Blackwood’s Magazine via Wikipedia.

CURIOUS BOTANICAL LIBRARY. (From Blackwood’s Magazine.)

I must never cease to remember the ingenious and valuable present of the late king, Lewis Buonaparte, to the collections of the library at Dresden. It is the work of a German, and consists of 135 vols. formed at wood. – The binding of each book is formed of a different tree: the back is ornamented with pieces of the bark, and such mosses, lichens, and other parasitical plants as characterize the species. Each volume opens, as it were, in the centre of the leaves, and contains the bud, leaves, flowers, fruit, farina, and every other part in any degree illustrative of the nature of the tree. It affords a complete and scientific exemplification of 135 trees begining [sic] with oaks, and ending with the juniper; and, in fact, may be considered as a brief and perfect epitome of the German groves and forests. In the case of plants, such as the rose and juniper, the ingenious parts of which as not sufficiently large for the purpose required, the binding is formed of some ordinary wood, sprinkled over with fine moss, and then elegantly barred with the rose or juniper wood, giving the volume the appearance of a very valuable old manuscript with iron clasps. On the whole it is one of the most ingenious and complete productions I have ever seen.

[Newbern Sentinel. March 24, 1821.]

What a shame more information can’t be found about these fascinating books. But it wasn’t for lack of trying. Since we haven’t any pictures of these gems, let us amuse ourselves with some other vintage botanical prints instead.

Autumn Day Dream via Art and Home

While searching for this treasure, came across this little tidbit about William Howe (1619-1656 – only 37 when he died!), who apparently had quite the botanical library, although in the “true” book form:

How, or Howe, William, 1619-1656, a native of, and physician in, London, for some time a captain in the king’s army, was the first English botanist who gave a sketch of “Flora,” – viz.: Phytologia Britannica natales exhibens Indigenarum Stirpium Sponte emergentium, Lon., 1650, 8vo.

“This list contains 1220 plants, which (as few mosses and fungi are enumerated) is a copious catalogue for that time, even admitting the varieties which the present state of botany would reject; but there are many articles in it which have no title to a place as indigenous plants of England.”

An index of plants in the Phytologia Britannica is annexed to Robert Lovell’s Enchiridion Botanicum, Oxf., 1659, 2 vols. 8vo; 1665, 8vo.

How also pub. Matthew de L’Obell’s Stirpium Illustrationes, Lon., 1665, 4to. See Athen. Oxon. Wood tells us that How

“Left behind him a choice library of books of his faculty; but how they were bestowed I cannot tell.” – Ubi supra: Bliss’s ed., iii. 419.

What would not the Hookers and Londons of our day give for a sight of this curious botanical library?

[A Critical Dictionary of English Literature and British and American Authors. Samuel Austin Allibone. 1874.]

Boy, that was quite a mouthful!

Midnight Botanicals via Deqor

How ironic is it that we’re looking at the work of a German botanist, and we find also the research of a German forest ranger? And quite fascinating it is. Peter Wohlleben recently published “The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries From a Secret World.” This book features real life talk about the social network of trees.

Peter Wohlleben via The New York Times. Photo by Gordon Welters.

“I use a very human language,” he explained. “Scientific language removes all the emotion, and people don’t understand it anymore. When I say, ‘Trees suckle their children,’ everyone knows immediately what I mean.” – Peter Wohlleben

Wohlleben discusses the nature of trees as living beings, capable of beauty only, as opposed to the value of the trees as a commodity.

But wait! Could this be the same botanical library, a full 70 years later? Some details sound similar, but some are different.

A Curious Botanical Library. – A beautiful collection in the museum at Cassel, Prussia, is that of 500 different European trees, arranged in the form of library. Each specimen is in the shape of a book. The back is formed of the tree, the sides, of the perfect wood, the top, of the young wood, with narrow rings; the bottom, of old wood, with rings wider apart. The volume is a little box, containing the flowers, seed, fruit and leaves of the tree, either dried or imitated in wax.

[Silver Cliff Rustler. Silver Cliff, Colorado. August 26, 1891.]

Yes, we find some more information about the curious botanical library. This piece seems to be the original version of the section quoted previously:

Museum of Cassel in Northern Germany. – In the collection of natural history at this museum is a very interesting set of volumes, as they appear to be; though, when examined, they prove to be no real library, but specimens of the woods of 500 different European trees, made up in the form of books. The back is formed of the bark; the sides, of the perfect wood; the top, of the young wood, with narrow rings; the bottom, of the old wood, where the rings are wider apart. When one of the volumes is opened, it proves to be a little box containing the flower, seed, fruit, and leaves of the tree, of which it is a specimen, either dried, or imitated in wax. Something of this kind, though with a more especial reference to the age of trees, might be made an interesting portion of our own collections in natural history, both public and private. – Chronicles of the Seasons. (There is a similar collection, formed in Mexico and California by the late Dr. Coulter, now in the Herbarium of Trinity College, Dublin.)

[The Gardeners’ Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette. 1845.]

And yet we see that this particular museum was not high on the radar for visitors or citizens, even with the curious botanical library AND an unusual tree on its premises.

The Collection of Natural History is not very extensive or excellent. Besides the usual quantity of stuffed birds and quadrupeds, there are specimens of the woods of 500 different European trees…. A trunk of a laurel which grew in the orangery here, 58 feet high and 2 feet in diameter, is another botanical curiosity. Among the fossils are two specimens of the gigantic Chama shell dug up by the side of the road to Frankfort; this shell exists at present only in tropical seas. The Museum is shown by the Director, who receives a fee of two dollars; when the party is numerous, 8 or 10 gute groschens are enough from each person.

[Handbook for North Germany: From the Baltic to the Black Forest, and the Rhine, from Holland to Basle. John Murray. 1886.]

Alive and Well Floral via Art and Home

Now let us move on to the mysterious Dr. Coulter, who is found easily enough, and see what he was up to.


No. 13. Pinus Coulteri, Don. — Big-Cone Pine, Coulter’s Pine.

Dr. Thos. Coulter, another indefatigable Englishman, had the good fortune to discover the Big-Cone Pine in 1831, together with P. muricata and several other interesting trees, while on his way from Mexico to Alta California. At Monterey he fell in with Douglas, who thus describes him: “Since I began this letter Dr. Coulter, from the Central States of the Republic of Mexico, has arrived here, with the intention of taking all the plants he can find to DeCandolle at Geneva. He is a man eminently calculated to work, full of zeal, very amiable, and I hope may do much good to science. As a salmon fisher,” he adds, showing that this industry was, as now, prosecuted at that place, ” he is superior to Walter Campbell, the Izaak Walton of Scotland, and he is a beautiful shot with a rifle, nearly as successful as myself. I do assure you,” he continues, ” from the bottom of my heart it is a terrible pleasure to meet a really good man, one with whom I can talk on plants.”

[California State Print. 1888.]

desert rose
Desert Rose via Frontera

Coulter was a busy man, indeed. Right from the start, he began showing interest in the outdoors. See portions of an article from the December 1895 issue of the Botanical Gazette:

Thomas Coulter was born in the year I793 near Dundalk, County Louth, Ireland, 5 and showed an early liking for outdoor sports and natural history. He was prepared for college by Dr. William Neilson, author of a formerly well known Irish grammar, through whom he acquired an interest in the antiquities of Ireland. His education was continued at Dublin University where he showed marked proficiency in the mechanical and physical sciences and attracted particular attention for his knowledge of entomology and botany. His local collections of insects and mosses even at this time were large and valuable. In 1817 he was graduated with the degree B. A., and continuing his graduate work he took the degrees M. A. and M. B. in 1820. He had already spent one or two summers in Paris, making there extensive collections of the plants of the Jardin des Plantes.

The first recorded news from Coulter, after his departure for Mexico, is furnished by DeCandolle, who in the year 1828 received from him a collection of fifty-seven species of living Cactaceae, forty-seven of which DeCandolle immediately published as new, with no reference, however, to Coulter’s movements. Additional new species from this collection and remarks on his former descriptions were published by DeCandolle as a memoir six years later. A similar collection of Cactaceae, consisting of seventy species and varieties, was sent by Coulter to Trinity College, Dublin, for the botanical garden there in charge of Mr. James T. Mackay.

The collections of Cactaceae sent to De Candolle seem to have contained the only ones of Coulter’s plants that reached an avenue of publication previous to his death, with the exception of five new Californian pines described in the paper by David Don, and the Cupressus coulteri of Forbes. But Professor W. H. Harvey, upon his appointment as Coulter’s successor, in 1844, proceeded with the arrangement of the Californian and Mexican plants, issued three short papers on them, and, apparently in the years 1846 to 1848, distributed the greater part of the duplicates, the first set going to Kew and others to Dr. Asa Gray and Dr. John Torrey in America. The specimens were sent out under more than 1,700 numbers, unfortunately arranged systematically instead of chronologically.

It is evident from Coulter’s published work and from references to him in the writings of his contemporaries that he was not merely a collector but a botanist, a man of general culture, and an enthusiastic field naturalist and geographer. Regarding his personal characteristics Dr. Romney Robinson says: “He had every requisite for success among half civilized or savage races: a noble and commanding person; great stature, strength, and dexterity in the use of arms; good temper, courage, and presence of mind: a combination of qualities, which Bruce only, of modern travellers, possessed in the same degree.” Coulter was the first botanist who penetrated the Colorado Desert, remarkable for the aridity of its climate and the peculiarities of its flora. His collections were very large, and their enumeration, had it been published in a single report, would have formed probably the most valuable contribution to North American botany ever issued. It is hoped that this effort to record an outline of his work will serve to show to some extent the importance of his scientific explorations to the advancement of botany in America.

[The Botanical Explorations of Thomas Coulter in Mexico and California. Frederick V. Coville. Botanical Gazette. Vol. 20, No. 12. December 1895.]

Botanical Wisdom via Deqor

Decades later, the Morton Arboretum was founded in 1922 by Joy Morton, whose father was the founder of the original Arbor Day. While not artistic specimens of the trees, the Arboretum is making steps to preserve trees and their history, with the motto “Plant trees.”

Via the Morton Arboretum

The mission of The Morton Arboretum is to collect and study trees, shrubs, and other plants from around the world. The Arboretum maintains living collections on display across naturally beautiful landscapes for people to study and enjoy, and to learn how to grow them in ways that enhance the environment.

This is the world that our children will inherit. It is our duty to make an effort to ensure that they receive a world as pristine and beautiful as what we once had.

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