Get Involved
About Us
Our Members
Classic Herbal Texts Brought into the Digital Age

Capturing images of the plant kingdom is now as easy as the click of a digital camera. In the 18th and 19th centuries, however, it required paper and pen, or perhaps watercolors. Artists and plant enthusiasts would visit greenhouses or tromp out into a plant’s native habitat and draw from a live specimen.

Now, cameras have replaced pens and pencils, and webpages and glossy field guides have taken over from large, hardbound volumes. But that does not mean that the old ways are not still appreciated.

Botanical books and illustrations were created for education and training purposes, as they contained information on newly discovered and rare plants as well as common plants. However, because the cost of these books was very high when they were created, libraries were rare and a status symbol. Also, they had an exotic air to them, as most of the plants and places discussed in them were from parts of the world that were difficult, if not impossible, to travel to.

Illustration of Anthemis nobilis L. 9 (Chamaemelum nobile (L.) All., Roman chamomile); From: Köhler's Medizinal-Pflanzen in naturgetreuen Abbildungen mit kurz erläuterndem Texte : Atlas zur Pharmacopoea germanica (1887), by Franz Eugen Köhler, Volume 3 of 3. © 1995-2003 Missouri Botanical Garden

In some ways, the roles of these classic botanical texts have not changed. Much can be learned from these books, but now it is the history of botany and taxonomy that they help impart, not new discoveries. Ownership of the books is once again restricted, limited to collectors and institutions, those who have the resources to find, buy, and preserve books that are often damaged over time.

In the mid-19th century, book and newspaper publishers began using paper made with wood pulp, like the books today. While this type of paper was cheaper, making it possible for more people to buy them, it also meant that the books wouldn’t last as long. By 1880, paper used in books was much like cheap newsprint, and time has yellowed their pages, faded the illustrations, and made them fragile to the touch.

Curiously, some of the older books are in the best condition. From the mid-1700s to the early-1800s, paper was made from rag linen, which has less acid and lignins than paper made from wood pulp, making it more durable.

The Missouri Botanical Garden (MBG) library is working to preserve these rare books and make them available to people worldwide. Having the volumes in digital form decreases the damage caused by handling the books: stresses on binding and oils from skin on the pages and prints.

Some books in the MBG collection are being restored as well as digitized. Loose pages and broken bindings are being repaired by a restoration laboratory at the garden itself. If a book needs extensive work, however, it is sent to a private bookbinder in St. Louis.

"Repairs" done to the digital versions of the books were minimal. The MBG wanted to treat the scanned images as artifacts themselves, so the damage to the original was not ignored. Minor changes to colors and tone balance were the only alterations made to the digital images.

Once the scanned images have been touched up, they are "burned" onto a CD-ROM disk. Copies of the files are uploaded onto the MBG website <> where they are indexed and ready to be browsed through by the public.

When the digitalization program was started in 1996 as an in-house project at the MBG, digital images were created by scanning normal photographs of the pages. Later, outside funding made it possible to use better equipment, large digital cameras and light platforms. A special cradle was also built for the project, designed to hold books open for scanning without damaging the spine.

Illustration of ANACARDIUM occidentale L. 51 (Anacardium occidentale L., cashew); From: Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen in naturgetreuen Abbildungen mit kurz erläuterndem Texte : Atlas zur Pharmacopoea germanica (1887), by Franz Eugen Köhler, Volume 3 of 3. © 1995-2003 Missouri Botanical Garden

The project was funded by a $200,000 grant of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, an organization based in New York City that creates grants for the areas of higher education, performing arts, populations, public affairs, environmental conservation, and museums and art conservation.

The Mellon grant for the project was shared with other gardens and organizations that are participating in scanning programs, including the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, New York; the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew; and the British National History Museum, both located in England.

"The foundation saw this program as one that would make these resources available to people who would otherwise never get a chance to see them, or even know about them," said Bill Robertson, a program officer at the Mellon foundation.

The two-year grant was awarded in 2000; however, members of the foundation were so pleased with the quality of work done at MBG that the grant was renewed in 2002 with the same amount as the first grant.

"When we first got funding from the Mellon Foundation, we worked on books related to the interests of Mrs. Mellon. She loved French books, ones that were printed in France, and whose authors and illustrators were French," said Linda Oestry, research librarian at MBG.

"With our new round of funding we’re actually scanning a few books that don’t have illustrations. These books are frequently used by taxonomists though, so we feel they should be included in the project," Oestry said.

So far, 40 books have been digitized as part of the program, with more than 12,000 pages and over 1,800 illustrations scanned and archived. By the project’s end, scheduled for the fall of 2004, the MBG hopes to have around 20,000 pages in its database.

Work is being done to create a linked database for the institutions funded by Mellon, with the intent that by working together they can make the most efficient use of time and resources for the digitization program.

"We’re working with other gardens because we want to have as many pieces as possible. By collaborating, we’re making sure there’s no overlap in our work and that what we do is in the best condition possible. We all want the same thing after all, to get the information out where people can see it," said Connie Wolf, MBG librarian.

"We want as many people as possible to have access to these images and text. The most important thing about the project is the access it affords; people can see and reproduce the images easily. This makes them more useful to educators and regular people," she added.

"These books are usually kept in the rare collection area, under lock and key. If you wanted to look at them, you’d have to make an appointment and be here in person. So the average person with an interest probably wouldn’t be able to come here to look at the books. Now, however, anyone on the Internet can take a look at our books. The illustrations and pages have been downloaded for use in art, history, botany and pharmacy courses as well as by people who just have an interest," said Chris Freeland, web developer for the project at MBG.

David Winston, an herbalist and president of Herbalist & Alchemist, Inc., based in Washington, New Jersey, believes that the old texts are important to the understanding of the historic and artistic aspects of botany, and understanding herbal medicines, especially information that has fallen out of use. The information is examined in a process called "bioprospecting"

Illustration of CERBERA Tanghin Hook fil. 57 (Cerbera venenifera (Poir.) Steud); From: Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen in naturgetreuen Abbildungen mit kurz erläuterndem Texte : Atlas zur Pharmacopoea germanica (1887), by Franz Eugen Köhler Volume 3 of 3. © 1995-2003 Missouri Botanical Garden

"We look though old herbals, see what different plants were being used for, and then see if they are still good for that purpose," Winston said. "Along with Bibles, these were some of the earliest books printed and they are incredible storehouses of knowledge. Some medicinal uses are fictitious, some are folklore. But there are also things that make a lot of sense."

Winston has his own private collection of herbal texts. However, his is a working library and contains volumes that he utilizes and reads. He appreciates the books as works of art and hopes the digitization project will mean a new interest in the old texts.

"The project is just amazing," he said. "It’s creating egalitarian access to these works. Usually they would just be on a rich collector’s bookshelf or locked up in a rare book room in a library. Most of them have been literally unobtainable for ordinary people, but now anyone can look, anyone can learn.

"They are now living things, not old dusty things in cabinets or cases. They’re back in society where they belong."

Digital Technology Preserves Texts, and Makes Them Widely Available

Already, 40 historic herbal texts have been digitized by the Missouri Botanical Garden (MBG), preserving more than 12,000 pages and over 1,800 illustrations. By the end of the current grant project in 2004, some 20,000 pages are expected to be captured and archived in its online database. Here is a list of some of the remarkable books that are being preserved for the future by the MBG.

A Description of the Genus Cinchona. by Aylmer Bourke Lambert. London; 1797.

A Supplement to Medical Botany, or, Part the Second: Containing plates with descriptions of most of the principal medicinal plants not included in the materia medica of the collegiate pharmacopoeias of London and Edinburgh: accompanied with a circumstantial detail of their medicinal effects, and of the diseases in which they have been successfully employed. by William Woodville. London; 1794. Volume 4 of 4.

Afbeeldingen van zeldzaame gewassen. by Nicolaas Meerburgh. Leiden; 1775. Single volume. Features 50 hand-colored plates with an attendant butterfly drawn and engraved by Meerburgh.

Cornus: specimen botanicum sistens descriptiones et icones specierum corni minus cognitarum. by Charles Louis L’Héritier de Brutelle. Paris; 1788. Single volume.

Description des plantes rares cultivées à Malmaison et à Navarre. by Aimé Bonpland. Paris; 1813. Single volume.

Flora Atlantica, sive Historia plantarum quae in Atlante, Agro Tunetano et Algeriensi Crescunt. by Renato L. Desfontaines. Paris; 1798. Two volumes.

Fragmenta botanica, figuris coloratis illustrata : ab anno 1800 ad annum 1809 per sex fasciculos edita / opera et sumptibus Nicolai Josephi Jacquin. by Freiherr von Jacquin Nikolaus Joseph. Vienna; 1809. Single volume.

Gramineae Chilenses. by Émile Desvaux. Paris; 1853. Single volume.

Hesperides, sive, De malorum aureorum cultura et usu libri quatuor. by Giovanni Battista Ferrari. Rome; 1646. Single volume.

Icones pictae plantarum rariorum descriptionibus et observationibus.Fasc. 1-3. by James Edward Smith. London; 1790-93. Single volume.

Icones selectae plantarum quas in systemate universali: ex herbariis parisiensibus, praesertim ex Lessertiano / descripsit Aug. Pyr. de Candolle, ex archetypis speciminibus a P.J.F. Turpin delineatae et editae a Benj. De Lessert ... by Benjamin Delessert. Paris; 1820-46. Five volumes.

Iconographie descriptive des cactees. by Charles Antoine Lemaire. Paris; 1841-47. Single volume. Exceptionally rare, only 11 copies on record.

Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen in naturgetreuen Abbildungen mit kurz erläuterndem Texte : Atlas zur Pharmacopoea germanica. by Franz Eugen Köhler. Gera-Untermhaus; 1887. Three volumes. Almost 300 chromolythographic prints.

La flore et la pomone françaises: histoire et figure en couleur, des fleurs et des fruits de France ou naturalisés sur le sol français. by Jean Henri Jaume Saint-Hilaire. Paris; 1828-33. Six Volumes.

Le jardin du Roy tres chrestien, Loys XIII, Roy de France et de Navare ... . by Pierre Vallet. Paris; 1623. Single volume.

Medical botany: containing systematic and general descriptions, with plates, of all the medicinal plants, indigenous and exotic, comprehended in the catalogues of the materia medica, as published by the Royal Colleges of Physicians of London and Edinburgh : accompanied with a circumstantial detail of their medicinal effects, and of the diseases in which they have been most successfully employed. by William Woodville. London; 1790-93. Volumes 1-3 of 4.

Neueste und wichtigste Medizinalpflanzen in naturgetreuen Abbildungen mit Kurzem erklarenden. by Franz Eugen Köhler. Gera, Germany; 1898. Single volume.

Plantarum historia succulentarum = Histoire des plantes grasses / par A.P. deCandolle; avec leurs figures en couleurs, dessinées par P.J. Redouté. by Augustin Pyramus de Candolle. Paris; 1799-1837. Three volumes.

Plantarum selectarum icones pictae. by Nicolaas Meerburgh. Leiden; 1798. Single volume. 28 colored plates drawn and engraved by Meerburgh.

Recueil de plantes coloriees, pour servir a l’intelligence des lettres elementaires sur la botanique. by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Paris; 1789. Single volume.

Revisio generum plantarum vascularium omnium atque cellularium multarum secundum leges nomenclaturae internationales cum enumeratione plantarum exoticarum in itinere mundi collectarum … . by Otto Kuntze. Leipzig, Germany; 1891-98. Volumes 1 and 2 of 3.

Traité des arbres forestiers : ou histoire et description des arbre indigènes ou naturalisés … . by Jean-Henri Jaume Saint-Hilaire. Paris; 1824. Single volume.

Traité des arbrisseaux et des arbustes cultivés en France et en pleine. by Jean-Henri Jaume Saint-Hilaire. Paris; 1825. Single volume.

Classic Herbal Resources Scattered around the Internet

While the Mellon Foundation grant has allowed the Missouri Botanical Gardens to undertake a unique effort that taps the resources of its library and its partners’ collections, other institutions have also posted a wealth of classic botanical information online. Here is a very small sample:

<> — The website of the Southwest School of Botanical Medicine offers many historical texts with an emphasis on botanical medicine and ethnobotany. The site was created by author and teacher Michael Moore and features classical texts on Eclectic Medicine and Thomsonian Medicine, classic Eclectic and pharmaceutical journals, ethnobotany, horticulture, and botanical illustration. Moore drew many of these books from the Lloyd Library.

<> — The Lloyd Library, the largest library of medical plant books in the world, includes the accumulated libraries of all the Eclectic medical schools, shipped to the Eclectic Medical College as, one by one, they died, until even that “Mother School” died in 1939. Moore writes, these are the writings of a discipline of medicine that survived for a century, was famous (or infamous) for its vast plant materia medica, treated the patient rather than pathology, a sophisticated model of vitalist healing every bit as usable as Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurvedic medicine.

<> — The Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, a research division of Carnegie Mellon University, specializes in the history of botany and all aspects of plant science, with particular emphasis on North American species.