Strokes of Paradise


The Flora borinqueniana exhibition offers a glimpse of the visual history of Puerto Rican botanical arts throughout the three-century context in which the foreign perspective and the domestic voice erected the foundations of a national landscape that was able to establish and re-establish itself time and time again.

“The first thing we do to understand other organisms is to look within ourselves. This is something we can do with animals. That is why children like animals and not plants. But the relationship with plants is governed by reason because you must understand first that these are very sophisticated and evolved organisms. Then you can fall in love with them.”.

Stefano Mancuso, Italian botanist and author of The Nation of Plants and The Future is Vegetal (currently unavailable in English), among other titles.

“Memory is the enemy of wonder.”

Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s Eye View of the World

Her name was Flora. She lived in Orocovis, surrounded by plants and mountains. When he visited her, he left behind his fast-paced life and the cement-hungry landscape of the capital and rooted himself in that slower rhythm marked by the foliage. When our gaze meets all the possibilities of green, our perception of time and space changes: we peek for an instant at what it means to understand the time of plants, which is far more immense than that of our unavoidable animality.

The fact that his grandmother’s name was Flora could very well be fate. Indeed, it may be. And yet, when he mentions her, he briefly clarifies that, just as would be the case for any man of science, this should not be uncommon. After all, that the grandmother of one of the leading botanical experts in the country and inspiration for his first encounters with nature would have the name of the word that encompasses the entire plant environment we inhabit would at least seem to us as a poetic nod of fate, a favor of the destiny that perpetually seeks to upset the restrained calm of science.

When speaking to Dr. Eugenio Santiago Valentín, professor of the Biology Department of the Río Piedras Campus of the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) and Director of the Herbarium of UPR’s Botanical Gardens, it is evident that a significant part of the strength of his scientific view of nature is precisely entrenched in a humanist conscience. He emphasizes the role of the arts in the development of scientific knowledge and its communication. And above all, he stresses that the insistence on separating the realm of the arts, beauty, and what some may call the divine from the analytical and methodical fields is a modern assumption that must be questioned constantly. This is a habit he regularly exercises in his classroom, his scientific research, and in projects such as the one he will launch in direct collaboration with Para la Naturaleza, the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez’s Museum of Art (MUSA, for its Spanish acronym), and the Museum of History, Anthropology, and Art in the Rio Piedras Campus.

Flora borinqueniana: Three Centuries of Botanical Illustrations will open to the public—completely free of charge and with no need for previous reservations—on Tuesday, February 28, 2023, showcasing an educational and cultural program that invites both the general public and the expert audience of one of the scientific areas with the strongest foothold in the history of visual arts in Puerto Rico: Botany.

Dr. Santiago Valentín’s extensive knowledge in fields such as Plant Taxonomy, Biogeography, Conservation Biology, Ethnobotany, and the History of Science enriches the contents of this exhibition, throughout which the curator proposes a scientific, historical, artistic, and contextual panorama related to the tradition and the establishment of botanical knowledge in Puerto Rico. With historiographical elements and a series of illustrations—whose study and findings reveal the intrinsic complexity of documenting the botanical knowledge in the region— Flora borinqueniana: Three Centuries of Botanical Illustrations is the first exhibition in the history of the island’s national botany and focuses on the works produced and the knowledge acquired from the final years of the 18th century to the beginning of the 20th century: the period of the most remarkable developments of this science in Puerto Rico.

Dr. Santiago Valentín chose two naturalists per century whose work represents their epoch: Martín de Sessé and Nicolás Baudin for the 18th century, Domingo Bello y Espinosa and Agustín Stahl for the 19th century, and Ana Roqué de Duprey and Frances E. Horne for the 20th century.

Beyond the exhibition in its traditional format, there will be an educational area with virtual components where visitors may learn about plants from different world regions, study the historical timeline of Puerto Rican botany and listen to 19th and 20th century musical pieces. Another attractive aspect is that the botanical illustrations are accompanied by live plants from Para la Naturaleza plant nurseries. Through this, attendees may appreciate firsthand some of the illustrated pieces and be a part of a museum view closer to the organic experience, which goes above passive observation.

Aside from the illustrations, the display includes manuscripts, herbarium specimens, documents, works of art, and other samples of high value stemming from diverse national and international collections. Some of these had been forgotten or abandoned and were recently re-discovered and will be shown together for the first time. This reveals to us the heart of the narrative of this exhibition: how can we tell the story of our country through the construction of scientific knowledge and the representation of nature? Or, in other words: what may we discover regarding ourselves if we take a prolonged instant to observe our natural light?

“This is also about celebrating Puerto Rico’s biological diversity in the same way we celebrate our arts and culture. This biological heritage is the result of years of evolution. With this exhibition, we wish to celebrate it, appreciate it, and allow it to inspire us to understand better why we are protecting it,” says the curator, alluding to one of the social undertakings of working in this field: awakening the conscience in defense of nature, not only from the viewpoint of the value it has to ensure the wellbeing of the people and the ecosystems, but because it is intimately linked to our culture, our identity, and our survival.

“What we know today of plants is the sum of many experiences, of knowledge that has grown through time. It is a constant building of knowledge that is never-ending. Knowledge is constantly moving, and science is no different. Through this work, we can look back and tell how this knowledge grew despite great challenges. This is a story that had not been told, and we want other views to be involved,” the professor said regarding one of the most attractive aspects of this exposition: how this collection of knowledge was built.

“We must be aware that these were people collecting plants in the middle of an invasion, of war, with corsairs threatening the coastline. They transported specimens in ships under conditions that were all but ideal. This context is especially important,” he ascertains.

The exhibition arises from an invitation by Para la Naturaleza’s President, Mr. Fernando Lloveras San Miguel, who is acquainted with Dr. Santiago Valentín’s work, which he institutionally supported during part of his research in the Canary Islands. The original idea was that the exhibition were part of Para la Naturaleza’s 50th Anniversary celebrations. Nonetheless, the pandemic changed this and so many other plans. The moment finally arrived, as if the nature of the display—that reflects profoundly on the time and evolutionary processes of plants—reclaimed its purpose and reminded us that the time of plants is theirs and theirs alone. Italian botanist Stefano Mancuso argues this in his work The Nation of Plants, where he demonstrates that there exists an order and a collective conscience we have much to learn from the world of plants. Maybe we should adjust ourselves a bit more to its rhythms to understand this.

Flowers of War

It happens with all major historical events. The transcendental moment remains in our memories but rarely is it narrated with the awareness that life prevails even in the worst tragedies and circumstances. Girls continue to be born, people continue—or not—to die from the horrors, food is brought to the table, and society adapts itself to the imposed parenthesis. The landscape changes, but—except in extreme natural circumstances or of terrible violence—there is indeed a landscape, albeit dismal. People continue to live, and ordinariness is redefined. As Argentine Martín Caparrós says in his journalistic work titled Hunger, we continue eating the Sun: the primary source exuding all that energizes us.

If this perception is extrapolated to the concrete area of scientific inquests —particularly that which pertains to us, Botany— we would have to urgently analyze the images proposed by the exhibition curator. We would need to close our eyes and remember that while the island was besieged by pirates, some people kept collecting plants and butterflies in albums or spent hours trying to reflect on watercolors the universe of unknown flora they had before them. This would also happen in the middle of a military invasion or during World War I or II. It still happens today. We already know this, but it continues to amaze us. Even under the ashes, a leaf always sprouts. If we are lucky,  even a flower.

When we speak about plants, it is almost always much more than talking about the landscape of human events. Dr. Santiago Valentín is quite aware of this: “Humans are very complex, but plants are one of the elements—perhaps the most important—that have defined and helped shape key moments in history. When Columbus’s enterprise was active in the Americas, there were great economic and commercial interests related to Indian spices such as clove and cinnamon. Another important example is the significant Irish migration in the 19th century during the Great Famine, caused by a plague acquired by potatoes. This tuber was brought to Europe from the Andes region and was incredibly esteemed for its high caloric and carbohydrate values. A plant’s ailment changes the history of a society, and it is witnessed right there. If we reflect on the Caribbean, sugarcane is one of the most transformative crops of the region and planet. At its height, it was the most lucrative business in the world. Plants have historically influenced natural environments, migrations, and social structures. The impact is at all levels.”

Focusing on the Caribbean, particularly in the Antillean Caribbean, the botanist highlights that, despite all the history in which these lands were submitted to years of exploitations and monocrops—mainly tobacco and coffee—this did not impede the survival of its impressive diversity. “It is incredible in the Greater Antilles. There are around thirteen thousand species of plants, half of which are native,” he explains while emphasizing that the diversity of plants on the planet is not something homogenous, as they are concentrated in hotspots such as Madagascar, South Africa, the Mediterranean basin, southeastern Brazil, and the Caribbean islands. “We truly live in paradise.”

Knowledge of the planet’s geological evolution connects these regions’ cultural and social history, enabling the encounter of entire plant families in radically distant places: evolution manifested and celebrated. This is also what this exhibition is about.

This extraordinary diversity was extremely attractive for 18th-century explorers who always traveled in an artist’s company. This allowed them not only to document this “new world” but also to understand it, know it, and delve into the tremendous ramifications of the diverse knowledge of plants—such as pharmacology—as well as in the search for nutritious and economical alternatives related to the powerful natural resource that the plant world represents for humanity.

The exhibition considers all this and begins as a journey into time, going over the worldwide botanical research fundamentals and explaining the processes and methodologies used to achieve this scientific and humanist interest in “classifying the plants of the world, seeing how we capture and organize information, and how we will name it.” For this reason, botanical illustration has been linked since its inception to the history of botany as a discipline. Many of its proponents acknowledged that the image was fundamental because of the infinite possibilities and the diversity of the plants available for study.

There were also many attempts at a classification system; nonetheless, the binominal nomenclature system created in 1735 by Swedish scientist Charles Linnaeus prevailed. Its proven efficiency is attributed to its methodology based on genus and species in Latin, which was the lingua franca of the European intellectual world. It also grouped genera into families, families into classes, classes into types, and types into kingdoms. This was just one of the several achievements for which the father of Ecology is known. He was renowned in his times—and still is–—as the second Adam because he named numerous species that at the time were unknown, but also of those who were known. The curator recalls, “There was a phrase that went, ‘God created, Linnaeus organized.’”

Linnaeus, a scientist of his time, was a creationist. He shared with his colleagues the vision that studying nature and dedicating your life to science was another way of adoring the divine. Understanding God’s work was the primary objective of his intellectual endeavor. The divorce between disciplines and knowledge, between the world of the body and the world of the spirit, would come much later.

Wonder and Memory

Two expeditions arrived in Puerto Rico by the end of the 19th century, bringing scientists who knew Linnaeus’ work and studied Botany from a post-Linnaean perspective. They traveled with watercolors—because of the material’s portability and ease of use during long voyages—and began studying the island’s botanical diversity. However, most of these works did not remain in Puerto Rico.

Later in the same century, the arrival of immigrants from places such as Germany fostered these studies. Although many of these newcomers researched, drew, and did botanical works during their spare time, this became the initial building of the first local botanical circuit.

Canary Islands native Domingo Bello y Espinosa’s work is a notable example. He documented and illustrated nearly 900 species and published an important and breakthrough piece titled Observations on the Flora of Puerto Rico in the Annals of the Madrid Society of Natural History. Also most noteworthy are the works of Agustín Stahl, who constantly visited the countryside and studied and illustrated some 700 plants.

For Dr. Santiago Valentín, both figures are fundamental in his interest and studies in Puerto Rican botany. The finding in 2015 of around 200 images by Bello y Espinosa in the Museum of Natural Sciences of Tenerife profoundly delights Dr. Santiago because of the fortuitous nature of the discovery and the revelations entailed. “They were remodeling, and there were several cabinets where they found herbariums and samples of tied and dried plants not from Puerto Rico but from the Canary Islands. There were piles of documents belonging to other naturalists, and hidden between all that were the fourteen illustrated books. These were parcels titled: Íconos Flora Portorricencis. There was also a book about butterflies and some other elements,” recalls the curator, who came to know about the findings in February 2015, right when he was about to publish an academic article in which he mentioned the existence of the missing pieces. He immediately corrected the text and, thanks to Para la Naturaleza’s support, traveled in the summer of that same year to study, document, and analyze these materials that the Puerto Rican public now may finally enjoy.

This is an extraordinary achievement, not only because we are witnessing the rescue of a historical and scientific memory of our country but because this is a tangible example of the evolution of the botanical diversity that defines in so many ways the place that Puerto Rico occupies in the world. Each of these watercolor illustrations portrays a stroke of the natural paradise we inhabit.

Moving on to the 20th century, the exhibition focuses on the work by two women botanists—Ana Roqué de Duprey and Frances E. Horne—who cultivated diverse interests and, in their own right, transgressed the invisibility women have been subjected to for decades since the origins of science. They endowed Puerto Rico with an abundant work that not only has a view and voice of its own but nurtures, discusses, and bolsters the tradition. The exhibition tour is completed in this manner, centering the historical and cultural context of our botanist tradition and evidencing the value that the study of this “new world” held for all who sought to position their interests there.

“The Caribbean became what the Mediterranean Sea was to the Roman Empire. It is a place of political and commercial influence, and there were all types of interests, particularly after the invasion by the United States. At times, I also interpret this as the moment scientists—be it for these or other interests—saw the opportunity to do science. These things happen simultaneously and in the middle of sometimes tense balances,” analyzes the botanist, whose path in developing this unprecedented exhibition extends back to the discovery of the first Flora of his life—his grandmother. From her, his mother learned how to work with plants. And he, in turn, learned from both. As a boy, he was a Scout and volunteered in the Puerto Rico Natural Resources Department. He explored Mona Island and imagined experiencing something similar to the first Galapagos Islands explorers. He wandered into caves in his teenage and young adult years and was part of groups that did many expeditions to forests to identify trees. One memorable experience was seeing a Goetzea elegans tree (known in Puerto Rico as matabuey) in full bloom 50 years after the last time one was seen in flower and fruition. As a young student, he dove into the island’s modest but rich botanical literature when he developed his drawing skills at Central Visual Arts High School. When he went to college, he obtained a bachelor’s and master’s in Biology at the Mayagüez Campus of the University of Puerto Rico. He later did his Ph.D. in Botany at the University of Washington in Seattle.

He speaks of these experiences with the same contagious amazement of his youth, which is also the exhibition’s promise. Some people assure that memories are the enemies of wonder, of our capability of marveling ourselves. I beg to differ from those who believe this, but the memory of plants would seem to say quite the contrary. They seem to shout in their slow pace, and silent existence: in our memories lie all the marvels and in our ways all the possible strokes of paradise.

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