Domestic Encyclopædia (1802)/Botany
BOTANY, that part of natural history which relates to plants or vegetables.
This pleasing science had the misfortune of being, from its infancy, considered merely as a branch of medicine; and while the naturalist was employed in discovering the virtues of plants, the knowledge of their organization was in a great measure neglected.
In consequence of this erroneous idea of botany, the study of it was for a long time confined to medicinal plants; which were searched for with a view to discover remedies.
On the revival of letters, instead of investigating plants in the garden of Nature, they were studied only in the writings of Pliny and Dioscorides: thus translators, commentators, and practitioners, seldom agreeing, a variety of names was given to the same plant, and the same name to several plants. At length, more careful researches and many excellent observations were made; but the latter being enveloped in a chaos of nomenclature, physicians and herbalists no longer understood each other.
Botanists of real genius indeed occasionally published instructive books, among which the principal are the writings of Cordus, Gesner, Clusius, and Cœsalpinus; but each of these authors regulating his nomenclature by his own method, created new genera, or divided the old ones, according to his own fancy. Hence the genera and species were so intermingled and confounded, that almost every plant received as many names as there were authors employed in its description.
The advancement of the study of botany was, however, greatly promoted by the writings of the indefatigable Bauhins, two brothers, each of whom undertook an universal history of plants, including a synonymy, or exact list of the names of each plant in the works of all the writers that preceded them.
Meanwhile, voyages of discovery enriched botany with new treasures, and while the old names over-loaded the memory, new ones were invented for the newly discovered plants. In order to extricate themselves from this immense labyrinth, botanists were obliged to adopt some methodical arrangement. Ray, Herman, Rivinius, proposed their respective plans; but Tournefort, who published his system in 1697, surpassed them all. To him we are indebted for the first complete regular arrangement of the vegetable kingdom; his plates of generic characters are excellent, but his work is deficient, as it contains no characters or descriptions of the different species.
At length, Linnæus formed the vast project of new moulding the whole science of botany. Having prepared the rules by which it ought to be conducted, he determined the genera of plants, and afterwards the species; and by keeping all tire old names that agreed with these new rules, and new modelling all the rest, he established a clear nomenclature, formed upon principles more consonant with Nature. He also invented specific names, which he joined to the generical ones, in order to distinguish the species.
The whole Linnæan system is founded on the idea, that there is in vegetables as well as in animals, a real distinction of the sexes; that each plant may be analysed by its several organs of fructification; and, consequently, that it is necessary to acquire an accurate knowledge of the number, shape, situation, and proportion of these parts. Hence, only the student will be enabled to understand the elements of the science. And as all vegetables are capable of producing blossoms and fruit, or seed, the following parts, which compose a flower, must be minutely examined in every plant, namely: 1. The calyx, or flower cup, or empalement; 2. The corolla, or blossom, or flower-leaf; 3. The stamina, or chives; 4. The pistillum, or pointal; 5. The pericarpium, or seed-vessel; 6. The semina, or seeds. To these may be added the nectary, or honey-cup; and the receptacle, or base.
It required the resolution, knowledge and ingenuity of Linnæus, to effect this reform with success. His system at first met with resistance, and meets with it still from his rivals in fame; but on account of its practical utility it has been almost universally adopted throughout Europe.
To pursue the study of plants with advantage, that of the nomenclature must not be neglected. Names, it is true, are abitrary; but if the most engaging part of Natural History merits the attention of the curious, it will be necessary to begin with learning the language of the writers, in order to know with precision to what objects the names employed by them actually belong.
The vegetables on the face of the globe may be considered as analogous to its inhabitants; under which view of the subject vegetables may be said to resemble the inhabitants in general; classes, the nations; orders, the tribes; genera, the families; species, the individuals; and varieties, the same individuals in different circumstances.
Beside the satisfaction which the study of the works of Nature, and especially that of botany, affords to an inquisitive mind, it counteracts the passion for more frivolous amusements, and always presents objects worthy of contemplation. Hence the late Dr. Withering very justly remarks, that, independently of its immediate use, the study of botany is as healthful as it is innocent; that it beguiles the tediousness of the road; furnishes amusement at every footstep of the solitary walk; and, above all, that it leads to pleasing reflections on the bounty, the wisdom, and the power of the Great Creator!
Among the latest elementary works of this branch of science are the following: Dr. Withering's "Arrangement of British Plants," in four volumes 8vo. (1l. 11s. 6d.)—Prof. Martyn's translation of Rousseau's "Letters on the Elements of Botany, addressed to a Lady;" (7s.)—Priscilla Wakefield's "Introduction to Botany;" (3s. 6d. with plain, and 7s. with coloured plates);—and, lastly, Dr. Hull's "Introduction to the Study of Botany."