History of the library

The Mary Gunn Library dates back to 1916 and is housed in the National Herbarium in Pretoria. Miss Mary Gunn, then a clerk in the Division of Botany, Department of Agriculture, was given the enormous task of building up a library by Dr Pole Evans. Ms Gunn broadened her knowledge of botanical books by studying catalogues of overseas book sellers and became one of the country’s most knowledgeable persons on rare botanical books and plant collectors of southern Africa.

Because of limited funds, various ways and means had to be devised to acquire treasures. She was very persuasive in getting rare and expensive books donated or sponsored to the library during her time as librarian. Miss Gunn was to devote the next 60 years of her life to botanical literature and in 1970 the National Herbarium Library was named the Mary Gunn Library in her honour.

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Library collection

This Library is one of the most important botanical and biodiversity resources in Africa. Subjects covered include taxonomy, biodiversity, climate change, global warming, morphology, plant anatomy, plant geography, ethnobotany, and conservation ecology, history of botany, palaeobotany and plant exploration. The Library currently holds more than 18 000 books, 3 500 pamphlets and 1 009 journal titles, of which 49 are current titles.

Rare collection

It houses a magnificent Africana and Rare Antiquarian Book Collection such as the 18 broadsheet edition of Pierre-Joseph Redouté’s Les Liliacees. Redouté published Les Liliacées (1802-1816) and the institute’s copy is the broadsheet edition of which only 18 copies were published. The plates in this edition were finished by hand by Redouté himself. Miss Gunn bought this rare work in England for £250 (money donated by Pretoria businessman, Charles Maggs) and it was conveyed to South Africa in General Jan Smuts’ personal luggage after World War 1.

Nikolas Joseph Jacquin published Stapeliarum in 1808. The book contains 64 colour plates of Stapelieae grown in the botanic garden of the University of Vienna. Each plate is accompanied by descriptive text. In 1938 Miss Gunn spotted the book for £100 in a booksellers’ catalogue. With donations she managed to purchase this rare book. The library has seven other rare works by Jacquin.

One of the rarest and oldest works treating the botany of the Cape of Good Hope was Descriptions plantarum ex Capite Bonae Spei (1767) by Peter Jonas Bergius, based in part on specimens collected at the Cape by the Swede, Mikael Grubb, and predates Linnaeus’s famous Mantissa Plantarumby one month. The library’s copy was owned by Prof W.H. Harvey, the co-initiator of Flora Capensis. A handwritten note in the book explains that the book once belonged to George Forster who, with his father, accompanied Captain Cook on his second voyage around the world with this book. Miss Gunn bought this book from Professor S. Schönland.

The oldest book in the Mary Gunn Library is a book by Theophrastus, printed in Leyden in 1552. Theophrastus was born in 370 B.C. and was a student of both Plato and Aristotle. In this book, written in Greek, he describes plants of the Mediterranean and also foreign plants from the east. This book is the oldest surviving taxonomic work today.

The unique 52 xylotheque book set by C.H. Wehdemann, is the only South African example ever made. He was sent to the Cape Colony in the early 1800’s as part of the army of the Dutch East India Company. After his dismissal in 1806, he moved to the Eastern Cape settling on a farm near Somerset East where he died in 1836. Each wooden book represents an indigenous tree. At the top of the book is a slide which gives you access to the inside of the book. Inside is a short description of the tree, some illustration and a small cane tube with some seed inside. Of the original set of 60, the Botanical Research Institute bought the remaining 52 books from the Transvaal Museum for the princely sum of R100.

Library hours

Mondays to Fridays from 08h30 -– 16h30

Visiting the Library

Members of the public, learners and students are welcome to use the Library for research purposes. Photocopying facilities are available. Please make an appointment if you wish to visit the Library.

How to contact us

Tel: +27 (0)12 843 5040/42 or email The Librarian.

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