More Books: Biltmore

When I began to delve into the herbarium world, I was surprised at the variety of people and institutions that collected plants.  The 19th century British writer and artist John Ruskin pressed plants from Chamonix in France, the philosopher John Stuart Mill’s family had a room built to house his extensive collection (Pearce, 2006), and the Nobel-Prize-winning physician Baruch Blumberg (1998) had one at the Fox Chase Cancer Center to archive plants tested for antiviral agents.  It fascinates me when people and places I associate with other fields, also had plant collections.  Take for example George W. Vanderbilt II’s Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina with its huge and magnificent home surrounded by gardens to match.  I’ve never been there, but visitors describe it in superlatives.  So I was tickled to discover that there was an herbarium at Biltmore and distraught to learn that a great deal of it was destroyed by a flood in 1916. 

That’s all I knew about this collection until Nina Veteto, who lives in Asheville and visits Biltmore regularly, told me about a book on the estate’s botanical activities during its heyday in the late 19th century:  The Biltmore Nursery: A Botanical Legacyby Bill Alexander (2007).  Vanderbilt had originally come to the area with his ailing mother since this mountain region was becoming a health resort for wealthy Northerners.  At 26, he began buying parcels of land, including rather degraded property that had been overgrazed or deforested.  He envisioned building a house and also devoting some of the thousands of acres he acquired to forestry, along with an arboretum.  Like many seeking to lay out estates or parks at that time, he turned for direction to landscape architect Frederick Olmsted, the creator of Central Park.

Olmsted did more than just design a plan for the gardens and arboretum.  He also proposed development of the forest as a business and of a nursery to serve the massive needs of the estate.  Once it was established and production became robust, the nursery generated revenue by offering a large variety of trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants for sale.  Alexander’s book includes a reprint of the entire 1912 nursery catalogue, which runs to 177 pages.  Everything at Biltmore was on a large scale.  Olmstead also recommended the creation of an herbarium to document the plants that grew on the estate before development as well as the many species introduced from around the world.  He even suggested tracking plants that flourished after coming in with other plants, often as seeds.

For the herbarium to be useful it would need a broad collection of reference specimens, so many duplicates were produced and trades made with herbaria around the world.   Frank Boynton was hired as a collector for both the herbarium and the nursery at the recommendation of Charles Sprague Sargent.  Collections were made in many areas of the east and a collector was even sent out west.  Chauncey Beadle was director of the nursery, as well as the herbarium.  He worked to create a xylarium with collections of with seeds, nuts, and examples of diseases along with wood sections showing bark.  Obviously, Olmstead also saw a botanical library as a must, and book buying began in 1890 at the same time the nursery was set up.  Alvan Chapman, a well-known Florida botanist nearing the end of his life, sold some of his books and specimens to Vanderbilt.  And in 1896, records show a shipment of 9 cases of books from London; others came from a book seller in Philadelphia. 

The heyday for collection at Biltmore was over by about 1901.  Though the library and herbarium continued to function, they were no longer actively enlarged.  In its heyday, the herbarium had about 100,000 specimens.  Three quarters of them were lost in the 1916 flood that also destroyed the nursery.  However, by this time the herbarium’s future was already uncertain since George Vanderbilt had died of appendicitis two years earlier, and his widow was seeking a new home for the collection.  The remaining specimens, including most of Chapman’s, were given to the Smithsonian.  However, as Alexander notes, so many Biltmore specimens were exchanged with other institutions there are Biltmore sheets in a number of collections in the United States and Europe.  One indication of the extent of exchange is that in 1897 5,000 copies of the Biltmore herbarium exchange catalogue were printed.  Many were sent to collectors and institutions around the world including in Russia, Austria, Australia, and of course, Britain. 

The herbarium project at Biltmore lasted about 25 years, but its impact continues through the many specimens at the United States National Herbarium at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.  It recently announced that its entire collection of over 5 millions sheets has now been digitized and is available online, so at least some of what was documented on the Biltmore estate can now be used in studies on habitat change over the past 100 years.  But the story of the Biltmore herbarium also speaks to how much a wealthy individual valued nature in the late 19th century.  Yes, Vanderbilt saw plants as a source of further wealth but he also valued information about them in the form of specimens and publications, and he saw the value of connections to the broader botanical community as valuable for learning more about them.

Note: I am very grateful to Nina Veteto for our discussion on Biltmore, herbaria, and plants in general as well as her post on the Biltmore Herbarium.


Alexander, B. (2007). The Biltmore Nursery: A Botanical Legacy. Charleston: Natural History Press.

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.

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

One thought on “More Books: Biltmore

  1. Pingback: More Books: City Plants | Herbarium World

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s