Emily Dickinson's Herbarium

| December/January 1998

  • Illustration by Susan Strawn Bailey
  • This tinted herbarium ­specimen sheet is reproduced from a page of Emily ­Dickinson’s herbarium (bMS Am 1118.11), which she started in 1845. It is used by permission of the Houghton Library, Harvard University.

“My plants look finely now. I am going to send you a little geranium leaf, which you must press for me. Have you made an herbarium yet? I hope you will if you have not, it would be such a treasure to you. ’Most all the girls are making one. If you do, perhaps I can make some additions to it from flowers growing around here...”

In May 1845, fourteen-year-old Emily Dickinson wrote these lines to her school friend, Abiah Root. Emily was full of the excitement of discovery and the joy of life—giving no hint of the eccentric recluse she would become in the last decades of her life.

She continued, “I have been to walk tonight and got some very choice wild flowers...I have four studies. They are Mental Philosophy, Geology, Latin and Botany.” She was a student at Amherst Academy in her Massachusetts hometown that year, and the young women were learning to make herbariums by gathering, pressing, mounting and identifying plants and wildflowers of the area.

In this introduction to the botanical world, Emily learned science and record keeping and honed her powers of observation. She was also experiencing the fleeting beauty and fragility of life, major subjects of her later poetry.

In a letter she wrote to a friend in autumn 1845, Emily sounds like any other gardener who goes out in the dark to gather the last blooms of the season to outwit the frost:

I had a beautiful flower garden this summer, but they are nearly gone now. It is very cold tonight . . . and I mean to pick the prettiest ones before I go to bed. I would love to send you a bouquet if I had an opportunity, and you could press it and write under it, The last flowers of Summer.

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