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Fruits of the earth: plants in the service of mankind
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Fruits of the earth: plants in the service of mankind

From a paradise of pleasant flowers I am fallen (Adam like) to a world of profitable herbes and plants.

Photograph of a woman gathering nutmeg in a basket at the harvest in Grenada, Windward IslandsPhotograph of a woman gathering nutmeg in a basket at the harvest in Grenada, Windward IslandsSo wrote the herbalist John Parkinson in the opening chapter of his monumental work of 1640, Theatrum botanicum, and in this online exhibition we explore that world of ‘profitable herbes and plants’ in all its manifestations.

Throughout history mankind has turned to plants for their healing powers, and we look at the gradual superseding of the herbals, which embodied the folk medicine of medieval and early modern Europe, by later medical advances, such as William Withering’s discovery of the therapeutic properties of foxglove leaves as a treatment for heart disease.

The expansion of Europe’s imperial and commercial horizons following the age of discovery not only transformed botanical knowledge by revealing a wealth of hitherto unknown species but ushered in an age of expansionist and competitive trade in those plants that were to become an integral part of Europe’s daily life: coffee, cocoa, tea, sugar cane, cotton and rubber, among others. We look at these products, at society’s attitudes towards them and at the transition to mass production that took place in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Plants feed us, clothe us, heal us and go towards the making of many of the products which surround us in our homes and cities, but they also fascinate and inspire us by the colours, structure and texture which give them beauty. Although most of the books in this exhibition are primarily concerned with the practical uses to which plants can be put, they also demonstrate through their illustrations how botanical artists have sought over the centuries to convey that beauty on the page.

All items in this exhibition are from the collections of the Foyle Special Collections Library, King’s College London, including the Foreign and Commonwealth (FCO) Historical Collection, the Early Science Collection and the Rare Books Collection.

Exhibition curators:  Adam Ray and Katie Sambrook

Please note, this exhibition originally ran from 15 October to 13 December 2014 in the Weston Room of the Maughan Library, King's College London and is now available to view as an online exhibition only.

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