The Pith Paper Collections
of Harvard University Botany Libraries
By Lisa DeCesare,
Head of Archives and Public Services,
Botany Libraries, Harvard University Herbaria
Originally appeared in The Botanical Artist - Volume 17, Issue 2
Among the rich collections of Harvard University’s Botany Libraries are three volumes of botanical paintings on pith paper. These forty images, vibrant and rich in color, appear positively lush juxtaposed against the fragility of the pith.
Often called “rice-paper” by western tourists under the mistaken impression it was made of rice, the paper is formed from the pith of the Tetrapanax papyriferum (Hook.) plant, a member of the Araliaceae (ginseng) family. The plant is native to southern China and Taiwan and was often called “tung-tsao,” meaning “hollow-plant.” Other common names included “toong-tsao” or “bok-shung.” Pith paper has been used to make artificial flowers and decorative hairpins in China for centuries. The earliest mention is thought to be during the Tsin dynasty (265-420 AD). However it is believed that mass production did not begin until approximately 1,100 years later. The plant can be harvested at any season, usually at 2 to 3 years old when the main stems are 5-6’ tall. Extraneous leaves and twigs are removed and the stems are soaked in water to loosen the pith. These stems are then cut into 12”-18” pieces and the pith itself is forced out. The pith is a brilliant white and must be sundried immediately or it will yellow and stain.
Cutting this paper was an art not easily mastered, even by this most skilled laborer. In cutting, the knife is kept quite steady, the cylindrical pith being moved round and round against the edge of the knife which is just inserted into the substance, and thus a leaf or sheet is formed resembling the most delicate paper, but rather thick in substance. This produces a scroll-like sheet about 4 to 6 feet long. Pith paper is characterized by its great strength; when it is damp, it may be stretched and folded freely and when it is moistened it can be formed into almost any shape. No scraps were discarded. Large sheets were used for paintings, smaller pieces were made into flowers. Even tiny bits were used as pillow stuffing, to line coffins, and even medicinally. In order to create the paintings the pith paper is washed in the paints, the paint fills the hollows in the plant cells and then settles on the surface of the paper. These paints create a raised, relief-style image that has a velvety, smooth feel and adds visual depth at the same time. Unfortunately, pith is very brittle when dry, grows more fragile with age, and is prone to discoloration.
The two collections of pith paintings in the Botany Libraries are very different from each other. The first, smaller collection consists of an album of 11 small pith paper paintings of unidentified flowers. The collection was given to Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum by Miss E.E.P. Holland. A handwritten inscription on the bookplate reads “From the library of Rev. Frederick W. Holland, Harvard ‘1831. Brought from China probably as early as 1830. Originally bound in blue silk.” The blue silk binding is now absent, but the beautifully rendered paintings have survived to this day. These paintings are each framed by an oval mat and are more primitive in style than the second, larger collection.
Two bound volumes of 29 pith paintings were acquired around 1912 by Charles Sprague Sargent (1841-1927), the first director of Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum. These paintings of unidentified plants and insects are more detailed than the Holland album. Many of the plates in these collections have suffered slight staining and breakage. However, their beauty, combined with the delicacy of the pith, makes these collections one of Harvard’s treasures.
If you would like to see more images from these volumes and the history of pith production please check out our web exhibit at www.huh.harvard.edu/libraries/Tetrap_exhibit/pith.htm.