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Grow Your Green Thumb

Photo from gardening book

Written by Jake Stump
Images Provided by WVU Libraries, West Virginia and Regional History Center

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In a top shelf at West Virginia University Libraries Rare Book Room is a tabloid-sized 636-page book in dark green binding from 1921: “The Pears of New York."

Seriously. That many pages are devoted to pears of the Empire State, with chapters such as “History of the Pear,” “Species of Pears and Their Characters” and “Pear Culture.”


If pears aren’t your fruit of choice, there’s “The Apples of New York” to the right. Or, for a catchall, “The Small Fruits of New York” on the opposite side.


This is just a sampling of the 200-plus newly acquired gardening books in the Rare Books Collection at West Virginia University Libraries.


In our spring issue, we showed how you could learn to whip up a meal via a rare cookbook collection here. Now, for anyone in pursuit of a green thumb, you can also learn how to grow food and flowers.


Drawing of Wildflowers
An illustration of the plant called herb-Robert from “Familiar Wild Flowers.

Dating back to the 1800s, the books cover vegetables, flowers and gardens. What these books also have in common with the cookbooks from our spring issue is that they came as a gift from the same collector, Lucinda Ebersole, a cook, gardener and writer in the Washington, D.C., literary scene who died in 2017.


Of the gardening books, one rare and antiquarian title stood out from the rest: “Italian Villas and their Gardens,” published in 1904.


“I’ve known about this book for a long time and I thought I would never see it,” said Stewart Plein, rare book librarian at WVU Libraries. “When we got the collection in, it was the first book I saw, and I was so overjoyed. I grabbed it immediately and brought it up here. It is a landmark in gardening.”


Photo from gardening book
The cover of “Italian Villas and Their Gardens” by Edith Wharton with pictures by Maxfield Parrish. 

Edith Wharton, the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize, authored the book. It was illustrated by Maxfield Parrish, a favorite artist of the day.


“While spending time in Italy she visited villas and their gardens,” Plein said. “Wharton observed the way the villa, the garden and the landscape were designed as individual elements that when brought together, formed a magnificent whole.


”The people who bought this book – maybe they were unable to go to Italy – but they could see these gardens from their home sitting by their fireplace and enjoy reading about them. You could also take the ideas proposed in the book to apply to your own yard.


“Home gardening was very important then,” she said. “It was seen as a healthy pursuit that anyone could do.”