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Illustrated leaves

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Illustrated leaves

Herbals are books containing names, descriptions and illustrations of plants; florilegia are books of floral illustrations. Auckland Museum's collection includes herbal and florilegium volumes from as early as the 16th century.


Volumes containing descriptions of plants for medicinal use were one of the earliest forms of literature. They were written onto scrolls or loose sheets, sometimes bound, and copies were made by hand. 

The knowledge of botany became more wide-spread with the invention of the printing press in the 16th century. The earliest printed herbals were copies of manuscript works, and were reproduced without reference to live specimens. Not until the early 16th century, when botanists began to study live plants, would herbals include scientifically accurate images.

The term herbal, which was not used until 1516, denotes a "book containing names and descriptions of herbs or of plants in general, with their properties and virtues" (Oxford English Dictionary). Herbals can be appreciated not only for their botanical information, but also for their outstanding graphic illustrations.

The title page for \u003cem\u003ePlantarum, seu, stirpium historia\u003c/em\u003e.

The title page for Plantarum, seu, stirpium historia.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. QK99 LOB.

The Lobel herbal

Auckland Museum library holds an edition of a herbal that was published in 1576.

Plantarum, seu, stirpium historia was produced by Matthias de Lobel (1538-1616), who was born in Lille, Belgium. He was a physician in the Low Countries to William of Orange, and later called to England where he became botanist to James I.

This pre-Linnean work is the earliest known attempt to describe plants by their relationship with each other, as opposed to a description according to their use or properties. This is for medicinal purposes but also as a means of ordering plant life.

The herbal is written in Latin, with the plant nomenclature and index printed in Latin, French, German and English. The German and English texts are printed with a Gothic typeface. It is bound in folded velum and features fine woodcut illustrations.

\u003cem\u003ePlantarum, seu, stirpium historia\u003c/em\u003e, a herbal from the 16th century, features fine woodcut illustrations.

Plantarum, seu, stirpium historia, a herbal from the 16th century, features fine woodcut illustrations.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. QK99 LOB.

The Auckland Museum copy has lining papers made from re-used manuscript fragments, with some featuring musical notes and versals that date back to the 12th century.

Plantarum was published by Christophe Plantin (1520-1589) who was born in France, but based in Antwerp from 1548. Plantin was a leather craftsman who pioneered fine leather bindings and gold-tooling techniques before turning to printing and publishing. His printing house is preserved as the Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp.


A florilegium is a collection of botanical illustrations; often a record of the flowers from specific gardens or from voyages of discovery relating to certain areas, such as the famous Banks Florilegium.

The word originates from the Latin word florilegus, for flower-collecting, and could be seen as a treatise on flowers with an emphasis on their beauty, rather than the practical usage found in herbals.

Plumeria. Ehret, Georg Dionysius. \u003cem\u003ePlantae et papiliones rariores\u003c/em\u003e. [London]: [s.n.], 1748-1959. Plate XI.

Plumeria. Ehret, Georg Dionysius. Plantae et papiliones rariores. [London]: [s.n.], 1748-1959. Plate XI.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. QK98 EHR.

The Ehret florilegium

An example of a type of florilegium in the Auckland Museum library is Georg Dionysius Ehret's Plantae et papiliones rariores (Rare plants and butterflies) published in 1758.

This beautiful and colourful publication had a dual purpose - it served to demonstrate the system of plant description developed by Carl Linnaeus (the botanist who pioneered modern plant classification) and promoted introduced species which had rarely, if ever been represented before, including cocoa and pawpaw.

Many of the plants in Plantae et papiliones rariores were of American origin, reflecting the upsurge of new plant introductions to England and Europe from the new world. The book was published plate by plate over ten years, and published by subscription.

\u003cem\u003ePlantae et papiliones rariores\u003c/em\u003e. [London]: [s.n.], 1748-1959. Plate XII.

Plantae et papiliones rariores. [London]: [s.n.], 1748-1959. Plate XII.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. QK98 EHR.

Ehret (1708-1770) was born in Heidelberg, Germany and trained as a gardener. He was a talented botanical artist and travelled throughout Europe and England, where he settled in 1736. He sought commissions among scientists to illustrate their botanical articles and travel books, and in 1748 published his own book. His work appeared as a series of plates sold by subscription.

This is the only florilegium produced entirely by Ehret - he painted the originals, engraved the images onto copper plate and hand coloured the prints.

Ehret had previously collaborated with Carl Linnaeus, contributing illustrations and text to his early publications. Ehret referenced Linnaeus's seminal Genera Plantarum (1737) in Plantae et papiliones rariores, using Linnaeus' classification system in the recording of scientific names and by including miniature exploded-view renderings of the reproductive elements - the flowers and fruit - rather than entire plants.

In 2010 Auckland Museum library held an exhibition called Illustrated leaves, which showcased some of the rare herbals and florilegium held in the collection. They are a visually rich contribution to the fields of botanical illustration and classification.

Further reading

Floregia. Botanical arts and artists.

Printing in England from William Caxton to Christopher Barker. University of Glasgow.

The Patten collection of herbals and early gardening books. Arizona State University Library.

Cite this article

Bayliss, Tamsyn. Illustrated leaves. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 11 March 2016. Updated: 12 November 2019.

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