What gardener hasn’t experienced firsthand the wonder and pleasure—as well as the occasional mystery and frustration—to be found in the world of plants.
This is true as far back as history records and even further, for plants are the essential foundation of the world we live in. They provide our food (and the fire to cook it), medicine and materials for clothing, tools, homes and furnishings. They have sustained and enhanced human life both physically and aesthetically through our entire history as a species. In art and myth, it is clear that the earliest civilizations—in Egypt, the Middle East, India, Asia and the Americas—cultivated not just food crops and medicinal plants but also pleasure gardens, celebrating them in decorative vases, wall paintings and textiles, as well as in song and story.
But humanity’s dependence on and relationships with plants in the past 2,000 years and more can be known most substantively and usefully through written documents—manuscripts and printed books.
The Smithsonian Libraries holds a treasure trove of books about the world of plants across several collections—the Botany and Horticulture Library, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute Library, the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center Library, the Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Library of Natural History and the Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology.
The earliest printed books on our botanical and horticultural heritage begin with Renaissance editions of the ancient Greeks and Romans—the works of Aristotle, Theophrastus, Pliny the Elder and Dioscorides—and the medieval herbals known generically as the Gart der Gesundheit and the Hortus sanitatis (in German and Latin, respectively, both translated roughly as “Garden of health”).
They in turn were followed in the 16th century by the encyclopedic works of Otto Brunfels (Herbarium vivae eicones, 1530-1536), Hieronymus Bock (Neue Kreutterbuch, 1539 and numerous subsequent editions), and Leonhard Fuchs (De historia stirpium, 1542). Combining as much as could be gathered from the past with first-hand observations in northern Europe and the discoveries of explorers in the Americas and Indies, these printed tomes collectively launched modern botanical studies in the West.
First-person accounts of little-explored lands and botanical discoveries thrilled armchair gardeners, working horticulturists and scholars alike, although the prices of the books and manuscripts tended to limit their audiences and resulted in very small print runs. At the practical, applied level where horticulture reigns, interest in garden design and new techniques of cultivation blossomed along with the explosive increased interest in exotic, previously unknown plants.
The period from about 1690 to the early decades of the 1800s is arguably one the most interesting botanical explorations to be found in print literature of the time, when some of the most important advances in taxonomy and classification occurred and resulted in some of the most beautiful examples of the illustrated botanical book.
Among the most impressive volumes were Mark Catesby’s Natural history of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands (1731-1743 [i.e., 1729-1747], with 220 hand-colored etchings in folio), and André & François Michaux’s Flora boreali-americana (1803) and North American sylva (1814, with