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.