Far up the mountain, at a place he calls Buttercup Ridge, Montana photographer Terry Glase searches each spring for the eponymous flower: Sagebrush Buttercup or, as the botanists would say, Ranunculus glaberrimus. Describing a visit to the ridge in 2015, Terry writes:
After about a half mile of hiking toward a trail I intended to visit today, I tired of all of the snow and ice and turned back. There were other places to go, one of which was Buttercup Ridge, where the very first wildflowers bloom every year about this time.
It’s a small area, about 50 feet by 100 feet, atop a very steep, narrow, rocky, cliffy ridge. Why buttercups bloom there nearly two months before they bloom anywhere else is a complete mystery to me.
They do though, after all, bloom in western Montana. Somewhere in their DNA they know that, and they also know that, before spring comes, they may see temperatures of -20ºF and two feet of snow, but they bloom anyway.
Apart from its early appearance, the simple flower displays other, quite delightful, characteristics. In post after post, Terry points to different faces of a flower he describes as being in turn whimsical, impetuous, shy, and private. And yet, when I discovered his photo of the little ice-covered buttercup, it reminded me of another, quite different flower.
Many years ago, my mother received a yellow glass flower as a gift. Similar to the one shown here, it bore a slight resemblance to a budding crysanthemum. The thick layer of clear glass encasing the vibrant center also evoked winter, when occasional Houston ice storms coat palms, pansies, and peach trees with heavy layers of ice.
After enjoying the memory of my mother’s flower — and briefly wondering what might have happened to it — I gave glassy flowers no more thought. Then, while browsing the pages of Steven Schwartzman’s Portraits of Wildflowers, I found a different sort of glassiness.
Neither iced by mountain weather nor coated by an artist’s hand, his pair of prickly pear cactus blossoms seemed to have been created from glass. The effect was so striking that I commented on it at the time, adding that the smooth, reflective surface reminded me of such Dale Chihuly creations as the yellow lily pads installed at Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago.
After browsing online image collections of glass cactus flowers, I’d found no Chihuly. What I did find, fully as beautiful and perhaps more remarkable, was a much earlier replica of cactus flowers.
As compelling as their real-world counterparts, and botanically correct in every detail, they’re part of an extraordinary collection: Harvard University’s Ware Collection of Glass Models of Plants. Known popularly as the Glass Flowers, they’ve been described as “an artistic marvel in the field of science, and a scientific marvel in the field of art.”
Glass prickly pear cactus (Opuntia spp.) ~ Harvard Collection
Commissioned in 1886 by Professor George Lincoln Goodale, the first director of Harvard’s Botanical Museum, and financed by Boston residents Elizabeth and Mary Lee Ware, the glass flowers were meant to be used as teaching tools, and as the basis of a botanical exhibit designed to attract and educate the public.
At the time, materials most often used for plant replicas — wax or papier mâché — resulted in crude models lacking both detail and longevity. Dried or preserved plants, even the best herbarium sheets, faded over time, and provided only a two-dimensional view of the plant. Professor Goodale wanted more: a way of exhibiting plants that would convey their beauty and vitality. According to an entry on the Corning Museum of Glass site:
Goodale was impressed by the idea of using glass after he saw the zoological models in the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard, which housed detailed glass models made by Leopold Blaschka and his son, Rudolf. This allowed members of Harvard’s faculty to use replicas of organisms to easily point out morphological features during lectures.
Goodale realized that the fragile zoological creatures were much like fresh fruits and flowers that quickly decay and could never hold up as an exhibition. He also knew that dried, pressed herbarium specimens and color plates from botanical texts had a limited appeal.
Lindheimer’s Senna (Senna lindheimeriana) ~ herbarium sheet prepared by Ferdinand Lindheimer, September, 1845, Texas
Leopold Blaschka already had solved one problem facing curators of natural history museums — the display of marine invertebrates — by recreating them in glass: accurately representing their color and shape while avoiding bottles of formaldehyde. Although Leopold and his son, Rudolf, weren’t the only makers of natural history models in the 19th century, they were the only ones working in glass, and they soon were engaged to do for flowers what they’d done for sea creatures.
Between 1887 and 1936, the Blaschkas created approximately 4,300 individual glass models, replicating entire plants as well as the smallest details of plant anatomy. In the end, the collection included 847 life-size models representing 780 species and varieties of plants in 164 families, as well as over 3,000 models of enlarged parts.
Their ability to do so was in part a result of their heritage. Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka came from a long line of glass artisans from Bohemia, a glassmaking center of Czechoslovakia. After joining his father as a glassmaker, Leopold became an extraordinarily skilled lampworker, fashioning items as intricate and delicate as the flowers from glass rods and tubes heated in a flame until they could be manipulated into shapes.
When it came to the flowers, both clear and colored glass were used, along with a combination of lampworking and glassblowing. Parts sometimes were fused, or assembled with adhesives. Occasionally, other materials such as fine copper wires helped with reinforcement, or painted paper was incorporated to represent internal structures. Sometimes, surfaces were painted with colors mixed with gum or glue.
A few examples of the Blaschkas’ art, paired with examples from nature, suggest the level of their skill.
Glass Engelman’s hedgehog cactus (Echinocereus engelmannii) ~ Harvard collection
Lace hedgehog cactus (Echinocereus reichenbachii) ~Kerr County, Texas
Glass Rudbeckia speciosa ~ Harvard Collection
Rudbeckia hirta ~ Nash Prairie, Brazoria County, Texas
Glass northern blue flag (Iris versicolor) ~ Harvard Collection
Southern blue flag (Iris virginica) ~ Roadside ditch, Brazoria County
Glass white prickly poppy (Argemone albiflora) ~ Harvard Collection
As early as 1889, Professor Goodale passed on in a letter to the Wares some remarks made by Leopold Blaschka as he worked. Among other things, Leopold said:
Many people think that we have some secret apparatus by which we can squeeze glass suddenly into these forms, but it is not so. We have tact. My son Rudolf has more than I have, because he is my son, and tact increases in every generation.
The only way to become a glass modeler of skill, I have often said to people, is to get a good great-grandfather who loved glass; then he is to have a son with like tastes; he is to be your grandfather. He in turn will have a son who must, as your father, be passionately fond of glass. You, as his son, can then try your hand, and it is your own fault if you do not succeed.
But, if you do not have such ancestors, it is not your fault.
Given the beauty and the accuracy of the replicas Harvard received from Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, it’s hard not to believe that generation unto generation of Blaschkas before them loved glass — and with a passion. Surely, they succeeded wonderfully well.