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Enlightenment plants

Botany, horticulture and the Enlightenment

Botany as an independent discipline

Modern plant science can be attributed in large part to Aristotle’s student Theophrastus at the Athenaeum in Athens. His curiosity about plant form, function, and geography, as well as utility, had, following the collapse of the classical world fallen back, for 1,200 years, onto its former preoccupation with the medicinal properties of plants.


Jardin des plantes

Plan of the Jardin des Plantes in 1820
Plate 37 from Gabriel Thouin’s Plans raisonnés de toutes les espèces de jardins
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Accessed 16 May 2017


Viewed from the 21st century it hard to grasp that at the time of Columbus in the 15th century there was no credible alternative to the explanation of the origin of the world than that given in Genesis which traced the cradle of humanity to the Garden of Eden. Columbus shared the medieval view that the bible was literally true and that the garden of Eden existed: in fact he was convinced he had found it on his third voyage in 1498. Undoubtedly one aspect of the creation of impressive gardens at this time was the evocation of a terrestrial paradise.[10]

With the arrival of the Renaissance came botanic gardens which were essentially secular institutions. The Orto botanico di Pisa (est. 1545) was founded by by Cosimo de’Medici and curated by physician-botanist and later professor Luca Ghini (1490–1556), the most eminent of the Italian educators and physicians of the day attempting to reform the dubious assertions of the apothecaries by educating students using living plant collections while also creating what was possibly the first herbarium (hortus siccus) of dried plants preserved by pressing them between pieces of paper; Padua (est. 1543) is generally taken as the first true Botanic garden and was founded by the Venetian Republic; Leiden (1587) by its municipal magistracy.[11]

With the revival of classical learning in the early Renaissance a more general interest in plants was revived.The gradual separation of botany from medicine that had begun in the universities of Italy in the mid 15th century continuing through the Renaissance and Enlightenment as both medicine and botany divested themselves of the trappings of herbalism. In a plant world dominated by herbalism, magic, religious ritual, and traditional Plant lore the Enlightenment appeal to reason supported by experience was indeed a challenge but there was an increasing skepticism for herbalism that could not be supported by empirical evidence. Eventually we see the emergence of the word ‘botany’ as by the mid 17th century the study of plants was becoming a study in its own right, quite separate from its medicinal origins.

A penetrating portrait of the world of plants in the 18th century is painted by William Stearn in his Botanical Gardens and Botanical Literature of the Eighteenth Century in which he writes:

‘ … here, attention is narrowed to the development and influence of a few botanic gardens, since in their history and in the achievements of the men associated with them can be traced most of the botanical history of the 18th century … increase in the number and diversity of living plants available for study was the most important single factor affecting eighteenth century botany’[1]


Botanophilia See Botanophilia.

Carl Linnaeus

A single figure dominates this period of natural history, Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778), sometimes called Carl von Linné after his ennoblement in 1761). Undoubtedly the Enlightenment’s most illustrious naturalist (he coined the name Homo sapiens) he was, in contrast to many of the urbane gentlemen scientists of his day, a man of humble origins. One of his visitors described him as follows:

‘a somewhat aged man, not tall, with dusty shoes and stockings, markedly unshaven and dressed in an old green coat[19] [He was a ] ‘slovenly, argumentative little man who even admonished the queen herself… (he had) … a surly self-confidence … a provincial who spoke only vernacular south Swedish and lacked culture’.[20]

He was essentially self-taught and from 1728 to 1731 he was a guide in the Uppsala botanic garden.[21] As a Lutheran he firmly believed in natural theology – that the pattern and structure he was creating in his classifications was simply the revelation of the work of nature’s divine creator, and that divinely created species were unchanging.[22]

In about 1730 the young Swede Linnaeus was planning the reformation of botany, his theoretical foundations for the subject being published as Fundamenta Botanica (1736) and Critica Botanica (1737) which later matured into Philosophia Botanica (1751) which reprinted 10 times in Latin and was translated into English, Dutch, Spanish, German, French and Russian. The practical application of his ideas was his highly esteemed Genera Plantarum (1737), the 12 editions of his Systema Naturae which consisted of 11 pages in the first edition of 1735 expanding to 1,400 pages in 1768, and his global flora, the Species Plantarum of 1753. Linnaeus was undeniably the great biological encyclopaedist of the day, although there were other contenders, but his grasp of the content of the organic world indicates the knowledge of his day. At that time science recognized only about 10,000 species of organisms (about 6,000 plants and 4,236 animals).[23] Even in 1753 he believed that the total number of plant species in the world would hardly reach 10,000 and in his whole career he assembled the names of 7,700 species of flowering plants.[24] In 1735 he estimated that all the animal and plant species on Earth numbered about 40,000.[25] His major contribution to natural history was Systema Naturae (12 editions published between 1735 and 1768), the full title in translation being System of nature through the three kingdoms of nature, according to classes, orders, genera and species, with characters, differences, synonyms, places. In this book Linnaeus presented a hierarchical classification of the natural world, dividing it into the animal kingdom (Regnum animale), the plant kingdom (Regnum vegetabile) and the “mineral kingdom” (Regnum lapideum), the 10th edition being the starting point for zoological nomenclature. Here, for the first time was an efficient means of cataloguing the world’s organisms and, most importantly, one that was accepted by his peers. Botany was always his first interest and Species Plantarum (1753) was a compendium of all the plants known to him at the time of publication, remaining the starting point for plant nomenclature, meaning that the first names to be considered validly published in botany were those listed in this book and his Genera Plantarum ed. 5 (1753). These publications demonstrate perfectly the encyclopaedic and systematizing effort of the 18th century. Interestingly rural Swedes of his day used single-word names but Carl’s father had created the family name Linnaeus after the common name of the Linden tree.

The sexual system

One of Linnaeus’s major achievements was his classification system for plants known as the ‘sexual system’ (building on that of Joseph Pitton de Tournefort) which grouped plants according to their numbers of stamens and pistils. Plant sexuality had only just been accepted, the most influential taxonomic botanist preceding and strongly influencing Linnaeus, Joseph Tournefort, regarding stamens as excretory organs. It took the bawdy public lectures of Sébastien Vaillant, Plant Demonstrator at the Jardin du Roi in 1717 (published in 1718) to stir the garden’s students and indeed the botanical world into an acknowledgement of the role of stamen and pistil, even though in 1694 the German Jacob Camerarius, Director of the botanical gardens at Tübingen, had clinched the matter in a letter to a friend in 1694 when he wrote that from his experiments it had become evident that “no ovules of plants could ever develop into seeds from the female style and ovary without first being prepared by the pollen from the stamens, the male sexual organs of the plant”. There were a few botanical detractors who resisted his ‘artificial’ sexual classification system notably the de Jussieu’s of Paris who steadfastly pursued a natural system based on characters of resemblance and difference. Linnaeus himself acknowledged that his ideal classification system would be a natural one system, rather than a practical ‘artificial’ system (such as one based simply on flower colour) but he did not believe this would be possible in his lifetime. Though a few German botanists and the French at the Jardin du Roi continued to use their natural system elsewhere the simplicity and convenience of Linnaeus’s system won general acclaim even though, as he had predicted, the natural system would eventually hold sway beginning with the publication of Jussieu’s classification in 1789. Even the botanic garden at Montpellier had been replanted by Linnaean taxonomist Antoine Gouan to demonstrate the sexual system, producing in 1762 the first major French publication that was fully Linnaean in method and nomenclature, Hortus regius monspeliensis.[26]

Binomial nomenclature

Perhaps Linnaeus is best known for the system of binomial nomenclature. Until 1753 plant names consisted of short Latin descriptive phrases called polynomials. These phrases had two functions: firstly as a simple designation (label or name) and secondly, as a way of distinguishing one plant from another (a diagnosis). Linnaeus’s associated with the generic name an additional single word, what he termed the nomen triviale to designate a species, what is now called the specific epithet. Linnaeus did not invent the binomial system but he was the person who provided the theoretical framework that lead to its universal acceptance. The two words, the generic name and specific epithet together make up the species name. Linnaeus’s major achievement was not binomial nomenclature itself, which had been used before (though not universally – it was, after all, the way most people were named), but the separation of the designatory and diagnostic functions of names. He did this by linking species names to descriptions and the concepts of other botanists as expressed in their literature — all set within a structural framework of carefully drafted rules.

Linnaeus’s achievement

The strength of the Linnaean system was that it provided a standardised, simple, logical and transparent method for classifying, naming, describing and cataloguing organisms that was desperately needed at this time as specimens flooded in from the European colonies. Most importantly, its utility was acknowledged and admired by virtually the entire scientific community.

Botanical historian Alan Morton, though praising Linnaeus’s contribution to classification and nomenclature, draws attention to its theoretical limitations:


Linnaeus was the master of the botany of his time, and his influence on the development of botanical science powerful and lasting … his work demonstrated the success of his improved methods of description, diagnosis and nomenclature, and made detailed systematic observation the guide and criterion in taxonomy. … In his theoretical ideas, on the contrary, Linnaeus was a man of the past who never escaped from the restricting circle of idealist-essentialist thought in which his early high school training had confined him. This was the background to the contradictory statements in the Philosophia, to his narrow view of botany, his blindness to the advances in plant physiology and anatomy, (and) his unquestioning acceptance of special creation


Though a deeply religious man, his scientific scepticism was prepared to challenge the wisdom of his day, the following quote hinting at the theory of evolution to come in spite of the fact that Linnaeus held to the special creation of individual species:

Yet man does recognise himself (as an animal). But I ask you and the whole world for a generic differentia between man and ape which conforms to the principles of natural history, I certainly know of none… If I were to call man ape or vice versa, I should bring down all the theologians on my head. But perhaps I should still do it according to the rules of science. — Linnaeus Letter to Johann Gmelon (14 Jan 1747), quoted in Mary Gribbin, Flower Hunters (2008), 56.

Linnaeus’s system of classification followed the principles of Aristotelian logic which was taught in secondary schools all over Europe. Arranging things into classes was called classification, and the subsequent segregation of these classes was then called logical division. The group to be divided was the genus and the parts into which it was divided were the species. Genus and species were therefore terms from Aristotelian logic acquiring their specialized biological usage from Linnaeus’s predecessors, in particular John Ray and Tournefort. The binomial expresses both resemblance and difference at the same time — resemblance and relationship through the generic name: difference and distinctness through the specific epithet.

Botanical gardens and botanists of tropical floras and

The early period of scientific exploration in the Enlightenment, stimulated by the hunt for spices and other plants of economic and medicinal potential, aroused an interest in tropical floras culminating in publications like Reede’s Hortus Indicus Malabaricus (1678-1693) and Rumpf’s Herbarium Amboinense (1741). Prominent European botanic gardens were building a network of colonial satellite gardens that linked the Indo-Pacific and Caribbean regions. At first botanic gardens at Leiden and Amsterdam were pre-eminent in the period at the end of the 17th and early 18th centuries supported by a garden on the Cape of Good Hope. Bulbs had come in from Turkey and the Levant and later treasures from America. From 1679 to 1706 the administration of the Dutch East India Company was a rich one for horticulture European, especially under the botanically enlightened commandant Robert Gordon (1743-1795).[2] Early northern European precedents in Paris and Leiden had counterparts in England’s precursor to Kew Gardens, the Chelsea Physic Garden, under the brusque stewardship of Philip Miller, author of the most comprehensive catalogue of plants for the day, The Gardener’s Dictionary which was to evolve over the years into what was, effectively, a listing of all the cultivated plants known in the British Isles.

Director of the Leiden gardens Paul Hermann (1646-1695) brought in plant from the Indies, the Cape and America as well as developing an exchange with the Chelsea Physic Garden while his successor Leiden physician Hermann Boerhaave (1668-1738) (the most powerful and influential person in early 18th century medicine with many distinguished students) renewed ties with the Schönbrunn gardens. Although he became professor of medicine and botany, which meant that he also supervised the university botanical garden, sadly he only produced two botanical publications, lists of plants growing in the Leiden Botanical Garden. Quite simply, in the middle of the 18th century Holland was the centre of tropical botany.

But interest spread across Europes intelligentsia, royalty, and wealthy. Joseph II of Austria (following the plans of his parents Maria Theresa and Franz I) sent missions to explore the tropics and enhance the natural history collections at the Palace of Schönbrunn. Kew set up links between Sydney and London through the tropics and Caribbean (e.g. St Helena, St Vincent in the West Indies in 1764) …

Botanic gardens played a leading role in Enlightenment natural history, the most influential being associated with royalty in London, England (Kew Gardens at the end of the century), Paris, France (Jardin du Roi and Jardin des Plantes after 1789) and Berlin, Germany (Shönbrunn Palace). University gardens were still generally associated with medical faculties. New botanic gardens were founded at Göttingen (1754), Budapest (1771), Dublin (1806) and Harvard (1807), Geneva (1817) where Augustine-Pyramus de Candolle became Director.[13]

At the French Académie, world botany became the field for which Colbert authorised the most significant funding after cartography. After Cassini and Huygens, the botanist Claude Perrault received the highest annual pension from the Académie, while onsiderable sums were given to finance the programme of plant engraving by Nicolas Robert and Louis Claude Chastillon, which was supposed to culminate in the Académie’s major botanical project – a comprehensive Natural History of Plants.'(Jardine, p. 249) Expeditions were generously financed by Louis XIV.

The leisured European class of the seventeenth century spared no expense in maintaining their gardens that included hot-houses for tropical fruits like the pineapple that commanded both social presige and high prices. The first pineapples (introduced from Barbados c. 1661) produced in quantity in England were probably those in the garden of Matthew Decker a Dutch merchant of the English East India Company who lived in Richmond. This was a world of wealthy socialising based around gardens and cabinets and curiosities.

In England the names of the Tradescants, John Evelyn were well known along with Hans Sloane, John Ray, and Elias Ashmole and Sherrard. In teh 1680s at the weekly meetings of the Royal Society some admiration for Dutch horticultural expertise in the Orient, East Indies and Japan.

Dutch botany

Dutch botanists were among the first colonial scientists as during the Dutch Golden age strategic colonial outposts had been established in the East at Batavia in ? and at Cape Town in 1679 and? Later at Buizborg (Bogor) in 1817. An insight into the first stirrings of the world of botany and horticulture during this period is provided through the life of German-born Rumphius (Georg Rumpf, 1627-1702) who was employed by the Dutch East India Company to study the flora of the Moluccas. He arrived in Batavia in July 1653, moving to the Ambon archipelago in 1654. In 1657 became “junior merchant” on Hitu island, north of Ambon undertaking a study of the flora and fauna of these Spice Islands. His botanical reputation grew and earned him the title Plinius Indicus (Pliny of the Indies).

Rumphius is best known for his book Het Amboinsche kruidboek or Herbarium Amboinense (1741-1755), a catalogue of the plants of the island Amboinia, a book that provided the basis for future botanical studies of the Moluccan flora that is still referred to today. Despite the distance Rumphius was in communication with scientists in Europe and a member of a scientific society in Vienna. His work was completed before the universal acceptance of Linnaean binomial nomenclature. He provided illustrations and descriptions for nomenclature types for 350 plants, and his material contributed to the later development of the binomial scientific classification by Linnaeus.[2] Herbarium Amboinense finally arrived in the Netherlands in 1696. However, “””the East India Company decided that it contained so much sensitive information that it would be better not to publish it.” So it was not published until 1741, after his death.

Established in 1652 the botanic garden at the Cape had, by 1680 become one of the finest botanic gardens in the world the Dutch East India Company employing 54 male and female slaves to maintain crops of exotic fruits and vegetables as well as a beautifully presented collection of other rare and unusual species. Paul Hermann had by 1672 built up a large herbarium collection that was later acquired by Hans Sloane and between 1678 and 1693 the 12-volume Hortus Indicus Malabaricus (covering coastal southwest India) was published in Amsterdam.[38] A great effort was been made to explore the pharmaceutical and therapeutic properties of Asian plants but interest soon moved to garden ornamentals and curiosities as Germans Andreas Cleyer and George Meister (former gardener to the Duke of Saxony) joined forces in Java in 1677 to uncover botanical and horticultural rarities and fruit trees suitable for export to Europe. Travelling to japan they collected plants that were sent to the Cape botanical garden for acclimatisation, Meister returning Holland with nine chests of trees for the Amsterdam Botanical Garden established in 1682 and a show-case for plants collected by the Dutch East india Company including at one time over 200 species from the Cape. Imports also included Asian bulbs and hothouse plants in a specialist tradition that continues today.[Jardine, pp. 236 & 246] In 1685 the Cape Governor van der Stel had begun a Flora of the Cape illustrated by the skilled Silesian botanical artist Hendrik Claudius. A feature of this period was the secrecy associated with ideas and material and caution in dealing with political and commercial rivals.

Dutch botany had reached its zenith in the first third of the eighteenth century with the international fame of Johannes Burman (1707-1779) at Amsterdam and, especially, Herman Boerhaave (1668-1738) at Leiden. Both had living collections close at hand in the Amsterdam and Leiden botanical gardens which, at that time, were unsurpassed in numbers and quality. Holland was the European centre for publishing and printing and Dutch botanists were leading taxonomy with their discovery and description of the extra-European plant world. It was at this time that the young Linnaeus decided to go to Holland.[14]

Boerhaave recognized Linnaeus’s talent and potential. On Boerhaave’s recommendation Linnaeus moved to Holland, employed from 1736 to 1738 as physician to the household of George Clifford III. Clifford, who was a wealthy Dutch merchant banker and a director of the Dutch East India Company, is known for his keen interest in plants and gardens with a fine plant collection on his estate at Hartekamp where Linnaeus had proudly noted the first flowering in Europe of a banana in the 1730s(check). Many specimens from Clifford’s garden were also studied by Linnaeus for his Species Plantarum (1753) which established for all time the convention of binomial nomenclature for living organisms. The significance of the binomial system was that it formalized the classification and documentation of the world’s plants – their names, descriptions and literature – at a time when this had become a matter of great urgency.

Perhaps the most attractive of his many publications was Hortus Cliffortianus (1737) illustrated by Georg Dionysius Ehret.

Also, by this time the European craving for garden treasures to show off was underway. Linnaeus’s teacher, Hermann Boerhaave who was appointed a lecturer in medicine at Leiden University in 1701, stated in his Index Alter Plantarum as early as 1720:

“practically no captain, whether of a merchant ship or man-of-war, left our harbours without special instructions to collect everywhere seeds, roots, cuttings, and shrubs and bring them back to Holland”.

However, following the political and private fortunes of the times the fashions and extravagancies of Dutch cities were passed on the London, Paris and Vienna.

By 1770 the intellectual botanical centre had passed from Linnaeus in Uppsala to Banks’s Soho Square in London and the Jardin des Plantes in Paris.[15]

Colonial botanic gardens

With plants pouring in from scientific voyages of exploration focus was on the acclimatization of ornamental and crop plants. One of Europe’s most extensive collections of living plants in the early 18th century was held at the Chelsea Physic Garden under the Directorship of Philip Miller who produced the compendium Gardener’s Dictionary in 1731 (an encyclopaedia of garden plants that has continued in different form to this day as the New RHS Dictionary of Gardening). However, the Jardin du Roi was extremely popular in its well-attended public lectures in natural history and its close association with the royal cabinet/museum. By the latter half of the 18th century the royal gardens in Paris, under the control of André Thouin, and London, overseen by Joseph Banks, were developing networks of colonial botanic garden outposts concentrating on the acclimatization of economically important mostly tropical crops. Paris had outposts in the Mascarenes (Mauritius and Réunion, then Ile de France and Bourbon) Pamplemousses (est. 1735) on the Ile de France was a Paris garden specializing in plants from Africa and Asia and famous for its acclimatization of Brazilian manioc as food for plantation slaves. Also Saint Domingue and Guadeloupe. Focus was also on the French Caribbean. coffee was soon cultivated on Bourbon and by 1723 had reaches the Antilles but other crops included pepper, cinnamon and breadfruit. Major British gardens were established at St Vincent in the Caribbean (1765), St Helena in the Atlantic off the west coast of Africa as a stopping-station on the way to India (1787), Calcutta (1787). Spain sent a Royal Botanical Expedition led by Alejandro Malaspina using Mexico city as the scientific centre of its operations, opening a Royal Botanic Garden in 1788. Directors of these gardens were often highly skilled gardener botanists who produced catalogues of the gardens under their care and engaged international seed exchange.

Botany and commerce

While Australia was a latecomer European colonies at the end of the 18th century began the process of creation of their own scientific communities, programs and institutions. Colonial science had concentrated on exploiting whatever resources had been found. Gradually colonists joined the global scientific community of correspondence and specimen exchange, but in a distinctly supportive and subordinate role. Newly formed scientific institutions followed the European paradigm and were strongly focused on economic development.

The amiable science

Botany was not entirely the preserve of gentlemen botanists and academics associated with botanic gardens and museums. As part of the general popularisation of science botany, sometimes called the ‘amiable’ science, was more approachable for the general populace than the mathematics and difficult concepts of natural philosophy. A preoccupation with the natural, the rustic and cabinets or collections, no matter how modest, and the most popular books being on natural history resulted in a largely literary phenomenon of the latter part of the 18th century known as the cult of sensibility all contributed to Botanophilia. In its more extreme romanticized and sentimental form Rousseau’s highly successful novel Le Nouvelle Héloïse espoused a view of Nature as the source of the good, the beautiful, and the true, Rousseau himself taking up botany in later life speaking of it as a relaxing and congenial occupation. Rousseau, like Linnaeus, had a strong distaste for human interference with nature (God’s Creation) despising the double flowers that were used in horticulture. Linnaeus especially left no doubt about his views:

“anthophiles (flower lovers) … practice a floral science all their own, grasped only by their devotees; no botanist in his senses will enlist in their camp.” Linnaeus Philosophia Botanica (1751) Aphorism 310

“All the species recognized by Botanists came forth from the Almighty Creator’s hand, and the number now and always will be exactly the same, while every day new and different florist’s species arise from the true species recognized by botanists, and when they have arisen they eventually revert to their original forms.” Linnaeus Philosophia Botanica (1751), aphorism 310.

“Those double flowers one admires in flowerbeds are monsters deprived of the faculty of reproducing their own kind, which Nature has endowed all living things” Rousseau, letter to Mme Delessert (cited in Williams p. 95)

The fascination with plants captured the British working class through floriculture, horticulture and herbalism. Knowledgeable gardeners working for the gentry were highly respected and desirable.[8] Plant recognition was important to distinguish medicinal and poisonous plants. Botanical societies were especially popular in the early 19th century, and the meeting place was generally the pub.[9] However, books and their content were still the preserve of the more wealthy.

Botanophilia was a fusion of art and science, an insatiable desire for novelty that united earthy and practical horticulture with the intellectual science of botany in a celebration of beauty – what horticultural historian Richard Aitken has called ‘botanic gardening’ fed by ‘exotic botany’ Aitken 2012 p.81 – an Enlightenment thirst for knowledge coupled with the Romanticism of plants from distant lands and climes. It lay at the confluence of scientific Enlightenment thinking and in particular the detail of plant description, classification and nomenclature) together with Industrial Revolution technology associated with global navigation, greenhouses and stove houses and Wardian cases, along with the excitement associated with the commercial and political possibilities of colonial expansion.

Botany was not, however, wholly confined to taxonomy, classification, nomenclature, and description. Structureswere beingobserved more closely than ever before and basic questions were being asked about how they ‘worked’.

Plant sexuality and breeding

Though nomenclature, description and classification took precedence experimental botany was becoming a presence by tackling the principles of plant sexuality, the business of hybridization, and the process and significance of insect pollination. Theophrastus had noted the existence of ‘male’ and ‘female’ plants, remarking in his Enquiry into Plants, written over 2,300 years ago “Common to (all trees) is that by which men distinguish the male and female, the latter being fruit-bearing, the former barren in some kinds.” Englishmen Nehemia Grew in 1682 and John Ray in 1686, with an increasing interest in anatomy, expressed support for the idea of plant sexuality but it was German botanist Rudolf Camerarius (1665-1721) who in 1694 established experimentally that plants reproduce sexually, in a letter to a friend titled De Sexu Plantarum Epistola stated categorically that “no ovules of plants could ever develop into seeds from the female style and ovary without first being prepared by the pollen from the stamens, the male sexual organs of the plant”.[16] However, in 1717 a bawdy but scientifically perceptive lecture give by Sebastian Valliant at the Jardin du Roi was published and dispersed through the European medical world by Boerhaave’s medical students, and the theory at last gathered some traction.[17] Plant breeding for horticulture also added weight to these findings although there was a puritanical resistance to the idea of plant sexuality in the early 18th century especially evident in the attempt to protect young females from any discussion of plant sexuality.[18]

Plant physiology

Although the rudiments of experimental botany as anatomy and physiology were apparent in the 18th century they did not bear fruit until the 19th century. In the 18th century it was classification, nomenclature, description and illustration prevailed in the “Age of Taxonomy” as the new plants and other organisms poured into Europe for the eager public and natural scientists. (The simple scientific reality was that before you can experiment and investigate you need to decide on what you have got.) Underpinning this enterprise was the binomial nomenclatural system and procedures for descriptive botany that would be accepted across Europe had been set in place by Linnaeus. Knowledge and awareness of plants through the eyes of botanical science came via the dried specimens and drawings held by private collectors and through the living collections cultivated in botanic gardens. The earliest European botanic gardens are taken as founded in the 16th century for the instruction of medical students and they demonstrate how at this time there was no clear distinction between the studies of medicine, herbalism, pharmacy and botany. Certainly pride was attached to the acquisition of a diversity of plants within the collections and so in the 18th century the sphere of greatest influence moved from the gardens of southern Europe and their Mediterranean influence to western and northern Europe where the countries, notably the colonial empires of Holland, France and Britain were accessing plants from the Americas, Africa, Asia and, towards the end of the century, Australia. This acquisition of “curious, beautiful and new” plants attracted botanists, artists and their publications mostly in these institutions but to a lesser degree on private estates and in enterprising nurseries.

English clergyman Stephen Hales, elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1718, had published pioneering work in plant physiology on the flow of sap and water as well as measurements of the gaseous components of the air and the proposal that they could become “fixed” as solids, his best known work being his Vegetable Staticks of 1727. Later, the Dutch botanist Jan Ingenhousz demonstrated that it was only the green parts of plants that gave off “dephlogisticated air” (oxygen), Genevan clergyman and chemist Jean Senebier (1742-1809) relating the amount of oxygen released to the intensity of light exposure. Building on this work co-Genevan Nicolas-Théodore de Saussure in his Chemical Researches on Vegetation (1804) showed experimentally that carbon dioxide is emitted from plants in the light and the dark (respiration) and that absorption of carbon dioxide results in the “fixing” of carbon and release of oxygen, thus putting setting foundation stones in place on the long path to the demystification of photosynthesis. By analyzing plant ash he showed the basic chemical composition of plants to consist of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen and that the nitrogen in plants does not come from the atmosphere but is absorbed by the roots.


At the intersection of commerce, colonialism and scientific enterprise came the preoccupation with plant ‘acclimatisation’. Acclimatisation was the attempt to alter nature for human benefit, with the assistance of science as needed. Domestication had occurred in the Neolithic Revolution and plants and animals were certainly transported through the Greco-Roman world. Aristotle’s garden at the Athenaeum/Lyceum was an example of a garden of trophies taken over by Theophrastus and acting as an example for the physic gardens that wee to develop in the middle ages before the emergence of what are taken as the first botanic gardens in Pisa and Padua (high Renaissance Italy at that time dominated by economic centres in Venice, Genoa and Florence), the tradition then passing to western Europe. In the 15th century there was an exchange of animals and plants between the old and New World’s, known as the Columbian exchange. This marked the transport of organisms on an increasing scale. Linnaeus regarded his economic botany as his greatest contribution to science (ref) although he had not been very successful in his attempts at plant introduction (tea ?bananas).

The French acclimatization Society was formed a few years before the British Acclimatisation Society in 1860 followed rapidly by ?Mueller’s acclimatization society in the new colony. He hoped for the integration of exotic plants into the natural landscape.

Linnaeus, like many other botanists of his day was concerned with plant introduction and transportation around the world.

‘Nature has arranged itself in such a way, that each country produces something especially useful; the task of economics is to collect [plants] from other places and cultivate such things that don’t want to grow [at home] but can grow [there].’[27]

His first major collecting trip to Lapland was sponsored by the Royal Swedish Academy of Science and he was expected to search for any resources capable of economic development. Linnaeus and his students hoped that through ‘acclimatisation’ plants could be persuaded to grow almost anywhere.[28] Spary considered the focus on classification attributed to this period may have been subordinate to the broader issues of horticultural and agricultural improvement animal breeding and naturalization which were closer to government interests.[29] He achieved some distinction for flowering a banana plant in the Netherlands.

(This is mixed up – Frenchman Antoine Jussieu (1748-1836), who was Professor of Botany at the prestigious Jardin des Plantes maintained his support for a natural system (following the French tradition of Tournefort???) and his work, combined with that of his ?elder brother Bernard Jussieu now forms the foundation of modern plant classification.) Linnaeus was not a great traveller but 19 of his student ‘apostles’ (as he called them) served on voyages of discovery that all too often lead to disaster – but he maintained a special connection with New Holland through his students Dryander and Solander. Safe at home he constructed a lucrative career as a governmental adviser on voyages, collections, and colonial economies.[30] Voyager naturalists at this time could return to public acclaim and a lucrative career, often selling their collections. Banks was lionized on his return to England from New Holland, receiving a baronetcy and presidency of the Royal Society.

In the 18th century botany was becoming firmly established as a discipline independent from medicine and herbalism: “nature” was a keyword. It was a period in history enjoyed a period of unprecedented popularity, especially with the intelligentsia of Europe, a phase referred to by some authors as “botanophilia”.[31] The emergence of more efficient publishing houses that produced regional floras as opposed to material medica; the emergence of the “natural” rather than formal garden; emergence of the highest quality botanical and floral art; the movement for the protection of wild nature and abhorrence of deforestation. Thirst for knowledge of the natural world and its peoples beyond the confines of Europe. (Chinoiserie).

Agriculture & Forestry

The scientific development and later industrialization of agriculture was centred in Europe and primarily in England and France.


The stirrings of a new phase in the history of agriculture were gathering momentum in the 18th century. Rapidly increasing populations were demanding increasing diversity and improved productivity. Scotland was an early leader and its ideas followed on the continent but the link with science was weak, the most influential early work being by Jethro Tull (1674-1741) drawing on early Roman applied knowledge, his contribution including improved hoeing techniques and the invention of a seed drill. But there was need for an overhaul as he was, for example, opposed to manuring, knowledge of chemistry was lacking.[39] Seed exchange and plant acclimatization were part of this enterprise along with the founding, especially in the second half of the century, of important new agricultural institutions like the Societe d’Agriculture de Paris (est. 1761) as a hub for provincial associations, along with journals like the Journal of Agriculture; Commerce and Finance (1763-1783) and the Annals of Agriculture (1784-1815). In both Britain and France government became involved in agricultural improvement, the Board of Agriculture being formed in 1793. Between 1774 and 1789 French savants ascribed greater English prosperity to its superior agriculture.[40]


Among the first stirrings of modern conservation occurred during the enlightenment with the realization of the significance of the European forests for the welfare and standing of Euorpean powers. Britain had relied on its native forests for many years as a source of fuel and building material, not least of all for its ships, especially the straight trunks needed for the masts. And as the Industrial Revolution gathered momentum forest was cleared for agriculture. If Britain was to maintain its naval supremacy then it needed a reliable source of timber. Record-keeping was poor and before the 19th century.

In France Jean-Baptiste Colbert had prepared what became an ordinance in 1669 which defined the royal jurisdiction of waters and forests and was a pioneering work in forest conservation, the country being divided up into administered districts with a legal framework for resolving land disputes. Several eminent citizens including Buffon, who was especially concerned about the oak, explored on their own estates ways of conserving existing woodland and renewing those that had been depleted experimenting. Another outstanding figure was Duhamel du Monceau (an agronomist trained in botany by Bernard de Jussieu) whose two volume encyclopaedic 1755 work Traitédes arbres at arbustes qui se cultivent en France en plein terre is taken as the establishment of forestry science.[41]

It was mostly after the American Revolution that ornamental tree planting became directed towards the provision of timber for building and the navy. A garden and nursery was set up in New Jersey for the export of plants to France but with mixed fortunes. Botanist in charge was Andre Michaux whose son, François André , disappointed with the neglect of the project continued the project and managed to supply plants to Trianon, Malmaison and Cels. A Flanders botanist Gabriel-Antoine-Joseph Hécart in 1794-5 wrote an influential book outlining a plea to conserving forest exhorting more action in conservation in the face of rapidly diminishing supplies, urging the government to be more proactive, warning of the dispossession of the small by the large and the importance of connection with the soil, envisioning a “republic of yeomen”.[42] He specifically recommended government forest conservation; a halt on clearing; funding for experimentation with exotic trees; reward for successful acclimatization of useful trees. As a consequence of these concerns reforestation was indeed achieved in the 19th century in what historian Williams records as heartening achievement given “enlightened political leadership supported by sound scientific evidence”.[43]

Plant commentary & sustainability analysis

Influence of Dampier’s writing

Botanists become aware of their history and predecessors through the convention of giving them immortality by commemorating their colleagues (the same person often commemorated many times) in plant names. Early botanical history is, for example, laid out in the genus names like Dampiera, Banksia, Flindersia, Brunia, Goodia, Lechenaultia, Billardiera, Guichenotia, Burtonia, Caleana and so on – or in specific epithets like Araucaria cookii, Macrozamia riedlei. The description of new species also entails a thorough research of the literature related to nomenclatural history. One interesting phase of Australian botanical history was the description of new species grown from plants in cultivation in European gardens. (All early description occurred in Europe: it was only with Mueller that Australia established its botanical independence from Europe).

“One can link Linnaeus through his student Solander and the Fosters to Humboldt and the founding of biogeography, through Solander, Robert Brown, and Humbolt to Darwin, Joseph Hooker, Huxley, Wallace, and the establishment of the theory of evolution.” Stearn 1959, p. 20. Similarly we have seen the close connection between botany and horticulture, nurseries and botanic gardens, even the Royal Society and English House of Parliament all linked by the exchange of living and dried plants.

Indeed, Linnaeus had even suggested that the new southern continent be called Banksia to commemorate Banks’s scientific work.[32]

Labillardiere’s friend Desfontaines, at Le Jardin du Roi in Paris in 1786 gave three public lectures on botany a week, attended at the height of botanophilia by an audience of 500 to 600 people.[33]

Dampier’s scientifically detailed yet unpretentious accounts roused popular interest in the southern continent throughout the century and probably a contributing factor to the English interest in the Pacific leading to the discovery and settlement of eastern Australia.

Dampier’s journal describing the natural history of the western coast was the first general account of the Australian landscape although several of the Dutch sailors had made casual observations on flora and fauna. His navigational legacy was small compared to that of the early Dutch sailors whose reports remained largely hidden in company archives – while his writings and natural history collections caught the European imagination.[34]

Dampier’s writings proved bestseller travel literature and the romantic inspiration for Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) (Lilliput was set in the Nuyts Archipelago – see Pearson. Swift makes Gulliver a cousin of Wilkliam Dampier) and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719)., and even Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem The Rime of The Ancient Mariner. His writing being of “exceptional clarity and unaffected simplicity of style … combined with natural eloquence … accurate observation …”[35] and there were seven editions of his works by 1727. The second volume was published in 1699. His accounts of the Roebuck expedition were published in 1703 and 1709. To these must be added his unfortunate account of the 1703 fiasco, Capt. Dampier’s Vindication of his Voyage to the South Seas in the Ship St George (London, 1707).

(Dampier’s second voyage of 1699 marked the start of botanical discovery when specimens were collected and returned to England for formal botanical description using a naming system that pre-dated the Linnaean binomial system but much greater attention was given to the botanical treasure returned to England by Banks and Solander on Cooks first circumnavigation of the world).

?His specimens were not worked on until 1813-1851 Wm Baxter at the Oxford Botanic Gardens.

(This is shown on the Chart of the Malay Archipelago, which contains all the Dutch discoveries to 1628, including the coastlines of western and southern Australia.)
From the start Australia has had a special place for botany.

Both Baudin and Cook had read Dampier’s work.

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