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Frontispiece to a 1644 version of Theophrastus's Historia Plantarum, originally written around 300 BC
Frontispiece to a 1644 version of Theophrastus's Historia Plantarum, originally written around 300 BC

More often than not, ancient books about plants are read from an antiquarian perspective. Thus the Enquiry into Plants of Theophrastos (371-287 BC) is read because the author was a student of Aristotle, occupying a place within philosophy – but one little known, remote, and distant. If the book is read for its subject-matter, it’s understood as pre-scientific, with an archaic whiff, and in any case long superseded by modern biology.

The same fate, it seems, befalls other extant major texts about plants from classical Antiquity, such as, in order of appearance, On Plants, long ascribed to Aristotle, but now believed to be by Nicolaus of Damascus (first century BC); On Trees by Lucius Columella (4-70 AD); and most of the second half of the Natural History by Gaius Plinius (23-79 AD). (Some minor fragments of other such works exist too, for instance the fragments on plants by the Atomists.)

In each case, forewords and scholarly articles inform us that, admirable though these works may have been, they don’t hold a candle to modern-day treatments of botany, and are at most interesting precursors.

I think, though, that a case can be made to read these books today; particularly today and especially with an eye to today’s environmental situation. They do not only contain observations that can still be accepted; whether one is interested in plants from a botanical perspective or wants to plant them in their own garden. Rather, these four books are pervaded by an appreciation of plants, even a reverence for them, that we need to pick up again as the planet heats up.

Many people care about megafauna, and bears, tigers, whales are therefore at the heart of conservationist efforts. Quite rightly so, as this is where the money is!

Fewer people care about insects, as the lacklustre successes of pollinator rescue efforts show.

Yet even fewer care about plants. After all, plants are everywhere in seeming abundance, and in case in the backdrop of our cities, so why should we care? But this makes plants vulnerable, as it renders the very real destruction to which they are subject invisible. Ultimately, like pollinators, plants may be unobtrusive, but their fate is ours. Saving them is imperative.

Even if we rationally accept this, though, efforts to save plants are hampered by the same problem as pollinator rescues: most people have little emotional connection to any sort of weed, or even to trees or hedges.

Pliny can help here.

This crusty Roman functionary was not only a scientific inquirer and leader of navies, but also remembered a time when “trees were the temples of the deities,” and wrote that “places even now dedicate a tree of exceptional height to a god.” The reverence he ascribes to the trees here is not entirely religious; it contains a component of what we’d call wellness, too: “nor do we pay greater worship to images shining with gold and ivory then to the forests and to the very silences that they contain.” (Nat. Hist. XII.II.3) Observations of this kind pervade his books.

Pliny knows of a time when the trees “first provided [man] with food, their foliage carpeted his cave and their bark served him for raiment” (XII.I.1), and he points out that “acorns at this very day constitute the wealth of many peoples” (XVI.V.13). He finds the “forethought” of nature in the slow ripening of olives compared to wine (XV.III.7) and observes laurels guarding “the portals of the emperors and the high priests” (XV.XXXIX.127). Uses of plants and observations about them are never separate from an appreciation of their existence, and in many places even a reverence for them, especially for trees.

Columella agrees with this. Far from merely discussing uses of plants, he gives a thorough account of their care first and foremost.

If only governments that purchase foreign trees in bulk to meet their climate targets listened to his advice: “a plant which is brought from a distance arrives not properly acclimatized to our soil, and, therefore, being an alien from a foreign land, thrives only with difficulty. It is therefore best to make a nursery in the same ground in which you are going to plant...” (De Arb., I.3-4) And beyond such practical advice, Columella shows his reverence for plants when he advises not to place a statue in the midst of one’s garden but “the rough-hewn trunk of some old tree which you may venerate” (De Re Rust., X.31-32)

From Theophrastos and Nicolaus, too, we can learn many intriguing things designed to make us appreciate the plants that surround us every day. On Plants, for instance, contains a discussion of what kind of life plants are, seeing how they do not seem to contain a soul like animals do. The text concludes that plants are indeed alive even though they lack a soul, because they nourish themselves and clearly have some ability to move (816a-b). Something worth keeping in mind next time a construction project effortlessly kills hundreds of plants with one strike of the digger!

And certainly very little needs to be said about Theophrastos: he is, after all, essentially the founder of botany, and his Enquiry contains so many loving descriptions of plants that it is sometimes even overwhelming. Perhaps it is sufficient to point out his own connection with his beloved plants, as expressed in his dying wish to be buried among them.

Here, then, we might have some resources on which we can draw to restore a sense of the importance of the plants that surround us, and that they, too, are worth taking care of.

Sascha Engel is an author of anarchic books with an interest in plants growing through pavement cracks, and forgotten ancient lore. He lives in Ireland.

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