November 2014 | Barbara Basbanes Richter

Flora Illustrata: The Mertz Library's Collection in Full Bloom

"If you have a garden and a library, you have all you need." Cicero (Epistulae ad familiares,  Book IX, Epistle 4.) 

On November 15 the New York Botanical Garden opened its latest exhibition, but it's not in a greenhouse filled with orchids or azaleas. Rather, the plants featured in this show are on the sixth floor of the Mertz Library. Flora Illustrata: A Celebration of Botanical Masterworks is a dazzling display of books, manuscripts, maps and art dedicated to the study of botany and horticulture. Of the library's roughly one million cataloged items (in eighty five languages), just fifty were chosen to highlight the cornucopia of manuscripts, journals, explorer's notebooks, drawings and Renaissance herbals. There's a 1667 Recueil des plantes, commissioned by Louis XIV, by Denis Dodart with illustrations by Nicolas Robert. An edition of Carolus Linnaeus' Systema Naturae demonstrates a turning point in botany with the introduction of the modern system of classification. Two beautiful incunables of Pliny the Elder's Naturalis historia (1483) offer encyclopedic knowledge of ancient herbal remedies. All are on display, alongside other important botanical works. 

The library became one of the world's most authoritative botanical and horticultural collections over a relatively short 125-year period. (The Mertz opened in 1899.) By the early 1900s it was already an established repository and scholarly collection of herbs, flowers and garden materials, assisted by generous early benefactors and philanthropists including J. Pierpont Morgan, a Garden board member, and Andrew Carnegie. Benefactors continue to ensure the library's role as an immense resource for scientists, artists, architects and writers. 

For those unable to make the show, or who wish to bring the show home with them, a companion volume to the exhibition will be available on November 25th (Yale University Press; $50). The eleven essays in the book cover eight centuries of plant history, from an examination of incunables, to works on American gardening and horticulture, to an exploration of European pleasure gardens showcasing French garden and landscape design. Hand-colored engravings, lithographs, and woodcuts depict the Earth's bounty and humanity's relation to it. Happily, the oversize pages allow for close examination of the artwork. Consider Flora Illustrata as a gift for plant enthusiasts, gardeners, architects, and those who love plants but have a perennially brown thumb.

Flora Illustrata: Great Works from the LuEsther T. Mertz Library of the New York Botanical Garden, edited by Susan Fraser and Vanessa Sellers; Yale University Press, $50, 320 pages (November 25, 2014).

The exhibition Flora Illustrata: A Celebration of Botanical Masterworks will be on display from November 15th to January 2015 in Mertz Library's Rondina and LoFaro Gallery.