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Garden books in the Special Collections of the Barr Smith Library

Early herbals

Herbs were essential to the health of a household and were a necessary part of the garden from early times. The first books to describe plants and their properties and virtues were the early herbals. Necessary to physicians and apothecaries, herbalists andIllustration from "La Vita Medioevale Italiana nella Miniatura" botanists as well as the householder, they both described the plants as an aid to identification, and provided receipts for remedies, pest control and cosmetic treatments. The earliest herbals often depicted crudely drawn plants including the body part or ailment that could be cured using that herb.

The earliest herbal in Special Collections is De Medica Materia Libri VI by Pedacius Dioscorides, printed in Venice in 1538. Dioscorides (ca. 100AD) was said to have been a surgeon in Nero's army, and based his work on the studies of Theophrastus (370-285BC), a pupil of Plato and Aristotle and pioneer in natural history who described more than 500 plant species and their medicinal properties. Translated from the original Greek and passed down in manuscript, this small and robust vellum bound volume lacks illustrations, but was designed to be carried and consulted, and has been annotated in a contemporary Italian hand.

Dioscorides remained a respected authority on plants well into the 17th century, and it is curious that the only known English translation was not undertaken until 1652 when the distinguished botanist John Goodyer wrote out the entire Greek text with interlinear translation. His work however remained unpublished until 1933. Our edition was printed in Oxford by John Johnson at the University Press in 1934.

The best known of all English herbals and botanical books is John Gerard's The Herball or Generall History of Plantes, first Detail from title page of Gerard's "Herball"published in 1597. Trained as a surgeon, Gerard supervised for 20 years the gardens of Lord Burghley in London and the famous Theobalds in Hertfordshire, and stocked his own garden with rare, exotic and English plants. Although largely based on the authoritative work of  Dodoens, Gerard added about 182 English plants as well as English locations from his own observations and that of his many friends and correspondents. His vivid and lively prose observations on the beauty of flowers, their medicinal and economic value and contemporary folklore ensured its domination of the herbal market, no new works being published for 36 years.

Our copy, and our earliest English herbal, is a 1636 reissue of the 1633 edition, much enlarged and amended after Gerard's death by Thomas Johnson, a London apothecary and botanist. The large folio is illustrated with more than 2,200 hand-coloured woodcuts, including one of a banana-tree drawn by Johnson himself from a specimen brought from the Bermudas and presented to him by Dr. Argent, President of the College of Physicians. Most of the wood blocks were imported, many previously used by Plantin at Antwerp in the works of l'Obel and Dodoens. Johnson's preface contains the first English survey of botanical history from Solomon to Parkinson, and was used by students of botany, including Sir Joseph Banks, up to the late 18th century.

Other 17th century English herbals include Nicholas Culpeper's The English Physician, or, An Astrological-Physical Discourse of the Vulgar Herbs of this Nation, first published in 1652. This extraordinarily popular pseudo-scientific study of astrological botany was, despite the rise of scientific discovery and enquiry, widely accepted up to the end of the 19th century with more than 100 editions printed. Special Collections holds several editions, including The English Physician Enlarged: with three hundred and sixty-nine medicines made of English herbs, that were not in any impression until this... (London: Printed for J. Bruce et al, 1784) and Culpeper's English Physician and Complete Herbal ... 13th ed (London: Printed by J. Adlard, 1810-1812).

Printing expanded rapidly during the 18th century, with about 600 botanical and horticultural books published in England. Among them was Sir John Hill's The Useful Family Herbal first published anonymously in 1754. A respected physician and botanist credited with introducing the Linnaean System into England, Hill aimed to provide cheap and readily available remedies for poorDandelion from Hooker's "Flora Londinensis" families or for those who did not want to rely on apothecaries, and gives very simple instructions for preserving and using herbs. Our edition, The Family Herbal, or, An Account of All Those English Plants, Which are Remarkable for Their Virtues ..., was printed in Bungay by C. Crightley and T. Kinnersley in 1812.

Another respected English botanist and director of Kew Gardens, Sir William Jackson Hooker, maintained constant correspondence with botanists all over the world, including George William Francis, the first director of the Adelaide Botanic garden. His Flora Londinensis: containing a history of the plants indigenous to Great Britain ..., published in London in 1819 as a continuation of William Curtis' Flora Londinensis (1777-1828) is an attractive example of botanical illustration, an art begun and developed in the early herbals. Unfortunately it was a financial failure, as was the original edition issued by Curtis in separate parts or fascicles.

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