Exhibit of Seed Catalogs

Walk down memory lane with ‘Seed Stories: Catalogs of Life and Gardens in America’ at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.

On the cover of the 1911 seed catalog for Oscar H. Will and Co. shows a Dakota Indian giving corn to a pioneer.

On the cover of the 1911 seed catalog for Oscar H. Will and Co. shows a Dakota Indian giving corn to a pioneer.

courtesy Minnesota Landscape Arboretum

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Chanhassen, Minnesota – The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum takes a trip down memory lane with "Seed Stories: Catalogs of Life and Gardens in America," an exhibit of historic seed catalog covers opening January 7, and continuing through April 3 in the Reedy Gallery and Snyder Building.

The exhibit comprises nearly 150 catalog covers, pages and plates, culled from the Andersen Horticultural Library's extensive collection of more than 57,000 historic seed and nursery catalogs. 

Seed catalogs were once a staple on everyone's parlor tables. Brimming with folk art, exquisite plant portraits, whimsical fairies and gnomes or fair maidens in the garden, they highlight rural society's desires and interests, enterprises and passions. One will find advertisements for hunting dogs, pigs, chickens, pleasure boats, farm implements, porcelain vases and heal-all tonics.

"The cover images alone make this collection worth perusing. It's exciting to share them with the public," says Kathy Allen, head librarian of the Andersen Horticultural Library, which is part of the University of Minnesota Libraries. It is housed in the Arboretum's Snyder Building.

Many Midwestern companies are represented, including Lippincott seeds, Northrup King, both originally of Minneapolis, and Farmer Seed of Faribault, among others. (Northrup King is now a division of Syngenta corporation.)

Of special note are three seedhouses owned and run by women, quite an unusual feat in the early 1900s. These include Jessie Prior, Emma V. White and Carrie Lippincott. 

Another company, the Oscar Will Seed Co., "sprouted" in Bismarck, North Dakota, in 1881. It was that area's first-ever seedhouse and had the distinction of introducing several Native American seeds into the trade, including those from the Mandan, Arikara and Hidatsa cultures.

The stories behind the scenes, including Minneapolis seedswomen, regional pioneers and colonial innovators, give a more intimate look at the life and gardens surrounding these catalogs. Themes such as patriotism and marketing occur across companies and time. The attractive and engaging period artwork decorating these covers is alone worth a visit – especially for those visitors who fondly recall eagerly thumbing through the well-worn catalog pages.

The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, the largest public garden in the Upper Midwest, is part of the University of Minnesota's College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences. It is located nine miles west of I-494 on Highway 5 in Chanhassen. Open daily except for Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. Adults: $9; free for ages 15 and younger and free for members. Admission is free all day Thursday, November through March.

Hank Will raises hair sheep, heritage cattle and many varieties of open-pollinated corn with his wife, Karen, on their rural Osage County, Kansas farm. His home life is a perfect complement to his professional life as editor in chief at GRIT and Capper's Farmer magazines. Connect with him on .