Andreas Schimper and Plant Adaptation to the Environment

Agriculture and commercial forestry have transformed the landscape over almost the whole of Europe. There are few areas of true wilderness remaining, and in an ecological sense the plant communities are not those that would have developed without human interference. Consequently, it is not easy to observe the way plants have adapted naturally to the […]

Gustaf Du Rietz and Communities of Plants

Braun-Blanquet and his colleagues founded one school of phytosociology, but there were others. Professor Teodor Lippmaa (1892–1943) established an Estonian school in 1934 at the University of Tartu, and its first task was to map the plant distribution throughout the country. This was completed in 1955. The plant communities were then grouped into associations on […]

Josias Braun-Blanquet and the Sociology of Plants

Raunkiær based his system on the way plants have adapted to climate. Other botanists were using a similar approach to classify large units of vegetation, and one of the most influential was the German botanist and plant geographer August Grisebach. Other European plant ecologists developed Grisebach’s ideas. This led to the emergence of phytosociology as […]

Christen Raunkiær and the Way Plants Grow

In 1903 the Danish botanist Christen Raunkiær proposed a solution to the difficult botanical problem of comparing plant communities with entirely different compositions. Raunkiær’s idea was to categorize plants by the position of their perennating buds—the plant structure with which a plant survives periods of adverse conditions. Raunkiær believed that flowering plants first appeared in […]

Robert Brown, the Cell Nucleus, and the Study of Pollen

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection was first presented in the form of a paper read at a meeting of the Linnean Society in London on July 1, 1858. The meeting had been arranged hastily, following Darwin’s receipt on June 18 of a paper by Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913) setting out an almost identical […]

Matthias Schleiden, Theodor Schwann, and Cell Theory

It was Robert Hooke in the 17th century who first observed cells and gave them that name, but the German botanist Matthias Schleiden (1804–81) was the first scientist to appreciate their importance. All living organisms either consist of a single cell or are made up of cells, and organisms grow and reproduce by the division […]

Erasmus Darwin and The Botanic Garden

The Lunar Society boasted several members of outstanding intellect, who quite cheerfully referred to themselves as lunaticks. Joseph Priestley was one, and another was Erasmus, the grandfather of Charles Darwin. Erasmus Darwin (1731–1802) believed that in the natural world species were constantly developing as they struggled to overcome the constraints imposed by their environment. He […]

Phlogiston

In 1667 the German chemist Johann Joachim Becher (1635–1682) published a book called Physica Subterranea (Physics below ground), in which he revised the traditional view of the classical elements. Becher replaced the elements fire and earth with three alternative forms of earth to which he gave Latin names: terra lapidea, or “stony earth,” which was […]

Joseph Priestley and “Dephlogisticated Air”

In 1772 William Petty, the second earl of Shelburne (1737–1805), invited Joseph Priestley (1733–1804), with his wife Mary and their three children, to live on his estate near Calne, Wiltshire, where Priestley would work as Petty’s librarian and tutor to his children. The Priestleys moved to the Shelburne estate the following year. That is where […]

Transpiration is the process by which the evaporation of moisture through leaf stomata generates a pressure that draws up moisture from the soil, through the roots and the plant’s xylem vessels.

Stephen Hales, the Movement of Sap, and Transpiration

On the surfaces of leaves there are small pores that open and close in response to the movements of two guard cells, one on either side of each pore. The pores are called stomata (singular stoma), and they are the openings through which the plant exchanges gases. Carbon dioxide enters the plant and is used […]

Robert Hooke and the Cell

In 1665 the English physicist, instrument maker, and inventor Robert Hooke (1635–1703) published a book called Micrographia describing his researches using a microscope and illustrated by his own excellent and detailed drawings. Hooke’s microscope has survived and is shown in the following illustration. It is now housed at the National Museum of Health and Medicine […]

Marcello Malpighi and the Microscopic Study of Plants

Nehemiah Grew moved from Coventry to London partly to gain access to the microscopes owned by the Royal Society. Scientists recognized the value of these instruments, and Grew made extensive use of them. It was the Italian physician Marcello Malpighi (1628–94), however, who really pioneered the use of the microscope in the study of anatomy. […]

Nehemiah Grew, Plant Reproduction, and Comparative Anatomy

Scientists who aim to reconstruct past climates and environments make use of pollen—the mass of grains produced within the anther of a flower that carry the sperm. Every pollen grain has a tough protective coat that can survive in the soil for many years, and scientists are able to retrieve stored pollen grains from the soil […]

Nikolai Vavilov proposed these regions as centers where domesticated crop plants originated and from where they had spread. The regions are as follows: 1. Mexico and Guatemala; 2. Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia; 3. southern Chile; 4. southern Brazil; 5. Mediterranean; 6. Middle East; 7. Ethiopia; 8. central Asia; 9. India and Myanmar (Burma); 10. Thailand, Malaysia, Java (Indonesia); 11. China

Nikolai Vavilov and the Origin of Cultivated Plants

When early farmers first began to select the plants that they wished to grow, they chose individuals with certain characteristics. In the case of cereals, for example, they selected plants with a tough rachis and a large store of endosperm. In selecting for certain traits, farmers gradually altered the genetic constitution of their crop plants, and […]

Göte Turesson and Plant Ecotypes

Natural selection acts on differences that exist among the members of a species, and the concept of such variation is central to Darwin’s evolutionary theory. The fact of variation among individuals creates classification problems, however, as taxonomists must decide whether the visible differences between two plants or animals are sufficient to justify classifying them as […]

Asa Gray (1810–88), professor of natural history at Harvard University, was Charles Darwin’s most influential American supporter. Gray was also the leading U.S. authority on plant classification and plant distribution. (Science, Industry & Business Library/New York Public Library/Science Photo Library)

Asa Gray and the Discontinuous Distribution of Plants

In 1851 during one of his trips to Europe, Asa Gray (1810–88) visited Kew Gardens, where Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817–1911) introduced him to Charles Darwin. Hooker was director at Kew, and since 1842 Gray had been professor of natural history at Harvard University, where he devoted himself wholly to botany. He was the leading American […]

A photograph of Charles Darwin (1809–82) toward the end of his life (New York Public Library/Art Resource)

Charles Darwin and Evolution by Means of Natural Selection

At his home, Down House, in Kent, Charles Darwin (1809–82) had a large garden that he loved and greenhouses in which he performed experiments. Although his evolutionary theory is most often discussed in its relation to animals, Darwin was every bit as interested in the evolution of plants. He used the way breeders modify animals […]

Adolphe-Théodore Brongniart, Father of Paleobotany

In 1822 a 21-year-old French botanist published a paper on the distribution and classification of fossil plants. This established the career path the young man would follow and that culminated with his most important work. This began with Prodrome d’une Histoire des Végétaux Fossiles (Introduction to a history of fossil plants), published in 1828, followed by […]

How Rubber Moved to Asia

Natural rubber is made from the latex exuded by a tree, Hevea brasiliensis. Latex is a milky fluid produced by some herbs and trees that may carry nutrients and may also help the plant to heal wounds. The rubber tree grows naturally in tropical South America, where people were using rubber long before the arrival […]

Cocoa pods (Theobroma cacao) contain the beans that, after processing, yield cocoa butter and, after most of this has been removed, cocoa powder. This drawing of the pods is from A Voyage to the Islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica, with the Natural History of the Herbs and Trees, Four-footed Beasts, Fishes, Birds, Insects, Reptiles, &c. Of the last of those ISLANDS by Hans Sloane (1660–1753), in two volumes published in 1707 and 1725. (The British Museum)

Sir Hans Sloane, Milk Chocolate, and the British Museum

Cocoa is the most popular alternative drink to coffee and tea. It is made from the berries of a small tree (Theobroma cacao) that is native to tropical America and the islands of the Caribbean including Jamaica, which is the source of the first cocoa to reach Europe in 1698. The berries develop inside pods, […]

How Brazil Acquired Its Name

In the 15th and 16th centuries, wealthy Europeans dressed in rich fabrics dyed with bright colors, while ordinary folk were clad in dull grays and browns. Red was especially popular, not least because the dye, derived from the wood of the sappanwood tree (Caesalpinia sappan), was so expensive that sporting a red coat or gown […]

Coffee, and Kaldi’s Goats

Coffee originated in Ethiopia. That is where the plants (Coffea arabica and other species) grow naturally, and it is where they were first cultivated. Ethiopians were the first people to drink coffee. According to legend, it all began with a goatherd called Kaldi who lived in the ninth century c.e., although it was not Kaldi […]

Tea, and How Bodhidharma Stayed Awake

The founder of Zen Buddhism was a sage from southern India whose Sanskrit name was Bodhidharma, which means “teachings of the Buddha.” In China he is called Damo, and in Japan he is Daruma. The son of a Tamil king, Bodhidharma lived in the fifth or sixth century c.e. and became a Buddhist monk. He […]

Captain Bligh, HMS Bounty, and the Breadfruit Trees

In the late 18th century Sir Joseph Banks (1743–1820) was president of the Royal Society. For a time Banks had been the unofficial director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. He wielded considerable influence in political and scientific circles. Britain was establishing colonies in many parts of the Tropics, and there was much interest […]

The Story of Cotton

No one knows who were the first people to wear clothes made from cotton or where they lived. Archaeologists have found traces of cotton fabrics dated at about 2300 b.c.e. in the ruins of Mohenjo-Daro. At that time the two cities of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa, in the Indus Valley along what is now the border […]

The Story of Corn

Corn, also called maize (Zea mays mays), is a crop plant that originated in America. It is one of the approximately 10,000 members of the grass family (Poaceae), but it differs from the other cereal grasses in the extent to which the process of domestication altered it. These differences are so great that at one […]

Rice grains develop on a complex, branching arrangement of stems called a panicle.

The Story of Rice

Rice (Oryza sativa) is also a member of the grass family (Poaceae). Today it is the staple food for about half the world’s population, with two major varieties, O. sativa indica and O. sativa japonica. Its many tiny flowers, known collectively as an inflorescence, have a complex structure with many branches. This is called a […]

A: The earliest cultivated wheat was einkorn (Triticum monococcum). B: Modern bread wheat (T. aestivum) in its awned (right) and C: unawned forms

The Story of Wheat

Wheat is a type of grass that grows wild in the mountains of southeastern Turkey, and it was there, about 11,000 or possibly as much as 12,500 years ago, that people began to cultivate it. They had been collecting wheat grain from time immemorial, preferring einkorn (Triticum monococcum) and emmer (T. turgidum) wheats, but they […]

Origin of farming

The Origins of Agriculture

Life in a modern city or even a large town would be impossible were it not for the farmers who grow crops and the distribution and retailing systems that bring the food to the stores. It is agriculture that makes urban life possible, but it makes no sense to suggest that farming began in order […]

Carl Skottsberg and the Plants of Southern South America

At Punta Arenas, in southern Chile, there is a botanical garden named in honor of one of the world’s greatest botanical explorers. The Jardin Botanico “Carl Skottsberg” was founded in 1970, just a few years after the death of the Swedish botanist Carl Skottsberg (1880–1963). Early in his career, Skottsberg took part in a Swedish […]

August Grisebach and Floral Provinces

In 1872 August Grisebach (1814–79), professor of botany at the University of Göttingen, Germany, published a two-volume work that greatly advanced the study of phytogeography. Its full title was Die Vegetation der Erde nach ihrer klimatischen Anordnung: Ein Abriss der vergleichenden Geographie der Pflanzen (The vegetation of the Earth according to its climatic distribution: A […]

In Upper Teesdale and on the Lizard Peninsula there are plant communities that survive from a time when the climate was very different from that of today.

Edward Forbes and the Significance of Ice Ages

The River Tees rises in the northern Pennines—a chain of hills that runs in a north-south direction down the center of northern England—flowing about 70 miles (113 km) to the North Sea. In the upper part of the valley, called Upper Teesdale, there is an unusual community of plants. The plants are not rare, but […]

Alphonse de Candolle and Why Plants Grow Where They Do

Augustin de Candolle had traveled in Brazil, Indonesia, and northern China, and his observations convinced him of the importance of soil type in determining the way plants are distributed. In 1820 he wrote Essai élémentaire de géographie botanique (Elementary essay on botanical geography), in which he elaborated on an idea that Linnaeus had proposed earlier. […]

Franz Meyen and Vegetation Regions

Humboldt was generous in his support for young researchers and helped many at the start of their careers, but if he can be said to have had a favorite, that person was Franz Meyen (1804–40). When Humboldt first met him, Meyen was working as a physician. Humboldt secured for him the post of professor of […]

Karl Ludwig von Willdenow and the Start of Scientific Plant Geography

In 1788 when he was 19 years old and about to enroll at the University of Göttingen, Alexander von Humboldt met Karl von Willdenow (1765–1812), a 23-year-old medical student. Humboldt already had a keen interest in natural history and his meeting with Willdenow strongly encouraged it. Willdenow was learning medical botany, and his detailed studies […]

Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) was a Prussian naturalist and geographer who explored Central and South America. This portrait, painted in 1806, two years after his return, shows him studying a plant specimen. (Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz/Art Resource)

Alexander von Humboldt and the Plants of South America

Alexander von Humboldt’s exploration of South America, accompanied by the French botanist Aimé Bonpland (1773–1858), did much to establish biogeography as a distinct scientific discipline, but Humboldt was much more than a geographer. In his most famous work, Kosmos, published in five volumes between 1845 and 1862, he wrote that “I always wanted . . […]

Ernest Wilson, Collecting in China and Japan

In April 1902 Ernest “Chinese” Wilson (1876–1930) arrived back in England from his first plant-collecting expedition. He brought with him 35 Wardian cases of plants, seeds of 305 plant species, and herbarium specimens of 906 species. Between 1899 and 1919, Wilson undertook five expeditions to China and three to other parts of the world, from […]

The Wardian Case

Until the middle of the 19th century, plant hunters traveling in distant lands were able to send samples home only by preserving them first. Insects had to be killed and pinned to cards, and plants pressed and dried to make herbarium specimens. It was possible to send plant seeds on journeys lasting many weeks or […]

The Wardian case, invented in about 1829 by Dr. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward (1791–1868), made it possible to transport living plant specimens around the world and have them arrive in a healthy condition.

Robert Fortune, Collecting in Northern China

The Chusan palm (Trachycarpus fortunei) is one of the very few palm trees that can survive in the cool, wet Scottish climate. For that reason, it is a fairly common sight in Scotland, especially in coastal resorts attempting to offer a taste of the exotic to city vacationers. The species was introduced to Scotland by […]

George Forrest (1873–1932) was a Scottish plant hunter who undertook seven major expeditions to China, returning hundreds of species to Britain. (Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh)

George Forrest, Collecting in Yunnan

George Forrest (1873–1932) was one of the most successful plant hunters of the early 20th century. He undertook seven major expeditions to western China and returned to the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh more than 30,000 specimens of 10,000 plant species, of which 1,200 were new to science. Forrest was also one of the most adventurous […]

Reginald Farrer and Alpine Plants

Rock gardens and the alpine plants that grow in them have been popular since the early years of the 20th century. They became fashionable following the publication in 1907 of My Rock Garden, a book that remained in print until about 1950. It was followed a year later by Alpines and Bog Plants. Both books were […]

The York Factory Express, so called because it was used to transport company documents as well as furs and other goods, was a route between Fort Vancouver and York Factory that was operated by the Hudson’s Bay Company in the first half of the 19th century.

David Douglas in North America and Hawaii

The Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) is a magnificent tree that occurs naturally in western North America from British Columbia southward to northern Mexico. It can grow up to 330 feet (100 m) tall and is one of North America’s most valuable sources of timber. The tree can occur in dense stands in forests, but it […]

A Catawba rhododendron (Rhododendron catawbiense) growing in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. This species is native to the eastern United States, growing mainly in the Appalachian Mountains, and is named after the Catawba tribe of Native Americans. (Adam Jones/Visuals Unlimited)

Rhododendrons, Primulas, and Frank Kingdon-Ward

Rhododendrons have long been popular with gardeners. There are approximately 850 species in the genus Rhododendron. At least 26 species occur naturally in North America. The following illustration shows one of these, Catawba rhododendron (R. catawbiense). In China there are about 650 species and large numbers grow in the mountains of Nepal, Bhutan, and Sikkim. […]

Adolf Engler and the Vegetation of the World

In 1924 the German botanist Adolf Engler (1844–1930) published Syllabus der Pflanzenfamilien (Summary of plant families). In this work, Engler set out his own system of plant taxonomy. Many herbaria, field guides, and floras still use Engler’s classification, and the 12th edition of this two-volume work, edited by H. Melchior and E. Werdermann, was published […]

Augustin de Candolle and Natural Classification

Linnaeus developed the approach to classification that Tournefort had used, but he did not depart from its principles. Under the Linnaean system, plants were grouped together on the basis of similarities in their flowers—the number and arrangement of stamens. His system was easy to learn, so students liked it, but it was unnatural, and in […]

How Plants Are Classified

Most plants, though not all, have a name in the language of every country in which they occur naturally. In many cases they also have several local names. In addition, every plant known to science has an “official” or scientific name. This name is in Latin, by convention it is written in italic characters, and […]

Carolus Linnaeus (1707–78), in his early 30s, wearing Lapp dress and holding a plant. He acquired the costume during his 1732 expedition to Lapland and wore it for this famous portrait. (Mansell/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Carolus Linnaeus and the Binomial System

A common plant is likely to have many names, but to avoid confusion it will have only one scientific name. The scientific name will be in Latin and it will have two parts, the first being the name of the genus and the second of the species. This use of two names to identify a […]

The flower is the reproductive apparatus of every flowering plant. This flower carries both male (stamens) and female (carpel) reproductive organs, enclosed in petals. Flowers of some plants hold either, but not both, male or female organs, and some flowers (e.g., of grasses) have no petals.

Joseph Pitton de Tournefort and the Grouping of Plants

Its flower is the most obvious feature of most flowering plants. Many flowers have brightly colored petals. These attract pollinating animals. Plants such as grasses that are pollinated by wind have no need of petals, so their flowers are usually smaller and drab in color, but they are nevertheless prominent and clearly visible. However it […]

The Viceroyalty of New Granada (Virreinato de la Nueva Granada) was the name given in 1717 to the Spanish colonies in the northern part of South America. The region approximately covered the modern countries of Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela, as well as part of Peru, Brazil, Guyana, and Nicaragua.

José Mutis and the Bogotá Botanical Garden

The Jardín Botánico José Celestino Mutis in Bogotá, Colombia, is a research and scientific center and the country’s largest botanic garden. It occupies 20 acres (8 ha) and specializes in Andean species, with greenhouses containing plants from every region of the country, including 5,000 species of orchids and the world’s largest example of the giant […]

Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and the Royal Garden, Paris

In 1778 a former Paris bank clerk published Flore Française (French flora) in three volumes. The work was an immediate success and, with the support and help of France’s leading natural scientist, Georges- Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon (1707–88), its author was appointed an assistant botanist at the Jardin du Roi, the royal botanical garden […]

Sir William Hooker (1785– 1865), the English botanist who in 1841 became the first director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. (George Bernard/Science Photo Library)

Sir William Hooker, the First Official Director

Both Joseph Banks and George III died in 1820, and in the years following their deaths interest in the gardens waned and they came close to being abandoned. The new king, George IV (1762–1830), had little interest in them. The decline was arrested with the arrival of the first director, Sir William Hooker (1785–1865), in […]

The colored areas indicate territories controlled by Britain in 1822. At that time the British Empire was still expanding, but the territories were widely scattered and located in many different climatic zones.

Sir Joseph Banks, Unofficial Director of Kew

Princess Augusta died in 1772. Her son, George III, inherited both Kew Gardens and Richmond Gardens, and in 1802 he joined them together. George III was keenly interested in agriculture and agricultural research—an enthusiasm that earned him the nickname “Farmer George”—and he turned part of the combined gardens over to raising sheep. During his reign […]

In 1762 a pagoda in the Chinese style was constructed in Kew Gardens. This photograph of the gardens was taken from the top of it in July 2003. The gardens cover about 300 acres (121 ha) and contain the world’s largest collection of living and preserved plants. It is a World Heritage Site. (Getty Images)

Sir Henry Capel, Princess Augusta, and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew

Britain’s principal botanical garden occupies more than 300 acres (121 ha) beside the River Thames at Kew in southwest London. It became a botanical garden in 1752, so what is now the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, is of much more recent origin than most of Europe’s botanical gardens and it is not the oldest botanical garden […]

Tulipomania

The tulip originated in Turkey. It was introduced into Europe in the 16th century and became highly popular in the United Provinces (now the Netherlands). Growers discovered they could produce a wide range of varieties with many different colors, some a single but vivid red or yellow, some white, and some with more than one […]

Although they were colorful and attractive, the first tulips to be seen in Europe were much less showy than tulips were to become after many generations of selective breeding. This illustration appeared in Hortus Eystettensis (Eystett’s garden) by Basilius Besler (1561–1629), published in 1613. (Georgette Douwma/Photo Researchers, Inc.)

Carolus Clusius, the Leiden Botanical Garden, and the Tulip

Within a few decades, botanical gardens were opening elsewhere in Europe. The University of Leipzig, Germany, began work on its garden even earlier, in about 1542, but it opened later than the Italian ones. In about 1567 the University of Bologna converted its physic garden into a botanical garden. University administrators were recognizing that a […]

Pisa, Padua, and Florence, the First Botanical Gardens

In 1544, the botanist Luca Ghini established Europe’s first botanical garden in Pisa, Italy. Ghini was acting on the orders of Cosimo I de’Medici, the grand duke of Tuscany, who wished the garden to stock simplicia—plants with medicinal properties. The garden was linked to the University of Pisa, and is still: Its official title is […]

The Rise of the Herbarium

There was nothing novel in the practice of pressing and drying plants, especially flowers. The oldest example of a plant preserved in this way consists of the twigs and leaves of an olive tree (Olea europaea) made from a bundle of olive twigs bound together by cords made from palm leaves that was discovered in […]

Herbarium specimens are dried and pressed in a single operation by laying each plant between two sheets of absorbent paper such as blotting paper. Several plants are processed together as a stack. They can be pressed between two boards linked by four bolts and wing nuts. The press should be placed somewhere warm to accelerate drying.

Luca Ghini and How to Press Flowers

Gardeners were often avid plant collectors. Highly competitive, they sought to impress their rivals by their displays of the latest fashions in plantings and of plants that had only recently arrived in their corner of the world. The landscaped gardens with which 18th-century landowners delighted their houseguests were often stocked with exotic trees, and the […]

Lancelot “Capability” Brown

During the 18th century there was a reaction against the excessively formal gardens to be found in the grounds of most European palaces and great houses. A more romantic approach became fashionable, and landowners sought to surround their homes with parkland that appeared natural. Rectangular beds and straight paths gave way to curved lines. A […]

The Tudor garden at Hampton Court Palace, London. The beds were replanted in the 18th century. (Jim Steinberg/ Photo Researchers, Inc.)

Formal Gardens, Restoring Order to a Chaotic World

The rising interest in plants was accompanied by a wish to cultivate them, and private gardens became increasingly popular from early in the 16th century. Borrowing the basic design of the medieval monastic garden, these gardens were usually walled and were tranquil places where people could relax, enjoying the shapes, colors, and perfumes of the […]

Identifying Plants: The Herbal Becomes the Flora

In 1622 Caspar Bauhin published Catalogus plantarum circa Basileam sponte nascentium (Catalog of plants occurring naturally around Basel). This slim book was a list of the plants growing around Basel. It contained no illustrations, but it listed all the synonyms for the plants it described and details of where each plant might be found, and alternate […]

Left: Toothwort (Lathraea squamaria) leaves have edges suggestive of a row of teeth. Right: The blotches on lungwort leaves (Pulmonaria officinalis) are reminiscent of the surface of lung tissue.

The Doctrine of Signatures

People are very good at recognizing patterns, even where no pattern exists, and pattern recognition played an important part in early herbal medicine. When people rummaged through the meadows and along the hedgerows for plants that might heal their ailments, they saw similarities between plant forms and the part of the body that was sick. […]

Chelsea Physic Garden, in London, has existed since 1673. Originally it was a place where students could learn to identify medicinal plants. This is greenhouse 56. (Peter Jousiffe/Science Photo Library)

The Apothecaries’ Garden at Chelsea

In every major city there are annual events that mark the passing of the seasons. London is no exception, and one of its annual festivals attracts gardeners and garden enthusiasts from all over Britain. The Chelsea Flower Show is a celebration of garden design and plant breeding. The show takes place in a garden that […]

Monastic Gardens

In the Middle Ages European monasteries and convents were centers of learning, and the monks and nuns also had a duty to care for the lay community outside the monastery walls. They provided shelter and hospitality for pilgrims and other travelers, schools for local children, and they cared for the sick. Most monasteries and convents […]

The Bauhin Family

Herbals grew steadily longer in the course of the 16th century, and as they grew so did the number of omissions and inaccuracies they contained and repeated. There was only one way the situation could be remedied: Someone had to go through as many of the publications as possible looking for duplications, synonyms, and obvious […]

The genus Fuchsia is made up of more than 100 species of plants originally from Central and South America. They are now widely cultivated for their attractive flowers and as hedges, and they have become naturalized in Europe. These fuchsias are growing in a hedgerow near the town of Dingle, in County Kerry, Ireland. (Dennis Flaherty/Photo Researchers, Inc.)

Leonhard Fuchs, Fuchsia, and the First Botanical Glossary

It is the custom for botanists to honor distinguished members of their profession by naming plants for them. The fuchsia is a popular ornamental shrub, grown for its flowers and as a hedging plant. The French botanist Charles Plumier (1646–1704) was the first European to discover it. In 1696–97 Plumier found it growing wild on […]

Nicholas Culpeper and His Herbal Best Seller

In 1653 Nicholas Culpeper (1616–54) published The Complete Herbal. It was the last of his works to be published in his lifetime, and he wrote the following explanation of how he felt obliged to offer an alternative to what he regarded as the unnatural and harmful treatments of his medical rivals. This not being pleasing […]

John Gerard and His Herbal

In the 16th and 17th centuries, barbers performed surgery as well as cutting hair and shaving men. The red-and-white barber’s pole is believed to represent blood and bandages associated with their merged calling, and in Britain surgeons are still addressed as “Mr.” rather than “Dr.” This arrangement began in 1163, when a papal decree forbade […]

Rembert Dodoens and the First Flemish Herbal

In 1578 a printer called Gerard Dewes, living at the Sign of the Swan in St. Paul’s Churchyard, London, published a new herbal for which he claimed much. He advertised it as (with the original 16th-century spelling): A nievve herball, or, Historie of plantes: wherein is contayned the vvhole discourse and perfect description of all […]

Conrad Gessner, the German Pliny

A polymath is a scholar who is learned in a wide range of subjects, a kind of all-purpose expert. Conrad Gessner (1516–65) of Zürich, Switzerland, was one of the most remarkable polymaths the world has ever known. Some historians have described him as a one-man Royal Society, but during his own lifetime he was best […]

Konrad von Megenberg and His Illustrated Herbal

A modern field guide to plants or a book about the plants found in a particular region would sell rather few copies if it lacked illustrations. Modern photographic and printing technologies make it relatively simple to include colored illustrations, but this is a recent advance. Before the invention of photography and offset printing, an illustration […]

Albert the Great and the Structure of Plants

Herbalists need to be able to identify plants, and if they are to cultivate them they need to understand the environmental conditions their herbs require. They require the skills of the horticulturist to produce the raw materials from which their pharmaceutical skills allow them to concoct remedies. These are important skills, but they are not […]

The Aztec Herbal

Plants grow almost everywhere, many have therapeutic properties, and people of every culture treat their ailments with the herbal remedies they find around them. The peoples of the Americas are no exception, and when Europeans first arrived in Central America they found that the Aztec people were highly skilled practitioners of herbal medicine. The Spanish […]

The earliest Chinese spades, of the type Shennong is often portrayed with, were used to till the land for centuries before the invention of the plow. Charms were shaped like spades, and spade coins, called bubi, were used during the Zhou dynasty from the 11th century b.c.e. until the third century c.e. This is a spade coin from that time.

Shennong, the Divine Farmer

Traditional Chinese medicine is based largely on herbs, and it has been practiced for a very long time—about 5,000 years. Chinese legend attributes its origin to an emperor who is thought to have lived from about 2737 b.c.e. to about 2697 b.c.e., probably not far from the city of Xian in what is now Shaanxi […]

John Ray and His Encyclopedia of Plant Life

In 1686, 1688, and 1704, the English naturalist John Ray (1627–1705) published the three volumes of Historia generalis plantarum (A general account of plants); each volume had approximately 1,000 pages. Ray was 59 and this was the culmination of his life’s work, in which he attempted to classify plants. The book described more than 18,600 […]

Pliny, Preserving Knowledge

Knowledge is fragile and easily lost. The books in the library at Alexandria were not bound volumes like those in modern libraries, but texts that were handwritten on scrolls of paper made from the papyrus plant (Cyperus papyrus), a type of sedge, and a long book might comprise several scrolls. Later texts, though not those […]

At its peak, Alexander’s empire extended from Macedonia in the west to central Asia and the Indus River in the east, and from the southern shores of the Black and Caspian Seas to Egypt.

Alexander the Great and His Empire

Aristotle taught Alexander (356–323 b.c.e.) before the prince inherited the throne of Macedon in 336 b.c.e. and began to extend the empire his father had won by conquest. Later, the garden at the Lyceum in Athens came to contain plants contributed by followers of Alexander’s armies. Theophrastus based many of his plant descriptions on accounts […]

What Is a Pharmacopoeia?

A pharmacopoeia (also spelled pharmacopeia) is a published list of medicines and other health care products. Modern pharmacopoeias list products that are authorized by the government for use. The term pharmacopoeia was first used in 1561 and came into general use early in the 17th century. Lists of recipes for making medicines from plant, animal, […]

Mandrake (Mandragora officinarum) is seen here on a page from an illustrated Greek edition of De materia medica by Pedanius Dioscorides published in Constantinople in the mid- 13th century. Dioscorides described sleeping potions made from this plant and used as a surgical anaesthetic. (The Pierpont Morgan Library/Art Resource)

Pedanius Dioscorides and His Catalog of Medicinal Plants

So many plants possess medicinal properties, and combinations of ingredients from different plants generate yet more treatments, that a specialist worker preparing medicines or a physician prescribing them could not possibly remember them all. Medical workers need reference books listing recipes for medicines, descriptions of useful plants and their properties, and aids to diagnosis. For […]

Medicine and plants

In Uganda’s Kibale National Park, scientists have observed chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) searching for and then chewing the bark or leaves of plants that have very little nutritive value, but that local people use to relieve symptoms of malaria and diarrhea. The chimps also chew these plants when they are sick and they, too, use them […]

Theophrastus, the Father of Botany

When Aristotle quit Athens for the last time, he left his friend and assistant Theophrastus (ca. 372–ca. 287 b.c.e.) to lead the Peripatetic school. In his will Aristotle bequeathed the Lyceum buildings and garden and his library to Theophrastus and made Theophrastus guardian of his children. Theophrastus was a popular teacher, some accounts claiming he […]

Aristotle (384–322 b.c.e.) in his later years. The photograph is of a Roman marble bust that is a copy of a Greek original, which is now lost. (The Granger Collection)

Aristotle and His Natural History

Aristotle (384–322 b.c.e.) was a Greek philosopher who lived at a time when most people believed in a world governed by gods, demigods, and other supernatural beings. According to tradition, in the distant past these beings had made the plants and the stories about how they did so are woven into the Greek myths. It […]

El Niño Wreaks Havoc

The complex, interrelated geology of the Andes, the Atacama Desert, and the Atacama Trench all come together in the face of El Niño, a weather pattern that affects the whole planet. The microscopic plankton that grow in the sunlit waters of the upper ocean provide the foundation for the ocean’s food chain, just as grass […]

A 22,000-Year Rainfall Record

Desert conditions have seemingly always dominated, with only temporary periods that proved less harsh as a result of global climate changes. For instance, a recent report in Science presented a detailed account of rainfall in the Atacama going back 22,000 years. The researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey, the University of Arizona, and the Universidad […]

Detecting Life

When scientists wanted to test the robot destined to explore Mars, they took it to the driest, most lifeless place they could find, the Atacama Desert. They hoped that the austere desert could help solve a mystery and prevent a blunder. Even before H. G. Wells wrote his terrifying War of the Worlds, scientists wondered […]

Atacama Desert

Atacama: The Oldest Desert: South America

T he ancient, cold Atacama Desert might as well be on another planet. In fact, when scientists wanted to find a place harsh enough to test the robots they planned to send to Mars to look for the faintest, most beleaguered traces of life, they came first to this 700-mile-long (1,100 km) desert in northern […]

The First Bird

Another fossil from the same area revealed new insights into how birds developed the ability to fly, according to findings in Science. The fossilized bones and feather impressions of the pigeon-sized bird dubbed Apsaravis ukhaana were uncovered in Ukhaa Tolgod in the Gobi. The creature appears to be very close to the root of the […]

The First Indiana Jones

Roy Chapman Andrews had a very odd dream for a young boy roaming the hills of Wisconsin. He wanted to work for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. But his life exceeded even his wildest dreams and included dinosaurs, bandits, international fame, and a career so exciting he became the model […]

Sand Dunes Swallow Dinosaurs

Despite the scale of the great Gobi sand dunes, it is still startling to learn that more than 65 million years ago those sand dunes were big enough to bury a dinosaur in an instant. At least, that is the conclusion of an international team of scientists who published a study in Geology. The Gobi […]

Wildlife of the Gobi Desert

The harsh conditions of the Gobi have forced the creatures that live there to adapt and survive. Although much of the desert consists of sandy or stony plains, the mountains, canyons, springs, marshes, and fitful river systems provide enough diversity of habitat to shelter an array of fascinating creatures. These include wild Bactrian camels, several […]

Sand and Soil

Sand defines the Gobi Desert, the dried-out remains of soils that once sustained life during the ice ages. Unlike soil, sand lacks the organic material to nurture plant life. Experts still puzzle over the source of the great, hypnotic fields of massive sand dunes that dominate hundreds of square miles of the nearly rainless desert. […]

Alshan Plateau and Junggar Basin Semi-Deserts

Two major areas adjacent to the deep desert, the Alshan Plateau and the Junggar Basin, transition from barren sand to arid grasslands. The Little Gobi desert lies in the southwestern portion of the larger desert area. Higher and wetter, it fills the space between the Yellow River on the east and a mountain chain. It […]

Eastern Gobi Desert Steppe

The region most typically desert is the Eastern Gobi desert steppe, which covers some 109,000 square miles (281,800 sq km) and extends from the Inner Mongolian plateau in China north into Mongolia. High and cold with elevations from 2,300 to 5,000 feet (770–1,700 m), this region gets as much as eight inches (200 mm) of […]

Plate Tectonics: The Restless Earth

The Earth’s surface is divided into several major crustal plates, layers of light rock 30 to 100 miles ( 48– 160 km) thick floating on top of the Earth’s heavy, iron-rich mantle. Currents that originate in the molten, super-dense core trigger inexorable currents in the mantle above. The currents in the mantle, in turn, push […]

Cutting Off the Moisture

The collision of continents ultimately isolated the portion of central Asia that includes the Gobi Desert from the moisture-laden winds from the ocean. The winds blowing up against this barrier of mountains rose until the moisture it contained condensed into rain or froze into snow. The Gobi sits surrounded by such a ring of mountains, including […]

Gobi Desert

Assembling a Continental Desert

Almost unimaginable forces raised the vast network of surrounding mountain ranges that created the Gobi Desert. Understanding the creation of the Gobi requires an understanding of plate tectonics and the theory of continental drift. Geologists have discovered that the Earth’s surface is divided into a series of crustal plates that include both heavier oceanic material and […]

Gobi Desert: Central Asia

T he dry, wind-tormented sands of the 500,000-square-mile (1.3 million sq km) Gobi Desert harbor deep secrets—from the evolution of life to the restless stirrings of the planet. The high, windy, bone-dry region is a continental desert as a result of the mountains that surround it and cut it off from moist, ocean air in […]

Living in Dreamtime

Perhaps the most remarkable adaptation of these desert-dwelling people was their rich, mystical culture, layered with stories and stitched together with faith and insight into the natural world. The Australian aboriginals boast the longest continuous cultural history of any group on Earth. Central to their view of the world is the mysterious and transcendent notion […]

The Aboriginals: The Oldest Culture

The Australian deserts also harbor one of the most remarkable, desertadapted cultures, the Australian aboriginals. They adapted to the harsh conditions and their long isolation with a culture sparing in the use of tools but rich in philosophy and cultural adjustments to desert conditions. Moreover, their long isolation from other human cultures has made them […]

Kangaroo Hops Happily through Hard Times

The kangaroo remains the most distinctive and recognizable marsupial in Australia. Although Australia separated from Antarctica and begin drifting north 6 million to 1366 million years ago, the ancestors of the first, ratlike marsupials hopped out of the trees some 0 million years ago. They eventually gave rise to kangaroos and their various relatives, all […]