Exploring the collections of the Mercantile Library:

Celebrating Wildflowers Month
Native wildflowers can be enjoyed nearly year-round, but what better time to spotlight these floral treasures than May. Today we’ll explore three books in the library’s collection that reflect artists’ and botanists’ long fascination with regional wildflowers.
Isaac Sprague, Beautiful Wild Flowers of America, New York, 1887, cover and May-Flower (Trailing Arbutus.) Epigaea Repens, L. Collection of the St. Louis Mercantile Library
In 1882 Isaac Sprague (1811-1895) created a series of watercolor paintings of American wildflowers that he published under the title Beautiful Wild Flowers of America. Sprague was a Boston native who was inspired by Thomas Nuttall’s (1786-1859) Ornithology and began painting the birds of eastern Massachusetts. John James Audubon (1785-1851) saw these paintings and invited Sprague to accompany him to Montana in 1843 to assist with making drawings and measurements for Audubon’s ornithological project. This led to Sprague’s illustrating several major botanical publications during the last half of the 19th century, most notably creating artwork for the botany sections of the Pacific Railroad Surveys in the 1850s.
Isaac Sprague, Long-Leaved Aster (Aster Longifolius, Lamarck) and the
accompanying poem “Autumn” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882).
Collection of the St. Louis Mercantile Library
Despite Sprague’s many scientific projects, the subtitle of his Wildflowers book reveals the ambitious goals of this publication; “Original Water-Color Drawings after Nature by Isaac Sprague, Descriptive Text by Rev. A. B. Hervey, with Extracts from Longfellow, Whittier, Bryant, Holmes, and Others.” For example, the chromolithograph of Sprague’s delicate watercolor of the Long-Leaved Aster that blooms in August and September is accompanied by Longfellow’s poem “Autumn” along with Hervey’s commentary on the more than one hundred and fifty species of Aster and the plant’s geographic range. Whether scientist, gardener, or literary enthusiast, this beautiful book has something for everyone.
Emma Homan Thayer, Wild Flowers of the Rocky Mountains, New York, 1889.
Collection of the St. Louis Mercantile Library
Emma Homan Thayer (1842–1908) had a rather circuitous route to becoming a botanical artist. She was a young widow with two small children when she decided to continue her education first at Rutgers Female College and then at the National Academy of Design in New York where she studied painting. Thayer was building her artistic career in portraits and landscapes when she remarried in the 1870s and moved with her husband to Chicago, and then in the 1880s to Colorado. There she became interested in botanical illustration and published Wild Flowers of Colorado in 1885, a travelogue illustrated with chromolithographs of her watercolor paintings. Wild Flowers of the Rocky Mountains is a reissue of the 1885 book that may have been retitled to differentiate it from Alice Stewart Hill’s (1851-1896) similarly titled The Procession of Flowers in Colorado published in 1886. 
Emma Homan Thayer, Primrose and Fairy Lily.
Collection of the St. Louis Mercantile Library
Thayer’s travel narrative incorporates stories of finding particular species within the context of her daily excursions. While describing her group’s preparations to depart on horseback into a scenic canyon, Thayer details the geographic range of the primrose and her observation of their blooming from early spring into late October. She states “This one I found growing at the foot of Cheyenne Mountain. They are usually white, and the pink ones are quite uncommon; indeed, this is the only pink one I have ever seen.”  The Fairy Lily was so named by a local rancher who had found a patch of the blossoms in a mountain pasture and introduced Thayer to it after watching her painting other flowers. Thayer stated she could not find its botanical name, although she thought it might belong to the Linum (flax) family. Thayer’s lively narrative and artistic renderings of the plants make her book – like Sprague’s – of interest to a broad audience.
Mary Vaux Walcott, North American Wild Flowers, Smithsonian Institution, 1925, Title page and Plate 6: Sun-dial Lupine, Lupinus perennis. Collection of the St. Louis Mercantile Library
Mary Vaux Walcott (1860-1940) began sketching flowers as a young girl traveling through the Canadian Rockies with her father, an amateur geologist. Walcott had planned to attend Bryn Mawr College but when her mother died she remained at home to care for her father and siblings. The family geological expeditions continued, and Walcott became increasingly skilled at and dedicated to her botanical illustrations. In 1913 she scaled Mount Robson, the highest peak in the British Columbia Rockies, and Mount Mary Vaux, a peak 10,881 feet high, is named for her. At age 53 she announced to her family that she wished to marry Charles Doolittle Walcott (1850-1927), a noted paleontologist and Secretary of the Smithsonian. The couple wed over the objections of both families, and Walcott soon put her skills to use in service of the Smithsonian.
Mary Vaux Walcott, Plate 4: Nodding Ladies-Tresses, Ibidium cernuum (Linnaeus) House, Slender Ladies-Tresses Ibidium gracile (Bigelow) House and Plate 36: Butterflyweed, Asclepias tuberosa Linnaeus. Collection of the St. Louis Mercantile Library
In the 1920s Walcott created a five-volume portfolio of botanical prints after her watercolors in support of a Smithsonian fund-raiser. Each volume of North American Wild Flowers includes a text volume with descriptions of each plant and a portfolio of plates. In the Foreword, Walcott describes the challenges of capturing the fleeting wildflowers in a freezing cold mountain pass, or when the fragile flowers bloom for only one day, and in the uneven light of a tent. Over the ten years she spent preparing the artwork she traveled three to four months each year in the Canadian Rockies, covering some five thousand miles on mountain trails. Walcott noted that all sketches are life size, and that she used the American Code of Botanical Nomenclature when identifying them.  Her descriptions provide details of the plant’s preferred growing location and range, and also where each sketch was made. The two species of Ladies Tresses shown here were found on Mount Kisco, New York, but not all of her specimens have exotic mountain locations; the Butterflyweed she sketched closer to home near Washington, D.C.

These artists preserved images of wildflowers from across North America, making them available for education and enjoyment to a broad audience through published books. As May draws to a close and summer’s warmth overtakes us, perhaps we can all be inspired by Sprague, Thayer, and Walcott to keep an eye out for the many wildflowers to be found in our own parks and gardens, and to appreciate and enjoy them even more.


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