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.

Visitors in the Herbology roomThe British Library

'Three times a week they went to...study Herbology...where they learnt how to take care of all the strange plants and fungi and found out what they were used for.'

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

Culpeper’s English Physician; and Complete Herbal (1789)Original Source: 1601/42

Culpeper's Herbal
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.

J.K. Rowling used the herbal compiled by Nicholas Culpeper when she was seeking inspiration for naming her herbs and potions.

Herbal of Pietro Andrea Mattioli, extracts from an edition of Dioscorides De re medicaassembled and illustrated by Gherardo Cibo (16th century)Original Source: Add MS 22332

The Plant Collector
Gherardo Cibo was an Italian naturalist, who made this visual diary to record his plant-collecting excursions. Unlike other botanists, who employed artists, he did his own illustrations. Most importantly, Cibo also noted the location, day and hour when his herbs were gathered.

This page shows two men (one of whom may be Cibo himself) collecting specimens on an Italian hillside, equipped with a mattock (or billhook), a sickle and a sack.

Magical gardening implements made from horn and boneOriginal Source: The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, Boscastle

Magical Gardening Tools
These gardening implements, made from bone and antler, were used specifically for sowing and harvesting. Many plants are harvested not only for their medicinal qualities but for their alleged supernatural powers, and so the rituals used in gathering them are hugely important.

Tools shaped from antlers are considered to connect Earth with the higher spirit world. As antlers are shed and regrown annually, they symbolise the magic of regeneration and renewal.

John Evelyn, Hortus Hyemalis or collection of plant specimens (1645)Original Source: Add MS 78334

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.

Installing a herbal in the Herbology roomThe British Library

'Harry caught a whiff of damp earth and fertiliser, mingling with the heavy perfume of some giant, umbrella-sized flowers dangling from the ceiling.'
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Du cao (Poisonous plants) (19th century)Original Source: Or 13347B

Devil’s Tongue
Herbal medicine in China traditionally originated with the mythical emperor, Shen Nong (the ‘Divine Farmer’). This illustrated manuscript describes poisonous and medicinal plants.

Here is Devil’s Tongue, also known as konjac, voodoo lily or snake palm. Today, Devil’s Tongue is used in making weight loss supplements and facial massage products. It is a member of the same genus as Titan Arum, the worst-smelling plant on Earth, which has an odour that resembles rotting flesh.

A dragon and a serpent, in a herbal A dragon and a serpent, in a herbal (15th century)Original Source: Sloane MS 4016

Cures for Snakebite

Centaury in a herbal Centaury in a herbal (12th century)Original Source: Harley MS 5294

One remedy for snakebite is the plant known as ‘centaury’. According to this medieval herbal, the two plants Centauria major and Centauria minor were named after Chiron, the greatest of all centaurs, renowned as a physician and astrologer.

Centaury in a herbalOriginal Source: Harley MS 5294

In this drawing, Chiron is shown handing over these plants to Asclepius, the god of medicine and healing. A snake slithers away from under their feet.

Installing a medieval herbal in the Herbology roomThe British Library

A dragon and a serpent, in a herbal A dragon and a serpent, in a herbal (15th century)Original Source: Sloane MS 4016

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.

Study of mandrakes by Jim Kay, for The Philosopher’s StoneThe British Library

'Instead of roots, a small muddy and extremely ugly baby popped out of the earth. The leaves were growing right out of his head.'

Mandrakes in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Giovanni Cadamosto’s illustrated herbalOriginal Source: Harley MS 3736

Harvesting a Mandrake
According to medieval lore, mandrakes could cure headaches, earache and insanity, but their roots grew in human form and would shriek when torn.

This 15th-century manuscript shows the safest way to harvest that plant, by attaching one end of a cord to the plant and the other to a dog.

The dog would be encouraged to move forward by sounding a horn or by enticing it with meat, dragging the mandrake with it.

The severed hands on the mandrake’s stems denote its use as an anaesthetic during amputations.

Kitāb mawādd al-‘ilāj (Arabic version of Dioscorides, Materia medica) (14th century)Original Source: Or 3366

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.

Study of mandrakes by Jim Kay, for The Philosopher’s StoneThe British Library

Jim Kay’s Study of Mandrakes
This preparatory sketch by Jim Kay shows a baby mandrake alongside a fully grown adult. This drawing appears to be drawn from life: Jim Kay was previously a curator at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

The roots of the plant seamlessly form the adult mandrake’s body, with leaves growing from its head.

In Kay’s vision, the root forms the spine of the baby mandrake.

The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes. Gathered by John Gerarde of London, Master in Chirurgerie (1597)Original Source: 35.g.13

Famous Herbals

Gerard’s Herbal
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.

Basilius Besler, Hortus Eystettensis (1613–15)Original Source: 10.Tab.29.

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.

‘“Add powdered moonstone, stir three times counter-clockwise, allow to simmer for seven minutes then add two drops of syrup of hellebore.”’

Harry Potter, in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Elizabeth Blackwell, A Curious Herbal (1737–39)Original Source: 452.f.2.

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.

This poignant copy of A Curious Herbal has been annotated in Elizabeth Blackwell’s own hand.

Robert John Thornton, The Temple of Flora (1799–1807)Original Source: 10.Tab.40.

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.

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