The Herbal, by John Gerard

Woodcut illustrations of Yellow Henbane; Tabaco or Henbane of Peru; Tabaco of Trinidada

Yellow Henbane; Tabaco or Henbane of Peru; Tabaco of Trinidada
Woodcut illustrations
From The Herball, or General Historie of Plantes, by John Gerard (London, 1636)

Loan from the Harold and Mary Jean Hanson Rare Book Collection, Department of Special Collections and Area Studies Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida

John Gerard (1545-1611/12) trained as a barber-surgeon as well as an herbalist and botanist. He developed his own garden and also oversaw a garden owned by Elizabeth I’s advisor, William Cecil. His work, The Herball, or General Historie of Plantes, first published in 1597, was a popular work on botany and herbs. Gerard’s work is largely a translation of Rembert Dodoen’s 1554 herbal supplemented with information on exotic North American plants and plants from Gerard’s own garden. He also included plant origins in his descriptions. This work thus created a tradition of listing and cataloguing plants kept in gardens and especially recording geographical origins of various cultivated plants.

Much of the work in Gerard’s herbals drew from the Medieval tradition of simply listing plants and their medicinal uses, and pulling information from ancient works. This meant that relatively little new information or firsthand observations were incorporated into older herbals, and images often were recycled. For the 1597 edition of his work, Gerard used the wood blocks from Jacobus Theodorus’ Eicones Plantarum (1590) which in turn were recycled from earlier herbals. Gerard thus represented a point of transition, drawing some plants from life rather than solely using older prints or earlier symbolic or mythological drawings, adding his personal observations and including more information than myth.

Tobacco, or Nicotiania tabacum, is a plant with many historical medicinal uses. Native Americans applied leaves to reduce pain and as a narcotic and antidiarrheal. In Europe, tobacco was used as a purgative, to treat colds and fevers, and in the prevention of thirst and hunger. Its Latin genus name refers to the French ambassador to Lisbon, Jean Nicot (1530-1600), who advocated its use for many illnesses including treatment of the King’s scrofula, ringworm, and general wound healing. As the potency of nicotine—a dangerous poison in high doses—became known, this early enthusiasm was later moderated. However, rectal injections of tobacco smoke continued into the 19th century to treat a range of conditions.