Betty Adelman is the owner of Heritage Flower Farm, an award-winning nursery in Mukwonago, WI, specializing in ornamental, heirloom plants. She uses these resources to find information about plants grown at Heritage Flower Farm.

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Winter Is for Reading
by By Betty Adelman    

You don’t have to drool over catalogs with photographs of pastel petals dripping in dew, now arriving by the armloads, to feed your flower addiction in winter.  Instead you can discover great, important, entertaining, informing and jaw-dropping beautiful garden books, magazines and pictures — with expired copyrights — completely free on the Internet. Everything you ever wanted to see and everything you never knew you wanted to see is there for the finding.

Really, we know so much more now — can we learn from old books? Horticulturists today repeat the mantra “right plant in the right place,” meaning give plants the amount of sun or shade and kind of soil they like and plants will thrive. Theophrastus (372-288 BC), father of botany and student of Aristotle, started his treatise De Causis Plantarum with this identical concept. We can learn much from our predecessor gardeners. 

In the book The Garden, William Robinson, editor, week after week for more than 40 years (1871-1919) detailed every conceivable aspect of gardening — orchids, indoor plants, landscaping, garden design, flower gardens, fruit growing, fertilizers, greenhouses, trees and shrubs, ferns, alpine plants, diseases, insects, kitchen gardens, how-to, book reviews, gossip about gardeners and nurserymen, obituaries, job changes, botanic gardens, water plants, what’s blooming now, and whining about the weather. Like a 130-year-old blog, it printed gardeners’ questions and in following weeks printed answers from other gardeners. It chronicled events, gardens and people from around the world and experts from around the world. You can view it at

William Robinson (1838-1935), authored several very influential books as well as published The Garden, revolutionizing garden styles from the formal Victorian bedding style of colorful annuals to today’s popular design of natural-looking swaths of perennials.

The book Cyclopedia of American Horticulture, Liberty Hyde Bailey, editor, is chocked full of valuable, in-depth information, primarily about plants and how to grow and care for them, for example, it features more than six pages about tomatoes, nine on orchids and five about Narcissus spp. However, its advice on weed eradication signals not to uncritically follow old advice. It asserted, “(s)trong brine, applied hot, is one of the best (1 lb. of salt to 1 gal. of water). There are also preparations of arsenic, vitriol, lime and sulfur.” View it at -- the Cyclopedia’s multi-volumes went through several editions (1910-1935).

Title page of Philip Miller’s Gardners Dictionary, 8th edition (1768). This book established the standard for subsequent garden encyclopedias. Courtesy Peter H. Raven Library, Missouri Botanic Garden.

The book The Gardeners Dictionary by Philip Miller (1768), according to Andrea Wulf, “laid the foundation for much of our modern horticultural knowledge, and provided a template on which all plant encyclopedias are based today.” Although botanists changed some plant names in the last 250 years, many of this book’s exacting accounts of care and propagation of different species are still useful. It can be viewed at Warning, when reading works of this vintage — the S’s are printed F’s so “seeds” is written as “feeds,” and “sun” is “fun,” as though old English had a lisp. Publishers printed many editions of this popular book. Its author, Philip Miller (1691-1771), energetically built London’s Chelsea Physic Garden into one of the best gardens in the world. 

My friend Martha calls this “plant porn,” that is, melt-your-heart, feeds-your-soul pictures. As abundant as a garden in June, botanical illustrations wait in cyberspace for the clicking. John Parkinson’s Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris, or, A Garden of All Sorts of Pleasant Flowers (1629) is still being reprinted today. Credited as the first book about flowers for ornament instead of medicine, it illustrates many flowers with charming woodcuts. Elizabeth Blackwell duplicates the effort with 500 colored woodcuts of medicinal plants in A Curious Herbal (1737-1739), which can be viewed at See some of the best botanical illustrations in Mark Catesby’s book The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands (1754) at Catesby’s vibrant hand-colored prints depict scenes of birds, insects, mammals and reptiles in settings with trees and flowers.

Title page of Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris depicting Adam and Eve surrounded by fantastical images of tulips, lilies, fritillaries, grapes, pineapples, palm trees, a cactus and cyclamen. Published in 1629. Courtesy Peter H. Raven Library, Missouri Botanic Garden.

Mark Catesby’s Parrot of Paradise perched on a branch of fruiting “red wood.” Published in 1754. Courtesy Peter H. Raven Library, Missouri Botanic Garden.


Redouté’s illustration of a Chinese tree peony in Empress Josephine’s garden, published in 1813.  Courtesy Peter H. Raven Library, Missouri Botanic Garden.

Empress Josephine Bonaparte grew more than 2,000 species in her legendary garden, Malmaison. The book Description des plantes rares cultivees a Malmaison et a Navarre, by Aimé Bonpland (1813) includes 64 colored prints of rare plants in Josephine’s garden by the celebrated artist Pierre Joseph Redouté (1759-1824). View it at

Ninety-three black and white botanical illustrations display the wide range of plants available in Europe in the early 1600s, at least to royalty, in the book Le Jardin du Roy Tres Chrestien, Loys XIII, Roy de France et de Navare, Pierre Vallet (1623), which can be viewed at

Do not be dissuaded by books in Latin or foreign languages. Pictures are a universal language. Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864-1952), one of the first prominent women photographers, promoted the “garden beautiful” movement by taking garden and designed landscape photographs in the early 1900s. She commissioned hand tinting of more than 1,000 of her glass slides, the collection known as “Lantern Slides for Gardens and Historic Houses Lectures.” The Library of Congress holds Johnston’s collection. View it at

This article gives nothing more than a microscopic glance of what’s available. Finding what you want is like shopping. If you are looking for an Emilio Pucci handbag you type “Emilio Pucci handbag” in a search engine and find the sources. Applying the concept to a book, if you know what you are looking for by title or author just insert the title or author into a search engine. You may come up with much more than the book but you will eventually find most literature. 

If you were still on the hunt for a purse, you would type in a general category such as “clothing accessories” in the search engine. It would result in a very inefficient search. Three search engines dedicated to books and pictures will narrow the search of horticulture literature but not much more than “clothing accessories” narrows the search for handbags. Google Books is the big kahuna, having scanned millions of books. It is very good but it may not be the best for browsing for expired copyright horticulture, landscaping and garden books and pictures. The site includes all books, old and new, some still under copyright protection. New books are not scanned and show only snippets on line for free. Because Google Books scans books on every topic its “card catalog” is unimaginably huge. Internet Archive and the Library of Congress are additional general sources with vast amounts of scanned items. Internet Archive measures its collection in bytes because it includes movies and videos, as well as books. The Library of Congress makes its pictures available online. 

Rhododendron carolinianum in Addisonia, vol.1 1916, view it at Peter H. Raven Library, Missouri Botanic Garden.

If you were still to explore handbag options, typing “handbag” would get you what you want, exploring only handbags. To hunt only for horticultural literature with expired copyrights go to Botanicus Digital Library, devoted exclusively to plants, and Biodiversity Heritage Library, devoted exclusively to plants, animals, fish, birds and insects. Search within these data bases. Botanicus Digital Library allows scouting at will, efficiently exploring only literature related to plants. Biodiversity Heritage Library broadens the search adding animals, insects and more literature on plants. That said, Doug Holland, library director at Peter Raven Library, Missouri Botanical Garden, reports that everything in Botanicus is also in Biodiversity Heritage Library’s site and that Internet Archive is the host. All of these websites include items freely available to the public online.

All of these search engines allow you to browse by subject, author and title. Google Books, Biodiversity Heritage and Botanicus also allow you to search by year of publication.

Once you have rummaged through the browser and found something, each search engine allows you to view it online and download it to your computer. Google allows downloads to numerous other electronic devices. You can save it and print all or whatever part you wish.

Hunting through this wealth of resources inspires the thrill of the chase. Devoted gardeners may have trouble putting it away even after the first snowdrop pushes out of the thawing earth and scilla’s cerulean blue covers the flowerbed.


Posted: 12/31/12   RSS | Print


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