Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

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Smithsonian Botanical Symposium
May 19, 2017
National Museum of
   Natural History and
the U.S. Botanic Garden
Washington, DC



Presented by the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History Department of Botany in collaboration with the United States Botanic Garden:

"Exploring the Natural World: Plants, People and Places"

History hides behind our garden and museum displays. Plants and artifacts can be themselves objects of wonder, but scratch the surface and every item on display or curated for scientific study has a deeper story as to how it was collected and came to be included in our mostly urban cultural institutions. Large sponsored expeditions or even just curious individuals set off to explore remote corners of the world, and brought back plants, animals, and other natural history treasures. Often the focus was on a particular route or region. Sometimes circumstance caused an individual to take up residence in an unfamiliar part of the world and day-to-day observations of the new environment lead to discoveries that were sent home to eager audiences. Every garden, museum, and herbarium collection continues to grow through a delightful and maddening combination of purpose and accident.

The 15th Smithsonian Botanical Symposium, hosted by the Department of Botany and the United States Botanic Garden, will highlight the history of exploration undertaken by individuals and groups with an emphasis on exploration of the Americas. Several of our presentations are based on recently-published books or books in preparation.



US Exploring Expedition

Pacific coastal forest from US Exploring Expedition journal 1838-1842.

Speaker Abstracts

Plants, people and places: Charles Darwin's botanical work
Janet Browne, Harvard University, U.S.A.

On the Beagle voyage Charles Darwin collected plants as best he could, hoping that they would provide important information for taxonomists in the UK. He was working in a longstanding tradition of botanical exploration that became a significant aspect of imperial expansion in the 19th century. As his evolutionary views took shape he became a dedicated plant physiologist. This talk looks at Darwin's plant collecting and botanical work.

Janet Browne is Aramont professor of the History of Science at Harvard University where she teaches the history of biology, including the history of evolutionary theory. Her interests range widely over the life sciences, including natural history collecting, expeditions, museums, botany and the history of botanic gardens, and the field sciences in general. She is most widely known for her scholarly work on Charles Darwin that includes an award-winning two-volume biography that integrated Darwin's science with his life and times. She has been at Harvard since 2006. Previously she taught at the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at University College London and was an associate editor of the early volumes of The Correspondence of Charles Darwin in Cambridge UK.

Moravian missionaries as pioneers of botanical exploration in Labrador (1765-1954)
Jacques Cayouette, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Canada

The Moravian Church, also known as Church of the United Brethren or Unitas Fratrum, sent out missionaries to many parts of the world, including Labrador. The Moravian Brothers regarded natural history as an important reflection of God's presence, and were interested in natural sciences such as meteorology. They collected a wide range of specimens, including vascular plants, in part to supplement their income. Their botanical contributions in Labrador were initiated in 1765, following the early discoveries of Joseph Banks in the region. In 1773, a list of plants collected at Nain was sent to their headquarters in London, probably accompanied by specimens. European botanists used this material to describe new species. Later, the principal Moravian naturalist, Kohlmeister, made numerous collections and some of these were used to prepare the first flora of Labrador in 1818. North American botanists such as L.D. de Schweinitz were keen to acquire such early North American collections from Kohlmeister, and a genteel rivalry developed between botanists for their acquisition. From 1820 to 1880, at least 16 Moravian missionaries became plant collectors for numerous European clients. Specimens were used to prepare botanical publications, particularly floras, and were preserved in private collections, later incorporated into institutional herbaria. During the 20th century, Moravians in Labrador continued to collect plants, mostly for American botanists. Two Moravian women are known to have collected up until the mid-1950s. There remains much to discover about the Moravian botanists and their important collections.

Jacques Cayouette was born in Lévis, Québec in 1944. At Laval University, he was awarded master's degrees in pastoral theology (1969) and plant ecology (1979), and a Ph.D. in plant cytology (1984). He taught botany at Laval in the late 1970s, and since 1984 has been employed as a botanical research scientist at the Ottawa Research and Development Centre, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. His expertise includes systematics of Canadian grasses and sedges, especially the genera Poa, Bromus, Carex and Eriophorum, with specialization on natural hybridization within these genera. Cayouette has studied plants of naturally open habitats, notably those of arctic-alpine, shoreline, and alvar environments. He participates in protection of native plant germplasm as a member of a Québec government advisory committee. He has contributed to new editions of Flora of North America, Québec Flore laurentienne, and Flore nordique du Québec et du Labrador. One of his main interests is the history of the botanical exploration of Québec and Labrador, with a notable contribution to the book À la Découverte du Nord (2014). He also co-authored three volumes of Curieuses histoires de plantes du Canada (2014, 2015, 2017) which document from 1000-1867 the discovery of uses of plants in New France and early British regimes in Canada.

David Fairchild and his expeditions to the Caribbean Islands
Javier Francisco-Ortega, Florida International University, U.S.A.

David Fairchild (1869-1954), one the most influential plant explorers in America's history, undertook many of his expeditions (between 1925 and 1933) on board the research yacht Utowana, a vessel owned by his wealthy businessman friend Allison Armour (1863-1941). The two last plant hunting expeditions that Fairchild carried out on Utowana targeted the Caribbean Islands (December 1931-April 1932 and January-April 1933). Based on studies conducted in the U.S. National Agriculture Library Special Collections, the U.S. National Herbarium, the U.S. National Archives, and Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, insights regarding the collecting strategies of David Fairchild are provided; with a focus on his plant hunting expeditions in The Bahamas, Haiti, and Jamaica. Before these expeditions were carried out Fairchild read extensively about the history of these countries and contacted relevant colleagues who facilitated his field work. During these trips he collected herbarium specimens and germplasm material. In addition he took photographs, kept a travelogue, and recorded botanical information in collecting note books, and pocket-books. This presentation highlights how botanical history studies can provide unique avenues to establish solid partnerships among botanists from different countries. Furthermore, this presentation will also show how this study facilitated the engagement of members of the Miami-metro community in archival, library, and botanical history research.

Professor Javier Francisco-Ortega is a faculty member in the Department of Biological Sciences of Florida International University with a research appointment at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. His laboratory is housed by this garden. A native from the Canary Islands, Spain, he spent his childhood in Venezuela, and moved back with his parents to the Canaries in 1973. His undergraduate degree in horticulture (Ingeniero Agrónomo, 1986) is from Universidad Politécnica (Madrid). He obtained both his M.Sc. (1988) and Ph.D. (1992) at the University of Birmingham (United Kingdom). His research is centered in plant systematics with a focus on molecular phylogenetics. He also uses “traditional” tools for his systematic work; they include electron microscopy, morphometrics, anatomy, natural products, and nomenclature. He also has an interest in conservation; therefore, many of his projects concern threatened species. These conservation projects use molecular markers tailored for population genetics or for phylogenetics. His studies have a strong field component, and he also has a major interest in the history of plant exploration. The vast majority of his studies concerns plants endemic to tropical and subtropical islands, and they are conducted in close partnerships with colleagues from these islands. His research studies make extensive use of the living collections found at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.

'What holds the earth together': Agnes Chase and Latin American agrostology
Pamela Henson, Smithsonian Institution Archives, U.S.A.

Agrostologist Agnes Chase (1869-1963) devoted her career to the study of grasses, spreading her belief that grass is “what holds the earth together.” Entirely self-educated, she became a U.S. Department of Agriculture scientific illustrator and botanist, as well as Honorary Curator stationed at the Smithsonian's U.S. National Museum. Working with her mentor, Alfred Spear Hitchcock, she became the world's expert on the systematics of grasses. For their volumes on the grasses of the Americas, Hitchcock and Chase conducted extensive field work in Central and South America. Field work was challenging for women in her era, but Chase persisted, relying often on female networks in such places as rural Brazil and Venezuela. Her field notebooks have recently been digitized and transcribed. Chase devoted her career to the systematics of grasses throughout the Americas, serving as a mentor to generations of Latin American botanists. She also reached a broad audience through her popular First Book of Grasses: The Structure of Grasses Explained for Beginners, which was translated into several languages. In her spare time, she was a suffragist, opera buff, and political activist through such groups as the Socialist Party and NAACP. This paper will trace her career, challenges, and expeditions, as well as document her botanical network across the Americas.

Pamela Henson is Institutional Historian, Smithsonian Institution Archives, where she is responsible for research on the history of the Institution and Oral History Program. She received her Ph.D. in the history and philosophy of science from the University of Maryland. Her research interests concentrate on the history of natural history, tropical biology and museums, the use of visual information in historical research, and role of women in science. Recent publications include “A Nursery of Living Thoughts': G. Brown Goode's Vision for a National Museum in the Late 19th Century United States,” in Science Museums in Transition: Cultures of Display in 19th Century Britain and America, eds. C. Berkowitz and B. Lightman, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017; “A Baseline Environmental Survey: The 1910-12 Smithsonian Biological Survey of the Panama Canal Zone,” Environmental History, 2016. Recent exhibits include Welcome to Your Smithsonian, Smithsonian Castle, and 'When Time and Duty Permit': Smithsonian Collecting in World War II, National Museum of Natural History. Recent awards include The 2015 Herbert Feis Award for career contributions to Public History, American Historical Association, and the Smithsonian Secretary's Gold Medal for Exceptional Service in 2014.

André Michaux, intrepid naturalist in America: 1785-1796
Eliane Norman, Stetson University, U.S.A.
Charlie Williams, The André Michaux International Society, U.S.A.

André Michaux arrived in America in 1785 as a royal botanist of Louis XVI and returned to France in 1796 after the French Revolution. His main mission in America was to help in France's reforestation, and he grew both trees and other useful plants and shipped them to France. Michaux wanted to find new species and publish them, and he kept a succinct diary, Journal de mon Voyage, preliminary notes in French with snatches of Latin, which might have been the basis of a book had he lived long enough. He established two nurseries, one near Hoboken, New Jersey, and the other near Charleston, South Carolina. He travelled widely to collect plants, from Florida to the Appalachians, to the Bahamas, and to northern Québec. Negotiations with Jefferson in 1793 for a journey all the way to the Pacific were aborted by Citizen Genet, the first post-revolutionary French Ambassador, who transformed Michaux into a political agent, transferring funds to General Clark of Kentucky to form a militia to expel the Spaniards from the Mississippi. Michaux's last American journey, in 1795, was to the Mississippi River, to determine the feasibility of going to the Pacific. His return to France was marred by shipwreck when he almost lost his herbarium. Once in Paris, he began work on two books, Les Chênes de l'Amérique and Flora Boreali-Americana. We will discuss differences in style and format of these publications, the individuals who were instrumental in his botanical education, and his interactions with Indians and Blacks.

Eliane Norman was born in France and came to America in 1942. She attended Hunter College H.S, Hunter College, Washington University and received her Ph.D. from Cornell University. She studied New World Buddleja for many years and published a monograph on that subject in Flora Neotropica in 2000. At Stetson University she worked with undergraduate students on the vegetation of shell mounds, and the reproductive biology of many interesting Florida plants such as Nemastylis, Chapmannia and several species of Asimina. After retirement, she became interested in the work and travels of André Michaux. With Walter Taylor, she published André Michaux in Florida (2002, University Press of Florida). After the 2002 symposium on Michaux, organized by Charlie Williams, the three of them decided to assemble an annotated translation of Michaux's American journal. This entailed visits to French and American archives, to the historic collections in the Paris herbarium, tracing Michaux's travels on old and recent maps and with the assistance of specialists, figuring out modern equivalents for Michaux's names.

Charlie Williams leads AMIS, a network of individuals interested in French botanist André Michaux. Retired after a long career with the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, his retirement project, in cooperation with Eliane Norman and Walter K. Taylor, has been an annotated translation of Michaux's American Journal. He has organized and chaired two symposia on Michaux, including the 2002 André Michaux International Symposium at Belmont Abbey College, and led an AMIS delegation to Rambouillet, France for a celebration of Michaux. Williams is a longtime member of the Southern Appalachian Botanical Society (SABS) and a life member of the Association of Southeastern Biologists. He has been a frequent presenter on Michaux and author of articles on the botanist for a variety of publications including the SABS journal Castanea. His one-man play Andre Michaux Live, a costumed, first person interpretation of the botanist's adventures, has long been an audience favorite. In 2009 SABS honored him with the Elizabeth Ann Bartholomew Award for his work on Michaux.

Tropical biology and the history of 'biodiversity'
Megan Raby, University of Texas at Austin, U.S.A.

It is no coincidence that tropical biologists were among the key players in the effort to bring “biodiversity” to the public stage in the 1980s. This talk explains how the key scientific concepts and values embedded in the modern biodiversity discourse were developed through U.S. biologists' fieldwork in the tropical circum-Caribbean during the 20th century. Beginning in the era of the Spanish-American War and the construction of the Panama Canal, U.S. ecologists took advantage of expanding U.S. landholdings to establish permanent field stations for long-term, basic research in the tropics. Chief among these was the station at Barro Colorado Island, Panama, now part of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. Facilitating the study of living organisms in situ, tropical stations encouraged studies of ecology, physiology, and behavior in places where specimen-based research had previously dominated. At the same time, stations also encouraged intensive and increasingly fine scale taxonomic and distribution studies. Indeed, it seemed that the closer tropical biologists looked, the more species they found. Although long fascinated by the great numbers and variety of species in the tropics, by mid-century biologists developed practices for measuring “species diversity” and investigating its ecological and evolutionary causes. Seeking financial support and institutional stability, tropical biologists began to argue that the diversity of tropical life itself was an economic resource that should be better studied, used, and conserved. In doing so, they laid the foundations of the modern biodiversity discourse. 

Megan Raby is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin. As a historian of science and environment, she studies the role of place in shaping scientific knowledge. She was awarded the History of Science Society's 2016 Price/Webster Prize for her article “Ark and Archive: Making a Place for Long-term Research on Barro Colorado Island, Panama.” Her current book, American Tropics: The Caribbean Roots of Biodiversity Science, is forthcoming in fall 2017 with the University of North Carolina Press. It explores how tropical fieldwork transformed biologists' understandings of the diversity of life over the course of the 20th century.

The botanical adventures we live every day
Daniel Stone, National Geographic Magazine, U.S.A.

From 1894 to 1904, plant hunter David Fairchild circled the world in search of plants that would enrich American farmers and delight American eaters. Fairchild wasn't the first to do this work. The birth of countries had long coincided with a botanical scramble for exotic plants. But Fairchild was the most creative, harnessing the United States' growing appetite in the late 19th and early 20th century to go further and act more boldly to acquire a stunning array of plants, including avocados, dates, mangoes, and Egyptian cotton, that would help transform the United States into an agricultural and economic superpower. National Geographic editor and author Daniel Stone will discuss this era of plant exploration - including Fairchild and the explorers who came before and after - to argue that America's botanical and culinary diversity are the result of decades of savvy diplomacy, secret theft, and, at times, dark espionage. The talk will include stories from Stone's book, The Food Explorer, on the life and adventures of David Fairchild, forthcoming from Penguin Random House in 2018.

Daniel Stone is a senior writer for National Geographic magazine, where he covers environmental science and agriculture. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, Scientific American, and on CBS's 60 Minutes. He formerly covered the White House for Newsweek. He lives in Washington, D.C.


Program and Schedule

Friday, May 19
Morning Session
NMNH Baird Auditorium

9:00 a.m. Registration and coffee, Evans Gallery (enter through Constitution Avenue lobby)

9:30 a.m. Opening Remarks, Maureen Kearney, Associate Director for Science, Smithsonian Institution, and Laurence J. Dorr, Chair of Botany, Smithsonian Institution. Presentation of the José Cuatrecasas Medal for Excellence in Tropical Botany, Kenneth J. Wurdack, Department of Botany, Smithsonian Institution

10:00 a.m. Jacques Cayouette, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, "Moravian missionaries as pioneers of botanical exploration in Labrador (1765-1954)"

10:45 a.m. Coffee Break, Executive Conference Room

11:15 a.m. Eliane Norman, Stetson University, and Charles Williams, The André Michaux International Society, "André Michaux, intrepid naturalist in America: 1785-1796"

12:00 p.m. Pamela Henson, Smithsonian Institution Archives, "'What holds the earth together': Agnes Chase and Latin American agrostology"

12:45 p.m. Lunch break - on your own

Afternoon Session
NMNH Baird Auditorium

2:00 p.m. Megan Raby, University of Texas at Austin, "Tropical biology and the history of 'biodiversity'"

2:45 p.m. Daniel Stone, National Geographic Magazine, "The botanical adventures we live every day"

3:30 p.m. Coffee Break, Executive Conference Room

4:00 p.m. Javier Francisco-Ortega, Florida International University, "David Fairchild and his expeditions to the Caribbean Islands"

4:45 p.m. Janet Browne, Harvard University, "Plants, people and places: Charles Darwin's botanical work"

Evening Events
The United States Botanic Garden
6:30 p.m. Closing reception and poster session, United States Botanic Garden, Washington, DC.


CALL FOR POSTERS The National Museum of Natural History and the U.S. Botanic Garden have begun accepting abstracts for poster presentations for the 15th Smithsonian Botanical Symposium, "Exploring the Natural World: Plants, People and Places", which will be held May 19, 2017 in Washington, DC. Space is limited and will be accepted based upon the quality of the abstract and the order received.


  • Abstracts must be submitted electronically to before 14 April 2017.
  • Abstract selections will be made by 21 April 2017. Notifications will be sent by email only.

INSTRUCTIONS FOR PREPARING ABSTRACTS Abstract submissions should include the following:

  • Topic must be related to the study of exploration or discovery and contain original research.
  • Author(s) name(s) including affiliation(s) and email address(es).
  • List the title in upper and lower case. Titles are limited to 150 characters.
  • Abstracts may not exceed 1,500 characters (approx. 200 words), including spaces.
After you submit your abstract, you will receive a confirmation email. If you do not receive an email, your abstract has not been received. Registration is mandatory to be included in the program.



  • Posters will be displayed on May 19th at the U.S. Botanic Garden during the closing reception.


  • Posters should be no larger than 30" x 40" (portrait orientation)
  • Presenting authors are requested to attend the poster session (6:00 pm - 8:00 pm) to take advantage of opportunities to discuss their work with symposium participants.

What will be provided:

  • Easels, foam board and binder clips for each accepted presenter.
  • We will NOT provide you with a table, computers, monitors or other electronic equipment and cannot guarantee access to electricity for your presentation should it be required.


National Museum of Natural History
   Department of Botany
   Office of the Associate Director for Science
United States Botanic Garden

Visitor Information


The National Museum of Natural History is located on the National Mall at the intersection of 10th St and Constitution Ave NW in Washington, DC 20560.

The United States Botanic Garden is also located on the National Mall, at 100 Maryland Ave SW in Washington, DC 20001.

For maps, directions, and additional information, visit the NMNH, USBG, or NPS websites.


Metrorail, Washington's subway system, and Metrobus link the city with nearby communities in Maryland and Virginia. The closest subway stations to the National Museum of Natural History are Federal Triangle and Smithsonian (both on the Blue, Orange, and Silver lines). The closest subway station to the United States Botanic Garden is Federal Center SW (also on the Blue, Orange, and Silver lines). For a Metrorail map and more information, visit the Metro website.

Washington is served by three major airports: Reagan National (DCA), which is most convenient for domestic travelers; Dulles International (IAD); and Baltimore/Washington International (BWI). DCA is served directly by Metrorail. IAD and BWI can both be accessed via public transportation, but are not directly served by Metrorail.

Parking is not available at the museum. There are several private parking garages in the vicinity.


There are many options in the Washington area. In general, prices decrease with distance from the National Mall (city center). However, it is important to factor in the cost and time required to travel between a particular option and the conference venues on the National Mall. It is recommended that you prioritize options within walking distance to a Metrorail stop or the conference venues.

For hotels, the popular online booking sites for travelers should provide you with a range of possibilities. As always, reading reviews can be helpful. Please keep in mind that Washington is a popular tourist destination; for the greatest number of options and best prices, book early. Please note that there is not an official conference hotel.

SBS 2017 - Optional Behind-the-Scenes Tour

A behind-the-scenes tour of the Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Library of Natural History
National Museum of Natural History, 10th St. and Constitution Ave. NW, Washington DC, 20560
Hosted by Smithsonian Libraries

Come see the original books that early naturalists and explorers wrote about their travels and discoveries! The Smithsonian Libraries’ Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Library of Natural History will have on display a wide selection of publications produced by scientific voyages of exploration. From early Renaissance travels (Belon, Tournefort, and others), through the great age of exploration (Cook, Dumont d’Urville, von Humboldt, Darwin, et al.), to the government-sponsored expeditions across the North American West in the mid- and late-1800s, these books are held for you and your colleagues. In addition there will be a few examples of “directions for collecting” that reveal how plants were gathered, prepared, preserved, documented, and transported as specimens (living or dried) in centuries past. For more information on the Cullman Library collections, go to and click on the pdf at the bottom of the page.

  • Thursday, May 18 at 3:00 - 4:00 pm
  • Thursday, May 18 at 4:00 - 5:00 pm
  • Friday May 19 at 5:30 - 6:30 pm

Capacity for each tour is 20 people.

To sign up, please send an email message to indicating which tour you would like to attend. First come, first serve. A waiting list will be made to accommodate demand. RSVP by Monday, May 15.

Please note: The Cullman Library is a high-security facility; you will be on video camera. No food or drink is allowed in the library. Photography is allowed, but no flash.

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