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Fruits of the earth: plants in the service of mankind

John Parkinson

With the advent of scientific enquiry - the methodical and objective observation of natural phenomena and their detailed and accurate recording - the age of the herbal was past. As a genre, the herbal was gradually superseded by the flora, a descriptive catalogue of the plants of a geographical area or geological period, characterised by standardised descriptions and consistency in terminology.

For the medical practitioner the pharmacopoeia, an authoritative or official treatise containing lists of approved drugs with their formulations, standards of purity, strength and uses, acquired increasing importance. These two types of publication reflected the divergence of the pure and applied aspects of the study of plants - botany and medical botany - which emerged during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Opening showing two illustrations of plants of the umbelliferous tribe: parsnip and skirretTwo plants of the umbelliferous tribe: parsnip and skirretJohn Parkinson (1566/7-1650) has been seen as the last of the great English herbalists. A leading member of the Society of Apothecaries, he gave up his career in apothecary to devote himself to tending his London garden and to studying plants

His first published work, Paradisi in sole (1629), is generally regarded as the first book on gardening to be published in England, and he followed it eleven years later with the huge Theatrum  botanicum, a herbal containing entries for some 3,800 plants, many of them never described in print before. Yet, despite its many merits - Parkinson was a careful and observant recorder of native species - the Theatrum botanicum never attained the popularity of Gerard’s Herbal. The age of the herbal had passed.

Parkinson groups plants into 17 main ‘classes’, or ‘tribes’ (‘sweete-smelling’, ‘purging’, ‘strange and outlandish’ and so on). The pages shown here illustrate two plants of the ‘umbelliferous’ tribe, umbelliferous plants being those which contain a mass of flowerets sitting on stalks of equal length springing from a common centre. One is the parsnip, commonly eaten as a vegetable today. The other is skirret, which has vanished from the European culinary repertoire. Related to the parsnip, skirret was cultivated as a vegetable in medieval times, but Parkinson, while conceding that it was a ‘wholesome’ food, remarks that it has less taste than the common parsnip and ‘engendreth a little winde’, which may help to explain its decline in culinary popularity.

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