Botanica Collected

Orchid Illustrations at Harvard 


By Bobbi Angell and Dr.Gustavo A. Romero, Curator, Oakes Ames Herbarium, Harvard University


Originally appeared in The Botanical Artist - Volume  17, Issue 1


Amidst the riches of the Botanical Libraries and Herbaria of Harvard University, the orchid illustrations prepared for Dr. Oakes Ames and his successors stand out as distinctive works of art, notable far beyond their function as documentation of the diversity and complexity of the Orchid family. Entwined with the artwork is a portrait of a remarkable marriage and collaboration between two decidedly remarkable people. Blanche Ames (1878-1969) and Oakes Ames (1874-1950), born into socially and politically prominent but unrelated families, met in college and were married a year after Blanche graduated. It was a happy and mutually supportive relationship, well described by daughter Pauline‘s introduction to her father‘s diaries (compiled as Oakes Ames: Jottings of a Harvard Botanist, 1979). 

Their main residence, Borderland in North Easton, Massachusetts, was designed by Blanche to accommodate the family as well as their scholarship, with a two story library and a third floor art studio, surrounded by abundant land for gardening and hiking. It is now a state park and wildlife sanctuary, with 1500 acres of field and forest and a house open for guided tours, complete with Blanche‘s paintings and color charts on the walls. 

Oakes began his career as a botanist with a childhood fascination with orchids and horticulture. He attended Harvard University and went on to become director of the Botanic Garden (1909-1922) and Director of the Botanic Museum (1937-1945), excelling as a brilliant taxonomist who made major strides in the classification of the orchid family. He amassed a large collection of living orchids that he donated to The New York Botanical Garden (where several of them still flourish, over 100 years later). His life work culminated in the endowment of the Oakes Ames Orchid Herbarium and Library, where his collections and books are housed. 

The collaborative work with Blanche began early. Oakes gave her a microscope during their courtship and she quickly came to understand the complexity of orchids while developing a distinctive style in her drawings. Acknowledged in one of his early publications as ’my wife, colleague and playfellow’ she illustrated hundreds of new and noteworthy orchid species during their 50 year marriage. Blanche lived up to her own words expressed in her Smith College commencement address “We are fortunate to live in an age that, more than any other, makes it possible for women to attain the best and truest development in life.” She was truly a remarkable woman. While raising four children and maintaining four residences, she earned recognition as a women’s rights activist focused on birth control issues, a researcher of perception and color theory, a landscape designer who resolved drainage issues on their property, an inventor of war related devices, and an acclaimed portrait painter. 

But it is her hundreds of elegant pen and ink drawings of orchids that captivate us, each one possessing a dramatic and bold sense of design. Using deep shadows and striking highlights, her black ink plays against white paper to stunning effect. Her lines, cross hatches and stipples are skillfully executed, with delicate rhizomes and root hairs attended to as effectively as her portrayal of the succulence of pseudobulbs. Microscopic details, drawn with the aid of a camera lucida from dissected flowers preserved in glycerin, clearly depict the intricacies of floral structure. Her drawings were first published in 6 fascicles of Studies in the Family Orchidaceae, published as Contributions from the Ames Botanical Library (1904-1920). When the Botanical Museum acquired a press, illustrations were published in Schedulae Orchidianae (1922—1930), Botanical Museum Leaflets (beginning in 1932) and Orchids in Retrospect (1948). A few of the earliest illustrations were professionally engraved in France and several were Blanche’s own copper etchings, but most were printed as heliotypes, photographically reproduced copper plates mounted on wooden blocks, printed as letterpress plates, a technique which accurately captured the details of her pen and ink drawings. 

Blanche traveled extensively with Oakes, drawing orchids along the way in the Caribbean, the Philippines and Central and South America. Some of her finest illustrations were drawn from the plants in the forests on their property – there are several delicate drawings of the rare Isotria verticillata, and rich depictions of Cypripedium species, later published in Donovan Stewart Correll‘s Native Orchids of the United States (1950)A particular focus of her attention was Florida orchids, with several species dramatically set as if in cathedrals. Others dance across the page with graceful, overlapping inflorescences and leaves. The plates were published as Drawings of Florida Orchids (1959), with Blanche as first author. Some of her field sketches and paintings are mounted alongside herbarium specimens, several of which represent type collections. Many were copied from types in European herbaria for Oakes to use in his studies. Particularly important are her drawings and watercolors executed while they visited the German orchidologist Rudolf Schlechter in 1922, then curator at Berlin-Dahlem. Blanche’s watercolors are beautiful, but most are unpublished, serving only as reference for her line drawings. Her art was featured in a 1991 exhibit at Smith College and a 2010 exhibit at The Florida Museum for Women Artists. A selection will be displayed for ASBA members in October 2011. 

Oakes Ames’ legacy as an authority on orchids transformed the identification and classification system on orchids and has enabled the continuance of orchid research through his successors at Harvard. The high standards and beautiful artistry of Blanche’s illustrations were carried on by others who followed her. Gordon W. Dillon (1912-1982), Charles Schweinfurth, Donovan S. Correll, and Elmer W. Smith (1920- 1981) worked with an array of distinguished botanists. The styles of the artists are distinctive, yet they work well together and have been used side by side in publications by authors and institutions beyond Harvard, including Orchids of Guatemala (1952), Orchids of Panama (1980), Orchids of Peru (1961), Orchids of Trinidad and Tobago (1960), and Native Orchids of North America (1978). The original pen and ink drawings are held in the archives of the Oakes Ames Orchid Herbarium, currently managed by the Harvard University Herbaria, where a database is being created. For more information about Harvard University’s botanical art collection, visit 

  • A typical Ames herbarium study sheet, Dendrochillum with pressed plants, sketches, color studies and notes.
  • Goodyera pubescens, ink on paper, ©Blanche Ames
  • Isotria verticillata, ink on paper, Blanche Ames 1920
  • Calopogon pulchellus, ink on paper, ©Blanche Ames
  • Paphiopedilum Oakes Ames, ink on paper, ©Blanche Ames 1948