The Glass Orchard

Driving from Ames to Des Moines last week, my friend Tom told me about Harvard’s Glass Flowers — more officially the Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants. It’s a fascinating story. They

…are a set of approximately 3,000 life-size models of plants made out of glass, with occasional bits of wire, paint, and glue. The collection is owed by Harvard University, where the models are on display in the Harvard Museum of Natural History. George Lincoln Goodale, the first director of the Harvard Botanical Museum, commissioned the models in 1886 from Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka, a father and son team of glassmakers based in Hosterwitz, near Dresden. The Blaschkas produced the models over 50 years, Leopold until his death in 1895 and Rudolph until his retirement at age 79 in 1936.

They’re not just beautiful, they’re supposed to be useful too, aids to the study of tropical botany in particular.

There are many fruits and fibers in the collection, Rossi-Wilcox explained,1 as well as other “useful” plants. “The Botanical Museum’s whole mission is ‘economic botany.’ Cotton, silk, the food we eat … We’re this odd little sister of taxonomy. The point of making this collection was to make people understand plants that were common in their lives.”

Some of the latest — and the best — of the Blaschka models are the series Rudolf made on the diseases of fruit trees. The “rotten fruit” series, Rossi-Wilcox affectionately called them. “They are the most spectacular models he made,” she said. “They’re animated, realistic. The cut sections don’t have the mealiness of real disease, but as fruit, he’s got it — all the little weirdnesses of the colors. Anyone who has fruit trees has seen these things.

I can’t find a full list of the “164 plant families, totaling 847 species and plant varieties” represented by the models. But I have found photographs of Musa paradisiaca, Prunus armeniaca and Gossypium herbaceum. And there is also an Emperor Alexander Apple “affected by apple scab disease”. So agrobiodiversity seems to be well represented.

  1. Susan Rossi-Wilcox is a curatorial associate at the Botanical Museum. []

7 Replies to “The Glass Orchard”

  1. Oh, wow–I had no idea. I may try to go over there this weekend. Or some weekend this fall. It’s even free on Sunday mornings….hmmm.

    I’ll try to ask for a list. It may be something they have on paper somewhere, or can photocopy for me.

  2. I’ll take notes and photos, if I can. It will depend on the hurricane track for this weekend, though :) It would be a lousy walk to Harvard Square if it is that soggy.

    I was planning to go in to the bookstore anyway to pick up Glut. I wonder if it is possible to have a more bio-geeky Sunday….?

  3. I’m back from a lovely morning over there. Preliminary report: O.M.G. I expected to be impressed. I didn’t expect to be gobsmacked.

    I also picked up 2 books they have at the museum store. The Glass Flowers at Harvard (Schultes & Davis, Photos by Burger) which is quite lovely. There’s an index of the plates at the back with many IDs, but that is only a part of the collection.

    Another book is Drawing Upon Nature: Studies for the Blaschkas’ Glass Models which contains both the invertebrates and plants diagrams. This also has an index with some nomenclature, but again is only part of the collection.

    I’ll work on writing up more details. I happened to run into the volunteer for the room who I had met before at another Boston area science event, and she gave me a bunch of special tidbits as well.

    Stunning. Seriously.

  4. We visited the glass flower collection (during holiday travel from Melbourne, Australia) in May 2012. Fantastic to see these beautiful and botanically detailed specimens. I was interested in them as during the 80’s a colleague from work sent me a postcard from Harvard, of Aspergillus (fungus) growing on the surface of a pear fruit. It was Model 785 made by R.Blaschka in 1929, part of a series showing fungal diseases of fruit. However, on our visit I saw none of this fungal disease collection and the staff (volunteers) I spoke with had no knowledge of this part of the collection. I’m sure they still exist though they may be a bit worse for wear.

  5. My husbands grandfather left him a card of the 785 model of ASPERGILLUS HERBARIORUM (Wigg.) Fisher, on the bottom of the pic it says Ware Collection of Blaschka in 19299 Glass Models of Plants Botanical Museum, Harvard University. Could you please let us know if it is of value or if we should send it to the collection.

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