Plants and People - Biology 328

    Human interaction with plants is a fundamental biological activity in that we, and all other animals, rely on for subsistence.  The average individual member of 'hunting-gathering' human groups operating around the World 20,000 years ago was probably much more familiar with the local flora, in terms of species recognition, than most people today.  This is because a local angiosperm flora offers a mosaic of valuable resources - food, medicine, and 'hardware' - and also a suite of potential hazards, especially toxins.  Thus, it has always been important to be able to discern patterns of flowering plant variation, recognize significant structural features (key characters), and identify 'kinds' (species).  Thus, the discipline of Plant Systematics has extremely deep cultural roots in all parts of the world.  While it is clear that African, Asian (Chinese herbology - see history), and Native American (Badianus Manuscript) cultural groups carried a wealth of botanical lore into modern times, current angiosperm classification systems have been derived from a European base that is briefly reviewed here. 

early examples: Sumerian tablets, Ebers Papyrus (see Papyrus)


    One of the first documented efforts to systematize a local flora was that of Theophrastus (370 -285 B.C.), a Greek student of Plato and successor to Aristotle as director of the Lyceum and its botanical garden.  His written botanical products, including "Inquiry into Plants" and "The Causes of Plants" provided, among other things, a systematic treatment of over 500 species ordered according to 'habit' (trees, shrubs, herbs, etc.) and separated according to flowering and non-flowering.  A few generic names currently in use, such as Daucus (carrot), Asparagus, and Narcissus (daffodil), originated during this time.  A Roman military surgeon, Dioscorides (1st century A.D.) later added about 100 additional 'kinds' or species from the Mediterranean flora and some illustrations to produce a similar document, Materia Medica, that described the plants and their medicinal applications.  This included natural groupings of species that represent well-defined modern Families (Fabaceae, Apiaceae, Lamiaceae).

Intellectual stagnation of the middle ages resulted in minimal original work in plant systematics and much use of information developed by the early Greeks and Romans.  However, Albertus Magnus (German - 1200-1280 A.D.) produced a classification system that recognized - for the first time - monocots and dicots.

Outline of Botanical Material Examined at the Cushing Memorial Library and Archives

Herbaria (early plant collections):

1.     Pennybacker's Herbarium - Julian Pennybacker was a student in 1881 and his work was probably directed by David Porter Smythe, physician at the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas at its initiation as an institution (1876) and central figure for the initiation of the A&M Botany program (more info on Dr. Smythe).

2.    Carter, E. W. Herbarium - Collection of plant specimens from the A&M campus, 1890.  Material associated with the A&M Department of Botany.

3.   Keller, Henry.  Herbarium of the Most Important Grasses of the Field  and the Forest. Call No.:  QK89 .K4 1876. Grass specimens from Europe with descriptive information from the 1890s.

4.  Fuch's Herbal (Call No.:  580 F951n) by Leonhard Fuchs (German - 1501-1566) one of the earliest (1st herbal produced about 1525)and considered a landmark work with its beautiful illustrations (see 'Turkish Cucumber' which, given flower size, is probably a Cucurbita from digital version at Yale Medical Library) and the Aboca Museum.

5.  Dodoens, Rembert.   QK41 .D648 1644   

        Early botanists were usually trained medical doctors, since the study and practice of medicine required a thorough knowledge of plants and their curative effects. Belgian botanist Rembert Dodoens (1517-1585) studied medicine in Europe and was appointed court physician to two Austrian emperors. He later served as professor of botany at Leiden University in the Netherlands.  Dodoens's experience as a physician and his interest in the medical aspects of botany led him to write 'A new herbal, or historie of plants'.  In this book, he took the science of botany a step forward by arranging plants according to selected characteristics, rather than alphabetically, as done in the past and also incorporated many of Fuch's woodcuts along with some new illustrations which include an early European reference to the tomato (Solanum lycopersicum).

6.  Hill, John, 1716-1775.  The British herbal : an history of plants and trees, natives of Britain, cultivated for use, or raised for beauty.  London  : Printed for T. Osborne and J. Shipton [etc.] , 1756.  from the Aboca Museum:

John Hall's "British Herbal" is one of a series of popular English herbals from the 18th century. It is initially published in weekly installments in 1756 and is complete within a year. The following year the same work is reprinted in a color volume that enjoys broad success. This interest is due above all to its images and resulting didactic usefulness. In each plate (75 in all), numerous illustrations are presented, often of the same species in all of its varieties. We invite you to take a look at the images on our site. Hill himself has produced the drawings as well as, it would seem, the copper engravings. Especially noteworthy is the frontispiece depicting the Genius of Good Health receiving the homage of the four continents which in turn will be given to the English readers. The plants for "use" and those for "beauty" come from the United Kingdom and, in small part, from the rest of the world. The classification is binomial following Linnaeus' example of a few years prior. The virtues of the plants are listed with additions and pleasant commentary by the Author.

7.    Gerard, John.  The Herball, or General Historie of Plantes,  Call No.:  581 G356h, 1636.

     John Gerard (1545-1612) was a surgeon, well traveled and a dedicated gardener. He  grew over 1000 plants mostly for seed. His herbal is largely based
on the earlier work of Dodoens.  Gerard altered the classification of plants and added a great deal from his personal observations. First published in 1597, it was later corrected and reprinted in 1633 ('Johnson' edition present at the Cushing Library). Even to this day, amateurs calling themselves,  "herbalists", freely plagiarize material from Gerard's herbal.

In his work we see the old belief in the efficacy of herbs to treat not only physical diseases but those of the mind and spirit. This belief is shared by the greatest civilizations of antiquity. Gerard also describes methods of aromatherapy involving the inhalation of volatile oils, the absorption of these through the skin into the circulatory system.

8.    Parkinson, JohnTheatrum botanicum: = The theater of plants. Or, An herball of a large extent,  Call No.:  QK41 .P2 1640a

      John Parkinson (1567-1650) was the last of the great English herbalists. His books include Theatrum Botanicum (The Theater of Plants) published in 1640 at the age of 73.  Parkinson's monumental Theatrum Botanicum describes over 3800 plants and was the most complete and aesthetically beautiful English treatise on plants of the day.

9.    Linne, Carl von.  Hortus Cliffortianus,   Call No.:  QK98 .L77 (typical image)
    In 1736, on a visit to the house of the botanist Johannes Burman (1706-1779), Clifford was introduced to an up-and-coming young Swedish botanist, Carl Linnaeus, who was living and working there. Linnaeus, who was to become one of the most noted natural historians of all time, later visited Clifford's garden and impressed him with his botanical knowledge. Clifford was most keen to employ Linnaeus at the Hartekamp (Netherlands - see Google Earth image) and, with the inducement of a volume of Sir Hans Sloane's 'Natural History of Jamaica' (a copy also present at the Cushing, representing the 2,000,000th accession by the Evans Library), persuaded Burman to let Linnaeus go and join him as his physician and horticulturist - Clifford had a tendency to hypochondria and was no doubt pleased to have a physician on his doorstep. And so in 1735 Linnaeus started his 'dream job' of supervising the hothouses and naming specimens and classifying them according to his own system. During his stay he was to produce an important botanical work which is of value to taxonomists and historians to this day, the Hortus Cliffortianus, in which he described many new species from living and dried specimens in Clifford's possession.

    Hortus Cliffortianus contains a number of illustrations, including this baroque frontispiece (left) by Jan Wandelaar (1690-1759). Its symbolism, includes a young Apollo with Linnaeus's features, casting aside the shroud of darkness (ignorance).

    This work was commissioned by Clifford as a catalogue of the plants in his garden and herbarium.  Linnaeus arranged the plants according to his own sexual system, classifying them into groups based on the numbers and form of their male and female parts.  Each species was allocated to a genus, and given a short phrase-name (pre-binomial) in Latin, describing the features which served to distinguish one species from another. Linnaeus also included synonyms of earlier authors, distributional information, and sometimes a short description. The significance of these entries lies in the fact that when Linnaeus, 15 years later, introduced the consistent use of binomial nomenclature in his Species Plantarum (1753), he took many of his species concepts direct from the accounts in this work.

Folio Editions:

10.    Flora de la Real Expedicion Botanica del Nuevo Reino de Granada.   Publicada bajo los auspicios de los Gobiernos de Espana y Colombia y  merced a la colaboracion entre los Institutos de Cultura Hispanica de  Madrid y Bogota. (2 items taken from the Cushing collection  - Cucurbits and Passionflowers, Call No.:  QK265 .R4 t.27,   Call No.:  QK265 .R4 t.45, pt. 1.  Publication of the series started in the 1950's with the last volume published in 2004.
    MUTIS, Jose Celestino (moo-teas), Spanish botanist, born in Cadiz, 6 April, 1732; died in Santa Fe de Bogote, 12 September, 1808. After studying mathematics he went through the medical course at the College of San Fernando, in Cadiz, was graduated at Seville, and appointed in 1757 professor of anatomy in Madrid. In this city he became acquainted with Linnaeus, who later called him "phytologorum americanorum princeps," and named several plants in his honor. Mutis accompanied Don Pedro Mesia de la Cerda as his physician in 1760 to his viceroyalty of New Granada. He was appointed professor of mathematics in the College of Nuestra Sefora del Rosario, and was the first to teach, in the viceroyalty, the Copernican system, which had been prohibited by the Spanish government. Desiring to examine the plants of the hot region, and to visit the silver-mines of Mariquita, he left Bogota and resided first in La Montuosa between Giron and Pamplona, and from 1777 till 1782 in Real del Sapo and Mariquita. At La Montuosa he began his "Flora de Nueva Granada," on which he bestowed forty years of labor, but which remained unfinished at his death. Mutis was the first to discover in New Granada and distinguish the various species of cinchona or Peruvian bark. (more info on Mutis)

11.    Rosser, Celia and George, Alexander. The Banksias,   Call No.:  QK 495 .P957 R67 (more info on the genus and Sir Joseph).
Thanks to Todd SamuelsonRebecca Hankins, and staff at the Cushing Memorial Library and Archives for their help with the selection and preparation of materials for this session.