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.

The Herbarium as Publication

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Lower side of Buchwald’s Specimen medico-practico-botanicum in the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection

In this series of posts, I’m exploring the different purposes for which herbaria are produced.  In the last post, I discussed a manuscript that was clearly a presentation piece, a one-of-a-kind masterpiece.  Now I want to examine a few published books that contain specimens.  These are often called exsiccatae, and in many cases, they were produced by plant collectors as a way to sell the specimens they had painstakingly gathered in the field.  Kathryn Mauz (2018) has recently published a chronicle of Cyrus Pringle’s collecting in the Southwest US and in Mexico in the 1880s, and one of the products of that work was series of exsiccatae.  However here I want to look at several other types of such publications.

I went to the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library in Washington, DC expressly to see a 1721 guide to medicinal plants written by Johannis de Buchwald, a botanist, physician to the Danish king, and director of the Copenhagen botanical garden.  The book was originally published in Latin and then translated into German by his son.  A long with a description of the plant and its uses, the Latin name for each is given in one column, followed by columns for common names in Danish, German, and French.  There is space left after this information for a specimen, though not all entries include one.  Both editions were sold with or without plant material attached.  The copy of the translation I saw had specimens, usually rather small because the book itself is only about 7.5 inches high.  The entire volume has been digitized and is available on the Dumbarton Oaks website along with many other treasures, including a number of books on botanical illustration and information on their Plant Humanities Initiative in collaboration with JSTOR.While I had examined the book on the web, I still wanted to take a look at it, to get a sense of its physical presence.  Its thickness made it difficult to open [see image above], so I didn’t want to examine every page, but seeing it made me realize just how well-preserved the specimens are.  In most cases they are still tightly attached to the paper, with only a few missing or damaged.  This volume represents an interesting approach to illustrating a botany book:  letting the plants speak for themselves, perhaps as a way to encourage others to begin their own reference collections.  It can be seen as a forerunner of late 19th-century publications where plants are described and blank pages are left for users to attach examples of species they collected.

Another exsiccatae at Dumbarton Oaks also provided information on the specimens included, but it is a very different kind of book, published in 1790 by George Swayne, identified on the title page as Vicar of Pucklechurch (yes, that is the name of a place in Britain).  In addition he was a member of the Bath Agricultural Society.  Groups like this were common at that time in Britain and were organized to encourage improvements in farming methods.  This book is entitled: Gramina Pascua or A Collection of Specimens of the Common Pasture Grasses.  The plants are arranged in the order of flowering time and are accompanied by their Latin and common English names as well as descriptions that cite agrarian literature of the day.  The book’s dimensions are just the opposite of the Buchwald.  It is almost 19 inches high and has six pages of specimens, with the accompanying text for each specimen limited to a third or half a page.  The paper is of high quality as are the specimens that seem to have been very carefully selected [see image below].  The stems are straight and the flowers complete, obviously picked at just the right moment.  This was a book for wealthy landowners such as the Duke of Gordon who is mentioned on the title page as having Vicar Swayne as his chaplain.

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Page of grass specimens from George Swayne’s Gramina Pascua in the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection

A different type of published exsiccatae is in another superb botanical collection, the Oak Spring Foundation Library which holds the volume I discussed in the last post.  Carl Jeppe’s Herbarium Vivum is a 1826 catalog of 44 grasses available from his nursery.  The Latin name of the species was followed by names in German, French, and English with accompanying descriptions of the grass.  At the end he added specimens of six more species, noxious weeds that were not for sale, but included as a guide for his customers in what to eliminate from their land.  Jeppe apparently wanted to advertise not only his plants but his clients as well:  he lists all those who subscribed to the catalogue.  It came in three formats:  a smaller version without specimens, a larger one with specimens, and what could be called the deluxe edition that included jars of seeds for 40 species.  Jepp notes that his royal highness the Grand Duke of Mecklenburg, not surprisingly first on the list, subscribed to all three editions as did a bookseller in the town of Rostock, home to the nursery.  Another bookstore bought six copies of the catalogue with specimens, suggesting that such herbaria were considered marketable books.  Most of the other individuals listed just bought a single copy of one format.  This is a neat little volume, about 12 inches tall, so it would be useable as a reference work; Jeppe published a second edition nine years later, suggesting his business had flourished.  To me, it indicates yet one more function of herbaria in the past, and particularly in the 19th century where these collections reached the height of their popularity.


Jeppe, C. (1826). Herbarium Vivum. Rostock, Germany: Kaufmann and Saamenhandler.

Mauz, K. (2018). C.G. Pringle: Botanist, Traveler, and the “Flora of the Pacific Slope” (1881-1884). New York, NY: New York Botanical Garden Press.

Swayne, G. (1790). Gramina Pascua. Bristol, UK: Bonner.


I would like to thank Anatole Tchikine and Taylor Johnson of the Rare Book Room at the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library for all their help during my visit.  In addition to the Buchwald book that I requested, they also showed me other wonderful material including the Swayne book.

The Herbarium as Status Symbol

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Fronticepiece from Sembertini herbarium at the Oak Spring Garden Library.

At this moment in history to impress a client or a patron, giving them a book of pressed plants would probably not be a great idea.  Times have changed, and there are many examples of presentation herbaria from the 17th to the 19th centuries when such collections did indeed earn brownie points for the presenter.  One particularly beautiful example is in the Oak Spring Garden Foundation Library.  The name of the creator has been erased from the elaborately decorated title page.  However, the person who sold the volume claimed to have deciphered the name as Carlo Sembertini (Tomasi & Willis, 2009).  From the watermarks on the paper, it was probably created about 1720 in Verona, Italy.  The second page is an ornate frontispiece with cherubs, a coat of arms, and at the bottom of the page, a landscape [see image above].  This is followed by a page dedicating the volume to a physician, Angelo Barberio, and another with poems praising him.  There is one more page before the index:  it is unfinished, with cherubs at the top and flowers at the bottom framing a blank middle section.  This is the first suggestion that the herbarium was never completed, and there are other clues throughout.

The table of contents begins with elaborate calligraphy of the word laudus, the Latin for praise, at the start of an alphabetical list of the plants; the same order is used throughout the book.  The species are named in Latin, with the page number given for each specimen.  There are usually several plants on a page, and at the end of the table entries for each letter, a space was left for further entries with names beginning with that letter.  There is also at least one blank page between the plants for each letter to accommodate more specimens.  At the end of the book are a couple of dozen blank pages, with a few unidentified plants tucked between them.  These clues suggest that the volume, still in its original tooled leather binding, may never have been presented to its intended recipient.  If that’s the case, it’s a shame because Dr. Barberio would surely have been impressed by the manuscript.

Each page has a five-line border in red and brown ink.  The specimens are of high quality and are very carefully mounted, often positioned symmetrically on the sheet [see image below].  They are pasted in place, and usually there is a piece of colored ribbon at the base of the stem—no dirty roots in this herbarium.  Most specimens are labeled with their Latin names, as in the table of contents.  The first letters are in red ink, the following letters in black, just as in the table.  The calligraphy is very carefully done; this was not a work dashed off in a hurry.  On a few pages the names are further decorated with scrollwork in red.  In some cases it appears that the writing was done first, then specimen pasted on it; in others, the writing seems to be fitted around the specimen.  I have spent some time with this volume and could spend a great deal more studying both its aesthetic and scientific aspects.  The plants are mostly those that would be accessible to and used by an Italian pharmacist.  Aesthetically, the book is in the old manuscript—pre-printing press—tradition.  Sembertini obviously wanted to impress Barberio by taking a great deal of time to produce such a work, perhaps too much time if it was left unfinished because either the maker or the recipient passed away.

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Page from the Sembertini herbarium at the Oak Spring Garden Library.

I have to admit that despite all its flourishes, I was not impressed by this herbarium at first.  On my initial visit to Oak Spring Library I asked to see it and also another, even older, herbarium, that of the apothecary Johannes Harder, created around 1595.  I fell in love with the latter because of its age and the fact that most of the pages have body color additions of missing plant parts, such as flower petals, leaves, stems, roots, or bulbs (Tomasi & Willis, 2009).  I returned to Oak Spring several times to pour over it and forgot about Sembertini.  However, as I’ve done more work on the history of herbaria, I’ve thought about the different reasons they were created.  Harder’s was probably a way to show those coming to him for medicines, the plants from which these were prepared.  Sembertini’s had a different purpose, so was prepared differently.

As I began to consider these differences, I realized that I had pushed the Sembertini work the side precisely because it was so pretty.  But at the time it was produced, the concept of the herbarium as status symbol was not trivial in the world of plant collections, and natural history collections in general.  Carl Linnaeus’s patron, George Clifford, had elaborate little vases printed to paste over the bottom of stems and matching labels framed with elaborate scrollwork.  The poems in praise of Barberio also seem like an odd addition to a collection of dried plants, but poetry and botany have always been intertwined as the work of Erasmus Darwin later in the same century indicate.  The Sembertini was obviously worth a closer look.  I consider myself very fortunate to have spent some time with this volume.  My visit came on the first day of a trip to a number of libraries and herbaria where I saw many amazing examples of the varied reasons people press plants.  In the next post, I’ll examine a very different purpose.


Thijsse, G. (2018). A contribution to the history of the herbaria of George Clifford III (1685–1760). Archives of Natural History, 45(1), 134–148.

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.


I would like to thank Tony Willis, Kimberly Fisher, and Nancy Collins for their wonderful help on the many occasions I’ve visited the Oak Spring Foundation Library.

Book Tour: Gardens

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Looking out on Oak Spring from the Oak Spring Garden Foundation Library (photo by author)

In December I headed north to visits relatives and friends in New York and Connecticut.  I had only reached New York when my sister called from a hospital (never a good sign) to say that she had broken her wrist and shoulder.  To make a very long story short, I spent the next ten days visiting her in the Connecticut hospital where various complications kept her.  We definitely had time for good conversations, and when I wasn’t with her, I had time to read at the hotel.  I had brought a couple of books with me and acquired a few along the way.  This series of posts will be on some of what I read.  Though none of these works are about herbaria, they all have links to them in various ways.  My sister is back home and so am I.  Now I have time to consider what I learned about gardens, botanical history, tropical plants, and taxonomy.

This post deals with The Gardens of Bunny Mellon, a large tome filled with photographs by Roger Foley and a relatively brief text by Linda Jane Holden (2018).  I bought this the day I visited the Oak Spring Garden Foundation Library in Virginia, at the start of my trip.  I have been there before, and it is the closest thing I know to botanical heaven.  Rachel (Bunny) Mellon loved gardening from a young age and was able to indulge her interest because she came from a wealthy family and then married the philanthropist Paul Mellon.  The book deals with the gardens she created at their homes in Manhattan, Cape Cod, Nantucket and Antiqua, but most of all, with the gardens surrounding the house the Mellons built in the 1950s at Oak Spring, and adjacent to which they added a library in the early 1980s.

The first time I visited the library, Nancy Collins gave me a tour of the garden which has been maintained by the Foundation since Rachel Mellon’s death in 2014.  The photographs in the book do a great job of communicating the atmosphere of the garden as well as the plants growing there.  The word I would use to describe it is homey rather than palatial, but there is definitely a sense that everything is planned, from the allée of crab apple trees to the herbaceous beds to the vegetable garden.  It is simply a wonderful place to be.  Mellon created her library in support of her passion for plants.  She studied the great gardens and garden writers of the past.  Holden lists Mellon’s “Pentateuch” of books that informed her designs (p. 160):  The Compleat Gard’ner by Jean-Baptiste de La Quintinie (1693), Phytographia curiosa by Abraham Munting (1714), The Flower-Garden Display’d by Robert Furber (1734), Le Jardin Fruitier by Loise Claude Noisette (1821), and Flower Guide: Wild Flowers East of the Rockies  by Chester Albert Reed (1920).

These reside in the library along with 16,000 other books, manuscripts, and art works; there are even a few herbaria.  They include a scrapbook made as a Christmas gift for the Mellons from horticulturalists Charles and Katherine Pecora.  The plants were collected at Oak Spring and the adjacent Rokeby Farm in 1968.  Katherine worked as a secretary at the farm for many years, and this collection is very much in the tradition of creating a presentation volume for patrons.  Other herbaria include one of algae assembled by Eliza French during the 19th-century seaweed craze, and one of New Zealand Ferns by George Davenport, again a product of a fad of the time.  There is also a printed herbarium catalogue produced by the 19th-century German nurseryman Carl Jeppe that lists those who subscribed to the volume, beginning with the local gentry.  Another is a sumptuous 18th-century herbarium of medicinal plants attributed to Carlo Sembertini and described in one of four volumes on the library collections published by Oak Spring (Tomasi & Willis, 2009, pp. 334-339).

Gardens also covers a number of other Mellon homes, each site’s plants and design adapted to its particular location.  Besides these Mellon also created several for friends including two at the White House.  John F. Kennedy asked her to redesign the Rose Garden outside the oval office.  Working with the President and the National Park Service she managed to develop an environment that has pleased White House occupants for decades and served as a backdrop for many important governmental events.  The garden was so successful that Jacqueline Kennedy invited Mellon to also remake the East Garden on the opposite side of the White House, a more private space.  This wasn’t accomplished until Lady Bird Johnson was First Lady.  She also worked with Mellon and the result was called the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden.

Mellon was a Francophile and a good friend of her favorite fashion designer, Hubert de Givenchy.  She developed gardens for his Château du Jonchet and then worked with him on a much more public project, recreation of the Potager du Roi, the king’s kitchen garden at the Palace of Versailles.  It was originally designed between 1678 and 1686 by one of her favorite garden writers, Jean-Baptiste de La Quintinie, to provide fruits and vegetables for the royal table.  Givenchy was the head of the World Monuments Fund France, which wanted to revive the garden that was in decay, and he brought Mellon to see the “plot,” much larger than an ordinary kitchen garden.  She collaborated with him on the design, and the Mellons paid for the entire project including an irrigation system, basin and fountain, and the King’s Gate.

Rachel Mellon is in the tradition of the great garden designers and plant lovers who have enkindled fervor for plants and contributed so much to our knowledge and appreciation of them.  Her passion lives on in the Oak Spring Garden Foundation and its wonderful library.  The Foundation is now expanding its mission to reach a broader community of plant lovers.


Holden, L. J. (2018). The Gardens of Bunny Mellon. New York, NY: Vendome.

Quintinie, J. de Le, & Evelyn, J. (1693). The Compleat Gard’ner: Or, Directions for Cultivating and Right Ordering of Fruit-gardens and Kitchen-gardens; with Divers Reflections on Several Parts of Husbandry. In Six Books. London, UK: Gillyflower.

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.