From the dark green needles of the hemlock spruce in the east to the aromatic flowers of the coastal California bay, French botanist François-André Michaux and English botanist Thomas Nuttall documented every known North American tree. The North American Sylva was a compendium of three original volumes by Michaux, made in 1810–13, and a three-volume supplement by Nuttall. It was beautifully illustrated in its numerous editions, with work by famed botanical artists Pierre-Joseph Redouté and Pancrace Bessa. Yet the survey remains obscure.
“They are overshadowed on two sides by their predecessors who got there first, and by the next group of botanists, such as Asa Gray and John Torrey, who were Americans writing for an American audience,” writes horticultural author Marta McDowell in The Trees of North America: Michaux and Redouté’s American Masterpiece. The new book, edited by Susan M. Fraser and Sally Armstrong Leone and out today from Abbeville Press, is the first to compile over 270 plates from North American Sylva in one volume. Published in partnership with the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) in the Bronx, The Trees of North America is based on material from the institution’s LuEsther T. Mertz Library. In addition to the millions of specimens in its herbarium, NYBG has collected rare books almost since its founding in 1891.
The Trees of North America is more of an art book than a scientific one, giving over the most pages to colored prints, but it’s still an enlightening index of specimens: each is accompanied by botanical notes from NYBG staff and comments from Michaux’s observations. For instance, he was convinced that the tall cabbage tree, named for its edible section, was going extinct. He wrote: “to destroy a vegetable which has been a century in growing, to obtain three or four ounces of a substance neither richly nutritious nor peculiarly agreeable to the palate, would be pardonable only in a desert which was destined to remain uninhabitable for ages.” Michaux also called the broom hickory a “pignut” in his research, referencing how British settlers fed its nuts to their pigs. Accompanying these notes are new illustrations by David Allen Sibley showing the full tree or its trunk, as the plates of North American Sylva capture just the leaf, fruit, and nut specimens.
Michaux and Nuttall’s explorations took place during an era of European fascination with the “New World,” which brought many naturalists across the Atlantic to investigate its biodiversity. Michaux’s father, André, was a prominent, adventurous botanist as well. Nuttall, however, had merely studied printing with his Liverpool uncle. McDowell’s essay includes some colorful descriptions of his journeys on the Missouri River with a group of trappers: “Their French-Canadian boatman thought him fou — crazy — wandering off in search of plant finds, oblivious to danger, using his rifle as a makeshift space to dig plants and its barrel as handy storage for seeds.”
Much of the old growth forest documented in the 19th-century volume has since been altered and developed; the 50-acre Thain Family Forest at NYBG is a rare exception in New York City. And there are trees in the book that later faced major blight due to invasive disease and infestation, like the elm and chestnut. Two centuries after Sylva‘s publication, the new collection encourages us to once again take a closer look at the arboreal world around us. As Nuttall wrote in his original preface, “For thousands of miles my chief converse has been in the wilderness with the spontaneous productions of Nature; and the study of these objects and their contemplation have been to me a source of constant delight.”
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