Valentine’s Day is a florist’s busiest time of the year and among the most popular at The Huntington. While visitors explore the splendor of the gardens, tucked among the rare books collection in the Library are the works of botanists in love—enamored of and devoted to the plants themselves. Volumes by Leonhart Fuchs (1501–1566), Pietro Mattioli (1501–1577), Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744–1829), and Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778) are standouts. During Europe’s era of exploration and colonization, whole new realms of plant life were introduced to the continent, and these scientists strove to describe and catalog the dazzling diversity they saw.
Ultimately, Linnaeus, who organized plants according to the reproductive structures within their flowers, prevailed. The Library collection includes two of his most important books: Systema Naturae (1735) and Genera Plantarum (1737). Equally intriguing—and considerably more titillating—is an idiosyncratic tribute to Linnaeus’ work by Erasmus Darwin (1731–1802). In “The Loves of the Plants,” the grandfather of the famous naturalist Charles Darwin celebrates Linnaean taxonomy in the form of amorous poetry that aimed to enliven the science for laypeople.
“Erasmus Darwin remains a fascinating figure—and an understudied one,” said Dan Lewis, Dibner Senior Curator for the History of Science and Technology. “He was perhaps the wildest and most wide-ranging member of the sprawling Darwin family over a couple of centuries, spilling over the banks of convention. He popularized science through poetry and tried to reach a broad audience.”
In Erasmus Darwin’s fanciful poems, the courtship antics of anthropomorphic plants function as sassy mnemonic devices for a portion of Linnaeus’ hierarchical classification system, which categorized organisms based on shared physical characteristics, from broad to specific: kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species. In this taxonomy, the number of pollen-bearing male flower parts determines the class to which a plant belongs; and within a given class, the number of female parts, which include the ovaries that develop into fruits, determines the order. The two names customarily used for a particular organism (the binomial moniker) are the genus and species.
The introductory passages of “The Loves of the Plants” include a frisky homage to Linnaeus, “the Swedish sage”:
Botanic Muse! Who in this latter age
Led by your airy hand the Swedish sage,
[Bade] his keen eye your secret haunts explore
On dewy dell, high wood, and winding shore;
Say on each leaf how tiny Graces dwell;
How laugh the Pleasures in a blossom’s bell;
How insect-Loves arise on cob-web wings,
Aim their light shafts, and point their little stings.
Darwin then draws the reader into a magical garden that serves as a setting for many and varied floral liaisons. For instance, the flower of the American Cowslip (Dodecatheon meadia) has five male structures and one female structure, an arrangement that he characterizes thus:
Meadia’s soft chains five suppliant beaux confess
And hand in hand the laughing belle address;
Alike to all, she bows with wanton air,
Rolls her dark eye, and waves her golden hair.
The passages of verse are accompanied by Darwin’s interpretive notes, which are imbued with wonder and delight:
“Dodecatheon, american [sic] Cowslip. Five males and one female. The males, or anthers, touch each other … The pistil is much longer than the stamens, hence the flower-stalks have their elegant bend, that the stigma may hang downwards to receive the fecundating dust of the anthers. And the petals are so beautifully turned back to prevent rain or dew drops from sliding down and washing off this dust prematurely; and at the same time exposing it to light and air. As soon as the seeds are formed, it erects all the flower-stalks to prevent them from falling out; and thus loses the beauty of its figure. Is this a mechanical effect, or does it indicate a vegetable storge [plant’s parental concern] to preserve its offspring?”
The personable, engaging tone of Darwin’s writing permeates both parts of The Botanic Garden, of which “The Loves of the Plants” is one volume; the other is “The Economy of Vegetation,” a more generalized exploration of natural phenomena, from climate and weather to geology and soils. The Huntington’s 1795 edition includes illustrations that perfectly complement the text. In addition to the exquisitely detailed botanical engravings by Frederick Polydore Nodder (1751–1800), the volumes include a title page designed by the Swiss artist Henry Fuseli (1741–1825) and engraved by Anker Smith (1759–1819), plus two engravings by William Blake (1757–1827), based on drawings by Fuseli. These images dramatically depict natural phenomena—tornados and the seasonal flooding of the Nile—in imagery that draws on the emotional power of mythology.
“Erasmus Darwin worked up his own preliminary proto-evolutionary ideas, made an extensive study of human diseases, and wrote books on the philosophy of agriculture,” Lewis said. “The Botanic Garden celebrates the natural world and presents scientists as the heroes of a new age. For Erasmus Darwin, nature was culture; they couldn’t be separated.”
The legacy of Erasmus Darwin certainly influenced the scientific achievements of his renowned grandson Charles, and The Botanic Garden remains a testament to his artful passion for Mother Nature.
Sandy Masuo is the senior writer in the Office of Communications and Marketing at The Huntington.