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A Short Story of Pomological Art – From Antiquity to the American Collection

Apple by OMBraida

Malus domestica Borkh. 1795

nv: Common Flowering Apple

“Fruit of the Gods” by O.M. Braida©

Dear Friends:

Pomology is a branch of botany that studies and cultivates fruit and nut. Pomological research is mainly focused on the development, cultivation and physiological studies of fruit trees. The goals of fruit tree improvement include enhancement of fruit quality, regulation of production periods, and reduction of production cost. One involved in the science of pomology is called a pomologist.[1]

HangingGardensBabylong copy

Hanging Gardens of Babylon‘ probably 19th century after the first excavations in the Assyrian capitals.  This hand-coloured engraving probably made in 19th century after the first excavations in the Assyrian capitals, depicts the fabled Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.  According to the tradition, the gardens did not hang, but grew on the roofs and terraces of the royal palace in Babylon.
Nebuchadnezzar II, the Chaldean King, is supposed to have had the gardens built in about 600 BC as a consolation to his Median wife, who missed the natural surroundings of her homeland.

The first fruit mentioned in history is the apple and as such is considered the head of the fruit kingdom. The hanging gardens of Babylon and the floating gardens of Mexico are among the wonders of the world.

Apple Orchard in France. Photo by Stephanie Mills 2009Keukenoff Netherlands Gardens

The Greeks and Romans were skilled in the art of gardening and beautifying their surroundings. The Egyptians studied the art of landscape gardening.  Later it became the favorite occupation in Italy and the Netherlands, and still later Spain, France, and Germany.  Above are photos of the apple orchards of France and the flower gardens of the Netherlands (photo credits Stephanie Mills apples, and Netherlands).   The monks of ancient history are credited for their discoveries. [2]

Peach PoiteauThe age of magnificent pomological art began with sixteenth century Flemish still life painting and spanned more than two centuries. From the seventeenth century onward scientific interest in botany and pomology grew. The genre reached its pinnacle in nineteenth century France with the collaboration of two great botanical artists, Pierre-Antoine Poiteau (1766-1854) and Pierre Jean Francois Turpin (1775-1840) considered the greatest floral and pomological illustrators during the Napoleonic Era and afterwards. The two men had a working relationship throughout their careers, each helping the other develop their botany and artistic skills.([3])([4])([5])



As the fruit growing industry developed and expanded, demands for nursery stock and fruit trees increased on a global scale. Among the largest nurseries in America, and the world, are those located in Michigan started by Israel Ilgenfritz and John C. W. Greening, both from Germany.[6]

Around 1847, Charles M. Hovey,  a member of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, was also the proprietor of another large and expanding nursery: Hovey & Co. – a 40 acre Cambridge nursery. In 1848, the first national organization of fruit men—the American Pomological Society, its name drawn from Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruits, was established.

As a result of this growing need to record the wide varieties of fruit, Hovey enlisted William Sharp, an English painter and lithographer stationed in Boston, to produce the colored plates of fruit subjects. Hovey wanted the plates to be accompanied by text which would give the history of each variety, a full description, its growing habit, flower and fruit, and advice on its cultivation. With regional and national agricultural markets of new fruit varieties continually emerging, due to both natural and human interference, the collection of illustrations grew. [7][11]

Fruits of America Cover by WmSharpCherries by Wm SharpPear by Wm Sharp copy

By 1852, Hovey gathered his series of prints into a compendium called The Fruits of America, Volume 1, declaring that he felt “a national pride” in portraying the “delicious fruits…in our own country, many of them surpassed by none of foreign growth,” thus demonstrating the developing “skill of our Pomologists” to the “cultivators of the world.” Further evidence of their skill came with publication of Volume 2, in 1856. Published illustrations reliably identified a growing array of fruits while at the same time developed a large and impressive body of American pomological art.[8]

Drawings and paintings had long been used to identify botanical specimens, including fruits. During the early 19th century in Britain and France, heightened attention was given to the practice of illustration in response to the proliferation of different names for the same fruits.

Hooker ApplesAn exquisite exemplar of the genre was the artist William Hooker (1779-1832)[9] who was a student of the renowned Franz Bauer and who studied at the Royal Horticultural Society and Kew Gardens in England. Hooker’s Pomona Londinensis, was published in London in 1818. This suite of 49 hand-colored aquatint engravings includes the choicest fruits from the markets, private gardens, and nurseries of Regency London. As draftsman to the Horticultural Society, Hooker devoted some attention to flowers, but fruit on the bough was his specialty.[10]

But beautiful as they were, pictorial renditions such as Hooker’s did not lend themselves to the widespread identification of fruits, even in small markets, let alone the steadily enlarging ones of the United States. Hooker’s illustrations were hand-painted. Such paintings, watercolored lithographs or etchings, were laborious and expensive to produce and limited in number.

Pecans copy

Carya illinoinensis
nv Pecans
By Berthe HeigesWatercolor: 1904
U.S. Department of Agriculture Pomological Watercolor Collection. 
Rare and Special Collections, National Agricultural Library, Beltsville, MD


Deborah Griscom Passmore
Watercolor: 1909 
U.S. Department of Agriculture Pomological Watercolor Collection. 
Rare and Special Collections, National Agricultural Library, Beltsville, MD

In 1886, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) established the Division of Pomology to oversee the collection and distribution of new varieties of fruits, and to disseminate information to fruit growers and breeders. USDA commissioned artists to create technically accurate illustrations of newly introduced cultivars for the division’s publications.

In 1887, Wilhelm Heinrich Prestele (William Henry Prestele) 1838-1895, a German immigrant from Bavaria whose father Joseph Prestele was a former staff botanical and pomological artist at the Royal Botanical Garden in Munich, was appointed as the first artist for the USDA Division of Pomology.

Cherries Prestele

Watercolor of wild cherry (Prunus avium)

by William Henry Prestele, 1892.

The USDA Pomological Watercolor Collection is one of the most unique collections in the Rare and Special Collections of the National Agricultural Library (NAL). As a historic botanical resource, it documents new fruit and nut varieties, and specimens introduced by USDA plant explorers from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Technically accurate paintings were used to create lithographs illustrating USDA bulletins, yearbooks, and other series distributed to growers and gardeners across America. Approximately twenty-one artists commissioned by USDA for this purpose created the paintings. Some works are not signed.

The USDA collection spans from 1886 to 1942, with the majority created between 1894 and 1916. The content of this collection consists of 7,584 watercolor paintings, 87 line drawings, 79 wax models, lithographs and line drawings, including 3,807 images of apples. Fruit origins of the plant specimens illustrated originated in 29 countries and 51 states and territories in the U.S. Today, the collection is preserved in NAL’s Rare and Special Collections, where it serves as an important research tool for a variety of users, including horticulturists, historians, artists, and publishers. In 2010 and 2011, the entire printed collection was digitized to improve public access to this valuable resource, and to better preserve the paintings by reducing the need for researchers to handle them.[12]

If you enjoyed this little story, perhaps you would like to join us at Selby for the upcoming One-Day Workshop on Fruit Portraits in Colored Pencil scheduled for February 6, 2016, 10am to 5pm.  To register, visit:

Best wishes to you and yours for a happy and healthy new year.

God bless,





[2] Greening, Charles E. Evolution of the Nursery. Report of the Michigan State Pomological Society, Volume 31. 1902.




[6] Greening, Charles E. Evolution of the Nursery. Report of the Michigan State Pomological Society, Volume 31. 1902.

[7] Kevles, Daniel J. How to Trademark a Fruit; Smithsonian Magazine, August 2011.

[8] Kevles, Daniel J. How to Trademark a Fruit; Smithsonian Magazine, August 2011.

[9] Kevles, Daniel J. Cultivating Art.



[12] USDA Pomological Watercolors NAL Digital Collections




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