The Secret Garden

Gardenia jasminoides at the entrance to Huntington’s Liu Fang Yuan. Cultivated by gardeners in China for centuries, naming of this plant (known to English and American gardeners as Cape Jasmine) reveals the sometimes-nearly-capricious decisions that produced today’s scientific nomenclature.

There’s a game show with doors #1, #2, and #3, the contestant’s challenge being to make a prize-winning selection, revealing secrets behind the doors. In a botanical context, we head to Charleston, South Carolina, where you, as the contestant, have three Gardens to consider. At door #1, we encounter Reverend Alexander Garden (1685-1756), a minister in the Church of England who moved to Charleston from Scotland in 1719. Standing by door #2 we have Dr. Alexander Garden (1730-1791) who arrived in Charleston from Scotland in 1752, serving the community as physician and developer until forced to leave after the Revolutionary War. Then, at door #3 we meet Major Alexander Garden (1757-1829), Revolutionary warrior, disowned son but residual heir of the banished Dr. Garden. The secret is that one of these people is botanically eponymous – which means that one of these Gardens was recognized by a plant name, in this case, the genus Gardenia. We have to investigate the secrets behind these doors to determine which Garden is the eponym (the person after whom something is named).

Garden #1 was a fascinating force in the evolution of South Carolina’s Anglican church. Sent to Charleston by the SPG (the Church of England Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts) to fill a revolving door of unpopular ministers, Garden’s job was not to save souls – but to promote Christian growth and maintain the Crown’s unifying presence.

Witzig’s 2018 book on Reverend Garden and his Charleston context

Soul-saving did come along during his tenure, with the “First Great Awakening” and the 1738 arrival in Charleston of populist firebrand George Whitefield. Welcoming, at first, Rev. Garden realized he and Whitefield differed fundamentally in the nature of personal faith. Our Reverend Garden professed the established concept that a person was born into the church, growing in faith through the church and “works” – very distinct from the Awakening insistence on new birth – the concept that a person must be born again into Christianity. This core difference, as basic as it is, was not the reason for a rift between the two men. They fell at odds as Whitefield, (younger than Garden by three decades) critiqued activities of South Carolina’s congregants: impieties such as card-playing, partying, and gambling, and even the institution of slavery.

The differences were well-known. Whitefield kept an active journal and correspondence, much of which was published at the time, often in the form of letters. The Huntington’s Rare Books holdings include a trio of letters from Whitefield’s second trip to the US (Three Letters…., which Benjamin Franklin published in Philadelphia, 1740)*. In Letter III, Whitefield writes of South Carolina’s parishioners: “Your dogs are caressed and fondled at your tables; but your slaves who are frequently styled dogs or beasts, have not an equal privilege.”

Whitefield, himself a slaveholder, was not condemning slavery. His criticism focused on inhumane treatment, still a difficult message for the gentry of Charleston, North America’s largest slave-trading port at that time. Recognizing the alarm Whitefield engendered, the politically-astute Reverend Garden was able to maintain the importance of St. Philip’s as a center for Anglican (thus Episcopalian) activity, blunt the impact of the New Awakening in southern colonies, and gain credit for establishing the first school for slave literacy (Byrd, 2016).

Setting the scene behind door #2 with his 1752 arrival in Charleston (five years before the death of the Reverend Garden), the 22-year-old Dr. Alexander Garden also established himself as a central cultural figure. We find no evidence of familial relationship, or even communication between the two men. Wikipedia wrongly claims Dr. Garden is the son of our door #1 Reverend – based, perhaps, on Howard Kelly’s discussion in Some American Medical Botanists (1914). But that is not the case. It is true that Dr. Garden’s father (also Alexander) was a minister, but he held office in a church in Birse, Scotland. Other sources suggest our #2 Garden was a nephew to #1, the Reverend, which is also doubtful. 18th-century Scotland (with its population of just over 1 million inhabitants) seems to have boasted a surfeit of people named Alexander Garden. **

Berkeley’s 1969 publication on Dr. Garden is rife with detail on his life, activities, and correspondence. The book is not “out of print” because it is available through The UNC Press Enduring Editions program, but the text is unavailable electronically. Thus many contemporary treatments (such as Wikipedia) suffer from failure to examine information available from the considerable resources Berkeley makes available.

During his three plus decades in Charleston, Dr. Garden resumed an earlier interest in natural history, assisted through social connections, such as his friendship with William Bull, II (the native-born son of a founding colonial governor), whose library included several of Linnaeus’s books and John Clayton’s Flora Virginica (published by Grenovius, HNT Rare Books 481952). Garden’s plant studies were wide-ranging, generating relationships with accomplished botanists and gardeners in the colonies and Europe. He even made field expeditions in search of new plants. Reflecting on one particularly grueling experience, Garden is reported to have commented: “Good God what will not the Sacred thirst of the Botanic Science urge one to undergo.”

How he found time for botanical exploration is a wonder; Garden was a busy man, maintaining a successful medical practice, marrying and rearing a family, and amassing enough wealth to purchase a plantation, where he became involved in various crops – particularly indigo. But for all of his personal success, the times were against this Alexander. In 1782, at the conclusion of the Revolution and after three successful decades in Charleston, Dr. Alexander Garden, a Loyalist, was forced to leave the new country.

Stripped of his property, Garden returned to Britain with his wife Toby and daughters Harriette and Juliette, leaving his estranged son Alexander and family in Charleston. Living another decade on modest resources, Garden relished his reputation as a naturalist while waging constant battle for return of property seized by the newly independent state of South Carolina.

This brings us to door #3, and Major Alexander Garden (1757-1829), son of Dr. Garden. Born in Charleston, Alexander was sent to England for schooling, as a shield it seems from the growing colonial rebellion. But once he returned home, at 25 years of age (after 13 years abroad), he broke ranks from his father’s political sympathies and joined forces with the new patriots. Disappointing his family, Alexander’s time with General Nathaniel Greene and the revolutionary forces became his romantic obsession. Huntington Rare Books collections include the first (1822) and second (1828) editions of his Anecdotes of the Revolutionary War in America, with Sketches of Character of Persons the Most Distinguished in the Southern States, for Civil and Military Services… Garden described the Swamp Fox, Francis Marion, as an “ermine character” who was “wedded to the cause of liberty.”

Door #2, of course, would be your winning selection. Dr. Alexander Garden (the physician) had become South Carolina’s most productive early botanist. He was quite the promoter for his newly-adopted natural world, extensively connecting and exchanging material with naturalists in Europe and in the American colonies. Through over two decades, he communicated with John Ellis (1710-1776), the naturalist most-remembered for having named the marvelous Venus Flytrap, Dionaea muscipula. It was Ellis who pursued the convoluted series of considerations with Linnaeus and other botanists that led to publication of Gardenia as the generic name for a fragrant-flowered Asian plant said to have been collected from South Africa (and thus known as Cape Jasmine), owned by Richard Warner, successfully cultivated and flowered by James Gordon, illustrated by Georg Ehret, and never before seen by Alexander Garden. (Denny, 1948)

If you take some time to explore the sources cited below, it’s a bit disconcerting that something so useful and important as a plant genus could be named in a seemingly arbitrary, socially-influenced manner. But to botanists, that is almost-irrelevant history. The name Gardenia takes on new life in the form of a Latinized noun, its main purpose being to serve as the globally-recognized, unambiguously unique handle for a taxon – in this case, a genus, a group of related plant species that evolved from the same ancestor and continue to share enough characteristics to form a logical cluster. Though useful to consider how that name originated, its botanical meaning has more to do with the plant and the importance of consistency than its etymology.

Today, we know the genus Gardenia comprises many species, native to Asia, Africa, Australia, and the Pacific Islands. This handsome flower of Gardenia thunbergia is produced by a floriferous, somewhat stiff shrub native to South Africa. The species name (specific epithet) honors Carl Peter Thunberg, a significant student and apostle for Linnaeus. As botanist and physician, Thunberg became an important, early source of information on plants and medicine of Japan and South Africa.

Time Line:

  • 1670 Charles Town (Charleston) was settled, its name honoring Charles II, who had just assumed the Restoration throne.
  • 1715-18 The Yamassee War resulted in near destruction of the Charles Town settlement.
  • 1720 Rev. Alexander Garden (Door #1) assumed his position at St. Philip’s Church in Charleston
  • 1730 The future Dr. Garden was born in northeastern Scotland. His father, Reverend Alexander Garden (not the same Rev. Garden at Door #1) was minister at the Birse Church of Scotland.
  • 1738 George Whitefield made his first visit to Charleston, in September.
  • 1738 Plague of small pox struck Charleston, resulting in nearly 300 deaths of a population of approximately 5,000 residents. Yet more devastating, the disease spread into the surrounding Cherokee population, killing half of the local population of several thousand people.
  • 1739 On 9 September, two dozen slaves killed storekeepers and captured guns and powder, heading to freedom in Florida. William Bull rallied a militia and quelled the rebellion
  • 1740 Charleston Great Fire
  • 1740 George Whitefield Letter III
  • 1742 Rev Garden announced in the South Carolina Gazette that George Whitefield was suspended from the ministry.
  • 1742 Rev Garden purchased two slaves, Andrew (14) and Harry (14) to establish a school for slaves, which was formalized on 12 September of the following year. Harry succeeded in both learning to read and in teaching, such that over a period of 32 years, he brought literacy to hundreds of slaves. (Byrd, 2016)
  • 1749 Cape Jasmine flowered in England for the first time in Richard Warner’s garden.
  • 1752 Physician Dr. Alexander Garden (Door #2) arrived in Charleston.
  • 1754 William Bull loaned his Linnaean books to Dr. Garden, stoking an interest in natural history.
  • 1754 Rev Garden delivered his Farewell Sermon, departing soon thereafter for England – returning to Charleston in summer, 1755.
  • 1755 Dr. A. Garden and Elizabeth (Toby) Peronneau married on Christmas Day at St. Philip’s Church. I find no mention that Rev. Garden was involved….
  • 1756 On 26 September, Rev Garden died in Charleston, at the age of 71.
  • 1758 Naturalist John Ellis, botanical artist Georg Dionysius Ehret, and plant collector/facilitator Peter Collinson visited Richard Warner at his Woodfoot Race garden to see his plant of Bay-leaved Jasmine (later called Cape Jasmine). Warner, a botanist, was also a student of Shakespeare. An original copy of his 1768 publication proposing a Shakespearean glossary is held in Rare Books, #148296. See Warner, 1768.
  • 1760 A second wave of small pox struck Charleston… Of 8,000 residents, 6,000 were taken ill and 763 died. Dr. Garden was instrumental in saving many lives through instituting an inoculation program.
  • 1760 With Linnaeus’s approval, John Ellis named Gardenia jasminioides honoring Dr. Garden and reflecting the plant’s similarities to fragrant jasmines.
  • 1769 Just short of 12 years of age, the future Major Alexander Garden was sent to England for schooling, where he would remain for 13 years.
  • 1781 Young Alexander Garden (#3), now the owner of the family estate Otranto, joined American revolutionary General Nathaniel Greene as Aide-de-Camp.
  • 1782 Loyalists leave South Carolina. Among them, Dr. Alexander Garden and William Bull II.
  • 1787 Delegates to the US Constitutional Convention from South Carolina, Pierce Butler, Charles Pinckney, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, and John Rutledge, were all Anglicans from Charleston.


*Three letters from the Reverend Mr. G. Whitefield: viz. Letter I. To a friend in London, concerning Archbishop Tillotson. Letter II. To the same, on the same subject. Letter III. To the inhabitants of Maryland, Virginia, North and South-Carolina, concerning their Negroes. HNT 107182. Rare Books collections also include Alexander Garden’s published response: Six letters to the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield. The first, second, and third, on the subject of justification. The fourth containing remarks on a pamphlet, entitled, The case between Mr. Whitefield and Dr. Stebbing stated, &c. The fifth containing remarks on Mr. Whitefield’ two letters concerning Archbishop Tillotson, and the book entitled, The whole duty of man. The sixth, containing remarks on Mr. Whitefield’s second letter, concerning Archbishop Tillotson, and on his letter concerning the Negroes. By Alexander Garden, M.A. Rector of St. Philip’s, Charlestown, and commissary in South-Carolina, Together with, Mr. Whitefield’s answer to the first letter. HNT 249703

**Alexander Garden (1714-1885), Politician, Troup House, Banffshire, Scotland.


Berkeley, Edmund, 1969. Doctor Alexander Garden of Charles Town, UNC Press Enduring Editions

Byrd, Michael, 2016. “Negro Harry’s School” – A Monument to Equal Rights to Education, Social Service Review 90(3)

Denny, Margaret, 1948. Naming the Gardenia, The Scientific Monthly, 67(1): 17-22.

Warner, Richard, 1768. A letter to David Garrick, Esq. concerning a glossary to the plays of Shakespeare, on a more extensive plan than has hitherto appeared. To which is annexed, a specimen.

Witzig, Fred E., 2018. Sanctifying Slavery & Politics in South Carolina – The life of the Reverend Alexander Garden, 1685-1756. The University of South Carolina Press. ISBN 978-1-161117-845-6


Imagine rows and rows of bookshelves, tightly arrayed in a layered cube, all made of steel and glass. That’s how I picture The Huntington’s rare book stacks. Dating to 1919, this isn’t a browsing library; it’s more of a safe deposit box. Books are shelved based on number and size, rather than topic. Scattered throughout this crowded vault and other tightly-controlled areas, staff curate ancient volumes that document how English became the language of modern-day science.  Published over five centuries in a changing world stage, those books are part of the Library’s internationally-significant Early Modern English collections and history of science holdings.

Huntington Library, housing millions of revealing documents

They remind us an educated person living in Venice or Paris at the end of the 15th century would have disdained English.  Latin was the lingua franca of the learned, while German, French, and Spanish held the greater potential in technology and commerce.(1)  Though not much science had surfaced in England as of 1500, by 1600 Britain had fully entered the Western vortex of religious Reformation and voyages of discovery.(2)  Somehow, Science emerged from the drama, as ancient manuscripts became available through printing houses, bringing new light to Medieval lore.(3)

Entering the period with a comparatively modest-sized literate population, though not out of the race, the English were dark horses. Huntington collections allow us to step back to 1500, where we can ponder botanical nascency and follow leads to the moment when plants were Englished — presaging a time when world science would follow suit.  Just as Tyndale and Coverdale had rewritten the Bible, their accomplice William Turner pointedly reworded botany.

Sometimes called the “Father of English Botany,” Turner was a naturalist, a physic (doctor), and a cleric.  His weren’t the first English plant treatments; Peter Treveris generated The Grete Herbal in 1526 as a translation of Le grand herbier. But Treveris was not a plantsman, and his book reflected nothing about the particular nature of English plants or gardens. Turner, however, studied plants in the field and in cultivation, determined to make important information regarding botany, as well as scripture and medicine available to English-speaking people.  In every case, his mid-century writings reflected personal research, relating some pure thought or, in the case of nature, reporting personal observation and study.  Importantly, Turner was loath to accept Medieval lore. 

As an example, consider mandrake, a poisonous plant surrounded by myth. Turner warned:  “The juice of Mandrag, drunken in the quantity of a scruple in honeyed wine, draweth forth Melancholy and phlegm by vomiting, after the manner of Helleborus.  But if a man take too much of it, it will kill him.”

Mandrake illustration, from Turner (copied from Fuchs)

Regarding the long-standing mistruths, Turner tells us:  “The roots which are counterfeited and made like little puppets and mammets, which come to be sold in England in boxes, with hair and such form as a man hath, are nothing but foolish feigned trifles, and not natural; for they are so trimmed of crafty thieves to mock the poor people withal, and to rob them both of their wit and their money.  I have in my time, at divers times taken up the roots of Mandrag out of the ground, but I never saw any such thing upon or in them as are in and and upon the pedlars’ roots that are commonly to be sold in boxes… It groweth only in gardens in England and in Germany, but it is more common in England than it is there.  But it groweth not under gallosses (hanging gallows), as a certain doting doctor of Cologne in his physic lecture did teach his auditors; neither doth it rise of the seed of man that falleth from him that is hanged; neither is it called Mandragoras because it come of man’s seed as the aforesaid Doctor dreamed.”

Curiously, Turner was more a botanical beacon than a gateway. His tremendous outpouring of personal observation and reporting did not hugely impact the evolution of botanical science.  But as Charles Raven wrote in 1947: “It is this attitude of objective interest in nature, an attitude at once aesthetic and inquisitive and indeed imbued with specifically religious emotion, which is the source and impetus of the scientific movement.”

John Parkinson, in Theatricum botanicum…(1640), details his further understanding of mandrake, using the image from Gerard, which was taken from L’Obel. Note the L’Obel image has greater detail than Turner’s copy of the Fuch’s image – but both retain a touch of human reference with twisted, even cross-legged roots….

Some related Huntington treasures and defining moments in the first two centuries of Englished botany….

1491 John Trevisa’s 1397 trans of Bartholomeaus Anglicus’ De Proprietatibus Rerum HNT 82741 (1495)

1519 Reformation emerges with Swiss theologian Huldrych Zwingli

1522 Martin Luther translated the Bible in German, which was fully issued in 1534,  HNT 40542, the 1546 printing

1526 William Tyndale, English New Testament  (published in Worms) HNT 32194 1534 printing.

1526 Peter Treveris, The Grete Herbal (from “Le grand herbier”, Fr version of “Circa instans” HNT 335634

1534 Church of England established, headed by the Monarch

1535 Miles Coverdale English translation of the Bible HNT 97048

1536 John Calvin (Jehan Cauvin) published his earliest important tract, Institutio Christianae Religionis, HNT 21397 1st English ed 1561

1536 Otto Brunfels, Herbarum vivae eicones.  HNT 489000

1539 Otto Brunfels, Kreuterbüch contrafeyt… HNT 312058  (first significant treatment of German plants)

1540 Thomas Cromwell was done in….

1543 Fuch’s (HNT 24361) New kreüterbuch

1547 Death of Henry VIII

1551 William Turner, New Herball (1st of 3 vols) HNT 61542 (1568 printing vol I & II)

1552 Calvinism is named as a movement

1567 John Maplet, A Greene Forest or a Naturall Historie….  HNT 59181

1577 John Frampton, trans. of Monardes’, i.e. Joyfull newes out of the newe founde worlde HNT 3446

1578 Henry Lyte, A niewe herball… translation of Dodoens.  HNT 259559 1586 printing

1584 Richard Hakluyt, A Discourse of Western Planting (manuscript, now in facsimile)

1585 Virginia (Roanoke) becomes the first English colony in North America

1590 William Shakespeare begins reign of productivity

1597 William Langham, The Garden of Health, HNT 62134

1597 John Gerard, The herball, or generall historie of plantes HNT 61079

1598 Ben Jonson begins period of notoriety

1600 The Honourable East India Company was chartered (by Elizabeth)

1611 King James Holy Bible, of which HNT 458800 is a single a single leaf

1617 Pharmacopoeia Londinensis  HNT 603567 – the first written formulary, prescribing medicines, etc. (see 1549, Culpeper)

1620 Francis Bacon, Novum Organum HNT various copies

1626 Francis Bacon, New Atlantis HNT 601353 (18252, 2nd ed 1629)

1629 John Parkinson, Paradisi…Predominantly in English, Paradisi includes parallel Latin and English legends for illustrations.

1633 Gerard, The herball, Thomas Johnson edition HNT 485990

1640 John Parkinson, Theatricum… A somewhat modern-seeming text, in which content is all English, but the plant names are Latinized.

1649 Nicholas Culpeper, A physical directory: or A translation of the dispensatory made by the Colledge of Physitians of London. HNT 371846 (the 1650 printing) – a blow to the limitations that Latin meant to availability of knowledge.

1653 Cromwell formally takes control

1659 Robert Lovell, Pambotanologia HNT 302983, 415652, 618619 1660 Restoration, and founding of The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge

1661 Robert Boyle, The Sceptical Chymist HNT 480005, 1669 ed.

1664 John Evelyn, Sylva….

1665 Robert Hooke, Micrographia… HNT 94610

1666 The Great Fire

1672 Nehemiah Grew, The Anatomy of Vegetables Begun…  HNT 328263

1682 Nehemiah Grew, Anatomy of Plants, HNT 14186

1686 John Ray, Historia plantarum…. HNT 762212

1688 The Bill of Rights

1704 Isaac Newton, Opticks…. HNT various

1721 Hans Sloan and the London Pharmacopoeia

1727 Stephen Hales, Vegetable Staticks….  HNT 335067


Chapman, G.T L and M. N. Tweedle, 1995.  William Turner, A New Herball, Part I 1568. Cambridge Press Syndicate, ISBN 0-521-44548-5

Chapman, G.T L, F. McCombie, and A. I Wesencraft, 1995.  William Turner A New Herball, Parts II and III, 1568.  Cambridge Press Syndicate, ISBN 0-521-44549-3

Knight, L.  2009.  Of Books and Botany in Early Modern England – 16th Century Plant and Print Culture. 2016 ebook version Routledge Press, ISBN 978-0-7546-6586-1

Raven, C. E.  1947.  English Naturalists from Neckham to Ray, Cambridge Library Collection, Reprint 2010, ISBN 978-1-108-01634-5


(1) Each region of Europe had its moments of genius in scattered achievements that are the nuclei for today’s science, from natural history, calculations, astronomy, and alchemy, to medicine. Centers of learning developed in Italy and Spain.  With herbal medicine, Germany and the Netherlands were among the first countries where botany flourished, where plant information was published for increasingly literate populations.

(2) That maelstrom is not my realm – beyond the observation that it was a time filled with leaders who were as mean as snakes.  A gruesome death was the end for many brilliant thinkers – branded heretics and traitors.  Cruelty was expected.  

(3) From the religious to the secular, revelation was anticipated through fresh translations of Greek, Latin and Arabic texts. Aristotelian logic and Arabic inquiry prompted renewed inquiry.


Gardeners explore The Herball – or Generall Historie of Plantes Gathered by John Gerard of London – Master of Chirvrgerie (i.e. Surgery) as means to enjoy historically charming aspects of English knowledge and uses of plants in the first half of the 17th Century. Though neither groundbreaking, nor the best example of an academic treatment, and perhaps not even honestly attributed, The Herball is a serious study, reflecting up-to-date understanding of plants during a significant era, the very time modern English was emerging in literature and performance, a cultural moment that produced King James’ version of The Holy Bible.

Gerard, Johnsons edition, showing images of Theophrastus and Dioscorides

Simply called “Gerard,” The Herball remains well-known, not in its initial 1597 edition, but as Thomas Johnson’s 1633 revision, covering 800 more plants than the original, adding 700 illustrations, and prolonging its value through the end of the century. This is the version Dover Publications elected to reprint in 1975, making Johnson’s Gerard the only herbal generally available to contemporary audiences, as compared to scores of earlier and much more botanically-significant volumes.

Reading Gerard today is worthwhile. His plant descriptions tell us the kind of information important to gardeners and physicians in the 17th Century, knowledge available to informed people during the lifetimes of some of the greatest authors creating modern English – John Donne, Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and a bit later, Robert Herrick, Andrew Marvell, and John Milton. These writers were neither gardeners nor physicians, and they were certainly not scientists, as is evident from examining references to plants in their works. The only notable writer of the period with a practitioner’s level of knowledge was Abraham Cowley, whose History of Plants, a Poem in Six Books reflected his late-in-life conversion to medicine, natural science, and botany in Restoration England.

Sunflower was an American plant that had been introduced to English gardens by Gerard’s time. From his Chapter 259: “The Indian Sun….is a plant of such stature and tallness that in one Sommer being sowne of a seede iin Aprill, it hath ripen up to a height of fourteen foot in my garden…”

Shakespearean England was a confounding time. New plants from voyages of exploration had been flooding into Europe for a century, something showcased by John Frampton’s Joyfull Newes out of the Newe Founde Worlde (1577), his translation of Monardes’ exciting reports on important natural products from America. But insular English, with its incredible plant-worthy British Isles climate, was not (at that point in time) as horticulturally needy as regions of Europe where new plant introductions, like maiz (American corn), proved welcome. Gerard did include American introductions, even in the 1597 first edition – pumpkin, corn (maiz), sunflower, for example. He wrote about Potato, describing the plant we call Sweet Potato (Ipomea) as the common type, because these tuberous roots were available in England, imported from tropical islands near Europe. He could not cause the plant to thrive (he couldn’t coax out a single flower) in the cool English climate. In his entry following Sweet Potato, Gerard described a rarity, the “Potato of Virginia,” which he disregarded (and Shakespeare never knew), though in just a few decades that plant would become of such importance to Great Britain as to be dubbed the Irish Potato.

Sweet Potatoes at Florida’s Dudley Farm, growing at the state historic site near Gainesville

Importantly, the plant palettes of our poets and playwrights (Cowley excepted) were minorly impacted by exotic, New World introductions; only a few examples stand out. Shakespeare’s famously-disguised Falstaff exclaims: “Let the sky rain potatoes. Let it thunder to the tune of Greensleeves, hail kissing confits and snow eringoes,” referencing confections (confits) made of Sweet Potato and the roots of the native Eryngium – both of which held reputations as aphrodisiacs. Yet another American food plant, the pumpkin, seems to have worked its way into English consciousness; the wives deride Falstaff as a pumpion – which some writers suggest referenced America’s pumpkin, a plant already known to English gardeners.*

One American plant that absolutely had impacted England was tobacco, its availability quickly bolstered through the English relationship with its North American Virginia Colony (chartered in 1606), and its popularity seemingly enhanced by notorious proponent, Walter Raleigh. Ben Jonson celebrated tobacco in his 1598 play “Every Man in His Humour,” having Captain Babodil extol the herb: ”…by Hercules I do hold it and will affirm it before any prince in Europe to be the most sovereign and precious weed that ever the earth tendered to the use of man.” We know tobacco was commonly cultivated and smoked in pipes through Barnabe Rych’s The Honestie of this Age… (1614, HNT #59364) which remarks: “There is not so base a groome that commes into an Ale-house to call for his pot, but he must have his pipe of Tobacco; for it is a commoditie that is now as vendible in every taverne, inne, and ale-house, as eyther wine, ale, or beare…”

Apart from tobacco and a few minor mentions, literary plant palettes were as vernacular as the language, relying almost solely on historically-popular European garden flowers, vines and trees, many carrying traditional symbolic value. Roses, violets, daisies, iris, lily, daffodil, rosemary, ivy, holly, and oak were among the common garden, field, and forest plants favored by poets and playwrights. Trees yielded to frequent analogy, but flowers prevail in literature of the time, projecting transient allure and pleasure, with aroma as important as form. Strewing herbs, violets, roses, even lilies were extolled for their fragrance – “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” (Romeo and Juliet). And, from Milton: “whereas sacred Light began to dawn, In Eden on the humid Flow’rs that breathed Thir morning incense.”

A violet, page 850 in Johnson’s 1633 Gerard.

But an insular, falsely innocent age was ending. Queen Elizabeth chartered the East India company on the last day of 1600, literally the final day of the 16th century. Francis Bacon penned Novum Organum in 1620, setting philosophy in motion that would underly scientific progress after 1650. Johnson’s Gerard includes an Appendix, a harbinger of the future in which he describes Passion Flower, Papaya, and Chocolate. Had there been another edition, Johnson would have expanded his Appendix to include Tea and Coffee, both of which were available in England by 1650. A century further on, England will have gone through revolution, amalgamated the British Empire, taken rule over India, apprehended the world’s raw materials, embraced its luxuries, and laid the foundation for industrial revolution.

In my own literature-illiterate way, I’ve come to thinking of early modern England as precipitous, a time during which English language, literature, and culture crystallized in advance of plummeting into unimaginable change and globalization. Gerard’s England, the land of Shakespeare, quickly would seem provincial, even quaint – as evident in our reading of The Herball today.

*The Merry Wives of Windsor offers a unique suite of plant allusions for Shakespeare. In contrast to other works, his merry wives make ready reference to humble garden vegetables, foodstuffs commonly known for their exaggerating characteristics – shapes that reference body parts, bulk that provokes flatulence, and relationship to the gritty substance of garden soil. As explained in her careful essay, “‘Cabbage and Roots’ and the difference of the Merry Wives”, (in The Merry Wives of Windsor: New Critical Essays, Kindle Edition, 2014), Rebecca Laroche showcases this Shakespearean outlier: “It is not the vegetable that we laugh at, but rather the image of Slender with a cabbage head, Anne planted stubbornly in the ground just her nose and eyes peaking above, and Falstaff’s large girth of slimy innards. In alienation from the human figure, there is laughter.”

NOTES: Contemporary to the 2nd edition of Gerard, we encounter John Parkinson’s garden book, Paradisi in sole paradisus terrestris, published in 1629, followed by his 1640 Theatrum botanicum. Paradisi was horticultural in character, whereas Theatrum treated 3800 kinds of plants, presented as an herbal and expanding on Gerard. We are informed by exhibits in the Herbal History Network that Parkinson’s Theatrum was heavily plagiarized by Nicholas Culpeper in producing his Complete Herbal (1653), companion writing that enlarged The English Physician (1652). Parkinson and Culpeper covered many exotic plants that were becoming part of the landscape.

“Mary’s Meadow,” published in Aunt Judy’s Magazine (HNT #436859), by Julia Horatio Ewing, re-popularized Paradisi in the 19th Century in spinning a tale of children who read Parkinson’s book and planted their own garden.

In the century before Gerard and the many writers mentioned, Continental botany had spawned work by Leonhart Fuchs, Francisco Hernández (d. 1587), Jean Bauhin (d. 1582), Pietro Mattioli (d. 1577), Rembert Dodoens (d. 1585), Conrad Gessner (d. 1565), and Carolus Clusius, paralleled by A New Herball, William Turner’s vernacular, 3-volume study (Volume I published in 1551) that became the first substantial English botanical contribution – resulting in Turner’s nickname – the Father of English Botany.


“All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field” the Old Testament….Isaiah 40:6 


Grass and plant metaphors are deeply rooted, playing out in poetry, prose, and arts. No English writer however, more completely delved into the ways of leaves and grass than Walt Whitman, who may have spent his entire life reflecting on growth, circumstance, and rawly elemental nature.

“I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journeywork of the stars.”

His Leaves of Grass appeared in 1855, a self-published volume of 12 poems, a dozen songs.  The compilation was expanded, edited, even scoured over three decades, until the 1892 “deathbed” edition, which includes over 400 poems.

In culling my own bookshelves recently, I paged through an ancient copy of Whitman’s book, and in a moment of reflection it struck me that no botanist would use the English expression “leaves of grass.”  We could, but don’t; we say “blades” of grass. 

Whitman, I felt, was clued into plant lore and likely knew this, but decided to write “Leaves” instead.   I first imagined his objecting to blade, as having meaning associated with knives and armor….   But reading his opening poem, that idea was cast aside; Whitman seldom shied away from hardy words.  And he was good enough with “spear”…. 

I lean and loafe at my ease….observing a spear of summer grass.

Studying his opening poem (later titled Song of Myself), the botanist reads context others might ignore, everywhere finding echoes embracing Ralph Waldo Emerson’s immersion in contemporary natural history. Literate people in the 19th century grew up in comparatively-modern scientific context – minutes and seconds brought precision, temperature was measured by degrees, volume and pressure (even mass) defined air, electricity delivered power, oxygen stoked flames, and plants were understood to reproduce sexually.

Whitman’s embrace of Emerson’s lay science flows through his language, crafting real (albeit superficial) understanding into tirelessly rich and sincerely empathetic free verse.  Being, my own self, a student who last worried about Transcendentalism in high school English, this poet’s use of Leaves and Grass is refreshed discovery.  Who could imagine such ulterior meaning and passion woven around words that speak significantly but otherwise rather mundanely to the botanist.

Wikipedia is little help, giving the book’s title short shrift. We are told publishers in Whitman’s day referred to inconsequential literary material as “grass” – and of course, Whitman’s book is made of leaves, i.e. pages. This makes the title a joke – “Leaves of Grass” – a moment of pure humility and pun aimed at everyday deprecations of publishers.  Perhaps.  But Whitman was not gratuitously humble; the “Leaves” and “Grass” he relates reach well beyond puns: 

"The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore and dark colored seacocks, and of hay in the barn..."

"A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child?….I do not know what it is any more than he.
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven...
Or I guess the grass is itself a child…the produced babe of the vegetation..."

"This is the grass that grows wherever the land is and the water is,
This is the common air that bathes the globe..."

"I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles."

There’s more here than worn symbols.  Whitman adopts leaves and grass in the sense of a biologist, not as symbols of fallen angels or emblems of life’s passage, or false humility, rather as cosmically organic and life giving.  His viewpoint reflects understanding of the world that formed the intellectual basis of the era.  Step with me through the following simple outline of events in the two centuries preceding Whitman’s composition, revelations that changed how Westerners understand the natural world. 

Two Centuries of Changing Ideas:

  • 1643 – Evangelista Torrecelli devised the first functional barometer, based on his contention that air has weight. Within three years, Blaise Pascal furthered that work, predicting and confirming that air weighs less at higher altitudes.
  • 1656 – Christiaan Huygens devised a pendulum clock that could keep time to the second.
  • 1657 – Gaspar Schott published his work on air pumps. By 1660, Robert Boyle, following on Schott, formulated his ideas on atmospheric pressure.
  • 1665 – Robert Hooke published the first description of a cell, and by 1690 had contributed to design of the escapement mechanism in clocks, such that the minute hand began to appear commonly.
  • 1694 – Camerarius published his experiments with flowers, the first trials demonstrating the sexual nature of plant reproduction.
  • 1704 – Isaac Newton summarized four decades of studying and reconstructing our understanding of light in his English book Optiks
  • 1712 – Elaborating on earlier work, Thomas Newcomen introduced the first working piston-run steam engine.
  • 1714 – Daniel Fahrenheit introduced the sealed thermometer, including his familiar 212 º F scale, gauging temperatures from ice to vapor.
  • 1727 – Stephen Hales demonstrated the movement of water through plants, and the loss (transpiration) of water vapor from foliage to the atmosphere.
  • 1753 – Linnaeus used a binomial system for naming plants in Species Plantarum, the publication that remains the base for plant names worldwide.
  • 1759 – The Royal Botanic Garden at Kew was established, at the moment plants would become instruments of imperialism.
  • 1774 – Carl Scheele resolved existence of “fire air” (oxygen), just as Joseph Priestley (1775) was demonstrating the relationship between dephlogisticated air (oxygen) and plants in restoring breathable air, giving impetus to Lavoisier, who named and characterized oxygen in 1777.
  • 1783 – Lavoisier recognized water as a compound of hydrogen and oxygen.
  • 1783 – The first, working, lighter-than-air balloon was launched, in France.
  • 1788 – Thomas Hutton, in his Theory of the Earth, re-invented the way geologists imagine tectonics and geomorphism.
  • 1798 – Thomas Malthus projected ideas of population growth in the face of limited resources.
  • 1800 – Volta introduced the battery.
  • 1802 – Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac reasoned that volume and pressure of gases relate directly to temperature.
  • 1803 – John Dalton described atoms as the smallest units of matter.
  • 1804 – Following up on Senebier’s work, Nicolas-Théodore de Saussure examined and demonstrated the atmospheric source of carbon in plants.
  • 1805 – Humboldt completed his environmental studies in South America and published the first ecological treatment.
  • 1811 – Avogadro established the mole, by elaborating the concept that at equivalent temperature and pressure, a given volume of gas would contain the same number of atoms, regardless which element was sampled, while in 1813, Berzelius established the system of abbreviating elements that we continue to use today. (N for Nitrogen, O for Oxygen, etc.)
  • 1828 – Friedrich Wöhler synthesized urea, an organic compound – demonstrating that technology exists to create the molecules of life in a laboratory.
  • 1831 – Michael Faraday introduced concepts of electromagnetic induction, establishing the basis for generating electricity with spinning motors.
  • 1835 – Henry Talbot established the basic principles of photographic negative-positive printing
  • 1837 – Charles Wheatstone devised the telegraph, based on Faraday’s explanation of induction. Samuel Morse began a viable business the same year. London and Paris were connected telegraphically by 1854.

By the time Whitman turned 20 years of age, Justus Liebig had confirmed that Earth’s atmosphere is the world’s greatest food source. Using the sun’s energy, water, and elemental nutrients, plants convert carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into sugars, into glucose – the common denominator for all life on earth. This was news. For millennia, people had not questioned the nature of what was given. Earth, air, fire, water, metal were just present. However the gifts of nature might be categorized or named, the basic elements were, fundamentally, beyond analysis – mystical, mysterious, even spiritual. But calculations changed during the two centuries previous to Emerson’s Nature and Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.” The ocean of gases in which we live, sunlight that clocks our days, soil that harbors nutrients, water that is universally-required for life, had been measured, analyzed, and usefully deciphered: “This is the common air that globes the earth.” That newly unified appreciation of nature inspired poets, philosophers, and artists, and underlies cultural and societal sturm and drang ongoing today.

How did our poet, Whitman, come to knowing about science and technology? As an itinerate journalist, writer, editor, and typesetter he was clearly well-read, encountering and responding most pointedly to the works of Emerson, who had experienced nature anew on an 1833 visit to Paris’s Jardin des plantes.* From Emerson’s journals: “Moving along these pleasant walks, you come to the botanical cabinet, an enclosed garden plot, where grows a grammar of botany-where the plants rise, each in its class, its order, and its genus, (as nearly as their habits in reference to soils will permit,) arranged by the hand of Jussieu himself. If you have read Decandolle with engravings, or with a hortus siccus, conceive how much more exciting and intelligible is this natural alphabet, this green and yellow and crimson dictionary on which the sun shines and the winds blow.”** Emerson realized the book of life had changed. People no longer read leaves as records of past creation, but interpreted leaves as organic evidence of the present and future.

Empowering himself as naturalist, Emerson journaled in 1841: “The universe is represented in every one of its particles. Every thing in nature contains all the powers of nature. Every thing is made of one hidden stuff; as the naturalist sees one type under every metamorphosis, and regards a horse as a running man, a fish as a swimming man, a bird as a flying man, a tree as a rooted man. Each new form repeats not only the main character of the type, but part for part all the details, all the aims, furtherances, hindrances, energies, and whole system of every other. Every occupation, trade, art, transaction, is a compend of the world, and a correlative of every other. Each one is an entire emblem of human life; of its good and ill, its trials, its enemies, its course and its end. And each one must somehow accommodate the whole man, and recite all his destiny. The world globes itself in a drop of dew.”  

Blades of Grass

The impact of contemporary understanding of atoms and air, of mice and men, pervades Emerson’s prose, voiced also by Whitman: “And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels….”

*Title: Dante invented the Latin word infrondarsi to express the green completeness that “enleaves” – i.e., throughly coats and envelopes Eden.

Unwrathful Grapes

**Brown, Lee Rust, 1992.  ‘The Emerson Museum’  Representations 40:57-80, U Calif Press.
Lee Rust Brown:  Natural history showed Emerson the prospect of a new, more “commodius” kind of “book,” a book that would have to be written and read by unconventional means.

I should note that Grass, to Whitman, and to others is not especially confined to the botanical grass family (the Poaceae). Bonsai enthusiasts use “grass” as a term for modest, sometimes almost weedy plants that accompany a bonsai. Other people use grass as synonymous with greenness. And some treat the word as slang and code.


Dant, Elizabeth, 1989.  “Composing the World.  Emerson and the Cabinet of Natural History” Nineteenth-Century Literature 44(1): 18-44, U Calif Press.

Joseph Luzzi, 2010.  “‘As a Leaf on a Branch….’ Dante’s Neologisms” PMLA 125(20; 322-336 JSTOR:  

“as many as are the leaves that fall in the forest in the first chill of autumn” Virgil, Aeneid (VI)

“As the leaves fall away in autumn, one after another, till the bough sees all its spoils upon the ground” Dante, Inferno 3

Inferiority is Complex

Some botanical terms ring of judgment. One example is the pairing of superior and inferior, basically indicating “above” versus “below.”

Images of flax flower (on left – a superior ovary) and cranberry (on right – an inferior ovary) from Gray’s School and Field Book of Botany, 1887, captured from BHL

Those words can be heavily loaded in literature and street language, associated with evaluation and assessment. Analyzing Goldsmith (in comparison to Johnson), Isaac D’Isreali concludes: “He might have thought, that with inferior literature he displayed superior genius, and with less profundity more gaiety.” (Miscellanies…, New York, 1841, Rare Books 124749)

Relative position permeates fiction, as with Pip’s observations in Great Expectations: “At the time when I stood in the churchyard, reading the family tombstones, I had just enough learning to be able to spell them out. My construction even of their simple meaning was not very correct, for I read ‘wife of the Above’ as a complimentary reference to my father’s exaltation to a better world; and if any one of my deceased relations had been referred to as ‘Below,’ I have no doubt I should have formed the worst opinions of that member of the family.” (Rare books, first edition, 3 volumes, 122367)

In the more objective world of plant biology, the terms superior and inferior are purely positional, absent emotion. Description is matter-of-fact – the ovary is above (superior to) the petals and stamens, or appears below them (inferior to the stamens, petals, and sepals), avoiding the truth that location is not the simple development you might imagine from descriptions of a flower’s ovary. When the ovary is visible inside the flower, atop the point where sepals, petals, and stamens emerge, it’s simply superior.

Botanists present the superior ovary as the normal condition, to some extent because it’s what we see in the earliest flowering plants, but also because plants bearing superior ovaries, such as tulips, oranges, and tomatoes are straightforward and easy to explain. The floral stem (the receptacle) produces whatever parts it will, and then retires to a nice life, enlarging as needed to support any maturing fruit.

When petals and anthers are shed from a developing Orange flower, you readily see the pistil (with its globose, green ovary) developing inside the flower, at the very tip of the receptacle (the stem that produced and holds the flower parts)
A Tomato flower, part of which was sliced away in order to show the entire pistil (ovary, style, and stigma), with the green, globose ovary developing at the tip of the floral stem – superior to the point at which sepals, petals, and stamens are attached.

If, however, the sepals, petals and stamens are on top of the ovary, if the ovary appears beneath those flower parts, then it is inferior. Search the web and you’ll find many simple illustrations of inferior ovaries that attempt to explain development. But the situation is more complex when you cut into flowers, searching to understand structure and sequence in development. Most critically, regardless as to whether the ovary is deemed superior or inferior, anatomists tell us the flower generated its pistil (including the seed-bearing ovary) last, at the tip of the receptacle. This means any sepals and petals were formed (botanists say “laid down”) before-hand.

It’s a morphologist’s challenge to determine how an ovary, which necessarily forms at the flower tip, appears below the stamens, petals and sepals that were produced earlier. For some of the simplest examples, we look to the Cucurbits (Cucurbitaceae, the melon family, including squashes, pumpkins, cucumbers, gourds, etc.,) all of which are inferior.

A squash flower, with its inferior ovary that promises to mature as a yellow crook-neck.

Even though the Cucurbit flower sits atop its ovary, we know for certain something happened to reverse positions. We see this in many groups of flowering plants, but the method varies, and that has been an issue for botanists: “The problem of interpretation of the inferior ovary has been one of the most controversial and long-debated topics of plant morphology.” (Kaplan, 1967)*

In the case of melons and squashes, the answer may lie in its the receptacle – the stem that makes the flower and, eventually, supports the fruit. The melon receptable is not so simple as that of an orange or tomato flower. At least, we learn Judson, in his 1929 study of cucumber,** believed that early in bud development, the receptacular tissue mounds around and tops the ovary. That would mean the outer layers of a cucumber are really stem tissue, surrounding the seed-filled ovary.

This means we must imagine a developing flower in which the receptacle doesn’t go into semi-retirement once it has initiated a pistil. Rather, while on some hormonal trip, the stem is directed to completely wrap around and above the ovary, carrying other flower parts with it, up-ending the apparent order in the process. Sepals and petals, which most textbook floral diagrams show below the terminating ovary, are now above. According to Judson, this is how you have melons, cucumbers, pumpkins, and other kinds of squash.

An illustration from Judson’s 1929 anatomical and morphological study of Cucumber flowers, in which he demonstrates the tissue surrounding the ovary is part of the stem.
Judson’s diagram, showing that the veins that are part of the sepals and petals peel off above the ovary, at the tip of the receptacle: (SPB) secondary petal bundle, (MSB) main sepal bundle, (MP petal bundle, (CP) bundle extending into the receptacular tissue surrounding (NVS) the nectary vascular system, (SC) stylar canal, (PBB) bundle extending f placental bundle to the placenta, (PB) a placental bundle, (CCB) bundle of the s cylinder within the back of a carpel, (0) bundle extending to an ovule, (VP) the vascular plate.

Other researchers would support the idea that the outer layers of pepos (Cucurbit fruit) are purely floral tissue (sepals, petals, and stamens) growing together around the ovary. That idea, is summarized as the “appendicular theory” as contrasted with Judson’s insistence that the outer layers are made of stem tissue – now called the “receptacular theory.”. It isn’t simple, so nature of pepos remains something of a mystery.

Beyond the complexities of inferiority, melons and squashes harbor other secrets. Practically all are vining, and are generally “monoecious” – which means the vine produces two kinds of flowers, pollen-bearing (male) and pistil-packing (female.) Gardeners know this, they’ll tell you that only flower buds showing an ovary underneath will yield fruit. Check out the cucumber below – there she blows, or grows.

Newly opened female flower of an ‘Edmonson’ cucumber. In the photo below, you’ll see a male flower.
Newly opened male flower of the ‘Edmonson’ cucumber, easily identified by its lack of an ovary. Flowers develop and open sequentially in each cluster, with male flowers developing first. This is the reason the first flowers on almost any Cucurbit are thought of as “sterile” – they develop anthers with pollen, but no ovaries that will become fruit.

Cucurbit fruit have their own terminology; they’re called pepos. In cross-section, you’ll note seed develop in fertile zones (typically three) along the thick inner fruit wall, rather than from a central axis. This becomes especially obvious in pumpkins and gourds that turn hollow at maturity.

Cross-section of a Kiwano Horned Melon, showing seed emerging from fertile strips (placentae) to fill the fruit. This character (termed parietal placentation) is part of what it means to be a pepo.

Culinarily, melons are known for their refreshing taste; almost every ancient culture cultivated one or more kinds.

A silly watermelon carving on a cruise ship buffet
A $100 gift Cantaloupe for sale in Japan
Mae Powell, a Huntington neighbor and member, began growing competition pumpkins when she turned 90. In 2020, in Mae’s 101st year, she topped her all-time record with a 731 pound pumpkin. After weighing, the giant pepo was moved to The Huntington to a display where visitors could see this wonderful production.

We readily think of cantaloupe, pumpkins, and watermelons, perhaps because of their size and color. But the most appreciated of the family might be cucumbers, which have been cultivated and loved for millennia.

Cucumber ‘Suyo’ in The Huntington’s Brody Potager

Though common, there’s something eccentric about cukes. I learned, unexpectedly, that some artists have featured cucumbers in decorative motifs, particularly Carlo Crivelli (c. 1430-1495), who seemed to hang a cucumber in almost every sacred image he created. Perhaps the fact that the Italian word for cucumber, cetriolo, is just a bit similar to his own name meant the cuke became Crivelli’s way of planting himself in the paintings.

Cucumber, garlanded with other fruit, in Carlo Crivelli’s 1485 painting “The Dead Christ With the Virgin, St. John and St. Mary Magdalene,” at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. See: and

More horticultural, and intensely literary, I was delighted to discover William Cowper’s didactic poem “The Garden”, in his fascinating book The Task …***(Huntington Rare Books 124137). Written in response to a simple challenge, Cowper demonstrates his ability to poetize the most seemingly mundane topics. In “The Garden” he includes an extensive description of the gardener cultivating hothouse cucumber crops. Some excerpts:

Raising Cucumbers....
 To raise the prickly and green-coated gourd,
So grateful to the palate, and when rare
So coveted, else base and disesteemed—
Food for the vulgar merely—is an art
That toiling ages have but just matured,
And at this moment unessayed in song...
The seed, selected wisely, plump, and smooth, 
And glossy, he commits to pots of size 
Diminutive, well filled with well-prepared 
And fruitful soil, that has been treasured long ...
Indulged in what they wish, they soon supply 
Large foliage, overshadowing golden flowers, 
Blown on the summit of the apparent fruit. 
These have their sexes, and when summer shines 
The bee transports the fertilising meal 
From flower to flower, and even the breathing air 
Wafts the rich prize to its appointed use. 

“My words fly up, my thoughts remain below: Words without thoughts never to heaven go.” Shakespeare’s Hamlet


*Donald R. Kaplan, 1967. “Floral morphology, Organogenesis, and Interpretation of the Inferior Ovary in Downingia bacigaluph.” Amer. J. Bot 54(10): 1274-1290

“A study of the early stages and of the vascular arrangement (cucumber) indicates that the outer tissues of the inferior ovary are of receptacular nature, and are not made up of the fused bases of sepals, petals, and stamens.”

**J. E. Judson, 1929. “The Morphology and Vascular Anatomy of the Pistillate Flower of the Cucumber” Am. J. Bot 16(2): 69-82 plus plates.

***The Task and other poems, William Cowper. free Project Gutenberg ebook, 1899 edition:

See Also: Awkward Botany, Citizen Botany for the Phytocurious – “Hand Pollinating Cucurbits”.

Halloween pumpkin carving has gone in different directions over the past few years

Reigning Violets

A small native Violet by a mossy stone in Japan

Violet (as a color) is on the spectrum, which might explain why it is so misunderstood. Isaac Newton, in deciding to designate seven colors to the rainbow, selected violet as his term for a marginally-visible band of light on the far side of blue, a band of color that (like the others) is a continuum of electromagnetic radiation (light waves.) We now understand violet is the most energetic light humans can detect – waves spanning the 380 to 450 nanometer range. Like Newton’s other colors, therefore, violet isn’t a single wavelength, rather a set of measurable possibilities.

But each spectral wavelength is incredibly pure, unadulterated color. In the natural world, pure spectral colors are not seen outside rainbows and chemical reactions. I’m hard pressed to match any natural flower or fruit to precise colors of the spectrum; it just isn’t going to happen.

Delphiniums, showing every hue from violet to blue

Colors we see in plants are multifarious, reflecting the impact of complex compounds held captive in many cellular components, wrapped in crystalline cellulose bindings, layered in multi-structural organs that are coated with chemical exudates. Light refracts and reflects its way through this organic jungle gym such that every emerging ray is distinct, projecting on our retinas as micro-mosaics that change continually, depending on angle and quality of lighting, atmosphere and water balance. Any description is, at best, an average, unavoidably subjective judgement varying from one person to another. Color, even more than beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

An Australian Trailing Violet (Viola hederacea) at The Huntington

We shouldn’t be surprised, therefore, that one may never find a violet perfectly matching its namesake color. When I ask people about their descriptions of flowers that approximate some shade of pure, spectral violet*, responses invariably include other, more common color names — purple, lavender, mauve, lilac, and magenta.., even blue, suggesting that violet, as a color, has fallen into disuse, lingering at the edge of our thoughts. Not astonishing indeed; violet is at the edge of our perception, nearly fading away.

Rainbow over The Huntington, violet merging with darkened sky

Goethe, who quarreled with Newton’s physics, thought of violet as marginal, practically unnecessary, psychologically parenthetical to the richer reds, greens, and blues.** But we learned in 1801 that nature extends greater territory to the nearly invisible. After Herschel demonstrated there are unseen energetic heat waves at the red end of the visible spectrum, infra-red energy (a discovery made in 1800), Johann Riddle, a brilliant but undisciplined experimenter, went prospecting at the blue end of the visible spectrum, past violet, searching for the cool balance to Herschel’s warm energy. His intuition was on target; Riddle demonstrated existence of invisible radiation we now call ultraviolet light (UV, wavelengths shorter than 400 nanometers).

Today, UV gets more attention than violet. We know that bees, even many birds, see patterns of UV light imperceptible to us, patterns in flowers that serve as floral guides for gathering nectar or emanating from skin and feathers as mating cues.*** We also know UV helps generate Vitamin D, but initiates skin cancer with too much exposure.

Reining the discussion back to visible objects, a plant, the gentle violet seems to have been important enough over the centuries to draw attention to its cool coloring, such that ion, in ancient Greek, referred specifically to violets, as plants commonly recognized and admired. The modest Violet was even adopted as a symbol of Athens.^ It should be no surprise the relationship between this flower and violet as a hue has long-existed and was significant enough to have been adopted in Newton’s pantheon. The term even stretched to the point that the element iodine, characterized by violet-colored fumes, finds it etymological source with the Greek word for this small flower.

That means Violets and their quiet color were prominent historically, more than today, surfacing as symbols over and again, from links to funereal rites to icons for the Virgin Mary. Over the centuries, the flower and color rotated into regal associations, often spelled as purple, its rouged alter-ego. In the last century, violet became iconic with Women’s Suffrage.

Benjamin Moran Dale (1889–1951), for the National American Women’s Suffrage Association – United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs

Perhaps the most noteworthy botanical link was the Napoleonic appropriation of Violets as symbolic of his return from Elba, an association noted by Paris-resident Helen Maria Williams, in her letters published as: A Narrative of the Events which Have Taken Place in France from the Landing of Napoleon Bonaparte on the First of March, 1815, Till the Restoration of Louis XVIII (with an account of the fate of society and public opinion at that period…  Huntington Rare Books, 373324.) Williams relates the Napoleonic association as unfortunate:

 “But on the morning of the 21st March the guilty, the triumphant violet appeared glaring in the button-hole of every Bonapartist’s coat, or stuck into his hat with all the ostentation of an order or a cockade. After such a profanation, how many springs must pass over the violet before its character will be retrieved and its purity appear unsullied!”

Williams was not alone in reviling Napoleon and his violets. In 1815, the same year as her letter, George Cruikshank issued a curious, satirical image of violets crowning Napoleon, in a dandelion growing out of a dungheap covered with mushrooms. This print, “The Peddigree of Colonel Violet”, is BM 12551, in the Huntington British Satirical Print Collection.

Just a few years later, in 1821, Percy Bysshe Shelley**** relied on more mournful associations “On a Faded Violet”:

THE ODOUR from the flower is gone
Which like thy kisses breathed on me;
The colour from the flower is flown
Which glowed of thee and only thee!

Mystery author Theta, in 1877 Poetical Recreations, attempted the rescue in a sonnet titled The Sweet-scented Violet:

Unsullied violet! so darkly blue, 
That lift'st thy lowly head above the ground, 
And with thy fragrance scent'st the garden round, 
How sweet art thou! 
The expressive Pansy is a modern derivative of Viola tricolor, a European native violet tied to many associations

The Violet as an emblem, and violet as color share curious parallels. Shakespeare focused on violets as lowly and nodding, sweet, and ephemeral. In Twelfth Night, he advances Viola as the central protagonist, masquerading as Cesario (think Sicilian notables and Roman ecclesiastics), while verbalizing her actual name once only, in the final moments (Act 5, Scene 1). Wordsworth tells us the violet shines solely when solitary. Emily Dickinson missed the unsuspected violet, the one that lay low. As a color, violet is understated, passing into the depths of our visual darkness – bearing determined humility.



**Goethe, I should note, wrote quite a sweet tragic song (Das Veilchen) about a Violet in his dramatic opera “Erwin and Elmire,” beginning: “A violet in the meadow stood, with humble brow, demure and good, it was the sweetest violet…” English translation from Wikipedia. As to colors: Goethe associated red with the “beautiful”, orange with the “noble”, yellow to the “good”, green to the “useful”, blue to the “common”, violet to the “unnecessary”. These six attributes were then assigned to four categories of human cognition.

***We also know the shorter UV waves are energetic enough to destroy biological systems, such that plants and animals have developed ways to detect and block penetration. Our corneas and lenses filter near and far UV respectively, something well-known to people who have had cataract surgery, which (without a new lens) renders them “aphakic” – which means the eye lacks a lens and is thus able to detect far UV due to the absence of that filter.

****Shelley friend, publisher, and poet Leigh Hunt is credited with first publishing the term “shrinking violet” in his writing: There was the buttercup, struggling from a white to a dirty yellow; and a faint-coloured poppy; and here and there by the thorny underwood a shrinking violet. 1820, The Indicator.

^The history of ion, viola, etc. is completely distinct from roots that gave rise to the use of viola and violin to designate types of string instruments. The same seems true of violent and violence, which evolved from yet other Latin roots involving force.


Illustrations in Rossetti’s Goblin Market

A battle ferments in the Library stacks, as the legacy of John Ruskin combats the power of fruit-foisting goblins imagined by British poet Christina Rossetti and illustrated by her artistic, pre-Raphaelite brother, Dante Gabriel.  

…Morns that pass by, 
Fair eves that fly; 
Come buy, come buy: 
Our grapes fresh from the vine, 
Pomegranates full and fine, 
Dates and sharp bullaces, 
Rare pears and greengages, 
Damsons and bilberries, 
Taste them and try: 
Currants and gooseberries, 
Bright-fire-like barberries, 
Figs to fill your mouth, 
Citrons from the South, 
Sweet to tongue and sound to eye; 
Come buy, come buy…”

Ruskin decried ‘irregular measures’ in Christina’s Goblin Market (HNT 130573), published in 1862, as a ‘calamity of modern poetry,”  perhaps referencing the few verses below (which preface the passage above):

Apples and quinces, 
Lemons and oranges, 
Plump unpeck’d cherries, 
Melons and raspberries, 
Bloom-down-cheek’d peaches, 
Swart-headed mulberries, 
Wild free-born cranberries, 
Crab-apples, dewberries, 
Pine-apples, blackberries, 
Apricots, strawberries;— 
All ripe together 
In summer weather,

I find the sequence delightful, having aged well over the decades. Perhaps Ruskin’s critique was over-ripe, it’s a spritely section. Honestly though, he might have directed some scorn to the story itself.

It was not unusual at all in the 19th century (and previous epochs) for someone to compose a poem or spin a tale that engages imagery of fruit; fecund associations abound in older literature and art works that lean on fruit as desirable, beautiful, and universally celebrated symbols. You’d almost imagine the possibilities totally plundered, and yet Rossetti created a fresh tale in the market segment of allusions in the realm of forbidden fruit and poison apples  What is it about fruit that generated centuries of rhyme and rumination?  Why was fruit so prevalent in our consciousness, and why has that imagery gone away?

Carved detail of pineapple, orange, grape, and acorn – selected as symbols for Mr. Huntington’s tomb, in the Huntington Mausoleum.

By gone, I mean out of currency. Flowers and trees persist as powerful symbols, but I sense fruit has lost some of its impact on our imaginations, one of many cultural calamities of the modern world. 

My thesis is not simply an observation that fruit imagery has waned, but also an explanation. We no longer value fruit because we are spoiled through abundance masquerading as richness. Fruit is industrially-produced, readily available, and amazingly inexpensive (in the US, at least). But abundant, low cost fruit is not comparable to what you might taste in other, differently-privileged circumstances.

A carefully-cultivated, perfectly selected and prized gift melon in Japan

Having grown up in a family shaped by the Depression, I knew the importance of vegetable gardening, of being assured you could feed yourself. I grew up on fruit and vegetables harvested daily. Still, it seemed unremarkable; I only came to appreciate the multi-dimensional authority of fruit in 2012. 

The original home site overlooking Boyce Thompson Arboretum (Arizona State Park properties).
View from the Boyce Thompson home site, Arizona

A Huntington study team visited Arizona’s public gardens in May of that year, investigating the character of rockeries and topography that could work into the landscape surround for a new Desert Garden Conservatory.  Walking up the remarkable Boyce Thompson Arboretum canyon in Superior, we quickly made our way to a dilapidated house the state of Arizona had recently acquired, in reality the main house with the commanding view, originally part of the arboretum site.  Now, on a hot spring day, our group realized we had ventured farther from the visitors’ center than planned, without packing water.  Though far from perishing, we were hot and thirsty. 

Latter-day additions to the eventually-abandoned Boyce Thompson home site

Remnant landscape around the house included a parched but still productive orange tree.  Our host picked and peeled a couple of fruit, which we all shared.  At that moment, perhaps for the first time in my life, I understood how precious simple fruit must have been for millennia of human civilization.  The shared gift of that sweet, succulent, and ultimately-fresh orange was a revelatory culinary experience.  

Lacking industrial refrigeration, packing and bottling plants, facile shipping for produce, and ready access to sugar, human cultures must have treasured sparse and seasonal fruit beyond our experience, luscious moments of rare luxury.  What pleasure it would have been to walk from a dark, dusty, and hot dwelling into a garden oasis, pluck, and eat a ripe plum or other refreshing morsels. 

Images of grape harvest from Nakht tomb, Thebes (scanned from Hagen, 2002)

Archaeological finds from Egypt to Central and South America document the life and pleasure-giving importance of fruit.  Asian and European literature and art reflect the glorious bounty.  Even lacking material symbols, the legacies from ancient civilizations persist as selected forms that remain the basis for agricultural lineages of row crops like tomatoes, pumpkins, corn, wheat, rice, and beans, as well as orchard, vineyard, and grove pickings like apples, oranges, olives, grapes, and dates.

Exploring literature and art from the past brings new opportunity to appreciate the importance of fruit that contemporary life blinds us to take for granted.  Records of past appreciation remind us what many gardeners and gourmands still recognize – fresh and seasonal fruit unsuited to mass production and long-distance shipping hold delights to savor, products of natural and human selection reaching back generations in human experience, somehow touching primal cravings.

As botanical treasure, we should give a moment to the biology. Fruit are final stages in life cycles, from seed to flower with its production of seed anew. Through that cycle, the terminologies they are a-changing as buds progress to flowers which yield to fruit, specifically to the fully-developed pistil now ripe and ready for dispersal. 

People who study fruit structure call themselves carpologists because we interpret each segment of a fruit as a special leaf called a carpel (follow this link to Carpology).  Some fruit, peas and beans, develop from simple pistils, each a single carpel.  Many common fruit, like oranges and tomatoes, are segmented, therefore multi-carpellate.  

Opening a single pea pod (a legume) helps students appreciate the reason botanists think of a carpel as a fertile leaf.
Oranges, mature and still developing, are perfect examples of multi-carpellate fruit that form as a single pistil in the flower (see photo below).
Close-up photo of an orange blossom, showing the entire pistil – with its green, basal ovary that will develop into the orange, stalk-like style, and club-shaped stigma (where pollen must land.

Matters get more complex when you consider there are over 300,000 naturally-occurring kinds of flowering plants, each making fruit in its own way.  Flowers of some kinds of plants produce one pistil made of one carpel – the peas and beans just mentioned.  A single flower of other kinds of plants (roses, strawberries, magnolias) will make more than one pistil, each representing a single carpel.  In this case, as single flower can produce more than one fruit. Then we come to oranges, tomatoes, and so very many other kinds of plants that produce segmented fruit, each one the single pistil in the flower, but revealed (through dissection) as made of more than one carpel.  

To get this sorted out in your mind, take a moment to cut up and examine fruit as you prepare meals.  Doing this makes everyday flowers and fruit more intelligible, and helps you figure out the ways of plants.  By their fruit, ye shall know them.

A Children’s Garden bench by sculptor Peter Wuytuk, featuring ravens and an apple – one fruit that hasn’t lost its currency.


Carl Linnaeus’s birthday is 23 May, so each May I think of him and his curious legacy. Revered and derided, contemporary and anachronistic, Linnaeus lived seven decades, and managed to steer the world of botany in irrevocable directions by the time he was 45. Born in 1707 in northern Sweden, he took to plant study as a young man, eventually attending the university at Uppsala as a student in botany and medicine. By Linnaeus’s arrival in Uppsala, the newest, cutting edge realizations that plants reproduce sexually (with pollen cast as male and the pistils with their ovules interpreted as female) had begun to shape the core philosophy baked into his career path.

Though the work of uncovering sexual reproduction in plants was produced by Camerarius and many other botanists, Sebastien Vaillant gains credit for his dramatic publicizing of this reproductive information through the single lecture he delivered in 1717, here published in 1718*

Today, Linnaeus and his understanding of plants are old news, mostly regarded as fundamental fossils. But plant names are important links, and Linnaeus remains significant because he systematically brought every available plant into compliance with a simple way of clustering and naming. In the Linnaean conventions we inherit, different kinds of plants (we call these species) fall out as examples of general groupings we call genera. White oak, Quercus alba, and Coast Live Oak, Quercus robur, are two different species in the genus Quercus.

The page from Linnaeus’s Species Plantarum (1753) in which he describes Quercus alba (#10) and Quercus robur (#12). Note the marginal disposition of the species (his specific epithet)…

The simplicity and thoroughness with which Linnaeus applied his way of naming plants proved immediately practical, sweeping away Europe’s awkward and forgettable hodgepodge of naming conventions. Today, by international agreement (The International Code of Botanical Nomenclature…), botanists throughout the world base all plant names on the format utilized in Linnaeus’ 1753 Species Plantarum. One result of those rules is the ever-present “L.” moniker, which is attached to thousands of plant names Linnaeus recognized.

But the naming convention was simply a practical device for Linnaeus; categorization was his real goal. For contemporaries, many of whom idolized him, the immediate value of Linnaeus’ publications was the way he organized plant genera. It was a straight-forward method, a system easily memorized and utilized. For the first time, anyone could examine a new plant and know where to find it, or file it away – that is, how to classify it so someone else could know where the name and information about a plant might have been stashed.

Georg Dionysius Ehret created this simple illustration for Linnaeus, diagraming the basic arrangement of anthers for each of the 24 classes of plants. Note that in his lettering, Ehret does not include today’s letters “J” and “W”

This system emerged because Linnaeus was among the first generation of botanists aware that seed are the fallout of sexual reproduction; he took that fresh concept and ran with it. The newly obvious reality that sexual reproduction was crucial to the nature of every species meant Linnaeus interpreted characteristics of reproductive organs as directly correlated with the essence (therefore the definition) of each different kind of plant. The result was his sexual system of classification – a legend in its time.

Linnaeus grouped plant genera (and therefore the species assigned to each genus) into Classes based on numbers and character of stamens, and within the Classes, into Orders based on the numbers and characteristics of pistils or further information on stamens. It was straightforward – ten stamens meant a plant was in Decandria while five stamens relegated a plant to Pentandria.

On page 302 of Species Plantarum, Linnaeus includes the genus Lilium in the class Hexandria, because each flower has six stamens. Having a single pistil (even though it is 3-carpellate), Lilium falls out as order Monogynia.

The popularity of his sexual system of classifying plants was short-lived however. Within just a few years of Linnaeus’s death in 1778, botanists published systems that grouped genera into what seemed to be more natural families – reflecting affinities suggested by many characteristics, and accepting the fact that in some genera the number of anthers is not a significant difference. A century later, the obvious affinities would be interpreted as ancestral and evolutionary in origin.  Though his classification crashed and burned quickly, we remain dedicated to Linnaeus’s residual legacy, our functional binomial system of nomenclature.

But not so fast.  Don’t completely discard all of that sexual classification stuff. During the 2007 celebration of Linnaeus’s 300th birthday, I decided it would be interesting to attempt organizing a few study sessions replicating the experience people would have had with Linnaeus’s methods. He was a great and popular teacher – hundreds of people attended his lectures. There must have been something useful there.

With printed copies of his simple system, the students and I worked through many plant samples (staying with the European material Linnaeus knew best). What a revelation!

Linnaeus’s simple Latin key to his Classes of the Vegetable Kingdom. See the figure below for a translation to English.
The English translation of Linnaeus’s key. Note he refers to flowers as nuptial beds, and the combination of male (stamens) and female (pistils) as a marriage.

Of course there was no way we discovered that Linnaeus’s sexual system has much to say about how plants should be grouped or classified  But we did learn how quickly his system cut through the mysteries of unknown plants. Using the sexual system to guide study and identification, we stepped right into Linnaeus’s times and challenges. His system worked, quickly and intelligibly, getting us right to the correct genera – which was his goal. Following his methods proved to be a great teaching method, bringing novices effortlessly into an appreciation of plant structure and diversity. Working through flowers from Linnaeus’s perspective is wonderfully enlightening, engaging, and worthwhile. No wonder he and his students loved this method. Linnaeus studied thousands of different kinds of plants; the sexual system represents the life-experience of the most brilliant field-botanists who ever lived.

Flowers of Lilium are easily determined as class Hexandria and order Monogynia… See individual flower below. (Lilium ‘Siberica’ at Longwood)
Lilium at Longwood – note the easily spotted six stamens

Of course, the system has serious limits. It gets you to a place in a list or chart, but it doesn’t reckon on today’s reality – the sheer number of different kinds of plants we have come to understand there are on Earth. Linnaeus’s reckoning suggested a matrix of possible combinations, predicting on-going discovery of plants would yield less than 50,000 kinds. He knew (or at least he named) 7700 different species, and thought all the world’s plants would be known in short order. That didn’t happen. Today we recognize over 300,000 accepted species, and continue to add new kinds. So honestly, there is nothing that Linnaeus’s system brings to the table in regard to contemporary understanding of plant affinities or evolution.

But for students who want to learn more plants, and how to identify them, Linnaeus’s methods have much to offer. Following his system gives access to Linnaeus’s approach to making sense of the great range of plant diversity – an approach molded through experience and a genius for comprehending and organizing the breadth of creation.

Modern botanists regard Linnaeus’ categorizing system as ancient history, and even his legacy of naming plants by a genus and species (binomial nomenclature) has become annoying to many contemporary systematists. It’s a practical way of naming that’s unlikely to go away. But binomial nomenclature reeks of assumptions that different kinds of plants play by the same rules, suggesting an impossible perfection in the strategies plant populations employ to function and maintain themselves in nature. That’s an unrealistic viewpoint; plants exhibit a wide range of biologies. No one keeps a logbook nor charts a course; evolution constantly erases its tracks, and has no pre-ordained direction.

Today we comprehend plant biodiversity as showing natural affinities among plants, affinities that are explained from an evolutionary viewpoint. A natural system (an outline) of the plant kingdom attempts to align formal taxonomic categories (genus, family, order) as reflections of branches (which we call “clades”) in the tree of life. But it’s an imaginary tree. Scientists cannot truly agree how to define species, and nobody will ever know enough to flesh out missing parts of the “tree”. Nature is not complicit in human attempts to pigeon-hole the entirety of creation; as Harold Bold often said: “Nature mocks at human categories.”

Wedgewood portrait medallion of Linnaeus

*see Paul Bernasconi and Lincoln Taiz, transl., 2o02. “Sebastian Vaillant’s 1717 lecture on the structure and function of flowers,” Huntia 11(2): 99-118.

Post Script

Some of Linnaeus’s most ardent supporters were adamant in their adherence to his system. Among the most colorful was Constantine Rafinesque, who wrote in his Flora Telluriana: “…whoever unities Azalea to Rhododendron sins against Linnaeus and Nature!” Today, botanists recognize Azaleas as Rhododendrons that have five rather than ten stamens. But to Linnaeus (and Rafinesque), they constituted different genera in distinct classes (Pentandria and Decandria, respectively). See illustrations below.

Placement of Azalea in the Species Plantarum class Pentandria, tucked in with Plumbago and Phlox.
Rhododendron ‘Susan Hill’ – a hybrid Azalea with 5-6 stamens.
Rhododendron, categorized in Decandria along with other plants producing ten stamens
A hybrid Rhododendron, showing ten stamens

Reading Plants

With a bit of green literacy, you can read a plant like you read a book. How? – the author wants you to ask. What is the language, and where are the messages? Read further for the answers to those questions.

Pages from The Huntington’s copy of Gutenberg’s Bible

Then, you might also wonder: Why should I read a plant? I script you again, and provide the answer: “A plant can tell you something about where it thrives and what you can know about its life’s work.”

If that’s an engaging proposition, then follow along. With this ten minute lesson in Conversational Botany, you can amaze your partner, astonish friends, and amuse yourself through familiarity with the language of plants. Just give me those few minutes of your time and attention.

Books have leaves; plants have leaves.

A leaf in Audubon’s Birds of America
Red cabbage, a vegetable we grow for its thick, slightly piquant leaves
Now, that’s a head of big leaves (borrowed from

Authors compose and publish stories and information, artists create illustrations to convey information and emotion. Plant leaves show form, texture, and dimensions that tell the stories of their lives; what you see is worth a thousand words. And I’m not foisting a foreign language on you; life’s everyday experience is our Rosetta stone.

Autumnal Ginkgo leaves in Japan

Let’s review some points that will be no surprise….

  1. Different kinds of plants produce leaves of predictable sizes and shapes. I hope this is not astonishing. One red cabbage leaf looks pretty much like another. If you’ve seen one ginkgo leaf, you’ve see most ginkgo leaves.
  2. Leaves wilt when they lack water. That’s because plants transpire, i.e. water evaporates from surfaces, mostly through special pores (stomata) most common in leaves.*
  3. We associate large leaves with tropical plants. Of course I’m thinking of plants from the wet tropics, which often have enormous, flexible leaves. Conversely, we don’t think of desert plants as being especially leafy. Even when they have foliage, plants native to dry areas typically make hardened, waxy or hairy, often thick or succulent leaves. I don’t guarantee this a hundred percent, but it’s the common condition. Compare plants in the Huntington Jungle Garden with those in the Desert Garden; it’s a straightforward observation.

These simple associations mean that by examining leaves, even knowing nothing else about the plant in question, a gardener or an aspiring naturalist can make reasonable assumptions about that plant’s natural growing conditions, its native habitat. You can read the leaves of plant like a book.

So let’s start with some obvious examples, not really worrying much up front as to what is a leaf versus what is not a leaf. We’ll come back to that following the examples.

Warszewiczia, a small tree in the Panamanian moist forest shows a normal leaf size for wet tropical trees.
This Anthurium leaf (in the Rose Hills Conservatory) measures three feet from tip to the point of attachment to its petiole. Everything about this leaf tells us that it could only succeed in an area of high moisture. Other clues (longevity, for example) tell us the plant must be tropical.
The Southwest US native Fouqueiria splendens, a spectacular desert plant with small, hardened leaves.
Creosote bush (Larrea tridentata) in the Mojave Desert (Red Rock Canyon, NV) is one of Western North America’s more common desert shrubs, showing every character you’d expect – small, tough, resinous leaves, sparsely populating a wirey, tough woody branches.
If they have leaves, most desert trees have small short-lived leaves, or (in the case of the small tree Parkinsonia ‘Desert Museum’) compound leaves with tiny leaflets that shatter and fall during the driest seasons.
The South African leaf-succulent Argyroderma delaetii makes a pair of leaves that are then sacked of water and nutrients to create the succeeding pair. Not just photosynthetic, these leaves store and conserve water, a crucial skill in the arid lands to which they are native.
Agaves and Aloes show a different dryland strategy – tough, waxy, well-protected leaves that form tight rosettes – owning the light that falls on their site, funneling any rainfall straight to their roots, storing moisture, and resistent to water loss.

I cannot predict that any plant with small or highly succulent leaves is a drylands plant (we call plants that thrive in dry climates xeriphytes). But reading the characters of the leaves and pairing those with other clues the plant offers allows reasonable conjecture. Tough, well-protected (waxes, hairs), smaller, sometimes succulent leaves are associated with plants from dry habitats because those characteristics tend to help reduce water loss. Light is plentiful, water is rare. Large, even floppy, soft leaves tell us the plant can afford to transpire water in exchange for expanded leaf surface. In tropical wet forests, water is not limiting, so greater leaf surface simply allows for more photosynthesis.

To avoid confusion, I should point out that many plants trick the eye. Cacti and a lot of the Euphorbias lack green leaves, having relegated the task of photosynthesis to perennially-green stems. In desert plants, we call these plants “stem” succulents. Once you examine the structure and determine there are no leaves (or, as in Cacti, the spines are its leaves), then you are on a short track to thinking stem succulence is one adaptation that helps the plant cope with water stress. We even see epiphytes in tropical wet forest adopting this and other xeriphytic strategies.

Opuntia robusta in the Huntington Desert Garden, with its green, thickened, pad-like stems
The first known illustration of an Opuntia, see First Light
Golden Barrel Cacti (Echinocactus grusonii) in the Huntington Desert Garden. The pleated, green stem does all of the photosynthetic work, protected by spines, which are modified leaves.

At this point, we have run into a technicality to be deferred for a future posting. But in short, Botanists have standards. A “leaf” is a particular kind of structure plants make, defined by how it is produced by the growing tip and the resulting internal anatomy. Since Botanists group all plant parts as being either stem, leaf, or root, in our world it is unequivocal – being flat and green does not, necessarily, make something a leaf. You’ll find fascinating plants with flat, green stems, and even a few with flat, green roots…. Hang onto those thoughts for the future.

Getting back to reading the leaves, we arrive at a very simple and life-sustaining reality. Green plants grow on their own when given the right balance of Earth (soil & nutrients), Air (carbon dioxide and oxygen), Fire (sunlight), and Water. Different habitats can be understood simply by knowing which resource is the most limiting. We define deserts as places where the limiting factor is water. In tropical wet forests, nutrients are limiting overall, and sunlight can be limiting for understory plants. In wetlands, oxygen and air exchange can be the most limiting factor. In the Arctic, less heat from sunlight changes the climate, while frozen water limits that resource and challenges plant cells with perilous ice crystals.

These honest and easily understood realities are the basis for studies in plant ecology, a field that began with the work of Alexander von Humboldt and brought new awareness of nature that fed into America’s transcendental movement.

“But as this fugitive sunlight
Arrested & fixed
And with the primal atoms mixed
Is plant & man & rock
So a fleeing thought
Taken up in act & wrought
Makes the air & the sun
And hurls new systems out to run” 
 Ralph Waldo Emerson

*This cuts two ways. If plants lose too much water, the cells will burn or collapse and the plant will suffer. If water does not move through plants, moisture and nutrients will fail to move from the soil to other parts. Without evaporation, there would be no upward flow and no cooling of foliage. Some plants would roast on hot days. Once again, this should be no surprise. Humans have similar issues of their own – blood flow, sweating and voiding waste are crucial to your well-being, but too much loss can be deadly. There is a wonderful word for the right balance in humans and plants – homeostasis.

“How can I stand on the ground every day and not feel its power? How can I live my life stepping on this stuff and not wonder at it?” William Bryant Logan, Dirt – The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth

PS – Books have spines and cacti have spines. The spine of a book is the midrib along which the leaves fold, the edge that holds everything together. In a real way, you can think of a cactus spine similarly, as the spine of the leaf, its midrib (main vein), stiff and pointed, lacking the leaf blade. It doesn’t take much for a plant to create a spine out of initials (these are beginning cells, the ones that initiate formation of an organ or structure). There is, of course, no homology – no parallel origin. It is just plenty curious that you can imagine how a spine is a specialized leaf by imagining what would be left of a book if you removed its pages.

The Third Day

Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.” And it was so. (Genesis 1:9, NIV)

Olive, Olea europea, is emblematic of the return of dry, arable land following the Biblical flood

In Christian Europe, literal interpretation of the Holy Bible led to basic conclusions that were, in my reading, neither obvious nor the prerogative of the clerics. Theologians inferred limits to supreme authority that I find unnecessary based on Biblical language. The Text does not require that every plant on Earth be seed-bearing and fruit-producing; verse 9 includes no exclusions. It is certainly not obvious that God was obliged to limit the kinds of plants created to those that would be known by early Europeans. But provincial circumstances and mindsets led to a narrow reading, and there were no lawyers around at the drafting of Holy text to set forth qualifications and exemptions. Today, there’d be disclaimers covering all bets, we’d find a more cautious expression:

Then God issued this writ of mandamus:  The land shall produce plants and trees, subject to the following:

  1. ‘Land’ shall mean the Earth, including dry land, mountains, caves abysses, icy wastes, marshes, rivers, streams, riverine areas, lakes and ponds, salt-water oceans, and seas,
  2. ‘Plants’ means every living thing that is not an animal or bacterium. 
  3. ‘Living thing” means any self-regulating, self-reproducing being creating organic molecules based on patterns in DNA and/or RNA, i.e. living being.
  4. ‘Animal’ means any eucaryotic living being lacking cellular vacuoles and cell walls.
  5. ‘Tree’ means a plant recognized as long-lived and stately.
  6. Nothing in this order shall (a) limit the cellular models used by plants and trees, (b) forbid the production of seed-bearing or fruiting-bearing plants and trees, or plants and trees that do both or do neither; (c) require or prohibit plant or tree secondary growth; (d) forbid extinction of a plant or tree family, genus, species, hybrid, or other type, or the creation from time to time of a new plant or tree family, genus, species, hybrid, or other type; (e) require plants or trees to be ones with which Adam & Eve or their descendants are familiar; or (f) mandate that fruit and seeds be tasty, edible, safe to eat (by way of example, the Tree of Knowledge may bear highly dangerous fruit that no one should eat).
  7. God reserves the right, without advance notice, to withdraw this writ at any time or to change it in any way.
  8. This writ shall automatically expire when the apocalypse occurs.**
Apple, the iconic Western fruit

Narrow-reading of beautifully-composed actual text of Genesis 1:9 by Western scholars proffered that on a single day (specifically the 3rd day) plants were created, that God’s vegetation work was limited to that day and those plants. What followed was insistence that neither God nor any other force of nature would alter that original creation, the subtext being a presumption that humans write the rules defining how both God and nature operate.

As long as limited manuscripts were available to a few literate scholars and little attention was given to studying plants, ignorance reigned. The height of early Western knowledge about plants, Dioscorides’ remarkable de Materia Medica (circa 60 AD) was known and preserved, but had no universal impact. Roman agricultural records (Cato, Varro, Columella) and Pliny’s Natural History, also the property of few people, summed up the remainder of what could be sourced in the Mediterranean about plants, their kinds, their uses. Though today we study and revere what remains of those ancient texts, it’s difficult to imagine they had a great influence on the illiterate, rural pre-Renaissance world.

A 1536 version of de Re Rustica – Columnella’s compilation of agricultural informaiton

Through Arab scholarship, the importance of manuscripts was passed to warm countries (and to a significant extent, preserved and expanded). But that arcane knowledge also radiated into northern Europe, into lands and climates with plants imperfectly suited to Dioscorides’ lessons. The misfit wasn’t so obvious in a mostly-illiterate world with precious few written authorities. Except for a few timber, agricultural, and medicinal plants, the bulk of creation was just green screen.

Indifference would melt rapidly and dramatically beginning in the mid-15th century, when in every way, knowledge and appreciation of the plant world expanded with adoption of printing (beginning with Gutenberg in 1455) and the rise of European exploration between 1450 and 1540. New industries and new occupations were created by and for a growingly-literate audience. Livelihoods could be built through printing and plagiarizing old manuscripts, writers could even post fresh observations and thoughts. Book sales were amped up with woodblock prints, showcasing artwork and imagery that grew increasingly lavish and accurate. Quickening change and preserved on paper, the written word and graphic arts were merged in a field of whitespace.

At the same time, voyages of discovery were documenting a startling reality; exotic lands hold their own exotic floras – not just rare spices and medicinals. Practically every plant encountered was different from those known to Europeans natively. OMG – What to do with all of this new information?

Frampton’s Joyfull Newes…, his translation of Monardes’ text on New World plants of significance (image borrowed from The Curious Ape)

God and nature, scholars learned, held new tricks. Who knew? The world of plants did not simply include the few hundred kinds Dioscorides described, or even those native to Europe and the Mediterranean, or those important plants that had made their way through trade routes (rice, sugar, oranges, etc.) Active Minds had filed that plant wealth in handsome intellectual cabinets. But that intellectual framework soon burgeoned with new “kinds” of plants arriving from all areas of the globe. The Spanish introduced plants and products from Mexico and South America. The Dutch were importing curiosities from South Africa. The English, a bit late to the party, began harvesting and cultivating plants from their Caribbean and American colonies. Naturalists came to realize there must be tens of thousands of plant species, some of which (corn, peanuts, sweet potatoes, chocolate, cinchona, white pine, live oak, rubber, etc.) would prove to be important raw resources, green gold – new potential for industry and commerce, new challenges to established order.

Maize (corn in the US), introduced to Europe from the earliest voyages, changed life in Old World countries, from China (where inland populations increased) to Italy (where certain regions became so dependent on polenta as to experience nutritional deficiencies, i.e. pellagra.)

What revelation. Clearly Noah’s flood had failed to wipe out life in far-distant lands. If all the world’s plants came into being on one day, the third day of creation, then the task had been much greater than generating the few hundred kinds of plants European scholars knew. There had to be a schema, a rubric for how to generate so many different kinds. Moreover, given the task of taking dominion and issuing names, humans needed some clues as to the purpose and source of variation. Priests, ministers, and physicians would now study the world’s plant diversity with the mission to reveal that formula; natural philosophy could serve religion through detailing God’s model, a chain of life, or the chain of being.*

In this model, each kind of plant might be seen as a link connected to another kind, a plant so similar as to be the next link. Each segment of the chain, a string of links sharing some ideal, exemplified concepts of a genus, as John Locke expressed in An Essay Concerning Humane (Human) Understanding (1689.) He contended people objectify thoughts, classifying things around us through formulating general ideas about material objects, which are then manifested in real examples. Each example therefore, each kind, or in Locke’s terms, each species has its essential nature. Botanists adopted this approach and terminology in describing species (Biblical kinds) as instances of genera, which then can be organized in broader categories – families, orders, classes, and kingdoms.

Fundamentalists have held to strict readings of Genesis (some even to the present day), with claims of an Earth that is just a few thousand years old, in a universe created in one work week. But most people moved on to expand their thoughts about creation, accepting geological and biological evidence that replaced the chain of life and other doctrines with another fraught (but better) concept – the tree of life.

Today, we accept the idea that all lifeforms share common, geologically-ancient origins – the seed to that tree, the origins of all life on Earth. As the tree of life expanded, millions of now-extinct species (more than are extant today) populated lineages we envision as interior structure (roots, trunks, branches), building the now-invisible tree architecture. All that persists of the famous tree of life are the diverse endpoints we observe today, points that are not fixed. One could say the third day never ended, visualizing on-going evolution as creation and extinction – as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be.

*Brandon C. Look, David Owen, 1991. Locke on Real Essence, History of Philosophy Quarterly 8(2): 105-118,

** Updated statement provided pro bono by Ethan Lipsig,

William Whewel , 1837. HNT 478350 History of the Inductive Sciences