Victorian Women and Their Plants

Learn how the feminine activities of gardening and flower arranging became introductions to the study of plant science for women in the Victorian era.

| Spring 2019

Photo by Getty Images/karma15381.

In the 19th century, it was considered unacceptable for women to participate in many natural sciences; for a lady to kill, dissect, and study an animal would be improper. However, the work surrounding plants, such as arranging flowers for home décor or sketching specimens, was a domestic and therefore feminine pastime, and there was nothing to stop women from focusing seriously on the plant world through botany, horticulture, or gardening. While others considered plant science and the activities around it to be little more than a hobby, disregarding much of women’s research and findings, this outlook allowed women to take part in scientific study in previously inaccessible ways. Now they could invest their interest, intelligence, and time in a personally enriching activity still deemed appropriate for “the fairer sex.”

Plants in general became a fascination among the middle classes in the Victorian era. Flowers as indoor décor were all the rage, and floral bouquets were used as a form of communication; terrariums and conservatories were full of exotic plants such as ferns and orchids, and any home worth its salt had a parlor fern at the very least. Botanical obsession went so far as to ascribe a meaning to each type and color of flower. The bouquet a person chose to give another spoke volumes about the giver’s intentions and relationship to the recipient (learn more below). Home gardens became popular as well, because this was the first time in history the middle class was affluent enough to have domestic gardens cultivated for aesthetic purposes. Previously, gardens were either a practical means of growing food or reserved for the aristocracy.

Victorian women took full advantage of these new domestic trends and invested themselves in the study of plants and flowers under the guise of making beautiful homes. Fortunately, their observations, experiments, illustrations, and notes made significant contributions to botany. Here are some of the women who created legacies we value today.

Henrietta Beaufort (1778-1865)

The education of children was considered an appropriate role for women to take on, so Henrietta Beaufort used her interest in botany as a tool for teaching. In 1819, she published a book titled Dialogues on Botany for the Use of Young Persons, which was meant to introduce children to the science. Unlike most books on botanicals, Beaufort’s did not contain any illustrations. While this was a controversial choice, Beaufort believed it was important for people to study nature by experiencing it in real life rather than viewing it in representations.

Anna Atkins (1799-1871)

While many Victorian women collected botanical specimens and illustrated them with fine pen drawings and delicate watercolor, Anna Atkins brought a different medium to the practice: photography. Atkins studied algae specimens and preserved images of her research using cyanotype printing — a rudimentary version of photography that involves applying chemicals to paper, then drying the paper in the sun with the object you want pictured placed on top of it. The sun’s rays combined with the chemicals create a photo-like print. Atkins created at least 307 handmade cyanotypes of different algae species and is considered the first woman photographer. Although photography made her famous, her interest in the medium only blossomed because, as she gained interest in the collection and classification of different algae, the lack of accurate illustrations available frustrated her.



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