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Beyond the basic Valentine's bouquet: Botanical models, flower x-rays, and Robert Burns roses

Not satisfied with a bouquet of standard red roses, Smithsonian staffers share unique blooms from museum collections. Diane Wendt is a curator in the Division of Medicine and Science, Erin Clark is a Horticulturist with Smithsonian Gardens, and Shannon Perich is Curator of the Photographic History Collection. 

Beautiful science: Brendel's botanical models

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was expensive to provide each pharmacy school student with a microscope, but anatomical details of plants can be tough to see with the naked eye. Pharmacy schools and museums (including the Smithsonian) relied instead on botanical models like these for student instruction.

Manufactured through the 1920s by the Brendel Company, a German firm founded by Robert Brendel in 1866, these botanical models are made of papier mache, wood, plaster, gelatin, and other materials. Many can be "dissected" or disassembled to show the internal anatomy of flowers, fruits, and other organs. View the models in the slideshow above or on Flickr

Wendt also points out that these models present conservation challenges as the models include intricate details, materials used such as gelatin can retain moisture, and papier mache is particularly delicate.

Roses in winter: Burpee Seed Catalog

Cold and calm February gives gardeners time to peruse seed catalogs. Smithsonian Libraries houses the Burpee Seed Catalog Collection; several of the beautifully illustrated covers from this collection are searchable online. Fantastical figures, farmers, and fine ladies grace the covers, as catalog companies often used sentiment to sell their "rare flowers, vegetables & fruits." With the help of effective advertising and distribution (plus promotional items, like this lima bean pod-sized letter opener), the American seed trade flourished throughout the cold winter months.

Roses have featured prominently in the American nursery trade. The roses on the cover of Childs' 1898 catalog, listed as "Robert Burns Roses" seem to evoke the lines of the Scottish poet, famous for "A Red, Red Rose"; each was named after a song of his. The illustration seems to leap from the page.

Described as ever-blooming roses in Childs’ 1898 catalog, the Robert Burns Roses are each named after a song by the Scottish poet.
Described as ever-blooming roses in Childs' 1898 catalog, the Robert Burns Roses are each named after a song by the Scottish poet

The "Halloween" rose is a striped pink and white cross between "Meteor" and "Bon Silene." (Read Burns's poem about Halloween traditions.) The Highland Mary rose is a mutation of Canadian rose "Agrippena," white with pink and lemon. Sweet Afton is a pink fragrant Philadelphia cross between "American Beauty" and "Safrano."

Outside, Smithsonian Gardens' own Heirloom Garden hosts a trellised thornless rose, "Zephirine Drouhin" rose of 1868, waiting for spring. Until spring and summer arrive, depend on the pages of seed catalogs to help you envision your garden and the talent of florists to bring you lovely cut roses.

An 1898 cover of “Maule’s Seed Catalogue”
An 1898 cover of "Maule's Seed Catalogue"

See-through flowers

Perhaps one of the most delicatly rendered flowers in the Photographic History Collection are the radiographs by Dr. Dain Tasker. (A radiograph is a print made from x-ray film.)

Amazon Lily, Dr. Dain Tasker, radiograph, 1930s. This printed x-ray of the flower shows Tasker’s combination of a delicate artistic hand and his exacting technical knowledge.
Amazon Lily, Dr. Dain Tasker, radiograph, 1930s. This printed x-ray of the flower shows Tasker's combination of a delicate artistic hand and his exacting technical knowledge.

Tasker was a radiologist at the Wilshire Hospital in Los Angeles, California. In the 1930s and 1940s, he became known for these elegant images of the structures of flowers thanks to photographer Will Connell. When Tasker, a reluctant photographer, was seeking a way to make prints of flowers from his x-ray films, he found Connell at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. Connell, too, loved these artistic images made with scientific medical technologies and often awarded Tasker prizes when he juried shows in which Tasker's work was entered.

After Tasker's death, his wife donated over 350 films and over 250 prints to the Smithsonian. When I see these images, I think of love, passion, and gentleness. The gift to the Smithsonian was made out of love for a husband with an effort to preserve his legacy. A friend recognized a special vision then supported and promoted Tasker's passion to see beyond the external and ephemeral beauty of a flower.

In the mood for more Valentine's Day romance? Check out last year's Valentine picks (nude mermaid alert), sweetheart brooches and pins from World War II, and tokens of love from our numismatics collection.