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.