Review of a Book and an Adventure

by Cris Blackstone, NHCLP

Tower Hill Botanic Garden re-opened February 1 after their month long break in January, with an exhibit highlighting plants used to heal medical ailments, as well as mind and spiritual ailments, all around the world. Titled “Healers and Killers-Plants from the Apothecary Garden” the exhibit also featured a presentation by their librarian, Alena McNamara. This is where the adventure kicks in. Alena selected many volumes from the Tower Hill collection to display under glass and brought out several of the oldest books in the collection for the group of ten participants to learn about.

Alena McNamara, Tower Hill Botanic Garden librarian
Alena McNamara, Tower Hill Botanic Garden librarian

Current best practice handling these very early printed books does not include wearing white gloves as you might expect. Instead, with clean, freshly washed hands, it’s now best practice that you can handle the early works more carefully by having more dexterity in your fingertips without gloves. During my adventure at Tower Hill, I was able to touch their oldest volume, dating from 1499, which is a collection of all the information known about plants at the time. This book is known to bibliophiles as an incunabula – which is an early book, without a title. It wasn’t until the first century of the 1500s that books began to have titles. We might consider them “compendiums” of material on a topic with lengthy descriptions instead of titles. This volume from 1499 is one of twelve that exist in the world today, and there isn’t one author as we know today. These early books were considered to have compilers rather than authors.

During the time we were able to spend with these books, and this one in particular, it was rewarding to see different woodcuts of plants, with their descriptions in Latin, and see what we could read from the texts under the plant pictures. This was a plant ID class dream-come-true. To see the characteristics of the plants, simplistically drawn, with their names in Latin, often connected with prefixes or suffixes we learn to recognize in association with those characteristics, was exciting.

We were able to see and touch books from 1550 and the early 1600s, and learned about the developments in printing and the ways books were assembled and distributed. Lacking a “Table of Contents” these books had “Tables of Virtues,” which were lists of all the plants sorted by characteristics of the plants. The virtues included botanical features, as well as plant uses.

Tower Hill has an extensive Calendar of Events that includes a new book talk. On April 7, Daniel Stone will discuss his new book, The Food Explorer. This book covers the “true adventures of the globe-trotting botanist who transformed what America eats.” David Fairchild was that botanist, and we also connect him with Arnold Arboretum’s founders on seed- and plant-collecting from around the world. By bringing kale, mangoes, hops, peaches, avocados, and pomegranates to America, he did revolutionize the American palate. Prior to Fairchild’s wanderlust and love of plants as food sources, we ate for subsistence and not for pure delectable treats for our taste buds. This book is a great read, especially if you’d like to learn about how these early botanists met with disease and disaster on the way to locating the plants they heard about and wondered about.

Check out Tower Hill, for events that may appeal to you from their calendar, or on your own, walking the grounds to see your favorite plants or learn about new ones. Tower Hill, on a day with rugged weather, also offers you the chance to wrap yourself in the sights and scents of the plants in their conservatories. Worth a trip, and make sure you take time to go in to their library to see what may be exhibited when you’re there.

from the March/April 2019 NHLA Newsletter