Glass Flowers & Other Wonders

For a trip to see truly unusual objects, I made a visit to Havard’s Museum of Natural History. The highlight here is the giant room that holds the glass models of flowers and flower parts made by father-son team Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka.

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These flowers are so lifelike that it is hard to believe that they are made of glass.

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Strawberry Hedgehog Cactus (great plant name!)

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Mountain Laurel

Each one is made of nothing more than copper wire (for internal structure), glue, colored glass rods, and sometimes a bit of paint.

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Andean Lupine

This is a stunning collection, developed because Professor George Lincoln Goodale, the director of Harvard University’s Museum of Vegetable Products (no joke — that was its real name) wanted a vehicle to teach students about the botany of flowers from all around the world. Dried plants quickly loose their color, and wax and plaster models just didn’t do the trick. So when Goodale saw a few glass marine invertebrates made by the Blaschkas, he commissioned some glass plants. Harvard eventually ordered thousands of these models between 1886 and the early 1930s.

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I was a particular fan of the flowers that remind me of my home in Southeast Asia, including the orchids …

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… and the Malayan pitcher plants …

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You can also see tiny flowers made huge; for example, the minuscule flowers of northern panic-grass are fully visible when magnified 56 times.

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And though this is known as the glass flower collection, it’s not all flowers. There are also fruits …

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… spices …

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… leaves …

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… and nonflowering plants like ferns and horsetails:

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But while I went to see the flowers, I found myself even more interested in the magnified plant parts. For example, here are the spores of the horsetail plant magnified 250 times their original size:

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The Blaschkas always crafted many different plant parts for each plant, as with the many elements of the spider-net grevillea …

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… the creosote bush …

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… and even the pineapple!

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Some of these magnified parts are beautiful, like the whorl of leaves from the coon’s tail (an aquatic plant) …

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… while others look like they came straight out of a Dr. Seuss book:

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Sticky Phacelia

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American Hazlenut

You start to get a sense of some of the similarities among disparate plants, such as the pistil of the phyllanthus arbuscula

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… and that of the cape gooseberry:

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The Blaschkas even created models of different kinds of apple diseases and rot so that budding botanists (no pun intended) could study them. Here’s an example of apple scab, a fungal infection:

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If you get tired of looking at plants and their component parts, you can visit the small display of glass eyes — the Blaschkas got their start in the eyeball business.

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Down the hall are more glass models crafted by the Blaschka famliy, but here we move into the animal kingdom. The Blaschkas created hundreds of models of invertebrate sea creatures (which are otherwise hard to preserve outside of creepy glass jars), including octopi …

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Curled Octopus

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Atlantic White-Spotted Octopus

… sea anemones …

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… jellyfish ….

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Catostylus tagi

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Portuguese Man of War

… sea slugs …

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Sacoglossan Sea Slug

… and this beautiful Grey Sea Pen:

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Rather amazingly, to this day no one knows how the Blaschkas made these things. Harvard has a model of their lampworking bench, but the crafting technique itself has been lost.

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You’ll find far more than glass objects at this museum. Harvard’s Natural History Museum also has real dead things — lots of them! I found beetles (order Coleoptera)…

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… butterflies (order Lepidoptera) …

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… and birds of all kinds:

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Hummingbirds

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As a side note, I was excited to see the manakins because I’ve just finished reading The Evolution of Beauty by Richard Prum, a book that talks all about mate choice in these and other birds (it’s really interesting stuff; he argues that there’s compelling evidence for Darwin’s theory that we choose our partners purely for aesthetic reasons).

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There’s taxidermy galore here!

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Siberian Tiger

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Hoffman’s Two-Toed Sloth & Other Creatures

The centerpiece of Harvard’s erstwhile Museum of Comparative Zoology (now absorbed into this museum) was its Great Mammal Hall, constructed in 1872. There are mammals from all over the world, including these antipodean monotremes:

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Short-Beaked Echidna & Duck-Billed Platypus

Skeletons feature prominently in the Great Mammal Hall. Two whale skeletons have been suspended from the ceiling in this crowded room for nearly a century and a half:

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Sperm Whale

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North Atlantic Right Whale

The museum also displays things that have been dead for a very, very long time.

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You can see the entire skeleton of a kronosaurus, a sort of crocodile-meets-dolphin with fangs (technically a short-necked pliosaur):

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I also liked this glyptodont, panochthus tuberculatus, a giant ancient relative of the armadillo. Some glyptodonts could grow to over 2,300 pounds and become the size of a small car!

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The accompanying curatorial note, clearly written some decades ago, made me smile:

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There’s so much to see at this museum — there are sections on evolution and climate change, microbes and forests, bees and orb weavers. It would take a full day to do it all well; the museum isn’t large, but it’s packed to the gills. I finished my visit in the stunning Earth & Planetary Sciences Gallery, where studying the shapes, textures, and colors of the rare gems and minerals would merit a good hour or more!

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Elbaite from California

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Labradorite from Madagascar

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Azurite (with malachite) from Arizona

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