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Evolution Of The Art Of Plant Description

( Originally Published 1912 )

PROBABLY one of the chief objects, which the early herbalists had in view in writing their books, was to enable the reader to identify various medicinal plants. Nevertheless, until well into the sixteenth century, their drawings were so conventional, and their descriptions left so much to be desired, that it must have been an almost impossible task to arrive at the names of plants by their aid alone. The idea which suggests itself is that a knowledge of the actual plants was, in practice, transmitted by word of mouth, and that the herbals were only used as reference books, to ascertain the reputed qualities of herbs, with whose appearance the reader was already quite familiar. If this supposition is correct, it perhaps accounts for the very primitive state in which the art of plant description remained during the earlier period of the botanical renaissance.

When we turn to the Aristotelian school, we find that the writings of Theophrastus include certain plant descriptions, which, although they seem somewhat rudimentary when judged by modern standards, are greatly in advance of those contained in the first printed herbals. The mediæval philosopher, Albertus Magnus, who, as we have already pointed out, was a follower of Aristotle and Theophrastus, also showed marked originality in his descriptions of flowers, and drew attention to a number of points which appear to have escaped the notice of many more recent writers. For instance, in describing the flower of the Borage he distinguished the green calyx, the corolla with its ligular outgrowths, the five stamens and the central pistil, though naturally he failed to understand the function of the latter organs. He observed that, in the Lily, the calyx was absent, but that the petals themselves showed transitions from green to white. He noticed the early fall of the calyx in the Poppy, and its persistence until the ripening of the fruit in the Rose. On the subject of floral æstivation, his observations were surprisingly advanced. He pointed out that the successive whorls of sepals and petals alternated with one another, and concluded that this was a device for the better protection of the flower.

Albertus further classified the various forms of flower under three types :

1. Bird-form (e.g.Aquilegia, Viola and Lamium).

2. Pyramid- and Bell-form.

3. Star-form.

When we leave the early Aristotelian botanists, and turn to those who studied the subject primarily from the medical point of view, we find a great falling off in the power of description. The accounts of the plants in the Materia Medica of Dioscorides, for example, are so brief and meagre that only those with the most marked characteristics can be identified with certainty.

The Herbarium of Apuleius Platonicus, the earliest work to which the term " herbal " is generally applied, scarcely makes any attempt at describing the plants to which it refers. Such a paragraph as the following' gives an account of a plant, which, compared with most of the other descriptions in the herbal, may fairly be called precise and full.

" This wort, which is named radiolus, by another name everfern, is like fern ; and it is produced in stony places, and in old house steads ; and it has on each leaf two rows of fair spots, and they shine like gold."

The group of late fifteenth-century herbals which we discussed in Chapter I—the Latin and German Herbarius and the Hortus Sanitatis—are alike in giving very brief and inadequate accounts of the characters of the plants enumerated, although their descriptions often have a certain naïve charm. It is scarcely worth while to give actual examples of their methods. It will perhaps suffice to quote a few specimens from the English ' Grete Herball,,' which is a work of much the same class. The Wood Sorrel' is dealt with as follows : " This herbe groweth in thre places, and specyally in hedges, woodes and under walles sydes and hath leves lyke iii leved grasse and hath a soure smell as sorell, and bath a yelowe flowre." As another example we may cite the Chicory, which is described as having " croked and wrythen stalkes, and the floure is of ye colour of the skye." Of the Waterlilies, we receive a still more generalised account : " Nenufar is an herbe that groweth in water, and bath large leves and hath a floure in maner of a rose, the rote thereof is called treumyan and is very bygge. It is of two maners. One is whyte, and another yelowe." Occasionally we meet with a hint of more detailed observation. For instance, the coloured central flower in the umbel of the Carrot is mentioned, though in terms that sound somewhat strange to the modern botanist. We read that it " bath a large floure and in the myddle therof a lytell reed prycke."

It is somewhat remarkable that Banckes' Herbal, though originally published a year earlier than the first edition of the Grete Herball, shows a slight but distinct superiority in the matter of description (see p. 38). Perhaps this is to be connected with the fact that Banckes' Herbal is without illustrations. But even if we allow that the descriptions in Banckes' Herbal occasionally seize on salient features, it must be admitted that they still leave a great deal to the imagination. As two typical examples, which are perhaps as good as any in the book, we may take those of Tutsan' and of Shepherd's Purse. Of the first the herbalist writes, " This herbe bathe leves somdele reed lyke unto ye leves of Orage. And this herbe bathe senowes on his leves as bath Plantayne, and it hathe yelowe floures and bereth blacke berys, and it groweth in dry woodes." Of Shepherd's Purse he says, " This herbe hathe a small stalke and full of braunches and ragged leves and a whyte flowre. The coddes therof be lyke a purse."

The ` Herbarum viv2e eicones' of Otto Brunfels (1530) was the first herbal illustrated with drawings, which are throughout both beautiful and true to nature. The descriptions, on the other hand, are quite unworthy of the figures, being mostly borrowed from earlier writers. The wonderful excellence of the wood-blocks, with which the German Fathers of Botany enriched their books, was, in one sense, an actual hindrance to the development of the art of plant description. Since the pencil of the draughts-man could represent every subtlety in the characteristic form of a plant, the botanist might well be excused for thinking that to take the trouble to set beside the drawing a precise, verbal description of the plant in question was a work of supererogation. However, in another sense the draughtsman indirectly helped the cause of scientific accuracy in what, for want of a better expression, may be called word-painting. There is no doubt that constant critical examination of the artist's work must have tended to educate the eye of the botanist who supervised his efforts, and to increase his perception of delicate shades of difference or similarity of form, which he might never have noticed, or attempted to express in words, if the draughtsman had not, as it were, lent him his trained eyesight.

The next great worker, Hieronymus Bock, differs from Brunfels in the comparative unimportance of his contributions to plant illustration, and the relatively greater value of his text. His descriptions of flowers and fruits are excellent, and the way in which he indicates the general habit is often masterly. As an example we may quote his description of Mistletoe plants, which may be translated as follows : " They grow almost in the shape of a cluster, with many forks and articulations. The whole plant is light green, the leaves are fleshy, plump and thick, larger than those of the Box. They flower in the beginning of spring, the flowers are however very small and yellow in colour, from them develop, towards autumn, small, round white berries very like those on the wild gooseberry. These berries are full inside of white tough lime, yet each berry has its small black grain, as if it were the seed, which however does not grow when sown, for, as I have said above, the Mistletoe only originates and develops on trees. In winter missel thrushes seek their food from the Mistletoe, but in summer they are caught with it, for bird-lime is commonly made from its bark. Thus the Mistletoes are both beneficial and harmful to birds."

In ` De historia stirpium,' the great Latin work of Leonhard Fuchs, the plant descriptions are brief and of little importance, being frequently taken word for word from previous writers. This book, however, is notable in possessing a full glossary of the technical terms used, which is of importance as being the first contribution of the kind to botanical literature. We may translate two examples at random, to show the style of Fuchs' definitions

" Stamens are the points [apices] that shoot forth in the middle of the flower-cup [calyx] : so called because they spring out like threads from the inmost bosom of the flower."

" Pappus, both to the Greeks and to the Latins, is the fluff which falls from flowers or fruits. So also certain woolly hairs which remain on certain plants when they lose their flowers, and afterwards disappear into the air, are pappi, as happens in Senecio, Sonchus and several others."

In the German edition of Fuchs' herbal, the descriptions are remarkably good for their time, being more methodical than those of Bock, though sometimes less lively and picturesque. As an instance of his manner we may cite his account of the Butterbur, of which his wood-cut is shown in Text-fig. 58. " The flower of Butterbur," he writes, " is the first to appear, before the plant or leaves. The flower is cluster-shaped, with many small, pale pinkish flowerets, and is like a fine bunch of vine flowers in full bloom to look at. This large cluster-shaped flower has a hollow stalk, at times a span high ; it withers and decays without fruit together with the stalk. Then the round, gray, ash-coloured leaves appear, which are at first like Coltsfoot, but afterwards become so large that one leaf will cover a small, round table. They are light green on one side, and whitish or gray on the other. Each leaf has its own brown, hairy and hollow stem, on which it sits like a wide hat or a mushroom turned over. The root grows very thick, is white and porous inside, and has a strong, bitter taste."

Our English herbalist, William Turner, is often fresh and effective in his descriptions. He compares the Dodder (Cuscuta) to "a great red harpe strynge," and the seed vessels of Shepherd's Purse to " a boyes satchel or litle bagge." Of the Dead Nettle he says, " Lamium hath leaves like unto a Nettel, but lesse indented about, and whyter. The downy thynges that are in it like pryckes, byte not, ye stalk is four-square, the floures are whyte, and have a stronge savor, and are very like unto litle coules, or hoodes that stand over bare heades. The sede is blak and groweth about the stalk, certayn places goyng betwene, as we se in horehound."

The three great botanists of the Low Countries, Dodoens, de l'Écluse and de l'Obel, were so closely associated that it is hardly necessary to consider their style of plant description individually. Henry Lyte's well-known herbal of 1578 was a translation of the ` Histoire des Plantes,' which is itself a version by de l'Écluse of the Dutch herbal of Dodoens. We may thus fairly illustrate the style of plant description of this school by a quotation from Lyte, since it has the advantage of retaining the sixteenth-century flavour, which is so easily lost in a modern translation. As a typical example we may take a paragraph about the Storksbill (Erodium). It will be noticed that it does not represent any great advance upon Fuchs' work.

" The first kinde of Geranion or Storckes bill, his leaves are cut and iagged in many peeces, like to Crowfoote, his stalkes be slender, and parted into sundry braunches, upon which groweth smal floures somwhat like roses, or the floures of Mallowes, of a light murrey or redde colour : after them commeth little round heades, with smal long billes, like Nedels, or like the beakes of Cranes and Hearons, wherein the seede is contayned : The roote is thicke, round, shorte, and knobby, with certayne small strings hanging by it."

In his ` Pemptades' of 1583, Dodoens gave a glossary of botanical terms. His definitions suffer, however, from vagueness, and are not calculated greatly to advance the accurate description of plants. As an example we may take his account of the flower, which may be translated as follows

" The flower (âvOos) we call the joy of trees and plants. It is the hope of fruits to come, for every growing thing, according to its nature, produces offspring and fruit after the flower. But flowers have their own special parts."

The descriptions from the pen of de l'Ecluse are characterised by greater fulness and closer attention to flower structure than those of his predecessors. The plant which he calls Sedum or Semfiervivum majus, of which his wood-cut is reproduced in Text-fig. 59, is described as being "a shrub rather than a herb ; occasionally it reaches the height of two cubits [3 ft.] and is as thick as the human arm, with a quantity of twigs as thick as a man's thumb : these spread out into numerous rays of the thickness of a finger. The ends of these terminate in a kind of circle, which is formed by numerous leaves pressing inwards all together and overlapping, just as in Sedum vulgare majus. These leaves however are fat and full of juice, and shaped like a tongue, and slightly serrated round the edge, with a somewhat astringent flavour ; the whole shrub is coated with a thick, fleshy, sappy bark. The outer membrane inclines to a dark colour, and is speckled as in Tithymalus characia : the speckles are simply the remains of leaves which have fallen off. Meanwhile a thick pedicel covered with leaves springs out from the top of the larger branches, and bears, so to speak, a thyrsus of many yellow flowers, scattered about like stars, pleasant to behold. And when the flowers begin to ripen, and are running to seed (the seed is very small), the pedicel grows slender. But the plant is an evergreen."

In Gerard's ` Herball' of 1597 the descriptions are seldom sufficiently original to be of much interest. We may quote, however, his account of the Potato flower (Text-fig. 6o), then so great a novelty that in his portrait (Plate XII) he is represented holding a spray of it in his hand. It has, he says, " very faire and pleasant flowers, made of one entire whole leafe, which is folded or plaited in such strange sort, that it seemeth to be a flower made of sixe sundrie small leaves, which cannot be easily perceived, except the same be pulled open. The colour whereof it is hard to expresse. The whole flower is of a light purple color, stripped down the middle of every folde or welt, with a light shew of yellownes, as though purple and yellow were mixed togither : in the middle of the flower thrusteth foorth a thicke fat pointell, yellow as golde, with a small sharpe greene pricke or point in the middest thereof."

The plant descriptions by Valerius Cordus, which were published after his death, are among the best produced in the sixteenth century, but they are too lengthy for quotation here.

So far as the period with which we deal in this book is concerned, the zenith of plant description may be said to be reached in the ` Prodromos' of Gaspard Bauhin (162o), in which a high level of terseness and accuracy is attained. As an example we may translate his description of " Beta Cretica sentine aculeato," of which his drawing is reproduced in Text-fig. 62 : " From a short tapering root, by no means fibrous, spring several stalks about 18 inches long : they straggle over the ground, and are cylindrical in shape and furrowed, becoming gradually white near the root with a slight coating of down, and spreading out into little sprays. The plant has but few leaves, similar to those of Beta nigra, except that they are smaller, and supplied with long petioles. The flowers are small, and of a greenish yellow. The fruits one can see growing in large numbers close by the root, and from that point they spread along the stalk, at almost every leaf. They are rough and tubercled and separate into three reflexed points. In their cavity, one grain of the shape of an Adonis seed is contained ; it is slightly rounded and ends in a point, and is covered with a double layer of reddish membrane, the inner one enclosing a white, farinaceous core."

Any great advance on Bauhin's descriptions could hardly be expected during the period which we are discussing, since it closed before the nature of the essential parts of the flower was really understood. It was not until 1682 that the fact that the stamens are male organs was pointed out in print by Nehemiah Grew, though he himself attributed this discovery to Sir Thomas Millington, a botanist other-wise unknown. Gerard's account of the stamens and stigma of the Potato as a " pointell, yellow as golde, with a small sharpe greene pricke or point in the middest thereof," vague as it seems to the twentieth-century botanist, is by no means to be despised, when we remember that the writer was handicapped by complete ignorance of the function of the structures which he saw before him.

A further hindrance to improvement in plant description was the lack of a methodical terminology. As we have already shown, both Fuchs and Dodoens attempted glossaries of botanical terms, but these do not seem to have become an integral part of the science. It is a common complaint among non-botanists at the present day, that the subject has become incomprehensible to the layman, owing to the excessive use of technical words. There is, no doubt, some truth in this statement, but, on the other hand, a study of the writings of the earlier botanists makes it clear that a description of a plant couched in ordinary language—in which the botanical meaning of the terms employed has been subjected to no rigid definition-often breaks down completely on all critical points.

It is to Joachim Jung and to Linn eus that we owe the foundations of the accurate terminology, now at the disposal of the botanist when he sets out to describe a new plant. The published work of these two writers belongs, however, to the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and is thus outside the scope of the present volume.



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