Microcosms: A Homage to Sacred Plants of the Americas


Confocal microscopy, also known as confocal laser scanning microscopy, is a specialized optical imaging technique that provides contact-free, non-destructive measurements of three-dimensional objects.

For this website, plants considered sacred by indigenous groups of the Americas were scanned at St. Lawrence University’s Microscopy and Imaging Center.

The procedure gathers information from a narrow depth of field, while simultaneously eliminating out-of-focus glare and creating optical sections through layers of biological samples. Images are built over time by gathering photons emitted from fluorescent chemical compounds naturally contained within the plants themselves, creating a vivid and precise colorimetric display.

To pay homage to sacred plants revered by indigenous groups throughout the Americas is a way of honoring the entire world in a time of environmental emergency. The website—at the juncture of art, technology, and science—magnifies life in ways that may alter how humans perceive other living entities from our shared and threatened biosphere in more egalitarian terms. 

The plants reveal themselves as 21st-century extensions of biomorphic forms that were the genesis of abstract works by artists such as Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee one hundred years ago. 

Some of the plants contain the most potent psychoactive agents on the planet and serve as intermediaries that have enabled native communities to communicate with their ancestors, wage war on the enemies of their land and their traditions, conceptualize entire cosmogonies, and maintain a nearly impossible ecological equilibrium.

Each stoma, each trichome, each patterned fragment of xylem and vascular tissue, as well as each grain of pollen in these vital portraits is not only a way into previously unseen vegetal realms, but also a potential way out of our collective crisis. 

Visionary Art at St. Lawrence University

This website reproduces and significantly expands the exhibition Microcosms: A Homage to Sacred Plants of the Americas at St. Lawrence University’s Brush Art Gallery that opened on March 2, 2020 and, like so much else around the world at that time, was forced by the Coronavirus pandemic to close prematurely only two weeks later. Even so, the deadline for the preparation of this event, some four years in the making, obliged Jill Pflugheber and I to consider the space limitations of the gallery and then select with artistic and scientific rigor approximately 50 images of some 35 different plant species for the show, printing them in a large format (18” x 18”) and organizing their presentation with text panels in keeping with a rough, sometimes overlapping, geographical coherence (moving north to south through the Americas, or vice versa) rather than a predictable grouping based solely on scientific names in alphabetical order. The one exception is Anadenanthera, which opens the website for historical reasons that will be explained later.  For this website, we have chosen a much wider selection of confocal images of an even greater number of plants than we were able to include in the original exhibition. 

The Microcosms website is a natural extension of two prior exhibitions at St. Lawrence University (in addition to the 2020 Homage to Sacred Plants of the Americas): Visions that the Plants Gave Us (1999) and Inner Visions: Sacred Plants, Art and Spirituality (2016), both curated by Prof. Luis Eduardo Luna, who is now retired from the Swedish School of Economics in Helsinki, where he taught as a Senior Lecturer for many years. Luna is currently the director of Wasiwaska, a research center for the study of psychointegrator plants, visionary art and consciousness in Florianópolis, Brazil. He was also named Doctor of Humane Letters by St. Lawrence University in 2002. 

These previous exhibitions gathered visual art by numerous national and international artists, including work by indigenous creators who identify themselves as Cashinahua, Huichol (Wixárica), Huni Kuin, Shipibo, Siona, and Witoto. Inner Visions opened with an extensive showing of Donna Torres’s precise and elegant botanical drawings of many of the same plants that appear here in the Microcosms website.  A series of confocal images are available via the Microcosms digital image collection on JSTOR.

Plants of the Gods

We understand “sacred” in an ample way, in the reverential and respectful sense that Amerindian groups define this term as a spiritual pact, and have included a wide (albeit still limited) range of plants from Maize to Peyote, from Amaranth to the plants used to prepare ayahuasca, from the Mapuche’s Foye to the Yanomami’s Yãkoana, and from an Incan ancestral potato Olluco to the San Pedro cactus. There is also a bonus image of the obligatory fungus known to indigenous Mesoamerica as Teonanácatl (flesh of the gods) to accompany all these plants. The texts that describe each individual species clarify Amerindian medicinal and spiritual uses associated with them. More often than not, the revered plants that appear in this digital collection are psychoactive. Why? According to the great Harvard ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes and his co-author Albert Hofmann, the Swiss scientist who was the first to synthesize LSD: “Plants that alter the normal functions of the mind and body have always been considered by peoples of nonindustrial societies as sacred, and the hallucinogens have been plants of the gods par excellence […] It is in the New World that the number and cultural significance of hallucinogenic plants are overwhelming, dominating every phase of life among the aboriginal peoples.”

Digital Art and Tools for Seeing

These images of plants held sacred by indigenous groups of the Americas for a variety of reasons can also be viewed within the critical framework of Microcosmic Phytoformalism, a term that actually did come to me in a dream, as clichéd as this may sound, at 3:00 am on February 12, 2020. I scrawled out the letters in two quavering lines in a notebook with a pen in the darkness and went back to sleep.  In my grateful mind, it was thrillingly perfect, and I hope the gathering of these confocal images allows this newly-coined designation to germinate like a seed into an organic structure that will help us understand what and how we see. From its technological origin, it represents a new stage of an ever-evolving history of both microscopy and art, revealing colors, shapes and textures combined in a compelling, growth-related vision derived from living biological materials. 

Here in this website, then, selected from (literally) terabytes of what my science-oriented colleague cannot help but refer to as “data,” is a harvest of digital plants for visualizing a natural order that has existed all along, even if it has remained less than perceptible until quite recently. 

According to Hungarian Bauhaus artist and MIT professor Gyorgy Kepes, whose pioneering work that explores the connections between art and science is an important precedent, “a pattern in nature is a temporary boundary that both separates and connects the past and the future of the processes that trace it.” Every pattern, he says, is a “space-time boundary of energies in organization.”

Like the Hubble telescope that has produced so many iconic celestial images, the confocal microscope is a tool of perception that extends humanity’s narrow biological filters. And now, we’ve used our human eyes and technological vision to design the James Webb Space Telescope so that we are able to perceive the universe in colors that no human eye has ever seen. Perhaps this kind of seeing beyond parallels the neurological effects of these plants of power themselves as they have crossed blood-brain barriers and exercised their profound influences in ritual contexts, in some cases, for millennia. 

Is it possible to imagine these digital images as art that breathes? Could we breathe with the stomata that appear before our eyes? Does this microcosmic art reflect biological processes that allow human beings to participate with plants in a co-becoming? Is this an example of how the infinitely small begins to approximate the infinitely vast, the way recent images of the sun show a surface that resembles myriad kernels of corn, each of which is the size of the state of Texas?

In these inspiring microscapes, born of an art-science symbiosis, there is sometimes an intentional preference (especially on my part) not for perfect, unscathed whole forms, but rather the beauty in a broken trichome, a collapsed grain of pollen, ripped vascular tissue, and structures ruptured perhaps by a plant’s long clandestine journey across borders and within restrictive systems. 

This is transgressive art, an art of resistance. The art, finally, of surviving in a threatening world in which laws and repressive security forces with unchecked power continue to discriminate against plants, harassing, arresting and imprisoning the people who use them for spiritual and academic purposes. Tragically, the violent fear underlying and fueling the Spanish Inquisition of time past is still a grave threat in the twenty-first century around the world!  As many have said, the War on Drugs is a War on Consciousness. 

Reading Michael Marder’s Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life (2013), I began to ask myself some questions: How can we give a new prominence to the vitality of plants? How is it possible for us to encounter plants and not take them for granted? Plants are so absolutely familiar, yet at the same time, so utterly foreign. We regard plants with what Marder calls an “instrumental attitude,” always wondering how we can put them to good material use. But if we were able to move beyond the impediments that we have erected between ourselves as humans and plants, could we somehow turn our utilitarian approach to vegetal lives (in their astonishing variety) into a way of perceiving them differently, “recreating the plant in imagination”? 

In this sense, The Farther Shore: A Natural History of Perception by Don Gifford, my favorite professor when I was a student at Williams College in the 1970s, provides some fascinating historical, scientific and aesthetic insights regarding perception as “creative filter” and the importance of having an awareness of how we are perceiving, especially in “the mediating presence of optical instruments.” A confocal microscope would fit perfectly in the category of tools that help defamiliarize what Gifford calls “an all-too-familiar everyday world.” The images of sacred plants as digital art make the known suddenly, and perhaps shockingly, unfamiliar. As sites of contemplation, they can trigger visionary experience in ways corresponding to Romantic notions of time that can be found in poets such as Wordsworth. The images, like the poems, inextricably linked to the natural world, are a means of therapeutic seeing: they can become, in Gifford’s words, a “fully remembered, and therefore repeatable, sequence of microcosmic visions of eternity.” The strange and uplifting confocal art from ephemeral plants and the molecules they contain are portals to what it will take to prevail in the climate war.    

Perhaps this Microcosms website can jolt us into a necessary space of psychological transformation, now, before it is too late. This century’s technology, then, can become a means to facilitate paying homage to the incredibly diverse ordering principles of the plant-teachers that are the basis of Amerindian spirituality. Right before our very eyes. Take your time with these images. They will still be here, though perhaps with new meanings, when you return from inner journeys. If you need to know these plants in other ways, they will find you. 

In Art as Organism: Biology and the Evolution of the Digital Image, Professor of Aesthetic Studies Charissa N. Terranova finds theoretical links between biology and the digital image that coincide perfectly with the goals of Microcosms: A Homage to Sacred Plants of the Americas: “Extending outside of art, looping back out into the world in emergent action, this story connects to a bigger politics of ecology, the environment and radical and rapid climate change—or life in the time of the anthropocene.” 

Artistic and Scientific Antecedents to Microcosms 

Robert Hooke (1635-1703) is the English author of the landmark book from 1665 Micrographia: or some Physiological Descriptions of Minute Bodies made by Magnifying Glasses with Observations and Inquiries Thereupon, the first publication containing descriptions based on observations with the aid of a microscope. He invented the word cell after studying a sliver of bark from a cork tree (Quercus suber) and preserved this pioneering knowledge with his own drawing:

image from microscope

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), the great German poet, also invented the word “morphology” which Gordon L. Miller defines as “a science of organic forms and formative forces aimed at discovering underlying unity in the vast diversity of plants and animals.” Goethe was the author of The Metamorphoses of Plants, originally published in 1790, a work that transformed 19th-century biological thought. 

With the improvement in microscopy during his life, Austrian botanical artist Franz Bauer (1758-1840) was able to produce exquisitely detailed studies of a wide range of pollen types.

Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London
Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

About Anna Atkins (1799-1871), the first female photographer and the inventor of the cyanotype, by means of which she created detailed blueprints of algae from Britain that she published in book form in 1843, Larry J. Schaaf maintains that “in the course of a scientific endeavor, Anna Atkins turned her ‘fondness for botany’ into lasting symbols of beauty and expression.”  

Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), who coined the word ecology in 1866, is the artist who produced the influential work Kunstformen der Natur in 1904. His precise drawings of microscopic radiolarians (1862) were particularly influential in the architectural symmetries that emerged from the Art Nouveau movement and in Jugendstil artists of the late nineteenth century, thereby linking aesthetics to Darwinian theories of evolution.

In 1923, R. H. Francé (1874-1943), who might be characterized as a continuation of the model of the German Romantic scientist, wrote: “It is only in the last thirty years that the microscope has been perfected to the point of spying out the minute and secret structure of the cell.” In keeping with contemporary environmental ideas, he believed that “the world is a unity, each part of which influences all the others.” Redemption and solutions, he affirmed, could be attained only by acting in harmony with the forces of the natural world. In Germs of Mind in Plants (1905), Francé exclaims with unbridled enthusiasm that, after the invention of the achromatic lens and microscopy’s ability to reveal previously invisible worlds in astonishing detail and color, “we are now in a certain sense considering the very foundations of knowledge.”

Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), one of the founders of abstract art whose biomorphic forms are derived from his knowledge of biology, wrote the following in 1935: “This experience of the hidden soul in all the things seen either by the unaided eye or through microscopes or binoculars, is what I call the internal eye. This eye penetrates the hard shell, the external form, goes deep into the object and lets us feel with all our sense its internal pulse.” These ideas are abundantly evident in “Colourful Ensemble” (1938), “Striped” (1934) and “Dominant Curve” (1936) from the Solomon R. Guggenheim collection.

Other artists who incorporated biomorphs as an attempt to capture strange new microscopic landscapes in their work include Hans Arp (1886-1966) and Joan Miró (1893-1983) in his painting “Carnival of Harlequin” (1924-25). 

After he became fascinated with the pioneering research on contagious illness published by French microbiologist Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) and began to collaborate with botanist Armand Clavaud (1828-1890), Odilon Redon (1840-1916) painted microorganisms with human features.

For Richard Verdi, many paintings by Paul Klee (1879-1940) portray “the secretive world of microscopic life.” Examples include “Pflanzlich-Seltsam” (Plant-like Strange) (1929) and “Vorhaben” (Intention) (1938) with its juxtaposed macrocosm and microcosm, external and internal worlds mediated by the human form.

The Decorative Photo-Micrographs (1931) by Laure Albin-Guillot (1879-1962) are an especially noteworthy antecedent in terms of their attention to pattern and abstraction of vegetal forms through the amplifier of the microscope, thereby breaking down the barriers between science and the visual arts.  

In the early decades of the 1900s, the artistic obsession with science and new technology led Italian writer F. T. Marinetti (1876-1944) and the Futurists to support Fascism while other artists such as the renowned Mexican muralist Diego Rivera (1886-1957) embraced utopian communist ideals, especially in Rivera’s “Man, Controller of the Universe” with its depiction of a series of plants, a microscope and cellular life at the center of the painting. 

Regarding Karl Blossfeldt (1865-1932), whose close-up photographs of plants in Urformen Der Kunst (1929) redefine originary forms of nature as abstraction, Walter Benjamin wrote the following in 1928: “Whether we accelerate the growth of a plant through time-lapse photography or show its form in forty-fold enlargement, in either case a geyser of new image-worlds hisses up at points in our existence where we would least have thought them possible.”  

Lázló Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946), the pioneer of Bauhaus biofunctionalism, is characterized by Oliver A. I. Botar as the “prototype of the progressive, avant-garde, techno-optimistic and media-optimistic artist.” His works The New Vision: From Material to Architecture (1932) and Vision in Motion (1947) remain visually compelling and provocative. His flower photograms from the 1920s are particularly evocative abstractions based on organic forms.

Carl Strüwe (1898-1988) is the German author of Formen des Mikrokosmos (Forms of the Microcosmos) (1955), an astonishingly beautiful collection of 280 photographs taken through microscopes over a period of some three decades. Publicity materials for a solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in 1949 affirm that Strüwe’s microphotographs “often remind us of modern artists such as Klee or Kandinsky and yet they do not encroach upon the field of painting. Rather they suggest possible sources and explanations for modern abstract art, unearthing a whole world of beauty invisible to the naked eye.” One of the featured works of the Strüwe exhibition at the Steven Kasher Gallery in New York in 2016 was “Archetype of Individuality” (1933):

Gyorgy Kepes (1906-2001), the Hungarian artist, photographer, designer and educator, who collaborated with Moholy-Nagy, is the author of the still highly-relevant The New Landscape in Art and Science (1956) as well as the Vision + Value series (1965-1972). Art theorist Charissa N. Terranova believes that Kepes’s photographs recast “scientific utility as abstract art.” She believes his work is best described as “vision exteriorized by technology.” 

His photograms, for example, produced in Chicago from 1938-1942, were made without a camera by arranging natural objects directly on light-sensitive paper in a darkroom.

Additionally, one should not underestimate the influence of French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941), whose concept élan vital from Creative Evolution (1907) was instrumental in defining how Bergsonian time links biological production and the generation of works of art.

As a boy, environmental philosopher Michael Marder was sent by Soviet doctors in Moscow on a trip south to Ukraine where the friendlier climate was to heal his illness. Instead, it put him in the invisible uncertain path of the radiation fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster of April 1986. In The Chernobyl Herbarium: Fragments of an Exploded Consciousness, Marder collaborates with contemporary French visual artist Anaïs Tondeur to produce an overpowering and painful meditation on what Marder calls “life´s vulnerability, amplified by the failure of reason to protect us on the hither side of the beautiful/sublime divide.” Tondeur’s works are photograms “created through the direct imprints of radioactive herbarium specimens, grown in the soil of “the exclusion zone” by Martin Hajduch of the Institute of Plant Genetics and Biotechnology at the Slovak Academy of Sciences and arranged on photosensitive paper.” The authors hope that their collaboration cultivates a “more environmentally attuned way of living.” The Chernobyl Herbarium (2016) is freely accessible from Open Humanities Press:

Geranium chinum by Anaïs Tondeur
Geranium chinum by Anaïs Tondeur

In the world of contemporary art, Alexis Rockman’s incorporation of microscopic images in his paintings is the basis of “Drop of Water” (2017) from his project “The Great Lakes Cycle” for which the artist, as he puts it, has created “a hybrid language that is natural history psychedelia”. 

The Sacred and the Small

Ralph Metzner describes two common comparisons made by writers regarding experiences with psychoactive substances: “one is the amplifier analogy, according to which the drug functions as a non-specific amplifier of both inner and outer stimuli […] The other analogy is the microscope metaphor. It has been repeatedly said that psychedelics could play the same role in psychology as the microscope does in biology: opening up realms in the human mind to direct, repeatable, verifiable observation that have hitherto been largely hidden or inaccessible.”

According to Hope MacLean, “the Huichol artist Alejandro López de la Torre […] told me that when we look into the world of the gods, it is as though we are looking through a telescope. The gods appear very tiny or far away. The same thing happens when shamans look into their mirrors. The gods are visible as small round images, just like images seen through the wrong end of a telescope.” One example of this phenomenon is “Visión de un mundo místico” (Vision of a Mystical World) from the Museo Zacatecano de Arte Huichol by Santos Motoapohua de la Torre.

Naming the Plants

The digital images of plants in this website are identified by their scientific names (binomial nomenclature=genus + specific epithet), families, and also their common names in a wide variety of indigenous languages, Spanish and English. 

Wade Davis has some interesting ideas regarding the process of naming and categorizing plants based on his experience with the indigenous people he has consulted on his many journeys into the Amazon: “Wepe, like all the Waorani I met, turned out to be not only a keen observer but an exceptionally skilled naturalist. 

He recognized such conceptually complex phenomena as pollination and fruit dispersal, and he understood and could accurately predict animal behavior. 

He could anticipate the flowering and fruiting cycles of all edible forest plants, list the preferred foods of most forest animals and identify with precision the places where they slept.  

It was not just the sophistication of his interpretations of biological relationships that impressed me; it was the way he classified the natural world. 

He often could not give you the name of a plant, for every part—roots, fruit, leaves, bark—had its own name. 

Nor could he simply label a fruit tree without listing all the animals and birds that depended on it.  

His understanding of the forest precluded the narrow confines of nomenclature. 

Every useful plant had not only an identity but a story…”

Looking to the Future

As Glenn H. Shepard, Jr. has written, “though a fair amount is now known about how psychoactive plants and compounds produce their peculiar effects on the human mind, it is still largely a mystery as to why certain plants produce such compounds.” 

In other words, why do some 100 plants from among perhaps half a million different plant species make these substances that can potentiate profound effects on humanity’s consciousness of our destructive (or even its opposite more egalitarian) relationship with the natural world? 

Does it indicate some kind of mutually beneficial co-evolution?  Schultes and Hofmann call this “one of the unsolved riddles of nature.” 

John C. Ryan, author of the groundbreaking study Posthuman Plants: Rethinking the Vegetal through Culture, Art, and Poetry (2015), declares unequivocally: “The receiving of ethnobotanical good should be balanced by a giving back of good to the plants themselves, the environments in which they grow naturally, and the indigenous people whose cultural heritage involves medical knowledge of the species. 

It is not enough to privilege cultivating healing plants as a solution to their disappearance in the wild. 

As species decline, the ecocultural knowledge systems associated with them become at risk…”

He continues, saying “a potential transformative outcome of ecodigital art is the changing of public perceptions and behaviors concerning nature and humanity’s fractured relationship to plant life.” 

To do this work effectively, Ryan calls for interdisciplinarity: “Is a ecodigital practitioner an environmentalist, artist, poet, scientist, engineer, conservator, botanist, or all of the above?”

In closing, it is urgently important to highlight what Jonathan Ott says in his magnum opus Pharmacotheon: “I firmly believe that contemporary spiritual use of entheogenic drugs is one of humankind’s brightest hopes for overcoming the ecological crisis with which we threaten the biosphere and jeopardize our own survival, for Homo sapiens is close to the head of the list of endangered species.” 

The plant-teachers in this website, Microcosms: A Homage to Sacred Plants of the Americas, respected, seen together and magnified in aesthetically-innovative ways previously unknown, can lead the way toward a shift in consciousness.


Finally, we would like to give our most profound thanks to Eric Williams-Bergen for his volunteered expertise to design and build this website (with help from Eden Williams-Bergen and Jean Williams-Bergen). We also want to express our appreciation to Catherine Tedford, Director of the Brush Art Gallery at St. Lawrence University, her staff, as well as to Josephine Skiff, Assistant Director of the Newell Center for Arts Technology, for their collective skill and persistence that enabled us to overcome many challenges and make the March 2020 exhibition possible. Personally, I can say that it has been a rare privilege and an honor for me to live with and care for these many plants over the last five years. Esthela Calderón and Becky Harblin deserve special recognition for helping to photograph and cultivate the plants themselves that appear on this website. Peter Wroblewski also participated in this project in an amazingly generous way and was kind enough to join us in Canton for the opening of the March 2020 exhibition. Roy Caldwell, John C. Ryan and Luis Eduardo Luna were there for me when I most needed them, and so were Ullrich Umann, Ben Kamm, Brian Richards and Marc Bates for some special help. Included in the website is a bibliography for further reading as well as some sources for obtaining seeds and live plants. Gratitude above all for the guidance and support provided by the plants in their wisdom.