John Gerard
John Gerard aka John Gerarde (1545 – 1611 or 1612) was an English herbalist
An herbalist is:#A person whose life is dedicated to the economic or medicinal uses of plants.#One skilled in the harvesting and collection of medicinal plants ....

 notable for his herbal garden and botany writing. In 1597 he published a large and heavily illustrated "Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes", which went on to be the most widely circulated botany book in English in the 17th century. Except for the additions of several plants from his own garden and from North America, Gerard’s Herbal is essentially an English translation of Rembert Dodoens
Rembert Dodoens
Rembert Dodoens was a Flemish physician and botanist, also known under his Latinized name Rembertus Dodonaeus.-Biography:...

 Herbal of 1554, which itself was also highly popular (in Dutch, Latin, French and other English translation). A couple of decades after Gerard's death, his Herbal was corrected and expanded by another author which strengthened the book's position in the 17th century botany book market.

Gearard's Life

Gerard was born at Nantwich, where he received his early and only schooling. Around the age of seventeen, he was apprenticed as a barber-surgeon. Although he claimed to have learned much about plants from traveling to other parts of the world, his actual travels appear to have been somewhat limited. For example, at some time in his later youth, he is reputed to have made one trip abroad, possibly traveling as a ship’s surgeon on a merchant ship which sailed around the North Sea. In 1577, he began to supervise the London gardens of William Cecil
William Cecil
William Cecil may refer to:* Lord William Cecil , British royal courtier* William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley , English politician and advisor to Elizabeth I* William Cecil, 2nd Earl of Exeter , Knight of the Garter...

, Lord Burghley. By 1595, Gerard had become a member of the Court of Assistants in the Barber-Surgeon's company. By 1595, he spent much time commuting from the court to his gardens in the suburb of Holborn, and attending to his duties for Lord Burghley (Cecil). In 1597, he was appointed Junior Warden of the Barber-Surgeons, and in 1608, Master of the same. Gerard was a doer, not a thinker, and literally an outsider with regard to the community of Lime Street naturalists in London at the time.
His somewhat flawed (from the perspective of some of his contemporaries) Herball is dedicated to his patron Lord Burghley.

Gerard's Publications

In 1596, Gerard published a list of rare plants he cultivated in his own garden at Holborn, where he introduced exotic plants from the New World, including a plant he misidentified as the Yucca. The Yucca failed to bloom during his lifetime, but a pip taken from his plant later bloomed for a contemporary. To this day Yucca bears the name Gerard gave it. A copy of the list of plants in his garden, published in 1596, exists in the British Museum. In 1597, Gerard published his famous Great Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes. The 1597 edition re-used hundreds of woodblocks from the book Eicones Plantarum (1590) by Jacobus Theodorus, which themselves had been re-used from earlier 16th botanical books by the writers Mattioli
Pietro Andrea Mattioli
Pietro Andrea Gregorio Mattioli was a doctor and naturalist born in Siena.He received his MD at the University of Padua in 1523, and subsequently practiced the profession in Siena, Rome, Trento and Gorizia, becoming personal physician of Ferdinand II, Archduke of Austria in Prague and Ambras...

, Dodoens
Rembert Dodoens
Rembert Dodoens was a Flemish physician and botanist, also known under his Latinized name Rembertus Dodonaeus.-Biography:...

, Clusius, and Lobelius. The plant drawings in the 1633 and 1636 editions used hundreds of woodblocks originally made for an edition of Rembert Dodoens
Rembert Dodoens
Rembert Dodoens was a Flemish physician and botanist, also known under his Latinized name Rembertus Dodonaeus.-Biography:...

's herbal; the woodblocks were shipped from Antwerp to London for the purpose.

Because it was a practical and useful book, packed with many, many helpful drawings of plants, and because Gerard had a fluid and lively writing manner, Gerard’s Herball was very popular with ordinary literate people in 17th century England. There is evidence of the book still in use by some people as late as the early 19th century.

The 1633 edition of Gerard's Herball was done by Thomas Johnson
Thomas Johnson (botanist)
Thomas Johnson has been called "The Father of British Field Botany" but has been largely neglected, no doubt largely due to the very scanty records of his life which have survived. Such as there are, moreover, in any cases confuse rather than help the biographer, owing to the popularity of the...

, an apothecary
Apothecary is a historical name for a medical professional who formulates and dispenses materia medica to physicians, surgeons and patients — a role now served by a pharmacist and some caregivers....

 and botanist who lived in London. He was commissioned to do the job by the heirs to the estate of John Gerard. Johnson's edition contained many corrections and new information based on empirical observation. Through anecdotal comments, Johnson carefully distanced himself from the original work. For example, regarding the entry on the saffron crocus, Johnson wrote, “Our author in this chapter was of many minds.” Gerard can be considered one of the founders of botany in English language, but he was not well educated, and he was not an outstanding botanist in terms of technical knowledge in his own time according to his critics.

Garden Writing

The art of describing the natural world empirically divides Renaissance natural historians from their medieval predecessors, whose practitioners were adherents of the ancient texts. The earliest printed works in Renaissance natural history fell into two categories: 1/ newly recovered, translated and corrected editions of ancient texts, and 2/ herbals based on the empirical knowledge of the early botanists. Although Francis Bacon advocated inductive thinking based on observation or description (empiricism) as the way to understand and report on the natural world, the early Renaissance printed herbals were slightly modified adaptations of the works of their medieval predecessors. Generally, these early 'scientists' listed plants and occasionally other things like animals and minerals, and noted their medical value.

John Gerard worked within the early wave of Renaissance Natural Historians who sought to systematize natural history while retaining the works of the ancients. For example, the basis for Gerard’s Herball included the Materia Medica of Dioscorides, an early Greek writer whose work was considered an ancient text, as well as the works by Gerard’s contemporaries, the German botanists Leonard Fuchs (for whom Fuchsia
Fuchsia is a genus of flowering plants that consists mostly of shrubs or small trees. The first, Fuchsia triphylla, was discovered on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola in 1703 by the French Minim monk and botanist, Charles Plumier...

 is named), and the Flemish botanist Matthias de l'Obel (for whom Lobelia
Lobelia is a genus of flowering plant comprising 360–400 species, with a subcosmopolitan distribution primarily in tropical to warm temperate regions of the world, a few species extending into cooler temperate regions...

 is named). Both Fuchs and l'Obel were early botanists who worked empirically with plants. They were well educated, as were other members of the London (Lime Street) community. Gerard and l’Obel were friends who made occasional field trips together, although Gerard, who was less well-eduated and lived in the suburb of Holborn, was considered an outsider by the Lime Street community.


The origins of Gerard's Herball, famous for its detailed (if sometimes inaccurate) descriptions of plants, as well as the folklore contained in the articles regarding natural phenomena and its splendid prose and prints, are somewhat controversial. The Queen's printer John Norton had commissioned a Dr. Priest to prepare an English-language translation of Rembert Dodoenas' immensely popular herbal, but Priest died before completing the work. Norton (the publisher of the Herball) then asked John Gerard to take over the work. Gerard finished the translation, rearranging the work, and adding as-yet-unpublished material from his friend, the herbalist l'Obel. However, in the herbal, Gerard states that Priest's translation had disappeared and that he had written a new book.

Modern-day authorities disagree as to the extent of original work in Gerard's Herball. James Garret, a Huguenot apothecary living and working in London, and a neighbor of l’Obel, made a chance visit to the Norton publishing shop, where he discovered the proofs of the Herball, and alerted the Nortons as to both errors he discovered in the proofs and the incorporation of some of l’Obel’s material in Gerard’s new book. Although they were not concerned about plagiarism, the Nortons, fearing errors in a book that was supposed to be an expert reference guide, hired l’Obel, an internationally recognized expert on plants (who had as Gerard’s friend, unwittingly contributed to his book) to proof the translations, fix the mismatched illustrations, and right its textual wrongs. When Gerard discovered l’Obel’s thankless efforts, he had him fired. Later, Gerard was accused by l’Obel (Lobelius) of plagiarizing a translation of Dodoenas work, and incorporating it into his Herbal.


Despite some shortcomings in Gerard’s effort, Linnaeus honored him in the name of the plant genus Gerardia
Gerardia L. is a genus of flowering plants in the family Acanthaceae. It was once used as the generic name for the genus Agalinis, but based on the rules of the ICBN it is an illegitimate later homonym of Gerardia L...

. Gerard’s Herball references many of the poisonous plants mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays. Additional value has been placed on the Herball by students of literature. For example, the herb which produces the death-like sleep of Juliet
Juliet is one of the title characters in William Shakespeare's tragedy Romeo and Juliet, the other being Romeo. She is the daughter of old Capulet, head of the house of Capulet. The story has a long history that precedes Shakespeare himself....

 or Cymbeline
Cymbeline , also known as Cymbeline, King of Britain or The Tragedy of Cymbeline, is a play by William Shakespeare, based on legends concerning the early Celtic British King Cunobelinus. Although listed as a tragedy in the First Folio, modern critics often classify Cymbeline as a romance...

 may refer to Nightshade, Mandragora
For other uses see Mandragora .La Mandrágora was a Chilean Surrealist group "officially founded" on 12 July 1938 by Braulio Arenas , Teófilo Cid and Enrique Gómez Correa . The group had met in Talca and first started exchanging in 1932...

or Doronicum
Doronicum is a genus of the botanical family Asteraceae.-Selected species:*Doronicum altaicum*Doronicum atlanticum* Doronicum austriacum Jacq.*Doronicum briquetii* Doronicum cacaliifolium Boiss. & Heldr....

, all of them listed and described in the Herball.

External links

  • A list of some of the names of the main plants treated, plus a few miscellaneous presentations for individual plants, from the 1633 edition of Gerard's Herbal, is at
  • The description of Hemp in Gerarde's Herbal is presented at
  • A 15th century Latin botanical dictionary known as the Alphita is online at as published in year 1887 by Clarendon Press. The footnotes in this publication contain many quotations from Gerarde's 1633 Herbal. This is useful because Gerarde's Herbal is not freely online as of 2011 in searchable text format.
  • Facsmilie of the 1597 Herball (photographic images of the pages). From
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