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Ephemeral Thoughts during the Waning Days of Summer

Cherry blossoms along the Tital Basin. Photo by Julia Blakely.
Cherry blossoms along the Tital Basin. Photo by Julia Blakely.

This post was written by rare books cataloger Julia Blakely. It originally appeared on the Smithsonian Collections Blog.

The spectacular display of the capital cherry trees of this year is but a happy, distant memory and the gardens of Washington have that hot, exhausted look of August, escaping into a rare gardening book is in order. The Cullman Library has a survivor of an ephemeral form of publication—nursery trade catalogs—that are valuable not only for their pictures (documenting different techniques of illustrating processes) but as research sources on introduction of plants into the trade as well as trends in horticultural fashion. L. Boehmer & Co. in Yokohama, Japan, produced for the 1899-1900 season the Catalogue of Japanese lilybulbs, iris and other flower roots, trees, shrubs, plants, seeds, etc.

Bonsai trees were just beginning to be imported into the United States in the late nineteenth century. One of the earliest collections, bought in 1913 from the Yokohama Nursery by the departing American Ambassador, is at Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum. And Washington’s famed cherry trees were a gift to the city from Tokyo in 1912. There were examples of importations from the mid-nineteenth century. Famed botanist and plant explorer David Fairchild and his wife, Marian, the younger daughter of the Smithsonian’s own Alexander Graham Bell, did much to beautify Washington, D.C. Along with their friend Barbour Lathrop, they introduced various varieties of Japanese cherries to the United States in 1903 and 1905, again from the Yokohama Nursery. Some of these were planted in the Fairchild’s home in nearby Chevy Chase, Maryland. For more on this history, with links to the Library of Congress’s research on the first cherry trees in the District, please click here.


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So it is interesting to find fruit, ornamental, dwarf trees and shrubs in the stock listed in the catalog (QK369 .B67c 1899 SCNHRB), as stated on the title page, of “L. Boehmer & Co., nurserymen & exporters of Japanese bulbs, seeds, plants, &c. … Yokohama, Japan … the only European nursery firm in Japan, established 1882.” Appealing to a well-to-do, sophisticated clientele, there are delicate hand-colored wood-block illustrations, bound-in illustrated printed wrappers, with silk ties. Although the text is all in English, the leaves are double-folded, Japanese style and printed by T. Hasegawa, publisher & art printer, Tokyo, Japan. An imaginative artist wittily combined images with the printed words.
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This example, along with other nursery catalogs in the Smithsonian Libraries, can also reveal hints at the propagation history of specific plants, seed cleaning, packing and shipping methods, and prices, as well as changing styles in landscape design. Or, rather than research, the catalogs can provide inspiration—one can dream of a time of planting something new and exotic and while wandering around the gardens, enjoying cool weather.

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Soon The Ephemera Society of America will hold its board meeting in Washington D.C. (September 13, 2014). Events surrounding the gathering will include visits to several collections of the Smithsonian Libraries, to view such items as trade literature, including perhaps this truly rare nursery catalog, only one other copy of the 1899 imprint is known to exist.
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