Herbariums: A Growing Interest

(Left) A color plate of pink lady’s slippers from How to Know the Wild Flowers.
(Right) Red clover (scientific name Trifolium pratense) in Ethel Maddocks' 1891 Herbarium. Gift of Nicki Richon-Schoel, 2021 [Acc. #2021.016].

Starting in the 1890s botany was becoming more popular, not just professionally and academically but also as an amateur pursuit. The New England Botanical Club was founded in 1895 and soon began keeping a club herbarium, which is a systematically arranged collection of dried plants. Amateur botanists also began their own plant collecting, starting herbaria of their own with the aid of reference books and botany manuals for plant identification. This more systematic and scientific approach began what botanist Stuart Harris termed the “Golden Age of plant collecting” and it aided in more specific identification of plant species in the decades that followed. 

While there were several botany manuals that may have been used for reference in the late 1800s, a book of note in the Cape Ann Museum Library & Archives that may have been used by these amateur botanists is How to Know the Wild Flowers by Mrs. William Starr Dana, first published in 1893. Frances Starr Dana (later Frances Theodora Parsons), a New York botanist and author living in the late 19th and early 20th centuries who amassed an extensive knowledge of wildflowers while on her nature walks. The resulting book is a mix of scientific information along with poetry, illustrations, and her own personal reminiscences. How to Know the Wild Flowers was considered the first field guide to North American wildflowers and was a best-seller, going through several reprints. 

Isabel Babson Lane’s signature inside the cover of How to Know the Wild Flowers 

In 1891, a Cape Ann resident named Ethel Maddocks created an herbarium of a variety of flowering plants from around the Gloucester area which is housed in the CAM Library & Archives. Many, if not most, of these pressed plants are still recognizable to plant enthusiasts even now. Some plants, like yellow adder’s tongue, common violet, and Solomon’s seal, are wildflowers that are native to the area and still grow here. Other plants in her collection are originally from Europe or Asia, like red clover and irises, and can also still be found in the area. The following images are examples of wildflowers from Maddocks’ Herbarium, along with illustrations from reference books in the CAM Library & Archives for comparison. 

Adder’s tongue – also known as “fawn lily”, “trout lily” and “dogtooth violet” – is a wildflower native to the Cape Ann area. It is known as a harbinger of spring and is abundant in deciduous woods across mid-to-Eastern Canada and the United States. Each plant has two leaves with a single stem bearing a golden, bell-shaped flower that is around one or two inches long. For gardeners: while it is tricky to transplant because of its deep roots, once established it can grow rapidly.

(Left) An adder’s tongue (scientific name Erythronium Americanum), harvested from Nile’s Beach by Ethel Maddocks on May 1, 1891. 
(Right) Illustration of yellow adder’s tongue from How to Know the Wild Flowers

Cowslips, now more commonly known as “marsh marigolds”, can frequently be found in meadows and marshy, wet areas in northeastern North America. The name “cowslip” was a misnomer – primroses were often referred to as “cowslips” in England, and the name was mistakenly passed on to this plant by English people in the United States.

(Left) This cowslip (scientific name Caltha palustris) was harvested by Ethel Maddocks on May 3, 1891
(Middle) Illustration of a marsh marigold from How to Know the Wild Flowers
(Right) Marsh marigold illustration from Field Book of American Wildflowers (originally published 1902)

Another native wildflower is Solomon’s seal. According to How to Know the Wild Flowers its name comes from the rootstocks which are marked with large, round scars resembling the impression of a seal on sealing wax. 

(Left) Ethel Maddocks' pressed Solomon’s seal (scientific name Polygonatum biflorum), harvested by Ethel Maddocks from F. W. Cove on May 29, 1891
(Right) Illustration of Solomon’s seal from How to Know the Wild Flowers showing the rootstock and its scars

According to How to Know the Wild Flowers, violets are the “best-beloved as well as the best-known of the early wild flowers” and have heart-shaped leaves, and flowers varying from a pale blue to deep purple. The common violet is also known as “swamp violet” and, among other superstitions, it is associated with love and modesty.

(Left) Ethel Maddocks harvested this common violet (scientific name Viola palmata, var. cucullate) from W. Gloucester on May 9, 1891.
(Right) An illustration of a dog violet from How to Know the Wild Flowers

Also known as “trailing arbutus” and “ground laurel”, How to Know the Wild Flowers describes arbutus as having pink flowers that bloom in April or May. At the time of writing the author states that these were once called “Mayflowers” and sold around the streets of Boston in spring. Another reference book calls arbutus “America’s favorite wildflower” but notes that it is very sensitive to changed conditions as well as flower harvesting.

(Left) Ethel Maddocks' arbutus (scientific name Eipigæa repens), harvested from Magnolia on April 14, 1891
(Right) An illustration of trailing arbutus from How to Know the Wild Flowers

With the continued rise of botany in the late 19th and early 20th century, in 1899 Frances Theodora Parsons wrote a follow-up book to How to Know the Wild Flowers titled How to Know the Ferns. One can imagine that perhaps Ethel Maddocks went on to study and collect ferns on her nature walks in the woodlands around the Gloucester area.



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Robinson, John. The Flora of Essex County, Massachusetts. Salem: Essex Institute, 1880.

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