The earliest transitional seed & nursery trade catalogs have links to older herbals, books of plants made for the study of medicine & botany. Herbals were produced both to identify plants correctly in order to to treat illnesses, & also to classify the many new plants arriving in Europe from the Near East & the Americas. Starting in the late 16C, it became fashionable for nobles & wealthy aristocrats to outdo one another in amassing large collections of exotic plants. To add to the prestige of these collections, some owners had them cataloged in elaborately illustrated books called florilegia. While the classification of plants resembled that of the herbals, the florilegia emphasized plants’ ornamental rather than medicinal value.
One of the oldest surviving European plant catalog is the 1612 Florilegium by Emmanuel Sweerts, a Dutch merchant of bulbs, plants & other novelties from distant lands. Produced just over 20 years before the height of Tulipomania, it contains many tulips, as well as other bulbs & herbaceous flowering plants. Rather than being an album of Sweerts’ collection, it was an actual catalog of plants he could supply for sale. A 2nd florilegium, the Hortus Floridus published by Crispijn van de Passe in 1614, was designed as a tool that salesmen could use to show what the plants would look like in bloom. In 1621, René Morin of Paris issued the 1st French printed plant catalog.
An increased flow of exotics from the Middle East, South Africa & the Americas appeared in England & the Early American Republic at the end of the 18C, encouraging a love of plant collecting & botany among the upper classes, as well as among tradesmen who competed & developed ideal forms of “florists’ flowers.” By the 19C, the enthusiasm for botany, flowers, & exotic plants was spreading to all levels of society.
See: Special Collections & Archives Research Center, Oregon State University Libraries.