In the last post I discussed xylaria, collections of wood specimens. Now I want to look at the similar xylotheque. In some cases, the two are synonymous. Xylotheque is a French word meaning wood library, related to bibliotheque, the term for a library of books. Many European xylaria are called xylotheques, but in the 18th and 19th centuries especially in Germany, a number of wood collections were created that were more than just figuratively wood libraries. A wood specimen was cut in the form of a book, and the spine was labeled with the species name. Some of these still exist, such as that of the merchant and illustrator Johann Bellermann whose collection is now at the Austrian National Library (Lack, 2001). In this case, the samples were cut so the books’ “spines” displayed the species’ bark.
Other xylotheques are more elaborate, with the center of the “book” hollowed out and filled with a tree branch as well as flowers and fruit, nuts, or cones. One of the most spectacular is at the Naturkund Museum in Kassel, Germany constructed between 1771 and 1799 by Karl Schlindbach. It’s composed of 530 “volumes;” each has what amounts to a small diorama inside, with wax fruit and leaves still retaining their color. These have bark spines as well as information about the species on the reverse side. They are now kept in special cases (see photo above) with the entire display designed by the American artist Mark Dion who is known for his work with natural history collections. He also crafted several new “books” for the collection. Germany’s forests have long been considered treasures, and so it’s not surprising that such xylotheques would be created there and in other countries of central Europe. Bess Lovejoy has a blog post on two sets found in the libraries of religious foundations, abbeys in the Czech Republic and Austria. These are seen more as historical rather than botanical objects, but there is a xylotheque at the Technical University of Munich that has a historical and a working collections, both are housed in bookcases with glass doors so the term xylotheque is particularly fitting for this institution.
What William L. Stern (1976) referred to as the aesthetic lure of wood is obviously how the foremost attraction of many historical xylotheques. One of the most spectacular was created in the 1870s in Japan by Chikusai Kato, the first illustrator at the Tokyo botanical garden. It consists of boards of different woods, each framed with the corresponding bark and decorated with paintings of the tree’s leaves, flowers and fruit. The largest collection of these, 155 of them, is at the museum of the Berlin Dahlem Botanic Garden (Nagata et al., 2013). They are housed in specially designed wooden cupboards from the late 19th century. There are also 26 specimens at the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew, where they were recently on display as part of an exhibition of Japanese botanical art. In preparation for the exhibit, these artifacts were restored, so they are now particularly beautiful examples of an unusual cross between specimen and botanical illustration. One of these is made of ginkgo wood and depicts its distinctive leaves. Kew borrowed a watercolor of the gingko, also by Kato, so they could be hung together. Perhaps less spectacular but nonetheless noteworthy is the Peiffer Xylarium at Delaware State University. Each of the wood specimens has a laser cut image of the tree’s branch, leaves, flower, and seeds and/or fruit; also engraved on each block are the common and Latin names. These were done by artist Barbara Newlon. Delaware State has a very active herbarium, and this collection is a wonderful adjunct to it, with many specimens contributed by Prof. Randel Peiffer.
Before leaving the topic of xylotheques, examples of a combination of wood and text, I should mention that there are many books containing images of wood specimens, and sometimes even wood specimens themselves. The Austrian National Library has a copy of Flora rossica (1784-1789) by Peter Pallas, a German explorer who studied the economic conditions of the regions he visited, and in this case produced a collection of woods found in Russia, an area that had been little investigated earlier. This is a reminder that a great deal of the impetus for the study of woods in the past and the present is economic. It is easy for those living in urban areas to forget this, but as someone who now travels regularly through the Carolinas, I am often reminded of the importance of logging in these areas.
With the development of photography, it became much easier to document wood grain. Manuel Soler is a Spanish wood collector who has published four books of pictures of wood specimens he has collected over the years. He now has over 4000 samples which he displays in a small hut he built for the purpose. He is one of a number of private collectors whom I’ll mention in a future post. But before I sign off, I’d like to cite The Woodbook (Leistikow, 2014) that includes photographs of all the woods presented in Romeyn Hough’s American Woods, first published in 14 volumes between 1888 and 1928. The original contains specimens of each species mounted on stiff paper—presenting three cross-section cuts of each wood to illustrate all characteristics of the grain: radial, horizontal, and tangential. Also included in The Woodbook are updated descriptions of the trees as well as lithographs by Charles Sprague Sargent of the leaves and fruit of most trees. This is a beautiful book, but it only hints at the magnificence of the original series.
Hough, R. B. (1888). American Woods. Lowville, NY: R.B. Hough.
Lack, H. W. (2001). Garden Eden: Masterpieces of Botanical Illustration. Cologne, Germany: Taschen.
Leistikow, K. U. (2014). The Woodbook. Cologne, Germany: Taschen.
Nagata, T., DuVal, A., Lack, H. W., Loudon, G., Nesbitt, M., Schmuli, M., & Crane, P. (2013). An Unusual Xylotheque with Plant Illustrations from Early Meiji Japan. Economic Botany, 67(2), 87–97.
Stern, W. L. (1976). Multiple uses of institutional wood collections. Curator, 19, 165–170.