May 22, 2015


Library of Virginia

An exploration of botanical texts and art through the volumes of the Rare Book Collection at the Library of Virginia

The European Herbal
The first botanical texts date back thousands of years to early herbals, which describe plants based on their medicinal value.  Because of their importance, images were hand-drawn with the utmost care.  The invention and improvement on the printing press allowed illustrations to be printed with greater accuracy.

The Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes
by John Gerard, 1633.

This edition of The Herball was published by the English botanist and herbalist John Gerard (c. 1545–1612) after his death. It uses illustrations from the famous Flemish botanist Rembert Dodoen’s herbal. During the 17th century Gerard's volume was the most widely circulated botany book.

Gerard was an amateur botanist whose descriptions were often challenged by professionals.

Despite his lack of professional credibility, Gerard's herbal was the most widely circulated book on botany in English in the 17th century.

Botanologia: The English Herbal
William Salmon, 1710

William Salmon (1644–1713) was an English author of medical texts and a doctor, who presented himself professionaly as a "Professor of Physick".

Salmon published books in such diverse fields as medicine, astrology and alchemy, in addition to this traditional herbal.

Salmon collected the written descriptions of the plants' virtues and detriments from other herbalists.

The British Herbal by John Hill, 1756.

Hill's Herbal was the first botanical volume following Carl Linnaeus' newly founded binomial naming system for scientific names that is still used to this day.

However, Hill rejected Linnaeus' proposals and his herbal does not follow Linnaeus' taxonomic principles.

The British Herbal was rejected by academia because of Hill's refusal to use the Linnaean system and because the herbal was written in English for the layman instead of Latin, as was favored at the time.

Yet centuries later, Hill has been credited for keeping genera separate that Linnaeus had mistakenly grouped together.

For example, the Linnaean genus Delphinium has recently been split into Delphinium (Larkspurs) and Staphisagria (Stavesacre), as first described by Hill.
Floras and Textbooks
Herbals declined in use in the 17th and 18th century as chemistry and toxicology supplanted herbalism in medicine.  However as botanists like Carl Linnaeus, Michel Adanson, and Antoine Laurent de Jessieu started grouping plants in regards to their relationships to one another, herbals were replaced by floras, which describe plants systematically and scientifically as they occur in a region, rather than describing plants for their use by humans.

The Elements of Botany by Benjamin Barton Smith, 1804. Most of the illustrations for this edition were created by the famed American naturalist William Bartram.

This plate depicts a leaf suspended in water bending to expose its upper surface to the light in a process known as phototropism.

Elements of Botany is the first American textbook on botany.

The 1803 edition of this work was carried by Lewis and Clark on their 1804-06 expedition, and Barton himself taught Lewis which plants to collect.

Flora Carolinaensis by John Linnaeus Edward Whitridge Shecut, 1806

This volume classifies plants of the Carolinas by the artificial Linnaean system of plant classification, which grouped flowering plants by the number of stamens and pistils in each flower, not necessarily by their evolutionary relationships.

Thomas Jefferson was a fan of Flora Carolinaensis and wrote Shecut to compliment him and profess his anticipation for a second volume, though it was never published.

The North American Sylva by François André Michaux, 1817-1819

The North American Sylva is an important book in the foundation of forestry in North America for its description of North American and select European trees and their uses.

Botanical Art in Perspective
Regardless of the type of text, botanical arts have always focused on the accuracy of the illustrations.  Even as illustration styles changed over time and printing became more sophisticated, the illustrations retain the character of the plants they represent.  The following illustrations compare the same or similar plants by different artists, in some cases with hundreds of years between illustrations.  While there are often stylistic differences, the plants' identifying characteristics are clear and can potentially be used in identification today.

Salmon and Hill
1710 and 1756

Salmon and Hill
1710 and 1756

Hill and Smith
1756 and 1804

Pitcher Plants
Hill and Smith
1756 and 1804

Gerard and Smith
1633 and 1804

Gerard and Smith
1633 and 1804

Library of Virginia
Credits: Story

All Images from the Rare Book Collection of the Library of Virginia.

Text and arrangement by Ellie Taylor, Special Collections Volunteer, under the advisement of Audrey McElhinney, Senior Rare Books Librarian.

Imaging by the LVA Photo & Digital Imaging Services Department

For the Library of Virginia

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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