A Botanical Dream


Dr. Ellen Marion Delf-Smith

A Botanical Dream by E.M. Delf, recited by Brigid Christison

Last night as I lay dreaming
      There came a dream so fair
I stood mid ancient Gymnosperms
      Beside the Ginkgo rare.

I saw the Medullosae
      With multipartite fronds,
And watched the sunset rosy
      Through Calamites wands.

Oh Cryptograms, Pteridosperms
      And Sphenophyllum cones,
Why did ye ever fossilise
      To Palaeozoic stones?

E. Marion Delf-Smith - 1913

A black and white digital illustration of a sunset in a Carboniferous swamp. The scene is bordered by chains of leaves for a naturally edged effect. The lower half is bordered by gingko leaves and the upper half is bordered by loved ferns. The upper ferns stem from the branches of a central, tall, tree-like trunk. in the foreground are horsetails and other strange Carboniferous plants that are known from fossil evidence. The illustration has thick borders inside the confines of the leaf frame, and thinner borders on the leaves themselves. This focuses the attention inside the frame and gives it a dreamlike effect.
A Botanical Dream – by
John Meszaros (Twitter: @johnjmeszaros

From 1910-1913, English feminist writer and palaeobotanist Marie Carmichael Stopes ran a botany-comedy journal called The Sportophyte (“sport” as in mutation, “sporophyte” as in the spore-producing phase of a plants’ life cycle). Marion Delf was an editor for the journal, and A Botanical Dream appeared in Volume 4.

The natural history of this poem

Imagine yourself standing in a forest. What types of trees and flowers do you see, or what variety of birds and other animals are there? Dr. E. Marion Delf-Smith’s poem, A Botanical Dream, imagines a scene whose flora and fauna would be completely alien compared to what you were imagining, or when compared with any modern environment for that matter.

The plants in Marion’s poem are from the Carboniferous Period (359 to 299 million years ago) in the poem. Almost all the plants she talks about would be unrecognizable to you, but most do have living relatives that you are probably familiar with.

Gymnosperms, for example, are the group of plants that produce seed cones and include modern plants such as pine and spruce trees. She mentions a specific member of that group, the Gingko, a type of tree native to China that has close relatives stretching back to the Early Permian period that looks almost exactly the same today as it did back then.

Another plant, Calamites, had a very similar appearance to today’s horsetails, which are often found near lakes and ponds. Calamites, unlike modern horsetails, could grow to incredible sizes, nearly 30 metres (100 feet) in height!

Marion also describes more unfamiliar plants,  like Medullosae and Pteridosperms, which belong to the group of Pteridospermophyta, or “Seed Ferns”, an informal group of plants not particularly closely related, but all sharing the trait of producing seeds but not flowers or seed cones like modern seed bearing plants and looking like modern ferns.

Dr. E. Marion Delf-Smith

Dr. E. Marion Delf-Smith – portrait by Katrin Emery

As soon as she graduated from a girls’ finishing school in Cambridge, Marion Delf started researching plant physiology. In 1906 she was hired to start a Botany program at Westfield College, a school dedicated to preparing young women for education at the University of London.

Marion single-handedly raised the money needed for teaching equipment and organised the collection and mounting of every botanical specimen used in her classes (sometimes through field expeditions with her students). The botany program at Westfield was one of the only places in the world for women to conduct scientific research and even go on field work. In 1915 Marion’s lab was able to issue honours’ degrees to its students.

Marion mainly studied plant physiology but later conducted marine algae and vitamin research in South Africa. She married an artist in 1928 and continued to work full-time, educating several generations of determined women who often went on to pursue higher education and become scientists themselves.

She was well-respected and loved by her students, many of whom celebrated her ninetieth birthday with her in 1973.