Wild Food School USA ™

The Origins of Modern Botany

For many people botany is a rather obscure subject, but it's various scientific disciplnes are crucial to feeding a growing world population. Behind the scenes with the Wild Food School USA courses is long-term historical research into past foodstuffs to see what we can learn. Some of the plants we now regard as 'wild' were once cultivated, others simply used because they were available. Portions of nearly 800 source materials from the start of the 12th century AD to the turn of the 20th century feed into the coursework and knowledge base.

As you go further back in time the less reliable are the botanical descriptions of plants, and it wasn't until around the time of the Discovery of America that we start to see the emergence of botanical science. From the fall of the Roman Empire until that period there was a dark age of botanical ignorance; drawing on Greek and Roman writers such as Theophrastus (who never set foot outside Greece), Dioscorides (who left jumbled notes on the medical qualities of plants), and Pliny (who copied the works of others without question), and enveloping the subject in obscurity and sheer nonsense based on the philosophical beliefs of the times.

Around the 15th / 16th century Botanic gardens began to be established in Europe, providing opportunities for the close investigation and observation of plants from different parts of the then-known world. As a consequence the works of the ancient writers that had been relied upon for centuries were questioned, since the name of a plant species (say a 'thistle' for simplicity) in the Mediterranean region may have no bearing on plants similarly named 'thistle' in northern European countries.

Botanist Leonhart Fuschias 1501-1566

Up to this period plants were categorized or described alphabetically. Then in the German-French region a number of scholars such as Fuchsias (1501-1566), L'Obel (1538-1616) and Lonicer (1528-1586) attempted to order plants into collections of species. The names of those botanists are commemorated in the Latin names of certain plant species - Fuchsia, Lobelia and Lonicera, the latter being Honeysuckle.
         Pages from LINOCIER (left) and FUSCHIAS (right)

Although their work was an improvement on what had gone before botanical science was still far from scientific in its classification of plants, and it was the next wave of botanists who turned their attention to a proper method of classification. Gesner (1516-1565), Clusius (1526-1609), Caesalpinus (1519-1603), and the two Bauhin brothers, Jean and Gaspard, are conspicuous for their advancement of botanical science.

Short History of Botany - Conrad Gesner Born of humble origin in 1516, Gesner (pictured right) came from Switzerland. Exploring the Alps he discovered many plants until then unknown and suggested that there existed groups or genera of plants, each one composed of many species, united by similar characters of the flower and fruit, resemblances, and affinities. This fundamental principle paved the way for others; among them Clusius, born a few years later than Gesner.

Clusius travelled over most of western Europe, in order to make discoveries in the vegetable kingdom. Describing plants with precision and accuracy he was the first who proposed to divide plants into classes. He became Director of the Imperial garden at Vienna, and afterwards was a Professor of botany at Leyden.

A contemporary of Clusius was Caesalpinus. A native of Florence, he proposed to form species into classes based on the duration and size of plants, presence or absence of flowers, the situation of the seed, the number of cells in the fruit, as well as the number of seeds which they contained, plus a whole number of other characteristics which made his idea too cumbersome to be a useful, working, model. Still, that whole notion of categorization through close analysis was beginning to take hold among the botanical community.

Short History of Botany - Jean Bauhin

The next genius mind was that of Jean Bauhin (1511-1582), pictured left. Though younger than Gesner, Bauhin was both a friend as well as a pupil, and wrote a highly learned and accurate general history of plants. Both Clusius and Jean Bauhin had imagined something like a genus of plants, formed by a group of resembling species.

The younger Bauhin brother, Gaspard (1560-1624), also had a penetrating mind and conceived the design of a written work which would contain a history of all known plants, having remarks upon generic distinctions together with the different names which other writers had applied to the same plant. Taking forty years to produce Gaspard Bauhin's work is said to have assisted Linnaeus in perfecting his own system of botany, the fundamental basis for plant classification today.

Europe in the 17th century was in continual turmoil, and natural history and botany rather took a back seat for many decades. When things calmed down botanists and scientists with inquisitive and curious minds began to travel long distances by sea. European travellers to South Africa, Cape of Good Hope, and the East Indies were amazed by the wealth of new plant species. A Roman Catholic priest, Plumier, made three voyages to America, and provided more drawings and descriptions of American plant species than anyone before. Short History of Botany - John Ray

Botanists started to turn their attention to the stamens and pistils of plants in their quest for classification (close studies of which could now be undertaken with the aid of microscopes), as well as natural resemblances and affinities. It was also suggested that botany would remain imperfect as long as species and genera were undefined, so Orders and Classes were recommended. Several attempts were made to form a natural method of classification and among the methods was one devised by John Ray (1627-1705), who published a work called 'A General History of Plants' in which he divided all plants into 33 classes, 27 of them herbs, the rest of trees. Short History of Botany - Rivinius

The first botanist who thought of classification without reference to a plant being a herb or tree, was a German called (1652-1723). He proposed a classification based on the absence or presence of flowers, the manner in which they were situated, or their inflorescence, the number of petals, and form of the corolla. And, indeed, the French botanist Tournefort (1656-1708) who travelled widely across the Alps, Pyrenees, and French provinces, proposed a classification system founded upon the form of the corolla, which was published around the year 1700. This work, too, was said to have assisted Linnaeus with his studies.

Short History of Botany - Tournefort Botanical science, having being for many centuries in a dark age, was now faced with too many contending and vying classification 'systems', frequently imperfect at that. What was needed was someone courageous enough to stand aside from the botanical prejudices and completely reform, even revolutionize, plant classification.

Short History of Botany - Linnaeus Step forward one Carolus Linnaeus. Born in Sweden in 1707, Linnaeus' father was a clergyman and highly dismissive of his son's dabbling with plants, wanting, instead, his son to enter the ministry too. As fate would have it the young botanist was found employment elsewhere and continued his botanical studies.

In 1735, at the age of twenty-eight, he emerged from obscurity and offered the world a new system of Botany. Each species was given the name of the genus to which it belonged, and a specific name recalling something distinctive to the species… an economical descriptive identifier. Until now a species might need a whole sentence to express the name, as for example, in 1727 with Atriplex sylvestris vulgatior, sinuata major which described wild orache. Linnaeus also codified every organ of a plant so that comparisons became easy, and confusion avoided.

Some 275 years on his system (he also created one for the animal kingdom too) is the foundation upon which today's scientific communities classify plant species, although there is still re-classification work and tweaks going on, and there will no doubt be future changes once plant genetic maps are put under the analytical microscope.


Copyright © M. Harrison 2010