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Michigan State University

Vibrant Treasures: Botanical Illustrations from the 16th to 20th Centuries: Herbals

This guide provides more information about the plant-centric illustrations, herbals and books displayed in the exhibit in the MSU Libraries Murray and Hong Special Collections Reading Room, March-May, 2011.

Herbals on display

The herball; or Generall historie of plantes. John Gerard, 1545-1612, Thomas Johnson, d. 1644. London, Adam Islip, Joice Norton and Richard Whitakers, 1636.

John Gerard, the best known of the English herbalists was a barber-surgeon and an ardent horticulturalist. This edition of Gerard’s Herball was revised by Thomas Johnson, a well-known apothocary, and published in 1636. It describes and illustrates several hundred flowering plants including 182 species which had not been described in Gerard’s earlier editions. It is considered one of the most significant early-modern English botanical publications and endures as a primary source of reference.


Theatrum botanicvm: the theater of plants. Or, An herball of a large extent. John Parkinson, 1567-1650. London, Printed by T. Cotes, 1640.

For many centuries this immense work was considered the “largest herbal in the English language.” Parkinson, the last of the old English herbalists, was Apothecary to James I. His massive herbal of 1,755 pages describes nearly 3,800 plants, nearly double the number described in the first edition of Gerard [also on display]. Parkinson was more original than either Gerard or Johnson in incuding all aspect of the plant inculding its cultivation and use.


American medical botany, being a collection of the native medicinal plants of the United States, containing their botanical history and chemical analysis, and properties and uses in medicine, diet and the arts, with coloured engravings. Jacob Bigelow, 1786-1879. Boston: Cummings and Hilliard, 1817-1820.

Jacob Bigelow attended Harvard College and later taught medicine and botany at Harvard and published numerous books, including one of America’s first botanical books, American Medical Botany. This work was one of the first two American botanical books with colored illustrations. More significantly, Bigelow’s work was the first book published in the United States to have plates printed in colors. Originally intended to contain 60 hand-colored plates, Bigelow sought a method of plate production that would be faster and less costly. He settled on a color-printing process in which color was applied directly to etched stone plates, creating one of the earliest U. S. publications with color-printed plates. The style of engraving was wholly new in this country, one which had been successfully attempted only by artists in France. This is a first edition, still bound in sheepskin, as issued.

 Hieronymi Tragi, De stirpium, maxime earum, quae in Germania nostra nascuntur, usitatis nomenclaturis, propriisque differentiis, neque non temperaturis ac facultatibus, commentariorum libri tres, Germanica primum lingua conscripti, nunc in Latinam conversi. Hieronymus Bock, 1498-1554, David Kyber, 1525-1553, and Konrad Gesner, 1516-1565. Argentorati, Vuendelinus Rihelius, 1552.

Hieronymus Bock was a sixteenth century German botanist, physician, and Lutheran minister who began the transition from medieval botany to the modern scientific worldview by arranging plants by their relation or resemblance. Instead of following Dioscorides as was traditional, he developed his own system to classify 700 plants. The first edition is without illustrations as Bock could not afford them. To compensate for the lack of visual representation of the plants, Bock described each specimen very clearly in the vernacular German spoken by the people. The descriptions of flowers are remarkably clear, and they indicate that he comprehended things by which his predecessors had been completely baffled. This later 1552 edition has more illustrations than any previous of his many editions, many of which are beautifully hand painted in vibrant colors.

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