We’ve all heard of fuchsia, a flower (or genus of flowering plant) that originated in Central and South America, but now grows far and wide. Although even the less botanically literate among us are familiar with it, we can sometimes struggle to spell its name. The key is to remember who the fuchsia was named for: Leonhart Fuchs, 16th-century German physician and botanist. More than 450 years after his death, Fuchs is remembered not just as the namesake of a flower, but as the author of a huge book detailing plant varieties and their medicinal uses. This was a historic achievement in the form known as herbalism, examples of which we have featured here on Open Culture from 9th and 18th century England.
But From Historia Stirpium Commentarii Insignia, as this work was known when it was first published in Latin in 1542, has worn exceptionally well through the ages. Or rather, Fuchs’ personal, hand-colored original came to us in 2022 as a source for Taschen. The New Grass. “A masterpiece of Renaissance botany and publishing”, according to the publisher, the book includes “over 500 illustrations, including the first visual record of New World plant types such as corn, cactus, and tobacco”.
Buyers also have their choice of English, German, and French editions, each with their own translations of Fuchs’ “Essays Describing the Characteristics, Origins, and Medicinal Potencies of Plants.” (You can also read a Dutch version of the original online to the special collections of the library of the University of Utrecht.)
Naturally, some of the information in these nearly five centuries old scientific writings will be a bit dated at this point, but the allure of the illustrations has never faded. “Fuchs presented each plant with meticulous woodcut illustrations, honing the ability for rapid species identification and setting new standards for accuracy and quality in botanical publications.” More than 500 of them enter the book: “Weighing more than 10 pounds,” writes Grace Ebert of Colossal“the nearly 900-page volume is an ode to Fuchs’s research and the field of Renaissance botany, detailing such plants as leafy garden balsam and root-covered mandrake.”
Taschen’s reproductions of these works of botanical art seek to do justice to Leonhart Fuchs’ legacy, particularly in the vibrancy of their colors. This is enough to support the hypothesis that the man received homage not only through the fuchsia flower, but also the fuchsia color. But such a double link turns out to be doubtful: the name of the color derives from rosaniline hydrochloride, also called fuchsin, originally a trade name applied by its manufacturer Renard frères and Franc. The name fuschine, in turn, derives from FuhGerman translation of fox. The New Grass is, of course, a work of botany rather than linguistics, but it should nonetheless stimulate in its viewers an awareness of the interconnectedness of knowledge that ignited the spirit of the Renaissance.
Going through Colossal
Two million wonderful nature illustrations uploaded by The Biodiversity Heritage Library
Discover Emily Dickinson’s herbarium: a beautiful digital edition of the poet’s collection of plants and pressed flowers is now online
A beautiful illustrated book from 1897 shows how flowers become Art Nouveau motifs
A historical manuscript filled with beautiful illustrations of Cuban flowers and plants is now online (1826)
A Curious Herbal: 500 beautiful illustrations of medicinal plants drawn by Elizabeth Blackwell in 1737 (to save her family from financial ruin)
A 1,000-year-old illustrated guide to the medicinal use of plants is now digitized and posted online
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and distributests about cities, language and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter books about cities, the book The Stateless City: A Walk Through 21st Century Los Angeles and the video series The city in cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall Or on Facebook.