Recreating Eden

Records from the Middle Ages testify to the interest of Europeans in studying plants for their medicinal properties. By the time of the Renaissance the five volumes of herbal lore prepared by the second-century pharmacist-doctor Dioscorides were used throughout Europe to teach about plants useful for medicine. Many monasteries had little plots of loosestrife and mints, of St. John's wort and chamomile, while untold numbers of midwives and lay healers cultivated medicinal herbs. One record of such a garden is a decree by Pope Nicolas V who in 1447 set aside part of the Vatican grounds as a garden where medicinal plants could be grown and botany taught as a branch of medicine.

A 100 years later Italy saw the establishment of the first botanic gardens in the modern sense at two universities, Padua and Pisa. The two dispute which was first. The Orto Botanico at Padua was established by decree of the Senate of the Venetian Republic in May 1545 and in July the monastery of S. Giustina ceded about 20 000 square meters to the republic and the University of Padua. No such decrees exist for the Orto Botanico of Pisa, but a letter written in early July 1545 by Lucca Ghinni, founder of the garden, suggests that it was already in existence then. What is clear is that these two gardens were places where plants were grown for systematic study, and which were organized to make that study easier. Nor were Pisa and Padua alone: in 1590 the University of Leiden established its botanic garden, while a year later the Jardin des Plantes of the Universite Montpellier in southern France was begun.

Today a glimpse of what these gardens were like can be enjoyed at Leiden where a walled garden set apart from the rest of the university's botanic garden, the Hortus Botanicus, is laid out as it was in about 1594 by the pioneer botanist, Clusius. His career also gives a sense of the inquiring spirit which was developing among observers of the natural world. A native of the part of Flanders now in France, he spent his life collecting and describing plants all over Europe. He wrote treatises on the flora of Spain, Austria, and Hungary, corresponded with every botanist of note in Europe, collected and distributed plants and bulbs widely, and wrote the first monographs on both the tulip and the rhododendron. Behind all this lay a beliefthat the beauty of plants was a reflection of the wonders of God's creation and the harmony of the universe.

The religious impulse was extremely important during this period. Practically no one in Christendom in the sixteenth and seventeenth century doubted that Eden as described in the Bible had once existed. Many hoped that it still did. Part of Portugal's explorations were fired by the desire to find the lost paradise, while Christopher Columbus included a converted Jew in his first crew. The man spoke Hebrew, Arabic, and Aramaic, and so, it was thought, would be able to converse to the inhabitants of Eden, should that splendid garden be discovered on the westering voyages.

Eden, of course, was not found, and many botanists, both religous and secular, began to wonder if Eden might be recreated simply by bringing together all the plants which must have grown in it. Some thought that even if a latter-day Eden were impossible to create, much good would be done by studying as much of God's creation as possible: each plant was a facet of God, so that knowing all plants would mean knowing an important part of God.

There were built-in contradictions in this effort, however, since it coincided with the great age of exploration when plants and animals unimagined by Europeans were brought back from the Americas for study. Questions arose: Were they created at the same time as all the familiar flora and fauna? Or were there perhaps two Creations, or parts of the world which had escaped the Flood? Opinions varied, but one thing was clear: the theological ideas behind the efforts to bring plants together for study would have to be modified.

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