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Herbals and Botanical Art

August 2017

Dear Friends:

In previous newsletters, we’ve talked about the history of botanical art and its record of civilizations. Botanical Art has contributed to three main areas Agriculture, Pharmacology, and Commerce.  Besides the enormous contribution the recording of plants made to what we grow and what we eat, the study of plants for therapeutic purposes has been and continues to play a significant role in our civilization.

From the beginning of these early recordings, plants documenting plants for their use came before writing.  Unfortunately, illustrations of these early discoveries were either not recorded or accurately recorded.  Many were passed down orally, often within families, and thus the knowledge of their proper use was lost and altered.   Early illustrations did not portray the differences between species.  Similar looking plants mark the tragedy of this with different medicinal results.  In some cases, the result was ineffective if not deadly.   Fortunately, today we are still learning about plants from obscure cultures.  My work in the Dominican Republic is an example of how modern research enables amazing re-discoveries of local, native plants, their medicinal properties, and their best use.

Sacred clay tablets, hieroglyphics, then later, books and manuscripts all marked the beginning written documentation.  From Chinese and Ayurvedic texts written between 2700 and 1500 BCE to the Egyptian Ebers Papyrus written around 1550 BCEO describing 500 natural plants and properties to the Greek physicians Hippocrates, Theophrastus, and Dioscorides, the quest for and writings about the healing powers of herbs was no small matter.

Monks in Christian monasteries from the 9th through 11th were chiefly responsible for recording the medicinal purposes of plants in books called “herbals.”   The word herbal is derived from the mediaeval Latin liber herbalis (“book of herbs”).  These books contain the names and descriptions of plants, usually with information on their medicinal, tonic, culinary, toxic, aromatic, or magical powers, and the legends associated with them. [1][2] A herbal often will classify the plants it describes and illustrations were often included to assist with plant identification. [3]  The herbal may have offered recipes for herbal extracts or potions.  It sometimes includes mineral and animal medicaments in addition to those obtained from plants. With little actual knowledge and observation, these “herbals” contained information and illustrations that eventually distorted the true nature of the plants being described. Fortunately, the Renaissance brought about the beginning of modern science and pulled civilization out of the Dark Ages.

During the 14th and following centuries, plants were documented according to their correct physical morphology. Re-recordings of the early monastic records prompted a new investigation with great vigor. Both the science of navigation and the printing press made it possible for the revised printed herbals to gain popularity.  And with so much available information and with a vehicle that would allow widespread influence, accurate illustrations and proper taxonomy (plant naming) for medical and agricultural uses of plants born from first-hand observations were in high demand.   Botanical illustrators more than ever before were a necessary part of plant discovery.

Illustration of Potato of Virginia from The Herball

1,484 pages illustrated Herball called Generall Historie of Plantes 1554

by John Gerarde 1545–1612

Although Europe holds a significant portion of the history regarding the use of medicinal plants in health and healing, America began the process of the importation and eventual melding of North American plants into the European materia medica, which ultimately altered the face of herbal medicine in Europe.

We are fortunate today to have a wealth of this historical information available to us in the various museums throughout the world and the libraries of the world.  In these places, we can see the magnificent antique collections of illustrated herbals as well as those printed in later centuries.  Once such place near Florence, Italy called, the Aboca Museum has made its primary goal the illustration and documentation of medicinal herbs.  The museum contains a virtual museum website ( that provides interactive information about every object presented in the Aboca Museum as well as a research center dedicated to studying the historical, scientific sources.  It also houses a reproductive center that handcrafts reproductions of artifacts and reprints of important herbals and the Bibliotheca Antiqua, an “ancient library,” that contains a collection of over 1,000 printed volumes from the 16th to the 20th century of old herbals, botanical books, and related manuscripts.

Georg Ebers papyrus

from the U. S. National Medical Library


As examples of some of the world’s most important records and first printed matter, researchers will find herbals scattered through the world’s most famous libraries including the Vatican Library in Rome, the Bodleian Library in Oxford, the Royal Library in Windsor, the British Library in London and the major continental libraries. In addition, China’s record of traditional herbal medicines dates back thousands of years. The medicine of India, known as Ayurveda, dates before the second millennium BCE. Further historical records point to the Aztecs, Ancient Egyptian Papyrus Ebers from 1550 BCE. Suffice it to say, that Herbals have been recorded by all civilizations throughout the world and continue to do so to this day.

Join us next month as we discuss woodcuts!

God bless,



  • 2Arber, Agnes 1986. Herbals, Their Origin and Evolution, a Chapter in the History of Botany 1470–1670. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-33879-4. (first published in 1912).
  • 3Anderson, Frank J. An Illustrated History of the Herbals. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-04002-4.
  • 1Singer, Charles 1923. Herbals. The Edinburgh Review 237: 95–112.
  • Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica, Byzantium, 15th-century manuscript. From Musee Cluny.  Image in the Public Domain.
  • Illustration of Potato of Virginia from The Herball or, Generall Historie of Plantes / Gathered by John Gerarde. Image in the Public Domain.
  • Georg Ebers papyrus from the U. S. National Medical Library at the National Institutes of Health. Image in the Public Domain.

Book Buys

1.    The Herbal Alchemist’s Handbook: A Grimoire of Philtres. Elixirs, Oils, Incense, and Formulas for Ritual Use by Karen Harrison ·

2.    Handbook of Medicinal Herbs, Second Edition by James A. Duke ·

3.    The Herbalist’s Bible: John Parkinson’s Lost Classic Rediscovered by Julie Bruton-Seal, Matthew Seal ·

4.    The Complete Illustrated Book of Herbs: Growing • Health & Beauty • Cooking • Crafts by Editors at Reader’s Digest ·

5.    Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine by Andrew Chevallier ·

6.    The Herbal Apothecary: 100 Medicinal Herbs and How to Use Them by JJ Pursell ·

7.    The Herbal Kitchen: 50 Easy-to-Find Herbs and Over 250 Recipes to Bring Lasting Health to You and Your Family [Book]  by Kami McBride ·