Botanic Superlatives: The First Nursery Catalog


Botanic Superlatives: The First Nursery Catalog

April 15, 2011
Photo by: Emmanuel Sweerts, Florilegium (1647, left; 1612, right)

Disseminated at the height of Europe's seventeenth-century flower frenzy, the first nursery catalog was a masterpiece and a marketing strategy. It was published as a Florilegium (collection of flowers), and compiled by Dutch entrepreneur Emmanuel Sweerts (1552-1612). Before its publication, Sweerts peddled curiosities—stuffed birds and shells, as well as tulip bulbs. He would soon consolidate his wares. It was a time when trading ships filled the continent with new plants, and royal courts clamoured to purchase them. And so the opportunistic merchant saw an opportunity. 

Florilegium was a compendium of plants in Sweerts' nursery. Beautifully illustrated, it was distributed to wealthy buyers at the Frankfurt Fair in 1612. The 560 bulbs and flowers (prominently including many tulips) were identified in Latin, German, French, and English. While the bulbs were extravagantly expensive, the catalog was a success—six editions were subsequently published, and many nursery owners soon created their own trade guides. And so a new industry of nursery catalogs was launched, and, possibly, a botanic phenomenon: it is said that Florilegium's popularity played no small part in the imminent Dutch "tulip mania." 

Anna Laurent is a writer and producer of educational botanical media. Photographs from her forthcoming field guide to Los Angeles are available for exhibition and purchase at the author's shop.