Bureaucracy: Wildflowers from Palestine: Gathered and Pressed by Harvey Greene

Greene, Harvey. Wildflowers from Palestine: Gathered and Pressed by Harvey Greene. Massachusetts: Butterfield & Company, 1895.


Wildflowers from Palestine features seventeen pressed and mounted flowers from an area now composed of parts of Jordan, Israel, and Israeli occupied territories.  Each specimen is assembled alongside a corresponding poem or Biblical reference, as well as a descriptive paragraph detailing the flower’s place in Biblical history, its appearance in the Bible, its location in Palestine, and its physical appearance. A unique aspect of this copy is that all seventeen specimens are well preserved and still included in the text (other extant copies contain incomplete or lost specimen sets).  In the preface, Greene promises to provide a comprehensive picture of “the homeland of Christ,” and he writes that he was entranced with the flowers not just for their beauty but because “the Lord Jesus Christ while here upon earth saw and loved these same flowers, and used them to illustrate eternal truths.”  The book’s assemblages likewise “illustrate eternal truths” by placing the flowers alongside descriptions and verses. The scriptural references range from the overt—the Lily of the Valley is the first flower to appear and is linked to Matthew 6’s “consider the lily of the valley”—to the implicit: a bit of papyrus in the form of a cross is preserved alongside 2 John 12: “I would not write with paper (papyrus) and ink.”  In six cases in which the flowers are not mentioned in the Bible, Greene substitutes a poem—usually about flowers and their status as symbols of God’s presence—for the Biblical reference. Greene locates these flowers in Biblical history by commenting that they would have “lined the foot-paths of the country” and thus would have been seen by Biblical figures.  In addition to Biblical history, Greene also locates the flowers in natural history, by providing both their common and Linnaean names.

Taken as a whole, the flowers and their corresponding texts localize Palestine by placing it within Biblical history. The relationship between the flowers and the text is illuminated by two lines from Longfellow that face the “Carmel Daisy” specimen:  “Emblems of our own great resurrection/Emblems of the bright and better land’ (Longfellow).  The wildflowers are emblems—material specimens associated with layered symbolic meanings, historical references, poetic allusions, and geographic connections.  For example, in the discussion of papyrus, Greene employs the flowers to move from specific Palestinian locales to Biblical stories to the history of the plant’s use as a writing surface: “By the streams the oleander and myrtle grow, while in a great marsh near the site of the ancient Roman city of Antipatris, where Paul spent a night while on his way to Caesarea, is found the now rare Cyperus Papyrus, the famous papyrus of Egypt, the reed from which the ancient manuscripts were made.”

The book was originally compiled and published in 1895, with two later editions appearing in 1896 and 1899. It contains the following specimens: Lily of the Field, Papyrus, Judean Clover, Madonna Flower, Flax, Carmel Daisy, Anise or Dill, Cyclamen, Grass, Rose of Sharon, Passion Everlasting, Mignonette, Puff Ball, Mustard, Lentil, Bean, and Pheasant’s Eye. Selah Merrill, a missionary to Palestine penned the introduction to Greene’s pointed work. His expertise provides an overview on the historical and religious contexts of Jerusalem (Merrill 293-302). Wildflowers was reviewed in the scientific publication entitled The Gamophyllous, which describes Greene’s work as a well-done but amateurish venture since it is claimed to be “a work of art” rather than a scientific text (78). The book also received recognition from the popular magazine Good Housekeeping, which noted that Wildflowers was “conducted in the interests of the higher life of the household” (Good Housekeeping 1897). The anonymous author of the review claims that “nothing could possess greater interest than these mute mementoes of scenes which have held a sacred interest for untold millions during the entire Christian era” (232).

Greene’s interest in botanical specimens as evidence for divine truths and his decision to market such specimens emerged out of a century of intense American interest in and travel to Palestine. By the time Wildflowers was published, American audiences would have been quite familiar not only with the region but also with its history and its significance for American science and religion, owing to multiple travel narratives, missions, and even attempted settlements in the region. Napoleon’s occupation of Cairo in 1789 and his failed conquest of Syria facilitated international awareness of and interest in these places, and as trade between the west and the Middle East increased, so did opportunities for travelers to visit what they called the Holy Land.  Missionary societies such as the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions sent representatives to Palestine in 1821, and missionary activity increased over the course of the century, fueled in part by millennial beliefs that the return of Christ was at hand if all the world’s peoples could be converted.

In the 1840s, books by theological scholars such as John Lloyd Stephens and Edward Robinson radically altered American audiences’ geographic knowledge by identifying biblical sites in Palestine, thus producing “rediscoveries” of other religiously significant sites.  These books articulated the central role that Palestine played for America: its land and natural history authenticated biblical knowledge, by making material what had previously been only textual.  The Holy Land offered a key to interpreting the bible, for its landscape, stones, and flowers were thought to be sites of revelation that could “elucidate entire biblical passages” (Davis 49).  Americans’ enthusiasm for specimens from the Holy Land is indicated by Holy Land Cabinets, which one enterprising traveler marketed to fund his trip: each cabinet was filled with one hundred and fifty sacred objects, which one could purchase for less than seven cents each (50).  As John Davis argues, such material objects and their representation in paintings, novels, and travel narratives validated not only the Bible but also the centuries-old idea that America was the sacred “city on a hill,” the “heir to the sacred topography” of the Holy Land (3).  American travelers and tourists localized Palestine by incorporating it into American historical and spiritual narratives (3).  Greene’s assemblages of biblical references, botanical specimens, and historical descriptions clearly participate in this process of locating Palestine in American history and religious beliefs.

Find Wildflowers from Palestine: Gathered and Pressed by Harvey Greene in the UNT Libraries Catalog.