A Trace of Chamomile: Marian Hedwig Mülberger’s Spring Flowers
Tucked under feathery chamomile leaves are the geometric initials MHM. Nothing else identifies the artist of the spring flower guide, Frühlingsblumen.
Each page of the accordion-pleated booklet displays four or five plants arranged like specimens in a compact herbarium. Many are so common they’re overlooked. The guide sorts them idiosyncratically by color and habitat. The color white, for example, includes campion, sometimes called “grave flower” (Silene latifolia); ubiquitous pennycress (Thlaspi arvense); and sticky catchweed (Galium aparine). Habitats include forests, meadows, dry heaths, swampy ground, and a catch-all space shaped by humans: “farmland, gardens, paths, rubble” (Äcker, Gärten, Wege, Schutt).
The earliest copies of Frühlingsblumen date from 1906, with several revised editions appearing through 1948. With the varying editions, the author attribution shifts, but the text was likely a collaboration between Otto Robert Maier, a publisher for Ravensburg, and his friend, professor Hermann Schuster, who directed the state trade office library in Stuttgart. An avid hiker with a grand vision for a series of flora guides, Otto Maier was enthusiastic about the Froebel philosophy of childhood education, which emphasized learning through play and discovery. Maier was thus involved in the production of a pre-WWI herbarium play kit and similar materials in the Ravensburg series of learning games (Hasselblatt).
Such an orientation toward educational discovery also meant that he was eager to devise an intuitive floral identification guide (Pollitz). In Frühlingsblumen, Maier offers a richly illustrated, user-friendly book whose organization contrasted with contemporaneous guides that instead organized species according to the more technical Linnean system. The revolutionary socialist thinker Rosa Luxemburg, who had dreamed in her youth of becoming a botanist and was an avid collector of plants for her own Herbarium, wrote a letter in 1915 recommending the book to a friend as easy to use.
Those richly illustrated pages were the work of a scientific illustrator named Marian Hedwig Mülberger: the “MHM” resting under our chamomile leaves. The thinly traced initials match her signature in other drawings (Bader). Born in Manchester, England, to an English mother and German father, “MHM” grew up bilingual and showed an early interest in botany. After the death of their parents, Marian Mülberger and her sister moved in 1891 to their grandmother in Stuttgart, where Marian would study at the School of Arts and Crafts (Kunstgewerbeschule).
Although the field of illustration had become open to women by the early 20th century, opportunities were diminishing with the rise of photography. “MHM” worked as a freelance illustrator on botanical and zoological projects, which eventually led to collaborations with university professors in Tübingen and Gießen. After 1945, Mülberger’s skill as an English translator were in demand, and her botanical works appeared with Ravensburg, now even under her own name. In addition to Frühlingsblumen, she worked with the Ravensburg publishing house both on an atlas of trees in 1932 and a book on alpine flowers in 1954.
In a field guide like Frühlingsblumen, nationalism and nature intertwine in curious ways. Its white, yellow, red, blue, and green blooming flowers had to be meticulously drawn to simplify identification, rather than emphasize aesthetics or territorial claims. Plants always cross borders—from Germany to Switzerland and beyond. Some transnationals become invasive, while others are prized for memories of home.
Botany meant survival: in wartime, foraging staves off starvation. It’s important to know then the difference between useful and poisonous plants. Frühlingsblumen showed readers in a clear, intuitive way which plants could be eaten—like “creeping charlie,” “field salad,” and, of course, chamomile—and which should be avoided. Reissued as a nostalgic artifact today, the field guide during its own time had practical uses that—like the identity of its illustrator—now, too, are forgotten by many.
Dr. Charlotte Melin, Professor, University of Minnesota
Department of German, Nordic, Slavic, and Dutch
Bader, Bernd. “Marian H. Müllberger (1878-1969).” Mäzene Künstler Büchersammler. Gießen: Universitätsbibliothek2007. 132-49. Accessed 9 August 2018.
Frühlingsblumen. Bilderatlas mit Text von H. Schuhmacher. Ravensburg: Otto Maier Verlag, undated edition, ca. 1948.
Hasselblatt, Dieter. “Für Spiel und Leben: Unterhaltung und Belehrung als Aufgabe.” 1883-1981. Hundert Jahre Verlagsarbeit. Ed. Otto Rundell, et al.Ravensburg: Otto Maier Verlag, 1983. 30-60.
Levy-Rathenau, Josephine, and Lisbeth Wilbrandt, eds. Die deutsche Frau im Beruf: Praktische Ratschläge zur Berufswahl. Berlin: Moeser, 1906.
Luxemburg, Rosa. Herbarium. Ed. Evelin Wittich. Berlin: Karl Dietz Verlag, 2016.
“Mülberger, Marian Hedwig.” Database of Scientific Illustrators 1450-1950. Stuttgart: Universität Stuttgart, 2011-16. Accessed 7 August 2018.
Pollitz, Andreas. 1883-1983 Hundert Jahre Otto Maier Verlag Ravensburg. Ravensburg: Otto Maier Verlag, 1983.