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Gardening Answers Knowledgebase

Knowledgebase record #195

Emily Dickinson's Herbarium by Emily Dickinson, 2006

Reviewed by: Brian Thompson
Review date: 2013-07-24

"Emily Dickinson's Herbarium" is a full-size, facsimile of an album of pressed flowers, leaves, and other plant parts created in the 1840s when Dickinson was a student at Amherst Academy. There is no stated purpose or obvious order to this collection, which includes both native plants of western Massachusetts and specimens that could only come from a garden or conservatory. As a traditional herbarium the value is limited, as none of the important collection information (date, exact location, etc.) are recorded.

Over 400 specimens survive, some accurately labeled by the author using botanical guides of the day, others with descriptive if incorrect Latin binomials (for example, Petunia alba for a white petunia). Others have lost their labels. The Harvard University Herbaria staff has identified nearly all despite numerous challenges. A detailed catalog records all this detective work.

But the value of this book is not as a traditional herbarium. I see it as a piece of history, and of an early glimpse of the life of one of our country's most valued poets. And, if you've ever attempted your own collection of pressed plants, you will appreciate the considerable effort taken not only to produce this book, but also to preserve it for over 160 years.

Accompanying essays document the herbarium's conservation, the history of the family battles over Dickinson's legacy, and securing the Dickinson collection for Harvard. Best is the article by Richard B. Sewall, "Science and the Poet: Emily Dickinson's Herbarium and 'The Clue Divine,'" in which he begins, "Take Emily's Herbarium far enough, and you have her." Perhaps. In any case, he argues for the close connection she found between science and art -- an argument that could be equally well applied to William Bartram.

"Emily Dickinson's Herbarium," because of its size, cannot be checked out, but is available to all to study and view in the Miller Library.

Excerpted from the Summer 2008 Arboretum Bulletin.

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