Botanical treasures in Glencoe: The Library of the Chicago Botanic Garden

Edward J. Valauskas

Editor's note: We welcome this article by Mr. Valauskas, who is the Manager, Library and Plant Information Office, Chicago Botanic Garden.


he Library of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society was one of the finest botanical and horticultural libraries in the world, rivaling collections at both the Royal Horticultural Society and on the continent. In 1873, William Robinson (1838-1935) a leading British landscaper described the collection in this way: "We know of no equally extensive library in the possession of any English horticultural society." At the collection's apex, it included more than 30,000 volumes, ranging from incunabula to contemporary treatises and popular works, and more than 12,000 volumes of serials. Its rapid growth was largely due to the dedication of the Society's members in the 19th Century, who acquired books, thanks to a number of funds, endowments, and the efforts of a strong Committee on the Library.

In 2002, the Library of the Chicago Botanic Garden acquired a significant portion of the collection of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society: 2,219 volumes of monographs and another 2,500 periodical titles. Altogether, these books equaled over 50,000 pounds of important works in botany, horticulture, agriculture, and landscape architecture. A number of books in the collection are unique, while many are held by only a handful of libraries. All of the books and journals describe a fascinating relationship between men and women and the plant kingdom, a relationship that began to be documented in print over 500 years ago and continues to this day.

The earliest botanists of record were interested not only in understanding their local flora, but also in comparing it to plants from other places around the world. Botanists were not simply plant describers, but plant explorers. Theophrastus (d. 287 BCE), the father of botany, in his De historia plantarum, described plants not only from Greece but from throughout the Mediterranean region. He asked colleagues to bring back plants on their trips, so he could ultimately attempt the first classification of the floral kingdom. Theophrastus' description of plants and his style in expanding his knowledge about plants — by invoking a social network of colleagues to collect plants for him — became a model for Medieval and Renaissance botanists centuries later. It is not surprising that among the earliest books published in the 15th Century we find several editions of Theophrastus, including the 1883 editio princeps, published by Bartolomeo Confalonieri in Treviso.

Early Renaissance botanical collectors and physicians were often affiliated with universities in Europe. They understood the educational and medical value of their growing collections of plants. Ulissi Aldrovandi (1522-1607) convinced the government of Bologna to support a garden at the University, which in turn became one model for medical or pharmacy gardens at other univer-sities throughout Europe. Increasingly, some of the most important physicians on the continent — such as Rembert Dodoens (1517-1585), physician to Maximillian II and Rudolf II in Vienna and England's William Turner (d. 1568) — were also the leading botanists of the day. Dodoens was the first to describe tobacco and wrote one of the earliest treatises on garden flowers. Turner, in spite of his on and off relations with the British court, described some 200 species native to England and produced a herbal in the vernacular (only to have it published in Cologne).

The most significant of these early botanists was Carolus Clusius or Charles de l'Ecluse (1526-1609). Forced to leave his post as gardener for Maximillian II in Vienna because of religious reasons, Clusius was hired to organize a hortus botanicus at the University of Leiden. A former ambassador to the court in Constantinople gave Clusius a number of tulip bulbs as a going-away present, so Clusius earned the distinction of having been the first to bring the tulip to the Netherlands in 1593. Within three decades of Clusius' introduction of the tulip, the popularity of this colorful plant raged across the Dutch Republic, in the first of many of floral manias.

Plant collectors, working with other like-minded individuals, saw the value in organization and in political clout, in order to gain valuable attention and space in the growing explorations around the world, but especially to the New World. By the middle of the 17th Century, it is no surprise that scientists of all persuasions joined forces in formal organizations like the Royal Society in London (which started in 1662) and the Academie Royale des Sciences (1666). Gardens increasingly were scientific and less pharmaceutical, such as the Jardin du Roi in Paris, attempting to make sense out of the growing collections of plants acquired around the world. In addition, with the growth and profitability of sugar, tobacco, and other new crops, governments were beginning to understand that botany could improve economies in startling ways. Gardens and experimenters in those gardens were needed to find new ways to exploit green discoveries. Hence it is not surprising that governments and scientific organizations teamed up to help plant collectors make sense out of the apparent richness of the plant kingdom outside of Europe.

Into this apparent disorganized state, Carl von Linne or Linneaus (1707-1778) provided a solution, a comprehensive classification scheme for plants and animals. His early work, such as Flora Lapponica (Amsterdam, 1737) and Hortus Cliffortianus (Amsterdam, 1738), certainly gave the world and the scientific community a sense of what would later appear in Species Plantarum (Stockhom, 1753). Linneaus' efforts in the Netherlands earned him the admiration of many, including the caretaker of the hortus botanicus at the University in Leiden, Herman Boerhaave (1668-1738). Boerhaave, also professor of botany, chemistry, and medicine at the University, tried to convince Linneaus to stay in Leiden and take over the University's garden. But Linneaus was homesick for Sweden and headed northward to complete his revolutionary ordering of life.

Armed with the binomial nomenclature of the Linnaean system, plant collectors and botanists tackled the floral world globally with enthusiasm and passion. For example, in the United States Constantin Rafinesque (1783-1840) described some 2,700 different plants, animals, and fossils in his lifetime. Others, such as Hipolito Ruiz (1754-1816), began to systematically understand the floras of South America, opened in the 18th and 19th Centuries for scientific exploration.

All of these efforts at better understanding the plant kingdom over five centuries are best understood in the literature of botany and horticulture. With the addition of a significant collection from the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, the Library at the Chicago Botanic Garden can provide considerable insight into scholarship both in Europe and elsewhere around the world. A small portion of this collection will be described on June 14 when The Caxton Club meets at the Chicago Botanic Garden. I look forward to sharing some of the books and journals from this important collection with club members and friends at that time.

From Antonio Targioni-Tozzetti, d.1856. Raccolta di fiori frutti ed agrumi pių ricercati per l'adornamento dei giardini disegnati al naturale da vari artisti. Firenze: presso Giuseppe Molini, 1825. From the collection of the Chicago Botanic Garden, through whose courtesy it is used.

From William Turner, d. 1568. The first and seconde partes of the herbal of William Turner, doctor in phisick. Collen [Cologne, Germany]: Arnold Birckman, 1568. From the collection of the Chicago Botanic Garden, through whose courtesy it is used.

From Theophrastus (d. 287 BCE). Historia plantarum [et] De causis plantarum. Treviso (Tarvisii) [Italy]: Bartholomaeus Confalonerius, 20 February 1483. From the collection of the Chicago Botanic Garden, through whose courtesy it is used.

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