The four authors

The prints represented in the exhibit come from books by four different European authors/compilers who were active ranging from the 16th to the 18th century.  Their work differs and helps to show how the conventions of illustration, naming, and description changed over time as new plants came to light, and there was greater need for reliable nomenclature and drawings.

Leonhart Fuchs (German, 1501-1567)

The importance of naming conventions and consistency
The 16th century in Europe witnessed important developments in the publication of manuals intended for healers. Leonhart Fuchs was a botanist and physician who created a work on herbals that brought together descriptions of all medicinal plants with which he was familiar. First published in 1542, De Historia Stirpium included more than 500 detailed illustrations of plants. Earlier attempts used rougher descriptions and illustrations that didn’t capture differences between plants. Today, Fuchs is considered to be a German father of Botany, a growing area of study at the time.

Accurate and detailed descriptions of plants are important, especially when tied to specific and standardized names. Working before there was any standardization of plant names, Fuchs used several words to describe his plants and labeled them in Latin, the language of the church and later of science. His work dates to a period before the contributions of Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) who developed a classification system based on a two-part name that identified genus and species. The use of common names led to confusion since the same plant may have different names in different locations. In earlier herbals, confusion could be compounded because the same illustration might have been used for different plants, with different descriptions accompanying the image.

Basilius Besler (German, 1561-1629)

The importance of quality images in identifying medicinal plants
Plants can have a profound influence on human physiology, generating a variety of biological responses such as relieving pain (willow bark), changing heart rate (foxglove), or providing sedation (St. John’s Wort). Since plants were the primary source of medicine for thousands of years, it was necessary to accurately transmit information about which plants were useful and for what purpose. This process was simpler in small communities. As societies grew and travelers brought exotic plants from abroad, face-to-face teaching became more difficult and there was a premium on accurate plant representations and solid descriptions.

 Basilius Besler was a German apothecary, natural history collector and botanist who curated a garden for a Bavarian bishop. Besler’s Hortus Eystettensis (1613) described plants from Europe and other parts of the world. With its 367 engravings, depicting an average of three plants each, the book represented 1,084 species. This was one of the earliest books to depict plants accurately and with great clarity. Since its publication, however, naming conventions for plants have changed and the items illustrated now have different scientific names. In some cases it is difficult for taxonomists to pin down the precise genus and species yet the book is still celebrated for its beautiful and clearly illustrated specimens.

George Dionysius Ehret (German, 1708-1770)

Private plant collecting: representation and classification for the wealthy
George Dionysius Ehret was a gardener, botanist and entomologist, yet he is best known today for his botanical illustrations. His earliest illustrations were in collaboration with Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), often called the Father of Taxonomy, and George Clifford (1685-1760), a wealthy Dutch banker with an extensive botanical garden. Ehret’s Hortus Nitidissimis, published serially between 1750 and 1792, included 188 copperplate engravings. This major work spanning forty-two years involved collaboration with Christoph Jacob Trew (1695-1769), a physician and amateur botanist who collected many exotic plants that had recently been introduced to Germany.

In the 18th century, wealthy collectors amassed large plant collections and ordered specimens from other parts of the world, including the Americas. Thus, formal botanical study at this time in Europe was often a pursuit of the wealthy, while Americans developed businesses providing collectors with specimens. Unfortunately, recent developments in standardization of plant names were not always available to lay practitioners or the general public, especially among the poor and in rural areas.  In addition, although it was possible to study collections of plants in gardens, some were more accessible to a general population than others.

Elizabeth Blackwell (Scottish, 1707-1758)

Medicine for the masses
In the 18th century, many wealthy landowners amassed large collections of exotic plants that became raw material for early taxonomists. A wide range of lay medical practitioners also relied on plants as medicine and sought information on plants from the Americas. These and other plants would come to be described in 19th century medical manuals designed to disseminate knowledge to the masses so that every “man” could “be his own doctor.” Many included scientific or “medical” names of plants along with their descriptions. 

In the 18th century, however, many practical herbals used only common names, leading to potential naming confusion. For instance, two different plants, one in Europe and another in America, came to be known under the name “mandrake.” One such 18th century herbal was published by Elizabeth Blackwell*. Her two-volume work, A Curious Herbal, included 500 illustrations that she drew and engraved herself. She undertook this project in order to support her family when her physician husband landed in debtor’s prison. Although untrained in botany, she was able to work with and study plants in the Chelsea Physic Garden, a medicinal plant garden that was created as a way to train apothecary apprentices in identifying plants.

*Not the same Elizabeth Blackwell as the first female doctor in the United States.