Major overhaul for RHS Wisley library

Wisley’s library collections have moved – what benefits has it brought to members and the wider horticultural community?

Wisley’s fantastic collection of rare publications and its outstanding archives go back to the foundation of the RHS.

Over the years - and with titles published centuries earlier – an enviable horticultural science library has been built up to support the work of scientists working for the Society.

It has got even better since its move into purpose-built premises in RHS Hilltop – The home of gardening science in 2021.

At a glance

Oldest bookDe historia stirpium commentarii insignes by Leonhart Fuchs,  published in 1542. Its full title is rather longer*

Newest bookRHS Monograph on Colchicums (at the time of writing)

Rarest book: The library is filled with books of which only a handful exist. Our 1661 edition of Nicholas Culpepper’s The English Physitian is one of only three in the UK; and we hold the only copy in the northern hemisphere outside Japan of The standard colour chart of Japanese horticultural plants

Outstanding plant science library

The library grew up to support scientists and now has an enviable reference collection, particularly around the plants for which the Society holds the register.

The Hilltop collections include books, journals, rare books and special collections. Our collection of British Nursery Catalogues is one of the largest in the world.

Nursery catalogue collection

The nursery catalogues give a fascinating peek into the history of gardening.

Not only do they reveal when plants became commercially available, they give an insight into what flowers were fashionable at the time.

And many of them are things of beauty with cover designs which wouldn’​t look out of place hung in a gallery.

The collection was previously split between two sites  – the lending library open to all garden visitors and members of the RHS was housed in the former Gardiners’ House; and the research library in the laboratories, open only by appointment.

While Gardiners’ House was beautiful, access to one of the oldest buildings at Wisley was difficult.

When the state-of-the-art RHS Hilltop – The Home of Gardening Science opened in 2021, the collections were brought together in one purpose-built space.

The benefits it brought included

  • Much more of the collection available to visitors, seven days a week.
  • Specialist climate controlled areas to help us preserve the site’s archive for future generations.
  • The new Foyle Reading Room allowing us to provide a wider range of displays of the rarer material in the collection, providing further inspiration for users.

Wisley’s own archive

Garden journal from 1890. Notes include a record of the weather, temperature, tasks, events and more

The history of Wisley is preserved in its archive, which includes records of those who have worked at the garden.

“It’s particularly nice to get genealogy requests,” Simon said. “It’s really rather lovely when we can find some little piece of information and help people out.”

Records from a weather station at the site are also an invaluable resource.

“As well as recording the data for the weather, observations of the day were made. The books in the Second World War made absolutely no mention of the fighting – it provided a fascinating insight into the life of 1940s Wisley.”

That book title in full

*The full title of Leonhart Fuchs’ 1542 publication, the oldest held at Wisley, is De historia stirpivm commentarii insignes, maximis impensis et vigiliis elaborati, adiectis earvndem vivis plvsqvam quingentis imaginibus, nunquam antea ad naturæ imitationem artificiosius effictis & expressis, Leonharto Fvchsio medico hac nostra ætate longè clarissimo, autore. Regiones peregrinas pleriq[ue], alij alias, sumptu ingenti, studio indefesso, nec sine discrimine uitæ nonnunquam, adierunt, ut simplicium materiæ cognoscendae facultatem compararent sibi: eam tibi materiam uniuersam summo & impensarum & temporis compendio, procul discrimine omni, tanquam in uiuo iucundissimoq[ue] uiridario, magna cum uoluptate, hinc cognoscere licebit. Accessit ijs succincta admodum uocum difficilium & obscurarum passim in hoc opere occurrentium explicatio. Vnà cum quadruplici Indice, quorum primus quidem stirpium nomenclaturas græcas, alter latinas, tertius officinis seplasiariorum & herbarijs usitatas, quartus germanicas continebit. 

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The Royal Horticultural Society is the UK’s leading gardening charity. We aim to enrich everyone’s life through plants, and make the UK a greener and more beautiful place.