Wild Medicine – Healing Plants at New York Botanical Garden

Winter by American artist Philip Haas, inspired by the 16th century illustrations of Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo

Winter by American artist Philip Haas, inspired by the 16th century illustrations of Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo

Gardens are a source of food, pleasure and all our physic needs. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries Italian Renaissance scholars ‘discovered the natural world’.

The first official botanic garden in Europe established during the sixteenth century, was attached to the schools of botany and medicine at Pisa and Padua universities. Studies descended from cloister medicinal gardens and physic gardens of the Middle Ages, adapted on ideas gleaned through Muslim tradition. Students studied flowers and plants intensely and by the 1560’s most plants used in western medicine were grown in gardens whose species were indigenous to Europe.

Those from farther afield were native to the countries of the Mediterranean basin. However, expanding new political contacts meant that plants gradually began to arrive in Europe from the new world, giving impetus to the study of medicine by physicians and to its logical offshoot, the development of a new botanical science surrounding medicaments.

The New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) in 2013, opened its fabulous annual summer exhibition Wild Medicine. It encompassed a number of displays in a multi-faceted array tracing the history and importance of plants since ancient times.

Disposed within the Enid A Haupt Conservatory according to their now well-established interactive tradition and aim of expanding knowledge, the NYBG recreated the teaching gardens that existed at the University of Padua, Italy during the sixteenth century.

Founded in 1545, it is the world’s oldest academic botanical garden still in its original location. Throughout the evolution of garden making our emotions have become caught up in their munificent nature and mutability. Since ancient times we have learned how to judge soil conditions, vagaries of weather and how and where to place plants so they have the best chance of survival.

The show highlights how ancient remedies are at the foundation of today’s modern medicine and, it is also an effective cultural comment as part of an ongoing narrative about the nature of modern society.

NYBG 1Also on display outside the conservatory  an installation of four great sculptures by contemporary American artist Philip Haas, encompassing Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter were inspired by the creations of Italian Renaissance painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1627-1593).

Haas commented, “Whether I’m working in painting, sculpture, or film, what fascinates me is the idea of transformation. Through the Four Seasons, I am re-contextualizing the world of classical Renaissance portraiture using the transformative elements of scale, material, and dimensionality, thereby altering the viewer’s perspective.”

New York Botanical Garden Chief Executive Officer and The William C. Steere Sr. President Gregory Long stated, “We are thrilled to present Philip Haas’s remarkable Four Seasons at The New York Botanical Garden. This body of work is ideal for the garden as it speaks to the present, while reflecting on the past. The contemporary forms rooted in the history of art will resonate not only with our core audience but also those passionate about contemporary art.”

Life Springs eternal….Spring by contemporary American artist and filmmaker Philip Haas

Over the centuries we have altered our natural environment to suit the respective skills of gardening and agriculture with routines and rhythms guiding our approach to planting, fertilizing and harvesting while setting aside specialized areas for food and medicine.

Investigating the physical properties of herbs and their roles within traditional cultures, from their ceremonial uses to their practical applications as medicinals, aromatics, dyes, and detergents were a priority and the subject of only one of the fantastic range of events held revealing that many people do have an interest in the power of plants to maximize well-being and quality of life

During the early ages of our planet primitive man as a hunter and gatherer, was fully in tune with the natural world. He knew how it could be utilized to assist his nourishment, health and wellbeing.

He was fully aware his very existence relied on his knowledge of the land, its flora and fauna as well as the importance of its cycle of seasons to his own life cycle.

When the frozen remains of ancient hunters and gatherers were found during the twentieth century, without exception, the seeds of the plants they would need when they reached their destination for personal sustenance, for planting food and healing were found too.

The creativity and innovation of the people of Islam had no peer in the European mediaeval world, which during the Middle Ages was basically just a frontier society, fragmented, fearful and rudely fortified against itself.

The Arrival of Monk Nicholas at the court of Cordoba, by Dionisio Biaxeras

There is a painting by Dionisio Baixeras depicting the arrival of the monk Nicholas at the Court of Cordoba. The monk was an envoy of the Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (913-959) who had come to translate the text of the ancient Greek physician Pedanius Dioscorides – the De Materia Medica into Arabic.

The city of Madinat al-Zahra north west of Cordoba in Southern Spain became a major centre of botanical studies during the 10th century and a scholarly centre of learning in Western Europe. At this time Cordoba, with up to 500,000 inhabitants, was the most populated city in Europe and, perhaps, in the world.

An illustration of the species “Alconiton napellus’

Dioscorides was a Greek military physician, who served in the Roman army of the emperor Nero, and wrote De materia medica during the first century CE.  This renowned five-volume herbal contained the names, descriptions and healing virtues of some 500 plants observed during the four seasons of the year.

It was widely read for more than 1,500 years.

Fabulous display of Herbals in the William D Rondina and Giovanni Foroni Lo Faro Gallery

During the eleventh century, books about the practice of medicine by important Muslim physicians like Ibn Sina (980-1037 CE) and al-Razi (864-930 CE) were translated into Latin and brought into European universities, where they were used for centuries. They included an understanding of hygiene and the importance of cleanliness, which meant separate wards for different diseases.

In Spain during the eleventh and twelfth centuries handbooks on agriculture and gardening provided a remarkable list of known plants and visiting scholars were exposed to the practice of medicine that in other parts of Europe was not even at the basic stage, bit more in line with quackery.

Johnson Papyrus, fragment of an illustrated herbal manuscript c400 AD Wellcome Library, London

Spanish physicians had a system of medical care open to all and hospitals that had been set up by Andalusian physicians, including great gardens with running water.

Their Doctors also had a great care for their patients prescribing treating them with kindness and dignity.

The history of herbs is as long as the story of mankind and even today we derive many of our newest medicines and chemicals from them. Today we take them for granted in contrast with the past where people had a much more intimate relationship with the plants around them.

The earliest book on herbs was by Theophrastus (370-286 BCE), a naturalist and author of ‘An Enquiry into Plants’. He classified all plants now known in western literature with their uses in medicine at this time. Until his time knowledge of herbal plant lore and plant life were transmitted only through the spoken tradition.

Egyptian plants particularly interested Theophrastus. The earliest plant illustration we have is of a fragment The Johnson Papyrus, which dates from the 5th century. It was discovered by J. da M. Johnson, in 1904 while he was working in Antinoë (Antinopolis), Egypt. Johnson later became Printer to the University of Oxford.

One side of the papyrus shows a sphere of dark blue-green leaves supported by some small scraggly roots. Below the illustration is a fragment of Greek text. The illustrated plant has been identified as  comfrey, symphytum officinale.Unfortunately no illustrated copy of the works of Theophrastus survives.

The ancient Roman writer on natural history, Pliny the Elder (23 – 79 AD), reported in the first century that some of the herbals of his period were illustrated.

His ‘Naturalis Historia’, for which he also used Theophrastus as a source, became a model for all such later works. Published c 77-79 AD, it is one of the largest single works surviving from the Roman Empire until today, and includes sections on agriculture, horticulture and pharmacology.

It is thought Pliny the Elder’s garden may have been an early version of a botanic garden, however archaeologists did not have enough time to fully study the site when it was discovered in the 20thcentury during building works.

Pliny borrowed freely from the works of Theophrastus to describe trees and plants he may never have seen. The meeting of Greece and Italy would produce a vigorous planting tradition.

From the Adriatic to the Indus and in the new metropolises like Alexandria, Pergamum and Antioch Greek was spoken.

The encounter between the Roman world and Greek Hellenistic art took place at a time when the former, which had until then concentrated on the initial stage of expansionism, was beginning to show an enthusiastic appreciation of beauty as an end in itself.

The development of the great villa gardens laid out from the first century before the Christ event by the Emperors and patrician Romans were an extension of the idea of the sacred garden or grove around temple buildings, further influenced by traditions from Persia.

The Roman gardener was endeavouring to create attractive natural settings; in a famous passage Pliny the Elder seems to list varieties of landscape gardens as ‘groves, woods, hills, fish-pools, canals, rivers, coasts’.

Artificiality though would play a dominant role with the use of statuary and garden furniture, the introduction of formal layouts and the shaping of trees and the combination of plants with water displays.

It was for Italian garden settings that sculptured marble bowls and candelabra produced in Neo-Attic workshops were primarily designed

In Medieval Europe for nearly a thousand years country people gathered wild harvests of useful plants, but it was in the monastic herb gardens that plants of known virtue were organised into beds and borders and their usefulness studied.

This was then catalogued into books of ‘simples’, which meant herbal medicines.

The Patriarch of Jerusalem sent one to Britain in the 10th century called Canon Medicinae and another arrived during the 13c, sent by Franciscan monk Bartholomaeus Angelicus.

His encyclopaedia c 1231 exercised a greater influence on medieval thought. “De proprietatibus rerum” contained knowledge of all the sciences of that time: theology, philosophy, medicine, astronomy, chronology, zoology, botany, geography, and mineralogy. There is hardly a library in Europe today that does not have a copy.

It is undoubtedly the first important encyclopaedia of the Middle Ages and the first in which the works of Greek, Arabian, and Jewish naturalists and medical writers, which had been translated into Latin shortly before, were laid under contribution including Aristotle, Hippocrates and Theophrastus.

Illustrations from an 11th century Latin copy of the Herbal of Pseudo-Apuleius Circa 550 – 625 of which little is known. It belonged to St Augustine’s, Canterbury and later to Elias Ashmole (1617-1687) who bequeathed it to the Ashmoleon from where it was transferred to the Bodleian Library, Oxford in 1860 – courtesy Bodleian Libraries.

Humanist influenced Europe provided a setting in which scholars and gardeners could experiment with, and communicate about, growing and acclimatizing new plants.

The gardens of Renaissance Italy reflect a number of influences already in play following the European medieval period. They included their increasing wealth through commerce, knowledge being gleaned from the excavation of areas from the ‘classical’ period of its own history, as well as new knowledge filtering through the court at Naples.

For much of its existence it had been a realm fiercely contested between French and Aragonese (Spanish) dynasties. The Moors invaded Europe by way of Spain after 711 AD and so their influence would be profound.

The term Moor refers to the people of North Africa who embraced Islam. They came, saw conquered and occupied for nearly 800 years the Iberian Peninsula, which today includes the modern-day states Portugal, Spain, Andorra and Gibraltar and a very small area of France.

Medieval Spain was a unique place, one in which Christian, Moorish and Jewish cultures all existed and thrived together, in spite of the almost continual battles. The result was a very exotic daily life very different from other places in Europe.

Bagh-e-Fin Garden, Kashan Iran, a historical Persian garden created by Shah Abbas 1

Bagh-e-Fin Garden, Kashan Iran, a historical Persian garden created by Shah Abbas 1

The four square garden signified the four quarters of the universe, the four seasons and the four rivers of life, which intersected at a garden’s centre. This concept was embraced in Muslim culture, although it is based on an idea far older than Islam or even the Persian Empire who also embraced it.

The Old and ancient Testament book of Genesis describes its idealized pattern ‘And a river went out of Eden to water the garden and from hence it was parted and became into four heads’

The symbolic meaning of number four deals with stability and invokes the grounded nature of all things. Four represents solidity, calmness, and home, the place where you can “plant” yourself.

From ancient times four signified what was solid, what could be touched and felt and its relationship to the four points of the cross made it an outstanding symbol of wholeness and universality, a symbol which drew all to itself’.

Shah Abbas 1 (1571-1629) of the Safavid dynasty created such a garden and it still exists today. It was the very epitome of the Persian garden, which expresses a series of accentuated contrasts between an arid, inhospitable landscape outside its walls and the lush foliage within, as well as being an earthly representation of a heavenly paradise to come.

The Italian poet Boccaccio in his literary work the Decameron printed first in 1348 painted a vivid picture of what a fourteenth villa and garden of a wealthy Florentine was like.

He said…the sight of this garden, its form and contrivance, with the fountain and the spring proceeding from it, pleased the gentles and ladies so much, that they spared not to say, if there was a paradise on earth, it could be in no other form, nor was it possible to add anything to it...

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2013-2018

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