by Anna Pavord

Publisher:  Bloomsbury (2005)
ISBN  0747579520

Hardback £30

The immediate reaction to this title is that it is yet another book about Linnaeus and the binomial system of plant nomenclature, but this assumption is wrong.  Linnaeus does indeed put in an appearance, but not until the last chapter and then only with what the author describes as ‘a grudging nod’. This fascinating and beautifully illustrated book tells another story; the author describes mankind’s attempts to make sense of plants, the relationships between them as well as their characteristics and categories.

Down the ages, farmers, ‘wise women’, or herbalists would all have possessed folk-knowledge of plants, but such knowledge was local; only when written records became available was it possible for observations to be recorded and distributed.  In 370BC the first known attempt to categorise plants by their nature was made by Theophrastus; he knew of only 500 different plants compared to 422,000 different species known today, but he proposed a division of plants into trees; shrubs; sub-shrubs and herbs; categories still in use .  The attempts to record and characterise plants by the Greeks, in studies at the Great Library in Alexandria, which were further developed by Arabic scholars in the middle ages, and then in early European Universities, are all described with many revealing anecdotes about the particular quirks of the characters involved.

The development of printing allowed an enormous expansion of distribution of knowledge; herbals were amongst the first books to be printed and they became textbooks for herbalists and medical practitioners, who added to the information by consulting illiterate, but experienced, local ‘wise women’.  The establishment of Botanic Gardens in Europe in the 16th Century furthered the interest in and study of plant relationships, as well as encouraging the introduction of plants from all parts of the world.

This fascinating and scholarly book draws on a very wide range of sources taken from 2000 years of the documentation of plants.  It is sumptuously illustrated throughout with contemporary pictures, perhaps the most striking of which, amazingly, date from c512AD, when the citizens of Constantinople, presented a magnificent herbal, to their imperial patron, Juliana.

Alison A Newton