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Carolus Clusius

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Carolus Clusius

‘Some years ago I took care to write the history of various plants that I had observed, as a youth and as an adult, in my travels, and to present this history for public judgment. Later I augmented it with further observations. Now, in my old age, when due to my bodily weakness I can scarcely walk, so as not to pass my life completely at leisure, I have applied my mind to the observation of those exotic plants and other things that are brought from foreign parts. Now I have taken on the task of writing the history of all the exotic things that I have acquired in recent years, and that through great efforts I have been able to obtain. I hope that this history, which I have written with great faith and the greatest diligence, will stimulate young men to take up this study in the same way that my earlier observations led them to the study of other plants.’*

Clusius, Exoticorum libri (Antwerp, 1605), quoted by Ogilvie (2006, p. 257).

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Carolus Clusius, Rariorum plantarum historia (Antwerp, 1601), title page.

Worth collected three books by Charles de l’Écluse (Carolus Clusius): the Rariorum plantarum historia (Antwerp, 1601), the Exoticorum libri decem (Antwerp, 1605) and the Curæ posteriores (Antwerp, 1611), all products of the famous Plantin press at Antwerp. This ornate title-frame depicts the biblical figures of Adam and Solomon (famous for naming plants), and, at their feet, the most famous ancient botanists: Theophrastus and Dioscorides. Above them all, is the Tetragrammaton. The title-frame had been bought by Plantin from the widow of the Antwerp printer Jan van Loe and had initially been used by Plantin for Rembert Dodoens’ Stirpium historiae pemptades sex, sive libri XXX published at Antwerp in 1583, (Worth had the 1616 edition of Dodoens’ work). This reuse of the title-frame was but the tip of the iconographical iceberg, for Plantin had cleverly bought up botanical woodcuts so that he could produce works by a number of authors. And so we see identical woodcuts being used in the works of the three main Dutch botanists of the period – who were all published by Plantin: Rembert Dodoens (1517-1585), Matthias de L’Obel (1538-1616), and Carolus Clusius (1526-1609).

The combination of Clusius’ botanical insights and Christoph Plantin’s printing skills was a particularly potent one. Plantin started publishing Clusius’ works in 1567 and continued to do so until his own death in 1589 – after which his firm continued the lucrative partnership. As Ogilvie (2006) states, Clusius was ‘the foremost phytographer of the sixteenth century’ and as such he produced far more detailed descriptions of plants than either earlier German botanical writers such as Bock or his Dutch counterpart, Dodoens. Clusius was not just interested in more detailed written descriptions of plants – he also paid a lot of attention to the depiction of the plants: ‘Having found an industrious and diligent artist, I had the image of plants depicted on wood blocks, and often I was beside the artist to indicate those aspects that had to be carefully observed when expressing the forms of dried plants’ (Ogilvie, pp 199-200). In this marrying of text and image Clusius was but following on the footsteps of Brunfels and Fuchs but with Clusius there was one major difference: though he had some medical training at the University of Montpellier with Guillaume Rondelet (1507-66), his focus was not on the medicinal applications of plants but rather on their proper description.

The combination of his own botanical research journeys in Spain and Portugal (in the 1560s) and the time he spent at the imperial botanical garden in Vienna, and later the botanical garden at the University of Leiden, coupled with his widespread friendship network, ensured that he had access to a wide range of plants. His position at Leiden ensured that he was well placed to benefit from news of new plants coming to the Dutch ports via the Dutch East India Company and Ogilvie (2006) reports that Clusius and his Leiden colleague Pieter Paaw sought to train one of the physicians travelling on these ships to send back specimens of plants. Some of the plants the physician, Dr Coolmans, sent back, were later incorporated into Clusius’ Exoticorum libri.Florike Egmond’s work (2010 and 2011) on Clusius’ scholarly network has demonstrated that it was widespread indeed: c 1,300 letters are extant (the majority of which are addressed to Clusius) and are from a wide range of correspondents, the majority of which were physicians and apothecaries from all over Europe.

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Carolus Clusius, Rariorum plantarum historia (Antwerp, 1601), p. 1, Dragon Tree.

Arber (1953) notes that, while Clusius’ woodcut of the Dragon Tree was the first illustration of Dracaena in a book on botany, it had previously been included by Martin Schongauer in his illustration of The Flight into Egypt. John Parkinson gives us the following description of both the tree and where Clusius first located it:

‘It is a goodly faire great tree to behold, rising as high as a Pine tree, with a great body, covered with a rugged barke, full of chappes and clifts, bearing eight or nine great armes, equally spreading from the toppe of the truncke or body thereof, each of them bare, for a cubits length, and then thrusting forth at their heades three or foure smaller branches, yet of an armes thicknesse, and bare also for a certain space, and bearing at the toppes of each of them, divers long and narrow leaves joined together at the bottome, and compassing one another like the Flowerdeluces doe, each of them being a cubit in length, and an inch in breadth, growing narrower to the end, where it is pointed with a thicke middle rib, running through the middle, all the length of them, and being reddish about the edges, which are sharpe like the Iris leaves, abiding alwayes greene….

This tree groweth in the Islands both of Madera and the Canaries, and in Brasill also, as I am given to understand, where it growth vast, but Clusius saith the he found it in the Orchard, belonging to the Monastery of our Lady of grace in Spaine, planted among some Ollive trees on a small hill.’

Clusius was evidently much taken with the exotic nature of the dragon tree and it was no doubt for this reason that he placed it at the very beginning of his Rariorum plantarum historia (Antwerp, 1576), which was bought by Worth in the 1601 Antwerp edition. As Ommen (2009) points out, the same image was used by Matthias de L’Obel in his Kruydtboeck (Antwerp, 1581).

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Carolus Clusius, Rariorum plantarum historia (Antwerp, 1601), p. 141, Tulip pair.

Tulips, a native of western Asia, Turkey the Balkans and Greece were brought to Constantinople by the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire where the tulip became the favourite flower in Ottoman gardens and its image was extensively used to decorate tiles and textiles. Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, the Holy Roman Empire’s ambassador to the Court of Sulieman the Magnificent between 1555-1562, is credited with spreading the fame of tulips to Europe although his famous letters describing them were not actually published until 1580s. According to Pavord (1999), it is likely that the tulip had been described by Pierre Belon who published his account of a trip he had made to the Levant in 1546 in Les Observations de Plusieurs Singularites, published in Paris 1553. Herein he describes unscented ‘Lils rouges’ which may have been tulips as lilies were rare in Turkey and these were in every garden. It appears that some of the first tulips in Europe came to Antwerp with a consignment of cloth some time around the middle of the sixteenth century. The merchant cooked the bulbs thinking they were onions and disliking them threw the rest of the bulbs into the garden where they died. Clusius credits Joris Rye, a merchant of Mechlin who rescued a small number saying ‘It is due to care and zeal that I could later see their flowers’.

The first published description of a tulip in Europe was made by Gesner who described seeing a red tulip in garden in Bavaria in 1559 and published the first illustration in 1561. Woodcuts of tulips make appearances in works by Cordus, Mattioli, Fuchs, Dodoens and L’Obel over the next decade. Clusius himself describes having received tulip bulbs from Thrace in the ‘Appendix of Thracian plants’ attached to his Rariorum aliquot stirpium per Hispanias observatorum historia (published in Antwerp in 1576). Clusius apparently also received some tulip bulbs and seeds from Busbecq when he was in Vienna establishing a botanic garden for the Emperor Maximilian II. When Maximilian died and his successor Rudolph II did away with the garden, replacing it with a riding school, Clusius brought them first to Frankfurt and then to Leiden (in 1593), where Rye’s rescued bulbs were already being propagated.  Thereafter, Clusius was instrumental in ensuring their popularity.

Although Clusius realised that tulips which developed streaks of different colours were likely to be weakened and that streaking was a sign of the imminent death of the bulb, it was not appreciated until the nineteenth century that this was a sign of a viral disease, and hence in the seventeenth century these ‘broken’ tulips became much sought after.  The popularity of the tulip in the Netherlands led to one of the early economic bubbles where prices of these sought after tulip bulbs changed hands for enormous prices. A single bulb of the white and red streaked ‘Semper Augustus’ could fetch 5,500 florins (the price of a handsome house) in 1633. This Tulipmania led to intense speculation with the inevitable bursting of the bubble in 1637 with many speculators reduced to long term debt and misery.

Clusius also mentions the variety of colours and shapes of tulips, noting 20 types divided into two major groups, early and late flowering. The tulips in this woodcut are described as ‘praecox’ meaning early flowering and show the pointed petals of the species tulip. Segal (1992) notes that it is always not possible to identify the exact species from the uncoloured woodcuts. By the beginning of the seventeenth century more elaborate doubles began to be introduced but these did not become popular till later in the century. The introduction of the tulip into gardens with their beauty and variety overlapped with and may have spurred the development of the early still-life painting as artists began painting ‘nach den leben’. Their beauty of colour and shape can be seen in the still-life paintings of Breugel and other Flemish and Dutch painters.

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Carolus Clusius, Rariorum plantarum historia (Antwerp, 1601), p. 266, Dens caninus.

Clusius shows two woodcuts of the Dentali or Dens caninus commonly known as dog’s tooth violet from the curved shape of the bulb. There are some twenty species but Erythronium dens-canis L, the species shown is the only dog’s tooth violet indigenous to Europe growing wild in Spain, Portugal, Austria, and the Balkans where it grows in woods, and meadows up to 5,750ft. It flowers in April, and as the captions to the woodcuts indicate, the flower borne on a single stem is usually purple or white. Not a relation of the violet but a member of the Lily or Liliaceae family, they are also called the Trout Lily from the stipples on the brownish green narrow leaves (like the back of a trout ) well demonstrated in the woodcuts. John Tracescant Junior (1608-1660) may have brought the yellow flowered Erythronium americanum back from one of his trips to Virginia around 1634 although Parkinson in his Paradisum of 1629 mentions a root sent to him from Virginia which might be either a Dens caninus or an Orchis. Since then many more of the American species and cultivars have been introduced into gardens. All are good plants for partial shade preferring ‘well-drained, hummus-rich and moisture-retentive soil’ (RHS) the gardener’s Holy Grail.

*Ogilvie, Brian W. (2006), The Science of Describing (University of Chicago Press), p. 257.


Arber, Agnes (1953), Herbals: their origin and Evolution. A chapter in the History of botany 1470-1670 (Cambridge University Press).

Brenninkmeijer-deRooij, Beatrice (1996), Roots of 17th-century Flower painting. Minatures Plantbooks Paintings (Leiden).

Edmond, Florike (2010), The World of Carolus Clusius Natural History in the making 1550-1610 (London: Pickering and Chatto).

Egmond, Florike (2011) ‘Science in the pharmacy: Clusius, apothecaries and sixteenth-century natural history’in Sabine Anagnostou, Florike Egmond and Christoph Friedrich (eds) A passion for plants: materia medica and botany in scientific networks from the 16th to 18th centuries (Wissenschaftliche Verlagsgesellschaft mbH Stuttgart), pp 15-34.

Hobhouse, P. (1992), Plants in Garden History (London: Pavilion Books), pp. 118-9, 127.

Jellicoe P&S, Goode, P. and Lancaster, M. (eds) (1986), The Oxford Companion to Gardens (Oxford University Press), p. 560.

Jovet, P and Mallet, J. C. (1973), ‘L’Écluse (Clusius), Charles de’ in Dictionary of Scientific Biography vol VIII, pp. 120-121.

Ogilvie, Brian W. (2006), The Science of Describing (University of Chicago Press).

Ommen, K. van (2009), ‘The Exotic World of Carolus Clusius 1526-1609. Catalogue of an exhibition on the quatercentenary of Clusius’ death, 4 April 2009’:

Pavord, Anna (1999), The Tulip (London: Bloomsbury Publishing).

Pavord, Anna (2005), The Naming of Names (London: Bloomsbury publishing).

Pavord, Anna (2009), Bulb (London: Mitchell Beazley).

Pollock, M. and Griffiths, M. (1998), The Royal Horticultural Society Shorter Dictionary of Gardening (London: Macmillan), pp. 269-270.

Royal Horticultural Society Erythronium dens-canis AGM:

Segal, S. (1992), Tulips portrayed. The Tulip Trade in Holland in the Seventeenth Century (Amsterdam: Museum voor de Bloebollenstreek).

Swan, Claudia (2008), ‘The Uses of Botanical Treatises in the Netherlands, c. 1600’ in The Art of Natural History: Illustrated Treatises and Botanical Paintings 1400-1850 edited by Therese O’Malley and Amy R. W. Meyers (Yale University Press), pp. 63 -81.

Voet, Leon (1972), The Golden Compasses. A History and Evaluation of the Printing and Publishing Activities of the Officina Plantiniana at Antwerp in two volumes (Amsterdam), vol 2.

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