Tag Archives | Flowers and art

Norwich’s botanical secrets and surprises

Few people with a family in Norfolk will be unaware of the beauty, strangeness and interest of the natural history collections of the Castle Museum in Norwich. But how many also know that there is a Rare Books Room at the John Innes Centre in Norwich? Or that it houses an important collection covering natural science, horticulture and botanical art across five centuries? This blog celebrates the John Innes Centre’s unique treasure house of knowledge about our natural world, the rare botanical books in our collection, and some of the local botanical authors represented on the shelves. Norwich has had more than its fair share of celebrated botanists – you can read more here…

The oldest book in the John Innes collection was published in Venice in 1511 (during the reign of Henry VIII). Called Ortus sanitatis, this Latin text is studded with woodcut illustrations speaking to us about the early modern world view of the natural world. From the ordinary to the fabulous, the book records the plants, animals, birds, and insects that fascinated (or sometimes plagued) people. The plant section, like most early herbals, is focused on the medicinal properties of the plants, and how to prepare the roots, flowers or leaves. But there also traces of old legends if you know where to look:

Narcissus from Ortus sanitatis (1511)

Picture of the Narcissus plant generating tiny homunculi (men). From Ortus sanitatis (1511) John Innes Historical Collections.


Goat pictured in Ortus sanitatis (1511)

One of the many animals featured in our earliest rare book Ortus sanitatis (1511). John Innes Historical Collections.

Apart from individual book treasures like this one (and there are many), the John Innes collection has plenty of local interest, reflecting the fact that Norfolk botanists were at the heart and soul of British botanical science in the 18th and 19th centuries. For example, we have the 36-volume English Botany published from 1790-1814. This was the result of a fruitful collaboration between botanist James Edward Smith (1759-1828) and the publisher and celebrated illustrator James Sowerby (1757-1822).

Portrait of James Edward Smith, Norwich botanist

James Edward Smith, Norwich’s most celebrated botanist (Copyright: Public Domain).

Because Smith was born and lived in Norwich (in Surrey Street- look for the blue plaque), many of the plants included in these volumes were collected from Norfolk waysides and fields. For example, Smith remarked that the best place to find the lesser Periwinkle (Vinca minor) growing wild was Honingham Church. He also occasionally included snippets of the local Norfolk folklore of plants. When writing about Holly in 1798 he notes: ‘The branches of this tree laden with berries, and mixed with mistletoe and the spindle-tree, are used in many parts of England to ornament churches and houses at Christmas, and hence the holly is in Norfolk vulgarly called Christmas‘. Smith achieved national recognition after acquiring the entire collection of books and specimens belonging to the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus. He founded the Linnean Society of London in 1788 and became its first President. For many years the Linnean collections were housed in Surrey Street and were visited by entomologists and botanists from all over Europe.

Common toadflax (Linaria vulgaris) pictured in Smith and Sowerby's English Botany.

Common toadflax (Linaria vulgaris) pictured in Smith and Sowerby’s English Botany. John Innes Historical Collections.

Colour picture of peloric Linaria vulgaris

Peloric or ‘monstrous’ form of Linaria vulgaris. This form of the wild flower puzzled both Linnaeus and Smith. The mutation that produces it was explained by JIC scientist Enrico Coen in 1999.

Smith spent the last thirty years of his life writing books and articles on botany. Many of his books are in the John Innes Rare Books library today and there is a monument commemorating his life in St Peter Mancroft church.

Another key Norwich botanist was William (later Sir William) Jackson Hooker (1785-1865). William was educated at Norwich School and took up natural history as a hobby. Smith encouraged him to specialise in botany. Hooker soon established a reputation as an excellent botanical draftsman. One of his early books is Pomona Londiniensis (1813), a collection of 49 hand-coloured aquatint engravings of rare and beautiful fruit varieties found in the markets, private gardens and nurseries of Regency London.

Cherry illustration by William Jackson Hooker

The Elton Cherry- one of the beautiful fruit illustrations by William Jackson Hooker, in Pomona Londiniensis (1813). John Innes Historical Collections.

The colour ‘Hooker’s green’ is named after him. Later William became the first Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, an important position that placed him (and his son Joseph who succeeded him as second Director) at the top of a network of botanical gardens around the Empire. Again, his books are well-represented in the John Innes Historical Collections.

A final local ‘celebrity’ botanist from this era is John Lindley (1799-1865), who became the first Professor of Botany at the University College London, from 1829-1860. He was born in Catton, the son of a nurseryman. It is his report on the royal gardens at Kew which is said to have led to the creation of the Royal Botanic Gardens. One of my favourite Lindley titles is his two-volume Ladies Botany, a testament to the growing market for botany books among women. He has some wise words to encourage botany teachers:  ‘We have only to begin with the beginning, and never take one step till that which precedes it is secured; afterwards the student may advance to what point he pleases. This appears to me to be the only secret in teaching Botany’.

Orchid illustrated by John Lindley

Orchid Catasetum hookeri named after William Jackson Hooker by Norwich botanist John Lindley. John Innes Historical Collections.

Altogether the John Innes Historical Collections cover plant sciences, horticulture, ornamental plants, gardening, plant breeding, entomology and agriculture. Included is a fine collection of floras with illustrations both of the native plants of Britain and Europe, and of the rare and exotic plants discovered around the world. Some of the plants brought back on long sea voyages we now take for granted, like the potato, a novelty in the 1600s. Others remain exotic and are still only seen in the hothouses of botanic gardens. Whatever their story, some traces of their history will be recorded somewhere on the shelves of this remarkable room. In this Library you can make endless unexpected discoveries when you spy the book next to the one you originally wanted, or when you open a book up and find out who used to own it, or glimpse a lost social history as you read down the list of advertisements in the end papers. There is so much more to reading books in a physical library like this than internet images of books can convey!

This special collection of rare books belongs to the John Innes Foundation and is open to the public by appointment. It is closed at weekends and for public holidays. Group visits can be booked and we also run outreach events.

To find out more about the collection explore our website; to book a visit contact sarah.wilmot@jic.ac.uk

Find out more:

James Edward Smith’s archives and specimens are preserved at the Linnean Society of London

John Lindley’s contribution to botanical science is commemorated in the Lindley Library of the Royal Horticultural Society in London. His archives are held in several major libraries and archives. To find out more about his interest in orchids (his particular passion) read my Innes Lecture blog

The archives of William Jackson Hooker and Joseph Dalton Hooker are preserved at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

The correspondence of Joseph Dalton Hooker is in the process of being conserved, digitized, transcribed and made available online. At the centre of Britain’s botanical empire, and best friends with Charles Darwin, Joseph’s letters are a fascinating window onto the world of Victorian botany.

Read more here about how in 1999 the team led by John Innes Centre’s Professor Enrico Coen unravelled Linnaeus’s 250-year old mystery of peloric or ‘monster’ flowers in toadflax (Linaria vulgaris) by showing that the abnormal toadflax flowers are caused by a naturally occurring mutation of a single gene that controls flower symmetry.



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John Innes rare books images now accessible through the Mary Evans Picture Library


A set of 101 historic images from the John Innes Historical Collections is now digitised and available online in the Mary Evans Picture Library. This is the fruition of a summer project with John Innes Centre photographer Andrew Davis and our digitisation intern David Whittle  who digitised, tagged, categorised, and uploaded the images to the online library this autumn. As Outreach Curator, it was my task to choose the images. Initially I selected images of interest to the history of science community, as well as some particularly eye-catching pictures. The result is eclectic (some might say eccentric) but I thought it was important to show that as well as covering botanical illustration we have some unusual and unexpected items on our library shelves. I hope to expand the selection in the future to represent the full range of subjects and styles of illustration in the rare books.

These images are a taste of the rich material in the JIC Rare Books Room. Early images date back from the sixteenth century, with woodcuts such as these examples from 1536 depicting teasels and a mandrake.

Mandrake, from Herbolario Volgare, 1536

Mandrake, from Herbolario Volgare, 1536


Teasels, or 'Shepherd's Rod', 1536

Teasels, or ‘Shepherd’s Rod’, 1536



The rare books collection is an important resource covering natural science, horticulture and botanical art across five centuries. I hope the Mary Evans digital library will be accessed by lovers of botanical art, science history, gardening, plant diversity and the seekers of unusual images.

Scientists at the John Innes Centre have already been making use of the images in the collection. Enrico Coen’s group have been displaying the collection’s antique prints of the carnivorous bladderworts and pitcher plants they work on, investigating the development of cup shaped leaf traps.

Karen Lee, a Research Scientist in Coen’s group comments: “The Historical Collection is a treasure trove not only of beautiful botanical prints but of the stories of botanists who discovered carnivorous plants in the wild and created images of them without the modern microscopic tools we have at our disposal today. As scientists working on carnivorous plant development we feel a special link to the stories, images and observations from this earlier generation of botanic researchers.”

Venus Flytrap by John Ellis, 1770

Venus Fly-trap by John Ellis, 1770

A hand-painted engraving of a similarly sinister carnivorous plant is now a part of the John Innes Centre collection within the Mary Evans Picture Library. The image is taken from the first report of “a new sensitive plant,” the Venus fly trap, or Dionaea muscipula. John Ellis, a Fellow of the Royal Society and a regular correspondent of Linnaeus, discovered a specimen of the plant on a 1770s trade voyage to the Americas. Ellis’ excited letter to Linnaeus details the habitat and appearance of the strange new plant, accompanied by this delicate and carefully coloured engraving.

This small selection of images gives only a glimpse of the diversity of the John Innes Historical Collections. Future additions to the selection will be tailored to the current interests of JIC science and the broad range of interests of the wider community.

The John Innes images are available for reproduction in projects from the commercial to the academic. The Mary Evans Picture Library specialises in preserving and distributing images of historical interest which display skill and creativity on the part of the artist, making them accessible to broad online audiences. As part of the Mary Evans project, prints and copies of the images are available at Prints-Online.

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The meaning of flowers: a Valentine’s Day blog

When our John Innes Centre scientists ask about the meaning of flowers you can be pretty sure they are not thinking about flower symbolism and the language of love. That’s probably not unusual for the majority of us; aside perhaps from choosing flowers for a wedding or funeral, most of the culture and folklore of flowers is now lost on us.

The scientific way of viewing flowers has classical roots, a tradition that was advanced in the Renaissance with the return of naturalism in the work of artists such as Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). This more realistic artistic style began to influence herbals in the late 15th and 16th centuries, side-by-side with other stylised and mythical representations of plants. By the 17th century a wealth of botanical art describes flowers through close observation and dissection (often with microscopes), and from the 18th century, illustrations show the influence of new systems of plant classification in the way botanical plates are grouped and the parts of the flower are displayed. Over time the study of flowers branched out from its primary purpose of helping to identify specimens for use in medicine to being a division of natural science in its own right, and we’re fortunate to be able to see all of this unfolding in our John Innes Historical Collections.

Though little thought of today, the symbolism or language of flowers has an equally ancient heritage and a history of change and innovation. The mythic origins of some flower symbols derive from Eastern cultures or are shared with them. Others are tied more directly to associations in the Western Christian tradition. The movement of populations, such as the Huguenots into East Anglia in early modern times, enabled plants and plant lore to travel to new communities.  In Norwich, these immigrant flower-enthusiasts introduced their specialist knowledge of the anemone, auricula, carnation, hyacinth, ranunculus and tulip and celebrated them at ‘florists’ feasts’. From the 17th century the growing international trade in exotic plants and bulbs served to enrich the range of possible choices for floral symbols. The history of art and literature shows that the language of flowers was once widely disseminated: the evidence can be found in court fashions, household decoration, portrait painting, porcelain, and printed books.

Scientific botany itself once routinely included at least some reference to the symbolic power of plants. Many of the botanical books in the John Innes Centre’s collection, for example, have elaborate frontispieces that combine carefully chosen floral imagery with representations of the three classical goddesses: Flora (flowers), Pomona (fruit) and Ceres (crops). But only one botanical work in our collection engages plants directly with the symbolism of love. Published in the 1790s, The Botanic Garden by Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin’s grandfather, contained  ‘The loves of the plants’-  a long poem that delighted (and sometimes scandalised) his generation as it introduced readers to Swedish botanist Linnaeus’s system of plant classification. Based on the sexual structures of the flower, the Linnean scheme was ready-made for a poetic linking of flowers to earthly passions, and Darwin exploited this symbolic potential to the full.  With Darwin’s stated aim ‘to Inlist the Imagination under the banner of science’, The  Botanic Garden is sometimes seen as a forerunner text of Romantic science, part of the Romantic movement that took hold in Europe in the early 1800s. The true cultural home of ‘Loves of the Plants’ is surely the Rococo though – with its overblown devotion to pleasure recently covered by Waldemar Januszczak on BBC4, a movement that went out of fashion at the end of the 18th century. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03slvhy#programme-broadcasts

As we’re approaching Valentine’s Day I thought I’d re-connect a few of the botanical illustrations in the John Innes Historical Collections with the history of floral symbolism. Here I want to introduce six flowers that once had a rich set of meanings to lovers. And no, I’m not even going to mention red roses!


Carnation: Trew, Hortus nitidissimis (1768-1786)

Carnation: Trew, Hortus nitidissimis (1768-1786)

Carnation The carnation or pink first appeared in Britain in the mid-16th century. Though at first associated with Christ (the red carnation originally stood for Christ’s kingship and crucifixion), the carnation came to mean fidelity, true love, friendship and betrothal. It is a common feature of 16th century betrothal portraits.

The tulip craze captured by John Parkinson (1656)

The 17th century tulip craze captured by John Parkinson

John Parkinson, Paradisi in Sole (2nd edition, 1656)

John Parkinson, Paradisi in Sole (2nd edition, 1656)




Tulip The tulip made its first appearance as a symbolic flower in Persia and was the emblem of the perfect lover. In northern Europe the tulip underwent changes of symbolic meaning, first it was a symbol of wealth, and later (after the crash in the tulip bulb trade in 1636-7) it became a symbol of extravagance and folly.







Orange blossom (Citrus sinensis). The fragrant white flowers and evergreen leaves of this tree have long symbolized purity, innocence and virtue, and have also been used to suggest eternal youth and entry into paradise. A flower of choice for bridal bouquets, the orange blossom featured in 17th century portrait painting to symbolise marital fidelity.

 Thistle A surprising emblem of love perhaps, but like enduring love it continues to grow in the stoniest of ground! Image from Merian, Erucarum ortus alimentum et paradoxa metamorphosis (1717).

Thistle by Maria Sybilla Merian (1717)

Thistle by Maria Sybilla Merian (1717)


Columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris) – the emblem of the deserted lover.  Although in the 16th century this flower would symbolise Christ’s passion and the Holy Trinity, or have associations with Mary and the Holy Spirit, columbine later became synonymous with adultery and cuckoldry!


Aquilegia: Weinmann, Duidelyke vertoning (1736-48)

Columbine: J. W. Weinmann, Duidelyke vertoning (1736-48)

Rose garland by Pierre Joseph Redouté (1817)

Rose garland by Pierre Joseph Redouté (1817)


Yellow or white roses In the Victorian language of flowers the rose had specific meanings. A yellow rose signified jealous love or adultery and a white rose symbolised pure love. Image from P J Redouté, Les roses, with text by C. A. Thory, 1817.










For further reading on floral symbolism (including a bibliography of source material from 1883-2001):

Flower Power: The Meaning of Flowers in Art, 1500-2000 by Andrew Moore and Christopher Garibaldi, with an introduction by Anna Pavord (2003).


Follow these links to find out more about some of the current research on flowers and flowering time at the John Innes Centre:










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