Special Collections here at FSU holds a large collection of books on botany and herbal medicine that go as far back as the 16th century. As much as I would love to scour through the many many herbal encyclopedia we hold, I found myself more interested in the different types of flowers and plants collected and depicted through either art or scientific study that can be found in the archives.
Here is Special Collections, we have the five volumes of a collection that holds some of the most beautiful prints of flowers created in the early 1900s. This collection, titled North American Wild Flowers, includes some 400 plates illustrated by American artist and naturalist Mary Vaux Walcott and was first published in 1925 by the Smithsonian Institute.
What’s most interesting about this collection is not the images themselves, but the sweet story of how they came to be. Walcott first took interest in watercolor painting after graduating from Friends Select School, a Quaker college preparatory school. She painted wildflowers she came upon during family trips with her brother who would study and record glacier flow in drawings and photographs as part of his mineralogical studies.
This was only the start for Mary Walcott. She would go on to marry Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution Charles Doolittle Walcott at the age of 54. As she traveled with her husband for his paleontology research in the Rockies and throughout Canada, Mary made watercolor illustrations of wildflowers which can now be seen in the five-volume collection held in Special Collections & Archives.
During a 10 year period, Mary would spend somewhere between three and four months in the Canadian Rockies, finding and studying the finest specimens. More often then not, these illustrations were created under “trying conditions” such as on a mountain side of high pass, and at times when a fire was necessary to warm her numb fingers and body. Despite these conditions and others, such as diffused lighting and subjects which had a lifespan seemingly too short for creating art from them, the fruits of Walcott’s labor can be seen in these immortalized specimens.
Each box volume in this collection consists of a slipcase which holds a book listing each flower, describing them in detail, and a plate of each flower beautifully detailed by Walcott’s hand.
The North American Wild Flowers Collection, can be referenced here in the library catalog. For more information please call or visit Special Collections & Archives.
All photo credits go to the author.