BOT 360F - Families of Vascular Plants 

History of botanical concepts - some notes

This page should not be construed as implying that non-European botanical traditions are non-existent. Rather, for historical reasons, they have made less of a direct contribution to scientific botany. The botanical traditions of China, India, Meso-America, South America, and of indigenous peoples generally, around the world, are important sources of knowledge about plants and fungi that merit study in their own right. These traditions are nevertheless largely beyond the scope of this course.

Early European botany ("Antiquity" to approx. AD 1500)

Theophrastus - 14701 Bytes

Theophrastus (ca. 373-287 BC) began his Enquiry into plants with the sentence, "We must consider the distinctive characters and the general nature of plants from the point of view of their morphology , their behavior under external conditions, their mode of generation, and the whole course of their life" (transl. A. G. Morton 1981). This declaration is seen as representing the beginning of the scientific understanding of plants. The Enquiry into plants also documented more than 300 plant names, the structure of which makes it clear that he was preserving an existing folk taxonomy.

Agnes Arber's HERBALS - THEIR ORIGIN AND EVOLUTION (1912 and 1938) provides a brief account of the botanical thinking of Aristotle (384-322 BC) and his student and heir Theophrastus. Referring to Theophrastus, Arber writes that his observations were...

" advance of his time. He noticed, for instance, the distinction between centripetal and centrifugal inflorescences--a distinction which does not seem to have again attracted the attention of botanists until the sixteenth century. He was interested in the germination of seeds, and was aware, though somewhat dimly, of the essential differences between the seedling of the Bean and that of the Wheat."

In the third chapter of his Botanical Latin, W. T. Stearn provides a more generous description of the contribution Theophrastus made to plant description in his History of Plants and Causes of Plants. In particular, Stearn gives two examples of the skill with which Theophrastus produced vivid, accurate descriptions of plants.

My estimation of Theophrastus was raised further by the description of his writings by B. Farrington (1949). Farrington takes pains to point out the way in which Theophrastus' thinking went beyond that of his teacher Aristotle, leading him to set limits on the use of teleology in explaining observed phenomena. Farrington also relates Theophrastus' concern with analyzing natural phenomena in terms of real-world (as opposed to idealistic) explanations to his having been the son of a fuller, that is, someone concerned with practical interactions with the natural world in the course of making their living - specifically, in processing woolen cloth for different uses.

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Dioscorides (1st c. AD) was a practicing physician who compiled a Materia medica in which the therapeutic uses of about 600 species of plants were recorded. His work is described as the culmination of Greek pharmacology (Morton 1981), as it incorporated the best earlier works, including those of Diocles (a contemporary of Theophrastus, whom the latter quotes a number of times) and Crateuas (physician to King Mithridates VI of Pontus, and the author of both a treatise on medicinal plants and series of illustrations of each one, annotated with its name and properties), works now lost and the contents of which are known only from Dioscorides' work. Dioscorides was not content to repeat earlier authors, for the Materia medica is also informed by his own practical experience, apparently as an army doctor. A number of features of the work caused it to become the epitome of botanical knowledge for several centuries:

  • Items were arranged according to their pharmacological properties
  • The author's first-hand knowledge of the plants he described allowed him to avoid repeating hearsay and superstitions.
  • Synonyms in Latin, Greek, and often many other languages were provided for each plant.
  • Within a century, Dioscorides' work was being copied together with a series of illustrations (probably based on those of Crateuas) of the plants mentioned (see links below).

Dioscorides was honored by Linnaeus who named the yam genus Dioscorea after him. [Photo of Dioscorea quaternata fruits: M. Ferguson 2003 Royal Ontario Museum (TRT 23850)]

Dioscorea quaternata

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Arber (1912) summarizes the way in which much of the scientific and other learning of the Greeks and Romans was preserved, following the collapse of the Roman Empire not only in Byzantium but also in the Islamic world in general.

"The renewal of Aristotelian learning in the thirteenth century was derived less directly from classical writings than was the case with the earlier revival. From the time of Alexander onwards, various Greek schools had been founded in Syria. These schools were largely concerned with the teachings of Aristotle, which were thence handed on into Persia, Arabia and other countries. The Arabs translated the Syriac versions of Greek writers into their own language, and their physicians and philosophers kept alive the knowledge of science during the dark ages when Greece and Rome had ceased to be the homes of learning, and while culture was still in its infancy in Germany, France and England. The Arabic translations of classical writings were eventually rendered into Latin, or even sometimes into Greek again, and in this guise found their way to western Europe."

This role of islamic learning in preserving and expanding upon classical texts such as those of Dioscorides has been the subject of exhibits and one such exhibit, of illustrations from arabic translations of Dioscorides' Materia medica is available directly on the web.

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The medieval botany of which we have a record is principally that of the monasteries where manuscripts were preserved and copied, and where the knowledge of medicinal plants was studied and applied. The Bishop of Regensburg, Albertus Magnus (1193-1280 AD), prepared a manuscript on plants but, in the time before movable type, it was not widely circulated. A compilation of both classical and original observations on plants was prepared by the Italian monk, Rufinus, at the end of the 13th century.

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Leonard Fuchs - Deutsche Post Fuchs - Capsicum - Deutsche Post

The 15th century saw a host of technological developments, chief among which have to have been improvements in navigational and optical instruments, and the use of movable type. Intellectual concommitants of these advances were the increased dissemination of old and new knowledge. In botany, a succession of workers in northwestern Europe began to study the plants around them, unfettered by the assumption that these must correspond to those described by classical authorities. The printed "herbals" of Otto Brunfels (1464-1534), Jerome Bock (1489-1554), Leonard Fuchs (1501-1566) and others provided descriptions and illustrations of familiar plants, together with accounts of their medicinal uses. Conceptually, however, these uses were still based on the classical belief that plants resembling particular body parts were created for the purpose of treating ailments of those parts, i.e. the "doctrine of signatures."

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The first reference collection of dried plants was that of Thomas of Sarepba (1297-c.1378). The first herbaria were in book form, pressed and dried plants or plant parts being glued onto blank pages. The earliest known herbaria of this kind were made at the Universities of Bologna (1570), Basel (1588), and Oxford (1621), and at the Naturkundemuseum in Kassel, Germany (after 1569). However, specimens mounted on loose sheets of paper can be laid side-by-side for comparison, and can be sorted in different ways as ideas about classification change. Thus from about the 18th century on most herbaria have used loose sheets of paper for mounting specimens.

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Arber, A. Herbals - their origin and evolution. The University Press, Cambridge (1912; rev. ed. 1938).

Farrington, B. Greek Science, vol. 2. Theophrastus to Galen. Penguin Books, Harmondsworth (1949).

Gunn, A. Past and current practice: the botanist's view. Pp. 11-14 in R. E. Child (ed.), Conservation and the herbarium. Institute of Paper Conservation, Leigh (1994).

Morton, A. G. History of botanical science. Academic Press, London (1981).

Needham J. Botany. Science and Civilisation in China, Vol. 6 Pt. 1. (1986).

Porter, C. L. Taxonomy of Flowering Plants. W. H. Freeman, San Francisco (1967).

Radford, A. E., Dickison, W. C., Massey, J. R. and C. R. Bell. Vascular Plant Systematics. Harper & Row, New York (1974).

Reeds, K. M. Botany in medieval and renaissance universities. Garland Publishing, New York (1991).

Stearn, W. T. Botanical latin: history, grammar, syntax, terminology and vocabulary. 4th ed. David & Charles, Newton Abbot (1992).

Theophrastus. Enquiry into plants. With an english translation by A. F. Hort. Harvard University Press, Cambridge (1916). [Morton (1981) observes that Hort left out a small portion of Theophrastus' book that dealt with the aphrodisiac properties of plants]

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