A THOREAU HERBARIUM
by Ruth R. Wheeler
Among the treasures kept for fifty years in the Thoreau Museum at Middlesex School in Concord was a set of 75 pressed flowers, ferns, and leaves mounted on paper ranging in size from 8” x 10″ to 12″ x 17” and marked, “A part of the working Herbarium of Henry D. Thoreau given by Miss Sophia Thoreau after her brother’s death to Miss Eliza Hosmer and now presented to the Thoreau Museum of Natural History of Middlesex School by her nephew George S. Hosmer of Detroit Michigan through the kindness of the Misses Jane and Abby Hosmer.”
Last summer the Museum was dismantled to make room for a new classroom. Mrs. Leslie Anderson and I were asked to look at the Thoreau relics. The school would not sell its holograph letter to Ricketson from H. D. Thoreau, but would sell all but a few of the pressed flowers. The officers of the Thoreau Society were consulted, agreed to buy them, and they are now at Thoreau Farm where each sheet will be put in a plastic envelope and the whole deposited for safe-keeping in the Concord Library.
The authenticity of the collection as far back as Sophia Thoreau is beyond question, and the friendship between the Hosmers and the Thoreaus and between Eliza Hosmer and Sophia Thoreau is a matter of record (Brown, MEMORIES OF CONCORD, p. 102) . In the collection are a number of sheets of autumn-tinted maple, sumach, and oak leaves arranged in patterns. Sophia Thoreau is known to have been adept at such arrangements, and one family in Concord still treasures such a chaplet given to them by Sophia.
I should like to think that all the flowers were picked by Henry and brought home to Sophia in the crown of his old hat. We know that was his habit, and that Sophia helped with the pressing and mounting, especially during the last years. If only the sheets had his handwriting or were identified with the time and place of picking! but only eight are named and those in a neat Spencerian hand that could not be Henry’s. One of these is “Clintonia Borealis Sleepy Hollow,” another “Erythronium Amerioanum—Roxbury.” The only one dated is a leaf arrangement marked “Glen Ellis—Aug. 11, 1870.” Disappointing as it was to discover this date, I cannot discard the idea that many of the flowers were indeed brought home by Henry himself. In the first place, I cannot question the good faith of the Hosmer family. Eliza undoubtedly believed them to be Henry’s and kept them for that reason. The fact that only one or two were dated may have been an honest attempt to distinguish the ones that were not Henry’s. Then, who but Henry would have picked and kept three small lily-pads which show curious tunnels burrowed by insects? Who else would have printed the word “poke” in the juice of the berry to see whether it really made good ink? And Henry’s favorite flowers are here, the white clover as well as the rarer orchids; the Andromeda and cranberry as well as the walking fern.
— The Thoreau Society Bulletin #29 (October 1949)
For selected images from the Thoreau herbarium, please go to our media gallery.