Saturday, January 24, 2009

National Agricultural Library: good stuff including Frederick Vernon Coville's Laboratory Notebooks and Journals

This Saturday a plague of garden clubs descended on the National Agricultural Library in Beltsville, Maryland. I had never been on a tour of that facility so hey... The staff generously accommodated us on their day off (the library is open M-F with the first floor and many resources available to the general public). It is among the largest agricultural libraries in the world and the physical plant is visually intimidating. The building rises, a brick monolith, 14 stories above a knoll in the middle of a large field alongside Route 1. I must be old because I remember when it was built in the late 1960s. Actually, I remember its opening in 1969 and there are lots of things I don't remember from that year!

While the strictly scientific collections are impressive, journals, books, specimens, etc; the historical materials and art really blew us away. We saw collections of Jeffersonian horticultural correspondence, a complete set of Curtis' Botanical Magazine, stacks of antique seed and fruit catalogues, and gazillions of botanical illustrations. Many of the illustrations are watercolors, they were made as scientific records before color photography became an option. Still, many (thousands?) are legitimate works of art.

The Wikipedia biography of Frederick Vernon Coville, botanist extraordinaire and Honorary Curator of the National Herbarium, goes to the trouble of observing that his scientific and personal papers are spread over a number of libraries: The Smithsonian Institute, The National Arboretum, and The University of Wyoming. Well guess what? Add the National Agricultural Library because we saw this display of his field notes that represents the balance of his notebooks. Clicking on the picture will let you see that the brown package is titled, Mr Coville's Blueberry notes 1910.

When I hear the name I certainly think of blueberries. I sold the cultivar 'Coville' at Behnke's in the 80s and 90s and it's still in production today. Coville's efforts, in conjunction with Elizabeth White (1871-1954), to improve the quality of blueberries is one of those good horticultural stories that you hear from time to time. She was the daughter of a well-to-do Cranbery farmer, actually the proprietor of a 3,000 acre plantation, in New Jersey and he was an already distinguished USDA botanist. She invited him to come to New Jersey and work on blueberries. He went. The story continues that, in an attempt to get prime breeding stock, Ms. White offered a reward for blueberries that wouldn't fit through her wedding band! Their efforts were successful and produced a number of excellent cultivars.

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