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Overhead and underfoot, plants are often overlooked, or written off as simple compared with animals. But plants have posed plenty of puzzles of their own. Classical scholars made some progress in understanding plant life, but much of this was lost, especially after the destruction of the library at Alexandria. During the Middle Ages, Muslim scholars preserved and added to the knowledge of the ancient Greeks, although Islam forbade making realistic images. With the Renaissance came a reawakening of botany in Europe, along with new discoveries. With a century, explorers and traders brought home 20 times as many new plants as Europe had seen in the last 2,000 years.

Most Recent Additions

Papaya arbor Nov-13-2014
Palm tree Apr-05-2014
Fossil plants Sep-12-2013
 
Mandrake roots

Year: Between 1406 and 1430
Originally appeared in: Manuscript made in Constantinople
Now appears in: The Naming of Names by Anna Pavord
Feared for its deadly shriek when pulled from the ground, the mandrake was thought to take male or female form. According to an 11th-century Anglo-Saxon manuscript, the mandrake also shined at night like a lamp, and would flee from "an unclean man."

 
Mandrake uprooted by dog

Year: c. 1450
Originally appeared in: Tacuinum Sanitatis
Now appears in: Tacuinum Sanitatis: An Early Renaissance Guide to Health by Alixe Bovey
It's better to sacrifice your dog's hearing than your own. That might have been the advice imparted by this miniature produced in the mid-15th century. The man has tied a mandrake root to his dog and is already in retreat and covering one ear as the mandrake peeks out of the ground. Like other miniatures in Tacuinum Sanitatis, this picture uses an interesting convention: The scene appears at the edge of a crumbling cliff. Another scene from the same book shows a rice shop, also at the edge of a precipice.

 
Mandrake and dog print

Year: 1481
Originally appeared in: Herbarium Apulei Platonici
Now appears in: "From Theophrastus and Dioscorides to Sibthorp and Smith: background and origin of the Flora Graeca" by William T. Stearn in Biological Journal of the Linnean Society December 1976 issue
This Renaissance print featured a tiny-yet-brave-looking dog tied to a giant, headless mandrake.
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Modest lady mandrake

Year: 1497
Originally appeared in: Ortus Sanitatis (or Hortus Sanitatis)
Now appears in: "From Theophrastus and Dioscorides to Sibthorp and Smith: background and origin of the Flora Graeca" by William T. Stearn in Biological Journal of the Linnean Society December 1976 issue
Mandrakes may have been murderous screamers, but at least this female mandrake was ladylike enough to cover her naughty parts. Different versions of Ortus Sanitatis were published in different cities. This illustration appeared in a version from Strasbourg.
Larger image available

 
Papaya arbor

Year: 1671
Scientist/artist: Arnoldus Montanus
Originally published in: De Nieuwe en Onbekende Weereld ("The New and Unknown World")
Now appears in: Arnoldus Montanus' New and Unknown World in Public Domain Review
Intended to educate Europeans about the strange lands across the Atlantic Ocean, De Nieuwe en Onbekende Weereld contained a mixture of accuracies and inaccuracies. Reliable depictions of New World flora and fauna float like tiny islands of accuracy in a big sea of error. In a chapter headed "Canibales Eilanden" (the book shows a picture of natives cooking up other humans on a spit) Montanus included this illustration. Roughly accurate spoonbills are recognizable in the foreground but get a load of the leaves in the papaya arbor in the background.
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Batos

Year: c. 512
Originally appeared in: Juliana Anicia Codex
Now appears in: "Rubus Iconography: Antiquity to the Renaissance" by Kim Hummer and Jules Janick in ISHS Acta Horticulturae 759.
In the early sixth century, the citizens of Honorata presented Princess Juliana Anicia with a beautifully illustrated manuscript. Containing nearly 500 folios, the manuscript provided detailed illustrations evidently based on careful observations. This illustration is one of the oldest surviving illustrations of the subgenus Rubus, or European blackberry plants. Despite some technical errors (flowers shown here have six or seven petals whereas the actually plant has just five), this illustration was far superior to what would follow centuries later.

 
Leech book blackberry

Year: c. 920
Originally appeared in: Leech Book of Bald
Now appears in: "Rubus Iconography: Antiquity to the Renaissance" by Kim Hummer and Jules Janick in ISHS Acta Horticulturae 759.
Science didn't always progress. Sometimes it regressed. Following the impressive accuracy of manuscripts from Antiquity, medieval manuscripts used crude renderings bearing little resemblance to the plant in question. Like the illustration from Juliana Anicia Codex, this picture shows a blackberry plant, though it is hardly recognizable. Leech Book of Bald was an Anglo-Saxon herbal and a sort of reference book for physicians, mixing a combination of herbal lore and superstition. It advised, "Against dysentery, a bramble of which both ends are in the earth take the newer root, delve it up, cut up nine chips with the left hand and sing three times the Miserere mei Deus and nine times the Mater Noster, then take mugwort and everlasting, boil these three worts and the chips in milk till they get red, then let the man sip at night fasting a pound dish full."

 
Palm tree

Year: c. 1270
Originally appeared in: Medieval manuscript
Now appears at: A Palm Tree Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program
When we think of mistakes Europeans made about organisms living far away, we usually think of animals, but misconceptions extended to plant life, too. This palm tree is green from the leaves all the way down to the roots. The leaves look more like oak leaves than anything that would appear on a palm tree, and they all neatly cluster into the shape of a giant leaf. Perhaps this tree's overall shape was driven more by the design of the page than by the artist's belief of what a palm tree would look like. But it's also quite possible that the artist never set eyes on an actual palm. Although palm trees are not uncommon in southern Europe, this manuscript is from Flanders.

 
Plants

Year: 1478
Scientist: Conrad von Megenberg
Publisher: Hans Bamler of Augsburg
Originally published in: Buch der Natur
Now appears in: The Naming of Names by Anna Pavord
After Gutenberg invented the first working movable type in Europe, scholars had the opportunity to marry woodcuts and new text to expand understanding of plants. In the words of science writer Anna Pavord, "It didn't happen." In this stylized illustration, the plants bore little resemblance to anything in the real world, and the text, written in the 14th century, was already more than a century out of date when it finally appeared in print. Although woodcuts were often used to great effect, they were crude tools compared with an artist's brush.

 
Goose barnacle

Year: 1597
Scientist: John Gerard
Originally published in: Herball
Now appears in: The Eye of the Lynx by David Freedberg and The Naming of Names by Anna Pavord
Barnacles are actually crustaceans, but at the beginning of the 17th century, the goose barnacle was believed to spring from froth produced by old pieces of wood. Next, it became a fungus, then it became a shell, which would spit out a bird, feet first. According to Gerard, the bird was "a foule, bigger than a Mallard, and lesser than a goose." In fact, some of Gerard's contemporaries found his Herball to be "full of errors" before it was even published. One defense that can be offered for Gerard was that he was a gardener, not a scholar, with a genuine love of plants.

 
Iris woodcut

Year: 1633
Scientist: John Gerard
Originally published in: Herball
Now appears in: The Plant Hunters by Carolyn Fry (Also discussed in The Jewell House by Deborah Harkness)
Gerard released an updated and expanded version of Herball in 1633, including the iris woodcut seen here. During the initial printing process for his book, the printers received the unwelcome news that Gerard had appropriated material from another naturalist, Mathias de L'Obel, who was quite unhappy about it. Copyright law was far in the future, so that news alone wouldn't stop the printing, but even more unwelcome news was that Gerard's book was full of mistakes, which could hamper sales. The printers took the bold step of hiring L'Obel to correct errors, but when Gerard learned about the arrangement, he kicked L'Obel off the project. Gerard was hardly universally loved or admired by his contemporaries, but, in the eyes of history, he won. He is remembered today as a great naturalist.
Expanded image available

 
Tulip

Year: 1614
Artist: Crispijn van de Passe the Younger
Originally published in: Hortus Floridus
Now appears in: The Plant Hunters by Carolyn Fry
Hortus Floridus paid homage on its title page to Carolus Clusius, a gardener in the service of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II. Clusius played a huge role in popularizing tulips — native mostly to Central Asia — in Europe. Clusius experimented with growing the flowers, and later made a practice of sending bulbs to friends. In 1601, he published a treatise on the prized flowers. Tulip became investments, and their prices soared before the bubble burst, leaving some investors ruined by tulipomania. Something that made tulips so enticing was their unpredictability; plain flowers could change from plain and simple to multicolored and complicated. In fact, the prized flowers suffered from a disease carried by aphids.
Larger image available

 
Tobacco

Year: 1881
Supervising scientist: Richard Owen
Now appears in: Natural History Museum, London
Discussed in: The Gilded Canopy by Sandra Knapp and Bob Press
Panels with botanical illustrations have graced the ceiling of the central hall in London's Natural History Museum since it opened in 1881. With their simple lines and flat colors, the stylized illustrations resemble big woodcuts, but they accurately depict plants important to Britain and its 19th-century empire. This ceiling panel shows the leaves and blooms typical of tobacco. But although the Natural History Museum depicted it accurately, human mistakes surrounded the plant from the time Europeans took a fancy to it. Spaniards brought tobacco back to Europe from the New World when Europeans still believed that four "humors" (blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile) determined health and even personality. Considered hot and dry, tobacco was believed to be a good treatment for cold, phlegmy illnesses, and for aristocrats who had overindulged at the dining table. Elizabethans were also intrigued by the typical mode of taking tobacco: inhaling it directly into the lungs. But while tobacco made some lucky landowners very rich, it increased the demand for labor, especially slaves. Besides planting and harvesting this demanding crop, slaves also had to clear forest to establish new fields because tobacco quickly exhausted the soil. Centuries after Europeans started shipping slaves to tend tobacco crops, the plant's users continued to pay a steep price, namely with their lungs.

 
King bee

Year: 1679
Scientist/artist: Moses Rusden
Originally published in: A Further Discovery of Bees
Now appears in: Man and the Natural World by Keith Thomas
Besides plants, agriculturalists thought about their pollinators, and many looked to nature for justification of how human society was ordered. Monarchists happily pointed to bees as a natural example of "regal power." But "Rex" is a term for a male monarch. One 18th-century encyclopedia sheepishly explained that the term "Queen-Bee" replaced "King-Bee." Here we see a king bee and associated plebeians. An example of good breeding, many also believe, bees simply wouldn't produce for owners who were quarrelsome or unchaste.
Larger image available

 
Vegetable lamb

Year: c. 1356
Scientist: Sir John Mandeville
Originally published in: Travels
Now appears in: The Book of Fabulous Beasts by Joseph Nigg
Of one exotic land he visited, Mandeville (or the writer claiming to be Mandeville) wrote, "And there groweth a manner of fruit, as though it were gourds. And when they be ripe, men cut them atwo, and men find within a little beast, in flesh, in bone, and blood, as though it were a little lamb without wool. And men eat both the fruit and the beast." First accepted as a reliable account, Mandeville's book was eventually written off as fiction.

 
Cotton

Year: 1881
Supervising scientist: Richard Owen
Now appears in: Natural History Museum, London
Discussed in: The Gilded Canopy by Sandra Knapp and Bob Press
John Mandeville's 14th-century account of the hairless, yummy vegetable lamb wasn't the only odd story of a lamb-plant hybrid in medieval Europe. European explorers who visited Asia and the Middle East returned with stories of the Scythian lamb. The explorers claimed that lambs sprouted from the ends of branches, grazed on the grass underfoot and, once they had eaten up all the grass they could reach, died and apparently willed their wool to the plant. As silly as this sounds today, it provided an explanation of how a plant could bear fibers so similar to wool. By the time this stylized panel was placed on the ceiling of London's Natural History Museum, the lamb-plant legend had long been laid to rest.

 
Lolipop water lilies

Year: c. 1481
Publisher: Johannes Philippus de Lignamine
Originally published in: Apuleius Platonicus
Now appears in: The Naming of Names by Anna Pavord
Though water lilies were exotic plants, naturalists with an interest in them generally knew what they looked like by the late 15th century. The maker of this woodcut, evidently, did not. To the woodcut maker, a water lily looked like a modern lollipop.

 
Pasque flower

Year: 1530-1536
Scientist: Otto Brunfels
Artist: Hans Weiditz
Originally published in: Herbarum Vivae Eicones
Now appears in: The Naming of Names by Anna Pavord
By the 16th century, at least some woodcuts had improved — immensely. Brunfels didn't want to include this illustration of the pasque flower in his herbal since it had no known use to apothecaries. Useful or not, the plant's inclusion meant the incorporation of an exceptionally accurate illustration by Weiditz, a student of the talented and rigorous Albrecht Dürer.
Larger image available

 
Plantago and scorpion

Year: 1485
Originally published in: Gart der Gesundheit
Now appears in: The Science of Describing by Brian W. Ogilvie
Another example of a plant depiction ruined by convention is this illustration of Plantago. Although woodcuts limited what artists could accurately illustrate, Ogilvie has speculated that the same artist may have designed, at about the same time, an accurate depiction of a rose in a different publication. The convention of representing a simplified plant — complete with decorative scorpion — rendered this picture nearly useless.

 
Plantago

Year: 1542
Scientist: Leonhart Fuchs
Originally published in: De Historia Stirpium
Now appears in: The Science of Describing by Brian W. Ogilvie
Dropping the scorpion and the stylized depiction, Fuchs produced a much more accurate picture of Plantago decades later.

 
Hyacinth

Year: 1636
Scientist/artist: John Gerard
Originally published in: Herball
Now appears in: Amazing Rare Things by Attenborough, Owens, Clayton and Alexandratos
More plausible than the goose barnacle was Gerard's hyacinth. This image, although nicely colored, results from a woodcut. Woodcuts varied in quality, and although many of them were better than illustrations that had occurred before, they were crude compared to engravings.

 
Hyacinth

Year: 1613
Scientist/artist: Basilius Besler
Originally published in: Hortus Eystettensis
Now appears in: Amazing Rare Things by Attenborough, Owens, Clayton and Alexandratos
While some authors still relied on woodcuts, others had moved on to more expensive but detailed engravings. Several different printmakers engraved the Hortus Eystettensis, rendering plants such as the hyacinth in remarkable detail, a considerable improvement over what had come before and even what continued to be published for some time afterwards.

 
Nuphar lutea

Year: 1585
Scientist/artist: Pierandrea Mattioli
Originally published in: Herbal
Now appears in: The Eye of the Lynx by David Freedberg
This dainty illustration shows a lovely plant, just not with much accuracy. In the 16th century, only a small number of botanists and artists produced truly accurate illustrations. Most woodcuts were decorative rather than informative.

 
Fossil leaves

Year: 1699
Scientist: Edward Lhwyd
Originally published in: Lythophylacii Britannici ichnographia
Now appears in: "From the Rise of the Enlightenment to the Beginnings of Romanticism (Robert Plot, Edward Lhwyd and Richard Brookes, MD)" by Richard Wilding in Geological Society, London, Special Publications 2005
Exactly what fossils were, how they formed, and how leaves could wind up embedded in rocks were questions that nagged naturalists at the dawn of the 18th century. Although Leonardo da Vinci, Niels Stensen (Steno), Robert Hooke, Agostino Scilla and John Ray had all correctly surmised that fossils were the remains of once-living organisms, other interpretations still circulated. Edward Lhwyd was the second keeper, or curator, of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, and like his predecessor Robert Plot, he believed that fossils owed their existence to some sort of generative force in the rocks. Despite that erroneous interpretation, Lhwyd did make some breakthroughs. He rejected the still-popular explanation that fossils all resulted from the Noachian flood, and he observed that "Plants (whatever may be their origin) are distinguishable into species, as those produced in the Surface." Right he was. This engraving from his work shows his careful attention to fossil details. Part of what puzzled Lhwyd was that the rock-encased species he found bore no resemblance to anything living in the vicinity. Fossils perplexed not just because they were in the middle of rock layers, but because they usually belonged to species long extinct.
Larger image available

 
Trees

Year: 1844
Scientist: August Goldfuss
Artist: Christian Hohe
Originally published in: Fossils of Germany
Now appears in: Scenes from Deep Time: Early Pictorial Representations of the Prehistoric World by Martin J.S. Rudwick
As if plants still living weren't tricky enough, fossil plants posed a whole new set of challenges. What's impressive about this picture is how it works around a common problem. Plants shed parts throughout their lives: seeds, branches, cones, and a whole set of leaves each season. As a result, fossil plant parts can be hard to piece together into a single species — many times, different parts of the same plant have been identified as separate species. To avoid almost certain error in reassembling fossil plants, Goldfuss had his artist collaborator cut off the tops of the trees and show only leaf litter on the ground. Which leaves went with which trunks was anybody's guess. This depiction of "the Coal Period" also shows marine invertebrates — not in their natural habitat, but instead assembled neatly on shore, waiting patiently to fossilize.

 
Siegesbeckia orientalis

Year: 1738
Scientist: Linnaeus
Artist: Jan Wandelaar
Originally published in: Hortus Cliffortianus
Now appears in: Linnaeus by Wilfrid Blunt
This isn't an error. In fact, plant is represented quite accurately. It does, however, represent a practice that probably wouldn't be allowed today. When Linnaeus announced his discovery that plants reproduce sexually, some of his contemporaries responded with shock and awe. And contempt. One of them, Johann Siegesbeck, and academic living in St. Petersburg, wondered, "Who would have thought that bluebells, lilies and onions could be up to such immorality?" Linnaeus got even, namely by naming this weed Siegesbeckia orientalis. Using the Linnaean system to insult rivals by naming unpleasant species after them is now frowned upon. On the bright side, some herbalists have credited this weed with erasing stretch marks, a fact that Siegesbeck might (or might not) have found flattering.

 
Onica tree

Year: 1497
Originally appeared in: Hortus Sanitatis
Now appears in: The Birth and Development of the Geological Sciences by Frank Dawson Adams
People not only believed the Onica tree wept, they also believed than when it did, it made onyx.

 
Incensaria and Narcissus

Year: 1491
Originally appeared in: Hortus Sanitatis
Now appears in: Picturing the Book of Nature by Sachiko Kusukawa
This 1491 edition of Hortus Sanitatis featured woodcuts with colors applied after printing. The plants pictured are incensaria (left) and narcissus (right). The heart-shaped insets and the little men probably don't strike a modern reader as useful features of botanical illustration, but this edition of the famous book probably wasn't designed to be taken into the field to help identify plants. Instead, the illustrations might have been visual clues to help the reader memorize the plants' characteristics, with the hearts maybe reminding the reader of that plant's heart-shaped leaves, and the little men perhaps looking like they admired their own reflections.

 
Cucumber

Year: 1551
Scientist/artist: William Turner
Originally published in: A New Herball
Now appears in: Eating Right in the Renaissance by Ken Albala
This was a pretty accurate depiction of the cucumber, though when it was published, Europeans held what we would likely consider an irrational fear of consuming cucumbers. One reason for this was that, before the process of digestion was well understood, people feared that fruits and vegetables might spoil inside the body just as they did outside the body. The spoiled foods then carried trouble to every last part of the poor person who had eaten them.

 
Apple bark face

Year: 1668
Scientist/artist: Ulisse Aldrovandi
Originally published in: Dendrologia
Now appears in: The Eye of the Lynx by David Freedberg
Aldrovandi's posthumously published book showed this piece of apple bark with an uncanny resemblance to a human face. A little too uncanny, in fact. In the 16th and 17th centuries, savants were still trying to figure out the details how life forms reproduced and what made fossils. One common idea was of a "plastick virtue" — a creative force that fashioned all kinds of weird objects. Such a force might make a human-looking face in apple bark. Or an artist simply might draw it.

 
Scorpion-root plant

Year: 1591
Scientist/artist: Giambattista Della Porta
Originally published in: Phytognomonica
Now appears in: The Birth and Development of the Geological Sciences by Frank Dawson Adams
Popularized by the Renaissance polymath Paracelsus (but dating all the way back to Antiquity) the doctrine of signatures held that plants offered clues to their usefulness by resembling the body parts they could heal or problems they could fix. Della Porta, a believer in signatures, published several examples in his Phytognomonica. In this case, the aconite plant, with roots resembling scorpions, could heal the nasty creature's sting.
Larger image available

 
Bramble

Year: c. 1224
Originally appeared in: Manuscript made in Baghdad
Now appears in: The Naming of Names by Anna Pavord
Instead of a root, this "bramble" emerges from a bulb, and a bulb with a wolf's tail at that. Hard to recognize from the images alone, the plants in this manuscript had to be discerned in a large part from the written descriptions.

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