This is glass:
Back in the late 19th century, botanical teaching models were mostly made of wax or papier maché. Or they were actual plants that had been dried and pressed.
But the replicas were inexact, the pressed specimens faded and flat. So professor Goodale asked the Blaschkas [a father-son team of glass blowers from Dresden] to make glass plants. Fifty years later, after Rudolph retired (and after Leopold had died), they’d finished 4,000 models.
The flowers’ petals and pistils are so accurate that when novelist and essayist Jamaica Kincaid first saw them, her own garden seemed flat.
“I began immediately to think that real flowers were the imitation,” she laughs — “that the flowers I saw before me in my garden were an imitation of things that were in glass.”
Kincaid was so taken by the flowers that she wrote a magazine article about them. The late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould compared them to the greatest musical performance he’d ever heard.
What always gets me about these glass flowers is the minor details of decay. The flowers are never flawless. There is always a wilted leaf, or a petal that’s been visited by snails, or a broken stamen. It is this embrace of imperfection that accounts for their stunning verisimilitude. Mark Doty says it best:
Strange paradise, complete with worms,
monument of an obsessive will to fix forms;
every apricot or yellow spot’s seen so closely,
in these blown blooms and fruit, that exactitude
is not quite imitation. Leaf and root,
the sweet flag’s flaring bud already,
at the tip, blackened; it’s hard to remember
these were ballooned and shaped by breath
they’re lovely because they seem
to decay; blue spots on bluer plums,
mold tarring a striped rose.