John Gerard’s Herball has a significant if somewhat controversial place in the history of European botanical science. Gerard, curator of a physic garden in London, was allegedly commissioned to provide an English translation of Rembert Dodoens’ Stirpium historæ pemptades sex after its first translator unexpectedly died. Gerard combined Dodoens’ material with the work of Flemish botanist Matthias de L’Obel, who endorsed Gerard’s completed herbal by writing a commendatory letter published in its opening pages. Gerard’s illustrations were also mostly derivative, extracted from the herbals of his famous predecessors: Fuchs, Mattioli, Dodoens, and Hieronymous Bock. He published the resulting volume under his own name, with only a brief mention of his sources in the preface of the work.
The title-page above was executed by John Payne (1607-1647), one of the finest English engravers living during the reign of Charles I. The engraving is divided into three sections. At the top, the goddesses Ceres and Pomona are seated on either side of a lush garden. Below them stand the fathers of botany, Theophrastus and Dioscorides, with Gerard’s portrait in the bottom center of the page.
Gerard organized his herbal using the system established by Dioscorides. Information about each plant is categorized by description, place, time, translated names, and temperature and virtues. The massive volume includes herbs, flowers, fungi, mosses, and marine animals such as sponges and corals. It also includes the first printed illustration of the potato, Solanum tuberosum, and a chapter on the mythical ‘goose tree,” from which the “barnacle goose,” Branta leucopsis, was believed to hatch from a shell.