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Matthias de LObel

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Mathias de L’Obel

The career of Matthias de L’Obel (1538-1616) and those of his botanical colleagues Jacques Daléchamps (1513-1588), Rembert Dodoens (1516-1585) and Carolus Clusius (1526-1609) intersect in a number of ways: L’Obel, like Daléchamps and Clusius, had been a student of the influential Guillaume Rondelet (1507-1566), Professor of Medicine at the University of Montpellier. In later life his career would intersect with Clusius and Dodoens when botanical works by all three writers would be published by the same printing house, the firm set up by Christoph Plantin at Antwerp. L’Obel’s sojourn at Montpellier influenced the course of his life: a favourite student of Rondelet’s, he was bequeathed the latter’s botanical manuscripts in Rondelet’s will. Following Rondelet’s death in 1566, L’Obel spent a few more years at Montpellier, examining the flora of the region (and elsewhere) with his assistant, Pierre Pena (fl. 1535-1605), before moving to England in 1567. In the following years L’Obel travelled around England, Scotland and Ireland and the fruit of both his and Pena’s work was eventually published in 1571 at London under the title Stirpium adversaria nova. This seminal work, which Mallet and Jovet (1973) deemed to be ‘one of the milestones of modern botany’, was collected by Worth in the Antwerp Plantin edition of 1576.


Matthias de L’Obel, Plantarum seu stirpium historia (Antwerp, 1576), p. 138, Mandrake.

This is a woodcut of the much fabled mandrake plant. Delaunay and Laterrot (2008) note that illustrations of the plant are found on the grave goods of Tutankhamun (eighteenth dynasty) and there are many other ancient references to the plant. These provide us with a plethora of names, as the following quotation from Leonhard Fuchs’ 1542 herbal demonstrates:

‘The Greeks call it [mandragoras] or [kirkaia]; Pythagoras, [anthrōpomorphos]; the Latins, dog [canis] or earth apple [terrestris malus]; the apothecaries, Mandragora; the Germans, Alraun. Those who call it Circaea take the name from Circe, because its root is believed to be aphrodisiac. Pythagoras no doubt named it Anthropomorphos from the human shape its root seems to resemble. Taking the idea from this, the mountebanks and fakers hanging around the marketplace are peddling roots shaped in human form they claim are Mandragora, although it is quite evident that they are fashioned and made by hand from Canna roots carved in human likeness, afterward plants. At once small roots grow, which represent hair, beard, combed hair, and they take on colour from the earth, so that they appear to be roots. There are also many other fanciful stories they tell to wrest money from the ignorant, which it would serve no purpose to relate here. The Romans called it earth apple, because it bears fruit but does not grow tall like other trees.’*

Fuchs here studiously avoided the controversies and superstitions concerning the mandrake plant. There were many but perhaps the most fanciful of the stories concerning the mandrake was the superstition that it screamed on being pulled from the ground – and that hearing this scream would bring death to whoever was responsible for pulling it. Fuchs was not alone in his scepticism: L’Obel, though depicting the plant in this striking form, likewise avoided any mention of the folklore which had built up about the plant and instead provided his readers with learned descriptions from Dioscorides.


Matthias de L’Obel, Plantarum seu stirpium historia (Antwerp, 1576), p. 142, Poppy.

These two woodcuts are of the single and double forms of the opium poppy Papaver somniferum  L’Obel calls the single form Papaver sativum reflecting the fact that it was cultivated as a medicinal simple. The genus name Papaver comes from the Latin for food or milk pappa on account of the milky or yellow latex (RHS, 1998) and this extract of the Opium poppy has been known for millennia for its pain relieving properties. It was used in Egyptian medicine being mentioned in the Ebers Papyrus, a medical text dating from c 1550BC and the seed heads of the opium poppy can be seen in an Assyrian relief dating from the 8th century BC now in the Louvre (Lyons, 1987). Theophrastus fourth century BC mentions the milky juice and Dioscorides (Osbaldston, 2000) described how the juice of the poppy head was harvested. It was also used extensively in Arab medicine ( Norn et al, 2005).

An annual, a native of western Asia and South East Europe it grows well in gardens (although in some countries it is illegal to grow them even in gardens) in colours of pale pink, mauve, purple or white often with a dark blotch at the centre as seen in the single flower on the left. Seeding itself about, it recurs from year to year and beautiful double forms as illustrated in the woodcut on the right are also found.


Matthias de L’Obel, Plantarum seu stirpium historia (Antwerp, 1576), p. 202, Aloes.

The two woodcuts in the lower part of this page are called Aloes by L’Obel . The one on the right is indeed an image of an Aloe, which are now classified as members of the Asphodelaceae family, natives of Saudi Arabian Peninsula, sub-Saharan Africa and the islands of the Western Indian Ocean. The name comes from the Arabic ‘alloh’ meaning shining bitter substance which yields two different substances, aloe gel and aloe latex, both prized for medicinal uses for thousands of years. (UC Davis 2009). The one on the left which L’Obel calls Aloe folio macronato or Aloe America Clus is actually not an Aloe but an Agave from Mexico. Aloes were valuable plants which Christopher Columbus was searching for along with gold and spices (Delany, 2006) and this plant was brought back from the Americas probably round the 1520s. Clusius reported that he saw it in the gardens of Joan Plaza and Pedro Aleman in Valencia when he visited Spain and Portugal in 1564-5 and christened it the American Aloe. He subsequently described 200 plants he had seen on his journey in his Rariorum aliquot stirpium per Hispanias observatarum historia, including the Aloe. This book, Clusius’s first botanical work, was published by Christophe Plantin in Antwerp with woodcuts by Pieter van der Borcht, Plantin’s best engraver, in 1576. L’Obel’s Plantarum seu stirpium historia was published by Plantin in the same year and he included a woodcut of the Aloe America Clus. Subsequently when Clusius’s Rariorum Plantarum Historia was published by Plantin in 1601, the same woodcuts were used – and it was a copy of this book which Worth acquired. This is a good example of the reuse by Plantin of what would have been expensive woodcuts in different botanical works by different authors over a number of years.

Subsequently Linneaus reclassified the American Aloe into a genus called Agave from the Greek word meaning ‘noble’ so it became Agave americana (Linneaus, 1753). a member of the Agavaceae family. Agaves are useful and valuable plants used for food and drink (being used to make Tequila), while its use in textiles and cosmetic uses are also being explored. An interesting website on the history, uses and nomenclature of Agaves is available at


Matthias de L’Obel, Plantarum seu stirpium historia (Antwerp, 1576), p. 648, Duckweed.

*All translations from Fuchs are from Meyer, Frederick G., Trueblood, Emily Emmart and Heller, John L. (eds.) (1999), The Great Herbal of Leonhart Fuchs (Stanford University Press), 2 vols.


Allen, D. E. (2004), ‘L’Obel, Mathias de (1538–1616)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press).

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

Bown, Deni. (2010), Herbal. The Essential Guide to herbs for living (London), p. 200.

Clusius, Carolus (1576), Rariorum aliquot stirpium per Hispanias observatarum historia (Antwerp), pp. 444-446.

Daunay, Marie-Christine and Laterrot, Henri (2008), ‘Iconography and History of Solanaceae: Antiquity to the 17th Century’ in Horticultural Review 34, pp. 1- 112:

Delany, Carol (2006), ‘Columbus’s Ultimate Goal: Jerusalem’ in Society for Comparative Study of Society and Histor vol 48 issue 2, pp. 260-92. Online at

Dioscorides (2000), De Materia  Medica, A new indexed version in Modern English by T. A. Osbaldston and R. A. Wood (Johannesburg: Ibidis Press)

Jarvis, C. (2007), Order out of Chaos Linnean Plant names and their Types (London: The Linnaean Society of London in association with the Natural History Museum).

Linnaeus, C (1753), Species Plantarum (Stockholm), Vol 1, pp. 323 and 508.

Lopez Terrada, M. L. (2011), ‘Flora and the Hapsburg Crown. Clusius, Spain and American Natural History’ in  Silent Messengers: The Circulation of Material Objects of Knowledge in the Early Modern Low Countries edited by Sven Dupre and Christoph Luthy (Münster: Lit Verlag), pp 43-68.

Lyons, A. S., Petrucelli, R. J. (1987), Medicine An Illustrated History  (New York: Abradale Press) pp 66 -67, fig 104, p 97 .

Mallet, J. C. and Jovet, P. (1973), ‘L’Obel (or Lobel), Mathias de’ in Dictionary of Scientific Biography edited by Charles Coulston Gillispie (New York), vol VIII, pp 435-6.

Norn, S., Kruse, PR, and Kruse, E (2005). [History of opium poppy and morphine] Article in Danish.  Abstract in English Dan Medicinhist Arbog vol 33, pp 171-84.

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

Pollock, M., and Griffiths, M. (1998), The Royal Horticultural Society Shorter Dictionary of Gardening (London: Macmillan) pp 544-5.

The Genus Aloe Botanical Notes (2009). University of California Davis Botanical Conservatory Volume 1, issue 1:

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