Victorian Botany

Dr Jim Endersby, Adrian Research Fellow, Darwin College Cambridge.



Botany was among the most popular of the nineteenth century sciences. Men, women and children all joined in the frantic hunt for plants, and the hedgerows were full of people cataloguing mosses, identifying ferns and pressing flowers. This popularity had five main sources:

However, all these factors created problems for the small but influential group of Victorian botanists who wished to pursue full-time careers as botanists. The very things that made botany popular for some participants threatened its standing as a serious science in the eyes of others. One of the dominant themes in Victorian botany is the struggle between a self-appointed, predominantly male elite who were trying to redefine botany as a serious, "philosophical" science and the vast majority who wanted simply to enhance their understanding and enjoyment of flowers.

The medical context

In the early decades of the nineteenth century, almost the only way to earn a living from botany was by teaching medical students. Botany was not considered important enough to warrant study in its own right. As late as 1857, the Athenaeum complained that "Of all the natural sciences Botany is perhaps worse treated in this country than any other", because it was "tacked on as an appendix to a course of medical study, and gets little or no consideration in any other direction".

Nevertheless, botany's role as part of English medical education (after the 1815 Apothecaries Act), did at least ensure a growth in botanical teaching positions. Yet because it was part of the materia medica, botany was primarily associated with the lowly apothecaries, who ranked below physicians and surgeons because they engaged directly in trade, selling medicines in shops. By contrast, physicians avoided manual work and regarded dispensing medicines as deleterious to their social and professional standing. In George Eliot's novel Middlemarch, set in the 1830s, Dr Lydgate displays his pretensions to social and professional status by deciding to "simply prescribe, without dispensing drugs or taking percentage from druggists". Although dispensing drugs brought in a secure income, ambitious doctors like Lydgate sought to climb the social and professional scale by breaking their link with shopkeepers.

Nevertheless, the main reason why botany was taught in universities for much of the century was because of its medical uses, and the steadily growing numbers of medical students were an important market for botanical books, lecture courses and collecting equipment. Some career-minded botanists might have wanted to break their science's link with medicine, but few could afford to do so.

Botanic gardens

The earliest botanic gardens were attached to monasteries and were used for growing medicinal plants and for teaching monks to cultivate, identify and use such plants. When European universities began to take over the teaching of medicine, they created university botanic gardens on the model of their monastic predecessors.

The oldest university botanic gardens in Britain were are Oxford and Edinburgh, but during the nineteenth century there was an explosion of new gardens. For example, in 1800 the Glasnevin botanic garden was founded by the Dublin Society for Promoting Husbandry and Other Useful Arts; with its comparative plantings of different crops and regular demonstrations of the latest agricultural machinery, must have been more like a model farm than a botanic garden. By contrast, the Liverpool botanic garden was created in 1803, was more like a public park, an ornamental pleasure garden, full of exotic blooms and very much dedicated to the growing popularity of gardening as a hobby. The difference between the two gardens can be largely attributed to the fact that while Glasnevin was founded by a society of landowners intent on scientific agricultural improvement, Liverpool was financed through public subscriptions. During the early decades of the nineteenth century an increasingly large network of botanic gardens was also growing up in Britain's colonies.

As Richard Drayton has shown, controversy about the role of the Royal Gardens at Kew erupted in 1838, when reformers in parliament demanded curbs on Royal expenditure. A "Royal Gardens Committee" was set-up by the treasury to investigate Kew and all the royal parks, with a view to reducing expenditure. The botanist John Lindley sat on the committee and wrote a report arguing that Kew should be brought under direct government control and made more useful to the nation, by managing the activities of the numerous provincial and colonial botanic gardens throughout the empire:

A National botanic garden would be the centre around which all those minor establishments should be arranged; they should be all under the control of the chief of that garden … explaining their wants, receiving their supplies, and aiding the mother country in every thing that is useful in the vegetable kingdom. Medicine, commerce, agriculture, horticulture, and many valuable branches of manufacture, would derive considerable advantages from … such a system (Lindley, 1838).

Lindley hoped to become director of the "new Kew", but his old friend and mentor Sir William Jackson Hooker (then Regius Professor of botany at Glasgow University) was also interested. Both men lobbied frantically, but what ultimately cost Lindley the job was that the full scope of his reforms would have cost over £78,000 – far too much in the political climate of the 1830s.

Hooker's lobbying and the influence of his powerful friends and patrons in government paid off. In 1841, he was appointed the first director of Kew – 18 acres of land and a salary of £500 p.a. including housing allowance. However, as Drayton has shown, Kew's future was uncertain and Hooker needed new patrons: making Kew useful to the empire, especially by building it a role in agricultural improvement, would be crucial to this process.

During its early years, Kew was divided into the Pleasure Grounds, a public park, and the much smaller Botanic Gardens, into which the public were only occasionally admitted. And serious students of botany were admitted in the morning, while the public were only allowed in after 1pm. These divisions and distinctions symbolise the debate about the Kew's role and purpose that mirrored a wider debate about the place and importance of botany and which continued throughout much of the century. Was Kew a scientific establishment or a Royal Park? After William Hooker's death in 1865, his son, Joseph Dalton Hooker, succeeded him as director and tried to give the gardens an even more scientific character. London's expanding railway network made Kew accessible to crowds of working class visitors from the East End, who were regarded with some scorn by the new director. In his 1871 report, Hooker characterised some of Kew's visitors as "mere pleasure or recreation seekers … whose motives are rude romping and games". Extending the opening hours would merely encourage such people. In 1874, the Gardener's Chronicle complained that:

Large numbers of excursionists came from London to the Gardens, and great was their disappointment at finding that the gardens were not open until the afternoon. Many of these excursionists were poor people, who only obtained a holiday once or twice a year.

Hooker retorted that catering to these swarms of working class visitors would simply lead to the Gardens being over-run with "swarms of nursery maids and children". However, as the Richmond and Twickenham Times reported, those who arrived in the mornings and found the gardens shut, "betook themselves in true British fashion, to drinking and dancing, and them some 2 hours later sought to refresh exhausted nature by falling asleep on the grass". In 1877, Hooker finally relented and opened the garden at 10am on public holidays; although he was still concerned that "luncheons, pic-nics & bands of music" would undermine Kew's scientific status, he probably realised that working-class drunks who "resorted to the woods for immoral purposes in great numbers" and then passed out in the shrubberies were doing Kew's reputation even more harm.

These debates at Kew were repeated at many other gardens, including those in the colonies. The Sydney Botanic Gardens witnessed a similar debate in the 1830s, when those who wanted to raise botany to genuinely scientific status clashed with people who saw botanic gardens merely as a superior kind of public park.


Classifying plants was the most important botanical practice during the Victorian period. Yet the apparently straightforward process of naming flowers was a source of bitter disputes that preoccupied much of the botanical community during the 1840s and 50s particularly. These centred on the Linnaean or sexual system of classification, which, despite claims to the contrary, remained in use in Britain well into the second half of the century. Its survival, long after the rest of Europe had abandoned it, contributed to the perception that British botany was backward and unfit to take its place alongside the physical sciences. However, those attacking the Linnaean classification were divided over what should replace it: the most widely used of its rivals was known as the natural system, founded by Antoine-Laurent de Jussieu in 1789 and developed by Augustin-Pyramus de Candolle and others, but only slowly taken up in Britain. The naturalists who subsequently developed this system found themselves disagreeing over its definitions and principles, thus fragmenting it, yet only a single, settled natural system could vanquish the Linnaean one. The prominence of these destabilising debates was exacerbated by the existence of numerous other classificatory systems (including the binary or dichotomous system, the quinary and septenary systems, and others), all based on completely different principles to those of de Jussieu, yet which all claimed to be "natural". Both the debates within the natural system and the chaos of rival systems contributed to perceptions that botany was an unphilosophical study which lacked guiding principles.

Botany for ladies, gentlemen and others

The Linnaean system encapsulated much of what made botany attractive to the enthusiasts. As its defenders constantly stressed, it was easy to learn and use and botany's tools were relatively cheap. These were qualities that made botany a high-status activity for women, an obvious cousin to flower-arranging, flower-painting and gardening. As the Young Lady's Book, a mid-century conduct manual, asserted, "there is something peculiarly adapted to feminine tenderness in the care of flowers".

The strong association between botany and women was undoubtedly another reason for its relatively low standing in the male-dominated councils of scientific societies like the BAAS. Ann B. Shteir has used such facts to argue that the process of "professionalising" botany in the nineteenth century created more "exclusionary relations between women and science culture" that resulted in women being "relegated to arenas of 'amateur' and 'popular' science". However, during the early decades of the century, neither the "amateur" nor the "professional" existed as stable categories; they emerged from the activities of men like Lindley and Joseph Hooker as they struggled to raise their status and that of their discipline.

The gradual rise of a recognisable profession of "scientist" together the slow transformation of botany into a science also led to working class devotees of plants being gradually excluded from the study. Anne Secord has shown that there were large numbers of artisan botanists who enthusiastically devoted themselves to the study of mosses and other hard-to-recognise plants in order to demonstrate how skilled they were. Such men initially met in pubs, but later in the century, formed field clubs who went out botanising together usually at weekends. However, as David Allen has shown, the rise of university-based laboratory botany in the latter decades of the century gradually relegated such activities to "amateur" status.

Botanical Geography

Many Victorian botanists were fascinated by the question of the distribution of plants. Most of them assumed that each species had been created - by some unknown means - in one place only and that plants then migrated from their point of origin to the various places they currently occupied. However, this theory was hard to reconcile with the fact that members of the same group were sometimes found thousands of miles apart with no obvious, natural means by which they could have been transported between their locations. Botanists like Robert Brown, Joseph Hooker and many others hoped that studying the worlds floras in more detail might shed some light on these puzzles and perhaps on the mysterious mechanism by which new species were initially created.

Another motive for investigating plant distribution was that British botany was mainly concerned with taxonomy, the naming and classifying of plants. In the eyes of some nineteenth-century men of science, this was not enough to qualify botany as a science; sciences were supposed to be about mathematics and experimentation, accuracy and precision, but most of all, they were supposed to be concerned with laws. The leading British philosophers of science - men like John Herschel and William Whewell - regarded Newtonian mechanics as the pinnacle of scientific achievement. Newton had discovered a few simple laws that explained everything from the fall of a stone to the motions of the planets; by comparison, botany seemed as intellectually demanding as stamp-collecting. Botanists were acutely aware that their beloved science lacked anything that looked like the laws of physics, and hoped that plant distribution studies would offer them the chance to discover such laws.

As Janet Browne has shown, British plant geographers were partly inspired by the work of Robert Brown, who had observed that the decline in the numbers of species as one sailed away from the equator was characterised by other factors, such as a decline in the size of genera (measured by the number of species each contained). His method of calculating these ratios became known as botanical arithmetic and his ideas were enthusiastically taken-up by the German scientific explorer Alexander von Humboldt. Humboldt travelled extensively in South America, where he observed that Brown's ratios applied not only to changes in latitude, but also to changes in altitude: as one ascended the great mountain chains of South America the lush vegetation of the tropics gave way to a sparse, alpine flora that looked just like the plants of the icy southern tip of the continent.

Joseph Hooker and Charles Darwin were both enthusiastic devotees of botanical arithmetic and hoped that it could be used to develop plant distribution into a rigorous study, one that would eventually lead to the discovery of the laws that explained why particular plants grew where they did. These laws would not only be fascinating in themselves, but would have practical applications too because the British Empire was not just built on industry, but also on plants. Hundreds of plant products were vital to the empire's wealth: rubber, cotton, timber, grains, sugar, tea, oilseeds, spices, indigo, fruit and nuts were just some of them. Understanding plant distribution would allow botanists to predict where valuable, new plants could be found, and also to know which plants could successfully be transplanted to new countries where they could be cultivated profitably.

Further reading

Books and publications

Allen, D. E. (1994) The Naturalist in Britain: a social history. Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press.

Allen, D. E. (2001) ‘Early Professionals in British natural history’. In Naturalists and Society: The Culture of Natural History in Britain, 1700–1900. Aldershot, Ashgate/Variorum: 1–12.

Arber, A. (1986) Herbals: their origin and evolution. A chapter in the history of botany 1470-1670. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Brockway, L. (1979) Science and Colonial Expansion: the role of the British Royal Botanic Gardens. New York, Academic Press.

Browne, J. (1983) The Secular Ark: studies in the history of biogeography. New Haven, Yale University Press.

Browne, J. (1989) ‘Botany for Gentlemen: Erasmus Darwin and The Loves of the Plants’. Isis 80(304): 593–621.

Desmond, R. (1995) Kew: A history of the Royal Botanic Gardens. London, The Harvill Press.

Drayton, R. H. (2000) Nature’s Government: Science, Imperial Britain and the ‘Improvement’ of the World. New Haven, Yale University Press.

Endersby, J. (2000)‘A Garden Enclosed: Botanical barter in Sydney, 1818–1839’. British Journal of the History of Science 33(118): 313–34.

Gates, B. T. (1998) Kindred Nature: Victorian and Edwardian women embrace the living world. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Green, J. R. (1909 (1967)) A History of Botany: 1860–1900. Being a continuation of Sachs ‘History of Botany, 1530–1860’. New York, Russell & Russell.

Hoyles, M. (1991) The Story of Gardening. London, Journeyman.

McCracken, D. (1997) Gardens of Empire: Botanical institutions of the Victorian British Empire. London, Leicester University Press.

Morton, A. G. (1981) History of Botanical Science: an account of the development of botany from ancient times to the present day. London, Academic Press.

Ritvo, Harriet (1990) 'The Power of the Word. Scientific Nomenclature and the Spread of Empire', Victorian Newsletter, v.77: 5–8.

Ritvo, Harriet (1997) The Platypus and the Mermaid: and other figments of the Victorian classifying imagination. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press.

Secord, A. (1994) ‘Corresponding Interests – Artisans and Gentlemen in 19th-Century Natural History’. British Journal of the History of Science 27(95 Pt4): 383–408.

Secord, A. (1994) ‘Science in the Pub – Artisan Botanists in Early-19th-Century Lancashire’. History of Science 32(97 Pt3): 269-315.

Shteir, A. B. (1996) Cultivating Women, Cultivating Science: Flora's Daughters and Botany in England. 1760 to 1860. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press.

Shteir, A. B. (1997) ‘Gender and "Modern" Botany in Victorian England’. Osiris 12: 29–38.

Spary, E. C. (2000) Utopia's garden: French natural history from Old Regime to Revolution. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.


Joseph Dalton Hooker website

Site devoted to Joseph Hooker, including material on his life, collectors and writings. Contains links to other botanical resources.

Early Classics in Biogeography, Distribution and Diversity Studies to 1950

A bibliography and full-text archive designed for advanced students and researchers engaged in work in biogeography, biodiversity, history of science, and related studies. Includes material on Joseph Hooker, Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace and many others.

European Botanical and Horticultural Libraries Group

The European Botanical and Horticultural Libraries Group (EBHL) is an association to promote and facilitate co-operation and communication between those working in botanical and horticultural libraries, archives and related institutions in Europe. “Europe” is interpreted in the widest sense to include countries both within and outside the European Union (EU). Includes a useful directory of botanical and related libraries in Europe.

The Garden History Society

Aims to promote the study of the history of gardening, landscape gardening and horticulture in all aspects and promote the protection and conservation of historic parks, gardens and designed landscapes, and to advise on their restoration.

Harvard University herbarium libraries and archives

The archival collections of the Botany Libraries hold many rich sources of information. The botany archives specializes in unique historical materials that document the activities of botanists and their colleagues, especially during the 19th and 20th centuries. Materials include personal and institutional inventories, field notes, diaries, expeditions, plant lists, photographs, historic letters, and artifacts. Includes masses of information on Asa Gray, one of Hooker’s most important correspondents.

History of Science Society (HSS)

The world’s largest society dedicated to understanding science, technology, medicine, and their interactions with society in their historical context. Founded over seventy-five years ago, it is the oldest such society. Through its publications and other activities, the Society provides scholars, decisions makers and the public with historical perspectives on science policy and on the potentials, achievements, and the limitations of basic and applied science.

Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation

Specializes in the history of botany and all aspects of plant science and serves the international scientific community through research and documentation. To this end, the Institute acquires and maintains authoritative collections of books, plant images, manuscripts, portraits and data files, and provides publications and other modes of information service. Designed to assist current research in botanical systematics, history and biography, and to meet the reference needs of biologists, historians, conservationists, librarians, bibliographers and the public at large, especially those concerned with any aspect of the North American flora.

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

The official website of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, includes some information about their history as well as details of how to contact their library and archives staff.

Lefalophodon: History of Evolutionary Biology

This is an informal and incomplete guide to the history of evolutionary biology from about 1800 to about 1950. It is maintained by John Alroy. Its main emphases are on the late 19th century and on paleontology. However, he hopes to see the coverage become more comprehensive in the near future.

Linnean herbarium

The Linnean herbarium at the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm comprises some 4000 herbarium specimens, several of which are types formally designated by various experts. The specimens were once distributed by Linnaeus to his disciples and eventually they became part of the collections of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, subsequently the Swedish Museum of Natural History. Linnaeus' main collections are today housed at the The Linnean Society of London.

The Museum of Garden History

This beautifully presented site is about the Tradescant Garden, a replica 17th century Knot Garden, which commemorates the famous 17th century gardeners and plant hunters, the John Tradescants, father and son, and is planted with plants of the period.

Plant Explorers

A site for modern plant explorers those whose ‘goal is discovery more than acquisition’ – including botanical photographers and painters. The site also includes some historical information.

Plant People

The Gardenweb site has a page devoted to individuals who champion particular plants or methods and share their insights with the wider horticultural community. These include the plant collector Ernest Henry “Chinese” Wilson (1876–1930) and others of interest to historitans of botany and gardening.

Rare Books from the Missouri Botanic Garden Library

The Missouri Botanical Garden Library has recently started to digitise images of rare books. The idea is to make some of their beautifully illustrated and botanically significant books available to an international audience. This project will eventaully result in a large database of botanical and gardening illustrations and text available to scholars, gardeners, and book enthusiasts through their web site.

Last modified 28 September, 2002