The Plant Kingdom
The representation of plants in words and images has been guided often by their practical uses. Thus, early botanical books and manuscripts are primarily concerned with medicine. The encyclopaedia, or pharmacopeia, compiled by the Greek physician Dioscorides in the first century AD, was translated into Latin and Arabic and widely used for over a millennium.
Later botanical writers took Dioscorides as their starting-point, but organized plants according to more up-to-date ‘cataloguing’ systems (taxonomy), and attempted to identify the plants Dioscorides described by making field trips of their own. The finest publications had illustrations which combined accuracy with beauty. Their value is not just scientific – they are also masterpieces of book production.
Physicians and plant-hunters also assembled extensive collections of dried plants and arranged them systematically in cases or books. These collections, known as herbaria, are still useful today – they tell us, for example, how the distribution of plants has shifted with changes in the global climate.