We may be in the throes of winter but there is a place in New England where the most beautiful and delicate flowers bloom year-round. These flowers are presented in all their glory in displays that have recently been upgraded to enhance the viewing experience. These flowers and specimens will never wilt or fade, they are forever captured in a state of perfection. These are neither fresh, dried, preserved, nor photographed flowers. They are the Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants, the famous “Glass Flowers” of Harvard University.

I first saw the Glass Flowers several years ago when our daughter Hannah, then a student at MIT, suggested a visit to the nearby Harvard Museum of Natural History in Cambridge, Massachusetts. As with most natural history museums the collections ranged from wildlife specimens and fossils to minerals and gemstones. But it was the Glass Flowers exhibit that Hannah knew that I would enjoy most.


Although it is familiarly known as the Glass Flowers this exhibit actually represents over 4,000 models of 830 plant species and includes incredibly realistic and detailed models of enlarged flowers and anatomical sections of the floral and vegetative parts of the plants (clockwise from top left: Banana, Verbascum thapsus/Common mullein, and Gossypium herbaceum/Wild cotton).

Prior to 1886 the Harvard Botanical Museum, under the direction of George Lincoln Goodale, used pressed plant specimens, wax models, and papier-mache as samples for study. Pressed specimens are of limited teaching value as they are 2-dimensional, dried, and lacking in color, wax models and papier-maché were rough and didn’t stand up well. Around this time, Goodale saw some glass models of marine invertebrates in the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology that had been created by the father and son partners Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka from Hosterwitz near Dresden, Germany. He contacted Leopold Blaschka who then made and shipped a few botanical specimen samples which even though they were damaged in US Customs still showed the possibilities of further work.

There were other glass-blowers at the time and it was said that no-one could replicate the secret methods employed by the Blaschkas. The Boston Globe said that the glass flowers were “anatomically perfect and, given all the glass-workers who’ve tried and failed, unreproducible”. But in fact, there were no secret methods employed and their techniques were commonly known to other artisans. In addition to glass the Blaschkas used wire supports, glue, paint, and enamel in their work. Their method melted glass over a flame or torch which they controlled with foot-powered bellows in a technique known as lampworking. This differs from glassblowing which uses a furnace as the heat source. The molten glass was manipulated, pinched, and pulled with tools to achieve the desired forms. The finished specimens were occasionally formed from colored glass but were often hand-painted.


Leopold Blaschka credited their ability in this way, “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. My grandfather was the most widely known glassworker in Bohemia.” Schultes, Richard Evans; Davis, William A.; Burger, Hillel (1982). The Glass Flowers at Harvard. New York: Dutton.

(at right, Caroline and Leopold Blaschka, seated, Rudolf Blaschka, standing)


The original 10-year contract between the Blaschkas and Harvard commissioned the work at a rate of 8,800 marks per year ($3,533 US dollars) or approximately $91,565 in 2017. The funding came from a former Radcliffe College botany student of Goodale’s, Mary Lee Ware and her mother, Elizabeth Cabot Ware, members of a wealthy Boston family. Additionally, all freight charges were covered by Harvard.

So, the artisans have been commissioned. Remember, the year is now 1890, film photography is in its infancy and it is about 100 years before the internet is available to the public. So how do two glassmakers in Germany research botanical specimens from all over the world? Well, some plants were sent from America and raised in the Blaschka’s garden. Other plants that were tropical or exotic were viewed in the royal gardens and greenhouses of the nearby Pillnitz Palace (below images). Rudolf Blaschka traveled to Jamaica and the United States in 1892 to make drawings and collect specimens. Leopold died in 1895 but Rudolf continued to work until his retirement in 1936. Rudolf had no children and had never taken on an apprentice so there was no one to take over from him ending a 400-year-old dynasty.

But the legacy of Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka lives on in over 10,000 glass models that are in museums the world over. Although the greater number of these are marine specimens it is the Glass Flowers that are most famed. The Glass Flowers encompass 164 families and 780 species in 850 full-time models. There are 4300 detailed models of individual floral and vegetative parts that capture every detail, right down to a grain of pollen as in the example of Lupinus mutabilis (Lupine) shown below.

Glass Flowers Exhibit Harvard Museum of Natural History

There are models that show the fungal and bacterial diseases of fruits in the Rosaceae family that includes apples and pears (The Rotten Apples, shown below).
Rotten apples

Others show insects in the act of pollination such as their depiction of a male fruit fly on an orchid, top image, or the bee on Scotch broom, below. Plants are exhibited from the simplest to the most advanced in the order of evolution.

Glass Flowers Exhibit Harvard Museum of Natural History

Cytisus scoparius (Scotch broom) with bees

This is not an exhibit that you would speed through. Each specimen is so enthralling that it is difficult to move on to the next one. The fact that every item there was created by only two men is mind-blowing and can be attested to by the tens of thousands of visitors each year. If you haven’t been to the exhibit I highly recommend it and if you have been in the past in would be worth going to see it in its restored glory. Visit the Harvard Museum of Natural History site for additional information and to view their videos of the Restoration and the Rotten Apples.

Susan Pelton

The Glass Flower images shown here are the property of Harvard University.