Early gardening catalogs on display at Natural History Museum
During the past troubled year, interest in gardening and growing things blossomed.
Not only plants come from the smallest seeds, but the promise of a brighter future. A garden’s cyclical replenishment can lift spirits and assure humans of nature’s regeneration.
With this in mind, Linda Miller, curator of the John and Peggy Maximus Gallery at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, has arranged “A Medicine to the Mind: Early Gardening Catalogs,” an exhibit that traces the 400-year-old history of illustrated gardening catalogs.
It will be on view through Sept. 6 at the museum, 2559 Puesta del Sol Road.
“The subjects of the exhibit — early gardening catalogs— are windows into our horticultural past. Their study unites a variety of disciplines: botany, social and economic history, garden and art history,” said Ms. Miller.
Among the works on display are original 17th century engravings from the earliest known catalog and a collection of American mail order catalogs, seed packets and nurserymen’s sample books from the late 19th century.
“Not surprisingly, few of the thousands of nursery and seedsmen’s yearly catalogs issued over the centuries have survived. Closely aligned with the history of printing, they provide insights into the development of plant varieties and help us to understand which ones withstood the test of time. They also show the evolution of printmaking materials and techniques used by commercial nurseries and contain beautiful examples of the art of the plant world,” said Ms. Miller.
She started to plan this exhibit last summer when the gallery was closed, and she was reading stories about the resurgence in gardening and growing things for pleasure and stress relief while people were confined to their homes.
“This led to the discovery of an area of print and garden history I hadn’t been aware of: the printed sales catalogs that plant nurseries published over 300 years. These were commercial enterprises illustrated with beautiful hand painted engravings,” she told the News-Press.
“In the exhibit, we tell eight different stories staged around the room, tracing this history. For example, I was lucky enough to find some beautiful plates from what is thought to be the first surviving catalog printed in Holland in 1612. We end with the development of American horticulture and the growth of commercial nurseries in this country.
A loan of mail order catalogs and seed packets from around 1900 was arranged with a print collector on the East Coast.
“These have wonderful bright chromolithograph pictures of flowers and vegetables and signaled the beginning of direct mail and modern advertising,” Ms. Miller said.
One of the more curious examples of commercial enterprise in the plant world was the mania over the sale of tulip bulbs in 17th century Holland. Ancestors of the flower came from Central Asia where more than a hundred species grow wild.
“Tulips entered Europe in the middle of the 16th century where the vividly colored exotics grew well in Dutch soil. The demand for special varieties soon exceeded the supply, and prices for individual bulbs of rare types rose to staggering heights,” Ms. Miller said.
“Steadily rising prices tempted ordinary middle-class and poor families to speculate in the tulip market. Sales and resales were made many times over without the bulbs ever leaving the ground, and ‘broken’ tulips, or those showing a feather or flame pattern sold for the equivalent of hundreds of dollars each. Wealthy Dutch merchants commissioned albums of watercolors to show clients pictures of blooming tulips with the weight and price of each bulb.
“The craze reached its height during the 1630s. As the inflated market for tulips showed signs of strain, demand for trading bulbs dropped off, and the financial crash came soon after when, almost overnight, the price structure collapsed. It swept away fortunes leaving behind financial ruin for many ordinary Dutch families.”
The fascinating history of tulipmania and the establishment of the influential Chelsea Physic garden in London then moved to America and John Bartram, the Quaker botanist whose garden in Philadelphia inspired George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
“In the mid-19th century the explosion of sample books produced by commercial nurseries pictured vivid illustrations of food grown for an expanding young continent,” said Ms. Miller. “These captivating images promised flowers, fruits and vegetables after a long winter.”