Our marigolds and poppies do not ask the existential queries "Why am I here?" or "How did I get here?" And for that we love them. However, if they begin to inquire, here are some short answers.
In the beginning, botanic taxonomy was designed for the druggist's shelf and recorded in laborious texts called herbals. From antiquity through the sixteenth century, plants were primarily regarded as tools of medicine, and so it was within the apothecary that a flower confirmed its name, value, and purpose. Physicians were necessarily botanists, and while they weren't the exclusive herbal scribes (Pliny the Elder wrote seven books on medicinal plants), they were the most prolific publishers.
As a predecessor to modern botanic field guides, pharmaceutical journals were an evolving ledger of newly discovered plant species and, more importantly, a record of how we perceived and communicated their valuel. Early herbals suffered from inaccurate illustrations, as most of the artists had never actually seen the plants they were depicting. Variations and inaccuracies would multiply as they were copied over generations—a shortcoming that hindered any comprehensive understanding of the botanic world.
And so, it was the artist, not the writer, that can be credited with ushering in Europe's botanical Renaissance. In 1530, the first herbal with illustrations drawn from living plants was published. Accurately titled Herbarum vivae eicones ad naturae imitationem (Portraits of Living Plants), it quickly became the first best-selling botanic book, and its illustrations helped launch a new age of scientific botany. Hans Weiditz's detailed woodcuts were unprecedented in their accuracy and realism, showing plants in non-idealized forms in various seasons, stages of growth and health. With empirical fidelity, he even depicted wilted leaves and insect damage. For the first time, plants such as the water lily, liverwort, and nettle could be unequivocally recognized throughout Europe, at any time of year. A pupil of Albrecht Dürer, Weiditz redefined society's conceptions of plants and the Western world began to regard botany as an independent field, one no longer rooted in the medical world, but the natural one.
[The entire book of Portraits of Living Plants can be viewed and downloaded here.]
Anna Laurent is a writer and producer of educational botanical media. Photographs from her forthcoming field guide to Los Angeles are available for exhibition and purchase at the author's shop.