The Lost Flora

They were last seen in the wild along the river, shortly after their seeds were collected, as if the act of possession provoked their disappearance. The seeds, perhaps dipped in beeswax or pressed carefully between sheets of paper to protect them for the long journey from Georgia to Pennsylvania, survived and eventually germinated in the Bartram Garden, where William Bartram impressed upon them the name Franklinia alatamaha, the Franklin tree. It’s a gratifying story, well-worn in the halls of botanical conservation, with the fate of a species resting in the hands of a botanical explorer. But the serendipity of the survival of this one species is undercut by currents of loss; what happened to those trees along the river? Were they cut down or did a disease from lands far away wipe them out? And is a species still alive if it only exists as a vestige in gardens, on display for our visual entertainment?

The narrative of this one tree hints at all that is missing; roughly 600 plants globally have become extinct since 1753 according to Aelys Humphreys in a 2019 article published in Nature. Plant populations are especially difficult to track; they can disappear and then reappear years later after a disturbance and can easily exist in isolated patches outside of human awareness. In their research, Humphreys and her colleagues discovered that almost as many species have been declared extinct and then rediscovered as have gone extinct. Even this extinct-extant binary is complicated with plants which, unlike many animals, can also be preserved and propagated, in labs and botanical gardens, even if they have ceased to have a viable wild population – a state known as ‘functional extinction’. More and more plants are headed towards this purgatory, as we continue to invest in collecting and storing the seeds of species, while simultaneously diminishing the capacity for these same plants to survive in situ. This is the case for the Franklin tree, which is now relatively widespread, but in such isolated instances that its existence hardly registers. We haven’t lost the species, but rather the potential of a population.

I first learnt of Franklinia alatamaha while at an artist residency at the Oak Spring Garden Foundation, a botanical library and archive situated just east of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. In the cool dark archive, I looked through William Bartram’s drawings, among which is a gorgeous sketch of the Franklin tree, caught in perpetual bloom. These drawings and his writings are among many botanical publications from the 16th century onwards by Euro-American colonisers attempting to catalogue and capitalise on the vast flora of North America for agricultural, industrial, and medicinal uses, as well as horticultural trade; one mechanism of imperialism that transformed ecosystems and gave rise to the systems of categorization which we still use today. While these early catalogues are by no means comprehensive, I was curious to examine them in the context of loss: What can the plants in these pages teach us about how we react to, preempt, and contextualise extinction? How did this era shape our knowledge of flora and what was lost in translation with the advent of a global categorization system? The stories that follow trace the narratives of several plants from the pages of these botanical catalogs to their current grounds, not only to find out what is missing, but also the shape of its absence.

Cecil Howell. Franklinia alatamaha, 2021. Pastels and graphite. 152 x 107 cm.
Cecil Howell. Cypripedium acaule, 2021. Pastels, oil pastels, coloured pencils. 122 x 92cm

ONE OF THE EARLY PLANT CATALOGUES to detail the botanical abundance of Virginia was the two-volume Flora Virginica, published in 1739-1743. Within the pages are Latin descriptions of the many plant specimens that John Clayton (surely with the help of others) collected in Virginia, which are now housed in the John Clayton herbarium at the Natural History Museum in London. By my own rough cross-referencing with NatureServe Explorer, I found that over half of the identified species in the herbarium are now listed as critically imperilled in at least one of the United States. This includes some well-known plants, like several species of lupines and milkweeds, the flowers of which capture our attention, but also many plants that I’d never heard of and likely will never encounter. For instance, Schwalbea americana is a hemiparisitic perennial, feeding partially from the roots of other plants, particularly narrowleaf silkgrass. In an ironic twist, as Bruce Sorrie noted in Castanea in 1997, roughly one third of its existing population lies within the military base of Fort Bragg, where routine live ammunition trainings often spark fire, fuelling the disturbance regimen the Schwalbea needs to survive. And then there is the pretty, diminutive vetch, Aeschynomene virginica, which grows in bare, disturbed areas, from freshwater tidal marshes to roadside ditches, but is easily outcompeted if the conditions are not right. According to the Center for Plant Conservation, scientists are going to great lengths to collect seeds, cross breed plants, and reestablish populations of the vetch. Understanding that disturbance is fundamental to life goes against the grain of our paved roads and steel pipes, but as the planet changes faster than ever before, we are being challenged to rethink static systems. Perhaps by studying Aeschynomene virginica and Schwalbea americana and learning how to adapt our patterns for their existence, we can also learn how to prolong our own existence on this planet. 

What was not included in Flora virginica? There are many absences, but one was especially curious. As I read through Bartram’s writing on his travels in the Southeast, I frequently came across accounts of ‘extensive Cane brakes or Cane meadows’, a reference to the fields of Arundinaria sp., the only bamboo genus native to North America, that used to line the rivers in the South (and even as far north as New Jersey). The plant is mentioned in the first edition of Flora virginica (referred toas Arundo Maxima), although Clayton did not collect a specimen of it, but left out in the subsequent edition printed in 1762. The towering cane brakes were home for passenger pigeons and Carolina parakeets, amongst many other animals, and the abundant plant provided southeastern Native Americans with material for tools, structures, baskets, instruments, and food in the form of the young shoots and seeds. Despite its abundance and utility, by the end of the 19th century, the bamboo was virtually extinct due to overgrazing, changing fire regimens, and the agricultural development of flood plains. Remnant fields now represent roughly two per cent of its former expanse (here again, Fort Bragg has served as a refuge). The story splits here: in one narrative, it is easy to see how the disappearance of Arundinaria species speaks to the loss of knowledge and life that took place as the newly arrived Euro-Americans usurped a land cultivated for millennia by Native Americans.

Was the plant removed from the pages of Flora Virginica because it was seen as something of lesser value, so closely associated with a culture that colonisers generally disparaged? Or perhaps it was removed because it was disappearing so quickly that, by the time the second edition came out, the plant was nearly lost in Virginia.

At the same time, the vastness of these canebrakes represents a loss that had already happened. As Steven G. Platt and Christopher G. Brantley write in a 1997 article in Castanea, ‘By 1750, when Europeans began to penetrate the interior of the continent, they failed to realize the “pristine wilderness” they encountered was actually 200-year-old regrowth in a formerly extensively modified environment. Following depopulation [of Native Americans], invasion of fallow fields by cane would have occurred rapidly.’ In other words, the ‘extensive’ canebrakes that Bartram noted were the overgrown fields and settlements of Native Americans eradicated by diseases and war. Again, the narrative of this one plant only hints at all that was lost. 

IGNORANCE IS AN IMPORTANT FORCE IN SHAPING KNOWLEDGE. Flora Virginica was published amid an emerging field of taxonomy, one not yet dominated by the binomial nomenclature we are now familiar with. However, along with the many other efforts to globally catalogue the more than human world, it helped provide the raw, unnamed material that was critical in developing the binomial standard for naming. In My Garden (Book):, Jamaica Kincaid aptly points out that ‘[Europeans] would not have agreed to one system for all the plants they had in common, but these new plants from far away, like the people far away, had no history, no names, so they could be given names.’ Of course, the plants did have names, and more importantly deeply entwined relationships, it is only through willfully ignoring this that a new form of knowledge emerged.

Not only did the opportunity for naming arise from colonisation, the names themselves celebrated Europeans. Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist who proposed the binomial Latin system, wanted the names of botanists and their patrons impressed onto these ‘new’ plants; so that in learning botany one would learn the history of botanists. Many plants, although by no means all, became proxies for the people who harvested them or paid for the botanical expedition. Within the ranks of European botanists, there were those who disputed Linnaeus, arguing that using native languages over Latin would embed the names with a sense of geographic distribution. If these scientists had won out, would we now have a different understanding of the relationships between species? Perhaps, although the use of Latin may also help us in understanding the connection between globally dispersed families of plants. More importantly is that we recognise that we are working within a historic framework, one which celebrates the aesthetics, politics and science of the culture in which it was created.

In her book, Plants and Empire, Londa Schiebinger notes, ‘There is … nothing sacred about the Linnaean system of classification and nomenclature. His is in some sense the “QWERTY” universal keyboard of the organic world, whose success owes as much to accidents of founding and dispersion as to, say, inherent natural advantage. That is often the case in history: once things are fixed it is hard to think of them in any other way. And eventually we come to forget that things ever could have been otherwise.’ This seems to me to be the much bigger loss, the way the wheel ruts of history make our current models look like the only logical path, when in fact there are many possibilities.

In a similar fashion, the drawings associated with this age of botanical exploration are what we now expect from any botanical illustration, a singular species, captured with perfectly intact leaves and flowers, with a few parts, like the seeds or stamen, enlarged for greater detail. Out of context, the plants appear scaleless and stark. The thing is there, but it has lost its relationships, the inbetweeness that makes any object. Of course, this type of drawing makes it easier understand the individual unit, but it does not show us where or how the plants emerge, what their roots entangle with, or how they decompose. A plant that appears frequently in these 18th and 19th-century illustrations is the pink lady’s slipper orchid, Cypripedium acaule. The bright pink flower is made even more striking by the shady forest floor it grows from. This relationship, it turns out, is the key to the orchid’s existence. Each seed relies upon a fungus to open and nourish it until the plant grows large enough to feed the fungus in return. But this symbiosis is lost in the illustrations, which typically show a singular orchid, with perfect pink blooms, on a white background. The drawings disconnect the species from its environment, shaking the relationships from it as one would shake earth from the roots of a plant.

From the window of my residence in Virginia, I can see several ash tree snags, victims of the emerald ash borer that has ravaged the North American ashes. After the trees died, the maintenance team at Oak Spring cut off the big branches, but left the trunks, so that the decaying wood could support new life. Every day I watch the woodpeckers as they burrow and eat, their presence a symbol of a trunk that is no doubt full of insects and fungi. In a 2003 essay on mourning in Studies in Gender and Sexuality, Judith Butler wrote that, ‘We are not only constituted by our relations but also dispossessed by them as well.’ This resonates as I watch the woodpeckers turn a decaying tree into a home, which in turn speeds up the process of decay. With each loss, the earth is remade. Despite our diminishing biodiversity, we are still in a constant state of becoming, the direction of which depends upon our ability to recognise the diminishing world as a choice. In Butler’s essay, she posits that grief is a powerful political tool. Who gets the space for grief, whether in the obituary pages or in the news, shapes our empathy and therefore who and what we value. While Butler is arguing that we need to extend the privilege of grief to humans whose lives we currently undervalue, her essay could also apply to the more-than-human world, where our ability to mourn the current extinction crisis is fundamental to shifting our future.

Cecil Howell. Fraxinus pennsylvanica, 2021. Watercolour, coloured pencil, graphite. 18 x 13cm

I grew up in the woods of southern New York, where a disease is now devastating the beech trees. The beeches, with their pale golden persistent leaves in the winter and silky grey bark, are the most visually striking trees of the woods, which make it even more heartbreaking to watch their leaves shrivel and tops collapse, enough so that I am tempted to avoid walking in the woods. But this is the real danger of loss, the possibility that we stop making relationships, whether out of a fear of pain or because we encounter less, and therefore close ourselves off to the transformative power of those relationships. And so, I return to the woods.

Note: The visual pieces I created are based on illustrations found in plant catalogues from the 18th and 19th century. After drawing the plants, I removed the pigment using sponges, sandpaper, bleach, glass cleaner and erasers. There was an intimacy in using household cleaning supplies to wipe away the drawings; it centred some of the abstract ideas around loss onto my body and the daily gestures we use to clean and control our spaces. The process of erasure also created new forms, forms that lack the ‘thingness’ that the original illustrations were trying to capture, but perhaps shed light on other truths about the plants: their interconnectedness, their temporality or the way they may be perceived by other species. To paraphrase Terry Tempest Williams, in undoing there is also becoming.

Many thanks to the Oak Spring Garden Foundation for their generosity in sharing the archives and providing both the space and time to create this work and the North American Cultural Laboratory for providing a quiet space to write.