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A Monumental Botanical Bible of Greece: THE FLORA GRAECA


Hailed as the rarest and most precious scientific book of botany, the Flora Graeca is a magnificent illustrated edition reflecting the richness and diversity of the natural world of Greece. It is indeed a celebration of the wonders of early 19th century printing. Above all, it is a true monument to John Sibthorp (1758-1796), a young professor of botany at the University of Oxford who decided to make his scientific mark by collecting the last unidentified plants of the East, and especially those of Greece.

Sibthorp returned from his second journey to Greece a sick man, and the following year died of tuberculosis at the age of 37. In addition to his life, the project also claimed Sibthorp's entire estate, as its publication took a total of 34 years to complete, from 1806 to 1840. A total of 65 sets of ten large volumes were produced in the 19th century. Twenty five first edition sets were hand colored for an elite group of subscribers (1806-40), with a production cost amounting to 30,000£. Each set sold for considerably less than the cost to produce (254£) at a time when the average annual salary was 39£. Another 40 sets were produced in a second edition in 1845.

AN AMBITIOUS UNDERTAKING ___________________________________

A product of the European Enlightenment, Sibthorp's expedition through Ottoman Greece was the first scientific exploration of unknown plant species or plants recorded only in the ancient narratives of Homer, Aristotle, Theophrastus, Dioscorides and others.

During his two trips to the East (1784-7 and 1794-5) Sibthorp visited Greece and Asia Minor, among other locations, and collected specimens, botanical observations, and precious drawings of more than a thousand plants now kept at the Plants Science Library in Oxford. The scientific fruit of Sibthorp's two journeys was published under the title Prodromus, a book which records 2,500 plants he studied in Greece, sans images.

To start his exploration, Sibthorp had recourse to the wisdom of the ancients: he procured in Vienna copies of two important manuscripts based on the works of the physician Pedanius Dioscorides (40-90 A.D.), who in 60 A.D. had recorded more than 1,000 medicinal substances, mostly derived from plants. Known as De Materia Medica, the work of Pedanius Dioscorides was written in Greek and provides important documentation on pharmaceutical plants and practices in the Greek and Roman world. It greatly influenced pharmacology until 1600, and became widely known from manuscripts illuminated from the 6th century onward.

With these manuscripts as guides, Sibthorp set off for Greece in 1784 in the company of an excellent Austrian botanical painter, Ferdinand Lukas Bauer (1760-1826), who was hired to create sketches on the spot. Sibthorp and Bauer collected, dried and labeled plants in the mornings, while in the afternoons, Sibthorp would describe them as Bauer sketched.

Upon their return to Oxford (1787-92), Bauer completed 966 majestic watercolors for the Flora Graeca relying on his excellent field sketches and color notation. His meticulous attention to detail and innate talent enabled him to create not only aesthetically pleasing watercolors, but truly outstanding botanical illustrations within a strict scientific context.

Sibthorp bequeathed his entire estate to the University of Oxford, for the production of a treasure on the Greek flora focusing on Bauer's exquisite watercolors, but he did not write a word in the book. Sibthorp's field notes were difficult to decipher and tried the patience of friend Sir James Edward Smith (1759-1828), to whom Sibthorp's will executioners, the botanist John Hawkins and lawyer Thomas Platt, entrusted the writing of Flora Graeca. As Hawkins told Smith in an 1800 correspondence, "It is certainly a pity that Dr. Sibthorp did not mark all his specimens, or the drawings, but he trusted to his memory and dreamed not of dying."


Sibthorp had become obsessed with plant names in the Greek language, and knew enough Greek to communicate with villagers and monks. On his way to Mount Parnassus, he heard a Greek peasant using names of plants similar to those he had seen written in the codex of Dioscorides, so he noted in amazement:

"A bucolic herbalist surprised me with the nomenclature he used. I detected plant names of Dioscorides and Theophrastus, despite the difficulty I had with the pronunciation ...Too much time has passed since the era when these philosophers lived. It is obvious that the plant names were retained in the spoken word. Perhaps they were retained in agricultural use, as happened, for example, in the case of 'Sage' in Boeotia. This bucolic herbalist, the child of a shepherd, was delighted when I gave him a little money as a reward ... But my joy was much greater, since I found a source of ancient science in the countryside."


The elaborate legends linked to some of the plants Sibthorp came across in his journeys undoubtedly added to the vibrancy of the illustrations of Flora Graeca. One of the most salient examples is a plant that was highly sought after: the mandrake (Mandragora officinarum). Characterized by its large fleshy root, which may grow as far as one meter into the ground, the mandrake contains potent pharmaceutical ingredients.

The ancient Greeks and Romans used it as a hypnotic, analgesic and sedative, while in medieval times the plant was used as an anesthetic in surgery. Because of its narcotic properties and the anthropomorphic shape of its roots captured so evocatively by the illustrations of Ferdinand Bauer, the mandrake has been associated with a variety of mysterious supernatural qualities and superstitions since antiquity. The Bible refers to its fertility and aphrodisiac qualities, while in Greek folklore it was believed that juice from its root would help produce baby boys. When taken internally in large doses, however, it is said to excite delirium and madness.


Not all legends were based on the medicinal properties of plants, however. Take for instance the soft acanthus (Acanthus mollis), a perennial plant with large spiny, lobed leaves and upright cylindrical inflorescences with whitish-purple flowers that is ubiquitous throughout Greece.

According to the Roman architect Vitruvius, the acanthus inspired the creation of the Corinthian capital. The sculptor Callimachus (430 B.C.), a student of the famous artist Polykleitos, observed an acanthus sprouting in a basket of toys that had been placed on a young girl's grave in Corinth, and was inspired to create a new kind of architectural style with this pattern for the Corinthians.

The columns of the Corinthian order are characterized by a capital comprising a high echinos "basket", surrounded by rows of acanthus leaves and volute scrolls in all four corners. The highly decorative style was mainly used in Roman times, but the name of the plant (in both Greek and Latin) comes from the ancient Greek akis meaning pointy spike and anthos, namely blossom.


The great innovation of the Flora Graeca lies in the colored engravings that give vitality to the stunning illustrations of Ferdinand Bauer. To do the drawings justice, only a master in the art of illustration of scientific works could be selected as the engraver. This was the naturalist and illustrator James Sowerby (1757-1822).

Each volume of the Flora Graeca contained 100 full-page engravings, making for a total of 966, which had to be hand colored, an extremely time consuming proposition. The high technical standards of the time raised the cost of the project, but to this day offer the reader an enjoyable, almost sensual contact with each plant and its parts.

The Aristolochia hirta is endemic in the eastern Aegean Islands and the coast of Asia Minor, where it grows in damp and shady places, flowering from March to May. Its etymology, from the Greek words excellent and puerperium (litter), refers to the ancient Greek belief that the toxic juice of the plant facilitated labor in childbirth. Joseph Pitton de Tournefort (1656 -1708), a famous French botanist who traveled to Greece a century before Sibthorp, found this plant on the island of Chios and described it in great detail. He also added its reproduction painted by the great botanical artist of the Royal Garden in Paris, Claude Aubriet, who accompanied him on his travels to Greece in 1700. Nonetheless, this flawless drawing pales in comparison to the same plant in the colored engraved plate of the Flora Graeca.

Founded in 1926, the Gennadius Library of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens is proud to house one of these original botanical treasures. Joannes Gennadius (1844–1932) had purchased one of the most beautiful copies of the Flora Graeca in London. Upon losing his position as a junior diplomat with the bankruptcy of Greece in 1893, one of the most precious books he was forced to sell was none other than his copy of the Flora Graeca.

A rare set of the second edition was acquired in the 1960s through the valiant efforts of Gennadius Library Director Francis Walton, and the generous donation of a friend of the library. Another complete copy of the work resides at the National Library of Greece, while at least four sets are kept in libraries at Oxford University.


WORDS: Maria Georgopoulou

PHOTOS: Gennadius Library | American School of Classical Studies

Dr. Maria Georgopoulou is Director of the Gennadius Library of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. She has edited numerous books and articles, and has curated several exhibitions, and taught art history at Yale University (1992-2004) where she also founded the Program for Hellenic Studies.

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