Touring the Near East: Ogier Ghiselin Busbecq


2 Mattioli lilac

Lilac from Pietro Mattioli’s version of Dioscorides’s herbal, Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Ogier Ghiselin Busbecq (1522-1592) is someone whose name I’ve come across a number of times as I’ve tried to learn about early modern botany.  He is not one of the major figures like Carolus Clusius and Pietro Andrea Mattioli, but he is frequently mentioned in relation to them.  Even though his name isn’t easy to remember, at least for me, I’ve seen it often enough that my curiosity was piqued.  Who was this man, a diplomat and not a botanist, who nonetheless fraternized with the latter and was an avid gardener.  Busbecq was born in Flanders, now part of the Netherlands, but then a province of the Holy Roman Empire (HRE), which was based in Vienna.  He was from a wealthy family that served the Austrian court, and after studying at several Italian universities, he followed suit.  In 1554, the Emperor Ferdinand I named him ambassador to the Ottoman Empire’s Suleiman the Magnificent in Constantinople.  He traveled there with the physician Willem Quakelbeen, also a plant enthusiast.  Busbecq remained in his post for eight years.  His major mission was to negotiate a treaty between the two empires over the border of Transylvania.  He was finally successful after there was a shift in Sulieman’s chief advisor.  Though this might have been important politically, today Busbecq is known more for his role as a distributor of both botanical information and specimens.

While on his diplomatic mission, Busbecq wrote letters to another diplomat, Nicholas Michault and these were later published (Roider, 2005).  He describes his travels and his interactions in Constantinople, but Busbecq also discusses plants.  From the start of his trip, he was impressed by what he saw.  Traveling through Greece in November, he was surprised to see hyacinths, narcissi, and tulips in bloom.  He knew the first two, but tulips were new to him, and he was intrigued.  In The Tulip, Anna Pavord (1999) goes into how Busbecq asked the name of the flower a man had sticking out of his turban, and the man answered with the name of the turban, not the flower, but it stuck.  However, Busbecq may not have been the first person to send tulips back to Europe.  Pavord notes that the first documented bloom was in a Bavarian garden in 1559.  If it were grown from seed, it would have had to been germinated several years earlier to have developed into a flowering bulb.  However, it is known that Busbecq was soon sending seeds and bulbs back to his friends in Europe including Pietro Andrea Mattioli, an Italian who served as physician to HRE elite.  Mattioli had already published a revised version of Dioscorides’s first-century herbal in 1544 and was working on a new edition.  In it, he incorporated the drawings and descriptions of the “many good specimens” Busbecq sent him.  Unfortunately, Mattioli had the habit of discarding specimens after he had taken notes on them, so none of the Busbecq is material known to survive.

Another recipient of Busbecq’s Near Eastern plants was Carolus Clusius, also Flemish, who became head of the Holy Roman Emperor’s botanical garden in Vienna the year before Busbecq left Vienna to return to the Netherlands.  Busbecq gave Clusius tulip seeds and bulbs that he had brought from Constantinople, and Clusius, in turn, distributed them to his large network of botanical enthusiasts.  He also received tulips from other sources.  One of the many women gardeners he knew gave him a rare bulb she had obtained from Turkey.  Later someone involved with the Leiden botanic garden, which Clusius had founded, gave him the only bulb he had of a tulip that bloomed green and then turned yellow.  Clusius was in touch with Jean Robin at the King’s garden in Paris and with Matthias de L’Obel, another Fleming who  lived in London, and a number of gardeners throughout Europe.  It is no wonder tulips proliferated.  This was at the end of the 16th century, suggesting that tulips were already considered valuable.  In fact, Clusius complained of thieves digging up bulbs from his garden (Egmond, 2010), though what became known as “tulip mania” when the price of bulbs inflated fantastically didn’t occur until well into the next century.

Busbecq didn’t confine himself to tulips and is credited with introducing many other plants as well.  Tyler Whittle (1970) writes that in one year Busbecq sent back along with tulips, specimens of the horse chestnut, lilac, mock orange, and the Syrian rose mallow.  He also introduced the Oriental plane tree, iris tuberosa, and the gladiolus.  This explains why gardens were never quite the same after Busbecq.  But there’s another reason to be grateful to Busbecq.  While in Constantinople, he was shown a copy of Dioscorides’s herbal that was produced around 500 CE for the Byzantine Empress Juliana, hence called the Juliana Codex.  It is lavishly illustrated and is one of the treasures of the botanical literature.  Seven years later, it ended up in Vienna, where it still resides in the Austrian National Library, though it isn’t clear if Busbecq himself delivered it to the emperor.  The paintings are amazingly naturalistic and suggest that other early illustrated herbals may have also had such illustrations, though the quality of the drawings deteriorated considerably in the herbals of the Middle Ages and didn’t begin to improve until the late 14th century with such manuscripts as the Carrara Herbal (Blunt & Stearn, 1994).

With my emphasis on plants, I’ve failed to give a sense of all the other wonderful information in Busbecq’s letters on geography, customs, and political intrigue.  They were translated into English in 1633 and are now available on the web.  In the next post, I’ll discuss another traveler to the Near East, with a different purpose but also plant-obsessed, Leonhard Rauwolf.


Blunt, W., & Stearn, W. (1994). The Art of Botanical Illustration. Kew, UK: Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Egmond, F. (2010). The World of Carolus Clusius: Natural History in the Making, 1550-1610. London, UK: Pickering and Chatto.

Pavord, A. (1999). The Tulip: The Story of a Flower That Has Made Men Mad. London, UK: Bloomsbury.

Roider, K. A. (2005). The Turkish Letters of Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, Imperial Ambassador at Constantinople, 1554-1562. Baton Rouge: LSU Press.

Whittle, T. (1970). The Plant Hunters. New York, NY: PAJ.

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