WASHINGTON – “Little green people” are taking over the planet,stopping first at the United States Botanic Garden.
And the spaceship that transported them was a 2003 silver Ford Taurus,driven by the man who cares for some of the earliest books on plant life,one dating from 1483.
At a time when people thought the Earth was flat,they also thought of plants as being “little people that were green,” said Edward J. Valauskas,a rare-book historian and library manager of the Chicago Botanic Garden at the opening of an exhibit of rare antique books about plants.
With the advent of the printing press,a new appreciation for botanical diversity emerged,an idea that plants could not only feed and heal humans but also “make you feel better by looking at them.”
Valauskas spoke passionately Wednesday about “Plants in Print: The Age of Botanical Discovery,” an exhibit that opened to the public here Thursday. The exhibit remains in Washington until July 15,then returns to its home in Chicago Sept. 18 to Nov. 7. It may travel elsewhere after that.
Printed on rag-based paper and featuring bright,hand-colored illustrations,the collection is a “wonderful example of how botany and man's relation to plants really grew over 500 years,” Valauskas said.
Valauskas is so protective of the books that he drove them to Washington for their first showing since Chicago acquired them.
Of the 34 books displayed,the oldest is the 1483 Latin work,“Historia Plantarum,” by Theophrastus,a Greek philosopher who is regarded as the father of botany.
And most students of botany or biology would probably recognize the work of Carolus Linnaeus,a Swedish botanist who created the first universal plant classification system,or binominal nomenclature.
But likely to fascinate even the youngest visitors is an early description of the Venus's fly-trap,first discovered in North Carolina.
The book,“Directions for bringing over seeds and plants,” was a 1770 “best seller” of its kind in Europe and America,selling 300 to 400 copies,said Sue Markgraf,public relations manager for the Chicago Botanic Garden. In it,John Ellis described the carnivorous plant in a letter to his colleague Linnaeus.
“A sensitive Plant from the swamps of North America with a spike of white blossoms like the English Ladysmock,” Ellis wrote underneath a full-color illustration that even depicts a couple of bugs becoming a plant snack. “Each leaf is a miniature figure of a Rat trap with teeth,closing on every fly or other insect,that creeps between its lobes,and squeezing it to Death.”
Those words created a different ambiance from the one outside the exhibit,the one that floated with Beethoven's 5th Symphony,among the living flora in the Botanic Garden. There,the air breathes with the humidity of a rainforest,the aridity of the desert and nurtures a jungle of beauty rich with rows of Dutch Belles,bamboo grass,the chicle tree and an Arabian coffee tree from Ethiopia.
As she strolled among the plants,Arlene Swanzey,who got a sneak preview of the books,said she found them “just exquisite.”
“One of my first impressions was to say ‘thank you,thank you,thank you' to the monks who preserved all these books in their monasteries,” said Swanzey,director of museum trips for the Potomac (Md.) Area Newcomers Club.
Barbara Whitney Carr,president and CEO of the Chicago Botanic Garden,seemed to glow as she talked about the months of collaboration between Chicago and Washington.
“To see the actual books in their original form just gives me goose bumps,” she said.