Fun with Seeds

Seed and Nursery Catalogs at The New York Botanical Garden

Thanks to a generous grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), The New York Botanical Garden’s The LuEsther T. Mertz Library, the most comprehensive botanical and horticultural library in the Americas, has recently cataloged all 58,000 items in its Nursery and Seed Trade Catalog Collection. The grant also funded the digitization of public domain pre-1923 American nursery catalogs and their publication to the web.

The Nursery and Seed Trade Catalog Collection, one of the largest and most important of its kind in the United States, provides one of the best primary sources of information available on the history and development of American botany, horticulture, and commercial agriculture. Their value to humanities research, however, extends far beyond these subjects alone.


The Importance of Seed Catalogs

Nursery and seed trade catalogs offer a unique window into other areas of American life, including publishing, landscape design, marketing, industry, and leisure activity, making them valuable resources for humanities research.

Nursery and seed catalogs often provide the first description of a newly introduced species or hybrid, and the establishment of accepted nomenclature for a plant or flower requires knowing the earliest date the name was used. One of the problems facing an International Registrar in establishing name priority is determining the date of the first valid publication for a new cultivar. Very often this publication is a seed catalog. Consequently, botanists and horticulturists utilize nursery catalogs to trace the development of new hybrids, varieties, and mutations.


Enhancing Discovery of Seed and Nursery Catalogs

Searching the text of online vintage seed catalogs, however, has often been problematic. Seed catalogs are notoriously difficult subjects for Optical Character Recognition software (OCR) to parse. The picturesque fonts and elaborate page layouts so endearingly characteristic of seed catalogs have caused the resulting OCR output to be error prone and less than optimal, at least up to now.

The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) has recently awarded a grant to the Missouri Botanical Garden and its partner institutions, including Harvard MCZ, Cornell University and the the Mertz Library at NYBG, to use purposeful gaming and crowd sourcing to improve the precision of OCR, thereby helping to optimize search and discovery of online collections. Despite the technical difficulties to be overcome, the compelling content of vintage American seed catalogs promises to motivate the search for solutions as it once did the efforts of generations of gardeners to grow flowers like the pictures in the catalog.


Seeds and the Entrepreneurial Spirit

Beyond their pictorial features, another reason for the continued intense fascination with seed catalogs is that the American nursery and seed business at the turn of the last century was replete with Horatio Alger stories of enterprising individuals who combined impressive horticultural skills with savvy commercial instincts. The prosperous businesses established by James Vick, John Lewis Childs and D.M. Ferry are typical of these self-taught botanical entrepreneurs.

One image from the Luther Burbank seed catalog of 1916 vividly captures the heroic spirit of the era. It depicts the meeting of Thomas A. Edison, Henry Ford and Luther Burbank on the porch of Burbank’s Santa Rosa, California home in 1915. The aggressive herd of newspaper reporters and newsreel photographers who swarmed all over Burbank’s property that day prompted Edison to grumble “Darn these movies.” Burbank featured the meeting prominently in his catalogs as a celebrity endorsement of his plants and seeds.

One of the more colorful figures in the American nursery business was another Californian and a close friend of Luther Burbank’s named Carl Purdy (1861-1945). He was called the “Lily Man of Ukiah” by the press and today his life story seems almost mythical. In 1870, at the age of nine, Purdy was brought west in a covered wagon to the still pristine landscape of Mendocino County, California. When he reached adulthood he travelled on stagecoaches to business meetings and botanical conferences. He witnessed the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and was a key figure in the spectacular San Francisco World’s Fair of 1915. He was fluent in Spanish and several Native American languages and once wrote a splendid book about the extraordinary baskets fashioned by the Indians of Mendocino County. Above all, he studied and mastered the cultivation of California’s native bulbs and plants, successfully introducing them for the first time to European and American gardens. His self-taught knowledge of California’s flora was acquired first hand through precise observation and experimentation prompting the scholarly Willis Linn Jepson to acknowledge that Purdy’s expertise was of the highest order.

Purdy was well read, having immersed himself in classical literature from childhood. He wrote all of the text for his catalogs, filling page after page with expert horticultural instructions and elegant prose. His proud description of the scenery on his 180-acre horticultural ranch named “The Terraces” was a regular feature of his catalogs:

“From a scenic point of view, ‘The Terraces’ are probably the most unique gardens in the world. Large springs feed a mountain stream, which passes through a rich valley, and then, over four limestone bluffs in succession, each from 50 to 75 feet high, it plunges in many most charming cascades and waterfalls. Between the bluffs are the terraced slopes from which the gardens get their name.”

Purdy’s seed and bulb catalogs of native California plants have for decades been one of the hidden treasures of the Mertz Library, but happily they are now easily accessed on both BHL and Mertz Digital.

To read more about Carl Purdy, his life and times, please see the Mertz Library’s LibGuide here.

Thousands of Seed Catalogs in BHL

Browse over 11,000 seed and nursery catalogs in the BHL collection, digitized primarily from the significant collections of The New York Botanical Garden, Cornell University and the National Agricultural Library. The collection will continue to grow supported in part by the Purposeful Gaming grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. We welcome suggestions of catalogs to consider for digitizing and adding to the collection.

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Andrew Tschinkel is a digital imaging technician at The New York Botanical Garden.