One of the June offers in a small garden-related catalogue delivered with my daily newspaper is, and I quote, “Fuschia bush £3.”
Well, no, D*****s, actually it’s F-u-c-h-s-i-a, for it was named in honour of Leonhart Fuchs, who seems to have been forgotten by elements of the popular horticultural trade who are, presumably, unaware of his place in botanical history.
Books called ‘herbals’ were once very important to herbalists, the precursors of today’s medical practitioners. Herbals are books which list or describe plants for their medicinal properties and are usually illustrated, for one picture is worth a thousand words when it comes to identifying a particular plant. The first herbal of which we are aware was the work of a Greek physician called Dioscorides and was written about the time of the birth of Christ. A contemporary fellow-Greek, Apuleius Platonicus, wrote a similar herbal just a few years later; and he had the honour of being the author of the first herbal to be printed when his book was printed in Germany in about 1483, shortly after the invention of the printing press. However, useful though they were, these earliest herbals were crudely illustrated with often-inaccurate woodcuts and left a great deal to be desired.
The Sixteenth Century saw a huge increase in interest in botany, the serious study of plants. Leonhart Fuchs was born in Bavaria in 1501 and became a student at the University of Erfurt when he was just fourteen years old. After graduating as a Bachelor of Arts he entered the University of Ingolstadt to study classics before turning his attention to the study of medicine, his knowledge of Greek allowing him to read the original texts of the earliest physicians. Fuchs practised as a doctor in Munich for two years before returning to Ingolstadt as the professor of medicine. In 1535 he was appointed to the chair of medicine at Tübingen, where he became very well-known as a prolific author and an innovative teacher, introducing … among many other things … botanical field excursions in the training of physicians.
His magnum opus was, undoubtedly, his ‘De historia stirpium commentarii insignes (“Notable commentaries on the history of plants”) … usually contracted to the single word ‘Historia’ … in which he listed and illustrated every single plant with known medicinal qualities of which he was aware, a task which occupied thirty-one years. His plant list was arranged alphabetically by the Greek names of the plants; and he relied on accurate, detailed illustrations to distinguish one plant from another, the textual descriptions being fairly basic. He explained in the preface to the ‘Historia’ that it is primarily a book for physicians; and he was first and foremost a physician who was concerned that many of his colleagues … who relied on herbal medicines, of course … were totally ignorant of the true appearance of many of the plants whose pharmacological properties they were recommending. Although we, with the benefit of contemporary medical knowledge, can criticise the ‘Historia’ and find mistakes in its pages, it was a truly remarkable achievement and paved the way for numerous imitations, which helped spread accurate knowledge of botany among the medical practitioners of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Leonhart Fuchs always intended to enlarge his original book, which was first published in 1542, spending the final twenty-four years of his life working on this unfulfilled project.
And Fuchs’ name lives on in the Fuchsia, a plant discovered in the Dominican Republic in 1696 or 1697 by the French scientist Dom Charles Plumier and named in honour of the great man. So it’s actually F-u-c-h-s-i-a … and we shouldn’t forget that!
Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society