The Ware Collection of Glass Models of Plants at the Harvard Museum of Natural History should be on every botanists must-see list. It might be the greatest work of botanical art, and most scientific glass work ever created. Made over a span of 50 years (1886-1936) by Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, a father and son duo, the collection boasts 4,400 pieces representing 847 different plant species. The realism of the glass models tricks the mind into thinking that the plant was plucked just a few hours before.
Under George Lincoln Goodale’s direction, the Harvard Botanical Museum commissioned the Blaschkas to produce glass models of plants for the museum’s collection. The Blaschkas were well-known in the scientific world for being able to produce life-like models of jelly fish and sea slugs, and after visiting their studio and spotting some glass orchids, Goodale requested they make a few models for Harvard. The delicate objects were transported from the Blaschka’s studio in Dresden, Germany, and made it in one piece until they arrived at U.S. customs, where they were handled improperly and destroyed. The craftsmanship was still apparent even in several pieces, and was acknowledged so by Elizabeth C. Ware and her daughter, Mary Lee Ware, whom financed the project for the next 50 years.
The glass models were created from live plants grown in the Dresden Botanical Garden, as well as some specimens that were grown from seed specifically for the project. Rudolf went on multiple trips to study the flora and collect seeds in the Caribbean and the United States. In 1895, Leopold died, and Rudolf continued to work on the project alone for the next 41 years. Rudolf never took on an apprentice, and the secrets of this art form were lost when he died in 1939.
The glass flower models resemble the amount of plant material one would find on an herbarium sheet, except the models are three-dimensional and retain the bold color of a freshly picked specimen. Along with the realism the models present, they also showcase pistils, stamen, pollen grains, cross sections, and longitudinal sections as they would appear when magnified under a microscope.
The collection has experienced some damage-glass corrosion and small cracks-over time and Harvard is taking measures to preserve the collection as best the can. The expertise in this collection has not been matched anywhere else in the world. The minute details in the glandular hairs, spines, cross sections and tiny flowers show the amount of research and work put into each piece. An individual could spend as much time examining this work of art as it took to create it.