Go Inside New York’s Nearly Secret Botanical Library

It’s a gardener’s fragrant fantasy

Allen's Book of Berries (1915) is just one of the many seed catalogues in the Mertz's collection. New York Botanical Garden/Public Domain
An 1811 drawing of lichen from the book Lichenes Americani. New York Botanical Garden/Public Domain
California bulbs from a 1920 catalogue. New York Botanical Garden/Public Domain
The Mertz Library hosts one of the world's largest collections of material about plants. New York Botanical Garden/Ivo M. Vermeulen

There are people, and then there are plant people. You know the ones—they stop to smell every flower, rhapsodize over trees and bushes and want to know everything about botany. Plant people’s happy place is in a garden or another bastion of the great outdoors, but one of New York’s hidden treasures might convince them to head inside. That’s because, as Katherine Brooks reports for The Huffington Post, a building in the Bronx is home to more than a million fascinating books and documents about plants.

It’s called the Mertz Library, and Brooks characterizes it as “the library hiding in a garden hiding in New York city.” Tucked into the grounds of the New York Botanical Garden, the stately building is home to one of the world’s largest collections of books and materials about plants. It’s a place where you can pore over everything from field notes from 19th-century gardeners to vintage seed catalogs, even flower illustrations that are centuries old.

The library is also home to an entire humanities institute dedicated to combining art and science at the garden. The institute’s visiting scholars invite students, staffers and members of the public to symposia about everything from movies to plants in American cities.

The New York Botanical Garden: Mertz Library Tour

Speaking of the public: The entire library is free to access, though you must be a NYBG member to check out books. And in case you can’t head to New York to discover it, never fear: Many of the Mertz’s rare treasures have been digitized and are available online. The library is also a significant contributor to the Biodiversity Heritage Library, a huge online initiative that makes images of plants and animals available to the public without copyright restrictions.

The New York Botanical Garden isn’t the Big Apple's only palace of plants—other treasures include the Liz Christy Community Garden, the New York Chinese Scholar’s Garden and the Central Park Conservatory Garden. It isn’t the only place to check out botanical books, either: Other libraries like the Brooklyn Botanical Garden Library and the New York Public Library also host collections of beautiful botanical materials. But the Mertz, which is hosted in a Beaux-Arts building that used to be the NYBG museum, could be the prettiest botanical library of them all. Putting down your garden gloves and heading to the library has never been so beautiful.

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