Besler’s Florilegium

Facsimile of a 18th century German manuscript

Perhaps the most celebrated book of floral illustration in history, Besler’s Hortus Eystenttensis marks the early separation between botany and medicine. Botanical illustration before Besler’s publication generally relied on wood blocks utilized to create herbals for medicinal purposes. Besler’s 367 plates printed from copper engravings illustrate 1000 species of plants grown in Prince Bishop of Eichstatt’s (Johann Konrad of Gemmingen) gardens at Willibaldsburg Castle. Basilius Besler (1561-1629) was a Nuremberg apothecary and botanist who created this horticultural record of the gardens of Eichstatt, grouped by season. Konrad died the year before Besler completed his 16 year project.

Two hundred copies of this floral picture book, called a florilegium, were reprinted in 1713 using the original plates. Carleton’s facsimile is based on one of the 1713 volumes. The original pages were individually colored by hand and individual pages have high market value today. By the early 1800s the copper engraved plates had been melted in Munich to make coins. Originals of the Hortus Eystenttensis persist, including a 1613 original in the British Museum. They were used in 1998 to reconstruct parts of the gardens of Eichstatt, as they existed four centuries ago with plants from Europe, Asia, and the Americas.

From historical and artistic perspectives, the Hortus Eystenttensis has obvious value. Where could such a work fit in modern biology education where the knowledge base grows weekly and entire genomes (the biological books of life) are regularly being sequenced? The answer to this question is multifaceted. Certainly, understanding the origins of botany (now more commonly referred to as plant science) and its historical relationship to medicine is both interesting and significant. One aspect of this original union of two fields has come full circle, as pharmaceutical researchers identify the biochemical basis of medicinal herbs (e.g. taxol as a cancer treatment). Also, in a digital world rich with vast amounts of current data, students can inadvertently conclude that only the research from last week or last year is worth contemplating. Besler’s work is a gentle reminder of the power of observation, an important component of hypothesis-driven, experimental science. Even a quick glance at the poppies in this engraving reveal that plants have different types of root systems (note the bulb on the plant on the far right) and unique leaf morphologies. Observations lead to questions and new experiments.

Species names in Besler’s work and currently accepted taxonomic names often differ. The sunflower is no longer called Quintus ordofoll or Flos solis major, rather Helianthus is the genus name for sunflower relatives. Instead of presenting a problem, these discrepancies open discussions about classification systems and the dramatic change in biological thinking in recent decades about taxonomy (naming organisms) and phylogeny (establishing evolutionary relationships among organisms). The poppies are particularly intriguing. Including the Ranunculus in this exhibit, fifteen species are represented in Besler’s florilegium. The flowers of different species vary, but the overall theme of whorls of sepals, petals, stamens, and pistils persists among this group and flowering plants that evolved later. Research in Vivian Irish’s lab at Yale has shown that the poppy family has a genetically different way of specifying floral parts than the true eudicots (flowering plants from a more recent evolutionary lineage). One can move from a discussion of what is a flower, to how to “make” a flower, to different ways to make a flower. Yes, today Besler’s book is much closer to a coffee table book of a gardening enthusiast than a twenty first century plant biology text, but in context the Hortus Eystenttensis represents one of the early steps towards modern plant biology, rich with lessons for today’s student.

Susan Singer
Humphrey Doermann Professor of Liberal Learning

Hortus Eystettensis, sive, diligens et accurata omnium plantarum, florum, stirpium: ex variis orbis terrae partibus, singulari studio collectarum, quae in celeberrimis viridariis arcem episcopalem ibidem cingentibus, olim conspiciebantur delineatio et ad vivum repraesentatio

Basilius Besler (1561-1629). Munchen-Allach: Konrad Kolbl Verlag, 1964
Facsimile reprint. Originally published: Nuremberg, 1713

Special Collections Folio QK41 .B5 1964