola's Iconographia Mycologia (above). He sent them a mockup to show how each plate should appear. (below) [24]


During the next six months Burt wrote a brief introduction and the text and layout were finalized. The title Icones Farlowianae was chosen by Thaxter and Mrs. Farlow, the Garamond font was chosen, and Merrymount presented their estimate. D.B. Updike, the Merrymount representative, wrote to Dodge on June 26, 1928 that their final price was $16.00 per copy for 500 copies, or $8,000 in total to print and bind 500 books, with author's changes being extra. [25] Unfortunately there was not enough cash available to pay this amount in advance. Therefore an agreement was made in late July of 1928 to pay for 300 copies. Once these had been sold, Dodge would pay the remaining $3,200 to print and bind the final 200 copies [26].

All was in order when another obstacle was discovered. When Merrymount received the boxes of plates from storage in the fall of 1928 they found that some of them had been damaged by water [27]. Nothing could be done about the water-damage and so these plates were put aside and binding continued. In 1929 more problems were found. The crates containing plate 49 was infested with a bookworm that damaged some of the plates. Also, on plate 57, the interleaving tissue had adhered to the plates. Merrymount contacted the Boston Heliotype Printing Company about this and they were able to remove the tissue from some of the plates [28]. Professor Dodge instructed Merrymount to group the defective plates together so that as few defective copies as possible would be created. The final number of defective copies was 22 [29].

The binding was completed in September of 1929 and the books were delivered to the Farlow at the end of September. Merrymount Press handled the copyright certificate as well and the official date of publication for Icones Farlowianae was listed as October 1, 1929 [30].


The book was stunning and when Burt received his copy in December he quickly wrote to Thaxter stating "I am very pleased with the Icones in every way" [31].

All that was left to do was to create an advertisement for the book. Thaxter contacted Merrymount again and in January of 1930 they agreed to print 1100 copies of an advertisement for $55 [32]. The ad was completed and sent out with some of the extra, undamaged plates at the end of January 1930.

Finally, more than 41 years after it was started, Icones Farlowianae was completed.

The Final Icones

Icones Farlowianae took over 41 years and more than $50,000 from the Farlow fortune to create. It depicted 103 species of mushrooms, 5 of them new, including Inocybe amarescensLipiota brunneaTricholoma oliveumStropharia rugoso-annulata, and Stropharia subcaperata. Other fungi pictured were not often represented in contemporary books so their beautiful plates and thorough descriptions added to the book's value.


The publication of the Icones was met by an enthusiastic response. By January 1930, before the advertisements had been mailed, 225 of the 500 copies were already sold [33]. The book was sold through the Farlow Library, at the cost of $40.00 per copy.

One of the first reviews was written by C.H. Kauffman of the University of Michigan in the January 17, 1930 edition of the journal Science. In his introduction Kauffman explains why this Icones was such an important work.

The mycologists of the Old World have during the last two centuries, supplied students of agarics, in rather numerous Icones and other publications, with an abundance of colored figures of these fascinating plants. With the exception of the Icones of Boudier, where the scientific training of a mycologist was to a remarkable degree linked with the talent of a real artist in the same man, no illustrations of mushrooms have appeared which remotely approach the beauty and scientific accuracy of the plates in the volume before us. It is furthermore, the first extensive collection of colored plates of American agarics to be conceived, executed and published in the country [34].

Another strength of Icones Farlowianae is the fact that it is so well balanced. Each genus is treated equally with no one being more emphasized than any other. Also each plate is accessible to beginners but also informative to scholars. The species Farlow chose to represent are also very common all over the Northeast. This makes the book accessible to a wide range of people. These characteristics also make it as useful today as it was when it first came out 70 years ago.

Even after all these years Farlow's Icones has not been duplicated. Upon examination of the estimated cost to create such a volume it is really not surprising. Most of the figures listed below are actual, not estimated, amounts. The majority of this money came from Farlow and, after his death, from his widow Lilian Horsford Farlow. This book, on North American Fungi, is of unsurpassed elegance and worth and stands as a monument to their dedication.

Lisa DeCesare
Cambridge, MA
September 2000


Bridgham's Salary

$ 9,350

$5.50 per day; approx $935 per year for 10 years

Krieger's Salary


$1,200 per year for 10 years

Boston Heliotype Printing Company
(approximate cost of printing 103 plates)


plates cost between $100 and $250 per set

Cambridge Safety Vaults Company
(estimated cost of storage from 1893 to 1928)

$ 1,750

35 years at $50 per year
based on Farlow's old storage receipts

Burt's Salary

$ 1,800

for 1.5 years of work and travel to and from Cambridge
based on the yearly salary for the Farlow librarian at that time

Merrymount Printing Company
(cost of binding book)

$ 8,000

total cost outlined in correspondence

Merrymount Printing Company
(cost of advertisement)

$ 55

total cost outlined in correspondence





over $1,000,000

using an on-line inflation calculator



It truly took a village to create Icones Farlowianae.  Here are brief biographies of some of the key people.
William Gilson Farlow
Roland Thaxter
Lilian Horsford Farlow
Joseph Bridgham
Louis C. C. Krieger
Edward A. Burt
Carroll W. Dodge

William Gilson Farlow



Printers are dreadful. Some are nominally cheaper than others, but, if accuracy in setting up scientific papers is needed, the extra corrections make the cheaper men nearly as dear as the more expensive and the result is, on the whole, not a success. At least, my own attempts at economy in printing have been expensive and sometimes mortifying.

I am now ready to pay more to a man close at hand and practically under my thumb, which means someone whom I can scold and bully.

Letter from William Gilson Farlow to Dr. Nathaniel Britton January 17, 1891. Regarding the hiring of the Boston Heliotype Company

William Gilson Farlow was born near Boston, Massachusetts on December 17, 1844. Equally gifted in science and music, Farlow stated at his graduation from Harvard in 1866 that he "had no definite plans for life." By the following year, though, he had come to a decision to enter Harvard Medical School. He enrolled in November of 1867 and received his M.D. in May of 1870. In July of the same year Farlow was hired to assist Asa Gray, Fisher Professor of Natural History, a position he held for two years. At the time, botany had not yet been established as an academic discipline, and, as Farlow tells us:

It certainly now seems ridiculous that one who had only just finished his medical studies and knew nothing about cryptogams ... should attempt to teach the subject. But the young are courageous, not to say audacious ... and, it must also be admitted, the demands of students for information on the subject were easily satisfied at that time.

However, Farlow's own desire to gain greater botanical expertise was not yet filled. In 1872 he traveled to Europe, where he studied for two years with Anton de Bary as well as other prominent botanists in Germany, France and Scandinavia. When he returned in 1874 he was made Assistant Professor of Botany at the Bussey Institution of Harvard University located in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. In 1879 Farlow was appointed Professor of Cryptogamic Botany at Harvard. He remained in this position for the rest of his life and continued to advise doctoral candidates even after his retirement from active teaching in 1896.

After Farlow's marriage to Lilian Horsford in 1900 their home became a haven for visiting botanists. In addition to advising guests, Farlow assisted many students and colleagues through his voluminous correspondence, which gives evidence of great thought and research. He also published many papers and articles on rusts, fungi and algae. His larger publications include the Bibliography of Articles on American Fungi (1887-8), the Host Index to Fungi in the United States (1888), the Bibliographical Index of North American Fungi (1905), and the Icones Farlowianae, published posthumously in 1929.

Farlow's contributions to botany were acknowledged internationally. He was granted honorary degrees from Harvard University, the University of Wisconsin, the University of Glasgow, and the University of Uppsala. He held memberships in the National Academy of Science, the London Linnaean Society, and the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and was president of the A.A.A.S., the Botanical Society of America, and the American Naturalists.

At least two genera and many species have been named for Farlow. He will be remembered as a pioneer investigator in plant pathology, who helped establish a systematic nomenclature for fungi, and inspired and directed some of America's leading botanists. It was said that "His firsthand knowledge of cryptograms was greater than that of any botanist and he was probably the most learned man in his profession" (Thaxter, Osterhout, and Richards, December 1919).

During his lifetime Farlow founded and endowed the Harvard Cryptogamic Laboratories and Herbarium. His personal library was bequeathed to the university upon his death in Cambridge on June 3, 1919.

Roland Thaxter


What do you think about issuing a part of the edition unbound in sheets? We can judge better of details when we see the ms. For example we do not know whether you are planning to overprint the plates or whether your text will be arranged that this will not be necessary. And the plan of binding will have to be determined to a considerable extent by the largest amount of text applying to a single plate. If you have any suggestions to make I hope you will mention them, as we are anxious that you should be satisfied and that the job should be done in the best manner.

I hope your eyes are holding out. Mine are dreadful and a continuous endurance. I feel as if the bottom had fallen out of things now that Mrs. Farlow has gone.

Letter from Roland Thaxter to Edward Angus Burt November 1, 1927

Roland Thaxter was born in Newtonville, Massachusetts, August 28, 1858. He entered Harvard University in the autumn of 1878 and, in 1882, received the degree of A.B., magna cum laude, with honorable mention in Natural History and English Composition and election to the Phi Beta Kappa.

He followed the only acceptable course at that time for a student of biology, his chief interests being botany and entomology, by entering the Harvard Medical School. After one year Thaxter received the Harris Fellowship and was able to enter the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, where he concentrated on the study of cryptogamic botany under the direction of Dr. Farlow. From 1886-1888 Thaxter served as Farlow's assistant and earned his A.M. and Ph.D. in Natural History.

Thaxter's first position was as botanist for the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station where he worked until 1891. He returned to Harvard that year as Assistant Professor and relieved Farlow of much of the elementary instruction. In 1896 Farlow retired and Thaxter assumed the full responsibility for teaching and research in cryptogamic botany.

During his teaching career at Harvard, he was Assistant Professor of Cryptogamic Botany (1891-1901), Professor of Cryptogamic Botany (1901-1919), and Professor Emeritus (1919-1932). He was also Honorary Curator of the Farlow Herbarium at Harvard in the 1920's. Thaxter was known as a generous but uncompromising teacher and left a lasting impression, even on students who did not continue in the sciences. However his most recognized achievement was his extensive research. His contributions to mycology number over 70 papers and his monograph on the Laboulbeniales stands out as one of the greatest pieces of work in the field of mycology.

In spite of poor health Thaxter still traveled all over the United States, Europe, Newfoundland, West Indies, South America, and even the Straits of Magellan to study and collect for the Farlow Herbarium.

He died in Cambridge, MA on April 22, 1932.

Lilian Horsford Farlow


I am enclosing my cheque- three thousand dollars ($3,000) on the Old Colony Trust Co. as a reservation for the publication of Icones Farlowianae, consisting of a large collection of lithographic prints of New England Fungi with descriptions written by William G. Farlow. It may be years before this is needed but I should like to have it kept separate from the Farlow Library Fund and to know that the financial part of this publication is hereby established.

Letter from Lilian Horsford Farlow to Charles F. Adams Treasurer of Harvard College June 24, 1925

"The heart of Radcliffe College has gone," wrote one of the Alumnae on hearing of Mrs. Farlow's death, "for that is what she has always been."

Lilian Horsford was born in Massachusetts in 1848. Her father, Harvard Professor Eben Horsford, the discoverer of baking powder, was a major influence in her life. "My father used to say that it was best to concentrate one's efforts on one or two things rather than to dissipate them over many" she once said, "and education is what I care the most about." Beginning in the late 1870's Lilian became affiliated with Radcliffe College, at that point it was only a small experimental program providing women with access to Harvard teaching, and until her death in 1927 gave much of her time and money to help the college and its students succeed.

Lilian was a member of the original Corporation for the Society for the Collegiate Instruction of Women (Radcliffe was not to be incorporated as such until 1894) and of the first Executive Committee. She served as Treasurer during 1883/84 year, as acting treasurer for part of 1886, and was elected Treasurer in 1891, 1892 and 1893. She was also elected as a member of the Council to serve from June 1901 to 1908, but resigned in June 1905.

Lilian married Dr. William Gilson Farlow in 1900. They became well known for opening their home to visiting botanists and students alike. "I always thought my life a very beautiful and happy one," she wrote after the tenth anniversary of her wedding, "but the last ten years have been filled with a joy and contentment of which I never dreamed."

After Farlow's death in 1919 Lilian continued to foster students by giving time and financial assistance to Radcliffe and Wellesley College. Farlow left his collections and library to Harvard provided they provided an adequate facility. Lilian worked closely with Roland Thaxter, a close colleague and friend of Farlow's, to help Harvard purchase an appropriate space for Farlow's collections. Harvard was able to meet Farlow's stipulations but would not provide additional funds for a companion library. Lilian again worked closely with Thaxter to raise money and donated approximately $50,000 to this project herself. After the library was opened at 20 Divinity Ave, Lilian wrote to Roland Thaxter.

I have had a very great pleasure. One which lingers and returns to me again and again, for I have gone into the Farlow building and have seen the changed and wonderful aspect thereof. And I am very much pleased with it all, and I am so confident that it would have pleased Dr. Farlow that I must let you know that after I came home I felt as if I had seen and talked with him.
Lilian was also instrumental in completing Farlow's great work, Icones Farlowianae. In 1923 she contact Roland Thaxter to assist her in finishing work on the partially completed book. She provided much support, time and financial assistance to this project. Shortly after her death in 1927, Roland Thaxter, in a letter to Edward A. Burt stated "I feel as if the bottom had fallen out of things now that Mrs. Farlow has gone. I do miss her dreadfully and her friendship and help and sympathetic interest."

Joseph Bridgham


I have always considered my work worth $6.00 per day, above my expenses, as I make at home anywhere from $6.00 to $10.00. I hope you will consider the matter, if there is much more to be done with you - as I wish to have a satisfactory arrangement and not be obliged to pay out more money than I make.

Letter from Joseph Bridgham to William Gilson Farlow June 5, 1889

Joseph Bridgham achieved recognition in the scientific world as an entomologist and a nature artist. He was born in New York October 15, 1845 and attended Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. He graduated from Brown in 1867 and continued his education in the study of architecture, working as an architect for several years.

The study of entomology was a pastime he shared with his mother, Eliza Ann (Fales) Bridgham. At the time of his death in 1915 Bridgham was said to have one of the most complete collections of butterflies in the world. His interest in natural history grew and eventually he abandoned the practice of architecture all together to become an artist of natural history. Bridgham developed a repution as a very proficient illustrator and was especially known for his rendering of microscopic images.

Much of Bridgham's work was commissioned by the United States government. In addition Bridgham worked for colleges and institutions throughout the United States as well as other countries. He worked with Professor William Farlow from 1889-1899 on the fungi of North America. During this period he also produced a set of illustrations of North America flowers for Columbia College in New York.

Bridgham died on April 12, 1915 at his home in East Providence, Rhode Island.

Louis Charles Christopher Krieger



I am very anxious to get back again into mycology, especially into the study of the fleshy fungi. As I told you in my last letter, I was with Dr. Farlow for ten years, and while working with him I became so infatuated with the study of these plants that I have determined to keep up my interest.

Letter from L.C.C. Krieger to Edward Angus Burt December 17, 1914

L. C. C. Krieger was born in Baltimore, Maryland on 11 February 1873. In 1891, he began his professional career as an assistant artist in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He was assigned to the Division of Microscopy, where he worked until 1895 under the supervision of Dr. Thomas Taylor, whose hobby was the study of mushrooms. Krieger was soon put to work painting mushrooms found in and around Washington, D.C., as well as copying plates from European works.

After 1895 Krieger studied art in Munich and returned to Maryland where he taught drawing and painting. An offer in 1902 from Professor William Farlow enticed him to leave his native city and return to his earlier occupation, mycological illustration. He worked with Farlow for the next ten years.

In late 1912, Krieger returned to government service with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He was assigned to the Plant Introduction Garden in Chico, California, then under the direction of David Griffiths. Krieger painted a large series of species and forms of Opuntia (prickly pear cactus) between 1912 and 1917.

Once again the lure of mushrooms proved to be too strong and Krieger left government service a second time. In 1918, he accepted an invitation from Dr. Howard A. Kelly, a Baltimore physician, to resume his study and illustration of mushrooms.

A brief stint from 1928 to 1929 with the Tropical Plant Research Foundation in Cuba allowed Krieger to make a series of paintings of sugar cane diseases. This work was followed, through the intercession of Dr. Kelly, with an appointment as Mycologist to the New York State Museum in Albany where Krieger prepared a guide to the higher fungi of New York State. A third and final period of government service began in 1929 and Krieger once again collaborated with David Griffiths of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Krieger died in Washington, D.C. on July 31, 1940.

Edward Angus Burt



The visit to Cambridge is to learn the plan of treatment of text which Dr. Farlow contemplated as shown by what he himself prepared and memoranda and instruction which he may have left and to learn whether such a text is now satisfactory to you and Mrs. Farlow and whoever else may have a hand in the matter of publication. I shall endeavor to write such a text as desired, but not subject to approval to be used or not as may seem fit after it is prepared. You should have confidence in my ability to such degree that if I write the text, it will be published as written without material change, the responsibility of authorship being given to me.

Letter from Edward Angus Burt to Roland Thaxter February 16, 1926

Edward Angus Burt was born in Athens, Pennsylvania on April 8, 1859. His family moved to a dairy farm in Saratoga County, New York when he was a small boy and it was there that his curiosity about plants developed. He attended State Normal School in Albany where he learned to identify plants. His first job was as a teacher of natural sciences at Albany Academy. He saved his salary, determined to enter Yale Scientific School, but instead of attending college he accepted a teaching post at the State Normal School. He married Clara May Briggs and they raised four sons. In 1883 he was appointed to the Board of Regents' Examiners in New York State but left this position in 1885. In 1891 he entered the junior class at Harvard without examination.

At Harvard Burt came under the influence of Professors William G. Farlow and Roland Thaxter and decided to devote his life to mycology. He received his A.M. in 1894 and his Ph.D. in 1895. He was appointed Burr Professor of Natural History at Middlebury College where he taught from 1895-1913. He collected fungi extensively in the Middlebury vicinity and became very interested in Basidiomycetes. Much of his time was spent collecting and identifying specimens from correspondents.

In 1913 Dr. Burt moved to St. Louis, Missouri to become the librarian and mycologist at Washington University. He devoted most of his time to his monograph on Thelephoraceae. Much of his work was published in the Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden. In 1926 Burt began work on the text for Icones Farlowianae, Farlow's unfinished tome. He worked on this project for three years.

Burt retired in 1938 and died in 1939. His personal herbarium was left to Harvard University.

Carroll William Dodge



For some time I have been thinking that I could send you in a day or two a sample page for your approval in the Farlow Icones. We are having Mr. Updike of the Merrymount Press prepare the estimates, and if they are at all within reason, I think we will have him do the work. He is reputed to be one of the finest commercial printers in America.
Letter from Carroll William Dodge to Edward Angus Burt May 4, 1928

C. W. Dodge was born on January 20, 1895 in Danby, Vermont. He earned his A.B. (1915) and M.A. (1916) in classics at Middlebury College, Vermont where he came under the influence of Edward Angus Burt. Upon completing his degrees Dodge followed Burt to Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. There, as a Lachland Fellow, Dodge did research on various aspects of plant physiology and biochemistry to earn his doctorate (1918) under Benjamin M. Duggar.

Dodge served in the United States Army from 1918-1919. In the fall of 1919, he became an Instructor in Botany at Brown University. In 1920 he was appointed the Olney Assistant Professor of Botany and became the head of the department.

In 1921 Dodge was called to Harvard University as Instructor in Botany and was promoted to Assistant Professor and Curator of the Farlow Library and Herbarium in 1924. Dodge also served as Secretary of the Division of Biology. While at the Farlow from 1924-1931, Dodge oversaw the consolidation of the herbarium and library collections at 20 Divinity Avenue and doubled the herbarium collections. Some of these collections came from Dodge's many expeditions to the Gaspe Peninsula, Canada (1923) and Costa Rica (1929-1930).

It was during the mid-1920's that Dodge began to read about fungal diseases in humans, and developed a medical mycology course that was the first offered in the United States. In 1929-1930, Dodge studied tropical mycoses in Costa Rica on a Guggenheim Fellowship. Dodge received a second Guggenheim Fellowship to study in Europe and after his return in 1931, he became Professor of Botany at Washington University and Mycologist at the Missouri Botanical Garden. Dodge held both positions until his retirement in 1963. He then became Research Professor at the University of Vermont, Burlington.

Dodge 's lichenological studies were mainly taxonomic and floristic dealing with exotic floras. He became the American authority on tropical and Antarctic lichens. In a addition to two monographs, Dodge was the author of over seventy scholarly articles dating from 1918 to 1982.

Carroll William Dodge died in Vermont in 1988.


1. Clinton, G.P. (George Perkins). William Gilson Farlow Phytopathology 1920. volume 10, number 1 pages 1-8.

2. Farlow, William Gilson. Icones Farlowianae Merrymount Press. New York, 1930

3. Special Collections Department, Ernst Mayr Library of the Museum of Comparative Zoology

4. Letter from Joseph Bridgham to W. G. Farlow, April 16, 1889. Farlow Library of Cryptogamic Botany, William Gilson Farlow Archives. Bound Correspondence, vol. 52

5. [Ibid]

6. Notebook and receipt from Farlow Library of Cryptogamic Botany, William Gilson Farlow Archives. Box A-1

7. Letter from Farlow to Britton, July 30, 1889. Farlow Library of Cryptogamic Botany, William Gilson Farlow Archives. Box 31.

8. [Ibid]

9. Notebook Icones Hymenamyatan. Farlow Library of Cryptogamic Botany, William Gilson Farlow Archives. Box A-1.

10. Letter from Joseph Bridgham to W. G. Farlow, July 6, 1898. Farlow Library of Cryptogamic Botany, William Gilson Farlow Archives. Bound Correspondence, vol. 52

11. [Ibid]

12. [Ibid]

13. Letter from Farlow to Thaxter, 1901. Farlow Library of Cryptogamic Botany, Roland Thaxter Archives. Box 2. Farlow correspondence.

14. Letters from L.C.C. Krieger to W. G. Farlow, 1902. Farlow Library of Cryptogamic Botany, William Gilson Farlow Archives. Bound Correspondence, vol. 81

15. Pfister, Donald H. Farlow's Icones. Bulletin of the Boston Mycological Club. 1975. volume 4, pages 6-8.

16. Notebook Icones Hymenamyatan. Farlow Library of Cryptogamic Botany, William Gilson Farlow Archives. Box A-1.

17. On-line inflation calculator at

18. Letter from Burt to Thaxter, December 1923. Farlow Library of Cryptogamic Botany, Roland Thaxter Archives. Bounnd Correspondence, vol.4: Britt - Carq.

19. Correspondence from Thaxter to Burt, 1924-1925. Farlow Library of Cryptogamic Botany, E.A. Burt Archives. Box 1, Folder 134.

20. Letter from Burt to Thaxter, February 1926. Farlow Library of Cryptogamic Botany, Roland Thaxter Archives. Bounnd Correspondence, vol.4: Britt - Carq.

21. Letter from Burt to Thaxter, January 30, 1927. Farlow Library of Cryptogamic Botany, Roland Thaxter Archives. Bounnd Correspondence, vol.4: Britt - Carq.

22. Letter from Thaxter to Burt, November 1, 1927. Farlow Library of Cryptogamic Botany, E.A. Burt Archives. Box 1, Folder 134.

23. Letter from Dodge to Burt, November 14, 1927. Farlow Library of Cryptogamic Botany, C.W. Dodge Archives. Box 1, Folder-Burt Correspondence.

24. Burt's mock-up. Farlow Library of Cryptogamic Botany, C.W. Dodge Archives. Box 1, Folder-Burt Correspondence.

25. Letter from Updike to Dodge. Farlow Library of Cryptogamic Botany, Roland Thaxter Archives. Box 2, Dodge Correspondence.

26. Letter from Updike to Dodge. Farlow Library of Cryptogamic Botany, Roland Thaxter Archives. Box 2, Dodge Correspondence.

27. Letter from Burt to Dodge, October 24, 1928. Farlow Library of Cryptogamic Botany, C.W. Dodge Archives. Box 1, Folder-Burt Correspondence.

28. Letter from Updike to Thaxter, September 17, 1929. Farlow Library of Cryptogamic Botany, Roland Thaxter Archives. Box 2, Dodge Correspondence.

29. Letter from Updike to Thaxter, September 17, 1929. Farlow Library of Cryptogamic Botany, Roland Thaxter Archives. Box 2, Dodge Correspondence.

30. Letter from Updike to Thaxter. Farlow Library of Cryptogamic Botany, Roland Thaxter Archives. Box 2, Dodge Correspondence.

31. Letter from Burt to Thaxter, December 22, 1929. Farlow Library of Cryptogamic Botany, Roland Thaxter Archives. Bounnd Correspondence, vol.4: Britt - Carq.

32. Correspondence between Updike and Thaxter, January 1930. Farlow Library of Cryptogamic Botany, Roland Thaxter Archives. Box 2, Dodge Correspondence.

33. Letter from Thaxter to Dodge, January 25, 1930. Farlow Library of Cryptogamic Botany, Roland Thaxter Archives. Box 2, Dodge Correspondence.

34. Kaufman, C.K. Icones FarlowianaeScience. 1930. Volume 71, pages 70-71.



Chinese Pith Paintings

The two-volume collection of botanical paintings on pith paper currently housed in the Archives of the Arnold Arboretum (Cambridge) were acquired by Charles Sprague Sargent around 1912.

Album painting 13. Chinese paintings of flowering plants, hand-colored on rice paper. c.1850. Botany Libraries, Arnold Arboretum Library (Cambridge), Harvard University.

    An album of pith paintings was gifted to the Archives of the Gray Herbarium by Miss E.E.P. Holland. This album contains leaves of colored plates painted on pith paper. A handwritten inscription on the bookplate reads: "from the library of Rev. Frederick W. Holland, Harvard '1831. Brought from China probably as early as 1840. Originally bound in blue silk." The blue silk binding is now absent, but the beautifully rendered paintings have survived to this day.

    Illustrations of Chinese plants on pith 

    Album painting 6. Illustrations of Chinese plants. c.1840. Botany Libraries, Gray Herbarium Library, Harvard University.

    The Plant

    Tetrapanax papyiferum (Hook.) Koch

    Pith paper is not "rice-paper" as it is commonly labeled. The smooth, bone white paper is made from the pith of the Tetrapanax papyriferum (Hook.) plant, which is a member of the Araliaceae (ginseng) family. It is native to Southern China and Taiwan, but was not investigated by Western botanists until the early and mid-nineteenth century. Pith paper has been used to make artificial flowers and decorative hairpins in China for centuries, while in the 1800s it became extremely popular as a surface for painting with watercolors and tempera. These paintings were bound in books with silk "tape" and usually depicted scenes from daily life, including plants, animals, occupations, customs and costumes. In China and Taiwan, the plant was referred to as "tung-tsao", meaning 'hollow-plant', "toong-tsao", or "bok-shung".

    Tetrapanax papyriferum remained a mystery to botanists for many years. Western explorers brought back to England tales of the plant and samples of the pith paper. There it was studied by botanists that included Sir William J. Hooker. This paper was followed by dried specimens, leaves, and stems of the plant itself, and finally a living plant arrived in England in the 1850s.

    Habitat and Description of Tetrapanax papyriferum

    Tetrapanax papyriferum is found in warmer climates in subtropical regions of the world. On the Gulf Coast of the United States, it can grow in Louisiana, Southern Florida and the Texas coast. For Hooker and other western botanists, the samples that they desired could only be acquired at that time from the island of Formosa (Taiwan), off the southeast coast of China.

    Tetrapanax papyriferum
    The plant itself is described as a small tree or shrub; its height varies between 4 and 12 feet, but has been know to grow as tall as 30 feet. The leaves can be as large as 2 1/2 feet wide and are deeply serrated, with a leaf stem of up to 3 feet in length and 1/2 inch in diameter. The bark is described as rough, and the wood itself is very hard and dense. Tetrapanax papyriferum grows best in soils that are rich in organic material, but is capable of growing in clay or gravel soils as well. It grows rapidly in its first few years and reaches maturity around the 4th and 5th year.




    Identifying the Elusive Plant

    Although pith paper was in use and mentioned as early as the Tsin Dynasty (265-420 AD), it wasn't until 1834 that an adequate image of Tetrapanax papyriferum was seen in the western world in George Bennett's Wanderings in New South Wales. A local Chinese artist created this representation and Bennett identifies the plant by its eastern name,"Toong Shue". He had hoped that the small drawing would "assist persons visiting China to procure, if possible, specimens in flower and fructification". By 1852, Hooker had finally received a live specimen of Tetrapanax papyiferum and concluded that the "rice paper" plant is part of the Araliaceous family and as a result of this, he renames it Aralia ? Papyrifera, Hook.:


    From Bennett's Wanderings in New South Wales

    "We had flattered ourselves that the question respecting the origin of the Chinese Rice-paper had been set at rest by the results of our inquiries as related in the pages of this Journal, namely, that it was the product of a plant peculiar to the island of Formosa, to which we believed we had sufficient materials for assigning the name of Aralia? papyrifera. (See our figure and description, p. 50, Tab. I., II., of the present volume.) Other plants, it is true, had been suggested; but either the medullary substance proved, on investigation, like the "Shola," not to confirm the opinion, or there was no opportunity of coming to a knowledge of the nature of the plant suspected. Our own reasons for believing the Aralia? to be the plant are before the public, and they have, in our minds, been substantiated by subsequent inquiries, particularly by those instituted by the Messrs. Bowring, father and son, at Hong-Kong. These gentlemen have been indefatigable in their searches. They have procured for us specimens of the stem, of the pith, numerous packets of the paper as prepared for commerce, etc.; and now at length we have the high gratification of saying, that out of four separate cases sent by the Overland Mail, on two different occasions, two living plants arrived in a healthy state at the Royal Gardens of Kew."

    Hooker was working with a J. H. Layton, consul at Amoy, in order to obtain a live specimen for study and comparison. Unfortunately, Mr. Layton died, but his widow continued to try to procure a live plant. This passage illustrates the extreme difficulty, the western botanists endured in order to obtain a living specimen:

    "The island of Formosa: Its past and future." The Scottish Geographical Magazine 12 (1896): facing 398.

    "As far as I could learn," this lady says, "it is only really known to grow in the deep swampy forests of the north of Formosa, though said in books to be found, in these later years, in one other part of China and formerly in many. One thing is certain, that all the Rice-paper met with in Fokien and the south is pith from the island Hu-nan, or Ho-nan (as the Amoy call it),-Formosa. The tree must grow there to a good size, for I was again informed I could not well have a 'tree' brought over, as it would be too large to manage on the way. Great danger and risk attend the men who go into the forests to procure the stems, where the aborigines come suddenly upon them and take away their lives: so that it is customary to have a guard of soldiers on the occasion. At one time it seemed quite certain that my efforts to procure a plant would have been supported by all the mandarin force on that part of the island, for the late brave old Chinese Admiral at Amoy took the matter in hand for me, and sent orders for one to be obtained, and sent back in one of the imperial junks employed to take troops to Formosa; but before it could reach me he was dead. I did not, myself, bring home with me the dead and withered specimen you received, for it did not reach Amoy in time: but I had arranged with a friend to take charge of it, who unfortunately forwarded it to me by way of the Cape instead of sending it overland: for, indeed, it had already been several months in the case in China. One of the two Chinamen, whom I had long before sent over in a junk for the purpose, returned with a small root when I was too ill to take care of it; but it had several green leaves when I took it with me on board ship for England, and this was I think entirely killed by the brown ants. The man who obtained this, assured me that the 'large tree' he procured had died while he waited for a junk, and then after putting out to sea, and being driven back by pirates, he threw the plant overboard, reserving a portion of the stem and some leaves. which I have now in my possession. The second messenger returned soon after my departure, bringing a fine strong plant, thriving beautifully when it was put on board the ship Bentinck, but which died on its passage, and reached your hands without any sign of life."




    Harvesting to Produce Pith Paper

    The harvesting of Tetrapanax papyriferum to make paper from its pith is a varied process. The plant can be harvested at any season, usually at 2 to 3 years old when the main stems are 5 to 6 feet. Extraneous leaves and twigs are removed and the stems are soaked in water to loosen the pith. These stems are then cut into 12"-18" pieces and the pith itself is forced out. The pith is a brilliant white, but must be dried immediately or it will yellow and stain; this is attained by exposing the pith to the sun for several days.

    In cutting the pith to make the paper, the longer, dry lengths are cut into shorter pieces that are then "peeled" away using a short-handled, razor-sharp knife with a 12" blade, 3" wide and 1/2" thick. This produces a scroll-like sheet about 4 to 6 feet long. The first 10 to 20 inches are grooved and irregular in cut, with jagged, course brown areas, which are then cut away. It takes a very skilled worker to produce the pristinely smooth, white paper that is uniformly thick; training to cut smaller strips takes a minimum of 1 year, while to produce wider strips, the training is more extensive.

    Pith paper is characterized by its great strength; when it is damp, it may be stretched and folded freely and when it is moistened it can be formed into almost any shape. This makes it ideal for water-based paintings that create a raised, relief pattern almost immediately upon application of medium. Unfortunately, it is very brittle when dry, grows more fragile with age, and is prone to discoloration.

    Below is an excerpt from Chinese "Rice-Paper" or "Bok-Shung" in Hooker's Journal of Botany and Kew Garden Miscellany Volume II, 1850, detailing the first samples of pith and sample tools received by Hooker:


    From Hooker's Journal of Botany and Kew Garden Miscellany Vol. II, 1850


    "Thanks to our most obliging friend, Capt. Wm. Loring, R.N., who has put us in communication with several intelligent gentlemen now resident in China, we are in a fair way of obtaining correct intelligence relative to many interesting scientific objects, and of having our doubts solved on some important botanical matters. J. H. Layton, Esq., H.B. Majesty's Consul at Amoy, China, has most kindly sent us not only excellent specimens of the pith from which the so-called Rice paper is formed, but a model of the knife used in cutting it, and, what is even of more value, the following information.

    "The substance, commonly called Rice-paper by the Chinese, is made from the pith of a plant or tree, which grows principally in the swampy grounds in the province of Sam-swi, in the northern part of the island of Formosa, where it is said to form large forests. The bark and rind are, previous to exportation, stripped from the pith, which is then called Bok-shung."The iron knife commonly used for cutting this pith weighs about 2 1/2 lbs., and is of the roughest and coarsest workmanship, and perhaps not one blade in twenty is sufficiently well tempered to be advantageously used. In cutting, the knife is kept quite steady, the cylindrical pith being moved round and round against the edge of the knife which is just inserted into the substance, and thus a leaf or sheet is formed resembling the most delicate paper, but rather thick in substance. When brought quickly from the workman's hands the paper is in a damp state. It may have been rendered so, in order to facilitate the smoothing and pressing.

    "At Chang-chew, the large city of which Amoy is the sea-port, there is only one man who can cut this paper. This person ran away from his master in Formosa, and refuses to teach his trade except for a premium of 60 dollars....

    "We have the gratification of knowing that our Consul at Amoy will use his best endeavors to procure flowering specimens of the plant itself."



    The Many Uses of Pith Paper: Flowers, Tourist Trinkets and Medicine

    Artificial Flowers

    Because of its strength and flexibility, pith paper is well suited to the art of making artificial flowers. Artificial flower production was probably first recorded during the Tsin Dynasty (265-420 AD) under Emperor Huey Ti. The paper handles very well, absorbs colors and dyes easily, and produces a very natural appearance when formed into flowers. Additionally, these same attributes allow for excessive handling and detailed work. At the turn of the 19th Century in Canton and Hong Kong, nearly two to three thousand people were employed in the manufacture of artificial flowers, some working on "assembly line" type productions while other workers who were more skilled produced the flowers individually.


    Pith paper as a format for water-based paintings, such as watercolors and tempera, seem to have originated in southern China and became most popular in the west in the 19th century. Western tourists would purchase bound volumes of pith paintings and return with varied images depicting scenes of customs, occupations, costumes, flowers, birds, insects, and butterflies. Occasionally, collections depicting less common themes have appeared; the National Anthropological Archives at the National Museum of Natural History holds an unusual collection of pith paintings depicting scenes of Chinese torture. The pith paper, being so absorbent, are washed in the paints that then create a raised, relief-style image that has a velvety, smooth feel and adds visual depth at the same time. This added aesthetic poses a problem in terms of restoration and conservation in that it renders the paper even more fragile. Typically, pith paintings are "framed" by applying a paste to the back of the image and overlaying a "lining" of another type of paper before adding strips of silk around the edges to complete the "frame", after which they are then usually bound in albums. Along with the samples of pith received by Hooker in 1850, a volume of drawings of Tetrapanax papyriferum were used to illustrate the plant in its natural habitat and the manner in which it is processed to make the paper. The following excerpt comes from Hooker's Journal of Botany and Kew Garden Miscellany, Volume II, 1850:

    "We are not yet prepared to state what is the plant which yields the and now well-known substance called Rice-paper; but, thanks to the queries inserted from time to time in our 'Journal of Botany,' and to the exertions made by our numerous friends to contribute to the Museum of Economic Botany, now so successfully forming at the Royal Gardens of Kew, we have advanced more than one step towards such a knowledge. In a late number (p. 27 of the present volume) we were enabled to some interesting information relative to the "Rice-paper," through the kindness of Mr. Layton, H.B.M, Consul at Amoy, and we have now the pleasure of communicating some further intelligence, derived from C. J. Braine, Esq., a gentleman who has recently returned from Hong-Kong, bringing a rich collection of living plants for the Royal Gardens of Kew, and many curious vegetable products for the Museum of the same establishment,-together with a thin volume of well-executed drawings by a Chinese artist, on Rice-paper ,-said drawings exhibiting the several stages or conditions of the Rice-paper plant, from the preparation of the seed to the packing of the material for exportation.

    "We have selected two out of the eleven of these drawings for our Journal, as illustrative, in the one case, of the growing plant, and in the other, of the mode of cutting out, or forming, the sheets of this paper. The first of these (Tab, VIII.) does, indeed, exhibit the growing plant as of so strange a character, that no botanist to whom we have shown it can conjecture to what family it may belong; and one is naturally led to inquire how far the correctness is to be depended upon; more especially as the presentation is quite at variance with a Chinese figure, said to be that of the Rice-paper plant, in the possession of J. Reeves, Esq., of Clapham, alluded to at p, 29, supra. We should, however, be disposed to think more favourably of the correctness of a series of drawings made expressly for the purpose of illustrating the History of the "Rice-paper," than of a solitary and isolated figure expressly required to he made by a European, In this latter case "John Chinaman" is, perhaps, not wholly to be trusted."

    From Hooker's Journal of Botany and Kew Garden Miscellany Vol. II, 1850.

    Medicinal Uses

    Although largely used for paintings, trinkets and artificial flowers, elements of Tetrapanax papyriferum have also been used for medicinal purposes. The pollen from the flowers of the plant are said to aid hemorrhoids, the stem is said to act as a sedative in addition to being used for coughs and bronchitis. The pith paper itself has occasionally been used as surgical dressing because ability to absorb fluids. In 1590, Shizhen Li's publication Pen ts'ao kang mu (Chinese Materia Medica) describes the many medicinal uses of Tetrapanax papyriferum in the following manner:

    "The stalks of those plants which grow in the hills are large, several inches in circumference. The taste and virtues of this plant are sweet, cooling and innocuous. It aids the secretions, stops diarrhoea and excess of urine, and helps the expectorations. A tincture of the burnt stalks reduced to powder is good for lockjaw." [Translation from Seemann's journal excerpt in J Bot Misc Kew]

    "Tetrapanax payriferum produces an elegant paper that has numerous uses from the decorative to the practical. As illustrated above, there are several collections of pith paper paintings in circulation and in museum collections today. Knowing this, it is interesting to note that they were originally produced as ephemeral tourist trinkets."



    Timeline of Tetrapanax papyriferum

    265-420 A.D.
    The earliest mention of the use of pith paper is thought to be during the Tsin Dynasty (265-420 A.D.). In the official records in the year of Jiann Kang "Jiann Kang Shyr Luh", it is mentioned that the emperor ordered servants to arrange flowers made from "Tung-tsaou".

    Image of Rice Paper plant is published in 1590 in the Pen ts'ao kang mu (Chinese Materia Medica) by Shizhen Li.

    Pith papermaking discussed in T'ien Kung K'ai Wu, a guide to Chinese technology in the 17th century.

    Rice paper plant first mentioned in Western literature in Georg Eberhard Rumpf's Herbarium Amboinenes under the name Buglossum litoreum. 1805 The first examples of "rice-paper" were brought to England in 1805 from China by a Dr. Livingstone.

    Circa 1825
    Pith paper paintings begin to be produced in Southern China, more than likely for the tourist trade.

    General Hardwicke identifies the "rice-paper" plant as Aeschynomene paludosa in Botanical Miscellany v.1, 1830.

    George Bennett, in his Wanderings in New South Wales (1834) publishes the first picture of the "rice paper" plant available to the western world. [Image can be seen on the main exhibit page]

    Sir William Jackson Hooker receives the first samples of pith paper, a model of the knife used in cutting the plant, and a series of paintings detailing the plant and the production of the rice paper.

    Berthold Seeman, during the voyage of the H.M.S. Herald , collected a specimen of the rice paper plant that he believed belonged to the family Malvaceae.

    Hooker receives first living specimens of the plant and comes to the conclusion that the "rice paper" plant is part of the Araliaceous family and so re-names it Aralia Papyrifera, Hook.

    Hooker receives a flowering specimen from J. W. Bowring esq., Hong Kong, and is able to prepare a complete description for Curtis's Botanical Magazine

    Mid to late 1850s
    With increased European interest, the market for pith paper and its product greatly expands.

    German botanist Karl Koch, in Wochenschrift fur Gartnerei und Pflanzenkunde recharacterizes the plant as a Didymopanax, subgenus Tetrapanax.

    Over 144,000 lbs of rice paper are exported from Taiwan, and 2,000-3,000 people are employed in the rice paper artificial flower industry in Canton, China, and Hong Kong alone.

    Circa 1920
    The European demand for rice paper paintings dies out.


    Additional Information

    Articles & Images:


    1. Bennett, George. 1834. Wanderings in New South Wales, Batvia, Pedir Coast, Singapore, and China. 2 vols. Vol II: 75-79
    2. Duke, James A. and Edward S. Ayensu. Medicinal Plants of China Vol 1 Algonac, Michigan: Reference Publications, 1985.
    3. Ed. Committee of the Flora of Taiwan. 1993. Flora of Taiwan 2nd edition, volume 3 :1006-1009.
    4. FACTS[online]. A partial reprint from "Conservation of Pith Paper" by Penny Jenkins, Paper Conservation News, 73, March 1995 [cited 30 March 2003]. Available: []
    5. Hooker, William Jackson. "Some account of the substance commonly known under the name 'Rice Paper'" Botanical Miscellany (1830) Vol. I
    6. Hooker, Sir William Jackson. "Chinese 'Rice Paper,' or 'Bok-Shung.'" Hooker's Journal of Botany and Kew Garden Miscellany (1850) Vol. II
    7. Hooker, Sir William Jackson. "On the Chinese Rice Paper" Hooker's Journal of Botany and Kew Garden Miscellany (1852) Vol. IV
    8. Hooker, Sir William Jackson. "The Rice-Paper Plant" Hooker's Journal of Botany and Kew Garden Miscellany (1853) Vol. V
    9. Hooker, Sir William Jackson. "Aralia papyrifera Rice-paper Plant." Curtis's Botanical Magazine (1856) Vol. XII
    10. Perdue Jr., Robert E. and Charles J. Kraebel. 1961. The Rice-Paper Plant--Tetrapanax Papyriferum (Hook.) Koch. Economic Botany (15): 165-179.
    11. Formosa [on-line]. Reed College, Portland Oregon. 1999. [cited 26 June 2003.] Available:
    12. Seeman, Berthold. 1852-1857. The Botany of the Voyage of H.M.S. Herald, under the Command of Captain Henry Kellet, During the Years 1845-51 London.
    13. Tsai, Fei Wen.1999. Historical Background of Tetrapanax Pith Paper Artifacts. ICOM Ethnographic Conservation Newsletter 19 : 6-10.
    14. Williams, I. 2001. Views from the West. Chinese Pith Paper Paintings. Arts of Asia 31(5): 140-149.



    Web Exhibit Created 2003, Updated 2011.


    Slideshow Image Credits

    1. Pinus palustris (Long-leaved Pine). Tessie K. Frank watercolors. gra00006. Botany Libraries, Gray Herbarium Library, Harvard University.
    2. No. 30. Lilium philadelphicum L.  Wild flowers of eastern North America illustrations, 1887-1934. gra00025. Botany Libraries, Gray Herbarium Library, Harvard University. 
    3. Page 51a. Volvaria volvacea.  Champignons du Tonkin : a collection of original paintings, 1904-1909. far00036. Botany Libraries, Farlow Reference Library of Cryptogamic Botany, Harvard University.
    4. Metrosideros tomentosa (Pohutukawa). New Zealand flora, undated. gra00075. Botany Libraries, Gray Herbarium Library, Harvard University.