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

Title page Jun-01-2024
Dragon plant Aug-01-2022
Venus flytrap Nov-19-2021
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.
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Man orchid

Year: 1640
Scientist/artist: John Parkinson
Originally appeared in: Theatrum Botanicum
Now appears in: In Search of Sir Thomas Browne by Hugh Aldersey-Williams
These smiling little soldiers might look like the result of some botanist's over-active imagination, but an orchid with petals resembling tiny men in a state of nature really does exist. When they appear on the actual petals, though, the faces look a bit more clownish. The doctrine of signatures — the idea that plants resembling certain body parts make effective medicines for those parts — may have led to this plant being used as an aphrodisiac.

Title page

Year: 1546
Scientist: Otto Brunfels
Originally published in: Kreuterbuch Contrafeyt
Now appears in: Love Spells and Deadly Shrieks: Illustrations of Mandrakes (ca. 650–1927) in Public Domain Review
The title page of Brunfels's mid-16th-century publication features illustrations of useful plants, including a mandrake at the top. The mandrake was awfully strong medicine, depending on which part of the plant was ingested; the roots could cause hallucinations, a racing pulse, and puking. But it was sometimes used as an anesthetic for surgery, and was reputed to treat problems ranging from rheumatism to anxiety and depression.
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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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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.


Year: c. 1200
Originally appeared in: Apuleius Platonicus
Now appears in: The Naming of Names by Anna Pavord
Toward the dawn of the 13th century, many English herbals evinced an improvement in quality — in the materials used to make them, in readability, in clarity of the illustrations. Once area where quality didn't improve was accuracy. Citing these illustrations of artemisia plants, Pavord writes, "The more beautifully designed the images, the less relationship they bear to the plants they are supposed to represent. . . . The roots drift elegantly out of frame, the flower heads are geometric, stylised triangles, the junctions of the stem are rendered as golden clasps." Indeed, the gold clasps were gold as herbals like this used gold and silver leaf along with brilliant color. But readers hoping for accurate illustrations had to wait awhile longer.


Year: c. 1200
Originally appeared in: Medieval manuscript
Now appears in: The Naming of Names by Anna Pavord
Science historian and gardener Anna Pavord identifies these plants as perhaps a wild daffodil (Narcissus pseudonarcissus) on the left, and knapweed (Centaurea) on the right. The identification is based largely on the accompanying text since the illustrations are too stylized to be much use. This serves as another example of the problem with 13th-century manuscripts that Pavord highlights: Even though the illustrations became more colorful and sumptuous than some earlier attempts, they offered few practical clues for plant identification. The most recognizable picture on this page is the centaur.
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Year: c. 1487
Scientist/artist: Konrad Dinckmut (maybe)
Originally published in: Gart der Gesundheit
Now appears in: A Pot of Basil in Every Household (http://blog.biodiversitylibrary.org/ 2017/06/a-pot-of-basil-in- every-household.html)
When most Europeans were illiterate, pictures helped with identification. This picture wouldn't have helped much, though, because it's supposed to be basil. Its leaves sport serration a steak knife would envy. Compared to other misconceptions and legends about the plant, the illustration is a minor problem. Basil was thought to cure constipation and diarrhea and convulsions and deafness. It was sometimes prescribed to alleviate the pain of scorpion stings, and the Biodiversity Heritage Library reports that there might be some truth to this application; basil might have some anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties. But a basil sprig left under a basil pot, sages warned, might turn into a scorpion ready to sting.


Year: c. 1504
Scientist: Albrecht Dürer
Originally published as: The Flight into Egypt
Now appears in: The March of the Pigments by Mary Virginia Orna, The National Gallery of Art
Dürer's woodcut showed the fabled flight into Egypt of Mary, Joseph and their new baby. Though the sartorial choices in this woodcut look very much like what Dürer's contemporaries would have worn, the depiction of plants can't be faulted. Dürer was an astute observer of plant and animal life. The tree in the foreground on the left is a date palm. The tree on the right, behind Joseph, is a dragon tree. Dragon trees, depicted accurately or not, were accorded with legendary status and often shown in religious-themed works because 16th-century Europeans believed the trees counted among the world's oldest plants, along with baobab trees. The fossil record places these trees as far back in time as the Pliocene, but that would be hundreds of millions of years younger than the wispy shoots of the earliest land plants. Marine plants would extend even further back in time.


Year: 1526
Originally published in: The Grete Herball
Now appears in: The Naming of Names by Anna Pavord
Pavord describes The Grete Herball as "a medieval throwback . . . no more than an English translation of a very bad French book, Le Grand Herbier, dressed up with equally hopeless illustrations from a German herbal of the same period." Besides highly stylized and not very identifiable plants, this illustration shows two mandrake roots, male and female, standing above ground. A few decades later, Pavord explains, the English cleric William Turner completed A New Herball, finally giving the Brits a chance to boast about a good herbal of their own.
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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.
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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.
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Venus flytrap

Year: 1770
Scientists: John Ellis and Linnaeus
Artist: James Roberts
Originally published in: Directions for Bringing over Seeds and Plants, from the East-Indies and Other Distant Countries, in a State of Vegetation
Now appears at: Biodiversity Heritage Library (https://blog.biodiversitylibrary.org/2021/09/flytraps-sundews-and-pitchers-discovering-carnivorous-plants-of-bhl.html)
What happens when the facts are unbelievable? A plant that actually eats an animal, that's pretty tough to believe. But although carnivorous plants were well known to Indigenous peoples across the globe for centuries, carnivorous plants remained a novel concept for members of the Republic of Letters in the 18th century. In 1770, John Ellis wrote the first scientific description of the Venus flytrap, or Dionaea muscipula. He added the description to a pamphlet he wrote about transporting plants across the Atlantic Ocean, and included this attractive illustration. Writing to Linnaeus, Ellis described the plant's hunting nature, explaining that the plant "shows, that Nature may have some views towards its nourishment, in forming the upper joint of its leaf like a machine to catch food." Ellis was right, but Linnaeus was skeptical. In his botanical book Mantissa Plantarum, Linnaeus characterized the plant's bug-catching trap as a catch-and-release mechanism. He figured it would capture insects purely to keep them from eating the plant itself.
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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.

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.

Vegetable lamb

Year: 1725
Scientist: John Philip Breyn
Originally published in: Philosophical Transactions
Now appears in: The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary: A Curious Fable of the Cotton Plant by Henry Lee (available at https://archive.org/details/vegetablelamboft00leehrich)
Eager to make money off others' gullibility, merchants happily sold vegetable lambs through Eurasia, but by the time John Philip Breyn addressed the Royal Society of London, European scholars had smartened up since the days of John Mandeville. In his paper, Breyn remarked that "the works and productions of Nature should be discovered, not invented," and pointed out that nobody who had described the plant had ever seen it growing in the wild. This dog-shaped, rust-colored specimen was about 6 inches, and likely shaped from the rhizome of a fern. So even if it had nothing to do with sheep, it was at least vegetation.
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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.
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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.


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.


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.


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 wood

Year: 1565
Scientist/artist: Conrad Gesner
Originally published in: De Omni Rerum Fossilium
Now appears at: Early Innovations in Paleontology: Gessner and Fossils (http://blog.biodiversitylibrary.org/ 2015/10/early-innovations-in- paleontology.html)
In the 16th century, when a fossil was just about anything (besides a vegetable) that you could dig out of the ground, naturalists like Gesner struggled to understand what fossils were. Identification was complicated by the fact that many fossils came from animals that had no living analogues within reach of the savants studying them. With these mysterious little fossils, Gesner did his best. They looked to him like nuts, perhaps acorns, so he described them in his chapter on fossil wood. In fact, they were the spines of fossil sea urchins. Fossils like these puzzled naturalists for centuries. In 1211, philosopher Moses Maimonides prescribed a treatment for kidney stones and snake bites. Ingredients included fossil sea urchin spines (called lapis judaicus), crocodile fat, goat and pigeon poo, duck dung, onions and honey.
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Fossil wood

Year: c. 1637
Scientist/artist: Francesco Stelluti of the Lincean Academy
Now appears in: Fossil Woods and Other Geological Specimens by Andrew C. Scott and David Freedberg
As fossils go, wood is pretty common, so you might think that naturalists would figure out its origins pretty quickly. But in the 17th century, even the members of the Lincean Academy — who vowed to see the world afresh, unimpeded by preconceived ideas, and who counted Galileo among their number — misinterpreted it. The fact that so much of it was found underground added to the illusion that the wood formed from clay, driven by the planet's "plastick virtue," or innate creativity. Of the clay's imagined transmogrification to wood, Stelluti wrote, "This I believe to take place with the assistance of the heat of subterranean fires which exist in these areas, and which, snaking underground continuously emit very thick smoke, and sometimes flames, and especially when the weather is wet, with the further assistance of sulfurous and mineral waters. And when the heat is sufficient the wood is browned, or lightly scorched, and remains similar to coal. If, then, the Earthen material is not yet converted into wood, this fire bakes it, and it remains similar to the vases of terracotta baked in a kiln, or to bricks."
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Fossil wood

Year: 1637
Scientist/artist: Francesco Stelluti of the Lincean Academy
Originally published in: Trattato del legno fossile
Now appears in: Substantia Special Issue: Nicolaus Steno and Earth Science in Early Modern Italy edited by Dominici and Rosenberg
Describing this specimen, Francesco Stelluti wrote, "This piece of wood, ovoid from A to B, was three palms high; I say high because it was found with the part A facing downwards and the part B facing upwards; and from C to D it was thirteen palms long; from E to F it was eleven palms long; from F to G ten and a half palms. From G to H the wood was covered with earth while it was being excavated, and it was impossible to see where it ended." Stelluti considered the possibility that fossil wood had been actual wood at some point in the past, but he rejected that hypothesis because he couldn't find any roots, seeds, or other indications of a tree. Instead, he speculated that the fossil wood he had found really came from "a soil type containing a lot of chalk, which gradually converts it into wood." His reasoning was admirable for the 17th century, but his conclusion was wrong.
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Fossil wood

Year: 1665
Scientist/artist: Robert Hooke
Originally published in: Micrographia
Now appears in: Wicked Intelligence by Matthew Hunter and The Meaning of Fossils by Martin Rudwick
Fossil wood that had been collected and studied by Italy's Lincean Academy in the early 17th century eventually made its way into the hands of England's microscopist Robert Hooke in the late 17th century. Hooke was cranky, paranoid, miserly, and quick to accuse others of stealing his ideas. He was also exceptionally hard working and smart. He was the curator of experiments for the Royal Society of London, and experiment he did. He repeatedly soaked and dried some fossil wood specimens, and heated others. Both processes revealed tiny pores in the wood, previously undetected. Under the microscope, Hooke compared the fossil wood to fresh wood and concluded that the fossils had really been wood. He attributed the material's transformation into stone to "having lain in some place where it was well soak'd with petrifying water." Hooke was one of the first naturalists in history to argue that fossils — long defined simply as objects dug out of the ground — were the remains of long-dead organisms. Not bad work.
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Tree stone

Year: 1677
Scientist/artist: L. Legati
Originally published in: Museo Cospiano Annesso a Quello del Famoso Ulisse Aldrovandi
Now appears in: "A History of Ideas in Ichnology" by Baucon et al. in Developments in Sedimentology
Legati followed the lead of the famous naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi in describing this specimen, calling it Pietra Alberina ("Tree stone"). The interpretation is understandable; the specimen bears the branching pattern typical of plants. But while it is still understood to be the remains of ancient life, the branching pattern owes its existence to something quite different than a plant. It is a trace fossil showing burrows of an animal that doubled back multiple times.

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.
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Fossil plants and dendrites

Year: 1723
Scientist: Johann Jakob Scheuchzer
Originally published in: Herbarium Diluvianum
Now appears at: AMS Historica (http://amshistorica.unibo.it/5)
Johann Jakob Scheuchzer understood that fossils were the remains of dead organisms. But like other naturalists of his day, he figured the fossils had all been deposited during the Noachian flood. In Herbarium Diluvianum, he provided multiple, lavishly illustrated plates of the fossils. And while he understood the organic origin of fossils, he also partially discerned the inorganic origin of a pseudofossil: dendrites. Shown along the right half of this image, dendrites look like branching vegetation, and have often been identified as such. Dendrites continue fooling rookie rock hounds today. Unlike many of his peers, Scheuchzer attributed their formation to the injection of a fluid. Alas, he imagined that the fluid had been forced into rocks layers when God halted the Earth's spinning on its axis.

Broadside and tree trunk

Years: 1851 (broadside) 1865 (illustration)
Scientist: Louis Figuier (illustration)
Originally published in: Earth before the Deluge (illustration)
Now appears in: Fossil Folklore from the Natural History Museum, London (http://www.nhm.ac.uk/nature-online/ earth/fossils/fossil-folklore/ themes/myths04.htm) (broadside) and Scenes from Deep Time: Early Pictorial Representations of the Prehistoric World by Martin J.S. Rudwick (illustration)
Mistaking a tree for a reptile is a pretty big blunder, but Lepidodendron is admittedly a weird tree. The genus lived between about 360 million and 290 million years ago — a time known to American geologists as the Pennsylvanian and Mississippian Periods, and to British geologists as the Carboniferous Period. "Carboniferous" is no coincidence as those rock formations provided much of the coal that fueled the Industrial Revolution. Preserved in the Coal Measures were scaly fossils that could, to an untrained eye, look like the skin of a reptile. The fossils were really from Lepidodendron tree trunks. Figuier's 1865 book showed the distinctive bark in its proper place. Fourteen years earlier, the broadside drew viewers to see a "fossil serpent!" In fact, Lepidodendron fossils had been correctly identified by the time of the 1851 serpent showing; August Goldfuss and Christian Hohe, for instance, depicted the distinctive tree bark in Fossils of Germany in 1844. But big crowds were unlikely to pay admission to see "fossil bark!"

Dwarf trees

Year: 1851
Scientist: Franz Unger
Artist: Josef Kuwasseg
Originally published in: The Primitive World in Its Different Period of Formation
Now appears in: Scenes from Deep Time: Early Pictorial Representations of the Prehistoric World by Martin J.S. Rudwick
Geologists understood very little about plants of the early Paleozoic Era, and this scene shows the oldest landscape that Franz Unger felt justified in trying to describe. The shrub-like plants in the foreground are Stigmaria and paleobotanists have since figured out that they were the root systems of plants the size of modern trees. Plant fossils often come in puzzles. Rarely do different pieces of a plant — root, trunk, branch, leaf, flower, fruit — fossilize together. Giving different parts of a plant different species names is perhaps a lesser evil than mismatching pieces.
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Plant fossils

Now appears in: "Drawing New Boundaries: Finding the Origins of Dragons in Carboniferous Plant Fossils" by DorothyBelle Poli and Lisa Stoneman in Leonardo
Spanning cultures, continents and centuries, dragon legends almost certainly have disparate origins. Those inspirations might include living reptiles, fossil bones, even methane-producing microbes. In "Drawing New Boundaries," Poli and Stoneman hypothesize another inspiration: fossil plants. Though fossils are generally rare, Carboniferous fossils (dating from roughly 360 million to 290 million years ago) are fairly abundant. A large-scale fuel source since the 18th century, Carboniferous coal seams are the remains of swamp forests, often rich in discernible plant remains. Some of those remains look, well, reptilian, including the scaly trunk of Lepidodendron (top) and the claw-like base of Stigmaria (bottom). After "seeing" a dragon in a West Virginia rock quarry, Poli and Stoneman devised an experiment at Roanoke College: showing participants Lepidodendron casts and asking them what the object appears to be. In total, the 115 study respondents mentioned "scales" 47 times, "serpent" or "snake" 44 times, "reptile" 41 times, and "dragon" 37 times. The authors point out that their study subjects "had the advantage (and bias) of knowing that fossils exist and that dragons are mythical." Next, the authors conducted literature searches on worldwide locations of Carboniferous plant fossil finds, and dragon folklore. The locations were by no means exact matches, but there was overlap. The study doesn't prove that fossil plants inspired any dragon legends, but it does suggest a possible link. If true (though we may never know what inspired dragon lore), some fossil plants were misinterpreted as mythical beasts.

Technicolor plants

Year: 1889
Author: James W. Buel
Originally published in: The Story of Man: A History of the Human Race
Now appears in: Hathi Trust Digital Library (https://catalog.hathitrust.org/ Record/001286518)
Buel titled this illustration "Product of the Earth during the Pliocene Period." Technically he should have referred to the Pliocene Epoch, but it would have been better to leave out any mention of the Pliocene altogether. The reddish-tan, scale-bark tree in the right half of the image would be better placed in the Carboniferous Period, some 300 million years earlier. The green-and-magenta fronds next to it might exist on Earth in some geologically distant future. Buel liked mixing organisms from different geological periods as much as he liked bright colors. In another illustration in The Story of Man, he showed cavemen fighting off a pterosaur.
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Years: 1947
Artist: Rudolph Zallinger
Appears in: Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University, and The Age of Reptiles by Scully, Zallinger, Hickey and Ostrom
When the fresh young artist Rudy Zallinger was asked to paint a series of pictures for the Peabody Museum's dinosaur hall, he countered with a more ambitious project: a 110- by 16-foot mural tracing the evolution of life from the Devonian Period (more than 100 million years before dinosaurs arose) through the Cretaceous Period (which ended with the dinosaurs' extinction). Vertebrate paleontology has progressed in the decades since Zallinger completed The Age of Reptiles, and now his plodding dinosaurs entertain more than they enlighten. Those lumbering reptiles hog most of the viewer's attention in the Peabody mural, but paleobotany has also moved on from Zallinger's vision. Plenty of the plants in The Age of Reptiles are based on solid fossil finds, but some depictions leave room for improvement. In front of a splay-legged Triceratops and a zigzag-spine T. rex tail sits this colorful magnolia bush. Flowering plants had certainly evolved by the end of the Cretaceous Period, but paleobotanist Leo Hickey doubts they were as flamboyant as in Zallinger's mural. A magnolia flush with flowers before its leaves emerged probably didn't grace any landscape before "seasonally cold climates, well after the beginning of the Age of Mammals," Hickey explains. Instead, Cretaceous magnolias probably had year-round leaves and sparse flowers. Hickey also points out that another plant (not pictured here) "looks suspiciously like a dogwood, a plant that had not actually appeared by the end of the Cretaceous." A former student of Hickey's once quipped that Zallinger might have been painting what he saw outside his office window. But to the artist's credit, his mural helped inspire generations of paleontologists, and their research is the reason we know so much more today than anybody knew in the late 1940s.


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.

Duplicate woodcut

Year: 1540
Scientist: Theodore Dorsten
Publisher: Christian Egenolff
Originally appeared in: Botanicon
Now appears in: Picturing the Book of Nature by Sachiko Kusukawa
Frankfurt publisher Christian Egenolff was a shrewd businessman who appropriated pictures and passages from other books, reassembled them into cheaper editions, and made a tidy profit. He cared less about accuracy than he did about money, and these pictures illustrate why. An identical woodcut is used to illustrate two completely different plants: atriplex and mercurialis. Egenolff's actions may have been galling to the people whose work he reused, but at the time, it wasn't necessarily illegal; copyright laws wouldn't be commonplace for many years. Still, contemporary botanist Leonhart Fuchs pointed to Egenolff's herbals as evidence that his own books were worth more money if the reader wanted reliable information.
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Composite plant

Year: 1837
Scientists/artists: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Pierre Jean Turpin
Now appears in: "The Lost Art of Looking at Plants" by Heidi Ledford in Nature (online version)
This isn't actually a goof so much as a depiction of an unfulfilled dream of Goethe's. The philosopher poet, Ledford explains, "took in the breadth of plant diversity and embarked on a search for an archetypal plant from which all forms could be derived." No such plant was ever found. Five years after Goethe died, the botanist Turpin illustrated this composite plant attempting to incorporate the features of all known plants. Though Goethe's Romantic era notions eventually fell out of favor, evolutionists have noted similarities explained by common descent, and comparing plant structures has continued in botany to this day. And the artistry in this picture puts more modern plant diagrams to shame.
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Flowerless plants

Year: c. 1560
Originally appeared in: Libri Picturati
Now appears in: Eye for Detail by Florike Egmond
This composite illustration shows what 17th-century naturalists often regarded as "flowerless plants": moss, liverwort and lichen. In Libri Picturati, this illustration was quickly followed by pictures of goose barnacles growing on rotten wood. Lichen aren't actually plants; they are partnerships between fungi and algae. But naturalists and biologists took a long time to uncover that partnership, and regardless of how the classifications have changed since the 1650s, this illustration is still exquisite.
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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.
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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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