Where the Herbaria Are: All Over the Place

4 Wilton

A portion of the Marybeth Wheeler Herbarium at Wilton Library

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.

4 Petre Vol III

Volume III binding for the Petre Herbarium in the Sutro Library at San Francisco State University.

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.

John Bartram

2 Bartram House Front

The house John Bartram built on his Philadelphia farm [my photo]

Born into a Quaker family who had arrived in Pennsylvania with William Penn, John Bartram (1699-1777) owned a farm on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. He built a stone house and barns that are still standing on a remainder of the original acreage (see photo above). He became curious about botany beyond that needed for farming, and eventually made contact with a British Quaker and merchant, Peter Collinson, who was also interested in plants and in obtaining new species from the colonies. Thus began a 40-year relationship of friendship and trade, in which Bartram sent Collinson pressed specimens, seeds, and cuttings, which the latter then distributed to interested gardeners including John Fothergill and Lord Robert Petre. In turn, Collinson dispatched books, paper, and other items to support Bartram’s work. An important part of the exchange was information. Bartram would send specimens and keep duplicates for himself. Collinson would identify the plants and send Bartram the information. The flavor of the relationship is apparent in the correspondence documented in a book on Collinson’s horticultural interests (O’Neill & McLean, 2008).

One of Bartram’s chief patrons was Lord Robert Petre, a young landowner with a passion for gardening. He was also one of Collinson’s dearest friends. Petre planted thousands of trees from Bartram seeds and cuttings, and also kept an herbarium that included scores of Bartram specimens. The entire herbarium amounts to 16 volumes, two of which have Bartram material (McLean, 1984). While there are also Bartram specimens in the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University in Philadelphia and the Natural History Museum, London, the Petre herbarium is in a less likely venue: the Sutro Library at California State University, San Francisco (see post). What all these specimens indicate is the fervor with which Bartram studied plants and collected specimens, and the equal fervor of those receiving them. Horticulture was the main driver: the ability to grow the latest imports from the colonies was very fashionable in Britain. But there was also something more, the passion to learn more about the living world. Since Collinson and Fothergill were both Quakers, they shared with Bartram an appreciation for learning about nature.

While Bartram was acidulously communicating with England, he was also busy connecting with colonial gardeners. They were interested in the native the plants he was propagating, including those he collected on trips he made with his son William; one was a long exploration in the South extending all the way to Florida. He also sent William on other expeditions while he remained in Philadelphia to tend his farm and nursery. William was passionate about plants and in addition was an artist. He did illustrations of native plants and animals for Fothergill, and many of these are now at the Natural History Museum, London. He was also a more facile writer than his father. His Travels recounting his trips South in the 1770s is filled with observations not only of the natural world, but of the Native Americans and colonists he encountered. This work is an important document by an American-born observer of what the South was like right before the Revolutionary War began. These journeys ended in 1777, the same year in which John Bartram died.

Obviously John Bartram had had strong ties with England especially through Collinson and other patrons. Collinson even managed to have him named King’s Botanist for North American, a title that came with a yearly stipend. Not surprisingly, since his farm was in Philadelphia, Bartram also had ties with leading revolutionaries. He had known Franklin for years, and since the latter had spent time in England, he knew many of Bartram’s patrons. Desiring to nurture respect for American species both at home and abroad, Franklin encouraged Bartram to write a book on American flora. However, Bartram was too busy with his farm and nursery business to settle down to such a project.

That business attracted the likes of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Both bought plants and seeds from John Bartram, and also from his son, John Jr. who took over the business after his father’s death. In her wonderful book The Founding Gardeners Andrea Wulf (2011) describes how passionate these two future presidents, as well as John Adams and James Madison, were about their gardens and farms. She tells a great story about how Madison and other members of the Constitutional Convention in 1787 visited Bartram’s garden during a break in the negotiations, and she sees this healing experience as contributing to the Great Compromise that was reached shortly afterward. For those like myself who don’t remember what the compromise was about, it dealt with the House of Representatives having proportional representation as the states with large populations advocated, and Senate representation being the same for all states, as the smaller states wanted. As I have noted elsewhere, as my interest in botany has grown, so has my curiosity about history, especially American history. When I learned about the Constitution in school, I never thought that its development was in anyway related to botany. Now I know that everything is related to botany! In my next post, I will discuss another colonial Pennsylvania nurseryman that also made history: Humphry Marshall.


McLean, E. P. (1984). A preliminary report on the 18th century herbarium of Robert James, Eighth Baron Petre. Bartonia, 50, 36–39.

O’Neill, J., & McLean, E. (2008). Peter Collinson and the 18c Natural History Exchange. Philadelphia, PA: American Philosophical Society.

Wulf, A. (2011). Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation. New York, NY: Knopf.

Lord Petre’s Herbarium

Prunus pensylvanicus from the Lord Petre Herbarium at Sutro Library in San Francisco

Prunus pensylvanicus from the Lord Petre Herbarium at Sutro Library in San Francisco

In the Sutro Library at San Francisco State University, there is a 17-volume herbarium, the collection of Lord Petre (17), a noted British horticulturalist.  He was so avid to grow the latest plant finds that he served as patron to New World collectors, including John Bartram in Philadelphia and William Houstoun, who collected in the Caribbean.  Their plants are among those in his herbarium.  Unfortunately, for many of the specimens there is little information on the sheets.  The bulk of the Bartram material is in volumes 11 and 12.  I had an opportunity to examine them last summer, having read of the collection’s existence in an old article by the botanical historian Joseph Ewan (1970).  Since Ewan wrote, botanists from the Academy of Natural Scientists in Philadelphia have examined the Bartram material and annotated it.  This is the case for the specimen pictured above, which also has a note written by Bartram: “These I gathered on the Katskill Mountains it hath the appearance as of cherry like of european but smaller growing above 20 foot high.”  While such notes lack the type of information we normally expect on labels today, they are wonderful links to the mind and enthusiasm of Bartram, who collected wherever his travels took him.

Ewan, J. (1970). Plant Collectors in America: Backgrounds for Linnaeus. In Essays in Biohistory. Utrecht, Netherlands: International Association for Plant Taxonomy.

McLean, E. P. (1984). A preliminary report on the 18th century herbarium of Robert James, Eighth Baron Petre. Bartonia, 50, 36–39.

Schuyler, A. E., & Newbold, A. (1987). Vascular plants in Lord Petre’s herbarium collected by John Bartram. Bartonia, 53, 41–43.