Free Miscellanea

Elizabeth Gwillim’s watercolor of ‘Gwillimia indica’, sent by J.P. Rottler to J.E. Smith in 1805, Linnean Society Archives

In this series of posts, I’ve discussed freely accessible books, articles, and images on the web (1,2,3).  But there are resource types I haven’t mentioned, and I’ll try to remedy that here.  I have been listening to free podcasts for years, especially In Defense of Plants.  Since covid, the number has increased, as has access to free lectures, seminars, etc., etc.  Of course, organizations that often sponsor such events—museums, universities, botanical gardens, professional organizations—are also those severely impacted by the pandemic’s economic fallout.  So it’s not surprising that some are charging for their programs, though often with minimal fees.  Others see free programming as a way to remind visitors of their continued existence and relevancy, with the hope that interest will spur voluntary contributions or future participation.  Some seminars are organized by educational institutions to give their graduate students a chance to present their work or listen to experts in the field; opening these events up to others is a way to spread word of the research and perhaps ignite the interest of future students.  It’s also a way to share rich resources that result from research.

It’s difficult to provide a guide to the lecture landscape; it changes daily as new ones are posted and others have already occurred.  Some of latter are archived, but many are not.  Keep in mind it takes storage space and expertise to archive lectures; usually a little editing would help too, and that requires more time and skill than may be available.  When I miss an opportunity, I comfort myself by looking on Twitter or Instagram where I often find new ones.  That’s how I discovered a Harvard Museums of Natural History lecture on the Blaschka glass flowers, and a friend on Twitter alerted me to one on the relationship between sewing and biology offered by the Wellcome Collection.  These were visually as well as intellectually stimulating, and are indicative of a continuing move to bring the digital humanities and science together, and to the fore in the online world.

An example of seminars and videos serving several of these goals is the Gwillim Project Online at the McGill University Library; many of its presentations are archived online.  It’s essentially an exploration of the writings and drawings of Elizabeth Gwillim (1763-1807) and her sister Mary Symonds (b. 1772) who lived in Madras (now Chennai), India, at the beginning of the 19th century.  I’ve only attended one of the seminars related to this project, which is also digitizing the sisters’ papers at McGill, but it provided insights into the botanical side of their work, particularly that of Elizabeth.  One presentation was by Henry Noltie, a research associate at the Royal Botanical Garden, Edinburgh and expert on British botanical activities in colonial India (2002, 2016, 2017).  He noted that Elizabeth started investigating Indian plants as she was studying Sanskrit.  So much of what she read was about plants and their uses, but the species were unknown to her so the descriptions made little sense.  She sought assistance from local botanists including the German missionary and botanist Johann Rottler.  She also corresponded with botanists in Britain and sent specimens to them.  Her only extant botanical drawing is one of a magnolia that Rottler posted to James Edward Smith in England because he thought it was a new genus and wanted to name it after Gwillim.

Many new, or newly better known, resources on the web support online learning.  Some were available before covid, but have now become vital ingredients to enhance distance learning.  These are so diverse, taking on so many different forms that it’s not possible to even scratch the surface here.  I’ll just point to one portal that gets richer by the day:  Botany Depot, managed by Lena Struwe of the Chrysler Herbarium at Rutgers University, has been a lifeline for teachers throughout the pandemic.  As so often occurs on the web, the links found here will also lead to still other finds, so it is worth visiting from time to time, just for intellectual refreshment.  Also useful are JSTOR’s Plant of the Month posts, Oak Spring Library’s Fantastic Flora, and the Jepson Herbarium’s videos on California flora.

Of course, many educational resources are behind institutional firewalls, since protecting intellectual property is important.  Still it’s great when something massive and useful is also free, sometimes as a result of funding stipulations, from National Science Foundation for example.  This is the case with an online course called Plants and Python, part of the Michigan State University project, Integrated Training Model in Plant and Computational Sciences: IMPACTS.  I have to admit that all I knew about Python is that it was a programming language, and I don’t much more now.  However, I did delve into the course’s first “notebook,” An Introduction to Plants and Python: Lists and Leaves.

Officially called Foundation in Computational Plant Science, the course begins with the statement that it “brings together plant biologists and data scientists to learn fundamental concepts in plant science using a computational mindset.”  Then in bold is the comforting addition:  “This course assumes no prior experience in plant biology or coding.”   How could I not read on?  The first question explored is “What is a plant?”  Then there’s a discussion of the function and architecture of leaves.  Basic stuff.  After this botanical grounding comes the introduction to making a Python list.  I played along for a while, but then made the decision that I am not going to be a coder, even in the service of plant form.  However, it somehow made me happy to know that such an opportunity is freely available to anyone so inclined.

I’ll end with a couple of sites in two genres made popular by the pandemic.  One is the Smithsonian digital puzzle site which uses images from its libraries, including beautiful floral illustrations.  The Manchester Museum has a museum-from-home site that offers many activities, including a coloring book of herbarium specimens.  What could be better than that!


Noltie, H. J. (2002). The Dapuri drawings: Alexander Gibson and the Bombay Botanic Gardens. Edinburgh: Antique Collectors’ Club.

Noltie, H. J. (2016). The Cleghorn Collection: South Indian Botanical Drawings 1845 to 1860. Edinburgh: Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

Noltie, H. J. (2017). Botanical Art from India: The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh Collection. Edinburgh: Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

Free Images

Rhododendron watercolor by Arioshi Kondo,  Sketchbook 3 in the New York Public Library

In my exploration of freely accessible web resources (1,2), I almost passed over images because they are so ubiquitous.  Still, I come upon new and intriguing sources regularly that are small and focused, as opposed to the huge repositories that can be daunting, yet, they too have an appeal.  One of the largest, Google Arts and Culture, is well-organized.  With so many arts groups contributing to this platform, it could easily have become just a massive warehouse of images.  Instead, each contributor has one or more focused “exhibits.”  Since Oak Spring Garden Library in Virginia is among my favorite places, I’ll use it as an example.  It has five stories or exhibits, two on woman botanical artists, two on medicinal plants, and one on woodcut blocks used in printing the illustrations for Andrea Mattioli’s commentary on Dioscorides’s work on materia medica.  There are also two other ways to view images from this collection.  There’s a display of 214 of them, each of which can be enlarged with a click that also provides information about the image, and then there are images organized into six categories including plants, flowers, and butterflies.  This is just the contribution from Oak Spring.  Start investigating some of the other contributors, and you should have sources of inspiration and enjoyment to last you at least until a covid vaccine is widely distributed.

New York Public Library’s image collection has long been a leader in providing food for the eyes.  Now NYPL is one of many organizations using Mirador software that allows the viewer to easily scroll through an entire book and enlarge each page as desired.  While preparing this post, I went to the homepage and saw that several sketchbooks were featured, including three by Arioshi Kondo, a 19th-century century Japanese botanical artist.  Two of the pages are shown in the image above, and the associated information states that it is “free to use without restriction.”  Other great sources, particularly for historical materials are the Smithsonian Libraries and the Library of Congress site for Free to Use and Reuse Sets as well as its link to the World Digital Library.  The British Museum’s database for its permanent collection is huge, and if you need help in navigating it, Katherine Tyrell has a helpful blog post.  She is also responsible for the Botanical Art and Artists website, another amazing resource.

The European Union’s massive Europeana portal features wonderful exhibitions, some with botanical themes such as François Crépin and the Study of Wild RosesCrépin was a Belgian botanist who spent his life studying roses and working on a never-completed monograph on the world’s rose species.  He gave his herbarium of over 40,000 specimens to the Botanic Garden Meise where he was director.  However, he estimated that in all he had examined 100,000 specimens, many by visiting other herbaria or borrowing from them.  The eight parts of this exhibit are each brief but are visually interesting.  Another Europeana exhibit deals with Edible Plants from the Americas.  It’s in 11 parts and presents many classic botanical illustrations from Basilius Besler’s tomato to a cacao from Hans Sloane’s Natural History of Jamaica.  This site is a reminder of how much the Americas contributed to European cuisine.  There are dozens of Europeana exhibits, and if you are willing to go off the botanical reservation, you can find some treats such as Echoes of an Empire, about Byzantine musical instruments through the ages.  The images here are essential for someone like myself, who had never heard of an idiophone or a membranophone.

Many wonderful exhibits exploring botanical history definitely need more light shone upon them.  Phaidra, which is the digital portal of the University of Padua, also has online exhibits, including one on Illustrated Herbals and another on its collection of 2,300 portraits of botanists.  This spring, the New York Botanical Garden Mertz Library had a display that was also mounted online, Black Botany: The Nature of Black Experience.  Curated by Rashad Bell and Nuala Caomhánach, it looks at the role African Americans played in the cultivation of five plants, each pictured with at least one specimen and illustration.  The peanut, Arachis hypogaea, naturally brings to mind George Washington Carver, but what I didn’t know was that he was also an artist.  There is a photograph of him, paint palette in hand, standing next to a floral painting.  Another entry is on the peacock flower Caesalpinia pulcherrima that enslaved women used as an abortifacient.

I’ll end with two more exhibits, both from the past but still available online.  The Royal Society’s Science Made Visible: Drawings, Prints, Objects tells the story of early research by the society’s fellows in images created to illustrate their work.  This was a 2018 event, but the catalogue is available as a free ebook and in another format on the Royal Society’s Google Arts and Culture portal.  Of course, Robert Hooke’s cells are here but also Robert Waller’s botanical studies of wildflowers as well as his color chart to document the colors of specimens.  Another great institution with wonderful botanical resources is the Dumbarton Oaks Library and Archives, which hosted a 2013 symposium on The Botany of Empire in the Long Eighteenth Century resulting in an impressive edited volume (Batsaki et al., 2017).  The online exhibit gives a good introduction and is liberally illustrated with gems from the Dumbarton collection.  Like many good digital exhibits, this one is organized into sections, something comparable to a series of rooms or exhibit cases in a museum.  The first is to me the most spectacular.  Called “Illustration and Representation,” it includes works by Pierre-Joseph Redouté, Paolo Boccone, and Mark Catesby, and there is an unassuming button marked “View More Information” that takes the user to the book where the image is found so the entire volume can be inspected.  A digital dream come true for those who can’t get enough feasts for the eye.


Batsaki, Calahan, & Tchikine. (2017). Botany of Empire in the Long Eighteenth Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Free Articles

Zygote Quarterly website with covers of all the issues

In the last post, I presented a selection of books that are available for free download from the internet.  In this post, I’ll look at the article situation, which is also full of great opportunities.  There is an odd and wonderful online journal called Zygote Quarterly that can be accessed for free and is visually inspiring.  It often has articles about plants, biomimetics, and art inspired by the natural world.  The covers of all issues are displayed on a single webpage; just click on one and it opens in a viewer.  It’s like having a large visual box of candy to dip into.  I get an email when each issue is published so I won’t miss anything.  The same is true of Antennae.  Its latest issue is the first of three devoted to plants in art and culture.  The journal editor is Giovanni Aloi, author of such books as Lucian Freud Herbarium (2019) and Botanical Speculations (2018), is someone with the background to pull this off.

Many publications offer a sample issue, as with The Botanical Artist, the journal of the American Society of Botanical Artists.  For others, particular articles are also accessible.  Archives of Natural History is a great resource for those interested in botany and beyond.  The publisher, Edinburgh University Press, provides free access to virtual “themed collections,” which change over time.  Right now they are “Women in Natural Sciences”, “Voyages of Exploration” (Cook & Endeavour), and “Additional Voyages.”  If you are interested in any of these topics, take a look soon.  Each collection is quite substantial, so worth investigating.  The Journal of the History of Collecting from Oxford University Press also has thematic issues with the articles downloadable.  Early Steps in Natural History is my favorite.

Obviously university presses, like other publishers, need to at least break even, so the extent of their largess is limited.  It’s now common to find open access or free access articles in scholarly publications, which usually charge large fees per download.  This is often because the author has paid a fee to make free access possible.  It is in the author’s best interest, since more people are likely to read their work.  This is still another profit-making ploy from publishers, but researchers struggling to gain recognition may find it worth the price, and sometimes it’s covered by grants or their home institutions.

Many publishers allow authors to post proofs, often unedited proofs, on their websites or on academic social platforms like ResearchGate and; even if they don’t upload a copy, you can request one.  When I find a recent, or even not so recent, reference I’d like to read, I always do a Google search for it.  Yes, the journal where it’s published will pop up, but sometimes so will other sources including the home institution’s archives.  It happens often enough that I consider it worth a try, and I get a thrill when I download something that turns out to be a gem, a free gem.  One of my favorite authors on the visual in science is the astronomer Omar Nasim (2013).  In another approach to finding articles, I follow him on Academia and get an email when he uploads a new publication; it’s always a treat and usually sets me off on new thinking about how images influence scientific inquiry.

Then there are smaller publications produced by institutions rather than publishers.  In the herbarium world, The Plant Press is a great example of a freely available newsletter that has been published for years by the US National Herbarium at the Smithsonian Institution.   Each issue has a blend of items about current research being done by botanists at the Smithsonian, news about digitization projects, and usually one of Alice Tangerini’s latest botanical illustrations.  The Oxford University Herbaria also have a good newsletter with all issues posted online.  I particularly like it because the herbarium has a massive historical collection, and there’s always an article on one of its treasures, such as Mark Catesby’s plant specimens at Oxford or the herbarium of Jacob Bobart the Younger, the son of the first gardener at the Oxford Botanic Garden.

Recently, I found another great publication, Living Woods Magazine.  You can subscribe for free to get the latest issue, and earlier ones are available online.  It is published in Britain, so it has a different flavor than a US publication would, but I find that a plus, expanding my horizons.  In the Autumn issue there’s an article on coppicing, a technique practiced less in this country than in Europe.  This is followed by an article on making fences with branches grown from coppiced woods.  By cutting back the trees low to the ground, the growth of tender stems is encouraged, and these are pliable enough for weaving.  There’s also an article on ash dieback, a problem that unfortunately plagues both countries.

For the more taxonomically oriented, there is Phytokeys as well as the Botanical Society of America’s Applications in the Plant Sciences, open-access journals vital to the botanic community.  I am sure I am missing many other sources of articles, but I hope that at least one or two of the ones I’ve mentioned are new to you, and prove useful and enjoyable.


Aloi, G. (Ed.). (2018). Botanical Speculations. New Castle Upon Tyne, UK. Cambridge Scholars.

Aloi, G. (2019). Lucian Freud Herbarium. Munich: Prestel.

Nasim, O. W. (2013). Observing by Hand: Sketching the Nebulae in the Nineteenth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Free Books

Martin Schongauer, Studies of Peonies, 1472

I am a relatively thrifty person and I get a certain thrill from finding a bargain.  Since the ultimate bargain is something that costs nothing, I love it when I find a free book on the web.  Since I’ve been spending more time on the internet in the past few months, I’ve come across a number of these gems and have decided to base this series of posts on plant-related discoveries, some I’ve found so recently that I haven’t had a chance to fully explore them.  I’ll also throw in a few I tripped upon in the past.  In the following posts, I’ll delve into articles, images, and other web resources that make the internet a bargain-hunters paradise.  But always there is the caveat that I am just skimming the surface of a massive ocean filled with treasures waiting to be discovered.

One item I came across recently is Singing the Praises of Natural Latin by Linden Hawthorne.  It’s an exploration of plants and plant names, beautifully illustrated with photos and reproductions of botanical art; she also treats a few insects as well.  This is a lovely walk through nature, botanical history, and nomenclature.  Also offered as a free book is Of Microscopes and Monsters by Martyn Kelly who has a wonderful blog, too.  Kelly is a British freshwater ecologist who does water quality studies focusing on diatoms and other fascinating microalgae.  What makes his work particularly interesting is that he is also an artist who creates beautiful underwater landscapes featuring his study material.  These communicate both the structure of organisms and the environment where he encounters them.

My next two finds are doctoral dissertations, which are now sometimes available online through the institutions granting the degrees.  I’ve learned a great deal from Rachel Pedder-Smith’s thesis, The Glow of Significance: Narrating Stories Using Natural History Specimens.  She received her degree from the Royal College of Art in London, which has a website devoted to the work of its students and faculty.  As part of her project, Pedder-Smith created a 18-meter long watercolor painting of herbarium specimens representing all the flowering plant families.  Her written dissertation not only explains her process in creating this art, but discusses the material culture of natural history collections and describes the work of several artists who, as she did, used collections as inspiration.  Her text is a fitting accompaniment to her impressive art work, which is now in the collection of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, where she did her research and painted Kew herbarium specimens.

More recently, I found the dissertation of Anna Svensson, a graduate of KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm.  A Utopian Quest for Universal Knowledge: Diachronic Histories of Botanical Collections between the Sixteenth Century and the Present consists of four chapters dealing with such topics as botanical collecting in 17th-century Oxford, pressed plants tucked into books that are often related to botany, and Svensson’s experiences in digitizing Joseph Hooker’s correspondence at the Royal Botanical Garden, Kew.  She ties it all together by using the metaphor of the four squares that made up the original walled physic garden at Oxford.  She also explains how she created an embroidered cover for her thesis, using plant dyes for the fabric and thread, and creating a knotted garden pattern to signify how the dissertation topics were linked together.

Another mine of book-length resources is the Linnean Society of London, where special issues of The Linnean are available for download including two on Carl Linnaeus (1,2) that were published during the tercentenary of his birth in 2007 and another on Darwin produced for his bicentenary.  Regular issues of The Linnean are also available for download.  Continuing with the anniversary theme is a book on Carolus Clusius published by Leiden University for the 400th anniversary of his death in 2009.  I have to say I just stumbled on all these resources and try to keep track of them for future reference.  Lately I’ve been more organized, in part because I’ve discovered several new items.

The Australian National University has published Communicating Science: A Global Perspective, a large edited volume; a hardcopy is available for sale, but a download of the PDF is free.  The same is true of a number of books published by University College London Press including Heritage Futures: Comparative Approaches to Natural and Cultural Heritage Practices and The East India Company at Home, both edited collections.  And the National Academies of Science Press has published Biological Collections: Ensuring Critical Research and Education for the 21st Century in the same way.  Two more thought-provoking topics are Global Biodiversity Outlook 5 and Data Journeys in the Sciences.

Outside the scientific world, there are two art and art history collections accessible for free.  One is the Getty Publications Virtual Library where over 300 books can be downloaded.  The coverage is so broad that even botanists can find a few gems including Gardens of the Roman World by Patrick Bowe and European Drawings 3: Catalogue of the Collections by Nicholas Turner and Lee Hendrix with a cover featuring Martin Schohgauer’s Studies of Peonies that suggests how observation in early modern painting stimulated botanical observation (see above).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art also makes many of its past publications available for download.  Several deal with the Unicorn Tapestries, including the plants pictured in them.  This set of textiles is one of the Met’s great treasures at the Cloisters, their museum of medieval art, built overlooking the Hudson River in upper Manhattan.

In closing I’ll mention the spectacular guides to the sedges, mosses, and woody plants of  the northern American forests, all publications of the Northern Forest Atlas Project.  Then of course, there are the endlessly rich resources of the Biodiversity Heritage Library, Internet Archive, and Google Books.  And before I go, one more nice find I should mention is an introduction to Botanical Classification and Nomenclature published by the Meise Botanic Garden that’s a great little book.

Other Callings: Miscellanea

Anemones from the Rosa Luxemburg Herbarium

This post, the last in a series on plant collectors who also were involved in other careers, should really be called “other, other callings.”  It deals with those who weren’t involved in religion, philosophy, or business, the subjects of the last three posts (1,2,3).  The most obvious group I’ve missed are physicians, and I did that on purpose:  there are just too many of them.  Through much of botanical history, materia medica focused on plant material, and many physicians from Luca Ghini to John Torrey became more interested in plants than in patients.  Even in the 20th-century, Baruch Blumberg, who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discovery of hepatitis B, went on to seek a cure by screening plants for active antiviral agents.  The research didn’t pan out, but in the process he created a herbarium at the Fox Chase Cancer Center to house the voucher specimens his team collected (Blumberg, 1998).

Sometimes life takes someone into a field far from botany, only to lead back to it.  Gunnar Seidenfaden was a Danish diplomat who studied botany at the University of Copenhagen, but failed his master exam and turned to studying economics and political science, then joining the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  In the 1950s, he became ambassador to Thailand.  This post allowed him to collect, grow, and study the country’s orchids, which had never been adequately documented.  He continued this work for the rest of his life and made a significant contribution to orchid taxonomy, especially Thai species (Pedersen et al., 2009).

A person in any walk of life can be seduced by plants and the desire to collect them:  to have a physical record of what they have seen and studied.  Sometimes what is of interest is not even a plant, but a fungus.  The avant-garde composer John Cage focused on mushrooms, and several of his specimens are in the New York Botanical Garden Steere Herbarium.  He had a long-term fascination with macrofungi in part because he considered their mycelia as a metaphor for the twists and turns of music.  He even produced a book on them, A Mycological Foray, that was very Cagean in its mixture of remembrances of foraging trips, discussions of cooking with mushrooms, and experiments in poetry.

Cage also created a portfolio of illustrations with the artist Lois Long.  Each of her graceful and accurate lithographs has a cover sheet done by Cage with his notes on the species pictured.  His contribution reproduces pencil notes that are written helter-skelter and often overlap each other.  Saving the day is a translucent cover sheet over the lithograph with the notes clearly printed, though in what I consider overly small print.  Both the book and portfolio were published in 1972 and have been re-released along with a set of postcards of Cage’s recipes and of contemporary art works (Cage, 2020).  Two of the cards are scratch-offs to give the reader/viewer, an olfactory experience as well; this was not my favorite part of the collection.

Another artist interested in fungi was Erio Camporesi who made a living as an accountant.  While Cage’s herbarium contributions were meager, Camporesi’s specimens now in herbaria number in the thousands.  He contributed them to many mycologists working on a number of different groups.  Earlier this year, the journal Fungal Diversity dedicated an issue to his contributions, including reproductions of several of his artworks (see image above).  These are brightly-colored, fanciful paintings that emphasize the interconnections fungi make with the world around them (Phukhamsakda et al., 2020).

Not all plant collectors have a purpose so closely tied to science.  In the 19th century, it was common to collect plants while on vacation as a way to preserve memories of experiences in nature.  Pressed plants can also serve as reminders of nature for those less privy to it.  The Marxist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg filled 17 notebooks with specimens, mostly wildflowers, between 1913 and 1918, during which she was jailed several times for her activities in Germany.  Her herbarium was how she kept in touch with what she considered the best parts of her world.  When she could collect she did, and at other times, friends sent her pressed specimens to help her stay connected to the beauties of the world around her.  A German publisher produced a book in 2016 with photos of pages from these notebooks, and some were exhibited last year in New York.

I would like to argue that the Luxemburg exhibition is yet one more sign of a resurgence of interest in plant collections.  In this case, it is not so much for scientific reasons but for historical and cultural ones.  Luxemburg was a political radical and also a feminist at a time when both could be dangerous pursuits.  We tend to think of pressing flowers as something done by delicate young women of privilege, but flowers can be a source of pleasure and comfort to people of all classes and beliefs.  Many have turned to pressing plants during the Covid lockdown, with Quarantine Herbarium projects in both the United States and Britain.  And don’t forget Tanisha M. Williams of this summer’s Black Botanists Week project that blossomed on Twitter this summer.  She is a post-doctoral fellow in Bucknell University’s biology department and a herbarium habitué who sees diversity in the botanical community as key to maintaining biodiversity throughout the world.  Herbaria and herbaria lovers seem to be burgeoning in number and that can only be a good thing for the future of plant life on earth.


Blumberg, B. S. (1998). Case study of plant-derived drug research: Phyllanthus and hepatitis B virus. In T. R. Tomlinson & A. Olayiwola (Eds.), Medicinal Plants: Their Role in Health and Biodiversity. (pp. 3–10). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Cage, J. (2020). A Mycological Foray. Los Angeles: Atelier.

Luxemburg, R. (2016). Herbarium by Rosa Luxemburg (E. Wittich, Ed.). Berlin: Dietz.

Pedersen, H., Watthana, S., & Srimuang, K. (2009). Gunnar Seidenfaden and his heritage: Developments in the diversity and organization of Thai orchid studies. Thai Forest Bulletin, 37, 156–168.

Phukhamsakda, C., & et al. (2020). The contributions of Erio Camporesi. Fungal Diversity, 100, 1–3.

Other Callings: Business

Specimen of a wingnut, Leopold Grindon herbarium at the Manchester Museum

In this series of posts (1,2), I’m exploring the history of individuals who were not professional botanists, but were still passionate about plants, studying and collecting them while pursuing other careers.  I’ve already discussed clergy and philosophers, now I’m going to delve into entrepreneurial realms.  Today’s business moguls rarely keep herbaria; they are more likely to collect art or cars or golf trophies, but in the 19th century the culture was very different.  One way of displaying wealth, without being too ostentatious about it, was by gardening and learning about plants:  a sophisticated man or woman knew their botany.  And what better way to discover more about plants than by collecting them, not only in the garden but between sheets of paper.  Some went out and did their own collecting, others paid to have it done for them.

Henry Shaw was an entrepreneur in the early days of St. Louis’s development as a hub on the Mississippi River.  Interested in plants and gardening, he sought advice from William Jackson Hooker at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew about finding someone to help him develop a public garden in St. Louis.  Hooker replied that the right person for the job was living close by.  George Engelmann was a German physician with a great knowledge of plants who had emigrated to St. Louis years before and developed a network of collectors who sent plants not only to him but to his friends, John Torrey, and Asa Gray.

Hooker’s matchmaking worked well.  Engelmann helped Shaw create what is now the Missouri Botanical Garden and a botanical research center as well.  There were greenhouses built for growing delicate plants as well as research space and even a museum, which has recently been restored to its former glory (see earlier post).  Shaw did not collect specimens, though he did make two album herbaria as gifts for the daughters of neighbors.  Engelmann, however, amassed a large collection including specimens received from his plant hunters.  At Shaw’s behest, he also went to Europe and bought the 60,000-specimen collection of Johann Jakob Bernhardi that was rich in American, African, and Asia plants.  In addition, Engelmann bought books for what has become one of the finest botanical libraries in the world (Grove, 2005).

Wealthy Europeans also built significant herbaria.  The French banker Jules Delessert’s mother had been sent a herbarium by Jean-Jacques Rousseau so she could instruct her daughter in botany (see last post).  History doesn’t record much about her daughter’s interest, but her son read the letters and became a great collector, acquiring 300,000 specimens for which he hired curators.  He also amassed a large library with not only reference works but manuscripts and botanical art.  After his death, his herbarium went to the Geneva Botanical Garden and his library to the Institut de France in Paris (Stafleu, 1970).

In Britain, a number of 19th-century business administrators devoted as much attention to their herbaria as to their jobs.  Charles Bailey worked for a shipping company that had links around the world while James Cosmo Melvill was secretary of the East India Company, another post that would have put him in contact with collectors.  These men were friends and decided early on that their activities shouldn’t be in conflict, since they intended to donate their specimens to the Manchester Museum, where these collections still reside.  Bailey focused on the British Isles, Europe, and Africa, and Melvill took on the rest of the world.  Bailey’s collections eventually amounted to over 300,000 items, and Melvill’s, not surprisingly, was of comparable size.

These collections, along with that of Leopold Hartley Grindon, who specialized in cultivated plants, formed the foundation of the Manchester herbarium, which is housed in the newly renovated and still lovely museum attic.  Many of the natural history museums of the 19th century have such collections that have now become important documents not only of environmental change, but also of the culture of the times.  I think Grindon’s collection is particularly interesting because he created what I would call extended specimens, with notes, illustrations, and articles (see image above).  Many of these comprise a number of sheets to accommodate all the explanatory material.

I should note before I end this post, that it wasn’t just the rich who worked seriously at plant collecting in the 19th century.  Particularly in Britain, there were many in the working classes who used their leisure to collect, often getting together afterwards at a pub or tea room to share specimens and information (Shteir, 1996).  These individuals frequently sent specimens to wealthy collectors in exchange for information and sometimes for payment; the terms of these relationships varied, but they were usually based on mutual respect and love of plants (Secord, 1994a,b).

Present-day attitudes to the botanical world have obviously changed, but the millions of photos and information shared on websites like iNaturalist suggest that there is a viable community of plant lovers today.  Their motives may have changed, with conservation and biodiversity now the focus, but the same passion is still there, and that’s a wonderful thing.  They may be less likely to physically collect plants, but many are beginning to appreciate the vast collections now available to them online.


Grove, C. (2005). Henry Shaw’s Victorian Landscapes: The Missouri Botanical Garden and Grove Park. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.

Secord, A. (1994). Corresponding Interests: Artisans and Gentlemen in Nineteenth-Century Natural History. The British Journal for the History of Science, 27(4), 383–408.

Secord, A. (1994). Science in the Pub: Artisan Botanists in Early Nineteenth-Century Lancashire. History of Science, 32, 269–315.

Shteir, A. (1996). Cultivating Women, Cultivating Science: Flora’s Daughters and Botany in England 1760 to 1860. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Stafleu, F. A. (1970). Benjamin Delessert and Antoine Lasegue. Taxon, 19, 920–938.

Other Callings: Philosophers

Specimen of Rosa eglanteria from a herbarium made for Mademoiselle Julie Boy-de-la-Tour by Jean-Jacque Rousseau, Zurich Central Library.

In the last post, I discussed members of the clergy who were also avid plant collectors and in many cases made substantial contributions to botany.  Now I want to deal with another group, much smaller in number, but interesting nonetheless:  philosophers who liked plants.  I am hardly the first to consider this connection.  Michael Marder, himself a philosopher, wrote The Philosopher’s Plant: An Intellectual Herbarium (2014), in which he discussed how thinkers from Plato to Hegel used plant metaphors in exploring deep questions of existence.  It is a fascinating approach, yet none of the philosophers I want to write about here, all of whom kept herbaria, are given more than a mention.  Marder’s thinkers seem to have been more involved with conceptual rather than real plants, though some of their work is definitely based on close observation of nature.

I’ll begin my survey with John Locke (1632-1704) who maintained correspondence with several botanist/gardeners, including Jacob Bobart the Younger, who had succeeded his father as head gardener at the Oxford University Botanic Garden and also taught there.  Bobart assisted Locke in identifying plants, and Locke, while in France, served as a go-between with Pierre Magnol at the Montpelier botanical garden, which had long been a center for botanical research in France.  Among the items passed among these men were seed lists:  what would be available for sharing.  Locke was particularly interested in fruit trees and vines.  He had number of botanical reference works, and kept specimens for reference (Harris, 2009).

As the years went by, Locke’s interest in botany dwindled, but the opposite was true for Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  While exiled in Switzerland in the early 1760s, he was tutored by the physician and botanist Abraham Gagnebin who joined him on plant collecting trips.  Rousseau was focused on the plants he found around him rather than on exotics and horticultural “monstrosities.”  Botany became an important manifestation of his interest in nature, and he considered studying plants a way to calm the emotions by focusing the mind on something outside itself.   He was drawn to meditating on plant form and became absorbed in learning about plant structures, comparing one species with another.  Carl Linnaeus’s books were among his guides.  As with many others, Linnaean classification made plant identification accessible to him.  He even learned to press plants and began an herbarium, guided by Gagnebin who had a massive collection (Cook, 2012).

Since Rousseau had spent his life writing, it’s not surprising that he began to write about botany.  Madeleine Delessert, the wife of a French financier, sought his advice on teaching her daughter about plants.  In response, he sent her eight letters focusing on the art of observation and how to compare plant forms, then ending with a letter on creating a herbarium; these were later published.  Rousseau came to appreciate a plant collection as a way to reinforce information about a plant.  By this time, Rousseau was creating beautiful specimens, including ones mounted on pages framed with red ink borders (see image above).  He gave some to his patrons, to Delessert and also to the Duchess of Portland for whom he made two portable collections.

Among those influenced by Rousseau’s botanical work was the German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.  He became involved with plants as an administrator in Weimar with responsibility for agriculture and forestry management.  Then, as happened with so many others, he grew fascinated by plants for their own sake.  Goethe read Carl Linnaeus’s works and, like Rousseau, tried to puzzle out the similarities and differences among species.  He started a herbarium and also began sketching plants and plant structures.  The turning point in Goethe’s interest came when he traveled south to Italy and was struck by the new and intriguing species he encountered (Arber, 1946).  They had some similarities with those in Germany, but there were also significant differences, especially greater variety, a diversity of variations on botanical forms.  When he visited the botanical garden in Padua, one of the oldest in Europe, he had an epiphany that somehow leaf forms were related to each other, and all leaves to a basic form.

This unity in diversity led Goethe still further to posit a fundamental plant form, based on the leaf, to which all plant structures were related.  This might seem to have evolutionary implications, but not for Goethe.  He considered the relationship purely conceptual and finally came to accept that this idea could not be visualized and had to remain a mental construct.  Goethe worked on his botanical ideas referencing the drawings he made or had made for him as well as his herbarium specimens.  These included plants he collected and other herbaria he purchased in order to broaden his study material.  His The Metamorphosis of Plants (Goethe & Miller, 2009) presents his argument on form, and while some see him as influential in the history of plant morphology, others consider him an amateur who added little to the field.

Probably the most long-term collector among philosophers was John Stuart Mill, who was interested in botany throughout his life in part because he saw the hierarchical classification of living things as a model for ordering many aspects of human affairs such as law.  Mill collected mainly in the British Isles and had such an extensive herbarium that his daughter-in-law outfitted a room for his specimens (Curtis, 1988).  His collecting broadened after his wife’s death when he moved to Provence and befriended the French naturalist Henri Fabre.  They often botanized together.  Mill also went on collecting trips through Eastern Europe and Greece.  Numbering in the many thousands, his specimens are in several collections in both Europe and the United States (Pearce, 2006).


Arber, A. R. (1946). Goethe’s botany: The Metamorphosis of plants, 1790, and Tobler’s ode to nature, 1782. Waltham, MA: Chronica Botanica.

Cook, A. (2012). Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Botany: The Salutary Science. London: Voltaire Foundation.

Curtis, S. (1988). The philosopher’s flowers: John Stuart Mill as botanist. Encounter, 80(2), 26–33.

Goethe, J. W., & Miller, G. L. (2009). The Metamorphosis of Plants. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Harris, S., & Anstey, P. (2009). John Locke’s seed lists: A case study in botanical exchange. Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 40, 256–264.

Marder, M. (2014). The Philosopher’s Plant: An Intellectual Herbarium. New York: Columbia University Press.

Pearce, N. R. (2006). John Stuart Mill’s botanical collections from Greece (a private passion). Phytologia Balcanica, 12(2), 149–164.

Other Callings

Plate from William Keble Martin’s The Concise British Flora in Colour, Ebury Press, 1965.

In an earlier series of posts (1,2,3,4), I wrote of herbaria and war, including stories of individuals in the military who fed their passion for botany by collecting plants in free moments.  This got me thinking about others who didn’t let their careers stop them from botanizing and provided myself with the topic for this series.  I’ll begin with what is a sizable category—the clergy—with examples from the earliest days of herbaria on.  In fact I could do an entire series about this group and may tackle that in the future.  For now, I’ll race through the centuries.  In the early years of plant collecting, it’s not surprising that there were ties to religion, because clergymen were often among the better educated and in many cases were caring for the physical as well as spiritual needs of their flocks, which could mean preparing herbal medicines, sometimes grown in cloistered gardens.

Some religious became deeply involved in collecting specimens and learning about plants.  In early modern Italy, the Capuchins, a branch of the Franciscans, were particularly involved in studying nature (Egmond, 2010).  Fra Gregorio da Reggio, whose herbarium survives at the Oxford University Herbarium, ran the pharmacy and infirmary at a monastery in Bologna, but also collected for notable Italian families, providing specimens, seeds, cuttings, and information used to enrich their gardens.  Carolus Clusius corresponded with him and also with the Augustinian friar Evangelista Quattrami, who had a doctorate in theology but was also herbalist to the Este family in Rome.

It was the Jesuits who literally put clerical collectors on the map.  They were a missionary order founded in 1534 in response to the Protestant Reformation and charged with spreading Catholic doctrine around the world.  Michał Piotr Boym was a Polish Jesuit serving in Portugal, who was in a group of 13 clergy sent to China (Clarke, 2016).  He wrote of the plants and animals he found there, published an illustrated book, and managed to convert the last Emperor of the dynasty to Catholicism.  The Jesuits also sent missionaries to India and to South America.  José de Acosta held a number of positions in Peru, including five years touring the country as assistant to the Viceroy Francisco de Toledo (Bleichmar, 2011).  It was not uncommon for religious to also have official posts of various kinds, thus mixing politics with religion and botany.  Acosta wrote a massive work about his observations on the plants, animals, and geography of the areas he visited.

In the next century, one of the most noteworthy religious travelers Charles Plumier was more a botanist than a missionary.  His journeys were essentially collecting trips, and he wrote descriptions of many of the plants he encountered.  Plumier traveled in the West Indies and as did the French Dominican Jean-Baptiste du Terte (Duval, 1982).  As time when on, there were more and more missionaries proselytizing around the world, and often collectors took advantage of these well-placed individuals.  I have focused on Catholics so far, but the British Anglican Bishop Henry Compton, groomed a young priest with an interest in botany, John Banister, to collect in Virginia, and Compton’s friend James Petiver communicated with a number of missionaries in the Americas, Africa and Asia (Stearns, 1952).

In the 19th century, there were several notable French botanist/priests from the Vincentian order in China.  These included Jean Marie Delavay, who shipped over 200,000 plant specimens to France, and Armand David, who sent back skins of a rare bovine that came to be known as Père David’s deer and of the giant panda, introducing this animal to the West.  David was particularly interested in plants and went on several long collecting trips, finding hundreds of new species, perhaps most notably Davidia, the handkerchief tree named for its dangling white bracts (Kilpatrick, 2014).

South East Asia was fertile ground both religiously and botanically for British Protestant missionaries, who were often assisted by their wives, many of whom were skilled artists.  Charles and Elizabeth Parish served in Burma and were both interested in botany and drawing (Bynum & Bynum, 2017).  Charles had a living collection of orchids and a herbarium, and both Parishs documented these plants in drawings (Clayton, 2014).  No matter what the religious affiliation or era, missionary work by its nature is difficult:  living in foreign lands, often dealing with barriers of custom and language, yet surrounded by amazing living things.  Many found comfort and enjoyment in botanizing.  Sending specimens and information back home was a way to stay in contact with their former lives, ones that they often longed to return to.

There were also many clerical botanists who were not missionaries and pursued their collecting closer to home.  Edward Lee Greene was an American who began as an Episcopal priest, but then converted to Catholicism while always maintaining his passion for botany.  He collected in the American West and worked for some time at the University of California, Berkley.  Later he taught at Catholic University, which was the training ground for a number of men and women who combined their vocations with their botany, including Sister Mary Teresita Kittell who co-authored a flora of New Mexico and Arizona.  Greene himself wrote Landmarks of Botanical History as well as many taxonomic works.

In Britain the number of clergymen/naturalists were legion, most notably Gilbert White, but also John Henslow, and in the 20th century, William Keble Martin.  It was a blog post about Keble Martin that spurred me to write this post.  Holly Morgenroth recently described spending her covid lockdown studying specimens from Keble Martin’s herbarium and matching some of the plants to his drawings of the same species.  This art was used to construct species-filled illustrations for his The Concise British Flora in Color, published in 1965 when he was 88 (see image above).  A collection of both his drawings and specimens are at RAMM, the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery in Exeter, and like many of us, Morgenroth was pleased to find a satisfying and fruitful botanical project while working from home.


Bleichmar, D. (2011). Visible Empire: Botanical Expeditions and Visual Culture in the Hispanic Enlightenment. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bynum, H., & Bynum, W. (2017). Botanical Sketchbooks. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

Clarke, V. (2016). Plant: Exploring the Botanical World. New York: Phaidon.

Clayton, D. (2014). The Reverend Charles Samuel Pollock Parish – plant collector and botanical illustrator of the orchids from Tenasserim Province, Burma. Lankesteriana, 13(3), 215–227.

Duval, M. (1982). The King’s Garden. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia.

Egmond, F. (2010). The World of Carolus Clusius: Natural History in the Making, 1550-1610. London: Pickering and Chatto.

Keble Martin, W. (1965). The Concise British Flora in Colour. London: Ebury.

Kilpatrick, J. (2014). Fathers of Botany: The Discovery of Chinese Plants by European Missionaries. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Stearns, R. P. (1952). James Petiver: Promoter of Natural Science, c. 1663-1718. Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, 62, 243–365.

Rereading Botany: Artist’s Books

Helmingham Herbal and Bestiary, folios 2v-3r, Yale Center for British Art

I will admit that I know little about the world of artist’s books, beyond the fact that many are, indeed, works of art and often priced accordingly.  However, I am willing to explore their wonders, especially when they deal with the natural world.  In this last post (earlier 1,2,3) on the theme of rereading some of my favorite books on botany, I want to examine Of Green Leaf Bird and Flower: Artist’s Books and the Natural World.  The author Elisabeth Fairman is curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts at the Yale Center for British Art, built around Paul Mellon’s collection of British Art.  My last post was about the library he constructed on their Oak Spring, Virginia farm for his wife Rachel’s botanical rare book and art collection.  I had decided on writing about these books, and only later realized that my choices are heavily Mellon-oriented.  It is no wonder, since obviously they influenced each other’s collecting choices.

Elisabeth Fairman shares the Mellon’s love of nature, as revealed in this book that accompanied an exhibit at the center.  She traces the exhibit’s origins to similarities she saw between two very different works in the collection.  One is the Helmingham Herbal and Bestiary, a manuscript from around 1500 that was part of Paul Mellon’s original gift.  It has brightly painted plant illustrations, including a very lifelike blackberry plant in a basket.  Much more recently, the center acquired an artist’s book by Rosaleen Wain (1996) called A Printmaker’s Flora: An Anthology of the Names of British Wild Flowers.  This too had an image of a blackberry plant in all its twisting and thorny glory.  That got Fairman hunting for other brambles in the collection, and from there she began to develop a theme centered on a line from the 19th-century British poet, William Gardner which became the show’s title, Of Green Leaf Bird and Flower.  As this title suggests, the book isn’t just about plants.  There are animals here too, but on one of the introductory pages there are examples of pressed plants, so I was hooked.

If the term “herbarium” is used in a broad sense, there are several represented here, including a small notebook owned by Mary Gibbs Shapter entitled “Notes on Various Trees,” with many leaves taped in its pages along with notes and drawings (1879-1880).  There is an album of pressed plants and seaweeds (1856-1863) by an unnamed collector and an impressive wooden box with blue envelopes, each decorated with a watercolor of the species of pressed plant found inside.   This is the work of a Miss Rowe who submitted it to a contest sponsored by the Liverpool Natural History Society for the best plant collection.  It isn’t known whether she won.  If she didn’t, I’d love to see the winner.  The British artist Mandy Bonnell created an artist’s book, Wildflowers of Notice: In Memory of Miss Rowe of Liverpool.  There are delicate drawings within folders, laid in a box, just as Miss Rowe’s were.

Tracey Bush crafted a different kind of herbarium.  Hers contains not pressed specimens, but cardboard cutouts of plants, such as dandelions and poppies that are recognizable by their shapes, though they are also labeled with both common and Latin names.  The cardboard used came from package wrappers; it’s easy to spot pieces of Kellogg’s and Heinz labels.  These relate to a project Bush called Nine Wild Plants where she asked people to email her a list ten wild plants they could identify.  She was surprised to find that many people couldn’t come up with ten.  They might recognize a plant, but were unable to name it.  Some gave both Latin and common names, but they were definitely in the minority.  So Bush lowered her sights and called the work Nine Wild Plants instead of ten to signify the disappointing results.  She published a small booklet with the entries, along with the respondents’ sometimes witty comments.  Her contention is that people today are easily able to recognize product labels, but have lost the ability of earlier generations to identify the living things around them.  To bring home this point, Fairman pairs Bush’s plants, with 19th-century specimens of the same species on loan from the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.

I don’t want to give the impression that pressed plants dominate this book because they don’t.  It is a wonderful blend of examples of art and publications from several centuries, with the common denominator being the sensitive portrayal of nature, which, some might argue, the British are particularly good at.  Needless to say, many of the artists are new to me, including Sister Margaret Tournour who taught art and spent her retirement making exceptional wood engravings; also Eileen Hogan who is represented here by a project documenting the work of the stone sculptor and poet Ian Hamilton Finlay at his home:  Sketchbooks Recording Little Sparta, Scotland (1997-213).  More recently Fairman (2019) produced another book also for an exhibit.  It is on Hogan’s art which runs the gamut from large-scale oils to lettering and prints.  Again, nature is at the center of her work, though she also has produced a couple of “self-portraits:”  paintings of clothes hanging in her closet.  I have to admit that I recently reread this book simply to nourish my soul with beauty.


Fairman, E. R. (Ed.). (2014). Of Green Leaf, Bird, and Flower: Artist’s Books and the Natural World. Yale University Press.

Fairman, E. R. (2019). Eileen Hogan: Personal Geographies. Yale University Press.

Rereading Botany: An Oak Spring Herbarium

Cover of the Johannes Harder Herbarium at the library of the Oak Spring Garden Foundation

The third book in this series of posts (1,2) on rereading some of my favorites is about An Oak Spring Herbarium by Lucia Tongiori Tomasi and Tony Willis (2009).   This is the last of four books, published over 20 years, on the collection assembled by Rachel (Bunny) Mellon at Oak Spring Library, all available as ebooks.  Since her death in 2014, the library is now part of the Oak Spring Garden Foundation which includes not only the library but the home that she shared with her husband Paul Mellon and the surrounding gardens, buildings, and land.  The foundation is directed by Sir Peter Crane, who has had a distinguished career in botanical science and administration.  He and the board have shaped a mission that focuses on bringing together theory and practice around plants, encouraging the underrepresented, and fostering interdisciplinarity among the sciences, the humanities, and the social sciences.  Information on their programs is available on the website and there is also a series of Oak Spring exhibits on Global Arts and Culture.

I discovered Oak Spring through the books it produced.  Each deals with a different aspect—trees (Raphael, 1989), fruits (Raphael, 1990), flowers (Tomasi, 1997), and herbals—of Mrs. Mellon’s extensive collection of rare books, manuscripts, and art on plants and horticulture.  It is the last I want to focus on because it has herbarium in the title.  As it did in early modern botany, the word here has the broad meaning of a collection, usually illustrated, on plants particularly medicinal plants.  The Mellon collection includes many of the great publications of the 16th century: the herbals of Otto Brunfels and Leonhart Fuchs, the Carolus Clusius volume on rare plants including many from the New World, and the translation and commentary written by Pietro Andrea Mattioli on the ancient master of medical botany Dioscorides.  The edition of the last work is a special one, created for royalty, printed on blue paper, and with illustrations embellished with gold and silver highlights.  Mrs. Mellon also acquired some of the wood blocks used to print the Mattioli work.  They had been purchased by the French botanist and horticultural Henri-Louis Duhamel du Monceau in the 1700s and were held by the family until the mid-20th century.

Along with books, a variety of manuscripts are presented, and yes, even a couple of “real” herbaria, that I have mentioned in an earlier post:  one created by the German apothecary, Johannes Harder around 1595 and another attributed to the Italian pharmacist Carlo Sembertini (c. 1720).  They are very different from each other in construction and purpose.  Harder’s appears to be a way to present medicinal plants to customers.  What makes it intriguing is that in cases where a flower or other plant part is missing, he painted it in.  The Italian volume, on the other hand, is clearly a presentation piece dedicated to a physician, Angelo Barberio.  The pages are framed in India and red ink, the plants are pasted down with silk ribbons, and the lettering is in the style of medieval manuscripts, with red initials for the first letter of a plant’s name.  These volumes led me to visit Oak Spring, where Tony Willis, Kimberly Fisher, and Nancy Collins have welcomed me warmly on several occasions, and I’ve seen how Oak Spring has evolved into a much more public-facing institution over the past few years.

When writing of Oak Spring and Rachel Mellon, a quote from the botanical writer Richard Mabey (2015) comes to mind:  “The quintessence of a plant can only ever be a fantastic goal, something to travel towards but never reach” (p. 27).  I see Mellon as enraptured by plants and seeking to travel toward them from many directions.  She started collecting books on plants in order to develop her garden, to learn about plants and landscape design.  She obtained works by French horticulturalists like Jean-Baptiste de La Quintinie who designed the gardens at Versailles, and Monceau who studied fruit trees.  Her garden at Oak Spring is still kept beautifully, including a espalier of pear trees along a garden wall.

Mellon also collected botanical art and Oak Spring presented an exhibition of these works at New York Botanical Garden.  It was the best show I ever saw there.  It included watercolors by Georg Ehret, Elizabeth Blackwell, and Pierre-Joseph Redouté.  There were two large oil paintings by Giralmo Pini filled with flowers that are named in a painted legend at the lower corner of each.  There was an illustration by Andy Warhol on how to make a vine leaf marinade, two Picasso lithographs, and at the end of the show a watercolor painted on the flattened lid of a long flower box, a thank for the flowers Mellon sent her daughter, the artist Elizabeth Lloyd Moore, whom she described as her “best friend.”

Rachel Mellon really did seem to want to get at the quintessence of a plant in any way she could.  At the library, there are Brendel plant models used in teaching in the 19th century, a beautiful 20th-century model of a mushroom, and numerous pieces of china with floral motifs.  I have digressed from the book I was supposed to be writing about here; but my fond memories of Oak Spring have overtaken me.  I hope that my passion for the place will encourage others to learn more about it and about the woman who created this remarkable collection which is housed in the beautiful library building that Paul Mellon had built for it.  By the time it was completed, it already needed to be enlarged to accommodate new acquisitions, an indication of Mrs. Mellon’s continuing passion for plants, art, and books.


Mabey, R. (2015). The Cabaret of Plants: Forty Thousand Years of Plant Life and the Human Imagination. New York: Norton.

Raphael, S. (1989). An Oak Spring Sylva: A Selection of the Rare Books on Trees in the Oak Spring Garden Library. Upperville, VA: Oak Spring Garden Library.

Raphael, S. (1990). An Oak Spring Pomona: A Selection of the Rare Books on Fruit in the Oak Spring Garden Library. Upperville, VA: Oak Spring Garden Library.

Tomasi, L. T. (1997). An Oak Spring Flora: Flower Illustration from the Fifteenth Century to the Present Time. Upperville, VA: Oak Spring Garden Library.

Tomasi, L. T., & Willis, T. (2009). An Oak Spring Herbaria: Herbs and Herbals from the Fourteenth to the Nineteenth Centuries. Upperville, VA: Oak Spring Garden Library.