Medical and Economic Botany

The Botanical Café at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

This series of posts deals with how herbaria document plant uses.  It’s an understatement to say that plants are endlessly useful to humans.  They are beyond useful; they are responsible for much of life on earth, fundamental to energy flow on the planet and providing food, medicine, and materials to cloth, shelter, and make our lives richer with everything from chewing gum to violins.  Interest in plants has always centered on how plants benefit humans, with early modern botanists focusing particularly on medicine.  When Luca Ghini was creating his herbarium in the 1530s, he was teaching medical botany, materia medica, a field created by the ancient Greeks and Romans.  But Ghini and his fellow botanists were slowly expanding their range of interests beyond medicine, to observing a broader array of species including those providing food for the kitchen and beauty for the garden (Ogilve, 2006).  Yes, in early herbaria there are plants collected simply because they were novel or had fascinating characteristics, but the preponderance of specimens were from useful plants.  This trend has continued, with such species overrepresented in herbaria to this day (Nesbitt, 2014). 

Well into the 19th century, medical botany remained a major driver of plant collection, and an essential part of a physician’s education and that of pharmacists as well.  Many of the latter also kept herbaria as references, to teach apprentices, and to present their wares to customers.  But other groups were involved as well in studying, gathering, and using plants for healing.  Most religious institutions had herbalists among their members to provide remedies inhouse, and there were women in most areas who grew useful plants in their gardens, shared them with others, and were often called upon for medical advice (Strocchia, 2019).  Many had vast stores of knowledge, but even the literate among them might only jot down notes in the margins of herbals.  Their experiences were rarely shared more widely and in some cases were belittled and even suppressed by the more educated medical practitioners who disliked the competition but were not above learning from those in the lower ranks.  There was a range of relationships among these different classes, and slowly information trickled up and down the social strata (Arber, 1938). 

The same kinds of tensions, though often more intense, arose when explorers began to learn about medicinal botany in other parts of the world.  There were added layers of complexity because travelers and residents shared neither language nor customs, nor in many cases aliments, at least early in their exchanges.  Since most explorers had relatively short stays in any one area, they rarely developed a deep understanding not only of the flora but of how plants was used by indigenous people.  There were exceptions, as with missionaries whose sojourns were long-term and for whom learning the language was vital to their work, as was helping the poor and sick.  They sometimes collected specimens to send home for identification.  Their recording common names was important for later botanists who revisited areas seeking similar species. 

As exploration progressed, plant hunters collected for a wide range of uses of interest in their home countries:  medicines, textiles, foods, timber, and garden plants.  Herbaria are crammed with the results of their enterprise.  By the 19th century, the term economic botany described this broad curiosity for any plants that humans considered valuable, economically valuable.  The term is less popular today, in part because it was used by colonial powers like Britain to highlight how they had discovered and exploited many plants and plant uses of indigenous peoples.  Economic botany collections and museums were popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries to let the public know about the wonderful products derived from plants and all the ingenious uses that primitive peoples had found for them, from arrow poisons to basketry to bark cloth (Nesbitt & Cornish, 2016).  The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew led the way, with Joseph Banks beginning the collection in the late 18th century, and William Jackson Hooker establishing an economic botany museum in 1847, though it was first called the Museum of Vegetable Products (Teltscher, 2020).  When Henry Shaw established the Missouri Botanic Garden in St. Louis, he created a museum modeled on the one in Kew (McNulty, 2009).  It has recently been restored to much of its former glory as the Sachs Museum, a much better fate than befell many of these establishments.  When their displays became less popular and literally gathered dust, most were dismantled.  Kew had four economic botany museum buildings; now the display is reduced to a few beautiful old display cabinets with remnants from the collection set amid tables in a café housed in one of the museum buildings see image above.  However, the café is supplied with gin made especially for Kew:  economic botany at its best.

Unlike the items in many other such museums that were severely culled, sent elsewhere, or simply tossed out, Kew’s economic botany collection still exists, housed in a storage facility and well-curated.  Today, Kew’s vast store, while no longer of economic importance, is a cultural treasure with many items seen now as works of art or as documents of indigenous peoples’ lives in the past (Cornish & Nesbitt, 2017).  Kew has worked with the Turkano people in Brazil sharing information about British plant hunter Richard Spruce’s 19th-century collections from their region and learning from them about how the same plant materials may or may not be valued today.  This effort is part of a larger one to assist in providing for the future of biodiversity in the region.  Kew recently held a three-day seminar called Botany, Trade, and Empire that dealt with its economic botany collection and how it can be illuminated by the reports directors of British colonial botanical gardens sent to Kew.  These have just been digitized, and the entire event is available online.


Arber, A. (1938). Herbals: Their Origin and Evolution a Chapter in the History of Botany, 1470-1670 (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cornish, C., & Nesbitt, M. (2017). Vegetable Sheep (Raoulia). In K. von Z. Carroll (Ed.), Botanical Drift: Protagonists of the Invasive Herbarium (pp. 19–28). Berlin: Sternberg.

McNulty, E. (2009). Missouri Botanical Garden: Green for 150 Years, 1859-2009. St. Louis: Missouri Botanical Garden.

Nesbitt, M. (2014). Use of Herbarium Specimens in Ethnobotany. In J. Salick, K. Konchar, & M. Nesbitt (Eds.), Curating Biocultural Collections: A Handbook (pp. 313–328). Kew, UK: Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Nesbitt, M., & Cornish, C. (2016). Seeds of industry and empire: Economic botany collections between nature and culture. Journal of Museum Ethnography, 29, 53–70.

Ogilve, B. W. (2006). The Science of Describing: Natural History in Renaissance Europe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Strocchia, S. T. (2019). Forgotten Healers: Women and the Pursuit of Health in Late Renaissance Italy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Teltscher, K. (2020). The Palace of Palms: Tropical Dreams and the Making of Kew. London: Picador.

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