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Plant knowledge

By ‘plant knowledge’ is meant the totality of our plant collective learning.

No matter how diffuse, abstract, and ill-defined it might be, we can imagine a theoretical totality of human plant knowledge. This sum of plant collective learning can then be usefully divided into what might be called ‘traditional’ plant knowledge, and ‘academic’ plant knowledge.

Plant knowledge did not begin with modern science.


Traditional plant knowledge is general plant know-how that exists in many forms, many languages, and often locally based. We must imagine, for example, that hunter-gatherers, possessed intimate and detailed knowledge of the distribution, kinds, and properties of the plants that they encountered on their perambulations but that their knowledge was largely of a local nature.


Academic plant knowledge (for our purposes) is plant knowledge that has been organized in a systematic way within an educational system and institutions like schools, colleges, and universities whose curricula can, in principle, be accessed by a wide range of people across the world. This is, as it were, communally and financially sanctioned.

Historically there has been expansion of the academic sector as the study of plants has broadened to include more plant kinds and more plant relations. It has also, to a degree, progressively supplemented and superseded historical traditional knowledge.

Plant study today

If you are a student who is passionate about plants then you are entitled to ask ‘What would constitute a well-rounded study of plants in the 21st century?’

To answer such a question we need a conspectus of plant knowledge and an opinion about educational priorities for the classroom and lecture theatre . . . a brainstorming of plant knowledge.

A good starting point is with the history of plant study as it has been pursued in academia. How has plant study evolved through history?

The history of scientific plant study is discussed elsewhere on this web site but a brief summary here will provide an overview of the academic landscape.

So far as we can tell from the historical record, there was a spark of enlightened plant thinking generated in the university-like Lyceum of ancient Athens. However, this nascent scientific impulse detoured into religion for well over 1000 years.[1]

Modern plant study began with the appointment of plant professors who were appointed in the mid-16th century to the medical faculties of universities during the Italian Renaissance. This launched a phase of descriptive botany that immersed itself in plant kinds and structures (nomenclature, description, classification, and general inventory). This lasted for about 200 years before supplementing these studies with the experimental study of plant processes and functions better referred to as plant science. These were all studies of plants themselves. But plants do not exist in isolation.

It took until the 19th century before academic studies looked beyond plants themselves to their wider relationships, notably the relations between plants and people, and plants and the environment.

Some of the key factors in the history of plant ideas are:

Scale – The extension of human senses through the use of technology (microscopes, scanning electron microscopes, computers, gene sequencers etc.) – and its influence on our perception of both the natural world, ourselves, and the appropriate subjects for study and research
Structure and Function –The transition from description of structure (botany) to experimentation investigating function (plant science)

There is a dialectic of structure and function, description and experimentation, analysis and synthesis (categories and systems), and the micro- and macro- scales as influenced by the history of technology.

No study of plants could be complete without the knowledge we have gained from the descriptive and experimental analytic tradition that had, by the mid- 20th century, solved, in principle, the great mysteries of plant structure and function. By the 21st century investigation and explanation were moving away from analysis towards synthesis – to the role of plants within their planetary environment and as influenced by their greatest interactor, human beings. The study of plants began with plants themselves but in the 21st century we find plants themselves of no great concern – it is their role within their wider environment, the web of their connections and interactions, that we now need to understand and explain.

Knowledge organization and library science

Scale in all studies

Plants in relation to plants

Structure (morphology)

Plant structure encompasses the categories that we use to describe plant form. The aspects from which it is studied are external and internal including its variation across the plant kingdom both now and as it has varied in the course of evolutionary history (comparative morphology). The number of terms for plant structure has multiplied over time as the hierarchy of size scales has expanded with advances in technology, each having its own terminology that is grafted onto the initial canon of terms naming external structures discernible to the naked eye.

                  Molecular (biochemistry, genomics, proteomics)

Function (physiology)

While morphology deals with the categorization of plant parts, physiology describes and categorizes plant processes, usually understood as functions (purposes). Both morphology and physiology are applied to different scales (sizes) and times. In simple terms, physiology describes what plant parts (morphology) ‘do’. Those physiological plant processes studied in detail by scientists, notably what regulates them, include: development, reproduction, photosynthesis (pigments), respiration, transpiration (water relation), nutrition, hormones, tropisms, nastic movements, photoperiodism, circadian rhythms, germination, and dormancy. To this may be added plant pathology.

Physiological explanations usually entail categories relating to relatively smaller scales.

Plant physiology has an important place in the history of plant study for two major reasons. Firstly, it drew attention to the fact that much of plant physiology was the study of plants in relation to their environments – facilitating the extension of plant study beyond plants themselves to include their relationship to the environment (18th to 19th century). Secondly, progress in understanding plant physiology had many beneficial consequences for humanity when it was applied to agriculture which was now added to academic study through the field of agricultural science (19th century on). Synergistic advances in genetics, plant physiology, and technology have powered agriculture through several Green Revolutions. The linking of plant studies to agriculture was a much belated historical development that was a key academic link (among others) that now connected plants to human activity.

Plants in relation to people

Pure & Applied Science

At the Lyceum in ancient Athens Aristotle had encouraged the study of the natural world for its own sake, not just as a way of gaining more benefits for humanity. His exhortation would bear fruit by encouraging the kind of curiosity that would lay the foundations for future science. Though the Modern Era Scientific Revolution would criticize him for his emphasis on deductive logic rather than inductive experimentation, it was Aristotle’s sentiments that expressed the detached curiosity that is the hallmark of the Western scientific tradition.

Though the science used to understand our human (applied) relations to the natural world was no different, in principle, from any other science, it carried the taint of human interest – it was not ‘pure’ science. This was unfortunate as ‘applied’ scientific studies (with a few notable exceptions, like medicine) were not willingly accepted into academia until the 19th century.

Two subjects stand out in the debate over pure and applied science – medicine and agriculture. Medicine is of interest because it illustrates the way that botany, as a scientific discipline, emerged out of an applied scientific study. Agriculture is of special interest because, since it provides human sustenance, might be intuitively regarded as the most obvious candidate for scientific scrutiny. The reason was probably that the educated academic class was more closely associated with medicine, not the workers who toiled in the fields (this is discussed elsewhere).

For whatever reason, agriculture did not emerge as an academic science until the mid- 19th century.

Agriculture, horticulture, forestry



Though gardens and gardening, in the modern form and sense, date back to the Bronze Age cities of antiquity, the academic study of horticulture, as horticultural science, was a late arrival in academia.

Gardening achieved social status in the West through the foundation of the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), in 1804 as the Horticultural Society of London, an organization that has continued to provide gravitas for garden enthusiasts around the world. The International Society for Horticultural Science was established in 1864 but only formally constituted in 1959.


However already in the 5th century, monks in the then Byzantine Romagna on the Adriatic coast, were able to establish stone pine plantations to provide fuelwood and food. Starting from the 1750s modern scientific forestry was developed in France and the German speaking countries in the context of natural history scholarship and state administration inspired by physiocracy and cameralism. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, forest preservation programs were established in British India, the United States, and Europe. Over the past centuries, forestry was regarded as a separate science. With the rise of ecology and environmental science, there has been a reordering in the applied sciences. In line with this view, forestry is a primary land-use science comparable with agriculture.[28] The first dedicated forestry school was established by Georg Ludwig Hartig at Hungen in the Wetterau, Hesse, in 1787, though forestry had been taught earlier in central Europe, including at the University of Giessen, in Hesse-Darmstadt.

In Spain, the first forestry school was the Forest Engineering School of Madrid (Escuela Técnica Superior de Ingenieros de Montes), founded in 1844.
The first in North America, the Biltmore Forest School was established near Asheville, North Carolina, by Carl A. Schenck on September 1, 1898, on the grounds of George W. Vanderbilt’s Biltmore Estate. Another early school was the New York State College of Forestry, established at Cornell University just a few weeks later, in September 1898. Early 19th century North American foresters went to Germany to study forestry. Some early German foresters also emigrated to North America.
In South America the first forestry school was established in Brazil, in Viçosa, Minas Gerais, in 1962, and moved the next year to become a faculty at the Federal University of Paraná, in Curitiba.[34]

Plants in relation to the environment

Studies of plant physiology, perhaps more than those of morphology, drew attention to the glaring fact that plants do not exist in isolation, their form and function are a consequence of circumstances existing outside themselves. Though obvious to common collective learning, this obvious fact was not acknowledged by academia until the 19th century.

The word ecology was coined by Ernst Haeckel in 1866 and although people like von Humboldt can be regarded as pioneering plant geography and stimulating the more detailed studies of organism-environment interaction that we associate with today’s ecology did not eventuate until the early 20th century.

August Grisebach’s two-volume work Die Vegetation der Erde nach Ihrer Klimatischen Anordnung (1872), saw plant geography reach its “ultimate form” as a descriptive field. The first ecology textbooks, Eugenius Warming’s Plantesamfund (published in 1895) and Andreas Schimper’s 1898 Pflanzengeographie auf Physiologischer Grundlage. It was essentially Warming who successfully incorporated plant morphology, physiology, and biogeography into plant geography to create the new scientific discipline of plant ecology.

Ecology too can be studied at different scales and can be regarded as a continuation of plant description extending beyond the individual:


Biophysics, biochemistry, bioinformatics, physiological ecology, phylogenetic systematics and so on

First published on the internet – 26 May 2021


Image 1 – Biomes of the World
World vegetation – ignoring human influence

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons – Sten Porse – Accessed 26 May 2021


Image 2 – Anthromes of the World
Anthropogenic biomes datasets describe potential natural vegetation, biomes, as transformed by sustained by human population density and land use including agriculture and urbanization. Anthropogenic biome categories (Anthromes) are defined by population density and land-use intensity. The data consists of 19 anthrome classes in six broad categories.
See image for attribution

Biomes of the World
World Anthromes
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