Popular Science Monthly/Volume 53/July 1898/Gerarde and the Gerardias: The Herbalist and his Namesakes

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1393806Popular Science Monthly Volume 53 July 1898 — Gerarde and the Gerardias: The Herbalist and his Namesakes1898Martha Bockée Flint



ON shaded hillsides and in woodland glades there blooms through August, a stately plant, the most beautiful of a varied group which, as the genus Gerardia, perpetuates a name too little honored. Few men have done more for English botany than the "diligent and paineful apothecary," John Gerarde, some time gardener to Cecil, Lord Burleigh. It is just three hundred years since, in December, 1597, was published The Herball, or Generall Historic of Plantes Gathered by John Gerarde of London, Master in Chirurgerie. The second edition thereof, the only copy known to be in the city of New York, is "very much enlarged and amended by Thomas Johnson, Citizen and Apothecary," and bears the imprint "London, printed by Adam Islip, Joice Norton and Richard Whitaker, anno 1633." On the frontispiece of the thick folio is Gerarde's title, given, above, inscribed upon an oval supported by Corinthian columns, and bordered by six woodcuts. At the head of the page is represented the sun bursting through clouds, and on its disk is a triangle bearing a Hebrew legend; below are the words from Genesis: "Ecce dedi vohis omnes herhas semen tantes semen quæ sunt." In the upper corners are figures of Ceres and of Pomona, offering grains and fruits. At the left of the columns stands Theophrastus, a scroll in one hand, in the other flowers; at the right, Dioscorides holds an open book. Beneath the title is the portrait of Gerarde, supported on either side by vases heaped high with pyramidal masses of fruits and flowers. The face is the serious countenance of the sixteenth century: oval, with a pointed beard; a long, straight nose, well-arched eyebrows, and deep-set eyes, fixed, as if looking into the hidden mystery of life:

"Little flower, but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is."

It is a sad face, but with the serenity of a meditative mind. He wears the quilled ruff and the embroidered doublet of the period, and holds in his hand a spray—perhaps of wild rose. Here is not the exactness which marks Gerarde's own drawings.

The book is dedicated to "The right Honourable, his Singular good Lord and Master, Sir William Cecil," and is written from his "House at Holborn within the Suburbs of London, this first of December, 1597." Holborn—named from Old Bourne, a branch of the Fleet—was itself a rural region which then afforded a fair field for the collector. Years later, Sir Henry Wotton could say, "I know all the plants of my time, and have scarcely simpled farther than Cheapside," In Gerarde's day wild flowers grew all over London; the water violet was found at Lambeth; "a field at Southwark, back of the theatre," the Globe Theatre, was all abloom; wall rue grew on Westminster Abbey, and wall pennyivort over "the door that leadeth from Chaucer's tomb to the old Palace," while bugloss mantled "the drie ditch banks in Pickedille." In "An Address to the well Affected Reader and Peruser of this Booke," he says, "Myselfe, one of the least among many, have presumed to set forth vnto the view of the world, the first fruits of my owne Labours." But he was meanwhile "constrained to seeke after his living, being void of friends to beare some parte of the burden." He further notes the difficulties which beset an honest searcher after truth, saying, "Let a man excell neuer so much in any excellent knowledge, neuer the les many times he is not so much regarded as a lester, a Booster, a Quacksaluer, or Mountebank."

Gerarde was born at Namptwich in Cheshire, in the year 1545. Thence he came early to London, and both as gardener in the lordly domains of Cecil and as an apothecary, he made wise use of the knowledge gained as "a paineful Herbarist" and "a curious searcher of simples." He studied surgery, and practiced to some extent in the empirical methods of the time, but his heart was centered in his garden at Holborn. There was his seminary, or "seed plot and nursery for young plants," as the word is defined in Bailey's Dictionary. There he collected the English flora, and established many foreign plants, studying their habits, their possible uses, and their adaptation to the climate of England. His diligence in searching out new species was unwearied. Drayton alludes to his work as the limit of possible accomplishment:

"To those unnumbered sorts of simples here that grew,
Which justly to set down even Dodon short doth fall,
Nor skillful Gerard yet shall ever find them all."

Botanists of to-day say that Gerarde knew little of science, but it is worth while to consider what science was in the sixteenth century, when the glamour of alchemy and of astrology diffused a false light over every department of natural philosophy. Gerarde died in 1607, just one hundred years before Linnasus was born, and a dozen years before the birth of John Ray, who laid the corner stone of the natural system and made the first formal catalogue of British plants. For a man then to have studied in any spirit of careful observation means much. His belittlers emphasize Gerarde's ignorance of the classic writers on botany. He might be none the worse for that, but he quotes with discrimination from Theophrastus and Dioscorides, from Pliny and Galen, and from his contemporaries, Gesner and Fuchsius and Lonicerus. His classification was based on Dr. Priest's translation of Dodoneus, published in 1583, but in the details of arrangement he more closely followed Lobel,

His special excellence was in the careful enumeration of native plants, in the loving study of their properties, real or imagined, and in the vivid descriptions which, with his faithful drawings of English plants, make him an authority in cases of disputed nomenclature. Other cuts in the Herball are from the Kreuterbuch of Tabernæmontanus, published at Frankfort in 1588, and used by Dodoneus, by Lobel, and by Clusius.

He delights also in the old English names of plants, and one reads of goldes and of paigles, of pawnee and of floramour, as on a page of Chaucer or of Spenser. Much of the best poetry of plant lore is found in the unconscious charm of his writing. Through it all runs the current of conscientious adherence to truth as he could best discover it. His most marvelous ascriptions of "vertue" to any plant, if not tested by himself, are qualified by "I have heard it reported." He denounces all "ridiculous tales, whether of old wives or some runnagate surgeons and physicke-mongers," and is slow to accept mere hearsay. With every plant he treats in a separate section "The Kindes," "The Description," "The Places," "The Names," "The Temperatures," and "The Vertues" of each. He mentions those which "doe grow in my Garden" with especial tenderness, and one can almost hear the sigh with which he sometimes confesses, "this, I have not seene."

The American genus of the family Scrophulariaceæ which bears the name of Gerardia includes two groups of plants, related in structure, but very different in appearance. The false foxgloves are stout herbs, the various species from two to five feet in height. In some, the reddish stems are covered with the blue bloom of raspberry briers. In others, the glaucous growth is replaced by a delicate pubescence. The leaves, sinuate or pinnatifid, are thick and usually a bluish green, although in Gerardia pedicularia they are thin, pale green, and downy, and in the southern Gerardia pectinata they are decidedly hairy. The exquisite yellow of the flowers is the very tint of the butterflies, at their blooming, hovering in thousands over the country roads. The corollas are more open than those of the English foxglove, to which it has little resemblance, and the flaring flowers would furnish better hats than gloves for the little folk in green. Indeed, this etymology of the common name of the Digitalis may well be questioned. So careful a student of plant lore as Hilderic Friend says "fox" is not a corruption of "folk," but that the name was probably first fox-gleow—gleow, equivalent to glee or music—its spire of bell-shaped flowers rising above the covert of fox and hare, suggesting the old tintinnabulum, a chime of small bells fixed on an arched support.

The other group of the Gerardias seldom exceeds a foot in height; the foliage is scant, often filiform, and the flowers are open bells of a purplish pink, very gay when blooming profusely on sandy barrens. The one group are the plants of rich woodlands, the other of thin, arid soil, of salt marshes, and of the seashore, but each one records the name of John Gerarde as he would have best liked it to be preserved. Never within his loved garden at Holborn, they are still a fitting memorial of him who so carefully studied their kindred, and

"Kydst the hidden kindes of many a weede."