A garden of glass at Corning



I should love these exquisite glass creations purely for their own sakes, but I also love them because they make me think of Angels and Insects, the A. S. Byatt-based film about the Victorians and their glorious obsessions.

Just opened at the Corning Museum of Glass, Botanical Wonders: The Glass Flowers of Harvard showcases an amazing collection of glass flowers made by father-and-son glassmakers Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka. How beautiful are these flowers? My colleagues at work have been coveting the folder containing the press release; it is imprinted with one of the drawings for the glass objects. How realistic are they? Well, pretty close—worth a visit to see for yourself.


These objects come from a time when botany was actually a craze. The Victorians loved natural history, and eagerly sought preserved specimens of exotic plants and animals, often keeping large private collections—which then became the foundations of public collections. These artifacts were collected not so much to show, but to study—and to teach from.

As two of the greatest glassmakers who ever lived, the Blaschkas were commissioned in 1886 to make the glass flowers as teaching models for the Botanical Museum of Harvard. They created hundreds of glass versions of North American plants, tropical plants, flowers being pollinated, fruits with fungal diseases, and other scenes from the botanical world.

Seventeen of the glass flowers will be on view in Corning; they will be joined by twenty-five glass models of sea creatures (also made by the Blaschkas) creating probably one of the most beautiful exhibitions of glass Corning has ever organized—and that’s saying something. Take for example, the Succisa with Butterfly, which shows two glass butterfly carrying pollen from one violet-colored flower to another. I have seen—and attempted to photograph (with ill results)—such a tableau in my garden many times. I never would have imagined it could be depicted so realistically in glass.

Leopold (1822-1895) and Rudolf (1857-1939) Blaschka started out in Bohemia (located in what is now the Czech Republic), long established as one of the glassmaking capitals of the world, but moved to Dresden in 1863, where these objects were created. Over the course of their careers, they supplied museums and universities everywhere with realistic models of plants and animals. For forty-six years, everything they made went to Harvard, including nearly 850 models and 4,300 enlarged details. These were not objects meant to be worshipped purely for their aesthetic value in a museum setting; they were meant to be a teaching collection for Harvard students. Cornell University also has an impressive collection of Blaschka objects—570 models of invertebrates—all of which are stored at the Corning Museum of Glass, including the twenty-five to be shown. The conservation of the Blaschka works is complex, because glue, paint, and metal armatures were used in their creation as well as lamp-worked glass.


In addition to the glass flowers, fruits, and sea creatures, there are sixty drawings (studies for the models). I have a gorgeous book of those drawings that I’d like to give to a Rant commenter. I also have tickets for the exhibition (which runs through November) for those who would be able to visit it.

Just come up with some reasonably interesting facts or observations about Victorians and their obsessions with natural history, or the Blaschkas. The best comment gets the first book; the next gets a different Blaschka book and then there are the tickets for those that can use them I’ll choose and announce the winners around 9 p.m. EST.

Many thanks to Yvette at Corning for helping me out with this.

OK, I am happy to send Layanee and Michelle Derviss the books. I will be contacting them. Thanks for reading the post and commenting! Tickets are going to Jim and Joanne so far, and maybe County Clerk. I am sure I can get more.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com


  1. Hey, I’ll take a couple of those tickets! I drive by Corning 5-6 times a year on my way to Binghamton and would love to see this exhibit. I’ve not been to the museum since its overhaul years ago.

    And, I’ll talk to you later, as I have to turn over all the Garden Walk applications to you by this weekend. More than 250 gardens again this year!

  2. OK, Jim, they’re yours. I won’t treat the tickets as part of the context, as I imagine only a few in the Rant audience are within reach of this. I probably have enough tix for anyone who asks and who truly plans on going.

    The two book giveaways will, however, require on-topic comments.

  3. Off-contest, thanks for reminding me of Angels and Insects – what a movie! And thanks for taking us back to a time when people were more interested in BOTANY than the crap people are interested in these days.

  4. Well, I did a bit of reading on the Victorian era of gardening and one of the interesting facts I noted was that public parks and gardens came into vogue at this time which brought the garden to the ‘common’ man or woman. But one thing that I liked best was this excerpt from Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘The Glory of the Garden’ and although it has to do more with gardening than the Victorian era, he probably wrote it during that period. It is:

    “Then seek your job with thankfulness and work till further orders,
    If its only netting strawberries or killing slugs on borders;
    And when your back stops aching and your hands begin to harden,
    You will find yourself a partner in the Glory of the Garden.”

    I think he must have actually been a gardener!

  5. I’m not trying to win a book (I’m happy with my sloggers) but a couple of things:

    First: These must be spectacularly beautiful.
    Glass, and our human ability to make and work with it, is one of those evanescent gifts from Olympus that we mere mortals keep losing! It is remarkable how frequently in the last two millenia high artistry with glass emerges and then disappears. The Phoenicians glazed their pottery with glass as early as 3000 BC. Pliny claims the Phoenicians “invented” it. But we keep forgetting… we actually lose the “fine glass” technology and have to rediscover it. Over and over.

    Melted and fast-cooled stuff. If one melts sand and let’s it cool, silica crystals will form. NOT GLASS. But if you melt it and cool it so fast it hardens before the crystals can form: Glass. Our windows are a race against the laws of nature.

    Just making glass is a wonder. Pure glass? Mindblowing. Clear glass? Even more miraculous – “natural” glass is green.

    Sometimes Volcanoes make glass… like obsidian…


    The lava (in this case Silica) explodes from the earth molten and then hits colds air… “freezing” before crystals can form… which is FAST. Rock freezing in the air.


    I’ve read accounts of eruptions where the the sound of breaking glass was everywhere… Fast frozen silica (obsidian) shattering as it hits the ground.

    I’m blown away by some old decanters I have… no cuts, just pure (plain/clear) beautiful glass.

    Glass flowers? My head is spinning. They look to be marvels… it makes me want to try to shoehorn a trip.

    Melted and fast-cooled stuff.

    So, I’m “down” with glass. It is cool. I dig it baby. But this leads me to my second point which is really more of a question:

    Is it just me or does the whole concept of glass flowers (for teaching?) seem COMPLETELY STRANGE…

    as in…

    “Hmmmn, what do you you suppose would be the most fragile, expensive, inflexible and difficult to store (and use) method of teaching about flowers? Any ideas? Now, limit your options to that material which is the most UNLIKE plants. Glass.”

    Very peculiar. I think I’m going to have to get that “Victorian Obsession” book to better understand… because I don’t.

    But I supose the molten glass can be easily pulled into pistils and stamens.

    It looks like beautiful art… and I’d like to see it… but I think it is odd, odd, odd. Uncomfortably odd. Humankind’s attempt (foly) to poorly recreate the flexible fluidity of nature in a rigid state. (Though beautiful.)

    Glass delphiniums. What a PECULIAR thing to conceive.


  6. Well, they were already making models of invertebrates for the same purpose. Easier to keep a glass squid intact for a long time than a real one.

    Running other 3-D media (of that time) through my head–bronze, wood, ceramic, stone–I can see where glass would be a feasible choice for a long-lasting 3-D model. The transparency gives it certain properties that would be desirable–and that would have been even more important for the sea creatures. Papier mache is easier and cheaper but I can see where it might not work as well and would be affected by climate, as would wax. The Victorians spared no effort in these types of endeavors. They were nuts, but aren’t we all.

    Let me know if you will go–i will get you tix. If you like glass that much, you have to see this place even without this show. I made a glass flower there under their supervision. It was fun.

  7. it’s funny to imagine, because glass flowers have a certain incongruity to them. these pieces are so lovely and so unrealistic, yet probably meant to be cherished for centuries. i’m not sure our way of loving real flowers is superior (more durable or not), given what was in “flower conficential”. when was the last time you saw anyone fuss over a silk or plastic flower even long enough to dust it? the appeal is the lack of care.

  8. If you still have some, I’d love a pair of tickets. We have plans to make a couple trips to upstate NY this summer/fall, and Corning is not far. I haven’t been there since I was a kid. I do remember reading in some sort of publication about the glass flowers, and wishing I could see them, but it was a while ago, and the information has long since seeped out of my brain!

  9. The improved quality of glass from advancing technology that made for bigger and better windows was just one of the things that helped fuel the Victorian passion for houseplants. Bay windows and sun porches were added on to Victorian homes and helped shape architectural design in order to accommodate the desire to have plants in the home.

    The beauty of nature could lead people to moral goodness. Houseplants became a path to salvation. Hallelujah and Amen.


  10. Eliz – you are correct of course. I hadn’t looked things from that perpective. Thanks. The issue is permanence. The Victorians were unlocking the world and wanted to leave evidence behind. They did.

    I don’t know if anyone has ever been to Ashland Oregon and stayed at the Ashland Springs Hotel, but THAT place is a throw back to an age of Natural History. The decor is quite literally fossils and insects and palm trees. Sounds strange, but it is BEAUTIFUL… like visiting a wealthy Vicorian Naturalist’s Country Estate in Cornwall.

    I’m sitting here in my office, thinking I might ought to zip out to NY State late summer. I have NO DESIRE to go to NYC… but I’d love to see the glass. And I’d love to take a long drive to see Saratoga again before this game ends. And I’d like to see the Adirondacks again. And the Finger Lakes.

    I don’t have that kind of time.

    I’ll email you when and if I decide (lets not watse these tickets).

    THANK YOU though.

  11. Hank, visit Corning in late July when Buffalo’s having its Garden Walk. Imagine in one weekend: the glass, 250 open gardens, and all four GardenRanters and even a GardenRant event. Seriously. Could you handle it?

  12. I’m not sure you could either, Hank, but we would love to see you, and do please let me know if and when you want the tix–it is no trouble.

    And, Joanne, I will save two for you.

  13. Speaking of Victorians and flowers..

    In his book “Second Nature,” Michael Pollan discusses the development of the hybrid tea rose in 1867 and suggests that what was really going on was a “monumental act of horticultural repression.”

    The ideal rose was no longer a fully open flower that bloomed “in a single climactic week”, but a “chaste bud…always holding back…”

    “Maybe the Victorian middle class couldn’t deal with the old roses’ sexuality and…took a womanly flower and turned her into a virgin–a venerated beauty when poised on the verge of opening, but quickly fallen after that.” (p.111)

    A great book, all around, by the way. Worth reading if only for his meditations on the place of The Lawn in the American psyche.

  14. What a great exhibit! I went to art school in Boston and never got across the bridge to Hahvahd to see these glass flowers, despite hearing about them often.

    I believe the Victorians had a desire to get everything named and catalogued. They wanted nature tidied up and put in order – none of that Romantic messiness, please. And perhaps the ugliness of the industrial revolution made them who could afford it turn to a closer examination of the natural world. And the middle classes were hungry for self-improving knowledge of all kinds. Studying from plaster casts of famous sculptures, from glass flowers and body parts that would not deteriorate, but would still show form and color accurately – all very practical as well as beautiful in this case.

  15. I think I was about 12 or 13 years of age when I first started taking the bus into Harvard Square to explore the various galleries, shops, museums and street scene of Cambridge Massachusetts.
    I fondly remember my first visit to the Natural History Building where the Glass Flowers are housed.

    I was captivated by the exquisite detail and fastidiuous craftsmanship of the flowers and spent hours gazing thru the glass cases at them.

    They held a magnetic pull over me.
    Sometimes I would completely skip visiting the first and third floors which housed the rock /gem collections and the paleontology department and made a bee line right for the glass flowers.

    Years later when I attended Harvard as one of their own I would occasionally take some of my new classmates over to the Glass Flower floor.
    For me it was like visiting with an old friend and I never got tired of watching the expressions of my classmates faces when they discovered for themselves the beauty of these spectacular treasures.

  16. I love all of your thoughts about making glass flowers.
    To me it is the most natural thing in the world. I’ve been making delicate glass flowers and glass flower sculpture using a kiln for many years. It is the workability of the glass and it’s
    fluidity while warm that makes it a natural material to make flowers. I can look through the kiln’s peephole to watch the petals come to life. When finished, a glass flower is 3- dimensional, radiant and can transmit light similar to nature. It’s ability to be permanent, coupled with its fragility, gives it added appeal. Working with glass is a moving experience. People who love flowers and gardens often love to give glass flowers as gifts, because they are works of art, meaningful and permanent

    The level that the Blaschka’s reached is extraordinary and something to aspire to. Although their work was for the purpose described, the beauty of their work has inspired many
    glass artists.

  17. Wonderful article on the glass models lent to Corning– I hope you’ll remind your fans that 3,000 of the amazing Blaschka ‘Glass Flowers’ are on permanent display in Cambridge, MA at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, open 9-5 pm 361 days/year, the University’s most visited museum. More at http://www.hmnh.harvard.edu.

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