From The Library: Two Botanical Treasures

This article follows on from the talk I gave back in March 2018, based on a random selection of the wonderful botanical illustrations to be found in our library. Here are two more illustrated books that I researched back in 2019.  The first is a 17th century translation of the works of a highly influential botanist from the ancient world and the second by a Scottish pioneer in plant classification.

In 2018 I started my talk by giving a very short history of early examples of botanic illustration and the first person I mentioned was Theophrastus (c 371 BC – c 287 BC). Well, guess what, we have an illustrated copy of one of his works!  

He was a Greek native of Eresos in Lesbos (aka Theophrasti Eressi) and became famous as Aristotle’s successor in the Peripatetic school of ancient Greece. In Aristotle’s will he made Theophrastus the guardian of his children.

Theophrastus wrote many “books”, but his main efforts were to continue the work of Aristotle in Natural History. Theophrastus was so important in this respect that he was named the “Father of Botany” by Linnaeus. These two pictures show the sculpture of Theophrastus in the entrance to Orto Botanic Garden in Palermo and a painting of Aristotle with two of his disciples, Theophrastus and Strato of Lampsacus.

Surprisingly through repeated copying over time, two of his botanical works have survived and were a very important influence from antiquity through the middle ages and on to the renaissance:

  • “Enquiry into Plants” (Historia Plantarum)
  • “On the Causes of Plants” (De causis plantarum)

Our copy of Historia Plantarum was published in Greek and Latin in 1644 in Amsterdam. The first translation into Latin was undertaken by Theodore Gaza at Treviso in 1483.

The reason this book was so important was that it was the first systematic classification of plants according to their modes of generation, their localities, their sizes, and their practical uses such as foods, juices and herbs. It was originally a compendium of 10 books, of which 9 have survived.

This is a photo of the frontispiece of our book:

The 1st “book” deals with the parts of plants; 2nd reproduction of plants; 3rd – 5th trees; 6th shrubs and spiny plants; 7th herbs; 8th plants that have edible seeds; 9th plants that produce useful juices, gums, resins.

The woodcut illustrations in this 1644 edition have been added to Theophrastus’ text along with enhancing notes by two botanists of the time. As an example of the level of detail of the illustrations, I have chosen to show Myrrh and Geranium robertianum known as herb-robert, a common species of cranesbill.

My second book was written by the Scottish botanist and taxonomist, Robert Morison (1620 – 1683).

He described and developed the first systematic classification of plants, long before Linnaeus.

He appears to have had a very rich fulsome life. He was an outstanding scholar, gaining his M.A. from Aberdeen University at the tender age of 18. During the English Civil War, he joined the Royalist Cavaliers and was seriously wounded at the 1639 Battle of the Bridge of Dee, near Aberdeen. Once he recovered, he fled to France as soon as it became apparent that the Royalist cause was lost.

In 1648 he gained a doctorate in Medicine from the University of Angers, and then devoted himself to the study of botany. This he undertook in Paris under the guidance of Vespasien Robin, the botanist to the King of France. These Royal connections were handy as he soon became the Director of the Royal Gardens at Blois, remaining there for 10 years.

Following the Restoration, he returned to England in 1660 and became the Physician to Charles II as well as his botanist and the superintendent of all the Royal Gardens. These duties came with a salary of £200 per annum, and a free house.

Many years earlier, in 1621, Henry Danvers, Earl of Danby, had given Oxford University £250 for land for a “Physic Garden”. At the same time, Danvers bequeathed “certain revenues” to fund a chair in Botany at the university. In 1669 Morison became the first Professor of Botany, a post that he held until he died.

In 1660, he had published “Praeludia Botanica”, which stressed the use of structure of a plant’s fruits for classification. At that time, classification was focused only on the habitat and medicinal properties of the plant and Morison’s criticism of systems promoted by other botanists caused some anger among his contemporaries.

As can be seen from this photo of the frontispiece, our book is his “Plantarum Umbelliferarum Distributio Nova”, published in 1672. This is the first publication ever written of a “Monograph of a specific group of plants”, the Umbelliferae. This is a family of aromatic flowering plants with the defining characteristic being the flowers, which are aggregated in terminal umbels, which may be simple or more commonly compound.

My first illustration is of Foeniculum florens, or the Florence fennel and the second is Daucus carota, or wild carrot.

Morison was fatally injured by the pole of a carriage as he was crossing the street in 1683 and died the following day. His opus magnum, the “Historia Plantarum Universalis Oxoniensis” remained unfinished, with only one volume published in 1680 detailing fifteen classes of his classification system. It was entrusted by Oxford University to Jacob Bobart the Younger who published a second and final instalment of the Historia in 1699 dealing with the remaining ten sections of herbaceous plants.

Stephen Lyus

March 2021