320 BCE


The book of science

Tom Sharp

Theophrastus botany


  • Theophrastus, the father of botany,
  • classified five hundred plants,
  • and recognized their sexuality,
  • their anatomies, and pathologies.
  • He described seed germination,
  • grafting, and crop cultivation.
  • He focused on the practical uses
  • and economic value of plants.

Enquiry into Plants

  • One difficulty is whether the seed or fruit
  • is part of a plant, whereas for an animal it is not.
  • Another difficulty is in distinguishing trees from shrubs,
  • when under cultivation a shrub can grow into a tree.
  • Another is whether to use locality to distinguish plants,
  • when nature does not follow hard and fast rules.
  • Another is whether bulbs, corms, and truffles should be called roots,
  • when the nature of roots is to taper continuously to a point.
  • Another is whether the essential nature of a wild plant
  • is different, or its difference derives from not being cultivated.
  • *
  • Reports of barley growing from stalks of wheat
  • or wheat growing from barley, Theophrastus knew to be fabulous,
  • but he recognized as factual that under cultivation
  • the characters of pomegranate and almond are changed
  • and he reported of well-known plants that turn to stone
  • and mushrooms close to the sea that are turned to stone by the sun.
  • *
  • If a tree does not bear fruit, split a root
  • and stick a stone into the crack.
  • If a fig tree does not bear figs, prune the roots,
  • gash the stems, and sprinkle ashes about the trunk.
  • If an almond tree does not bear, drive an iron peg in its trunk,
  • replace it with an oak peg, and bury the iron peg.
  • Gall insects are engendered by the seeds of the fig,
  • but cure the fig tree by nailing crabs to its trunk.
  • *
  • Wild trees propagate from root, down, seed, or fruit.
  • Anaxagoras says air contains seeds that rain carries to the earth.
  • Kleidemos says elements that produce animals,
  • when they are colder or less pure, produce plants.
  • Diogenes says water decomposes in earth to produce seeds.
  • Other philosophers say that plants result from spontaneous generation.
  • But Theophrastus says all methods of propagation
  • can be explained by the spread of root, down, seed, or fruit.
  • *
  • Whether both wild and cultivated varieties bear fruit,
  • whether times of shedding or budding vary,
  • how the shape and depth of rooting varies,
  • whether any other than lime produce buds in winter,
  • whether if the trunk is cut off or burnt down
  • it dies or sends out new shoots,
  • whether we should call new growth from the roots
  • the same tree or a different tree,
  • and which are long-lived and which short-lived
  • are matters for further enquiry.
  • *
  • Different forms of the same tree, and different trees of the same form,
  • whether wild and cultivated trees, male and female,
  • are distinguished by sweetness or bitterness of fruit,
  • type of gall, length of roots, rate of growth,
  • timing and regularity of budding, structure of the cone,
  • size, shape, color, and hardness of the acorn,
  • strength of the wood, size and shape of the leaf,
  • shape and height of the tree, its straightness and branching.
  • *
  • Some trees love wet and marshy ground, some dry.
  • Some love exposed and sunny places, some shady.
  • Some belong more to the mountains, some to the plains.
  • Some trees grow on land and some in the ocean.
  • *
  • All mountains have peculiar trees and shrubs.
  • Every river seems to bear some peculiar plant.
  • The wood of the sycomore fig dries only in deep water
  • and its fruit does not ripen unless it is slashed.
  • *
  • Worms, sun-scorching, and rot afflict trees generally.
  • Frost-bite, caterpillars, mutilating roots,
  • and removing bark all around the trunk can damage trees.
  • Also they say that cabbage and sweet bay enfeeble the vine.
  • *
  • The trees, gall oak, Turkey-oak, scrub oak, Valonia oak,
  • kermes-oak, holm-oak, cork-oak, sea-bark oak,
  • Corsican pine, Aleppo pine, fir, silver-fir, joint-fir,
  • beech, yew, hop-hornbeam, lime, maple, ash, cornelian cherry,
  • cornel, cedar, oriental thorn, hawthorn, holly, medlar,
  • sorb, bird-cherry, elder, willow, elm, poplar, acacia,
  • aspen, alder, filbert, terebinth, box, myrtle, cypress,
  • olive, Egyptian plum or sebesten, date-plum, nettle-tree,
  • silphium, saffron-crocus, water-lily, palm and date palm,
  • banyan, banana, mango, jujube, ebony, bay, spurge,
  • frankincense, myrrh, cassia, balsam, cinnamon, citron,
  • centaury, wormwood, pomegranate, pear, apple,
  • hazel, chestnut, tamarisk, fig, sycomore fig,
  • plane-tree, arbutus, andrachne, wig-tree, almond,
  • kolutea, koloitia, Alexandrian laurel, currant, buckthorn,
  • sea-oak, sea-fir, sea-fig, sea-palm, sea-vine, and mangrove
  • in their varieties, localities, and characteristics
  • are affected by climate, soil, and water conditions.

Edible plants

  • The Greeks ate bread of barley and wheat,
  • grilled or soaked before grinding,
  • formed into loaves or flatbread without leavening or baking.
  • They made a soup or relish of grilled and chopped vegetables,
  • garlic, onions, leeks, cabbage, beans, peas, greens
  • seasoned with olive oil, vinegar, fish sauce, and herbs.
  • They ate the fruit of the medlar, bletted,
  • through the winter.
  • and ate the fruit of the date-plum, fruit of the gods,
  • but didn’t forget, like the men
  • in the Odyssey, about returning home.

Theophrastus was Aristotle’s student, successor, and literary executor. In some respects, his Enquiry into Plants can be seen as a textbook example, for the time, of how to conduct a scientific investigation and publish useful results.

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