By Liz Nye, New England Botanic Garden Staff
September 2023

On a day in late April 1888, a man named John Coulson, head gardener at the Salisbury Estate in Worcester, collected a sprig of Mayflower blooming in the city. Mayflower (Epigaea repens), also known as ground laurel and trailing arbutus, is a much-loved early bloomer heralding spring in the northeast. The native evergreen shrub displays broad, oval leaves that trail on woody stems. Small, sweet-smelling flowers made this plant popular to harvest for garlands and soaps during the nineteenth century. But the Mayflower sprig Coulson collected was likely not destined for soap. 

Impressions of mayflower specimen, one of among 234 plant species collected and recorded by John Coulson in 1888.

Impressions of mayflower specimen, one of among 234 plant species collected and recorded by John Coulson in 1888.

We know a lot about the sprig. The date the blooms were found — April 29, 1888, the location — Tatnuck Village, the number of flower buds on the specimen — seven, the number of flowers — six, the number of stem leaves — five, and many more taxonomic details all carefully recorded, and not just with notes. Coulson also made colorful nature prints of his finds. Until recently, a bound book of his prints, Impressions of Plants, was housed at the Garden as part of the organization’s rare botanical book collection.  

Before cameras were readily available, nature printing enabled scientists, naturalists, and hobbyist collectors to preserve the impression of a plant, animal, or even mineral specimen. The process involved inking objects directly and pressing them to paper. With plants, one had to act fast to make the print before the specimen dried out. Coulson’s Impressions of Plants includes nature prints and hand-written notes detailing a whopping 234 different plant species that he collected in and around Worcester within three months. Each specimen was identified according to Asa Gray’s 1868 Manual of Botany, a seminal reference book of the day. Impressions of Plants features trifoliate ginseng (Panax trifolius), a wetland plant and relative of the rare American ginseng,