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National Agricultural Library Botany Collections

National Agricultural Library Botany Collections

...The library of the United States Department of Agriculture, one of the richest in the world in our field.

A quote from Stafleu and Cowan (Taxon p. 82 April 1979) when describing the library resources used to determine the scope of their survey of plant taxonomic literature.


The National Agricultural Library (NAL) collects botany at a comprehensive level; comprehensively acquiring materials in all formats, in all languages, as exhaustively as resources allow. Botany at NAL includes the subject areas of plant taxonomy, anatomy, physiology, and ecology; paleobotany; biochemistry of plants, including economic plants; and the geographic distribution of plants.

The NAL botany collection currently occupies 9,782 linear feet or 1.85 miles of shelving. There is a wide variety of formats, including books, journals, manuscript collections, and original works of art. Botanical publications are collected in both print and electronic formats.

Highlights of Special Collections in Botany

Botany occupies 3,570 linear feet or 0.68 miles in Special Collections (Rare books and manuscript collections). Of 360 manuscript collections, many contain botany related materials. Several examples of unique collections include:

  • Charles C. Plitt Collection, 1897-1994, local Maryland botany;
  • Harry A. Borthwick Papers, 1901-1967, plant physiology research for USDA;
  • USDA Fiber Collection, 1902-1982, documents relating to more than 300 genera of plants used for fiber;
  • USDA Small Fruit Improvement Program Records, 1914-1978, including Donald H. Scott's field notebooks and George M. Darrow's photographs; and
  • Typed manuscript of Edwin Mead Wilcox's Diseases of Vegetable Crops and Ornamentals in the United States, published in 1928.

There are also many herbals in NAL's collection such as:

  • Bock, Hieronymus. Hieronymi Tragi, De stirpium, maxime earum. Strassburg, 1552.
  • Brunfels, Otto. Herbarum vivae eicones. Strassburg, 1530.
  • Dodoens, Rembert. Cruydeboeck. Antwerp, 1563.
  • Dodoens, Rembert. Purgantium. Antwerp, 1574.
  • Fuchs, Leonhart. De historia stirpium. Basel, 1542.
  • Gerard, John. The herbal. London, 1597.

Some of the rare illustrations and works of art include:

  • Bolton, James. Original manuscript Icones Fungorum Circa Halifax Sponte Nascentium, 1784-1792. Notes and drawings.
  • Coxe, William. Original manuscript. 1810-1831. Descriptive text and sketches of fruits.
  • USDA Bureau of Plant Industry Horticultural and Pomological Investigations Records. 1892- 1960. Illustrations, research records, and reports of USDA research on specific crops.
  • J. Horace McFarland Papers. 1923-1975. Negatives and images of plants, parks, and gardens.
  • Wilhelm Heinrich Prestele Papers. 1889-1890s. Original watercolors, sketches, notes, and specimen leaves of grapes.
  • USDA Pomological Watercolor Collection. 1888-1939. 7,000 watercolor paintings of fruit created by USDA artists.

Age and Depth of Collection

The oldest botany book in the collection is Incipit tractatus de virtutibus herbarum. Printed in Italy in 1509, this edition of the Latin herbarius features 150 stylized woodcuts of plants with text on their medicinal uses. It also lists the medicines and herbs available in German apothecary shops and from spice merchants.

NAL's holdings of Carl Linnaeus include over 300 books and dissertations written by or about the "Father of Taxonomy," an esteemed Swedish botanist, naturalist, and academic. The collection includes a rare first edition of Linnaeus's first published work on plant classification, Systema naturae (1735).

Plant Sciences Catalog

The Plant Sciences Card Catalog was produced between 1903 and 1952. (Barnett, Claribel R. 1937, p.100) Journals, principally those published before 1800, are comprehensively indexed in the catalog in addition to incidental indexing on select topics of special interest. Subjects covered in addition to botany include horticulture, tropical agriculture, fibers, gums, resins, pharmacology, special crops, bibliographies, and biographies. (Atwood, p. 4) According to David G. Frodin who wrote Guide to Standard Floras of the World, Second edition. 2001, this catalog is considered to be the most complete guide to botanical literature of the first half of the twentieth century.

Long Term Value of Historical Collections

Botany research requires the active consultation and verification of all plant names and descriptions published in literature since the start date for legal names, Linnaeus's "Species Plantarum", 1735. Hundreds of years of literature are needed on a daily basis in biodiversity, germplasm, invasive and endangered species studies, not for historical interest, but for vital scientific information in the form of plant descriptions, names, distributions, and the location of scientific specimens and data. Each publication in this area is as relevant to science today as the day it was published.


1. Stafleu, F.A. and R.S. Cowan. 1979. "The making of a book: an interim report on TL-2." Taxon 28(1, 2/3): 77-86.

2. Greisbach, R.J and S.M. Berberich. 1995. "The Early History of Research on Ornamental Plants at the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 1862 to 1940." HortScience 30(3) June: 421-425

3. Barnett, C.R. 1937. "Frederick Vernon Coville - Friend of the Library: An account of his contributions to the early development of the Library's collections and bibliographical equipment in the field of botany." Agricultural Library Notes 12 (2): 95-103.

4. Atwood, A. C. 1911. "Description of the Comprehensive Catalog of Botanical Literature in the Libraries of Washington." 1911. U.S. Department of Agriculture Bulletin of Plant Industry Circular 87. 7 pp.

5. Plant Science Catalog: Botany Subject Index. Compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Library. 1958. Vol. 1, Preface.

Written by NAL Staff, May 2008.

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