Blooms from years gone by

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All images courtesy the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum

There’s nothing like the gray days of winter to inspire a gardener to reach for his or her seed catalog and dream of spring. And so what better time to celebrate the artwork of antique seed catalogs?

The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum presents “Seed Stories: Catalogs of Life and Gardens in America” featuring covers pulled from the Andersen Horticultural Library’s collection of more than 57,000 seed catalogs. Curator Kathy Allen says many of the covers, dating from the late 1800s and early 1900s, feature beautiful engravings, ranging from folk art to more art nouveau imagery.

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Allen’s personal favorite is an 1893 image of an angel floating above an orange canna (pictured above), because of its ties to the Chicago 1893 World’s Fair and its unique imagery.

The exhibition includes images from several Midwestern seed companies, including Northrup King, Lippincott (both of Minneapolis) and Farmer Seed

of Faribault. It’s worth noting that Lippincotts was one of just a few seedhouses owned and run by women – in this instance, Miss Carrie Lippincott.

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In this detail from a seed catalog, the seed harvesters of Northrup King navigate the troubled waters of “carelessness” and “inexperience.”

The exhibition does include artwork from one modern seedhouse – Plant Delights, Inc. – but Allen says such illustrations are increasingly rare.

The majority of modern printed catalogs use photographs, although some are reprinting historical images from their “heyday.” Mostly these companies are fighting for their lives right now & aren’t commissioning art. There’s a strong trend towards web-only catalogs, so the printed ones are fast becoming collector’s items!

In addition to the artwork, “Seed Stories” includes letters and essays dealing with such concerns as the influenza pandemic and the first world war war, as well as images depicting the history of particular seed companies.

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“Seed Stories: Catalogs of Life and Gardens in America” runs through April 3 at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.

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