The first few glass flowers sent from the Blaschka workshop in Dresden, Germany to Harvard University’s Botanical Museum were badly damaged while passing through customs in New York. Dr. George Lincoln Goodale, the museum’s first director, was not discouraged: For years Professor Goodale had searched for an alternative to dried and preserved plants. In 1886 he visited Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka–the father and son glass artisans who later created the celebrated glass flower collection–a gift from Elizabeth C. and Mary Lee Ware of the wealthy Bostonian family.
A major botanical research must not and does not overlook camellia sinensis; this exquisite glass flower collection is no exception. The Blaschka team not only painstakingly sculpted each piece with vivid, aesthetic detail, they put in equally sincere effort in packaging and transporting the final work across the Atlantic.
Occasional squall and slippery ground tarnished by earlier snowfall this past March did not discourage me from touring Harvard. The receptionist at the Museum of Natural History was kind to remind me that the Glass Flower Collection Exhibit would re-open–after lengthy restoration–in just two days and I could visit then. The forecasted blizzard, possibly the season’s most severe, had caused much uneasiness; I decided to settle for Blaschka’s Rotten Apple Series on display. My first reaction was the same as everyone else’s: Is this really glass? How and why was it made with glass? And how often have we focused on perfection, such as a red shiny apple, and shunned the inevitable decay, the grotesque? Too often perhaps.
Even if I had seen the collection in full, I would have purchased the catalog The Glass Flowers At Harvard like I did. The passage on page 65 contains much information that remains relevant today, and is both an excellent introduction and review:
The tea family comprises 500 tropical and subtropical trees and shrubs in eighteen genera. The leaves are often glossy and leathery. Eight or ten genera are in cultivation as ornamentals or as economic products. The genus Camellia has 80 or more shrubby species, native to tropical and subtropical Asia.
Native to Southeast Asia, tea in nature is a tree that often grows to 30 feet in height but under cultivation remains a 3- or 4-foot shrub. It is a true Camellia but was formerly called Thea sinensis. Like the cultivated ornamental camellias, it has glossy, leathery leaves and beautiful fragrant flowers. Tea leaves are gathered from new or young shoots produced by the constant pruning of the shrub. One thousand varieties of the tea plant have been developed. Production varies from 200 to 1,000 pounds an acre, and a single plant may yield for fifty years or longer. Tea is the most popular of the caffeine beverages, used by more than half the world’s population. Its stimulant effects are due to the caffeine content (1 to 4 percent); its astringency is due to tannins; its flavor to polyphenols and essential oils – the proportions varying with the age of the leaves, the methods of processing, and the variety of tea. Originally valued as a medicine, tea came to be used as beverage in China around A.D. 600. It was introduced into Europe in the sixteenth century but did not become important until the late seventeenth century. China, India, and Ceylon produce 85 percent of the world’s tea.
Images provided by author. Second image was scanned from the catalog.