Botanical Rarities

Inspiring myth, legend, fairy tale, and poetry...

Checklist for Botanical Rarities

Curated by Luise Poulton, 2003

Digital Exhibition produced by Lyuba Basin, 2020

Botanical RaritiesBotanical Rarities 

The first Mesopotamian writings on clay tablets included information about plants. Ancient pharmacopoeias recorded plants for medicinal uses. From Dioskorides’ work on pharmacology during the classical Greek period through the nineteenth century, plants and the study of plants, or botany, has intrigued and inspired humankind. The work of Dioskorides, which described more than five hundred plants, was the authority on plants in Western Europe for nearly sixteen centuries, although studies from the Arab world became known as early as the tenth century. New knowledge was gained from travelers, including Marco Polo; observations brought back from the Crusades; and later explorations into other hemispheres. By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a system to identify the great variety of plant species began to be developed. From the beginnings of civilization plants have fed, clothed, sheltered, and healed. They have inspired myth, legend, fairy tale, and poetry. And they have always pleased the eye in the ground and between the covers of books.

Botany became a recognized field of study as early as the third century BCE. The Greek philosopher Aristotle studied plants, although nothing remains of his writings on them. Two works by his student Theophrastus have survived, however. Theophrastus discussed plant anatomy, classification, and medicinal uses. The focus on plants as medicine neither began nor ended with the ancient Greeks. The first pharmacopoeia prescribing medicine made from plants was written nearly three thousand years before Aristotle was born. The earliest civilizations of Sumer, Egypt, and China all left records of plants, their descriptions, and their various uses based on traditions begun long before the written word. Herbals were so popular in medieval and renaissance Europe that they were among the first books printed after the introduction of the printing press in 1450 and are intimately connected to the history of printing itself. The earliest printed illustrations were woodcuts copied from earlier manuscripts, whose illuminations had been, over a thousand years, codified into an orthodoxy that rarely mimicked nature. Exceptions to this, a slow move toward naturalism, began with the luxurious fifteenth century Books of Hours.


circa 2100 BCE

Writing began somewhere during the third and second millennia BCE in Sumer between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Mesopotamian writings included myths, epic tales, hymns, lamentations, proverbs, and fables. The Sumerians also recorded history; business and legal documents; mathematics; zoological, mineralogical, and botanical studies. The writings were inscribed on tablets made of clay taken from the banks of the rivers, mixed with straw, and formed into various shapes. A sharp stylus was used to press marks into the damp clay. The forms were then dried in the sun or baked in hot ovens.

This facsimile is of the oldest medical text in human recorded history, written sometime toward the end of the third millennium BCE by an unknown Sumerian physician. It is a collection of his prescriptions. Most of his medicines came from the botanical world. He used – among other things – myrtle, thyme, pears, figs, dates, seeds, roots, branches, barks, and gums. There is no mention of magic, incantations, gods, or demons.

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 Last Modified 6/1/22