Kate Furbish and the Flora of Maine

By Regina M. Vitiello

Apr 27 2020

Catherine Furbish was born in 1834 in Exeter, New Hampshire. From an early age, Kate was interested in the natural world around her and capturing its beauty in illustrations. She was such a talented artist that in her twenties she traveled to Boston, and later Paris, to refine her artistic techniques.

In the 1870s, Kate began collecting and describing the flora of Maine. She attacked plant collecting with the same level of devotion she applied to her meticulous botanical illustrations.   Kate traveled alone to some of the most remote locations in Maine in a time when it was unheard of to do so as a woman. She founded the Josselyn Botanical Society of Maine in 1895 and gave lectures on botany and published her work in the American Naturalist.

Sereno Watson, the curator of Harvard’s Gray Herbarium, upon naming a new species of wild snapdragon after one of Furbish's collections, invited her to Cambridge. Furbish's response to the honor was,

“...that were it not for the fact that I can find no plants named for a female botanist in your manual, I should object to ‘Pedicularis Furbishae’ for [having a plant named after its discoverer] is too often conferred to be any particular honor … But as a new species is rarely found in New England and few plants are named for women, it pleases me.”

The resulting species, Pedicularis furbishiae, is known as Furbish's lousewort. Watson described it after a collection Furbish made from the St. John's River, at Van Buren, in Aroostook County, Maine, with records extending along the river for sixty miles. In 1976 it was rediscovered growing on the banks of the St. John River in Maine 30 years after it was assumed extinct. A $1.3-billion dam project planned to flood the area. The endangered Furbish's lousewort prevented the dam from being built. The case of Furbish's lousewort was an early victory for conservation scientists and is significant to this day.

Kate Furbush is most widely known for the book of her botanical illustrations called Flora of Maine. It contains 1,326 watercolor illustrations and spans fourteen volumes. Fubish hoped that botany students would use her paintings as reference to assist their plant identification. In addition to cataloguing the flowering plants of Maine, Furbish also illustrated the fern and fungal diversity.  In 2016, a new set of books featuring just the illustrations and spanning only two volumes was published.

At the age of 97, Kate died in 1931. Bowdoin College received 16 folios of her watercolor drawings. Harvard University’s Gray Herbarium contains about 4000 of her plant collections, and the Portland Society of Natural History received 182 dried ferns.

The New York Botanical Garden herbarium has a handful of Kate Furbish’s specimens, including a Furbish lousewort and several algae and fungi, a selection of which you can view below.

A Closer Look