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Harvard’s Glass Flowers

Photo courtesy of Harvard Museum of Natural History

While the northeast is blanketed in snow and ice, even in Cambridge, Massachusetts, amazing flowers made of glass are blooming at the Harvard Museum of Natural History.

In a darkened room on the third floor of the museum, glass cases sparkle, carefully lit to best show off grasses with their seed heads, delicate wildflowers, cocao plant and seed, one of the economically important plants on display, and more familiar flowers like rhododendron, mountain laurel, iris and dahlia. Each is displayed so that root, stem, leaf, flower and seed have been available for study by Harvard students ever since 1887.

Although the glass flowers are stunning works of art their purpose was to serve as teaching tools for Dr. George Goodales’ botany classes. As the first Director of the Harvard Botanical Museum Dr. Goodale was concerned about the quality of the exhibits. At that time dried plants were used, as were replicas made of wax or papier mache. Understandably, replicas made of those materials were crude in their depictions of fine detail, and they did not last long over time, while dried plants did not express the vital reality of the plant.

He had only to look to another Harvard Museum, that of Comparative Zoology,  to find the answer to his problem. There he found scientifically detailed glass models of marine invertebrates made by Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka, father and son who came from a long line of glass workers.

Dr. Goodale went off to Hosterwitz, Germany, a small town near Dresden. He met the Blaschkas and arranged for a few glass flowers to be made for Harvard.  When those flowers arrived at Customs in New York City, the box was carefully marked Fragile, but the customs worker opening it saw merely a bunch of plants, and no need for care. He closed the box and threw it aside.

Though heavily damaged, those broken flowers were sufficient to show how valuable they would be. Elizabeth C. Ware and her daughter Mary Lee Ware offered to finance a contract with the Blaschkas.

I can just imagine the time and thought Dr. Goodale spent thinking about what plants should be included, what species, orders, and genera. He wanted a wide cross section of the plant world, and wanted to include many of the plants that had an economic importance. The Blaschkas got a list and prepared their own plan, beginning with planting some of the requested flowers in their own garden.

Over the years the Blaschkas used their own garden as well as the royal gardens and greenhouses of the castle in Pilnitz which was nearby.  There they found many tropical and exotic plants. In 1892 Rudolph traveled to the Caribbean, and the United States to make sketches, note colors and collect plant samples. His second trip to the US in 1895 was cut short by the death of his father. After that he carried on alone until 1936, only three years before his own death.

Photo Copyright Harvard - Hillel Burger

After the first shipping debacle, Harvard took care to make arrangements to have the shipments brought right to Harvard where the boxes were opened in the presence of a customs official.  Dr. Goodale was often known to say that the shipping process was “almost as wonderful as anything about them.”

The glass flowers rarely leave the Museum, but when they do, as to a special exhibit in Japan, they travel with a companion. ‘Mr. Box’ gets his own seat in first class with a seat belt, and extra stabilizing webbing.

Once six flowers were sent to the Corning Glass Museum in1972, but all were ruined in a flood. Currently the Corning Museum has several pieces of jewelry made by Leopold around 1864, long before he worked to get the botanical accuracy demanded by Harvard.

People in our area may be quite familiar with the way glass is blown to make goblets, bowls and plates, but the process used by the Blaschkas was very different. “Lampwork” requires a small flame at a work table, small bits of glass and fine tools. Some wiring (covered with glass) is required to connect parts of the plant or to stabilize and strengthen a pendant flower or seed.

Models of magnified plant parts

The Blaschka’s work table is now a part of the exhibit which consists of 487 flowers or plants, but about 4000 separate pieces. Many of these pieces resemble microscope slide magnifications of the plants internal parts, of its stamens, pistils, and ovaries.

A few of the plants are not on exhibit. For a time there was a display case in the hall near the special exhibit room. Casual passers by did not understand they were looking at depictions of plant diseases, and wondered by rotting apples and moldy peaches should be left on hallway shelves.

Visitors to the Glass Flower gallery will mostly marvel at the delicacy and artistry of the flowers. Unless they are students of botany themselves they may not appreciate the details of life cycles, however I was amazed at the depiction of a pussy willow, the familiar bud we treasure in the spring, starting to show the pollen laden anthers as they are just starting to be visible.

The glass flowers show us nature’s magic in every season, but human ingenuity and artistry at the same time.

The Harvard Museum of Natural History is open daily 9 am – 5 pm. All Massachusetts residents can enter free Sunday mornings, 9 am – noon, and Wednesday afternoons from 3-5 pm. For full information logon to  ###

A Year of Compassion

Guan Yin - Bodhissatva of Compassion

When we were living in China we were once taken to a temple where we saw a small statue of Guan Yin, the bodhisattva of compassion, with her thousand hands, each of which has an eye in the palm. I thought this was a grotesque image until someone explained that it was a metaphor for her compassion. It is said that Guan Yin has a thousand eyes to see the troubles of the world and a thousand hands to help.

I became fascinated by Guan Yin and continue to collect tales about her. In these days when so many are suffering from loss of jobs, loss of homes, who are sick and hungry I think of one story in particular.

One day Guan Yin was walking down the road, saddened by the cries of those who had nothing to eat. She stopped and looked down at a weed rustling in the breeze by the side of the road, a useless and noisy weed. She ripped open her bodice, and from her breasts dripped white drops of milk onto the useless plant.  When she had given all her milk, she pressed harder till drops of blood fell. The white and red drops became grains of rice. Sometimes she is shown in a gown patterned with rice foliage in commemoration of this gift to humankind.

My porcelain Guan Yin is just one of the many images my friend Ken has given me over the years. This image shows her with a few of her many magic tools, a bottle of the dew of compassion that she sprinkles about, a little brush to brush away the distractions that plague us, various magic pills and fruits to cure what ails us. If anyone can tell me more about her iconography I would be very grateful.

The most recent image Ken sent me was this from YouTube.

“There is an awesome dance, called the Thousand-Hand Guanyin, which is making the rounds across the net.  Considering the tight coordination required, their accomplishment is nothing short of amazing, even if they were not all deaf.  All 21 of the dancers are completely deaf.  Relying only on signal from trainers at the four corners of the stage, these extraordinary dancers deliver a visual spectacle that is intricate and stirring.  Its first major international debut was in Athens at the closing ceremonies for the 2004 Paralympics.  But it had long been in the repertoire of the Chinese Disabled People’s Performing Art troupe and had traveled to more than 40 countries.  Its lead dancer is 29 year old Tai Lihua, who has a BA from the Hubei Fine Arts Institute.  The video was recorded in Beijing during the Spring Festival this year.”  Ken Beatty

May Guan Yin be ready with her dew of compassion this year, and may we all be ready to accept it and share it.