Gray's Manual of Botany

1st edition 1848

'Keeping botanists well informed of the advances and ongoing research in their field was a challenging task in the 1840s. Correspondence between prominent botanists contained the most current information, yet those left out of the letter writing circle were ignorant of what was being discovered day to day. Asa Gray realized the need for a work to be published that would be within the financial grasp and scientific understanding of both the professional botanist and the inquisitive amateur. Gray wrote in a letter to William Hooker on January 15, 1841, "You will now and then see some little articles of mine in Silliman's Journal. I prepare these notices merely to awaken and deepen the interest of our scattered botanists and lovers of plants, most of whom see that journal, and few of whom have any other means of knowing what is going on in the botanical world." Hunter Dupree, biographer of Asa Gray, wrote this: "To keep his nationwide network of amateur botanists mobilized and functioning, Gray needed a stronger cement than even thousands of personal letters could provide. This he was forced to do by writing textbooks."


'On November 15, 1845, Gray wrote to John Torrey, saying that he was working on an "imperfect and hasty" botanical manual of New England, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Gray wrote that he planned to have copies of this manual bound with his "Botanical Text-Book" and sold at an affordable price. He notes in his letter to Torrey that he does not expect to make money on the first edition. Gray writes "How does this all strike you? I am convinced that something must be done, and I will see if we can't have a very popular, and at the same time a pretty good book." Thus, in the beginning of 1847, Gray began to earnestly work on A Manual of the Botany of the Northern United States, or, simply, the Manual.

Little did Gray know that this project would take over a year of hard labor, grow to almost 800 pages, and leave him heavily in debt and emotionally drained. Asa Gray's frequent correspondence has become a link to his past, allowing us to piece together important parts of his life. His letters to friends and colleagues in the years surrounding work on the Manual tell a story of bitter dedication to his daunting task.

On January 17 of 1848 Gray wrote to collector and friend Charles Wright saying that he has run heavily into debt and cannot foresee how he will get through it. He writes that the first volume of Illustrated Genera and the Manual were "merely a labor of love for the good of the science and an honorable ambition." He says in this letter, "I should despond greatly if I were not of a cheerful temperament." Gray also mentions how the Manual has become almost 800 pages over twelve months of work, and that it will be difficult to get it between covers.

On March 10, 1848, Gray's frustration shows as he writes to his friend and colleague George Engelmann, saying, "Meanwhile my Manual is out; but not published till the 10th February. What can you expect from a man who takes up a job in February, 1847, to finish in May or June certain; but who, though he works like a dog, and throws by everything else, does not get it done till February comes round again."

In correspondence with his close friend John Torrey written September 28, 1848, Gray writes "As to the Manual, I have unwittingly made it so large, in spite of all my endeavors at compression, that I can make nothing to speak of from the first edition, even if it sells right off."

'The Manual was a task that Gray could not have completed on his own. Through the labor of plant collectors from whom Gray purchased specimens, the scientific studies, research and writings of other prominent botanists of the day, and the constant encouragement of his family and friends, Gray was able to compile, write, and prepare the volume for publication.


Gray dedicated the Manual to his friend John Torrey, inscribing in the front "This volume is dedicated by the author in grateful acknowledgment of the friendship which has honored and the counsel which has aided him from the commencement of his botanical pursuits."

John Carey was a botanist who came to the United States from London in 1830. He was a frequent guest and invaluable companion of Asa Gray in Cambridge until 1852 when he left the United States. Carey revised the proofs of the first edition of the Manual and contributed to the articles on Salix and Carex. Gray writes in his preface to the 1848 printing of the Manual, "I am under very great obligation to my excellent friend, John Carey, Esq., for important assistance rendered throughout the progress of this work, and especially for the elaboration of the WillowsPoplars, and the vast and difficult genus Carex, which are wholly from his hand."



Edward Tuckerman was a botanist from Boston who became interested in the lichens of New England. When Gray was working on the Manual Tuckerman offered his assistance with his specialty. Upon completion of his work, it was decided that the Manual was too long to include the lichens. Gray writes in his preface to the 1848 printing of the Manual, "Especially do I regret that this unexpected bulk has compelled the omission of the family of Lichenes, after they had very carefully been prepared expressly for this work, in compliance with my invitation, by the well-known Lichenologist of this country, Mr. Tuckerman. Nothing but the apparent impossibility of including the whole within the covers of a single duodecimo volume, and the assured expectation that it will immediately be given to botanists in another way, has reconciled me to the exclusion of this important contribution. In a second edition I still hope to give, by means of a supplementary volume, and through the aid of accomplished collaborators, not only the Lichens, but also the two remaining orders of the lower Cryptogamous Plants, namely, the Algae or Seaweeds, and the Fungi." In February of 1848 Tuckerman published A Synopsis of the Lichenes of New England, the Other Northern States, and British America.

William Starling Sullivant was a botanist from Ohio. He collected and studied the plants of the central part of Ohio, making sketches along the way. When Gray was working on the second edition of the Manual he contributed his account of the Musci and Hepaticae, which took approximately one hundred pages. Gray writes in the preface to the 1848 printing of the Manual, "Through his [Sullivant's] labors, it may be hoped that these beautiful but neglected tribes will become as familiar to botanists as our more conspicuous flowering plants now are."

Isaac Sprague (1811-1895) was an illustrator from Massachusetts well known for his work with John James Audubon. Sprague was the illustrator of Genera Florae Americae Boreali-orientalis Illustrata, which was published immediately after the Manual in February of 1848. In 1844 Sprague was introduced to Gray by a former president of Harvard, C.C. Felton. Gray was looking for a botanical artist to illustrate his works, and hired Sprague for the job. Gray called Sprague "the most accurate of living botanical artists" and wrote of him, "He has a singular aptitude for this kind of work and the most exact eye, and conscientious as well as skillful hand."

Self portrait of Isaac Sprague; drawings by Sprague from Genera Illustrata written by Asa Gray

Gray also thanked his "esteemed friends" Mr. Oakes of Ipswich "who is far more intimately acquainted with New England plants than any other botanist" and Mr. Olney of Providence, who "cordially rendered" him aid while working on the Manual. William Oakes was a botanist from Massachusetts. His death by drowning is reported in Hovey's Magazine in the September 1848 issue. Stephen Thayer Olney was a botanist from Rhode Island who specialized in algae and vascular plants.

Though the year was bitter, and his labors pained, Asa Gray completed his Manual and had it ready for publication by January of 1848. Its full title read A Manual of the Botany of the Northern United States, but was shortened to the Manual by those speaking of it. Hunter Dupree, in his biography of Asa Gray, writes "The accuracy of the Flora, the use of the vernacular, and complete coverage of all families, made the Manual the most immediately useful and at the same time most palatable work that Gray had produced."

Walter Deane wrote in a biography of Asa Gray, "In 1848 appeared a work, which, perhaps, more than any other, has been the constant companion of botanists of the Northeastern United States, both at home and in the field. To all those interested in a knowledge of our plants, the Manual is a household word."

'"The Manual of the Botany of the Northern United States of which the first edition appeared in 1847, needs no words of praise here. There are probably few members of the academy who do not own, or have not at some time owned, a copy of this model work. Occasionally some over-wise person has discovered that certain plants grow a few inches taller or bloom a few days earlier than is stated in the Manual, but the botanist is yet to be born who could write a more clear, accurate, and compact account of the flora of any country." (American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Proceedings, "Memorial of Asa Gray", 1888)

Reviews of Gray's Manual were glowing from the time of its publication, as not only did it fill a need for information, but also provided it in such a way that nearly anyone could find it useful. Four excerpts of reviews clipped from newspapers following the publication of Gray's Manual read:

"Although the technical terms of Botanists are used, they are so gradually unfolded, grow so progressively in the student's mind, that he may retain them in associative memory with little difficulty."

"An invaluable work of reference."

"Heretofore Botany has been a name to be dreaded by all but the most studious, and indicated a science of dull, hard Latin titles. Gray has made it deeply interesting to the general reader, and every fairly intelligent mind may be refreshed with his essays on plants and plant development."

"It is true, Prof. Gray draws largely from other authors and other men's experience, but this does not detract from his merits, as he makes the science so much more valuable to us, that he has our thanks for the performance of a labor so much to be prized, and so unlike the commonplace works of many college Professors - mere repeaters of the results of other men's experience as detailed in books - but so robbed of their vitality and hidden in mystical lore, as to be intelligible to none but those versed in Latin and Greek. We wish more real, earnest workers were in the field - men who give vitalized truths to the masses." There are now eight editions of the Manual printed, the last being a centennial version done by Merritt Lyndon Fernald. Through its many editions, Gray's Manual continues to be a valuable tool for botanists and enthusiasts, proving that the well done work of the past stands up to the test of time. The Harvard Botany Libraries is proud to own an 1848 volume (heavily annotated) which rests in our collection. Those interested are welcome to ask for it in our reading room.




American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Memorial of Asa Gray, 1888.

Deane, Walter. Asa Gray. Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club, March 1888, p. 59-72.

Dupree, A. Hunter. Asa Gray, 1810-1888. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1959.

Gifford, George Edmund. Isaac Sprague: Audubon's Massachusetts artist. Massachusetts Audubon newsletter, v. 14, no. 5 (Jan. 1975), p. 7-10.

Gray, Asa. Genera florae Americae boreali-orientalis illustrata : the genera of the plants of the United States illustrated by figures and analyses from nature. Boston: J. Munroe and Co., 1848.

Gray, Asa. Letters of Asa Gray. New York : Houghton, Mifflin, and Co., 1893.

Gray, Asa. A manual of the botany of the northern United States: from New England to Wisconsin and south to Ohio and Pennsylvania inclusive, (the mosses and liverworts by Wm. S. Sullivant,) arranged according to the natural system. Boston: James Munroe, 1848.

Gray, Asa. Memorial of Edward Tuckerman. American Journal of Science, 1886.

Gray, Asa. William S. Sullivant: a biographical notice. Cambridge: Welch, Bigelow and Co., 1873.

Hovey, C.M. Death of William Oakes, Esq. The Magazine of horticulture, botany, and all useful discoveries and improvements in rural affairs. v. 14, 1848, p. 430-431.

White, Charles A. Memoir of George Engelmann, 1809-1884. Biographical memoirs. National Academy of Sciences. v 4, 1896, p. 1-21.