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History of plant science


Among the histories and commentaries on botany can be listed those of E.F.H. Meyer (1854), J. Sachs (1865), R.J. Harvey-Gibson (1919), E. Hawks (1928) and H.S. Reid (1942). For more contemporary accounts there are  the excellent syntheses by Englishman A.G. Morton (1981) and American E.L. Greene (1983).

There is now a clear need for a new historical synthesis that includes scientific developments post-1950 . . . on the one hand the various developments and new disciplines emerging out of ecology and the global environmental movement and, on the other, the advances coming out of evolutionary biology, molecular biology, and gene technology.

The topic of plant science must include at least: an account of the men and women who have made an impact on the subject; the formal institutions that have promoted its interests; the impact of the science on the world;  the place of the subject within the changing social, economic, and environmental context. Some of these topics are treated separately on this site.

This article here is a brief introduction and overview of the topic: it draws heavily on the Morton history, also the Wikipedia article History of Botany for which I was the major author – see that article for additional referencing.

For an account of Theophrastus’s life and work see Theophrastus. For a chronological account of the people contributing to plant science see People of plant science and a list of plant people of Australia (not just those associated with plant science). For an examination of the notion of plant science see plant science and for a summary of early Plant literature.

The study of plants

Plants are an integral part of our daily lives – of the food we eat, the materials we use, and the air we breathe . . . so they are important to all of us, and in this sense we are all students of plants.

Hunter-gatherers knew far more than us about the plants that grew around them . . . they knew which of them could be eaten, used as medicine, or fashioned into tools and structural materials: they knew where they were growing, how they responded to environmental conditions, and what they were called. Much of this general knowledge they had acquired by trial and error, which is hardly different from experiment and observation. So were hunter-gatherers plant scientists?

This question is addressed in some detail in two articles: ‘What is science?’ and ‘What is plant science?’

Universal plant knowledge

For the purposes of this article we can define science as a system of progressive and cumulative shared knowledge that proceeds by the refinement (using logic, experiment and observation) of the categories we use to understand and explain the natural world. If such a definition is accepted then it becomes clear that, in the course of human history, plant knowledge was at first the local knowledge of individual communities of people. Certainly some knowledge would be shared through trade and other forms of social interaction but a major advance was made with the invention of writing which enabled the storage and improvement of collective knowledge, provided languages could be translated. Gradually through history more and more plant knowledge has been shared by larger and larger groups of people and new words have been constantly invented to denote new categories as knowledge has been extended and the study of plants has been divided into sub-disciplines.

The path of plant knowledge

Knowledge builds on knowledge that already exists. The more knowledge there is, the greater the number of possible directions that it can take. We can imagine the limited and seemingly inevitable path of plant knowledge by making the initial assumption that what counts as true knowledge is agreed common ground. To establish this common ground we need a universal system of names, so that for each kind there is one name that is understood by everyone (nomenclature). To simplify the way we access and manage all these names we need a way of grouping all the different kinds (classification). And if we are to make comparisons then we need descriptions (description). But to provide descriptions there needs to be a common language, that is, terms that refer to common characteristics, mostly those of structure or physical parts (terminology for morphology). Together these universal features make up what today we know as taxonomy: nomenclature, classification, description, and terminology – at this stage relating only to gross morphology.
It took humanity up to the 19th century to get this far. Clearly one measure of a subject being called a ‘science’ is its use of categories of explanation that are universally acceptable within a scientific community.

This did not, however, occur sequentially with first the names, then the classification and so on. Rather there were various improving attempts at all of these together, although we do need names at a very early stage. We find the first plant lists in the papyri of ancient Egypt. Already rudimentary science was underway as the lists included synonymy, different names used for the same plant.

Utilitarian human-centred plant study

There are, nevertheless, several historical changes that deserve special mention. For most of human history, and for most people, human interest in plants related directly to self-interest. We want to know how we can use plants to our own advantage.

So far as we can tell, the first clearly recorded time when humans studied plants for their own sake was at the Lyceum of Theophrastus in ancient Athens.

Among the categories of plant science that have proliferated over time are the units (species) out of which the plant kingdom is comprised (units of nomenclature), the ways these units are grouped (classification or taxonomy), the structures of which these units are comprised (morphology, histology, anatomy, cytology, ultrastructure, biochemistry, and molecular biology) and the function that these structures serve (physiology, plant reproduction, plant evolution), the changes that plants have undergone from their time of origin on Earth (evolutionary biology, palaeontology), the changes that occur during growth and development in the course of a single generation (embryology, plant development), and the relationship between plants and their environments (ecology, plant geography).

From the mid twentieth century there have been an increasing number of plant studies relating to the impact of humans on plants (plant conservation, plant globalization, sustainability, weed science).

This article is about the history of plant science while the article on plant science people is a strictly chronological listing of influential plant scientists, the countries and cities where they lived and worked (using modern names) and a brief account of their work.

Following the emergence of plant science at the Lyceum of Theophrastus in ancient Athens the world of plant learning would be subsumed once again by medicine for about 2000 years. Botanical historian Alan Morton selects the year 1483, when Theophrastus’s works became available once more during the revival of learning we call the Renaissance. Perhaps the date could be set nearly a hundred years later when botany was distinguished from medicine by the appointment of professors of botany (Praefectoria simplicia) in the medical faculties of universities in Renaissance Italy of the early sixteenth century. These academic positions were associated with medicinal plant collections, and soon began specializing in plant nomenclature, classification and description to become modern era botanic gardens as the focus of plant research and learning. This was the century of Newton and the Scientific Revolution when philosophy fragmented into natural philosophy and natural science.

During the Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries Copernicus had finally replaced the classical Ptolemaic view of the Earth as the centre of the solar system, Galileo had resisted religious dogma, and medicine had become more empirically based. Englishman Francis Bacon (1561-1626) in his Novum Organum (1620) attacked Aristotelian deductive logic and Aristotle’s preoccuption with final cause and teleology as the basis for scientific procedure, , observation, and experimentation. Supernatural perceptions of the physical world were being discarded as alchemy was transformed into modern chemistry, numerology into mathematics, and astrology was becoming more like modern astronomy. Old ideas from antiquity – of four humours (Galen), the four fundamental earthly elements of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water ( and four causes (Aristotle) were being replaced by a perception of the world as mechanistic cause and effect.

The development of botany, like the development of science in general, occurred within a social context. Listing the diversification of subject-matter along with the geographic location of its origin helps indicate the way commercial, cultural, and intellectual centres moved around Europe before moving overseas from the 15th century on. This Eurocentric perspective on these events is, in a broad sense, a consequence of the global distribution of political power but, more specifically, it indicates the sites where shared plant knowledge was being accumulated. There is no question that north American Indians and Australian Aboriginals possessed extensive local plant knowledge and experience, far more than the average European, and that the study of plants was also well advanced in the great Asian civilizations of India and China. But the written accumulation of plant knowledge on an intercontinental scale was an activity undertaken by Europeans with global interests. The historical development of plant science tracks the historical movement of centres of trade and learning first around Europe where economic and other resources were available to an academic or leisured intellectual class, and subsequently to colonial settlements and beyond.

 From the nineteenth century there has been a proliferation of disciplines relating to plant study. This is part of the refining process of plant study involving specializations of many kinds including many hybrid subjects like physiological ecology, molecular systematics, developmental morphology and so on, to the point where making an extended list has little value. The particular disciplines listed below are a selection of major ones among many.

Science occurs within a social context: it requires a community of like-minded individuals who can work together towards common goals. This is greatly facilitated by shared written symbolic languages, like mathematics.

In prehistory knowledge was passed on in an oral tradition except perhaps that possessed by shamans or religious leaders. However, with the Neolithic Revolution and the advent of writing and a social division of labour specialist plant knowledge became the possession of the few. agriculture entailed a profound change in the relationship between humans and the natural world, entering a phase of co-evolution with the man-altered world of domesticated plants and animals. Day-to-day use of plants in agriculture or for structural material and ornament would have been the concern of uneducated labourers, artisans, and people associated with various crafts. Specialist plant knowledge, especially that associated with medicinal properties and herbal lore, was the domain of a social elite – the priests, physicians, and apothecaries – literate people who required special training and who were likely to keep written records. Though perhaps not so evident today, plant science is still the product of specialist training and knowledge gained in educational establishments.

Names & descriptions

Chapter 4 of Harvey and Totelin’s Ancient Botany addresses the problems of plant names in antiquity. There is always the question of the plant’s true identity.[13] This is complicated by several factors: synonymy (many names for the same plant); multilingualism (though Greek served as a lingua franca names also appeared in local Latin, Egyptian, Cappadocian etc.); homonymy (the same name applying to dfferent plants); anonymity (the absence of a name); pseudonym (false names used to obscure the true identity); phytonymy (the use of Latin in prelinnaean names not always corresponding with current botanical usage). The Greek murtos corresponds to the myrtle or Myrtus in botanical Latin but the Greek kaktos refers to a thistle, not the cacti that we know.

Names might not include descriptions, crops might have changed under selection, and time takes its toll: the names of Theophrastus are different from those of Dioscorides.

In spite of all this scholiasts (commentators on ancient or classical literature) have tackled the identitiy of plants in Homer and all ancient literature and authorities like Galen have attempted to identify the plants indicated in the names used by their predecessors so the botanical lexicon flourished in antiquity and Middle Ages.

The first botanist to use Linnaean binomials for plants listed in ancient texts was Kurt Sprengel (1766-1833) who used the famous 10-vol. Flora Graeca by Englishman John Sibthorp to identify plants listed in Theophrastus’s two works. Then came Julius Billerbeck’s Flora Classica (1824) followed by many more.

Practitioners – the evolution of the botanist

Shaman& medicine man

We can see the role of modern plant scientist in its earlist manifestation as the shaman-medicine-man of prehistory, a man of wisdom, knowledge, spirituality, spells, magic, potions, and incantations. As an intermediary between the human and spiritual realms much of his work would be concerned with health and plant-based medicines.


In Bronze Age civilizations the role of the medicine-man had become more priestly his activities performed mainly in a holy temple and as advisor-physician to the royal court.


The physician or his scribes would sometimes record lists of plants and their medicinal remedies, occasionally going so far as to record alternative names for plants in other known languages. Many of the world’s leading plantsmen, except in recent times, held the position of court physician. The administration of pharmacological medicine mediated by the apothecary and physician did not encourage botany since the apothecary would keep his various concoctions secret and the physician would be distanced from the plants themselves.

Herbalist-apothecary to pharmacologist-pharmacist

Through the Classical era of Greece and Rome it seems that the priesthood and spirituality associated with plants became more associated with practical medicine.

In Ancient Greece there was a class of rhizotomi that were renowned for their specialist knowledge of medicinal remedies. This kind of herbal or medicinal knowledge was a feature of cultures across the world at this time – also present in Indian and Chinese medicine.

At the time of the collapse of the Roman empire medicinal manuscripts – whose tradition dated back to the papyri of the third millennium BCE in ancient Egypt – were now becoming more extensive and detailed. By far the most lauded of the ancient authors was Dioscorides (c. 40 – 90 CE) whose Materia Medica would be the most hallowed plant text for sixteen centuries, first translated into Arabic, Greek and Latin and then, in the 16th century, into Italian, German, Spanish, French and English – the English version produced by botanists John Goodyer and John Heath over the period 1652 to 1655. Dioscorides’s work was re-written and slavishly copied again and again through the Middle Ages, treated as the definitive work on plants, like a holy text handing down the wisdom of the ancients. The the oldest known remaining version is the ‘Vienna Dioscorides’ produced in Constantinople, magnificently illustrated with 383 paintings of Mediterranean plants, and presented in 521 to Princess Juliana Anicia, daughter of the Western Roman Emperor Olybrius but now safely housed in the Austrian National Library.

Dioscorides’s work earned him the accolade ‘Father of Pharmacology’ a title that would have been more appropriately awarded to Hippocrates (c. 460 – c. 370 BCE) of Kos. Dioscorides was a Greek soldier with the Roman army

The medicinal tradition then passed to the medical school at Alexandria (the centre of learning in Hellenistic times and after) where its accumulated wisdom was synthesised in the works of Galen that would subsequently comprise the pharmacology taught in Western medical schools during the Middle Ages.

During the Roman Republic medical men were often slaves and essentially low-status faith-healers who worked as best they could with folk-medicine. Gradually Greek medical pracctitioners became established in Italy and the status of physicians rose when Julius Caesar gave citizenship to all immigrant medical practitioners who acquired wealth serving the socially influential. District physicians were also appointed in both the western and Byzantine empires which helped establish the profession within society. However, it was the pharmacology of Dioscorides, copied again and again with mounting errors and poorer illustrations that would persist through the Middle Ages, be taken up by the apothecaries who formulated and distributed medicines much like today’s pharmacist.

With the collapse of the Roman Empire botanical knowledge became focused in European monasteries where monks curated collections of medicinal plants, acting as apothecaries administering plant remedies to the lame and sick who were cared for in the monastery dormitories.

Through the Middle Ages apothecaries became increasingly associated with advance of medical learning and physic gardens associated with the new universities until, in the sixteenth century, came the appointment of medical professors directly associated with the curation of plants in the physic gardens that were used for teaching purposes. This marked the first return to plant study since the Lyceum of Theophrastus in ancient Athens. However, it would be over a hundred years before the medicinal aspects of plants would finally give way to the study of the plants themsleves and their relationships. With the proliferation of disciplines in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the old distinction between pure botany and the applied botany of horticulture and agriculture would break down as applied subjects made more and more use of scientific knowledge and methods.


Today the subject of plant science has diverged into so many subdisciplines that someone working with plants is unlikely to call themselves a botanist or plant scientist – more likely a plant physiologist, molecular systematist, ecologist, plant geneticist etc.

Plant institutions – Centres of Learning

Science and botany flourished in centres of civilization and trade that attracted intellectuals, encouraged written records, and provided the physical circumstances for academic endeavour. The history of learning thus tends to follow the political and economic history of those countries that could provide these resources. Historical centres of learning waxed and waned but in very simple terms we see the torch of enquiry passing from Bronze Age centres of intellectual activity in Egypt (Thebes, Luxor) and Mesopotamia (Babylon, Nineveh) moving to the Aegean (Crete, Mycenae), and then to Greece (Athens) and Rome in the Classical era.

In the classical era there were medical centres on the islad of Cos, also at Pergamum, Alexandria, Ephesus and Antioch which persisted as teaching centres and repositories of knowledge. To these were later added Constantinople and Edessa. With the advent of state medicine state-paid professors were appointed to teach in Rome. The first of these was Asclepiades (c. 40 BCE), a Greek practitioner who was an Epicurian and atomist. About 80 years later Cornelius Celsus (a scholarly source of medical information at this time) published the first Latin list of 250 drugs shortly followed by a list of 140 plants with both their Greek and Latin names published by Scribonius Largius. Much of the Roman medicinal knowledge was based on earlier Greek knowledge derived from medical centres in Sicily and Southern Italy. Roman medical centres with medical professors were subsequently established in other Italian cities and, later, other parts of the Empire such as Carthage, Saragossa, Marseilles, Bordeaux, Lyon and elsewhere. These provided some continuity with the medical schools of later universities.

The medical school at Salerno was a precursor to the universities of the 12th and 13th centuries. Though the Church was often associated with these new institutions, the early Italian universities had professors who were paid by the city. Medicine was one of the leading subjects and with this came the pharmacology based around plant medicines that was part of the curriculum. The trained doctors would, however, rely on the old herbals for information and apothecaries for their actual supply of the medicines.

The early Christian church hampered medical advance by discouraging any experimentation that did not glorify God, by its refusal of surgery, the collection and dissection of the human body, and by its insistance that illness was a form of divine punishment.

After a dark age following the collapse of the Roman Empire there was a Muslim Golden Age lasting from the seventh to the thirteenth centuries during which intellectual activity was centred in Baghdad, passing to southern Spain in Cordoba and Seville. With the dawn of the European Renaissance intellectual activity was supported by the affluent northern Italian city-states that included Venice, Florence, Genoa, Verona, Pisa and Padua. From Italy the Renaissance spread to north-west Europe passing with political and economic power to Spain (Cordoba, Seville, Toledo) and Portugal (Lisbon). Following a Dutch Golden Age centred in Leiden and Amsterdam there were the competing interests of Britain (academic centres in Edinburgh, London, Oxford and Cambridge) and France (mostly Paris but also Marseilles) with academic learning spreading to other European coutries and cities notably Germany (Berlin), before being dispersed to European colonial centres, first North America but later Australia, Tasmania, New Zealand, and elsewhere.

There is a continuity between the medieval monastic physic gardens and the physic gardens associated with the medical faculties of universities in the early Italian Renaissance. It is the appointment of botany professors rather than the character of the gardens that has fixed the establishment of modern botanic gardens to the mid-16th century. Hamburg claims a municipal Apothekengarten in 1316, Salerno in 1340. Francis Bonafides had a private garden of simples in Padua in 1533 (Hawks p. 146) the same year that the garden in Venice was probably established. Gesner’s garden at Zurich was established in 1560.

Nestorian medical centres at Edessa, Nisbis, Jundeshapur & Baghdad

Nestor was Archbishop of Constantinople from 428 to 431. He and his followers, driven out of Constantinople in 431 for their heretical views,  founded many schools and monasteries in Persian territory. They are now remembered for their translation of Greek and Latin philosophical texts into Persian and Syriac. Prominent among their monasteries was a medical school at Edessa (an early centre of Syriac Christianity), founded in the 4th century and a model for the later medical school at Salerno. Dissolved in 489 the Nestorian teachers from Edessa moved first to Nisibis then to Jundashapur in Persia about 800 km away and here, supported by the Persian Emperor, a medical school and hospital were built, acting as an intellectual hub for Greek, Jewish, Persian and Hindu ideas, all centred on the Syriac language and training physicians that would go out into the Islamic world.

Syrians had quickly accepted Christianity helping to spread the gospel in Asia Minor, Egypt and Mesopotamia. They translated the Old Testament and were interested in Greek partly so that they could study a Greek translation of the Old Testament that had been produced in Alexandria from a slightly different Hebrew text. In this way Nestorians were a connecting link between Greek and Arabic medicine.

Plato’s Academy in Athens had persisted until closed by Emperor Justinian in 529, the Neo-Platonist students fleeing to Jundeshapur establishing a philosophical tradition of thought that would influence Islamic thought.

An Islamic Golden Age of learning began when its capital was transferred from Damascus (capital during the Umayyad Caliphate of 661 to 750) to Baghdad in the 760s. Baghdad was for a while the world’s largest city and a flourishing trade centre with magnificent gardens.

In 711 there was a division of the Caliphate between Baghdad and Cordoba when Moorish armies captured Cordoba in Spain and academic study returned in an Islamic intellectuakl Renaissance.  One early indication of this was a medicinal treatise on Hippocrates in 718 (now held in the Laurentian Medici Library in Florence)[12] by Ahmed Ben Ibrahim, physician to Caliph Yazid II.

Caliph Abd al-Rahman I of the Umayyad dynasty in Damascus (a dynasty that ruled the greater part of Iberia for nearly three centuries) was the first Emir of Cordoba from 755-788. He established a Botanic garden in Cordoba and encouraged the collection of seed from Syria and other parts of Asia. It was in these gardens where the first date palm was grown in Spain.

By 950 Cordoba had become one of the most populous cities in the world, renowned for its universities, libraries, medical schools, vineyards, orchards, gardens and commerce before its role was taken over by Seville. During this period new crops were introduced and distributed through Muslim gardens managed by leading physicians like Ibn Bassal (fl. 11th century) of Toledo and Seville, and Ibn al-Wafid (997-c.1074) of Toledo.

The school at Jundeshapur had flourished for 300 years before it and its teachers moved to Baghdad, a new centre of learning, when Persia was the victim of an Arab conquest.  The Abbasid Caliphs supported the work of the school.

The significance of the Syrian Nestorians of Baghdad is their fascination with Greek science. Translation of old manuscripts into Syriac and Arabic that had begun in Jundeshapur continued in Baghdad in the 9th century, ancient Greek learning being then passed on to Arab scholars.

From the mid 7th century enlightened and tolerant Islamic leaders, who were also in control of the world’s major trade routes, initiated a revival of philosophy and science. .

The Medical School at Salerno

As early as the mid 9th century a small biological revival occurred in a medical school in the central Italian city of Salerno where medical students were awarded the title of Doctor. This medical school was associated with a nearby Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino which held texts of both Greek botany and medicine and this helped to launch medicine once more.

The Medical School of Salerno (Schola Medica Salernitana) on the Tyrrhenian Sea in the south Italian city of Salerno which was a Mediterranean port sharing both Arab and Byzantine-Greek cultures. The school was founded in the 9th century and flourished in the 10th century to be eventually overshadowed by the medical schools at Montpelier, Padua and Bologna. Legend held that the school was founded by four masters: the Jewish Helinus, the Greek Pontus, the Arab Adela, and the Latin Salernus hence the Greek, Latin, Arab and Jewish combination of academic cultures. Women were included as both teachers and students and the school included courses of philosophy, theology, and law. This attracted both students and the sick in large numbers as the school became the most important source of medical knowledge in Western Europe popularly known as the ‘Town of Hippocrates’ (Hippocratica Civitas or Hippocratica Urbs).

Salerno was, in effect, the first university medical faculty, the second was Montpelier est. c. 1137. The botanical significance of this medical centre was at least twofold.

First, the school was no doubt visited by Constantinus Africanus (or Ifrīqiya) in 1077 before he moved to the nearby monastery Monte Cassino where he translated Arabic texts into Latin: Aphorisma and Prognostica of Hippocrates, Tegni and Megategni of Galen, Kitāb-al-malikī (i.e. Liber Regius, or Pantegni) of Alī ibn’Abbās (Haliy Abbas), the Viaticum of al-Jazzār (Algizar), the Liber divisionum and the Liber experimentorum of Rhazes (Razī), the Liber dietorum, Liber urinarium and the Liber febrium of Isaac Israel the Old (Isaac Iudaeus). Though his translations were poor his work drew attention to the scientific legacy of Greece and Islam a century before a burst of translation from Arabic into Latin occurred between 1175 and 1225.

Second, the doctors at the school produced several popular medical treatises that were rational and devoid of superstition. Johannes (d. February 2, 1161) and Matthaeus Plantearius, possibly father and son, lived in Salerno and published the Liber de Simplici Medicina, better known as the Circa Instans which was was a pharmacological list of 273 drugs of which about 229 were plant-based. This was an advance in botanical pharmacology but the botany was still poor. This publication, with illustrations added, replaced the popular Herbarium of Apuleius in the later Middle Ages and provided the text and illustrations for many of the printed herbals that began to appear around 1450.

In the 13th century there was the beginnings of a new dawn in botany in both the Arab and Christian worlds. In the Arab world this occurred in Andalusia, the most prosperous and technologically advanced agricultural region of the Caliphate where there was a meeting of the two cultures. Notable Arab pharmacologist Ibn al-Baytar scoured the Mediterranean looking for new plant medicines. His long-lasting treatise, which was a grand synthesis of Arab pharmacology with 200 new plants and 1000 from traditional sources, remained unknown and untranslated in Europe.


With the Christian Crusades many of the classical texts were returned to Christendom from the Islamic world and from 1175-1225 many were translated from Arabic to Latin. In western Europe during the early Middle Ages learning and the copying of manuscripts had passed to scholarly theologians in monasteries scattered across Europe. These monasteries acted not only as places of devotion but also as community centres where the monks and nuns would care for travellers and the sick. Medicinal herbs, known in English as ‘simples’ (simple medical treatments) or ‘officinals’ (plants of commerce) were cultivated in the monastery physic gardens as remedies for the sick who packed the monastery dormitories. A few herb manuscripts remain from Europe of the twelfth to fourteenth centuries, notably the De Vegetabilibus (c. 1256 CE) of bishop Albertus Magnus of Cologne who was educated at the University of Padua (founded in 1222 and one of the world’s first modern universities and where he was educated in the works of Aristotle).

Religious devotion and caring for the needy left little time to satisfy any curiosity about plants. It seems that the combined knowledge of the Bible and what remained of antiquity was sufficient. Time was therefore spent digesting and applying the wisdom of the past. For about 1000 years through the Middle Ages plants were regarded as objects of utility only. Dioscorides work was copied and re-copied but there was little attempt to supplement his findings.


Universities, institutes of higher learning, surely take their point of departure from the gymnasia of ancient Athens like Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum (see Theophrastus). Children of aristocratic Romans were fluent in Greek, the language in which philosophy was taught. We see echoes of the classical education in the monastic schools (scholae monasticae) administered by the monks and nuns in the early sixth century CE although modern universities are usually considered to have originated later, examples being Bologna (1088), Paris (c.1150) Oxford (1167), Cambridge (1209) and Montpelier (1220), many fortunate to have achieved independence from external authorities.

New interest in learning was prompted in part by the recovery of ancient Greek texts especially those of Aristotle returned to the West in about 1100. Latin was the scholarly language and the Greco-Roman influence was evident in the curriculum with an entrance requirement of a trivium (grammar, rhetoric and dialectic or logic) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy). This particular curriculum of liberal arts was a kind of intellectual toolbox to deal with the world rather than a description of the world. Southern European universities specialised in law and medicine, northern on the arts and theology. By the 1800s the curriculum of many had widened to include natural philosophy, logic, medicine, theology, mathematics, astronomy (and astrology), law, grammar and rhetoric. By the end of the 18th century there were approximately 143 universities in Europe and Eastern Europe, with the highest concentrations being in the German Empire, Italy, France, and Spain.

Much of the botany of these times was performed by men trained in medicine and other disciplines with botany just one, often minor, aspect of their studies. The early 12th century medical school at Montpellier, France, was founded primarily by Jewish teachers educated in the Moorish universities of Spain and the school increased in prosperity as Salerno declined (Hawks p. 163). By the mid-16th century medical students were arriving from around Europe attracted by the teaching of Guillaume Rondelet (1507-1566) whose position was similar to that of Ghini in Italy, and here he found time among his diverse duties and interests to teach students about medicinal plants in a small garden adjoining the university. Rondelet was the son of an ‘aromatarius’ (grocer, druggist, pharmacist) becoming Regius Profesor of Medicine at the University as well as its Chancellor (Hawks p. 163. On a trip to Italy he had met many contemporary Italian scholars previously known to him only through correspondence, and including Luca Ghini at Pisa, Antonio Musa Brasavola at Ferrara, Ulysse Aldrovandi at Padua and Cesare Odo at Bologna. A doctor first, he is perhaps best known botanically for successful pupils like Jean Bauhin, Charles de l’Écluse (Carolus Clusius), and Matthias de l’Obel (Lobelius). Among his first students was Jaques Daléchamps’ (1513-1588) who, with the assistance of John Bauhin and John Desmoulins produced the 2-folio Historia generalis plantarum, Lugduni (1586–1587) which described, for the first time, much of the flora growing around Lyons, with crude descriptions and figures of around 2700 species.

In 1551 there arrived at Montpelier the already highly qualified man later to be known as ‘the prince of descriptive botanists’ Charles de Lescluze (1526-1609) and now better known as Clusius, who boarded with Rondelet for several years. The first of his many works was a translation, from Flemish into French, of the Crydeboek of Rembert Dodoens in 1557.

Botanic gardens

Founding dates of physic gardens associated with the universities indicate the passage of learning from southern to northern Europe, no doubt tracking the political fortunes of nations as they passed from Italy to Spain and Portugal, then Holland, followed by France and England. This transition can be traced through the dates of establishment of botanic gardens: Italy – Pisa (1544), Padua (1545), Florence (1545); Spain – Valencia (1567); northern Europe – the Netherlands at Leiden (1587), Amsterdam (1638); Germany – Leipzig (1580), Heidelberg (1593) and Berlin (1672); France was earlier than Britain with Montpellier (1593), Faculty of Medicine Garden, Paris (1597) and Jardin du Roi, Paris (1635); Scandinavia – Denmark, Copenhagen (1600); Sweden, Uppsala (1655). Britain was relatively late with the founding of the Oxford Botanic Garden (1621), Edinburgh Botanic Garden (1670), and Chelsea Physic Garden (1673).

Garden directors were eminent physicians often associated with the publication of printed Herbals.

‘Botanical gardens of the modern tradition were established in northern Italy, the first at Pisa (1544) founded by Luca Ghini (1490–1556). Although part of a medical faculty, the first chair of materia medica, essentially a chair in botany, was established in Padua in 1533. Then in 1534, Ghini became Reader in materia medica at Bologna University. Collections of plants were prepared using a simple plant press, the dried specimens called a hortus siccus (garden of dry plants) and the first collection like this is attributed to Ghini. Buildings called herbaria housed these specimens mounted on card with descriptive labels. Stored in cupboards in systematic order they could be preserved in perpetuity and easily transferred or exchanged with other institutions’


The earliest extant herbarium is that of private collector Gherardo Cibo who began his collection in 1532, while the first institutional herbaria were established in the latter part of the sixteenth century, the first being at Kassel, Germany, in 1569.[6] In 1990 there were about 270 million specimens in 2600 herbaria.[6]

As plant nomenclature, description and classification gathered in importance many of the former physic-style botanic gardens were, by the 18th century, being transformed into ‘order beds’ or ‘system gardens’ that demonstrated the classification systems devised by botanists of the day, one especially famous one being that at the Jardin du Roi in Paris in 1759 depicting the ‘natural system’ of Antoine de Jussieu.[2] Systems gardens demonstrating plant classification systems have been a theme of botanic gardens to this day, one of the best known and earliest in Australia being the system garden of the Botany Department at Melbourne University.

Muslim medicine

Much of the classical learning passed to the Arab world with Arab conquests beginning in about 650 CE and resulting in a Muslim golden Age. Arabic learning was extremely popular in Christendom partly because of the fascination with the Arab prosperity that followed from the control of trade routes.

Best known work of this period is a herbal of over 650 species by the brilliant Arab scholar Avicenna (Ibn-Sīnā, c. 980-1037), many of these species were described here for the first time in his Canon of Medicine completed in 1025 and used throughout the Middle Ages.

By 900 CE the great Greek herbals had been translated into Arabic and copies lodged in centres of learning in the Byzantine empire of the eastern Mediterranean including Byzantium, Damascus, Cairo and Baghdad which included the botanical and pharmacological lore of Persia, the great Indian medical classics, and the Orient.

In the 9th century a library with a large team of translaters was set up in Baghdad with Hunayn ibn Ishaq as its head although the great translation centres were in Sicily and Toledo, often using Jewish scholars.

During this period Islamic science protected the classical botanical knowledge that had become neglected in the West. Muslim pharmacy, like the extensive herbal remedies used in China, thrived.

Bronze Age civilizations (3000-500 BCE)

From c. 1500-500 BCE medicine was in the hands of priestly classes in Egypt (Thebes, Memphis). Thebes especially, located on the Nile about 800 km south of the Mediterranean was, at its height, the wealthiest city in Egypt on an important trade route from both the northern Mediterranean and southern Nubia (today’s southern Egypt and northern Sudan) notable pharoahs working with plants including Hatschepsut, Tuthmosis III and Amenhotep I. In Mesopotamia there were cities at Nineveh, Babylon, Sumer, Akkad,and Uruk (Tiglath-Pileser I, Sennacherib, Ashurbanipal II) before, with the rise of Aegean cultures (Minoan culture at Knossos in Crete and on the island of Thera (Santorini, now believed to be the site of Plato’s lost city of Atlantis) and Mycenae on the Greek mainland, 2300-900 BCE).

Classical antiquity (c. 800 BCE-c. 500 CE)

European cultures and civilizations of the classical period were centred on the Mediterranean. Though texts written in Mycenean Greek mentioning plants used as spices and perfumes have been recovered from Pylos, Mycenae and Knossos, the earliest texts written in alphabetical Greek, the Homeric poems, also mention many plants. Those Greek texts generally regarded as having special botanical significance are relatively few and date from about the 5th century BCE.

Ancient Greece

Ancient Greek references to plants date back to the Mycenaean period from 1600 to about 1100 BCE: they are found on texts recovered from Pylos, Mycenae and Knossos. There are also many plants named in the Homeric poems c. 700-600 BCE.[10]


Ancient Greek herbalists, known as rhizotomi, had learned much of their medicine from Egypt and Mesopotamia. Medicinal recipes have been found on stone tablets retrieved from ancient Assyria and Sumeria and accounts of herbs and their properties written on Egyptian papyrus, with illustration, and date back more than two millennia BCE using names that have been passed on to us – names like sesame, turmeric and saffron. Greek medicinal knowledge of the classical age, though now lost, we are told was summarised by Diocles of Carystos (c. 375-295 BCE) who was known to Theophrastus and who followed the famous Greek physician Hippocrates of Cos (Hippocratic oath).Later Crateuas (fl. 120-60 BCE) produced a Rhizotomicon now also lost but a likely source for work attributed to later herbalists. Plants were listed in alphabetical order with descriptions, properties and synonyms and he followed up with a popular supplement of paintings and medicinal properties only. Crateuas was, Pliny claims, the first true Greek botanical artist and his herbal was well in advance of those that would be published in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

Origin of plant science

Aristotle, who was Theophrastus’s mentor at the Lyceum in ancient Athens, complained bitterly at the way human attention is invariably focused on self-interest and what is to be gained from the world, rather than trying to understand it. How tiresome it is to keep asking of natural things ‘What is its use? . . . Once we have got what we need to survive, we should turn our attention to understanding nature in terms of its own ends and goods‘.[7]

Biology was born when Aristotle and Theophrastus divided up the living world into animals and plants with Aristotle beginning a systematic account of the former and Theophrastus the latter. Plant science began with Theophrastus who, at the very outset of his Enquiry into Plants, responded to Aristotle’s request for an impartial investigation of the natural world by issuing a challenge to future plant scientists:

We must consider the distinctive characters and the general nature of plants from the point of view of their morphology, their behaviour under external conditions, their mode of generation and the whole course of their life

To satisfy his curiosity about plants Theophrastus used objective reason, what might be called analytic empiricism (see Socrates, Plato & Aristotle and Reason & science) a much more rigorous methodology than the proto-botany of the ancient civilizations of Egypt and the Mediterranean, Mesopotamia, India, and China all of which emphasised the various ways of using plants, the learned or priestly members of society having particular interest in the medicinal properties of plants. Theophrastus looked beyond plant utility to ask additional questions about the plants themselves – about their structure and function – how they were related to one-another in form, how they reproduced, their physiology, ecology, geography and so on. His studies were part of a research program in an institute of learning, the Lyceum in Athens, which along with the Academy of Plato served as models for today’s universities. Like his mentors Theophrastus questioned everything he was told, always demanding evidence and clear thinking: he was therefore suspicious of the views of his day, the prevailing myths, the influence of deities, and all manner of questionable subjective beliefs and traditions. He was in the tradition of thinkers like Empedocles (c. 495–435 BCE) who had not only derived a crude theory of evolution but also suggested that there was sex in plants, both theories well ahead of his time. Theophrastus’s challenge does not sound unduly onerous to us today but historically it proved extraordinarily difficult to carry out as amply demonstrated by the fact that it took 1500 years for the flame of plant science to be reignited as plant study was reduced once again to descriptive pharmacology. Rather than being a new beginning, Theophrastus’s botany was more a botanical culmination of Ionian Presocratic philosophy.

The ancient Greeks had discovered a method of penetrating and understanding the natural world as never before, a highly effective method that we still cherish today. What they had discovered was science, and it would transform the world. Science was not a miracle technology or secret recipe – it was a mode of thinking.

So how did the history of plant science unfold after Theophrastus?

The history of botany has been the topic of several books but this account has drawn heavily on the excellent History of Botanical Science by Alan Morton (1981), it is discussed mainly from a Western perspective.

Economic botany, plant introduction, gardens & plant science

Other developments at this time included the curious, beautiful and economically useful plant trophies sent back to Athens by explorers and from military campaigns. Epicurus had established what was possibly the first decorative garden in Athens and gardens were generally becoming more elaborate and commonplace across the Mediterranean and Persian world descending, we assume, from the ancient palace gardens and designed city precincts of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. But the best known medicinal manuscript influenced by this period of history was written in about 65 CE was De Materia Medica (Materials of Medicine) a list of herbs and their properties written by Pedanios Dioscorides (c. 40–90 CE) a Greek physician in the Roman army. For many centuries this work would be regarded as definitive and slavishly copied again and again well into the Renaissance even though we now know of works like De Simplicibus by the brilliant Greek physician in Roman Pergamon, Galen (c.131–201 CE) which is much more informative.


The Greek world was transformed into a Hellenistic Macedonian empire with the military campaigns of Alexander the Great. Alexander had Aristotle as a tutor and was imbued with Greek science, he and his officers combining military activity with natural science. Among the botanical sources were the jour nals of the naval officers.

Nearchus (c. 360 – 300 BCE) was an admiral in the navy during the military campaigns of Alexander the Great which were also equipped as scientific expeditions. He is known for his celebrated voyage following the Indian campaign of Alexander the Great in 326–324 BC. This was from the Indus river near Karachi along the Balochistan coast to Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf and then sailing up the eastern coast to the head of the Gulf. His naval journal includes descriptions of the banyan, mangroves, cotton and the spiny euphorbias of the Balochistan desert.

Androsthenes of Thasos, was another admirals of Alexander the Great who, gaining experience with Nearchus, under Alexander’s orders sailed down the Euphrates exploring the coast of the Persian Gulf, skirting the coast of Arabia and sailing further than his predecessor Archias of Pella. His account of the voyage, The Navigation of the Indian Sea was mainly devoted to botanical topics.

Macedonian Empire of Alexander the Great – 334-323 BCE
Showing the campaigns of Alexander the Great and his admiral Nearchus. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons. By Generic Mapping Tools – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 – Accessed 16 August 2019

Roman plant science

Interest in scientific botany waned through Hellenistic (see also Ancient Greece) and Roman times (see Ancient Rome). Athens was overrun by the Roman forces of General Lucius Sulla in 86 BCE and the Greek peninsula fell under Roman rule. Roman society lacked scientific curiosity engaging more with the principles and practice of agriculture and horticulture, educated Greek slaves often acting as family tutors to the wealthy and sources of scientific information.

Agriculture & encyclopaedias

Medicinal works remained but it was overall plant utility that mattered – food production and agriculture in particular. Theophrastus had attempted to integrate agriculture and botany by developing a crude theory of plant growth and physiology. There were Greek authors on agriculture but their writings have been mostly lost: it was their writings that informed the Phoenician farmers who settled in North Africa and Spain. Though the Romans contributed little to botany they have bequeathed us a handsome literature on agriculture.

In a series of works titled De Re Rustica (On agriculture) four Roman writers Cato the Elder (234–149 BCE), Varro (116–27 BCE) but especially Columella (4–70 CE), who was the inspiration for the later work of Palladius (4th century CE), laid out the principles and practice of agriculture that was later published during the Renaissance as a compendium Scriptores Rei Rusticae (Writers on Agriculture) and a probable influence on educated farmers of the Middle Ages. Certainly Varro and Columella were aquainted with the works of Theophrastus.

The other major work of the period was Naturalis Historia (Natural History) of Roman encyclopaedist Pliny the Elder (23–79 CE) who in his synoptic account of natural history devoted Books 12 to 26 of his 37-volume treatise to plants and it is this work that captured subsequent historical interest. Pliny frequently alludes to Theophrastus but with little botanical understanding or appreciation. At the time of Julius Caesar (100-44 BCE) physicians were established were established across the empire as an independent medical profession.

Middle Ages


From about 200 to 850 intellectual and technological advances were minimal. In the absence of centralized authority there was widespread instability as feudalism gradually took hold. Recorded plant knowledge across Christendom was confined to the poorly copied works of Dioscorides and the even more degenerate Herbarium Apuleius. The first rather clumsy Latin translation of Dioscorides’s Materia Medica was probably by Martialis around 250 but a literal translation was made aroud 500 and used by Italian, Frankish and Salernitan doctors: this was the textual foundation for most of the medieval manuscripts of Dioscorides.

From about 850 with feudal states providing social cohesion there was a marked improvement in material conditions and enquiry.

Christianity & the two empires

Emperor Constantine I (c. 272-337, ruling from 306 CE) allowed freedom of worship to Christians and was pronounced the the official state religion by Theodosius in 380 CE (r. 379-395). Christianity continued although the western Roman empire collapsed when Rome was sacked by the Visigoths in 410 CE. After the decline of the former classical world the human intellect became occupied with religious rather than scientific matters. Through the 4th to 6th centuries Roman administration gradually divided the empire into eastern and western halves, the capital being transferred from Rome to Byzantium (which later became Constantinople, then Istanbul).

In the early seventh century, Greek became the official language of the eastern Byzantine Empire where the learning of Classical antiquity was respected and ancient skills were retained as demonstrated by the mathematical and engineering skills needed to construct the magnificent domed Hagia Sophia building that still stands today in Istanbul, completed in four and a half years (532–537 CE). However, after the 6th century Byzantine scholars made few new scientific advances.


While Europe was in the intellectual doldrums with ancient texts lost or forgotten there was a revival in the Syrian capital city of Edessa which was located on the Silk Road at an intersection of both east-west and north-south trade routes. This was both direct Roman control and alongside the rival Persian Empire resulting in the rise of a wealthy and educated merchant class deeply interested in Greek science and followers of Nestor, a theologian from Antioch, whose views were regarded as heretical by the established Church.

China had meanwhile passed through a descriptive and encyclopaedic phase with similar nomenclature to that of the west but without a Dark Age, eventually uniting with Western botany in the nineteenth century. But all this was still essentially ‘applied’ botany.

The botanical Renaissance – 1483 to 1623

Only with the revival of classical learning during the European Renaissance of the 14th to 17th centuries and the Reformation (which lasted from 1517-1648) do we see a return to true plant science.

The botanical Renaissance was part of the humanist rediscovery of classical antiquity that marked the transition from the Middle Ages to Modernity. Springing initially from 15th century Italy it would, in the 16th century, spread across Europe – to France and the Low Countries (Belgium and Netherlands), the Holy Roman Empire, then Scandinavia and eventually Britain – each country developing its own distinctive emphasis such as the art and architecture of France, the Protestant Reformation and printing in Germany and, in England, the Elizabethan playwriting of Shakespeare and Marlowe.

The thirst for classical learning occurred at a time of social change in which increasingly wealthy merchants undermined both the old feudal social structure and the power of the church to lay the foundations of future capitalism. There was also a deep questioning of why science should be a secure source of knowledge, a ‘uniquely potent combination of systematic observation, critical experiment and rational theorizing’.[9] Wealth from trade combined with applied scientific knowledge was clearly a path for nations seeking political and economic power.

The new, now large-scale, technological application of science with its self-evident practical benefits helped draw academic minds away from Aristotles deductive logic and the philosophical systems of the ancients, away from the cloistered other-worldly theology of monasticism, even away from the herbals copied again and again from the Materia Medica of Dioscorides. Instead, at first just gradually, they began the return to observing, experimenting on, and theorizing about live plants growing in nature.

The revival of botany, like the revival of science in general, emanated from Italy. Intellectuals, bankers and merchants driven out of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453 had settled on the Italian peninsula.


Old libraries were scoured for original sources and manuscripts, especially the Greek. One especially notable project was that initiated by Pope Nicholas V who set about the translation of all the old manuscripts held in the Vatican library. It was here that manuscripts of Theophrastus’s Historia Plantarum and Causae Plantae were discovered. They were translated by Theodore Gaza (1400-1475) who was from Thessalonica in Greece. He had escaped to Italy when his country was invaded by the Turks before 1430. First he became a Professor of Greek at Ferrara before becoming Professor of Philosophy in Rome. Though there was no indication that he had botanical experience his scholarly translation was impressive becoming the standard Latin translation and taken, it seems, from a text that no longer exists. Earlier he had completed translations of all of Aristotle’s zoological works. It was his careful translation that led to the eventual publication of Theophrastus’s masterpieces in 1483.

Translations of Theophrastus’s works in both Latin and Greek were available, and read by the early botanists in Italy but their theoretical value was largely ignored due to the pressing problem of comparing the many new plants to those described or listed in ancient texts as the works of Aristotle, Theophrastus, Dioscorides and Hippocrates were recovered from Arabic scholars and once again read in the West. Ghini, with a reputation as an inspiring teacher, worked first as a teacher of botany at Padua, then ‘Reader in Dioscorides’ at Bologna in 1527, sometimes regarded as the first position warranting the title professor of botany as distinct from medicine.With his pupils Ulysses Aldrovandi and Louis Anguillara (who became ‘reader in simples’ at Padua) he established the Botanical Garden at Bologna. Ghini probably assisted at Padua, Florence and Pisa. Where the gardens were established in 1544. Among his pupils were Mattioli, Caesalpinus, John Falconer, Valerius Cordus and William Turner, Caesalpinus’s work in classification possibly strongly influenced by his teaching (Hawks p. 147). Turner’s fellow English student John Falconer is attributed with possessing the first English and indeed the first collection of dried herbarium specimens on record compiled between 1540 and 1542 but no longer in existence (Hawks p. 147) although the collection of Aldrovandus in 16 volumes remains at Bologna and that of Caesalpinus is housed in Florence. It is historian Sachs who suggests that ‘he seems to have been the first who made use of dried plants for scientific purposes’. Other old collections include those of Greault (Lyons 1558), Ratzberger (Cassel 1559), Rauwolf (Leyden 1563-5), and that of the Bauhins collection at Basel. Turner befriended Gesner in Zurich probably in 1543, settling for a while in Basel. In 1548 he published The names of Herbes in Greke, Latin, Englishe, Duche and Frenche with the Commune Names that Herbaries and Apotecaries Use. Then in 1551 the first part of his Herball was published in London, the second part published in Cologne in 1562, then three combined parts in Cologne in 1568. Of the 516 woodcuts 400 were copied from the work of Fuchs whom he criticizes, along with Bock and Mattioli for their identifications (Hawks p. 150).

Italian botanical revival

The revival of botany in Italy was associated with a renewed interest in Epicureanism which, through its atheistic tenor, added weight to the new humanism by challenging the Church and siding with science especially in the Italian medical schools of the early 14th century where human dissection was now being permitted. The result was a new critical examination of Galen’s work and ancient pharmacology. Critical curiosity led to the desire for improved plant description (and therefore identification) supported by botanically accurate illustrations and exploration of the medicinal qualities of native plants.

All of this was part of a new and serious attempt to understand local plants, if only to connect them to those that appeared in the classical pharmacopeias. It was a gathering realization of how few plants had been recorded in ancient texts (Morton 1981, pp. 116-117) .

The extent of the world’s plant variety became much more obvious during the 15th and 16th century European Age of Exploration and Discovery. The early voyages of the famous Portuguese navigators were bankrolled by Italian merchants and bankers with the profits flowing back into Italy (Morton 1981, p. 118) along with many of the plants needing acclimatization. Novel crop plants were trialled in the countryside around Italy’s northern cities in the 16th century. From the New World came maize, sweet potato, potato, runner beans, French beans, pineapples, sunflowers and Jerusalem artichokes while the tomato we now associate so closely with Italian cuisine was widely available as both red and yellow ‘love apples’ called this on account of their supposed power as an aphrodisiac. Capsicums, both red and green were widely cultivated in Italy, Castile and Moravia by 1585 (Morton, p. 119).

By the late 15th century the Medici and other wealthy families were cultivating newly-introduced beautiful, curious and other novelty plants in their private gardens.

Merchants in the commercial hubs of northern Italy (Florence, Milan, Genoa and Venice) challenged the power of both the church and feudal aristocracy as capitalism became established in Europe’s leading countries, its industry and dynamism supported by new science and technology on a scale not witnessed since the days of Rome. These were city-states with their own armies and and navies commandeering European trade in the Mediterranean, including the luxury goods, like spices, that originated from the Far East.

Above all economic botany would thrive on the chase for spices and the introduction of maize, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, sweet potatoes, French and runner beans, sunflowers and Jerusalem artichokes. Starting in Italy botany would emerge as an independent science and one of the major disciplines of natural history, not just an adjunct to agriculture and medicine.
Classical knowledge preserved in the Arab world had been returned to Europe as plunder from the Medieval Christian Crusades.

Germany & the Reformation

In Europe the classical revival in knowledge that occurred in the Renaissance was hardly divorced from the theological ructions of the Reformation. Martin Luther had nailed up his 95 theses in 1517,the Lutheran branch of the Church splitting off in 1521 with the Edict of Worms. Three of Western Europe’s leading botanists of the early 16th century – Otto Brunfels (1488-1534), Leonhart Fuchs (1501-1566) and Hieronymus Bock (1498-1554, Latinised Tragus) – were Lutheran sympathisers as was the first English botanical writer of the Renaissance across the English Channel,  William Turner.

An early plant systematist Euricius Cordus, (1486-1535) (cordus – last-born) was born in Marburg and moved to Ferrara in 1521 to study medicine under Leoniceno, returning to Erfurt in 1523 as a municipal physician, then in 1527 as professor of medicine at the newly founded University of Marburg. Dedicated to botany he laid out a botanical garden and was the first German university professor to organize field excursions for plant study. In 1533 he moved to Bremen as municipal physician and professor at the Gymnasium. His Botanologicon was an early attempt at scientific plant classification. Historian Green notes that it ‘gives a clearer insight into the state of medical botany in Middle Europe in the time of Brunfels, Fuchs, and Tragus (Bock), than could be gathered from the most exhaustive study of those author’s folios themselves . . .. Euricius was the father of the better known Valerius Cordus.

Leonhart Fuchs (Fuchsius) was a Bavarian where studied at the Ingolstadt University (classics, philosophy, medicine) becoming a physician in Munich in 1524 then personal physician to the Margrave of Brandenberg at Ansbach before, in 1535, and for the rest of his life, Professor of Medicine at the University of Tübingen where he immediately established a medicinal garden. His most famous work was De Historia Stirpium Commentarii (1542), a masterpiece of Renaissance botany with 500 woodcut hand-coloured botanical illustrations with excellent in likeness & accuracy, often including detail of the parts, deliberately added to assist the students with identification, a benefit he supplemented with field trips into the surrounding countryside.

Of particular interest was the inclusion of plants recently introduced from the New World, most of them among the 100 or so plants illustrated for the first time, plants that are now cosmopolitan – tomatoes, corn, and chillies – but also cacti, pumpkins, potatoes, squash, kidney beans and tobacco, probably illustrated from plants growing in his own garden. Unusually there is full acknowledgement, with portraits, of the artists Albrecht Meyer who drew the plants from living specimens, Heinrich Füllmaurer who converted these for woodblocks, and Vitus Rudolph Speckle ‘by far the best engraver in Strasbourg’ who completed the job.[14] The work even included what was probably the first botanical glossary, indicating the desperate need for a universal botanical terminology. Even within his lifetime editions were printed in Latin, French, German, Spanish and Dutch, an English translation appearing 20 years after the original. Sadly, about 100 copies are all that remain.[14] Brunfels and Fuchs produced decriptions and illustrations of a core set of species making them identifiable regardless of the name used.

Clusius’s translation of the Flemish Dodoens’s Cruydebock was translated into English by Henry Lyte (1529-1607) in 1578 when it was published as A Niewe Herball. Passing to five editions two of these were published after Gerard’s Herball which was essentially a translation of Dodoens’s Pemtades. It is possibly from Lytes book that Shakespeare drew his frequent references to Plant lore.[15]

Botanical-medicinal knowledge and experience was obtained at this time by studying under the leading academic botanical physicians of the day in Europe’s major medical university faculties: Paris, Montpellier, Leiden (Antwerp) and the cities of northern Italy. At Montpellier in 1561 there was a trio of plant enthusiasts and students: Jean Bauhin, Pierre Pena and Matthias de Lobel (De l’Obel), the former pair possibly boarding with their mentor Rondelet, the latter pair going on botanical collecting trips, Rondelet bequeathing his manuscripts to de Lobel. Penna, after spending time in Paris and Antwerp had then travelled to Padua in 1558 and again in 1562 when he also spent time in Verona and possibly in Pisa in 1563 (where he was acquainted with Caesalpino) and at Bologna where he met Aldrovandus, in 1564 with Gesner in Zurich, moving on to Venice. In 1566 Penna and Lobel crossed the channel to collect in England for four years (possibly a safe Protestant country) publishing their work in 1571 as Stirpium Adversaria Nova (a new plant notebook) dedicated to Queen Elizabeth and the professors at Montpellier while acknowledging assistance from William Turner who died in 1568 and Englishmen Thomas Penny, Hugh Morgan and William Cecil.

The Adversaria . . . presented one of the best systems of 16th century plant classification, the Preface marking the document pronouncing itself a work of science by declaring itself concerned with ‘Order, than which there is nothing more beautiful in heaven or in the mind of a wise man’. Penna subsequently became physician to Henry III. In 1572 three major botanical sons of Flanders were in frequent contact – Dodoens, Clusius, and Lobel. Clusius had in 1564 travelled to Augsburg where he attracted wealthy associates to join him on a botanical collecting tour of France, Spain and Portugal – visiting Gibraltar, Valencia and Lisbon, returning to Antwerp with about 200 new species[17] that formed the major part of his Rariorum Stirpium per Hispanias Historia (1576). Clusius had visited Paris and England in 1571 meeting up with Lobel in Bristol while in 1573 he was placed in charge of the new imperial gardens of Maximilian II in Vienna and studying the plants of Austria and Hungary and making a second visit to England in 1581, befriending Francis Drake.

In 1568 the great Belgian anatomist Versalius had died and Philip II of Spain asked Dodoens, as another Belgian, to accept the position of physician to his court but as life became more demanding he accepted a similar position with Maximilian II in 1574 in Vienna where he was reunited with his old friend Clusius but returned a few years later to Antwerp, accepting a chair of medicine at the University of Leyden (Leiden) in 1582, his collected botanical works Stirpium Historiae Pemptades being published in 1583, two years before his death.


The English Renaissance was given impetus by Thomas Linacre (1460-1524) who had returned from Florence to the University of Oxford inspired by the Italian Renaissance. Having learned Greek he absorbed the ‘New Learning’ from the instruction of Angelo Poliziano also given to the sons of Lorenzo de Medici. In 1509 Linacre was appointed King’s Physician to Henry VIII (1491-1547).

Of greater botanical interest is William Turner (1508-1568) who attended Pembroke Hall at Cambridge University graduating in 1529-30 and elected a Fellow in 1531. Around 1537 he published the 20-page Libellus de re Harbaria Nova . . . ‘ which included records of local plant distributions, mostly in Northumberland, the 144 plants with Latin, Greek and English synonyms, extended in 1548 as The Names of Herbes with triple the number of plants. He is generally regarded as England’s first botanist, bringing plants to the people by publishing the first herbal in English rather than the traditional academic Latin. Deeply religious but a non-conformist he fell out of favour with the Church authorities during the English Reformation (c. 1527-1590) when he was banished from the church and travelled to the continent where he studied medicine and botany first in Ferrara and then in Balogna, Italy, with Luca Ghini before then travelling to Switzerland and then Germany where he met Leonhart Fuchs and then to Holland where, for four years, he was personal physician to the Earl of Emden. Back in England Turner was employed by Edward Seymour to design a garden and build up its collection of plants. The garden was that aristocratic Syon Park, a former abbey and pilgrimage destination that was dissolved in 1539 and handed from the Crown to Seymour who had close links to the Tudors. As a grand private garden Syon House was later landscaped in the 18th centuryby Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. From 1551 to 1553 Turner was Dean of Wells Cathedral where he established a physic garden.

Turner’s reputation lies in his 3-parted herbal. The first part of A new herball, wherin are conteyned the names of herbes . . . was printed in 1551, the second in 1562 and the third in 1568. This was the first attempt at a descriptive account of English plants decorated withy the woodcut illustrations from Leonhart Fuchs’s 1542 De historia Stirpium . . . but with his own descriptions: it included field observations in addition to the usual ‘uses and vertues’. As a radical attacking the accepted order he proudly announced in the Preface that his use of vernacular English, for the first time, now made botanical information accessible to the general populace rather than  restricting it to professionals and academics. His third edition was dedicated to Queen Elizabeth I.

Turner embraced the transmutation of species, historian of science Charles Raven writing that ‘Turner, a shrewd observer and an excellent botanist, accepted transmutation as a commonplace event.’ This gives an Indication of the early origins of ideas generally associated with the 19th century.

The man who would establish a firm foundation for future English botany was John Ray (1623–1705) who shared Turner’s religious fervour. As a naturalist had wide interests that were not confined to plants as he attempted to bring order to the natural world. Son of a blacksmith he won a scholarship to Cambridge University at age 16 where he excelled and, while doing so built up a collection of living plants in his garden carefully studying their similarities and differences, his field trips into the surrounding countryside culminating in his Catalogus Plantarum Circa Cantabrigiam Nascentium (1660) which which drew on the principles of Swiss botanist Jean Bauhin but also demonstrated his skills at close observation: it was the first British county Flora.

In 1658 he embarked on the ambitious task of compiling a Flora of England and Wales for which he made several field trips sharing the work load with friends and even getting sidetracked into Europe for three years in 1663 with his friend and student Francis Willughby. Like Aristotle and Theophrastus before, this pair made a pact to describe the known organic world, Ray the plants and Willughby the animals. The result was his Catalogus Plantarum Angliae (1670) updated with additions in 1677.

Ray was an advocate of natural theology maintaining that the reason or purpose for the existence or ‘creation’ of each species could be determined by finding out its practical application. His work on the continent was pubkished in 1682 as Methodus Plantarum Nova which continued his thinking on plant classification making the insightful distinction between monocotyledons and dicotyledons. This was followed by the work that established his lasting reputation, Historia Plantarum like a preliminary attempt at a world Flora. Volumes one (with first usage of the word ‘species’) published in 1686 and volume two in 1688: they contained over 6000 species, mostly observed himself and including a few American plants from Bishop Compton’s garden. Volume three listed about 10,000 species, partly a record of England’s major exotic collections at Oxford University (est. 1621) and Chelsea Physic Garden (est. 1673). Ray’s classification was based on relationship of form based on gross morphology outlined in his Methodus . . . included kinds of fruit and subdivided using leaf and flower types. Though technically advanced the use of phrase names consisting of many words, rather than binomials, made it cumbersome to use. His Methodica Stirpium Britannicarum (1690) extended his British work, effectively Britain’s first Flora While Stirpium Europearum Extra Britannias Nascentium Sylloge (1694) extended his European work and defended his classification system against that of German botanist Augustus Rivinus (A.Q. Bachmann) leading to a further work in 1703 that took into account the system of de Tornefort. The large number of new species recorded by Ray was partly the result of his narrow species concept but also a consequence of his detailed field observations and plant exploration beyond Europe. He hade a major contribution to the field of plant taxonomy.

Renaissance gardens

Nobility and the wealthy elite enjoyed new plants from overseas in their elaborate private gardens. Notable among these were the gardens of the Medici family in Florence in the 15th century. By the early 16th century catalogues of these gardens included plants from not only the newly encountered Americas but rhubarb from Central Asia, egg plants from tropical Asia. The exciting tulip imported from Persia around 1559 had captured the European imagination, the bulbs causing the sensation known in Holland as ‘tulipomania’ which created a financial bubble.

In earlier times luxury goods like gold and silver competed with spices for attention and in the Renaissance the thrill of possible fortunes and miracle cures perpetuated the attraction of drug plants like the new Guaiacum as a cure for syphilis.

Modern plant science & botanical gardens

Modern botany became a discipline in its own right, independent of medicine, when Italian universities appointed professors and teachers in botany, even though they were appointments within the medical faculty. The positions were called lector simplicium or professor simplicium. Francesco Bonafede was the first professor of botany, installed at Padua in 1533 by the Senate of the Republic of Venice which, at this time, dominated the lucrative spice trade.

Better known is Luca Ghini who became lector simplicium at Bologna in 1534 then professor simplicium in 1538 before being made, in 1544, director of the world’s first modern-era botanic garden in Pisa. Botanic gardens, set up virtually simultaneously, were associated with medical faculties and used for both teaching and study, the botany professors automatically becoming the garden directors. Ghini is attributed with the introduction of pressed and dried plant specimens (Hortus siccus – dried garden) thus preserving them in a form that would last for many years while also  being convenient for storage, study, and exchange. He built his own herbarium building to store the specimens, thus setting an example to many generations of future botanists. Ghini forged the link between descriptive botany, botanic gardens, and herbaria. Ghini was a leading figure contributing to the re-establishment of botany in the modern era.

A further initiative of these times was the botanically accurate depiction of plants as drawings and paintings made from living specimens.

By 1546 botanic gardens had been established at Pisa (founded by Cosimo I de Medici at Ghini’s request), Padua, and Florence to be followed within the next 20 years by new botanical gardens at Ferrara, Sassari, Bologna and elsewhere in Italy. The institution of the botanic garden then took 35 to 100 years to spread from Italy to northern and western Europe as traced through the establishment dates of major city botanic gardens: Pisa 1544, Padua and Fllorence 1545, Balogna 1568, Valencia 1567, Montpellier 1593, Leiden 1587, Leipzig 1597, Oxford 1621, Paris 1635, Berlin 1646, Uppsla 1655, Edinburgh 1670, Chelsea Physic Garden 1673 and Amsterdam 1682.

Botanic gardens would, for many years to come, be the major institutions for original botanical thinking.

Early influences of Theophrastus’s work

1470-1670 Printing & Herbals

Printing began in the fifteenth century and had a dramatic impact on scientific communication. Among the first printed books were compendia of herb descriptions called Herbals, mostly repeating the content of De Materia Medica and Naturalis Historia. Herbals are best known as books published after the invention of moveable type by Johannes Gutenberg in the early fifteenth century and associated with Western Europe in the period between 1470 and 1670 and especially the Low Countries, Germany and England. In these publications descriptions of medicinal properties, or ‘virtues’ as they were often known, were frequently enhanced by beautiful woodcut or metal-engraved plant illustrations that were hand-painted after printing and the plants described were often represented by specimens stoted in herbaria. Major herbals dating from this period include those of: Germans – Bock (1539), Brunfels (1530) and Fuchs (1542); Englishmen – Gerard (1597), Turner (1551-1568), Parkinson (1629), and Culpepper (1649); and from the Low Countries – Lobel (1570), and Clusius (1601).

Floras and pharmacopoias

Gradually herbals paid more attention to botanical features and where plants grew, containing more methodical descriptions of plant parts, classification, and illustrations that would facilitate identification. The herbal was transformed, on the one hand, into a botanical flora – a botanical account of the plants growing in a particular region – while, on the other hand, medicinal properties became part of pharmacology and its encyclopaedic pharmacopoeias. Both the new directions reduced much of the former folklore and magic, along with many of the dubiously effective potions, poultices, concoctions, decoctions, ointments and the like. Pharmacopoeias prepared the way for modern synthetic and industrially-produced drugs.

Empiricism, gardens, globalization- 1623 to 1694


Plant science historian Alan Morton (1981) notes a qualitative change in scientific activity during the first decades of the 17th century.

In 1620 Englishman Francis Bacon published in Latin his Novum Organum. Bacon’s natural philosophy began with the senses and his emphasis on experiment and observation. This, when combined with the logic of eliminative induction, laid a firm foundation for empiricism . . . it heralded the birth of modern science and what came to be known as the ‘Scientific Method’. Bacon’s new approach came at a time when microscopes and telescopes were beginning to extend our sensory capacities into scales of existence that were not apparent to our unaided senses: the world of cells, mites, and the mountains on the moon.

The title page of Novum Organum (a reference to Aristotle’s treatise on logic, the Organon) depicts a galleon sailing through the mythical Pillars of Hercules on each side of the Strait of Gibraltar symbolising an exit from the well-charted waters of the Mediterranean into the Atlantic Ocean. The Pillars, as the boundary of the Mediterranean, have been breached revealing a ‘New World’ of exploration. Bacon is implying that empirical investigation will, in a similar way, leave behind the old ideas of the ancient world on its way to a better scientific understanding of the Earth, life, and the heavens.

Joachim Jung (1587-1657) was a professor of mathematics at Giessen in Germany who then studied medicine in Rostock and Padua before returning to Germany, where he held several academic posts acquiring a reputation as a fine teacher. Two of his students published, after his death Isagoge Phytoscopica (1678) which was essentially a theoretical system of botany written in the form of a logical sequence of Aristotelian propositions, like Part 1 of Theophrastus’s Historia Plantarum and other books of early theoretical botany. His carefully observed and defined botanical glossary included many terms for leaves and flowers used for the first time and without reference to function. This work and an earlier simpler work De Plantis Doxoscopiae Physicae Minores (1662) were published in combination in 1747. Jung’s place in the history of botany was sealed when a led when a manuscript of Isagoge . . . was obtained by Ray in 1660 who used most of it in the introduction to his Historia Plantarum (1686) on the way to Linnaeus‘s later keen eye.

Gardens for all

The popular narrative of gardens and gardening follows those with the means to create substantial horticultural displays – which, in antiquity and the first centuries of the modern era, meant royalty and the aristocracy.

It is in this period that ornamental horticulture and especially the flower garden, begins to take hold within a wider section of society. One strong signal of this was a publication by Englishman John Parkinson (1567-1650), apothecary to James I who was given the title Botanicus Regius Primarius by James’s successor Charles I. The title of the publication was a play on words Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris (Park-in-Sun’s Earthly Paradise). Here he describes over 1000 plants, many being new introductions and these are illustrated with 780 woodcuts (not original). Garden author Penelope Hobhouse remarks that this was probably ‘the first English work to consider flowers for their beauty rather than their use as herbs.[16] This was followed by his Theatrum Botanicum (1640) which considered 3800 different plants, probably incorporating Lobel’s work as he had purchased Lobel’s manuscripts (presumably when he died). But the work of John Goodyer and John Tradescant the Elder was also acknowledged along with Flemish William Boel who had collected seeds for him in Germany, Spain, Portugal and north Africa (known at that time as the Barbary coast).

Age of Discovery

In the late 15th century an Age of Discovery was unleashed as Spain and Portugal launched a maritime spice race to the East Indies that followed both eastern and western sea lanes around the world. The encounter with the Americas by Columbus in 1492 opened up to western Europe the resources of a New World across the Atlantic. Soon silver and gold were being shipped by the Spanish into Europe from the Americas, and Portugal ended the millennia-old hunt for the mysterious source of the lucrative nutmeg and cloves by locating them on the small Banda Islands  in the Malaccas.

Colonial expansion

As political fortunes waxed and waned global exploration was led first by the Portuguese and Spanish in the 16th century followed by the Dutch in the 17th century and, in the 18th century Enlightenment, by the French and British.

Spain and Portugal began their exploration of the world outside the Mediterranean by  first settling the Atlantic islands off the coast of northwest Africa (Canaries, Azores, Cape Verde) and then venturing westwards to the Americas (1419-1507) before reaching the Indian (1497-1513) and Pacific (1513-1529) Oceans.

Scientific accounts of the biota of these new regions was quick to follow. A natural history of Latin America was published by the Jesuit José de Costa (1539-1600) in 1570 based on his work in Peru. Francisco Hernández lived for seven years in Mexico working on medicinal plants his Plants and Animals of New Spain describing over 3000 new plants while Nicolas Monárdes (1493-1588) published on the plants of the West Indies. Portuguese Garcia de Orta (1501-1568) and Cristóvao da Costa (1515-1594) published on the medicinal plants of India and Southeast Asia.

Circumnavigation of the world by Portuguese explorer Magellan’s expedition of 1519-1522 proved conclusively that the world was a sphere (he did not survive the voyage) and in so doing a seemingly infinite and all-bountiful world acquired physical and biological boundaries. Sea voyages of exploration in the Age of Discovery changed into Enlightenment expeditions of scientific exploration returning a flood of botanical treasures to the large public, private, and newly established botanic gardens. An eager population revelled in the novel crops, drugs and spices from Asia, the East Indies and the New World. These curious, beautiful and new plants required names, descriptions, classification, illustration and cataloging, stimulating a major phase of descriptive plant taxonomy. Botanic gardens associated with universities became the new centres of plant science as botany became a subject in its own right soon fragmenting into sub-disciplines of its own.


With improvements in navigation, coastal charting and shipbuilding the world was opening up to European botanists.

One obvious source of new plants was the British colonies in Virginia.

1750-1850 Botanophilia

All this was combined with a new public engagement that resulted in a frenzy of botanical interest (see extended discussion in the article botanophilia) that resulted in the amassing of plant collections as part of a surge in economic botany, ornamental horticulture, sophisticated landscape design, and scientific research, all at a time when new technology was revolutionising agriculture, horticulture and forestry. Europe had entered a romantic era of botanical explorers, intrepid plant hunters and gardener-botanists. Significant botanical collections came from: the West Indies (Hans Sloane (1660–1753)); China (James Cunningham); the spice islands of the East Indies (Moluccas, George Rumphius (1627–1702)); China and Mozambique (João de Loureiro (1717–1791)); West Africa (Michel Adanson (1727–1806)) who devised his own classification scheme and forwarded a crude theory of the mutability of species; Canada, Hebrides, Iceland, New Zealand by Captain James Cook‘s chief botanist Joseph Banks (1743–1820)(see Plant introduction)[50] Plant nurseries and commercial horticulture thrived as never before.

Rise of science

Science too was becoming a respectable enterprise, not just a rich man’s diversion or a minor source of useful practical knowledge in a world of religious meaning and explanation. The return to analytical empiricism was to culminate in the celebration of logic and science during the European Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. The number of scientific publications soon multiplied. In England, for example, scientific communication and scientific causes were facilitated by learned societies like Royal Society (founded in 1660) and the Linnaean Society (founded in 1788). There was also the support and activities of botanical institutions like the Jardin du Roi in Paris, the Oxford-, Cambridge- and Chelsea Physic Gardens as well as the influence of renowned private gardens and wealthy entrepreneurial nurserymen. Medicinal herbals changed into Floras as books listing, describing and sometimes also illustrating the plants growing in particular regions. By the early 17th century the number of plants described in Europe had risen to about 6000.

Colonial exploration during the Age of Discovery prompted a flurry of botanical activity as plant trophies from distant lands were returned to decorate the gardens of Europe’s powerful and wealthy in a period of enthusiasm for natural history and botany known as ‘botanophilia‘ an obsession that will never recur. Flower painting reached its height at this time while for botanists this was a true return to science through the encyclopaedic task of plant description, classification, nomenclature, identification, and illustration. Most outstanding of all the naturalists of this period was Carl Linnaeus, the ‘father of plant classification’, but there were many others.

We can see a transition from the first listings and accounts of plants within empire Theophrastus th Greek, Pliny the Roman, the colonial floras of the British Empire, latter-day work in the tropics and the advent of modern on-line plant databases and first installments of a World Flora initiated in 2012 through the Missouri Botanical Garden, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and New York Botanical Garden.

Women in science

It is a sad aspect of human history that, until recent times, women have been given a secondary role in society, for the most part confined to the home – albeit the management of large estates in the case of the landed gentry and aristocracy. Part of the problem was the desire to preserve and control dynastic continuity by keeping women securely constrained; part was the tradition of primogeniture designed to keep property intact (not broken up by dividing it among many children) within the male line; and of course various prejudices concerning ‘natural’ biological and social differences between the male and female.

Botany has been no exception to this general rule although, as in other areas of life, there have been a few exceptional women who have overcome male barriers. Among those deserving special attention as leaving a permanent impression on the subject are Abbess Hildegard of Bingen.

In the 17th century Mary Somerset, the Duchess of Beaufort (1630-1715) was a botanically well-read friend of John Ray and Hans Sloane. She accumulated and recorded both living and dried plants from her collections in London and Badminton (accumulated from South Africa, West Indies, Sri Lanka, Virginia, India, Japan and China), the latter with fine stove houses rivalling those of Queen Mary at Hampton Court and containing the latest exotic fruits. A society lady, at Badminton she employed the botanist William Sherard to tutor her grandson, taking advantage of his knowledge and contacts to accumulate some 1500 more plants for her collection. She also held a fine orchard and orangerie. In London, at Beaufort House there were some more of her favourite plants including a collection of those with variegated, mostly striped, foliage plants in pots. Many of her plants were acquired from George London of the Brompton Park Nursery and gardener to William III at Hampton Court and she kept a record of the merchant ships and captains who had brought the plants to England. No doubt a proportion of her plants were new and undescribed species. She ensured a record of some of her favourites by initiating a two-volume Florilegium of botanical illustrations, the first volume painted by Evergardus Kickius and the second by Daniel Francome and now in the library at Badminton. She bequeathed a 12-volume herbarium of pressed plants to the Natural History Museum. In 1812 Robert Brown commemorated her contribution to botany by naming an Australian genus, Beaufortia.

18th century botany was one of the few sciences considered appropriate for genteel educated women. Around 1760, with the popularization of the Linnaean system, botany became much more widespread among educated women who painted plants, attended classes on plant classification, and collected herbarium specimens although emphasis was still on the healing and aesthetic properties of plants rather than plant reproduction which had overtones of sexuality which were considered too confronting for the fairer sex. Women began publishing on botanical topics and children’s books on botany appeared by authors like Charlotte Turner Smith. Cultural authorities argued that education through botany created culturally and scientifically aware citizens, part of the thrust for ‘improvement’ that characterised the Enlightenment. However, in the early 19th century with the recognition of botany as an official science women were again excluded from the discipline.

Plant structure

Descriptive botany had become reinvigorated with the printing of Herbals which became more comprehensive and botanically rigorous to eventually take the form of the modern Flora. Credit for this achievement is given to Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778).

Influential predecessors included Swiss scholar Conrad Gessner (1516-1565) who discovered many new plants while climbing the Swiss Alps. He proposed that there were groups or genera of plants, each genus composed of many species and that these were defined by similar flowers and fruits. This principle of organization laid the groundwork for future botanists and he wrote the important Historia Plantarum shortly before his death. Carolus Clusius (1526-1609), possibly the most influential of botanical horticulurists of the sixteenth century, trained at Montpelier, he established the Leiden Botanic Garden where he was appointed university professor and noting the virus-induced colouring of tulips that triggered tulipomania. Clusius had journeyed throughout most of Western Europe, making discoveries in the vegetable kingdom along the way. He was the first to propose dividing plants into classes.

Italian physician Andrea Caesalpino (1519–1603) was a teacher at the University of Pisa before becoming Director of the Botanic Garden of Pisa from 1554 to 1558 and author of the 16-volume De Plantis (1583) (published the same year as Dodoens’s Pemptades) described 1500 plants and was, in effect, the first scientific treatise on plants since the works of Theophrastus, the first volume being a 30-page exposition of theoretical botany up to his day: his herbarium of 260 pages and 768 mounted specimens still survives and can be viewed in the Oxford University library. Though aware of the ‘natural’ systems of Pena and Lobel, it was Caesalpino that earned from Linnaeus recognition as being the first true systematist. Caesalpino organised plants into genera and classes based largely on the structure of flowers and fruit. It was on Caesalpino’s ideas that Tournefort and Linnaeus would subsequently build a more securely universal system of plant inventory.

By the 1620’s the number of scientifically known plants totalled about 6000 species as listed in Gaspard Bauhin’s (1560–1624) Prodromus Theatrici Botanici (1620) and Pinax (1623), the latter publication using two-word names or binomials (most botanists at this time were using short descriptive phrases) while also listing the several names that had been used for the same plant (synonyms) and where they were published, thereby linking the descriptive botanical literature, a valuable insight later used by Linnaeus.

Precise descriptions were needed for accurate identification demand an unambiguous terminology for the many plant structures. A rigorous botanical terminology was devised by German philosopher Joachim Jung (1587–1657) and augmented by English botanist John Ray (1623–1705). Volumes 1 and 2 of Ray’s three-volume Historia Plantarum (1686, 1688, 1704) describes and classifies about 7000 species of British and European plants and, in effect, the first botanical synthesis and text book for modern botany, while the third volume adds a further 11,700 entries including plants from Jamaica, the Philippines, Africa and the Far East as a substantial step towards the ultimate goal of a world flora.[3] He encouraged the use of all plant parts in his classification system and noted the distinction between variation deriving from external environmental and internal factors, and being the first to give a biological definition of the term species. Many of his groupings anticipated modern plant families. He was also among the first experimental physiologists and according to botanical historian Alan Morton ‘influenced both the theory and the practice of botany more decisively than any other single person in the latter half of the seventeenth century‘.[4]

Naming, description, classification, illustration & cataloguing

Up to the 17th century botany and medicine were one and the same but with the advent of the Flora backed by specimens deposited in a herbarium and plant studies that largely ignored medicinal uses the botanical break from medicine was complete. Plant classification systems of the 17th and 18th centuries now related plants to one another and not to man, marking a return to the non-anthropocentric botanical science promoted by Theophrastus over 1500 years before. By the middle of the 18th century the botanical booty resulting from the era of exploration was accumulating in gardens and herbaria – and it needed to be systematically catalogued. This was the task of the taxonomists, the plant classifiers.

Classification 1650-1750 ->

With a diversity of botanical terminology, the same plants being described under different names in different countries there was a desperate need for a standardised system of naming, describing and classifying organisms to facilitate the difficult business of scientific communication. Ray’s family system was later extended by Pierre Magnol (1638–1715) and Joseph de Tournefort (1656–1708), a student of Magnol, achieved notoriety for his botanical expeditions, his emphasis on floral characters in classification, and for reviving the idea of the genus as the basic unit of classification.

Linnaeus’s great contribution was to synthesise former work into a practical and universal system for cataloguing plants, one that was acceptable to all – a remarkable feat whose legacy remains at the heart of biological classification and nomenclature today. Linnaeus devised a ‘sexual system’ of classification with the numbers and arrangement of stamens and pistils as crucial characters. Gradually he published the necessary background matter needed to support his later ideas: Systema Naturae (1735), Genera Plantarum (1737), and Philosophia Botanica (1751). For botanists it is Species Plantarum (1753) for which he is best known as in this book he gave every species a binomial, a two-word name like our own forename and surname, thus establishing the path for the future accepted method of designating the names of all organisms.

The groundwork laid by Linnaeus has remained, to be refined by more detailed study and supplemented by the new information revealed by modern technology. Classifications have changed from ‘artificial’ systems based on convenient characters of general habit and form, to pre-evolutionary ‘natural’ systems expressing more precisely the similarity and differences between organisms using one to many characters. Linnaeus used a practical artificial system recognising that a more scientific natural system would inevitably follow. Today’s ‘natural’ systems are used to infer evolutionary relationships.

Natural classification – 1700-1800

As anticipated his sexual system was later elaborated into the natural system of French naturalist Bernard de Jussieu (1699–1777), botanist at Le Jardin des Plantes in France. In 1759 Bernard laid out beds of plants in the royal garden (Jardin du Roi, later the Jardin du Plantes) of Trianon in the Palace of Versailles (see Josephine de Beauharnais) according to his own particular scheme or system of classification – to produce what we now know as a ‘system garden’. Frenchman botanists were active at this time, this particular system being modified again by his nephew Antoine-Laurent de Jussieu (1748–1836) and further refined by Michel Adanson (1727–1806) in his Familles des Plantes (1763, 1764) whose classification used many characters, the most diagnostic ones depending on the particular plant group, while also adding more plant families – a system that is followed broadly today. It was but the major principles of taxonomy on which modern classification is based were established in the period 1650-1750.

Classification 1800-1900

From Enlightenment taxonomy we were bequeathed a precise binomial nomenclature and botanical terminology, a system of classification that is based on natural affinities, and a clear idea of the ranks of family, genus and species — although the taxa to be placed within these ranks remains, as always, the subject of taxonomic research. Linnaeus also set a precedent for formal plant description and the listing of plants that included synonyms and former literature. From Linnaeus on, the botanical task of creating a world flora was a clear goal. Today we are well down this path with work now concentrated in the tropics.

From the nineteenth century ‘New and revised “phylogenetic” classification systems of the plant kingdom were produced, perhaps the most notable being that of August Eichler (1839–1887), and the massive 23 volume Die natürlichen Pflanzenfamilien of Adolf Engler (1844–1930) & Karl Prantl (1849–1893) published over the period 1887 and 1915.

Classification 1900-present

Plant taxonomy (perhaps better known today as phylogenetic systematics) has continued its work by adding many more characters as revealed using modern technology – from electron microscopy, palynology, biochemistry, genetics (as genomics, molecular systematics, etc.) and speeding up analysis through the use of computers as informatics (phenetics, taximetrics, cladistics, bioinformatics etc.). Taxonomy based on gross morphology was now being supplemented by using characters revealed by pollen morphology, embryology, anatomy, cytology, serology, macromolecules and more.[98] The introduction of computers facilitated the rapid analysis of large data sets used for numerical taxonomy (also called taximetrics or phenetics). The emphasis on truly natural phylogenies spawned the disciplines of cladistics and phylogenetic systematics. The grand taxonomic synthesis An Integrated System of Classification of Flowering Plants (1981) of American Arthur Cronquist (1919–1992) was superseded when, in 1998, the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group published a phylogeny of flowering plants based on the analysis of DNA sequences using the techniques of the new molecular systematics which was resolving questions concerning the earliest evolutionary branches of the angiosperms (flowering plants). The exact relationship of fungi to plants had for some time been uncertain. Several lines of evidence pointed to fungi being different from plants, animals and bacteria – indeed, more closely related to animals than plants. In the 1980s-90s molecular analysis revealed an evolutionary divergence of fungi from other organisms about 1 billion years ago – sufficient reason to erect a unique kingdom separate from plants.

The microscope & plant anatomy 1650-1700

This approach coupled with the new Linnaean system of binomial nomenclature resulted in plant encyclopaedias without medicinal information called Floras that meticulously described and illustrated the plants growing in particular regions. The 17th century also marked the beginning of experimental botany and the application of a more rigorous scientific method, while improvements in the microscope launched the new discipline of plant histology and anatomy whose foundations, laid by the careful observations of Englishmen Robert Hooke, Nehemiah Grew and Italian Marcello Malpighi, would last for 150 years.

The invention of the microscope and improved lens grinding allowed plants to be observed, described and analysed at a totally different scale leading to the foundation of plant anatomy by Italian Marcello Malpighi and Englishman Nehemiah Grew between 1650 and 1700. Their work marked the beginnings of developmental anatomy and morphology, observing, describing, naming and drawing the changes in structure of tissues and cells at all stages of plant growth from seed to mature plant including wood formation.

During the 19th century German scientists led the way towards a unitary theory of the structure and life-cycle of plants. Following improvements in the microscope at the end of the 18th century, Charles Mirbel (1776–1854) in 1802 published his Traité d’Anatomie et de Physiologie Végétale and Johann Moldenhawer (1766–1827) published Beyträge zur Anatomie der Pflanzen (1812) in which he describes techniques for separating cells from the middle lamella. He identified vascular and parenchymatous tissues, described vascular bundles, observed the cells in the cambium, and interpreted tree rings. He found that stomata were composed of pairs of cells, rather than a single cell with a hole.

Anatomical studies on the stele were consolidated by Carl Sanio (1832–1891) who described the secondary tissues and meristem including cambium and its action. Hugo von Mohl (1805–1872) summarized work in anatomy leading up to 1850 in Die Vegetabilische Zelle (1851) but this work was later eclipsed by the encyclopaedic comparative anatomy of Heinrich Anton de Bary in 1877. An overview of knowledge of the stele in root and stem was completed by Van Tieghem (1839–1914) and of the meristem by Karl Nägeli (1817–1891). Studies had also begun on the origins of the carpel and flower that continue to the present day.


The cell nucleus was discovered by Robert Brown in 1831. Demonstration of the cellular composition of all organisms, with each cell possessing all the characteristics of life, is attributed to the combined efforts of botanist Matthias Schleiden and zoologist Theodor Schwann (1810–1882) in the early 19th century although Moldenhawer had already shown that plants were wholly cellular with each cell having its own wall and Julius von Sachs had shown the continuity protoplasm between cell walls.

From 1870 to 1880 it became clear that cell nuclei are never formed anew but always derived from the substance of another nucleus. In 1882 Flemming observed the longitudinal splitting of chromosomes in the dividing nucleus and concluded that each daughter nucleus received half of each of the chromosomes of the mother nucleus: then by the early 20th century it was found that the number of chromosomes in a given species is constant. With genetic continuity confirmed and the finding by Eduard Strasburger that the nuclei of reproductive cells (in pollen and embryo) have a reducing division (halving of chromosomes, now known as meiosis) the field of heredity was opened up. By 1926 Thomas Morgan was able to outline a theory of the gene and its structure and function. The form and function of plastids received similar attention, the association with starch being noted at an early date. With observation of the cellular structure of all organisms and the process of cell division and continuity of genetic material, the analysis of the structure of protoplasm and the cell wall as well as that of plastids and vacuoles – what is now known as cytology, or cell theory became firmly established.

Later, the cytological basis of the gene-chromosome theory of heredity extended from about 1900–1944 and was initiated by the rediscovery of Gregor Mendel’s (1822–1884) laws of plant heredity first published in 1866 in Experiments on Plant Hybridization and based on cultivated pea, Pisum sativum: this heralded the opening up of plant genetics. The cytological basis for gene-chromosome theory was explored through the role of polyploidy and hybridization in speciation and it was becoming better understood that interbreeding populations were the unit of adaptive change in biology.

Plant function

Experimental science & plant physiology

Botany from the time of Theophrastus could be divided straightforwardly into pure and applied domains. Early natural history had created three major botanical streams morphology (classification), anatomy and physiology – that is, external form, internal structure, and functional operation, while the three most obvious streams in applied botany were horticulture, forestry and agriculture – although from now on disciplines began to emerge that did not fall into such neat categories as technology has opened up new techniques and widened the scope of study: weed science, ethnobotany, plant pathology, pharmacognosy, and economic botany and which sit uneasily, if at all, in modern plant science. Specialists now began to confine their interest to the botany of particular plant groups phycology (algae), pteridology (ferns), mycology (fungi, before these were placed in aseparate kingdom), bryology (mosses and liverworts) and palaeobotany (fossil plants).

Classifying plants was for the most part the routine process of descriptive science but the first half of the 18th century marked a move into experimental science – an examination of the way plants functioned and interacted with their environment over many scales from the large-scale global distribution and biological significance of vegetation and plant communities (biogeography and ecology) to the small scale processes operating within the plant as revealed by new subjects like cell theory, experimental physiology, molecular biology and plant biochemistry.

In plant physiology research interest was focused on the movement of sap and the absorption of substances through the roots. Jan Helmont (1577–1644) by experimental observation and calculation, noted that the increase in weight of a growing plant cannot be derived purely from the soil, and concluded it must relate to water uptake. Englishman Stephen Hales (1677–1761) established by quantitative experiment that there is uptake of water by plants and a loss of water by transpiration and that this is influenced by environmental conditions: he distinguished ‘root pressure’, ‘leaf suction’ and ‘imbibition’ and also noted that the major direction of sap flow in woody tissue is upward. His results were published in Vegetable Staticks (1727) He also noted that ‘air makes a very considerable part of the substance of vegetables’. English chemist Joseph Priestley (1733–1804) is noted for his discovery of oxygen (as now called) and its production by plants. Later Jan Ingenhousz (1730–1799) observed that only in sunlight do the green parts of plants absorb air and release oxygen, this being more rapid in bright sunlight while, at night, the air (CO2) is released from all parts. His results were published in Experiments upon vegetables (1779) and with this the foundations for 20th century studies of carbon fixation were laid. From his observations he sketched the cycle of carbon in nature even though the composition of carbon dioxide was yet to be resolved. Studies in plant nutrition had also progressed. In 1804 Nicolas-Théodore de Saussure’s (1767–1845) Recherches Chimiques sur la Végétation was an exemplary study of scientific exactitude that demonstrated the similarity of respiration in both plants and animals, that the fixation of carbon dioxide includes water, and that just minute amounts of salts and nutrients (which he analysed in chemical detail from plant ash) have a powerful influence on plant growth.

Water relations

The nineteenth century saw major advances in plant physiology, mostly through the research of German botanists determined to elucidate water and nutrient transport through the plant. Much of the work of this period especially was carried out in the laboratories of Julius Sachs (1832-1897) and synthesised in his book Vorlesungen über Pflanzenphysiologie (1882).

Carbon fixation (photosynthesis)

At the start of the 19th century the idea that plants could synthesise almost all their tissues from atmospheric gases had not yet emerged. The energy component of photosynthesis, the capture and storage of the Sun’s radiant energy in carbon bonds (a process on which all life depends) was first elucidated in 1847 by Mayer, but the details of how this was done would take many more years.[88] Chlorophyll was named in 1818 and its chemistry gradually determined, to be finally resolved in the early 20th century. The mechanism of photosynthesis remained a mystery until the mid-19th century when Sachs, in 1862, noted that starch was formed in green cells only in the presence of light and in 1882 he confirmed carbohydrates as the starting point for all other organic compounds in plants.[89] The connection between the pigment chlorophyll and starch production was finally made in 1864 but tracing the precise biochemical pathway of starch formation did not begin until about 1915.

Nitrogen fixation

Significant discoveries relating to nitrogen assimilation and metabolism, including ammonification, nitrification and nitrogen fixation (the uptake of atmospheric nitrogen by symbiotic soil microorganisms) had to wait for advances in chemistry and bacteriology in the late 19th century and this was followed in the early 20th century by the elucidation of protein and amino-acid synthesis and their role in plant metabolism. With this knowledge it was then possible to outline the global nitrogen cycle.

Other discoveries and studies included osmosis and geotropism.

Economic botany

Advances in economic botany have benefitted from basic botanical research into plant physiology, genetics and so on, but empiricism is not confined to universities. Practical applied knowledge could be improved and made more efficient by constant critical observation noting what worked and what did not. Plants have always been the source of energy for our bodies so food has never been of secondary importance.

Perhaps unknowingly today’s familiar staple foods were all domesticated in prehistory. Seed would be collected from the high-yielding plants leading to the selection of higher-yielding varieties. Plants like peas and beans (legumes) were cultivated on all continents but cereals made up most of the basic diet on all continents except possibly Australia. There was rice in East Asia, maize in southern and central America, wheat and barley in the Middle east supplemented by local foods. In Greco-Roman times cereals were supplemented in the Mediterranean by grapes, apples, figs, and olives, Roman manuscripts already alluding to particular cultivated varieties of these plants. Botanical historian William Stearn has observed that ‘cultivated plants are mankind’s most vital and precious heritage from remote antiquity‘.

Though many Greek manuscripts were written on the subject of farming it was the practical Romans who left the founding texts from which later industrial agriculture would emerge.

Plant reproduction 1700-1800

Tracing the finer detail of plant sexuality requires not only good analytic kills but careful microscopic observation and only in 1694 was it conclusively shown that ovule development needed fertilization by pollen from the stamens finally confirming observations made years before by Babylonians observing date palms in Assyria in at least 885-860 BCE[8], Empedocles (490-430 BCE) and Theophrastus (371-287 BCE). From these early observations work across plant groups revealed the ‘alternation of generations’ and opened up the field of comparative morphology leading in the early19th century to an understanding of nectar and the role of insects and wind in pollination.

Nineteenth century foundations of modern botany

In about the mid-19th century scientific communication changed. Until this time ideas were largely exchanged by reading the works of authoritative individuals who dominated in their field: these were often wealthy and influential “gentlemen scientists”. Now research was reported by the publication of “papers” that emanated from research “schools” that promoted the questioning of conventional wisdom. This process had started in the late 18th century when specialist journals began to appear. Even so, botany was greatly stimulated by the appearance of the first “modern” text book, Matthias Schleiden’s (1804–1881) Grundzüge der Wissenschaftlichen Botanik, published in English in 1849 as Principles of Scientific Botany. By 1850 an invigorated organic chemistry had revealed the structure of many plant constituents.[74] Although the great era of plant classification had now passed the work of description continued. Augustin de Candolle (1778–1841) succeeded Antoine-Laurent de Jussieu in managing the botanical project Prodromus Systematis Naturalis Regni Vegetabilis (1824–1841) which involved 35 authors: it contained all the dicotyledons known in his day, some 58000 species in 161 families, and he doubled the number of recognized plant families, the work being completed by his son Alphonse (1806–1893) in the years from 1841 to 1873.

Plant geography and ecology 1800-present

The opening of the 19th century was marked by an increase in interest in the connection between climate and plant distribution. Carl Willdenow (1765–1812) examined the connection between seed dispersal and distribution, the nature of plant associations and the impact of geological history. He noticed the similarities between the floras of N America and N Asia, the Cape and Australia, and he explored the ideas of ‘centre of diversity’ and ‘centre of origin’. German Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) and Frenchman Aime Bonpland (1773–1858) published a massive and highly influential 30 volume work on their travels; Robert Brown (1773–1852) noted the similarities between the floras of S Africa, Australia and India, while Joakim Schouw (1789–1852) explored more deeply than anyone else the influence on plant distribution of temperature, soil factors, especially soil water, and light, work that was continued by Alphonse de Candolle (1806–1893). Joseph Hooker (1817–1911) pushed the boundaries of floristic studies with his work on Antarctica, India and the Middle East with special attention to endemism. August Grisebach (1814–1879) in Die Vegetation der Erde (1872) examined physiognomy in relation to climate and in America geographic studies were pioneered by Asa Gray (1810–1888).

Physiological plant geography, perhaps more familiarly termed ecology, emerged from floristic biogeography in the late 19th century as environmental influences on plants received greater recognition. Early work in this area was synthesised by Danish professor Eugenius Warming (1841–1924) in his book Plantesamfund (Ecology of Plants, generally taken to mark the beginning of modern ecology) including new ideas on plant communities, their adaptations and environmental influences. This was followed by another grand synthesis, the Pflanzengeographie auf Physiologischer Grundlage of Andreas Schimper (1856–1901) in 1898 (published in English in 1903 as Plant-geography upon a physiological basis translated by W. R. Fischer, Oxford: Clarendon press, 839 pp.)

Developmental morphology and evolution

Until the 1860s it was believed that species had remained unchanged through time: each biological form was the result of an independent act of creation and therefore absolutely distinct and immutable. But the hard reality of geological formations and strange fossils needed scientific explanation. Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) replaced the assumption of constancy with the theory of descent with modification. Phylogeny became a new principle as ‘natural’ classifications became classifications reflecting, not just similarities, but evolutionary relationships. Wilhelm Hofmeister established that there was a similar pattern of organization in all plants expressed through the alternation of generations and extensive homology of structures.

Polymath German intellect Johann Goethe (1749–1832) had interests and influence that extended into botany. In Die Metamorphose der Pflanzen (1790) he provided a theory of plant morphology (he coined the word “morphology”) and he included within his concept of ‘metamorphosis’ modification during evolution, thus linking comparative morphology with phylogeny. Though the botanical basis of his work has been challenged there is no doubt that he prompted discussion and research on the origin and function of floral parts.[86] His theory probably stimulated the opposing views of German botanists Alexander Braun (1805–1877) and Matthias Schleiden who applied the experimental method to the principles of growth and form that were later extended by Augustin de Candolle (1778–1841).

Twentieth century

20th century science grew out of the solid foundations laid by the breadth of vision and detailed experimental observations of the 19th century. A vastly increased research force was now rapidly extending the horizons of botanical knowledge at all levels of plant organization from molecules to global plant ecology. There was now an awareness of the unity of biological structure and function at the cellular and biochemical levels of organisation. Botanical advance was closely associated with advances in physics and chemistry with the greatest advances in the 20th century mainly relating to the penetration of molecular organization.[91] However, at the level of plant communities it would take until mid century to consolidate work on ecology and population genetics.[92] By 1910 experiments using labelled isotopes were being used to elucidate plant biochemical pathways, to open the line of research leading to gene technology. On a more practical level research funding was now becoming available from agriculture and industry.


In 1903 Chlorophylls a and b were separated by thin layer chromatography then, through the 1920s and 1930s, biochemists, notably Hans Krebs (1900–1981) and Carl (1896–1984) and Gerty Cori (1896–1957) began tracing out the central metabolic pathways of life. Between the 1930s and 1950s it was determined that ATP, located in mitochondria, was the source of cellular chemical energy and the constituent reactions of photosynthesis were progressively revealed. Then, in 1944 DNA was extracted for the first time.[93] Along with these revelations there was the discovery of plant hormones or “growth substances”, notably auxins, (1934) gibberellins (1934) and cytokinins (1964)[94] and the effects of photoperiodism, the control of plant processes, especially flowering, by the relative lengths of day and night.

Following the establishment of Mendel’s laws, the gene-chromosome theory of heredity was confirmed by the work of August Weismann who identified chromosomes as the hereditary material. Also, in observing the halving of the chromosome number in germ cells he anticipated work to follow on the details of meiosis, the complex process of redistribution of hereditary material that occurs in the germ cells. In the 1920s and 1930s population genetics combined the theory of evolution with Mendelian genetics to produce the modern synthesis. By the mid-1960s the molecular basis of metabolism and reproduction was firmly established through the new discipline of molecular biology. Genetic engineering, the insertion of genes into a host cell for cloning, began in the 1970s with the invention of recombinant DNA techniques and its commercial applications applied to agricultural crops followed in the 1990s. There was now the potential to identify organisms by molecular ‘fingerprinting’ and to estimate the times in the past when critical evolutionary changes had occurred through the use of ‘molecular clocks’.

Computers, electron microscopes and evolution

Increased experimental precision combined with vastly improved scientific instrumentation was opening up exciting new fields. In 1936 Alexander Oparin (1894–1980) demonstrated a possible mechanism for the synthesis of organic matter from inorganic molecules. In the 1960s it was determined that the Earth’s earliest life-forms treated as plants, the cyanobacteria known as stromatolites, dated back some 3.5 billion years.

Mid-century transmission and scanning electron microscopy presented another level of resolution to the structure of matter, taking anatomy into the new world of “ultrastructure”.

Biogeography, ecology, domesticated plants 1900-1950 ->

Colonial expansion had, for the colonists, made the world seem smaller and less mysterious. In the early twentieth century the traditional analytic scientific method of breaking things up into constituent parts to see how they worked began to look beyond the scale of individuals into larger groupings. In 1912 Alfred Wegener (1880–1930) published the theory of continental drift which gave impetus to more global interactions. Nineteenth century botanists like Joseph Hooker and Robert Brown had begun reasoned speculation on global plant distribution and this mode of thinking, supported by the work of people like von Humboldt, Alfred Russel Wallace and French-Italian Leon Croizat created a whole new interest in large-scale biological systems at a global scale known as biogeography.

At about the same time and at a slightly smaller scale scientists were looking more closely than ever before at the way plants and animals were interacting with one-another and their environment. This was the beginning of ecology which, by 1930,had produced the important ideas of plant and animal communities, succession, community change, food chains, energy flows and such which, from the 1940s, matured into and independent discipline as Eugene Odum (1913–2002) and others formulated many of the modern concepts of ecosystem ecology.

Genetics had provided a means to study the history and evolution of domesticated plants and the pioneering work on this subject by Frenchman Alphonse de Candolle was extended by Russian Nikolai Vavilov (1887–1943) who, from 1914 to 1940, published accounts of the geography, centres of origin, and evolutionary history of the economic plants that were now occupying so much of the earth’s surface.

The future

Research is unending: every new discovery or problem solved gives rise to more questions. But if we were to bring back Theophrastus and tell him what we have found out since he and Aristotle were researching plants and animals on the island of Lesbos, I think he would be both amazed and deeply impressed. We now know how plants work: all basic questions concerning their structure and function have, in principle, been resolved. A World Flora has begun as an inventory of all the world’s flowering plants. Although we must acknowledge forerunners it was Theophrastus, more than others, who established the ‘initial conditions’ from which so much has flowed: ideas about plant collecting and redistribution, economic botany, the botanical garden as a place associated with education (and later university), and above all the legacy of Greek analytical empiricism that gave us science in general and plant science in particular.

What would probably have surprised Theophrastus more than anything else would be the scope of modern botanical knowledge as science’s application in technology has revealed the plant world at the micro and macro scales (see Reason & science).

So what problems are left to solve: what will plant science look like in years to come, and what are the problems yet to be resolved?

Molecular biology

The fine detail revealed by microscopes of incredible sophistication, and chemical analysis that penetrates to the atoms first postulated by Democritus – the explanatory power opened up by genetics, understanding of the genetic code, and the molecular biology on which modern biotechnology rests.


Now the distinction between pure and applied botany becomes blurred as our historically accumulated botanical wisdom at all levels of plant organisation is needed (but especially at the molecular and global levels) to improve human custodianship of planet earth. The most urgent unanswered botanical questions now relate to the role of plants as primary producers in the global cycling of life’s basic ingredients: energy, carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen, and ways that our plant stewardship can help address the global environmental issues of resource management, conservation, human food security, biologically invasive organisms, carbon sequestration, climate change, and sustainability.

Classical era (500 BCE-410 CE)

During the period of the Greek empire (c.500 BCE-100 BCE) medicinal knowledge passed to the Greek rhizotomi who compiled lists of plants and their medicinal properties culminating in the compilation of Diocles of Carystus in Euboeia. Especially notable from this period was the Hippocratic Corpus, a list of medicinal plants attributed to the school of Hippocrates on the Aegean island of Cos, along with the work of physicians, herbalists, and plant scientists (Aristotle and Theophrastus) based in Athens, Galen in Pergamon, and Greek soldier Dioscorides in the Roman Army whose work would dominate the Middle Ages.

General plant knowledge was accumulated in the great Roman imperial libraries at Ephesus and Pergamon on the Turkish Mediterranean coast and the library of Alexandria in Egypt, notably the multi-volume encyclopaedic Naturalis Historia of Pliny the Elder.

Early Middle Ages (c. 400-1000 CE)

Though medical knowledge persisted in the Roman Empire (c.100 BCE-300 CE) to be taken up by Christianity, it was not restricted in the Middle Ages to monastery infirmaries and the clergy. In Western Europe there were centres of medicinal knowledge at Carthage, Saragossa, urban centres in France and elsewhere.

Medical education centres remained (c. 300-600 CE) in the East at Cos, Pergamon, Alexandria, Ephesus, Antioch, and later Constantinople and Edessa. From the time of Alexander Greek influence was evident in the East, notably in Greek Aristotelian schools founded in Syria whose influence passed into Persia, Arabia and elsewhere. In the fourth century a centre for medical education was established at Edessa moving to Nisibis for a few years then to Gundeshapur in Persia. Here, it appears, was a library, university, medical school, and hospital flourishing for about 300 years until about 700 CE.[2] While Germany, France, and England entered a phase of intellectual stagnation, this centre, which used the Syriac language, was significant for its translation of many original manuscripts of Greek philosophy into Syrian. It was Arabic translations like these that were eventually translated into Latin, and sometimes back into Greek, before being assimilated again into Mediterranean and European culture. For centuries written works referring to plants such as those of influential clerics like Isodore of Seville (c. 560-631) and German Rhabanus Maurus (c.780-856) were clearly derived from the earlier work of Theophrastus and Pliny.
The years 200 to 1400 can be conveniently divided into two historical periods. From 200 to 850-900 we see minimum technical and scientific progress with the feudal system of land management just beginning and little centralized authority. After about 850 there was a consolidation of the Carolingian empire and more stable government and societies under the monastic and feudal systems. From the 8th century there was the development of a money economy, the replacement of 2-field by 3-field crop rotation, the more general use of marl (imestone) and dung for manuring, more legumes, greater use of oats, rye, and buckwheat, the hinged flail for grain harvesting, the harrow for covering seed and weeding, the completion of the heavy iron plough, introduction of iron horseshoes and improved harness. Between 1000 and 1300 the European population doubled and populations became more concentrated in towns.[15]

During the 600 years of the European Middle Ages, from 600 to 1200, the formal tradition of herbal lore was continued in the monasteries. Many of the monks were skilled at producing manuscripts and tending the medicinal gardens that provided the herbal medicines needed for the sick who were being cared for in the monastery dormitories. However, almost universally the works of this period looked back to, and copied directly from, works of the classical era.

The Islamic Golden Age (650-1300)

With the rise of Islam in the seventh century the torch of learning passed to the intellectual centre of Islam in Baghdad where the medicinal traditions of Greece, Iran, and India were combined. In 985 an Arab medical school, based on a revival of the best Greek medicine, was established at Salerno in Central Italy associated with the monastery of Cassimo, this being an early prototype of later European universities and their medical faculties.

People have traditionally assembled in greater numbers in the the climatically equable temperate and warm-temperate zone of the world. This is where most of the world’s botanists have been trained but where where plant diversity is generally less than the tropics which is where important and practically useful centres of genetic diversity mostly lie. This is important in the light of genetically uniform crop pan-cultivars grown as monocultures.

During the Arab Golden Age Ibn Sina (Avicenna) combined knowledge of the Greek and Muslim worlds and their scriptures into a materia medica that merged the medicinal knowledge of both East and West.

High Middle Ages (1000-1300 CE)

Development of cities and more dispersed centres of learning is indicated through the work of Albertus Magnus, a Dominica monk who, aftetr receiving his education in Padua Italy, moved to Germany and Paris his work being widely disseminated East and West in both the Arab and Christian worlds.

Late Middle Ages (1300-1500 CE)

The Late Middle Ages are marked by the advent of printing and herbals.

Sixteenth century

The 16th century opened with the first circumnavigation of the globe by the Spaniard Magellan’s expedition marking the commencement of a new phase of globalisation emanating from the nation-states of Western Europe. Seeking spices on western route across the Atlantic Ocean Columbus struck the Bahamas. Believing himself to be in the East Indies he described the native inhabitants as ‘Indians’. Columbus connected the Old World of Europe to the New World of the Americas. Travelling on an eastern route around the Cape of South Africa the Portuguese first occupied India before opening up trade routes and trading hubs to the East Indies.

Both Spain and Portugal brought Christianity to the native inhabitants, much of this work being carried out by Jesuit missionaries. But there was also interest in the study of the native plants and animals, with particular emphasis on plant medicinal properties. A general natural history of Latin America was published by the Jesuit José de Costa (1539-1600) in 1570 based on his work in Peru.

In an age of herbals Spanish versions of Dioscorides works were published and works by the Portuguese physician Amato Lusitano on blood circulation have stood the test of time, but it was the travellers who have been most remembered. Portuguese Vasco da Gama had reached Calicut on the west coast of India in 1498 and for around a century it would be Portugal that would control trade to the East. The major trading hub was Goa which was taken by Albuquerque in 1510. Physician Garcia de Orta (1501-1568) arrived here in 1534 after attending a Spanish University and lecturing in Lisbon. He is best known for his Colloquios dos Simples, e Drogas He Cousas Medicinais do India (1563) which was printed in Goa and one of the first European books to be printed in the subcontinent. A feature of his work is its coverage of popular Eastern plant products such as cloves, mace, nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon, assafoetida and betel-nut.[11] An illustrated Spanish translation of de Orta’s book was published by Cristóvao da Costa (1515-1594) in 1578, both the original and illustrated versions achieved popularity in Europe via a Latin translation by Clusius in Leiden that included a new set of illustrations. These two works introduced Europeans to the medicinal plants of India and Southeast Asia.

Spanish botanists of the New World included Francisco Hernández, physician to Phillip II of Spain, lived for seven years in Mexico working on medicinal plants, his Plants and Animals of New Spain describes over 3000 new plants. Nicolas Monárdes (1493-1588) from Seville in his two-volume Historia Generalis Plantarum (1569, 1571) with a more comprehensive version in 1574, gives us some of the first recorded accounts and illustrations of world-transforming New World plants like tobacco and the sunflower. An English translation was published in 1577 by John Frampton an English merchant who had settled in Spain only to be imprisoned and tortured by the Inquisition but escaping from Cádiz in 1567. published on the plants of the West Indies.

Spanish physicians respected the medicinal knowledge possessed by the native Aztecs as demonstrated by the publication of Libellus de Medicinalibus Indorum Herbis (Little Book of the Medicinal Herbs of the Indians). This was a Latin translation by Juan Badiano of a Nahuatl text, the Badianus Manuscript, compiled at the Colegio de Santa Cruz in 1552 by native American Martín de la Cruz and originally written in the Nahuatl language. It has not survived in the original but it was the first scientific illustrated account of Nahua medicine and botany.

In the second half of the sixteenth century publications (their printer was Christopher Plantin of Antwerp) by Clusius, Dodoens and L’Obel all emphasised botanical detail as well as discussing native habitats and methods of cultivation.

Seventeenth century

By the 1590s Holland had become the dominant naval power in the world. In 1602 the Dutch East India Company was formed and trade extended to the Cape and India and the Far East where Batavia, modelled on Amsterdam, was founded in 1619 launching the study of economic tropical botany. Holland was ideally situated within European trade routes especially those accessing the Baltic and Mediterranean. A Dutch Golden Age followed, engaging not only military and commercial power, but science and art. In the sixteenth century Leiden had become a centre for medicine, the botanic garden, established in 1587, being one of the first in western Europe and a focus for botanical studies. There followed a series of world-renowned physicians culminating in Herman Boerhaave (1668-1738) who made Leiden the European centre for medicine. By 1630 Amsterdam was a commecial and cultural hub and in 1682 its own botanic garden was founded.

Eighteenth century

In this century it is the French legacy that stands out. The men who worked in the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle and Jardin des Plantes in the early nineteenth century ‘… were virtually the founding fathers of the modern natural sciences …’ and it was ‘… Frenchmen at the Jardin des Plantes rather than Britons at Oxford, Chelsea and Kew, who founded modern botany’ (Hyams & MacQuitty 1969, p. 84). This was not the case for horticulture. But some of the botanical influence that existed in Paris and London now passed to Berlin.

Nineteenth century

Germany was not a maritime power, but by the early nineteeth century communication within the network of European scientists was efficient and effective with an increasing number of specialist scientific journals. While Britain was engaged with floristics, economic botany and systematics, between 1800 and 1860 a new school of botanical thinking developed in Germany as a Renaissance in botany based in Berlin took place coinciding with Germany’s industrialization as production overtook that in France and rivalled that of Britain. Here there was a return to the microscope and the study of plant processes. Notable here is the publiscation of what was effectively the world’s first modern text book on botany by Schleiden in 1842 which finally took botany away from its procupation with plant taxonomy. Through these years in was German science that lead Europe, especially in the field of plant physiology.

Plant science

Prehistory & early civilizations – agriculture, lists, crude descriptions, materia medica, ornamental horticulture

We know little of plant study in prehistory and the early civilizations. Beyond plant use as food, specialist plant knowledge related mostly to their medicinal use. Medicine, like theology and the law, was the domain of an intellectual class. Though, from antiquity, agriculture and horticulture would have been an important part of daily life, medicine was a scholarly pursuit and therefore more likely to appear in the written record. Human health, though often associated with plant medicines, was largely a spiritual or religious matter, the preserve of a medicine man, shaman, or priest whose skills might involve sorcery, incantations, potions and spells, as well as the medicinal properties of plants. The medicine-man possessed the knowledge and skills needed for the intercession between the physical and spiritual worlds. Gradually, notably in the Classical era, began the tentative replacement of intelligent agency as a causal force in the world with that of causation operating between objects.

Classical era – plant science, medicine

Plant science, the study of plants for their own sake rather than human utility, begins and ends (for 1800 years) with Theophrastus in c. 371–287, only returning with the Renaissance revival in learning. The human preoccupation with plants for agriculture and medicine would be only briefy interrupted by this excursion into the science of Classical Greece which was lost for nearly two millennia before returning in the modern era. Even at this time plant knowledge centred around plant lists, sometimes with descriptions of medicinal properties. Romans made little advance on the botany of the Greeks but agriculture was advanced through the writings of Columella, Varro, and Palladius.

Early Middle Ages

As botany emerges out of medicine (with the plant lists appearing in materia medica, herbals, and pharmacopoias) key historical figures in this subject are also included. The list reflects the Eurocentric bias of recorded history and should be extended with the names of more plant people from Persia, China, India and the East. However, records at present do suggest that although medicine in India and China was equal to that of the West, botanical science was of little interest.

Diversification of plant science

In very general terms we see human curiosity in plants, from prehistory to the European Renaissance, centred on medicinal plants but with a brief interlude in Classical Athens when plants were studied for their own interest.

With the Renaissance medicine was transformed into botany via botanic gardens associated with the appointment of professorial chairs (Professor Simplicium) to the the medical faculties of universities. This occurred first in the affluent Italian trading city-states of Venice, Genoa, Padua ad Pisa. From here botanical science would gradually become established in botanic gardens across Europe passing from the Mediterranean to Europe’s northwest and the Atlantic coast. Students in the Middle Ages were expected to be fluent in Latin, which was the common language of learning, so personal names were frequently Latinized. Lists of plants and their properties appeared as printed Herbals in the fifteenth century but these were largely derived from early sources. Botany proper with the taxonomy and standardization that was needed to put system and order into the flood of new plants coming into Europe during the Age of Discovery. Gradually a standardized terminology for plant morphology began to emerge in the latter part of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The emergence of plant morphology and anatomy had been prompted by the need for a more reliable and widely-accepted plant taxonomy. Through the seventeenth century the advent of the microscope opened the door to detailed studies of plant anatomy. From about 1580 to 1670 there was a Dutch golden age during which Europe’s centre for medical education was at Leiden and dominated by Herman Boerhaave, Professor of Medicine and director of the Hortus Botanicus Leiden.

In the mid 18th century classifications moved from the essentialist Aristotelian mode (there are particular key characters that constitute the ‘essence’ of a taxonomic group) to a natural or materialist classification that considers the totality of characters, the overall similarities and differences without the necessity for universal common characters. Gradually in the early to mid eighteenth century specialist interest developed in particular plant groups such as fungi (mycology), mosses and liverworts (cryptogams) and we see the beginnings of experimentation in plant physiology.

Though pollen was observed in the 1640s it was only in the 1870s after the development of the optical microscope that palynology would become mainstream.

By 1850 meticulous German botany had produced a unified account of plant structure, development, and reproduction (Schleiden, Hofmeister, Braun).

Key points

  • Theophrastus was the botanical culmination of the scientific and rational tradition of the Presocratic and later Greek philosophers
  • Ionians Pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles had envisaged biological evolution by the survival of better-adapted kinds; in contrast Greeks like Aristotle and Plato saw the natural world as a fixed scala naturae or Ladder of Life with a hierarchy of organisms
  • Epicurus sought to overcome guilt and fear and to discourage the ceaseless appeasing rituals of religion through religious skepticism
  • The Epicurean community enjoyed simplicity, fellowship and self-sufficiency away from mainstream society
  • Epicureanism would have an impact on the later lives of Romans and can be seen in the work of John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, and even Christianity
  • In a strongly hierarchical society Epicurus treated women and slaves as equals
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Artist’s impression of Theophrastus (c. 371–287 BCE)
Sculpture in the Orto Botanico Palermo.
Adapted from Wikipedia Commons


Apothecary is the medieval name for a seller of drugs and spices, loosely equivalent to today’s pharmacist as someone who prepares and sells medicines. When the medicines are plants or their extracts the person may be called a herbalist while a book that lists these plants, with their medicinal properties and probably some illustrations, is a herbal or, as in the case of Dioscorides' work, a Materia Medica. The medicinal plants themselves may be known as botanicals, simples, or officinals and in ancient times their medicinal properties were referred to as virtues. Medicines supplied by apothecaries were generally mixtures of multiple (compound) ingredients: ‘simple’ refers to one of these basic ingredients. 'Officinal' (of commerce) suggests that these simples were sold by the apothecaries. Sometimes the medicinal drugs (or the art of medicine itself) was called physic hence a garden of medicinal plants was known as a physic garden. In more recent times someone who studies drugs and their effects in a scientific way is known as a pharmacologist and the book, often a government publication, that lists the medicines, their formulas, preparation, strength and purity, is known as a pharmacopoeia. When plants alone are the source of drugs the study may be termed pharmacognosy. A physician is a medical practitioner who is highly skilled in diagnosis (rather than surgery), a specialist who has usually had a longer training than a doctor or GP.


Rashidun     -     632-661  
Umayyad     -     661-750  
Abbasid     -       750-1258  
 Ottoman     -     1517-1924  


Early Dyn. Period -    3150–2686
Old Kingdom -           2686–2181
1st Interm. Period -  2181–2055
Middle Kingdom -     2055–1650
2nd Interm. Period - 1650–1550
New Kingdom -          1550–1069
3rd Interm. Period -   1069–664
Late Period -                  664–332

Greco-Roman Egypt

Argead/Ptolemaic d.- 332–30 BC
Roman/Byz. Egypt -     30–641 CE
Sasanian Egypt -         619–629

Medieval Egypt

Rashidun Egypt -       641–661
Umayyad Egypt -       661–750
Abbasid Egypt -         750–935
Tulunid dynasty -      868–905
Ikhshidid dynasty -   935–969
Fatimid dynasty -      969–1171
Ayyubid dynasty -    1171–1250
Mamluk dynasties - 1250–1517

Early modern Egypt

Ottoman Egypt -       1517–1867
French occupation - 1798–1801
Muhammad Ali dn. - 1805–1953
Khedivate of Egypt -  1867–1914

Late Modern Egypt

British occupation - 1882–1922
Sultanate of Egypt - 1914–1922
Kingdom of Egypt -  1922–1953
Republic -             1953–present


Bologna       –    1088
Oxford         –    c. 1096
Salamanca   -    1134
Paris             –    1160
Cambridge   –   1209
Padua            –   1222
Naples           –   1224
Siena              –  1240
Montpelier    -   1289
Lisbon           –   1290
Coimbra        –   1290
Madrid           -   1293
Rome             –   1303
Perugia          –   1308
Florence        –   1321
Pisa                –   1343
Prague          –    1348
Vienna           -    1365
St Andrews   -    1410
Glasgow        –   1451
Aberdeen      -   1495


          Pisa          -      1544
          Padua      -      1545
          Florence  -      1545
          Valencia   -      1567
          Bologna   -      1568
          Leiden      -      1587
          Montpellier -  1593
          Leipzig      -     1597
          Oxford      -     1621
          Paris          -     1635
          Berlin        -     1646
          Uppsala    -     1655
          Edinburgh -    1670
    Chelsea Physic G. - 1673
    Amsterdam    -     1682
    St Petersburg -     1714

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