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By Kim Kaplan
August 11, 2014
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Agricultural Library (NAL) probably does not come to mind as a place to go mushroom hunting, but it is the place to find a great mycological treasure.
The library features James Bolton's original hand-drawn manuscript of An History of Fungusses Growing about Halifax, 1784-1791, or Icones Fungorum Circa Halifax Sponte Nascentium [Halifax, England], as it was titled as the first English-language work devoted to the fungi more than 200 years ago.
The manuscript is six volumes with 242 exquisite watercolors of mostly life-size mushrooms, with extravagant detail about what Bolton discovered of their life stages and biology. He described many new species or new British records, although the number was later reduced by taxonomic reclassifications.
Because of the exactness of his depictions, the volumes became a standard resource for mushroom identification. It is as regularly quoted today as it was in the early 1800s, according to Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh head of mycology (retired) Roy Watling.
Exactly what brought the manuscript to NAL's attention remains a mystery, although famed USDA plant pathologist and mycologist Cornelius Lott Shear wrote in a 1932 Transactions of the British Mycological Society article that NAL purchased the manuscript for 1,000 Swiss francs from "an old bookseller in Zurich, Switzerland."
Some think it could have been John Stevenson who discovered the Bolton manuscript or advocated for its purchase. Stevenson was in charge of the National Fungus Collections at the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Henry A. Wallace Beltsville Agricultural Research Center in Beltsville, Maryland, from 1927 to 1960. Stevenson was known for collecting all things mycological.
The manuscript has significance far beyond its prized historical value. One unquestionable extra is that its pages preserve three actual specimens of fungi. Except for a specimen preserved at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and a few very recently uncovered in a brown paper packet at the Sunderland Museum in England, these are the only fungi collected by Bolton known to have survived.
According to Shear, the last mention of the original manuscript before 1932 was in The Halifax Naturalist in 1902 that said, "It is doubtful whether the originals for the History of Fungusses are still in existence. They were probably destroyed by fire when the old hall at Exeton [the Earl of Gainsborough's family seat] was burned in 1810."
But those who possessed it during the 141 years between the final volume's publication and its 1932 purchase by NAL must have cared for the manuscript well, as it is in excellent condition.
Read more about Bolton's manuscript in the August 2014 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.
ARS is USDA's chief intramural scientific research agency.