In December 1901, Nathaniel Lord Britton, the New York Botanical Garden’s Director, reportedly (and understandably) appeared to be a little worried when a succession of blasts, sounding like gunshots, erupted from a third-floor lab in what is now the Library building. Thankfully, nothing was amiss. Botanist Alexander Pierce Anderson was immersed in a successful experiment that would not only prove a scientific theory but also transform breakfast for millions of people.
With suitable precautions, Anderson had used a hammer to crack open hermetically sealed and heated glass tubes, each containing corn starch, wheat flour, and, later, rice and other grains. All of the starch particles in the tubes had exploded, proving the theory, proposed by plant physiologist Dr. Heinrich Meyer, that a starch granule contains a miniscule amount of condensed water within its nucleus.
One evening as twilight settled over the garden of Hammarby, an idyllic farm near Uppsala in Sweden, a botanically inclined young lady noticed flashes of light emanating from her family’s nasturtium flowers (Tropaeolum majus, commonly known as Indian cress, or indiankrasse in Swedish). Intrigued by this phenomenon, she wrote a paper about it, which was published by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1762, when she was 19. Her name was Elisabeth Christina von Linné, and she was a daughter of the preeminent scientist Carl Linnaeus (also known as Carl von Linné), who devised the system for naming species that scientists use to this day.
As a woman, Lisa Stina (as she was known) was not permitted to have formal schooling, but she developed a great interest in botany, which her father supported. The mystery of the “flashing flowers” came to be known as the “Elizabeth Linnaeus Phenomenon,” which some believed to be caused by phosphorescence or electricity. Professor F. A. W. Thomas of Germany, however, explained in a 1914 paper that the phenomenon is optical, a result of the way our eyes perceive the flowers’ colors in the twilight.
The quiet corridors of the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium here at The New York Botanical Garden are lined with steel cabinets where preserved plant specimens are stored for scientific study, but they are also a treasure trove of history, filled with stories waiting to be told.
One of those stories came to light recently when I set out to determine whether any traces remained in the Steere Herbarium of a significant but little-known research project that involved one of America’s most famous inventors—Thomas Alva Edison.
In the late 1920s, Edison was on a quest for plants that could be grown locally, quickly, and economically to produce latex and provide America with a domestic source of rubber. At the time, the country was dependent on imported rubber for such important products as automobile tires, and Edison and his friends Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone were concerned that an international crisis such as a war could cut off that supply. In 1927, they formed the Edison Botanic Research Corporation in Fort Myers, Florida, and Edison enlisted crews to collect plant specimens throughout the United States, particularly in the South.
Edison’s quest brought him to the Botanical Garden to conduct botanical research in collaboration with the Garden’s Head Curator, John Kunkel Small. At one point the inventor who perfected the light bulb even had a small laboratory in the grand Beaux-Arts building that now houses The LuEsther T. Mertz Library. Tests concluded that the goldenrod (in the plant genus Solidago) contained the most promising amount of latex.