Mention English Herbals and Gerard’s name will naturally rush to one’s lips; however William Turner, ‘the father of English Botany’ is credited with the only original work on Botany written by any Englishman in the 16th century – his Newe Herball was first published in 1551.
Nevertheless, it’s the charm of Gerard’s 1597 book, and to some extent its errors, which have helped it to endure and secured its premier position in our cultural memory.
The work is essentially a translation of Rembert Dodoens’ Latin Herbal from 1583, which was started by Dr Priest, a London physician, who unfortunately died before completing it. Somehow it passed into the hands of John Gerard, a former superintendent of several reputable gardens around London, who not only completed the task but enhanced it by adding 1800 illustrations from wood blocks, locations for plants, anecdotes and folk-lore to bring it to life.
Sweet Marjoram, he suggests, helps those ‘given to over-much sighing’, while the smell of Basil ‘taketh away sorrowfulness… and maketh a man merry and glad’. Unusually for the time, he also added common old English names for plants – Go-to-bed-at-noon for Goat's Beard, and Live-for-ever for one type of Cudweed for example.
Gerard's general observations paint an interesting picture of London, from which we can learn that few vegetables were grown at the time. Gerard was one of the first people to grow potatoes in this country – calling them ‘Virginia Potatoes’ as he believed they had come from America, though in fact they originated in Peru.
Perhaps the most unlikely description in the book is alongside the final plate, which illustrates ‘the tree bearing Geese’, following the 12th century myth that the fruits of the barnacle tree contained the embryos of geese which dropped into water to hatch. Although previously only recorded in the Orkneys, Gerard professes to have seen them in Lancashire. Whether or not he believed the myth we shall never know.
See these historic documents
As part of the Lindley Library exhibitions and events, Gerard’s, and other herbals, will be on display in the Wisley Garden Library from 2-4pm on Tuesday 5 July.
Find out more about growing herbs
Even if you are not an RHS member, the RHS Lindley Libraries are open to everyone and provide access to modern collections of books and journals on gardening and related topics. Our heritage collections of rare books, photographs, art and archives are accessible by appointment.
RHS members can borrow from the thousands of gardening books held in the Lindley Libraries - visit our online catalogue.