Roughly 2,300 years in the past, a time which we are able to considerably think about via the marble monuments nonetheless standing and the comparatively few parchments which have survived, an individual named Theophrastus (c. 370 BCE – c. 287 BCE) reportedly wrote 227 books about animals, timber, shrubs, fruits, and flowers. Though he wasn’t the one scientific author on the time, nor the primary to check vegetation, he would turn into often known as the “father of botany” as a result of his descriptive writings, particularly his surviving guide, Enquiry into Crops (Historia Plantarum), helped create a brand new frontier in scientific botanical terminology.

In line with, botany is “the scientific examine of vegetation, together with their classification, construction, physiology, ecology, and financial significance.” For anybody who has studied vegetation, it rapidly turns into apparent how advanced and complex the science of nature actually is. Theophrastus’ lifetime of labor helped separate botany from the philosophical, mythic, and culinary realms and launched it into the forefront of scientific inquiry. His achievements proceed to assist us in our personal examine of vegetation—analyzing, understanding, and appreciating the flora of each then and now.

Theophrastus, depicted as a medieval scholar within the Nuremberg Chronicle (Wiki commons).

Who was Theophrastus? 

Theophrastus was born in Eresus, Lesvos, an island within the Aegean Sea, the place the lyric poet Sappho was born 250 years earlier. Throughout his lifetime, there have been numerous battles between Greek metropolis states and with overseas lands, together with the conquests by Alexander the Nice and his huge military. Regardless of the frequent sound of battle cries throughout the Mediterranean, Persia, and Asia, there have been additionally advances in schooling, with a philosophical thread of historic thought folded into on a regular basis life. With public lectures obtainable to the male public in Athens’ fundamental sq., or agora, and famend philosophers analyzing the that means of life, Theophrastus lived throughout a pivotal level in historic Greek historical past throughout which he may faucet into his huge curiosity on many thriving topic issues (Hughes, 2012).

A world map with Theophrastus home island labeled with a red star.

As a boy, Theophrastus attended The Academy, a philosophical faculty based by Plato (c. 428 BCE – c. 348 BCE) in Athens. He studied with Aristotle (384 BCE – 322 BCE), the famend thinker who would later change Theophrastus’ title from his unique Tyrtamus, to point the grace of his dialog, that means “divine expression” from the traditional Greek Θεός “god” and φράζειν “to phrase” (Laërtius, 1925).

In his twenties, Theophrastus returned to Lesvos for a number of years and studied with Aristotle on numerous subjects associated to the pure sciences on each vegetation and animals. Particularly, this sojourn allowed him to hold out intensive botanical research of the realm (Witztum, 1991). Students at present acknowledge that the work Theophrastus and Aristotle completed collectively “can’t be exaggerated: [for example] the descriptions of marine zoology… have been so glorious intimately and accuracy that this department of Peripatetic ichthyology and physiology retained a peerless standing” effectively till the 1500s (Scarborough, 2006, p. 6). Their work collectively amassed numerous scientific understandings of vegetation and animals.

greek ruins

Theophrastus, nevertheless, did often have opposing views from Aristotle, particularly his separation of science from teleology, which provides rationalization by reference to some objective, finish, aim, or operate (, n.d.). Aristotle, in line with his writings, seen the pure world as being in existence for the sake of human beings. Theophrastus disagreed. Not like his trainer, he sought to study not solely in regards to the vegetation and animals in a sure surroundings, however in regards to the relationships between folks and nature. “The forests, fields, seas and farms have been the cockpit of all ‘details’ and the specialists have been the fishermen, gatherers of untamed vegetation and their components, and farmers, whose full information of animals and their habits and lives have been the last word supply of the primary ‘handbooks’ of comparative anatomy and botany” (Scarborough, 2006, p. 11). Theophrastus eagerly sought to grasp plant folklore, which offered him a wider vary of knowledge than the philosophical leanings that his trainer was extra inclined towards. Fortuitously, his writings seize a few of the traditions and rituals of those early herbalists.

Regardless of their variations, Theophrastus and Aristotle’s relationship thrived. When Aristotle died, he bequeathed to him his Peripatetic Faculty in Athens, and in line with writers on the time, Theophrastus wrote his books on topics that he realized from finding out along with his trainer. His descriptive and detailed scientific writing model helped him stand out amongst his friends, and consequently, “botany grew to become extra restricted to the sensible fields of pharmacology, agriculture, astrology, and magic,” reasonably than being saved constrained within the philosophical fold (Pease, 1952, p. 47).

A painting of Aristotle, Theophrastus, and Strato.

Aristotle, Theophrastus, and Strato of Lampsacus. A part of a fresco within the portico of the College of Athens painted by Carl Rahl, c. 1888. (Wiki commons)

For thirty-five years, Theophrastus was head of the Peripatetic Faculty, which on the peak of its operations accommodated practically 2,000 college students. Throughout this time, he impressively wrote 227 treatises, with titles reminiscent of Meteorological Phenomena, Heat and the Chilly, On the Senses, and On Stones, and on subjects starting from faith, politics, ethics, physics, arithmetic, astronomy, logic, psychology, zoology, and naturally, botany (Coonen, 1957). Sadly, lower than ten of those books have survived. From what we do have, we’re in a position to perceive the depth and breadth of his analysis, in addition to extra clearly perceive the civilization that bequeathed their information to us.

By means of his work, Theophratus grew to become often known as a gifted trainer and was “preferred and deservedly well-known for his vibrant, vividly illustrated lectures which [also] attracted the commonly uninterested…” (Scarborough, 2006, p. 4). His accomplishments as a trainer, scientist, and author would later encourage Carl Linneaus within the 1700s to call his predecessor the “father of botany.”

Enquiry into Crops

Title page from Theophrastus' book, "An Inquiry of Plants"

As a pioneer ecologist and naturalist, Theophrastus compiled a few of his botanical analysis into his guide, Enquiry into Crops, a mixture of 9 surviving books. These books have been first translated from historic Greek within the Center Ages into Latin and finally into fashionable English. Every guide focuses on a particular plant or surroundings, along with his remaining guide on the medicinal properties of herbs:

  •       E book I: The Components of a Plant and their Composition of Classification
  •       E book II: Propagation, Particularly of Bushes
  •       E book III: Wild Bushes
  •       E book IV: The Bushes and Crops Particular to Explicit Districts and Positions
  •       E book V: The Timber of Varied Bushes and Its Makes use of
  •       E book VI: Underneath-Shrubs
  •       E book VII: Herbaceous Crops, Different Than Coronary Crops: Pot-Herbs and Comparable Wild Herbs
  •       E book VIII: Herbaceous Crops: Cereals, Pulses, and ‘Summer time Crops’
  •       E book IX: The Juices of Crops and of the Medicinal Properties of Herbs

Theophrastus’ classification and exacting descriptions of timber, shrubs, under-shrubs, and herbs grew to become a handbook that pioneered science, offering perception into how vegetation have been cultivated, their replica and botanical constructions, their ecological settings and habitats, and their makes use of in up to date society. Moreover, his guide supplied a variety of recommendation compiled from an array of sources that have been relevant to many areas of life. His guide reportedly helped not solely present and future scientists, but additionally his fellow common citizen all for vegetation, tradesmen needing higher strategies, and medical practitioners searching for cures. For instance, in E book IV, Theophrastus explains how the willow tree grows effectively in both moist or dry settings, whereas silver firs develop tallest in low-lying settings sheltered from the wind. The wooden from this tree was frequent for ship masts and beams (Coonen, 1957). In E book V, he notes that the timber from maple timber was generally used for making beds and the yokes of beasts of burden, whereas elm wooden was used for making doorways (Coonen, 1957). Not solely can we achieve a way of the ecology of the timber and their frequent sensible makes use of, however we are able to additionally achieve an understanding of an historic way of life and the way they used totally different pure supplies to reinforce their civilizations.

Theophrastus helped document which types of woods were traditionally used for which types of projects.

In E book IX, his guide on medicinal herbs, Theophrastus describes roughly sixty herbs, cures, and practices, together with on fragrant vegetation, the way to acquire sure resins, when to reap roots, vegetation with magical powers, plant superstitions, the connection between sure animals and vegetation, and herbs native solely to particular areas, amongst different intriguing subjects. He describes the properties of hellebore (Helleborus cyclophyllus), poppy (Papaver somniferum), wolfsbane (Aconitum anthor), meadow saffron (Colchicum parnassicum), chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus), gum Arabic (Acantha arabica), and marshmallow (Althaea officinalis), to call a couple of, in addition to fertility and anti-fertility medication used on the time. Mandrake (Mandragora officinarum), for instance, “its leaf mixed with wheat-meal is helpful for wounds, the basis peeled then soaked in vinegar is sweet for treating erysipelas, as is [this] for treating gouty situations, and for inducing sleep, and for the making of aphrodisiacs. It’s given in wine or vinegar. [The rootcutters] lower slices of the basis into pastilles simply as they do with radishes, and string them up to hang around smoky should” (Scarborough, 2006, p. 18).

With the assistance of his college students attending his faculty, a few of whom hailed from outdoors Athens, in addition to potential deliveries from Alexander the Nice on his struggle campaigns in India, Theophrastus was additionally in a position to doc a wide range of native and non-native vegetation, together with cinnamon (Cinnamomum cassia), pepper (Piper nigrum), and frankincense (Boswellia carteri) (Coonen, 1957).

cinnamon bark on a cutting board

Not like different scientists of his time, Theophrastus’ descriptions of useful vegetation additionally included rituals and superstitions that have been compiled straight from natural drug distributors and root diggers. These herbalists, nevertheless, weren’t typically revered throughout this time due to a few of their seemingly weird or irrational practices (Coonen, 1957). Theophrastus, nevertheless, thought of them specialists on medicinal substances and relied on them as a major supply, particularly since they would typically share with him their bundles of roots, leaves, and berries, and their experience with how they cultivated the vegetation and the way they ready them into natural preparations (Scarborough, 2006).

One such ritual which Theophrastus paperwork explains how conventional “customs linked aphrodisiacs with anodynes, since rootcutters say that when one harvests mandrake apples, one is meant to attract three circles across the apples and the plant with a sword, and to make certain one cuts it whereas dealing with westward, and in chopping the second piece, one then does a dance across the plant uttering as a lot as one can bear in mind about lust, intercourse, and the total mysteries of erotic ardour” (Scarborough, 2006, pp. 13-14). Different rituals required a root harvest solely at a particular time of day or dealing with a sure route, or which chicken should not be watching—if a vulture noticed you harvesting centaury (Centaurea salonitana), it may signify nice hurt. One other superstition suggested gatherers to use oil generously on their our bodies earlier than harvesting sure vegetation, which may have been, maybe, a precaution in opposition to sunburn through the use of olive oil, which does have parts of sunblock (Scarborough, 2006).

Theophrastus documented that some herbalists wouldn't harvest roots if a vulture was watching them.

Whereas even at present, a few of these practices might sound a bit weird, Theophrastus didn’t search to grasp these rituals; he wished to seize them as a way to illustrate the complexity of the relationships between people and vegetation, which, to early herbalists, typically included a component of divine intervention and sacred intention.

As was his intention throughout his lifetime, the mix of Theophrastus’ ingenuity and aptitude with a lucky grace of time has allowed many individuals to get pleasure from and study from his writing far later sooner or later than he may ever have imagined. These natural traditions, though not fully relevant any longer, function a reminder that vegetation have a magical energy to outlast the brutal parts of time, and assist us bear in mind our ever-changing relationship with nature.


Studying about how early botanists and herbalists studied and invoked the useful properties of vegetation awakens our creativeness to extra than simply historic marble stone and crumbling parchment. In studying historic texts, we carry again to life traditions, practices, and concepts that have been as soon as essential to society. Fortuitously, a lot of the vegetation that existed then proceed to develop, heal, and encourage us at present.

Moreover, understanding how historic scientists understood the pure world and their relationship to it could actually assist us higher perceive current-day botany and herbalism and supply a window into how life as soon as was with the identical vegetation that we nonetheless cherish. So who was Theophrastus? An historic human who understood the significance of meticulously finding out and documenting the position of vegetation in sustaining human life, to depart a legacy that we are able to nonetheless respect hundreds of years later.

Theophrastus pinterest graphic


Botany. (n.d.) Retrieved from

Coonen, L. (1957). Theophrastus revisited. The Centennial Assessment of Arts & Science, 1(4), 404-418.

Encyclopedia Britannica. (n.d.) Teleology. Retrieved from

Hughes, B. (2012). The hemlock cup: Socrates, Athens, and the seek for the nice life. New York: Classic Books.

Laërtius, D. (1925). “Theophrastus”. Lives of the Eminent Philosophers (Vol. I, guide 5). (Hicks, R. D., Trans.). Loeb Classical Library. 36-50. (Unique work printed n.d.).

Pease, A. (1952). A sketch of the event of historic botany. Phoenix, 6(2), 44-51.

Scarborough, J. (2006). Medication and drug lore within the time of theophrastus: Folklore, magic, botany, philosophy and the rootcutters. Acta Classica, 49, 1-29.

Theophrastus (1916). Enquiry into vegetation (Vol. I, books 1-5). (Hort, A.F., Trans.). Cambridge: Harvard College Press. (Unique work printed n.d.). 

Witztum, A., & Negbi, M. (1991). Major xylem of scilla hyacinthoides (liliaceae): The wool-bearing bulb of Theophrastus. Financial Botany, 45(1), 97-102.

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