Natural History in 17th-Century Britain: John Evelyn

3 Evelyn tree

Plate from Sylva of collecting birch tree sap, Biodiversity Heritage Library

While John Ray, the subject of the first post in this series, is an important figure in the history of botany, this post’s subject would be considered more a horticulturalist than a botanist and is best remembered for Sylva, his book on trees and how to grow them.  However, John Evelyn (1620-1706) published a number of other books, including several translations.  After studying at Oxford, he trained in the law, but the disruption of the English Civil War led him to spend several years on the Continent, visiting botanical gardens in Paris, Leiden and Padua, where he purchased a herbarium.  Twenty years later, he showed his own to his friend, the diarist Samuel Pepys, who had never seen one before and was taken with the way a plant’s characteristics were so clearly preserved.

While in Europe Evelyn also toured private gardens to broaden his understanding of horticultural design.  This need for information led him to translate two French works, The French Gard’ner by Nicolas de Bonnefons (1658) and later, Jean-Baptiste de La Quintinie’s The Compleat Gardner (1699)  Translation was a way to not only disseminate ideas, but to understand them better.  As was common, Evelyn added commentary and in the case of the latter work, also other writing by Quintinie not in his original book.  Publishing at the time was looser than today in that authors used the opportunity to pack as much into a book as possible and were less concerned about cohesiveness.  Evelyn also translated books from the French on other subjects including painting and architecture.

Evelyn returned to England with the restoration of the monarchy and the convening of a new parliament in 1661.  He was also relieved that the Church of England, of which he was a devote member, was again legitimized.  Evelyn became involved in several government projects at the behest of the king.  In addition, the spirit of renewal led to plans for the creation of the Royal Society of London (RS) for the advancement of science based on the writings of Francis Bacon.  They aimed to promote empirical studies, the collection of information on a subject thorough enough to allow for analysis and firmly based conclusions, in other words, inductive reasoning.  Evelyn was engaged in the organization of the society and delivered a paper on forest trees at an October 1662 meeting.  This became the first formal publication of the society, Sylva, or A Discourse of Forest-trees.  He presented descriptions of a number of species, but since the society was interested in practical outcomes from science, he also argued for restoration of forests in Britain where they had been drastically retracting over the centuries.  If the country was to remain economically viable and become a world power then its navy and its industry required timber.

As part of his involvement in the RS, Evelyn was a member of the “Georgical” Committee, named after Virgil’s horticultural text, the Georgics.  This group worked for the improvement of English agriculture, horticulture, and landscape.  At the same time, Evelyn was improving his own garden on property he leased from his father-in-law.  This involved extensive reworking of the garden’s organization with the planting of allées of trees.  He was also interested in the kitchen garden and was particularly taken with salads, even writing a book on the subject.  He also wrote a book on fruit trees (1706) and another on what seems a 21st-century topic:  the use of plants to deal with air pollution.  Called Fumifugium, it dealt with among other topics fragrant plants whose scents would compete with the stench of the city.

With all this endeavors, Evelyn never completed his largest project, an encyclopedia of British gardening, Elysium Britannicum.  By the late 1650s, he already had an outline for the work and sent it to several friends for their comments.  All urged him to continue with it, but it was a huge undertaking.  He wanted to cover every aspect of the subject from garden design, to how to manage its development and maintenance.  Evelyn was a member of the upper class so he focused on large-scale gardens, not those surrounding a cottage.  In the 17th century, the interest in plants that had emerged in the previous century developed into an industry, with professional gardeners and nurserymen providing services to wealthy landowners.  Evelyn took this into account, but he was still a hands-on gardener interested in the growth habits of individual species as well as larger issues.  He even planned a chapter on why and how to create a herbarium as a reference for what was growing in the garden.

In John Evelyn: A Life of Domesticity, John Dixon Hunt (2017) explores several possible reasons for why Evelyn never finished the project.  All that remains are manuscripts of the original outline as well as parts of the first of three projected sections.  Not surprisingly, Hunt sees the size of the project as so massive it discouraged Evelyn who was occupied with family issues as well as his work with the government and the RS.  Though he was a man of means, he would have needed financial as well as technical support in completing the manuscript and producing the illustrations.  Hunt also conjectures that Evelyn felt a sense of guilt about his preoccupation with gardens which seemed such a worldly pursuit for a man whose religious beliefs led him to focus on the otherworldly.  Despite this failure, Evelyn remains a symbol of love of gardening, and especially love of trees.


Bonnefons, N. de & Evelyn, J. (1658). The French Gardiner. London, UK: John Crooke.

Evelyn, J. (1706). Pomona. London, UK: Scot, Chiswell, Sawbridge and Tooke.

Hunt, J. D. (2017). John Evelyn: A Life of Domesticity. London: Reaktion.

La Quintinie, J. de, & Evelyn, J. (1699). The Compleat Gard’ner. London: M. Gillyflower.