The Mykola Hryshko National Botanical Garden of Ukraine’s National Academy of Sciences commemorated the recent 160th anniversary of Shevchenko’s birth with a special exhibit entitled “Plants in the Works of Taras Shevchenko,” featuring plant specimens from the collection of the scientific herbarium of this world famous botanical garden.
This original Shevchenko- inspired exhibit is a graphic display of the poet’s love of nature that is revealed through his content-rich metaphorical likening of man and plants. In Shevchenko’s poetry, plants symbolize human beauty, courage, sadness, and happiness as well as treacherous fate, betrayal, and indifference
Scholars estimate that Shevchenko’s works mention over 80 different plants mostly belonging to Ukrainian flora, such as willows, oaks, maples, poplars, feather grass, duckweed, and bulrushes. The willow was probably Shevchenko’s favorite tree. Willows, including the Babylonian willow, are mentioned more than 40 times in his poems.
Recall his unforgettable poem based on a Biblical motif: “By the rivers of Babylon, beneath the willows in the field we sat and wept in distant captivity,” “Willows above the pond quietly bathe their green limbs.” It is impossible to imagine Shevchenko’s world without poplars, oaks, bulrushes, grass underfoot, and duckweed on the water.
Researchers claim that Shevchenko not only admired and painted plants to the point where they became an organic element of his poetry, but also had knowledge of plants. He was particularly interested in medicinal plants and trees. Consider, for example, an entry he made in his diary in 1858: “It rained the entire day, and all day long Semen (Hulak-Artemovsky) and I read Humboldt” (Alexander von Humboldt, the famous German geographer, researcher of flora, and traveler).
It is worth noting that this fact from the poet’s life contradicts the myth of Shevchenko’s supposed lack of education, a myth perpetuated by Mykhailo Drahomanov, among others.
The exhibit “Plants in Taras Shevchenko’s Works” had a mixed response from visitors. This is not surprising, considering that such exhibits require some knowledge of the poet’s works and a genuine interest in the flora that surrounds us.
Unfortunately, we do not read Humboldt today, while modern botany classes are unremarkable. Many people cannot tell the difference between knotgrass and wheatgrass, or an oak tree, especially a red oak, and a maple. Scientists who prepared the exhibit point out another oddity: some visitors are not even aware that besides being a poet and prose writer, Shevchenko was an accomplished academic artist. Reproductions of the poet’s paintings, in particular those depicting plants, proved to be a major revelation. Other visitors came away with the conviction that herbariums are nothing but child’s play and embarrassing for adults even to demonstrate interest in them.
The exhibit was made possible thanks to Tetiana Cherevchenko, an honorary director of the Mykola Hryshko National Botanical Garden. Like Shevchenko, she was born in what is now Cherkasy oblast. The exhibit’s main organizers are three scientists on staff at the botanical garden: Natalia Chuvikina, Svitlana Didenko, and Tetiana Basatska. The Botanical Garden had the generous assistance of the Taras Shevchenko Museum (a branch of “Khata na Priortsi” [House in Priorka] Museum).
According to Chuvikina, many plants that Shevchenko mentions in his works had the same symbolic meaning for him as they have in the Bible. A graphic example is corn cockle, a parasitic weed that affects flax crops.
“Plants in Taras Shevchenko’s Works” is the second thematic exhibit based on the botanical garden’s scientific herbarium. The first exhibit was “Plants of the Holy Scriptures.” There was no shortage of plant specimens for the exhibit, as the herbarium boasts 12,000 plant specimens from every continent.
As the famous botanist Carl Linnaeus once said, “A herbarium has an advantage over any other portrayal of plants and is indispensable to every botanist.” We must add that it is also indispensable to any person who has not yet dug a chasm separating him from nature. After all, elections come and go, while the works of God remain.