Flora Illustrata: Great Works from the LuEsther T. Mertz Library of the New York Botanical Garden

Edited by Susan M. Fraser and Vanessa Bezemer Sellers. New York: The New York Botanical Garden and Yale University Press, 2014. 320 pp. 279 figs. $50.00 (hardback). ISBN 978-0-300-19662-7.

From lush botanical images to well-crafted essays, Flora Illustrata celebrates the illustrated book and educates the reader about this world. It is definitely a treat for the eyes and mind. The editors state in the preface, “this book is meant to raise awareness of the continued availability of the Library as a key resource for the study of plants and their roles in the arts and humanities” (xi). Within approximately 300 pages, this book accomplishes this goal and so much more.

The LuEsther T. Mertz Library along with the Peter H. Raven Library at the Missouri Botanical Garden and Harvard Botany Libraries with Arnold Arboretum Library are the top three libraries in the United States holding this type of botanical collection. These collections are essential, as well as still very relevant today, to providing scholarly research to plant taxonomists, historians, and many other types of researchers.

Whether you are practicing as a botany professional or an interested amateur, what grabs you first about this book are the illustrations, reproduced at a very high quality with vibrant colors. After the Acknowledgements section is a section just listing all the illustrations, and it is nine pages long! I counted a total of 253 illustrations throughout the book accompanying the appropriate text. In my opinion, this is preferable to grouping the images in their own sections separate from the text. Many images are printed as two page spreads which only emphasizes their brilliance. One striking two page spread image is Figure 5.4 – a colored illustration of seven headed hydra in Albertus Seba’s cabinet of curiosities, Locupletissimi rerum naturalium thesauri accurata descriptio, Amsterdam, 1734-1765, tome 1, tab. Cll. (116).

What next keep your interest are the eleven standalone chapters grouped in five parts. The chapters detail the library’s history and acquisitions, herbals, Linnaeus’ influence on botany and its literature, and celebrated works on American gardening and horticulture. The Mertz library also holds a strong collection on the flora of South America. This is highlighted with a chapter on books written about Brazilian flora and an explanation of early plant exploration in that country. The chapters are written by experts in their field, always keeping in mind the collection held at Mertz library. While this library is considered a modern premier research library holding approximately half a million physical volumes and 1,800 individual journal titles, many of the essays focus on pre-twentieth century literature. This may be because the golden age of botanical literature and printing is 1770-1840, as well as the fact that many of the lovely illustrated seed and nursery catalogs were produced in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

While, as a botanical librarian, I can only imagine how complicated putting this book together must have been, it also appears to have been a labor of love for the Mertz library staff and the book’s editors. The documentation of the Mertz Library’s history and the level of detail presented in the book make for some fascinating reading. For example, Susan Fraser points out in her chapter entitled “Nobel Science: Building the Library Collection” that electricity wasn’t installed at the Garden until 1926, so the library was only opened during the day and supplemented by gas light as needed. Of course, this makes sense, but it is not something I thought of until I read it here—how much electricity has changed how libraries operate and how research is conducted by scholars. It is also mentioned in the same paragraph that Thomas Edison along with botanist John Kunkel Small were researching plant fibers to use as filaments in light bulbs—another fascinating tidbit.

While this book should be required reading for all librarians working with botanical collections, large and small, it also appeals to a much larger audience. Anyone who loves history, art, plants and gardens (isn’t that most of us?) will enjoy this book.


Robin Everly, Botanical Librarian, Smithsonian Libraries