Tag Archives: History

One hundred and twenty-five years of the Annals of Botany

The first issue of Annals of Botany, August 1887 By August 2012, the Annals of Botany had been published without a break for 125 years. In that time it has become not only the world’s oldest continuously published botanical title but one that has retained a high international standing despite the emergence of numerous popular and well-run competitors. A recent article in the journal is the first of two that, together, look back over the Journal’s long history.

The article describes how the Annals of Botany first came into being in 1887 and the evolution of its editorship and management over the 50 years to 1937. These developments are described in terms of the people involved, how they organized the starting of the Journal and how they ran and financed it on a not-for-profit basis. The article pays particular attention to the lives of the nine remarkable and mostly rather grand individuals who founded the Journal and who, for the most part, came from privileged backgrounds. Despite being a youthful group (all but one were under 40), most were already establishment figures by 1887, e.g. Fellows of the Royal Society (FRS) or directors/professors of prestigious establishments, while the others were soon to become so. The article also outlines the academic environment which allowed the founders and their vision of modern botanical science to prosper, and describes a notable clash of personalities that almost brought the Journal down after only 12 years. In addition, accounts are given of the creation of the ‘Annals of Botany Company’, the effects on the Journal of the First World War and its aftermath, and how the Journal’s managers looked to the future by planning a ‘New Series’ starting 50 years after its foundation.

Jackson, M.B. (2015) One hundred and twenty-five years of the Annals of Botany. Part 1: the first 50 years (1887–1936). Annals of Botany, 115(1), 1-18

Tinted plates used to illustrate early issues of the Annals of Botany

Tinted plates used to illustrate early issues of the Annals of Botany


Happy Pumpkin Day to all our American Readers!

Paintings of pumpkins Today is a holiday (Thanksgiving) in the USA and most of our American readers will be taking a well earned day off in order to overeat and watch football (as opposed to soccer ;-) )

This afternoon as you slowly realize you should not have had the second slice of pumpkin pie, let AoB Blog try to ease your dyspepsia, or at least take your mind off it for a while, by encouraging you to read this fascinating article about the history of the pumpkin.

Happy thanksgiving!


Paris, H. S., Daunay, M. C., Pitrat, M., & Janick, J. (2006). First known image of Cucurbita in Europe, 1503–1508. Annals of Botany, 98(1), 41-47
The genus Cucurbita (pumpkin, squash, gourd) is native to the Americas and diffused to other continents subsequent to the European contact in 1492. For many years, the earliest images of this genus in Europe that were known to cucurbit specialists were the two illustrations of C. pepo pumpkins that were published in Fuchs’ De Historia Stirpium, 1542. Images of fruits of two Cucurbita species, drawn between 1515 and 1518, were recently discovered in the Villa Farnesina in Rome.


In praise of Urtica dioica

Urtica dioica

Image: Wikimedia Commons

In the bad old days before Mr Sainsbury and Mr Tesco worked their airmiles magic on the planet, this time of year was known as the “hungry gap” – the time between using up last year’s harvest and starting to eat this year’s crops. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and over dinner this evening we discussed who was the first person to get stuck into a meal containing a toxic cocktail including acetylcholine, histamine, moroidin, leukotrienes, and possibly formic acid (ref). A pretty hungry one, I’d bet.

Fortunately, careful picking (!) and a little cooking renders this toxic feast quite palatable. For the gastronome who remains unconvinced, I would recommend Mr Fearnley-Wittingstall’s treatment: nettle soup

Note to chef – maybe a little more garlic next time.


Go to work on a potato

I didn’t do modern history at school so my impression of the industrial revolution is largely a mish-mash of pop history and some misremembered Industrial Archaeology courses. What I do recall is that the emphasis in the Industrial Revolution is firmly on the Industrial side. Agriculture existed as a place for people to leave to work in factories. This doesn’t work. To understand the past you need a much more active view of agriculture.

Heart-shaped potato

The industrial world was built on a love of potatoes? Photo by Michael Kooiman

If you take the view that people were employed on farms for a reason, they’d still be needed on the farms when the Industrial Revolution happened. If those people suddenly aren’t there, why doesn’t mass starvation follow? Nunn and Qian argue there was a change in agriculture too, and that was potato farming. The idea isn’t new. The spread of potato farming and it’s influence on feeding people has been argued for by historians. Nunn and Qian’s paper, The Potato’s Contribution to Population and Urbanization, is different because it’s quantitative.
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The fashionably late arrival of cucumbers in Europe #bad11

You might put together a salad from what you’ve grown in your back garden, but it’s a surprisingly cosmopolitan meal. Tomatoes came from Mesoamerica and if you have potato salad, then you have the Incas of South American to thank. Recent research by Jules Janick and Harry Paris, Medieval Herbal Iconography and Lexicography of Cucumis (Cucumber and Melon, Cucurbitaceae) in the Occident, 1300—1458, has found another relatively recent arrival in Europe, the cucumber. This is a surprise as historians thought it had been around the Mediterranean since ancient times.

Classicists can point to the Latin word cucumis, which ought to be a big clue cucumbers were grown in ancient Rome. The ancient Greeks also had a word, sikyos and it’s even known from Hebrew texts qishu’im. Janick and Paris took a close look at the texts using these words and found things weren’t that simple. To modern botanists cucumis isn’t just cucumber. Cucumis sativus is a cucumber, but Cucumis melo is a melon. The earliest known illustrated herbal manuscript is the Juliana Anicia Codex from 512 CE. Janick and Paris found that the word cucumis was only used for snake melon. They’re confident about that as appearance of a snake melon and cucumber are visibly different.

Cucumbers and melons in medieval manuscripts

Illustrations from medieval manuscripts from Janick and Paris's paper.
A: Cucumber. B: Melon. C: Snake Melon

After that the quality of illustrations gets worse. If a medieval manuscript did have illustrations, they’d be copies of copies and so useless for serious work. Things are bad until around 1300 CE, when there’s a return to high quality illustrations. In these new manuscripts there are melons, but there are also the first recognisable cucumbers. That leaves a puzzle. Did cucumbers appear in European fields at the same time as these new manuscripts were written, or had they been around for a while, and these just happen to be the first recognisable illustrations?

Along with the new images came a new label, citruli. This appears in Italian texts from the mid-12th century. Before then the word is not used. The word survives in modern Italian as cetrioli, which is based on citruli for cucumbers. Janick and Paris argue that the French preferred the word cucumeres, which before then had been used for elongated melons. It’s this shift in meaning that created confusion reading ancient texts.

So if the cucumber in your salad isn’t from originally from Europe, where did it come from?

There are two lines of evidence that point in the same direction. Genetic evidence suggests that the cucumber was domesticated at least 2000 years ago in India, and one name for the food agrees. The modern Gherkin, was a Kychern in Latin, a Khiyar in Arabic and Persian and back to Khira in Bengali and Hindustani.

I like the research. It’s excellent history because Janick and Paris don’t simply assume translations are correct. They go back to the original sources to see what was actually said. The outcome neatly turns a tired stereotype on its head. It’s easy to see the Dark Ages as a time of decay, but here we can see that exchange of ideas continued after the fall of the Roman Empire through the Middle Ages.

You can read the paper at the Annals of Botany.

The origin of modern Botany and the Infinite Monkey Cage

Robin Ince and Brian Cox in the Infinite Monkey Cage

Robin Ince and Brian Cox in the Infinite Monkey Cage

Some ideas work and some ideas don’t. Sticking Prof Brian Cox and Robin Ince together for half an hour each week works. The Infinite Monkey Cage is their weekly show on Radio 4 (available worldwide as a podcast) where they discuss topics with various guests. Last week Andy Hamilton in for a chat about the Apocalypse. These week they talk with the chemist Professor Tony Ryan, social sciences researcher Aleks Krotoski and comedian Paul Foot to ask if the modern world is a force for good or evil.

That means defining what the modern world is. Tony Ryan went for the Haber-Bosch process marking the start of the modern world in 1908 due to the ability to create fertiliser. He made a good case for the process being imperative for the modern world Aleks Krotoski choose the invention of the printing press in 1440. So I thought as post I could ask when you thought the modern era for Botany started. It sounds like a good idea, but I don’t think it works.

The plan was that you could argue for The Origin of Species, or Mendel’s genetics or the modern synthesis as marking the watershed for modern Botany. Alternatively you could look back at the great voyages of exploration, like Joseph Banks’ trip around the world. Other disciplines have discussions about their origins. Did modern Physics start with Galileo or Newton? But Botanists seem to be fairly unified in where modern Botany starts.

There seems to be a convergence on 1753 and the publication of Species Plantarum by Carl Linnaeus. Recently Fay and Chase published in Annals of Botany on Orchid biology: from Linnaeus via Darwin to the 21st century. This is clearly marking modern Botany between Linnaeus and now. It’s a view that groups such as the Linnean Society agree with, obviously. We also recently published Linnaean sources and concepts of orchids by Jarvis and Cribb, which looks at what makes Linnaeus special.

This bothers me. Usually when I come to an easy solution to a matter of opinion it’s a good sign I’ve not been thinking hard enough. So does anyone have any other contenders? I’ve found this paper on The Concept of the Genus on JSTOR, but I don’t have access to it. Google Scholar hints that it argues some Linnaean concepts actually date from much earlier.

Alternatively could you argue that modern Botany has yet to start? Linnaeus gave us taxonomy, but is cladistics a superior approach and taxonomy holding us back? This might not make sense though as Grant argues that one system is not necessarily right and the other wrong in his paper Incongruence between cladistic and taxonomic systems in AJB.

Do the origins of Botany lack the controversy that you find in other sciences? If so what does that say about Botany as a science?