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‘In considering the distinctive characters of plants and their nature generally one must take into account their parts, their qualities, the ways in which their life originates, and the course which it follows in each case.’
Theophrastus’ Enquiry into Plants Book I, p. 1.*
Theophrastus, De historia plantarum libri decem (Amsterdam, 1644), p. 670, Lavendula.
‘Theophratus, as he followed Aristotle in the Schoole, so also in his manner of writing, for according as Aristotle hath deliuered his Historia Animalium, so hath hee set forth this of Plants, not by writing of each species in particular, but of their differences and nature, by their parts, affections, generations, and life. …’* This quotation, from Thomas Johnson’s 1633 edition of the Herbal of John Gerard, aptly sums up Theophrastus’ approach to botany. While praising this approach later botanists, such as Johnson, were forced to conclude that it limited the practical value of the work – Theophrastus did not concentrate on providing descriptions of individual plants but studied them as a whole. In this systematic approach Theophrastus was of course following in the footsteps of Aristotle, whose works were likewise collected by Worth. Like Aristotle, Theophrastus had been a member of Plato’s Academy and the two scholars worked closely together. Diogenes Laertius mentions treatises by Aristotle on plants but it is clear that he concentrated more on animals, leaving an in-depth study of botany to his younger colleague, Theophrastus.
Theophrastus, De historia plantarum libri decem (Amsterdam, 1644), p. 814, Mentha.
Theophrastus wrote two treatises on plants, the Enquiry into Plants (9 books) and the Causes of Plants (6 books). As Morton (1981) states, these books included not only personal observations made by Theophrastus but also material which had been sent to him from parts of Alexander the Great’s far flung empire. As Negbi (2010) relates, it was from scientifically-minded soldiers that Theophastus learnt of mangrove, pistachio, cinnamon, banyan and black pepper, and, in all, Theophrastus’ two books offered his readers examinations of over 500 plants. However, unlike Discorides’ De Materia Medica which focused on the medicinal uses of plants, Theophrastus sought to create an over-arching scientific classification of plants. In his Historia Plantarum Theophrastus began with the classification of trees, shrubs, undershrubs and herbs and continued to discuss domesticated trees, wild trees, undershrubs and herbaceous plants – in that order. De causis plantarum shifted the focus to matters of generation.
Theophrastus, De historia plantarum libri decem (Amsterdam, 1644), p. 873, Asphodel.
Some of Theophratus’ botanical work had been incorporated by Pliny the Elder in his massive Historia Naturalis, though sometimes in a rather garbled form. Sharples (1995) notes that Pliny recorded that the stalk of the asphodel had been called antherikos and its bulb asphodelos by Theophrastus but while there is some evidence for Theophrastus naming the former term, the latter term does not appear to have originated with him. Reece (2007) notes that the term ‘asphodel meadow’ can be found in Homer’s Odyssey and Dalby (2003) reminds us that Hesiod (750-650BC) had mentioned that the bulb was regarded as a source of food. Pliny was one of the last western commentators on Theophrastus until his work re-emerged in the Renaissance when Theodorus Gaza produced a Latin translation of Theophrastus’ works. Part of this Latin version was printed in 1483 and the Greek text was published in 1497 in the Aldine Aristotle but readers had to wait until 1541 for a Latin edition of his complete works.
Theophrastus, De historia plantarum libri decem (Amsterdam, 1644), title page.
* Theophrastus, Enquiry into Plants with an English translation by Arthur Hort (Harvard University Press), p. 3.
** Thomas Johnson in preface to Gerard Sig 3r.
Dalby, Andrew (2003) Food in the Ancient World. From A to Z (London).
French, Roger (1994), Ancient Natural History (London).
McDiarmid, J. B. (1976), ‘Theophrastus’ in Dictionary of Scientific Biography edited by Charles Coulston Gillispie (New York), vol XIII, pp. 328-334.
Morton, A. G. (1981), History of Botanical Science (London and New York).
Negbi, Moshe (2010), ‘The scientific cradle of botany – Theophrastus and other pioneers’ in Israel Journal of Plant Sciences vol 58, pp. 309-18.
Reece, Steven (2007), ‘Homer’s Asphodel Meadow’: https://web.duke.edu/classics/grbs/FTexts/47/Reece.pdf
Reeds, Karen Meier (2006), ‘Renaissance humanism and botany’ in Annals of Science vol 33 no. 6, pp. 519-542.
Sharples, R. W. (1995), Theophrastus of Eresus. Sources for this Life, Writings, Thought and Influence. Commentary Vol 5. Sources on Botany (Brill).by