Before I knew them, my stepsons lived in Wilton, Ct. Many years later, when they had long left the area, I came upon a book called Ferns and Flowering Plants of Wilton at a book sale. For a dollar, I was willing to check out their old stomping ground. The book was put together by the local garden club, and in it was mention of a herbarium they had created that was housed at the Wilton Library. A little digging led me to the library’s history room, and there it was, a collection numbering over 1,000 sheets. The collection’s foundation was the donation of 200 sheets by Anna Carpenter (1833-1933) to the Wilton Garden Club. Carpenter had spent the last 42 years of her life in Wilton and often collected in the area, which at the time was rural but is now definitely suburban. She presented the rest of her collection to the Connecticut Botanical Society herbarium now housed at the Yale Herbarium in the Peabody Museum of Natural History. There are 665 of her specimens listed in the herbarium’s online database.
In 1981, the Wilton Garden Club moved the collection into the Wilton Library History Room to make it more accessible. This was part of a larger herbarium project, which had begun in the 1960s and which resulted in several hundred sheets being added to the collection. Most of the collectors were members of the Wilton Garden Club, most notably Marybeth Wheeler, for whom the herbarium is now named. When I visited in 2012, Scotty Taylor of the Wilton Historical Society showed me a well-cared-for collection stored in archival boxes. She said that it was little used, but since then the library has mounted an exhibit of some of the sheets to make this treasure better known in the community. I use the Wilton herbarium as an example of herbaria that are not in the usual places for such collections—botanical gardens, educational institutions, museums—the places I’ve described in the last three posts (1,2,3). This last post in the series is sort of a catch-all for collections, large and small, that live in a variety of settings.
Unlike the one in Wilton, many herbaria that end up in libraries are in bound volumes. One of my favorite examples is the 16-volume collection of Lord Robert Petre in the Sutro Library at San Francisco State University. Petre was an avid gardener and one of the early patrons of John Bartram who sent Petre plants, including seeds and cuttings, through Peter Collinson the great British plant broker. This connection is what makes the Petre herbarium particularly interesting. There are Bartram plants in two of the volumes, some with Bartram’s original labels written on small pieces of brown wrapping paper. In the 1980’s Schuyler and Newbold (1987) of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia examined these specimens and gave them updated scientific names, in addition to the pre-Linnaean ones written in beautiful script on the sheets. All the volumes have been removed from their bindings and carefully conserved, indicating once again that a library can be a good home for herbaria. Though botanists worry about collections that are outside of herbaria where insect infestation is carefully monitored, this collection seems to be doing very well at the Sutro. It was purchased in the late 1800s by Adolph Sutro who had been mayor of San Francisco. He went on a buying spree in Europe, acquiring volumes to create a world-class library in his city. That’s how an East-Coast collection got to the West Coast, via England.
There is one case where a herbarium led to the founding of an institution, and that is the Linnean Society of London, organized around the herbarium—and library—of Carl Linnaeus, which the British botanist James Edward Smith bought from Linnaeus’s widow. It is now stored in an underground vault built after World War II. What has grown up around this collection is a larger herbarium including Smith’s specimens, as well as a remarkable library and archives with material from Smith, Alfred Russel Wallace, and Francis Buchanan-Hamilton. The archives include many botanical illustrations and all of this material is stored in the Society’s headquarters in Burlington House, a huge mansion that’s also home to the Royal Academy of Art.
Needless to say, the Linnaean collection, which is full of type specimens, is often visited by botanical researchers and historians—and also by people like me who are lucky enough to just breathe the vault’s rarified air. However, small collections like those in the Wilton and Sutro libraries are also scientific and cultural gems that reveal something about the passions of gardeners down through the ages. I have not scratched the surface here of alternate sites for herbaria. Just a few miles from Wilton is a collection at the Bartlett Arboretum and Gardens, which was originally owned by the Bartlett Family who began the company now known as Bartlett Tree Experts. The site was used as a laboratory and arboretum by the company’s founder, Francis A. Bartlett, and was sold it to the State of Connecticut in 1965. The herbarium contains specimens from the 1880s when the Bartletts began their work, and these have been augmented by others. Several national forests have herbaria as does Yellowstone National Park, where there are about 16,000 specimens, though not the one collected by President Chester A. Arthur during a fish trip in the park in 1883; that’s at the National Herbarium in Washington. At the other end of the size spectrum is the herbarium at the Botanical Research Institute of Texas, created as a stand-alone institution to support plant research and conservation; it now has about 1.5 million specimens. And I should note the countless collections, large and small, housed in homes by avid collectors who relish finding plants, preparing specimens, and often sharing their duplicates with others. In other words, you never know where a herbarium is going to pop up.
Note: I would like to thank all the people at the institutions I’ve visited for sharing their expertise with me.
Ferns and Flowering Plants of Wilton. (1992). Wilton, CT: Wilton Garden Club.
Schuyler, A. E., & Newbold, A. (1987). Vascular plants in Lord Petre’s herbarium collected by John Bartram. Bartonia, 53, 41–43.