Bryn Mawr College Library Special Collections 


Page from Les roses

Illustrated Botanical Books


Description * Works Cited * Census of BMC Library Botanical Books




Illustrated Botanical Books Before 1900

Bryn Mawr College Library Special Collections holds a large number of illustrated botanical books printed before 1900, ranging from Renaissance medicinal guides and Enlightenment taxonomic treatises to the garden books and field guides popular among hobbyists and amateur botanists of the nineteenth century. The illustrations in these books cover the full spectrum of printing techniques, from descriptive woodcuts intended to aid in plant identification to colorful lithographs of artfully arranged flowers. 

Page from Hortus SanitatisThe earliest post-classical botanical illustrations are found in herbals, which identify plants and their practical, usually medicinal, uses. Authors of early herbals follow the authority of classical writers in both text and illustration, and most illustrators worked not from life but from drawings in other herbals. The Hortus Sanitatis (ca. 1500) was one of the earliest printed herbals in Europe and provided images for many subsequent herbals. The unreliable, derivative illustrations were usually of little practical use to the reader and many herbals forego illustrations altogether. The copying and recopying of classically derived texts and illustrations became especially problematic when authors and illustrators attempted to use descriptions of Mediterranean plants to describe Northern European plants, and were further complicated by the introduction of new specimens from abroad. Problems such as these would become the catalysts for the creation of modern botanical classification systems in the eighteenth century.

The Herbarum Vivae Eicones (1530-36), by Otto Brunfels (1488-1534), was an important herbal in the development toward the modern scientific study of plants because of its innovative illustrator, Hans Weiditz (fl. 1516-1536?). Weiditz, a pupil of Albrecht Dürer, created exactingly faithful images of the real plant specimens he studied. The influential herbalist Leonhart Fuchs (1501-1566) also studied plant specimens to create useful and accurate drawings in his De Historia Stirpium (1545). Fuchs' illustrators created life-sized, idealized images of plants and included different life cycle stages so that readers could easily match a real specimen with its printed description.

Page from Hortus Floridus Another early type of illustrated botanical book is the florilegium of the early seventeenth century. In the medieval period, the term "florilegia" had referred to collections of excerpts from the Bible or from sermons, the metaphorical flowers of Christian knowledge. By the seventeenth century a florilegium instead contained visual depictions of literal flowers and was more closely related to the emerging practice of horticulture than to theology. During this period, flowering plants began to be valued more for their beauty than for their practical use, and gardens became symbols of wealth and status. A florilegium could catalogue the collection of flowers in a specific garden or include horticultural information on the plants depicted, as in the Hortus Floridus (1614) by Crispin de Passe the Younger (1597/98-after 1670). Florilegia also functioned as pattern books for designers of formal gardens. In later florilegia, the illustration of the plant became more important than the text describing it, which was sometimes reduced to a simple caption.

Page from Institutiones Rei Herbariae The systematic study of plants that became the modern science of botany developed largely as the result of European exploration. Images recorded by the artists who accompanied colonization and exploration voyages from the mid-sixteenth century, and specimens collected on later voyages, forced Europeans to realize plants existed which could not be placed into existing schemes of knowledge. These plants were not described by previous writers, nor were their medicinal properties known, so they could not be placed into any known category with certainty. Books about plants began to be organized according to shared physical characteristics rather than shared uses, as in the herbal, or shared season of flowering, as in the florilegium. Although there had been earlier attempts at botanical classification based on physical characteristics, most notably by Joseph Pitton de Tournefort (1656-1708) in his Institutiones Rei Herbariae (1700), the system devised by Carl Linneaus (1707-1778) became the dominant system. Linneaus' method, which initiated the system of binomial nomenclature still in use today, was based on the description and classification of the reproductive organs. His Hortus Cliffortianus (1738) was the first book to include details of floral dissection, crucial for this method of plant identification. This new emphasis on the faithful depiction of the flower gave rise to decorative but scientifically accurate flower painters, perhaps the most famous of whom is Pierre Joseph Redouté (1759-1840) (Les Roses, 1824). 

Page from The Florist and PomologistIn many popular eighteenth and nineteenth century horticultural books, catalogs and magazines, plants are grouped according to color, as they would be placed in a floral arrangement, garden or exhibition. The illustrations in publications such as the journal The Florist and Pomologist (1854-1859) might be considered heirs to the tradition of the florilegia, since they were not intended to aid in scientific classification but existed for more decorative purposes. Structural details are suppressed and the flowers, whether individual or grouped into a bouquet, are idealized, flattened and frequently isolated from the rest of the plant. Victorian flower books, collections of sentimental poetry and anecdotal information related to the plants illustrated in their pages, are a genre associated with the popularity of gardening and flowers in this period but are not included in this census unless they are very early examples, such as Robert John Thornton's Temple of Flora (1799).

Page from Flora Danicae

Yet another later genre which included botanical illustrations are field guides produced to aid amateur botanists in identifying plant specimens. Some of these, like the early Flora Danicae (1761) by Georg Christian Oeder (1728-1791), were dedicated to identifying the flora of a specific region. The illustrations contained in these books were not only useful, but beautiful as well.

Bryn Mawr College Library Special Collections holds over one hundred illustrated botanical books. Many of these books were donated to the College by alumnae, including an especially generous donation from the family of Ethelinda Schaefer Castle, Class of 1908. The Michaelis Collection, donated by J. Philip Gibbs, Jr., also includes many illustrated botanical books.




Works CitedPage from Leonharti Fuchsij medici Primi de stirpium historia commentariorum tomi uiuae imagines

Bridson, Gavin D. R and James J. White. Plant, Animal and Anatomical Illustration in Art and Science: a Bibliographical Guide from the Sixteenth Century to the Present Day. Winchester: St Paul's Bibliographies in association with Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation; Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990.

Blunt, Wilfrid and William T. Stearn. The Art of Botanical Illustration. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Antique Collectors' Club in association with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, 1994.

Saunders, Gill. Picturing Plants: An Analytical History of Botanical Illustration. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.


  Census of BMC Library Botanical Books



by Claire E. Pingel

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Last updated June 19, 2001.