Herbology is the study of plants and plant lore. Botanists typically collect and identify different species of plant in order to make potions and remedies, and their compilations are known as 'herbals'. Some of the most important herbals are today held by the British Library in London, including Elizabeth Blackwell's Curious Herbal (made as an act of devotion) and the extraordinary Temple of Flora.
Nicholas Culpeper was a ‘hedge-witch’, an unlicensed apothecary who was disliked by the medical profession. In 1642, he was even apparently tried, but acquitted, for practising witchcraft. Originally published as The English Physitian, ‘Culpeper’s Herbal’ provides a comprehensive list of native medicinal herbs, prescribing the most effective forms of treatment and when to take them.
John Evelyn is today most famous as a diarist, but he was also an amateur botanist. Much of his life was spent in writing an encyclopaedic history of gardening, which was never published. In 1645, he made this album of dried plant samples taken from the public botanic garden at Padua, the oldest in Europe.
This magnificently decorated herbal was made in Lombardy, northern Italy, around the year 1440. Each page contains life-like drawings of various plants and short notes explaining their names. Shown here is snakeroot, known variously as dragontea, serpentaria and viperina, all referring to its ability to cure snakebite.
The Male and Female Mandrake
This illuminated manuscript contains an Arabic translation of the writings of Pedanius Dioscorides, a physician in the Roman army. Dioscorides was one of the first to distinguish between the male and female mandrake (perhaps we should rename them the ‘mandrake’ and ‘womandrake’). Sadly for the romanticists among us, modern science now dictates that this identification is incorrect. There is more than one mandrake species native to the Mediterranean, rather than two separate sexes of the same plant.
John Gerard was an English herbalist, whose most famous work was entitled The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes. Gerard maintained his own garden in Holborn, London, and he cultivated all manner of plants, including exotic specimens such as the potato. His Herball contains more than 1800 woodcut illustrations, the majority of which were taken (without acknowledgement) from a book printed a short time before in Germany.
The Garden of Eichstätt
This book is a landmark in botanical illustration. At the time (1613), it was the largest and most detailed text on plants ever made. It catalogues the plants growing in the palace garden of the Prince Bishop of Eichstätt in Bavaria, and contains 367 hand-coloured engravings, including Helleborus niger (black hellebore), shown here.
A Curious Herbal
There is an incredible story attached to A Curious Herbal. Elizabeth Blackwell illustrated, engraved and hand-coloured this book to raise funds to have her husband, Alexander, released from a debtor’s prison. Alexander Blackwell assisted by identifying the plants she had drawn at Chelsea Physic Garden in London, until she had absolved the debt. Once released, he repaid his wife’s kindness by leaving for Sweden, entering the service of King Frederick I, and getting himself executed for his involvement in a political conspiracy.
The Temple of Flora
This elaborate book nearly bankrupted its author, Robert John Thornton. It was originally entitled The New Illustration of the Sexual System of Linnaeus, but became better known as The Temple of Flora. Thornton employed teams of master engravers and colourists to reproduce 28 paintings of plants from across the world. The Dragon Arum, sometimes called Stink Lily, reproduces the smell of putrefying meat to attract flies for pollination.