Botany boasts one of the richest histories of all the natural sciences. From the ancient use of medicinal plants to the study of plant DNA, botany has grown a remarkable amount. Botany is a huge field of science thanks to thousands of important botanists throughout history. Today, most people probably understand what botany is all about, and how it relates to horticulture, forestry, or plant ecology. However, few people understand it’s historical context and evolution through time. Where did botany originate? What is the history of botany?
Plants have been used by humans even before we came to be Homo sapiens. Because we are omnivores, plants have been an important part of our diet for a long time, as well as the diet of our ancestors. Using plants as food eventually evolved into the development of agriculture. To maximize food production, humans figured out ways to care for plants and harvest them for food rather than forage in the environment.
Although agriculture required an intimate knowledge of plants and how they grew, it doesn’t quite represent the origin of botany as a field of science. How do we determine when botany even started? Many experts consider the first written records of plants as the origin of botany. By this definition, botany was developed in different places at different times. However, there are impressive similarities between historical works of plants.
In India, an extensive classification of plant types dates as far back as 3,700 years ago. Some of the plant types included trees, herbs, vines, and more. Not only did the records classify plant types, but there were also notes on plant medicine as well. This is perhaps the first time humans have recorded medicinal plants. These Sanskrit and Hindu texts remain some of the oldest botanical records in history.
A very similar written record of plants comes from China. An ancient Chinese dictionary called Erya describes over 300 plant species, and each one has an illustration and common name. This collection of plants is from around 2,300 years ago and still survives to this day. It could be considered the world’s first plant field guide!
Finally, in Ancient Greece, botany came to be around 2,400 years ago thanks to Theophrastus. Theophrastus is often regarded as the father of modern botany thanks to his extensive studies on plants. The Greek philosopher and student of Aristotle wrote dozens of books about plants, and many of them survive today. Theophrastus wrote extensively about plant identification, reproduction, and uses. It’s because of his obsessive documentation that we still have many of his texts. Because of this, we have learned a ton from his studies.
An Iranian botanist named Abu Hanifa Dinawari made huge advancements in plant classification around the year 300. He described 637 plant species in detail and wrote extensive notes on the ecology of each species. This was probably the most impressive plant guide in the world at the time!
Around the same time in India, another botanist by the name of Parashara wrote a similar classification of plants. Parashara created a system to divide plants into different groups. His classification system is remarkably similar to modern plant taxonomy. He was so accurate that many of his classifications are identical to modern definitions of plant groups.
Also in the middle ages, Europe saw a resurgence of botanical works after several hundred years of disinterest. Thanks to the printing press, botany became more mainstream. In the 15th and 16th centuries, many European citizens received botanical writings on medicinal plants. This helped ignite more interest in botany among the people and not just the ruling class. Eventually, the plant sciences thrived during the European Renaissance.
Like many areas of science, botany experienced a golden age during the European Renaissance. Some of the most important botanical works come from this time and are the foundation of modern botany. Many European botanical gardens were established and worked in tandem with herbaria to develop the best plant collections. These gardens fueled botanical explorations of other continents, and funded botanists to go study and collect plants. The sustained study of plants over hundreds of years enhanced our botanical knowledge immensely.
Botany in the Renaissance led to many different disciplines within the plant sciences. Plant anatomy, geography, and ecology became entire fields of their own. People like Carl Linnaeus and Alexander von Humboldt led the charge into the wide-open world of botany during the Renaissance.
After botany flourished in the Renaissance, it kept growing and led to even more niche fields of study. Suddenly, one could make their entire career focused entirely on a single species of plant or an association with mycorrhizal fungi. The field of botany is becoming wider and wider every day.
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