Jane Colden, America’s first female botanist, classified plants locally

Somewhere in the archives of London’s British Museum of Natural History is a centuries-old volume created in the Hudson Valley, in the area where Orange and Ulster counties now meet. The handmade manuscript by the first female American botanist, Jane Colden (1724-1766), is a collection of drawings and descriptions of more than 300 plants observed in the landscape around her home. The land was part of Ulster County at the time — nine miles west of what was then the small riverside settlement of Newburgh — but today the location lies within the hamlet of Coldenham in the Orange County town of Montgomery. The drawings contained within the pages of Colden’s Flora — Nov Eboracensis (botanic manuscript) are not notable for their aesthetic qualities. But her descriptions are detailed and accurate, and the method she employed to classify the plants was revolutionary at the time.

Colden was an early advocate of Linnaean taxonomy, first introduced in 1735. Before Carolus (Carl) Linnaeus (1707-1778) developed the orderly, easy-to-remember binomial nomenclature to classify flora, identification was a complicated thing. Some plants were known by obscure religious names that originated in monasteries of the Middle Ages. And there was no uniformity, essential for true scientific analysis.

Inspired by the ideas of Aristotle, Linnaeus created a system of botanical identification still used today. His method gives each plant specimen just two names, placing it into a generic “family” first followed by a specific differentia that sets it apart.

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Common flax (also known as linseed), for example, before Linnaeus was called linum raris foliisque alternis lmearilanceolatis radice annua. After Linnaeus, the genus of the common flax plant became “linum” and the differentia “usitatissimum” (admittedly still a mouthful, but easier to remember than seven random names, and logical in its hierarchical organization). The adoption of a rational system for naming plants with a universally-accepted, two-part Latin name, genus first and species second, meant that botanical knowledge could be reliably exchanged.

The world was opening up to scientific study in the 18th century, and many men took up the study of botany. Jane Colden is the first female on record to have done so. And her Flora — Nov Eboracensis is one of the most extensive botanical studies of a single region carried out at the time.

Educated at home — along with seven siblings — by her capable and cultivated mother, Alice (Christy) Colden, Jane was encouraged in the pursuit of botanical study by her father, Cadwallader Colden. A native Scotsman trained as a physician, he gave up the practice of medicine two years after arriving in the New World to become surveyor general of the Province of New York in 1718. The job came with 3,000 acres of remote wilderness land upon which he built the family estate, Coldengham, in 1724. (The ruins of a Colden mansion still found on the site are those of the next generation, Cadwallader Colden, Jr., who built a home in 1767 for himself and his new wife Elizabeth on 500 acres he was given as a wedding gift from the original 3,000. The home Jane grew up in was long ago demolished.)

For more than half a century, Cadwallader Sr. served as surveyor general, lieutenant governor and, for brief periods during the Stamp Act Protests, acting governor. He remained a staunch loyalist to the British Crown all his life, which is likely the reason he remains in the background of the story of the American Revolution.

Throughout his political life, his interest in medicine and science never waned. He wrote extensively on a range of medical and scientific subjects, from the cause and treatment of diseases to sanitation, education, physics, chemistry and what we know today as psychology. And from his New York home, he maintained a voluminous correspondence with other scholarly minds of the day, both here in the U.S. (notably Benjamin Franklin) and across the continents.

In a letter to Dutch botanist Jan Frederik Gronovius, a patron of Linnaeus, Cadwallader wrote that he thought the study of botany to be particularly well-suited to women. “Their natural curiosity and the pleasure they take in the beauty and variety of dress seems to fit them for it. The chief reason that few or none of them have hitherto applied themselves to this study, I believe, is because all the books of any value are wrote in Latin and so filled with technical words that obtaining the necessary knowledge is so tiresome and disagreeable that they are discouraged at the first set out and give it over before they can receive any pleasure in the pursuit.”

However, he added, “I have a daughter who has an inclination to reading and a curiosity for natural philosophy or natural history, and a sufficient capacity for attaining a competent knowledge.” Cadwallader ordered Tournefort’s Institutiones Herbariae and Morison’s Historia Plantarum and had them translated into English for Jane.

He wrote to a number of scientists volunteering Jane’s services in procuring and exchanging seeds and dried plants, and she soon found herself corresponding with the leading botanists of the day, including Dr. Alexander Garden, John Bartram and Peter Collinson. Bartram addressed his letters to “Respected Friend Jane Colden” and discussed plant specimens with her. Dr. Garden sent her packages of seeds but apparently incurred the wrath of both Jane and her father when he referred to her in a letter to Cadwallader as “your lovely daughter.” (He eventually apologized profusely.)

Cadwallader’s belief in his daughter extended to claims that she had noticed details that no other botanist, including himself, had noted. He also thought she had discovered three or four new plants.

Around 1753, Colden established a project for herself to sketch and classify in the Linnaean method — still resisted by some in the botanical world at the time — all of the local plants around the family home at Coldengham. (The “g” in the family estate name was dropped in the naming of the present-day hamlet Coldenham.) Cadwallader Colden had already completed a less extensive paper on the local plants around the home, published by Linnaeus as Plantae Coldenghamiae. Jane saw her work as an extension of that.

In some cases, she made transfer prints (rubbings) of leaves, but for the most part, the text in the book is illustrated with simple line drawings done in neutral pen and ink washes. There is written record of visitors to Coldengham noting representations of plants done in color, but none remain today, or the colors faded with time. The detailed essays in Flora — Nov Eboracensis note the site where the plants grew, their color, time of blooming and fruiting. She also included medicinal properties of the plants, if known, attributed to “the Indians” or “our country people.”

In 1759, at the age of 35, Jane married a widower, Dr. William Farquhar. Her husband, like her father, was a native Scotsman and trained physician. She gave birth to her first and only child in 1766; both she and the child died of unknown causes that same year. (Given that information, one can speculate that Jane may have died giving birth.) She was just 42.

The first record of what happened to Colden’s manuscript, Flora — Nov Eboracensis, came a decade or so after her death, when it was noted in the possession of a Hessian officer named Frederick von Wangenheim, who had training in forestry. The volume passed through several other hands, carried across the Atlantic where it eventually landed with Sir Joseph Banks, president of the British Royal Society. Upon his death, Colden’s book was given to the British Museum of Natural History, where it’s preserved today.The original manuscript last traveled back to its origins in the U.S. in 1976 as part of the traveling Bicentennial exhibit, “Remember the Ladies.” Excerpts were published locally in 1963, in a combined effort by several garden clubs from Dutchess and Orange counties. The clubs also established The Jane Colden Native Plant Sanctuary on the grounds of (General) Knox’s Headquarters State Historic Site in Vails Gate, New York, where visitors can walk amidst the same type of plants she catalogued so carefully while living nearby more than two centuries ago.

Jane’s memory also lives on at the Wallkill River School of Art. Local artist Shawn Dell Joyce takes groups of kids on excursions out into the fields to draw wildflowers and catalog them in the style of Jane Colden during summer camp sessions. More info is at wallkillriverschool.com or call (854) 457-ARTS.

 

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