Herbals and the evolution of plant field guides

Field guides and other botanical works trace their common ancestry to some of the earliest publications of any sort, via medieval herbals.

Herbals are practical guide books containing the names and descriptions of plants, with their properties and virtues, typically medicines.  They represent the earliest field guides of Western Europe and illustrations were an important feature.

The early printed herbals took advantage of earlier manuscripts, notably Dioscorides’ (40-90 AD) De materia medica, the ultimate authority for over 1,500 years. Similar manuscripts were produced also in China: the P ęn-ts’ao Chin, compiled between 1 and 200AD, had notes on uses; ecology (“Cannabis grows along rivers and valleys at T’ausha”); and morphology with fairly realistic pictures of the plants (Hui-hin Li, 1974). 

Althoug handwritten manuscripts of herbals were available much earlier (e.g. C11th Epuleius, in the Bodleian library) the introduction of moveable type to Europe had a dramatic impact on the availability of information about plants, albeit still to an elite. Its arrival saw three of the most important early herbals published in Germany: the Latin Herbarius (1484) (with descriptions and unrealistic woodcuts), the German Herbarius (1485) and the Ortus sanitatis (1491).

In 1530, the herbal was transformed by the publication of Hans Weiditz’s naturalistic illustrations in Brunfel’s Herbarum vivae eicones; but the text is of limited use. However, in Bock’s New Kreütter Bůch (1539) more, accurate observations were made, and in Fuch’s (1501-1566) De historia stirpium (1542), the advantages of Brunfel’s and Bock’s works were fused into a masterpiece about 500 plants of Germany. Authors, as diverse as Dodoens (Crŭ˙deboeck; 1554), Turner (New Herball; 1551-1568), Lyte (Nievve Herball; 1578), Bauhin (Historia plantarum universalis; 1650-1651) and Schinz (Anleitung; 1774), made use of Fuch’s woodcuts (often the actual blocks used in De historia).  The 1583 De Plantis libri by Andrea Cesalpino was the greatest botanical book of the 16th century and, in the opinion of some, the first general text to supersede ancient botanical writings. Many of these reference works are hardly field guides, for example, Besler’s elephantine Hortus Eystettensis (1613) required a wheelbarrow for its transportation.

Another important technological leap was the development, in the late 1500s by Luca Ghini, of the technique of drying plants under pressure and the development of herbaria. The earliest herbaria were like herbals, bound as books, and mostly used for identification of medicinal plants. Another landmark, Sloane’s trip to the Caribbean resulted in an early tropical field guide, just before the advent of modern scientific nomenclature, and linked to specimens. This 1688 guide to West Indian plants and animals – “a voyage to the islands....etc. ”, has copious, detailed (life size) illustration, but portability was as low a priority as shortness of title (See Figure 4.2), yet the massive two volumes no doubt found a place in many naturalist’s cabins on early field trips to the Caribbean. Improvements in printing and the developments of metal engraving and lithography, for the production of illustrations, gradually reduced the price. By the late-1800s it was fashionable for ladies to ‘paint one’s Bentham’, a volume of illustrations to accompany Bentham’s Handbook of the British Flora. In England, with increasing education and leisure time and ever cheaper printing, the pre-electronic field guide was reaching maturity. For more information see "i Hort (1916), Thomas (1983), Allen (1984), Arber (1986), Lack (2001), Blunt & Stearn (1994).

This text has been edited by W.Hawthorne from a longer article by Stephen Harris