A “Natural Garden”: The Plant-Collecting Expedition of Amelia Smith Calvert

Amelia Smith Calvert’s yearlong trip to Costa Rica in 1909 was not a relaxing vacation. Calvert didn’t spend her time on the beach or tucked away at some resort; instead, she hiked across the province of Cartago, to rainforest waterfalls and active volcanoes, through pastures and parks, along riverbeds and alleyways, collecting and photographing the region’s plants. This laborious project is recorded in “Photographs of Costa Rican Plants” (Ms. Coll. 1199), an album that identifies and describes nearly one hundred of the tropical plant species Calvert encountered.

The Irazu Volcano, where this photograph was taken, is located near Cartago, the city where Amelia Calvert lived from 1909 to 1910.

The Irazu Volcano, where this photograph was taken, is located near Cartago, the city where Amelia Calvert lived from 1909 to 1910.

Amelia was born in Philadelphia and spent the first few decades of her life close to her home city. She attended Girls’ High (at that time called The Girls’ Normal School) and then the University of Pennsylvania, where she gained such expertise in botany that her paper on the structure of Aphyllon uniflorum (a parasitic plant native to North America and commonly known as one-flowered bloomrape)  was presented at the annual meeting of Society for Plant Morphology and Physiology in 1898. After receiving her Bachelor of Science from Penn in 1899, Amelia assumed a research fellowship at Bryn Mawr College where she focused her studies on embryology and earthworm physiology and was published in Anatomischer Anzeiger and the American Journal of Physiology.

Amelia Calvert photographed a range of plant species from rare and delicate water lilies to these market vegetables.

Amelia Calvert photographed a range of plant species from rare and delicate water lilies to these market vegetables.

In 1901, Amelia married Philip Powell Calvert, an entomologist she had met when both were students at The University of Pennsylvania. Philip Calvert was an expert in Odonata (dragonflies) and, by the time of his marriage to Amelia, a professor of zoology at Penn. After getting married, Amelia served as a demonstrator in zoology at Penn for one year and was enrolled as a graduate student at the University from 1904 to 1906, but it seems her career lost some of its momentum after 1901. This isn’t too surprising; at the beginning of the twentieth century it was considered rather inappropriate for middle class married women to work.

 

This photo shows Senor Adolphe Tonduz beside a towering Furcraea growing in the botanical garden of the Museo Nacional de Costa Rica.

This photo shows Senor Adolphe Tonduz beside a towering Furcraea growing in the botanical garden of the Museo Nacional de Costa Rica.

 

Nevertheless, Amelia Smith Calvert’s intellectual curiosity didn’t waver. In 1908, when her husband took a sabbatical year to conduct research on the dragonflies and mayflies of Costa Rica, Amelia seized the opportunity to do some research of her own, and set off for Central America with him. The Calverts’ year abroad is recounted in A Year of Costa Rican Natural History, co-authored by Amelia and Philip and published in 1917. As the preface to the book explains, it was not written as a formal presentation of either of their research, but the “more incidental observations recorded in our diary.” The book describes the couple’s activities that year;  with their headquarters in the city of Cartago, both took expeditions to collect plant and insect specimens. In San Jose, Amelia Calvert made the acquaintance of Adolphe Tonduz and Henri Francois Pittier, two Swiss botanists employed at the Herbario Nacional de Costa Rica (part of the Museo Nacional), who helped her to identify the species she came across. With their assistance, Amelia gathered the images and information that she later compiled in “Photographs of Costa Rican Plants.”

This plant, native to Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama, is also known as “poor man’s umbrella” because of its broad leaves.

On May 4th, 1910, after weeks of unusual but relatively mild seismic activity, the city of Cartago was struck by a violent earthquake. As they explain in A Year of Costa Rican Natural History , the Calverts barely escaped their hotel room: “The motion was entirely up and down, not lateral, and we were thrown to the floor on hands and knees at once and could only crouch and cower… The air was instantly filled with plaster dust and mortar, while the crash of falling walls and buildings was deafening.” Amelia and Philip (and, miraculously, many of their scientific specimens) survived the earthquake but it caused over two hundred fatalities and  immense devastation in Cartago and its surroundings. Amelia and Philip spent two days digging their belongings out of the ruined hotel where they were staying and salvaging what of their papers they could before leaving Cartago on May 6th and sailing home to the United States.

Back in Philadelphia, Philip continued  teaching at Penn, cataloging Odonata and serving as president of The American Entomological Society. Amelia contributed to a book on the Poas Vocano in Costa Rica (Antologia El Volcan Poas) and sometimes helped her husband with illustrations for his works, but does not seem to have embarked on any sizable academic projects of her own. Although “Photographs of Costa Rican Plants” is not a comprehensive treatise and was never officially published, it reveals Amelia Calvert’s interest in biological science and her careful methodology. Especially in light of her later absence from the field of botany, it also suggests that the year Amelia spent in Costa Rica was an important one for her because it gave her the chance to explore an intellectual interest which she could not have pursued in Philadelphia.

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