4 minute read

Botany

History of botany

Botany is the study of plants. It is one of the major fields of biology, together with zoology (the study of animals) and microbiology (the study of bacteria and viruses). Specializations within the field of botany include the study of mosses, algae, lichens, ferns, and fungi. Other specialties in botany include plant physiology, the study of the vital processes of plants, such as photosynthesis, respiration, and plant nutrition. Biochemists study the effects of soil, temperature, and light on plants, while plant morphologists study of the evolution and development of leaves, roots, and stems with a focus on the tissues at the tips of stems where the cells have the ability to divide.

Plant pathology studies the causes and control of plant diseases. Pathologists may work with a specific group of plants, such as forest trees, vegetable crops, grain, or ornamental plants, and they may concentrate on the interactions between host plants and pathogens, the carriers of disease. Economic botanists study the economic impact of plants as they relate to human needs for food, clothing, and shelter, while plant geneticists investigate the structure and behavior of genes in plants and plant heredity in order to develop crops that are resistant to diseases and pests. Paleobotany deals with the biology and evolution of plants by studying the fossil record in order to reconstruct the 600 million year history of plant life on this planet.

The relationship between plants and animals is one of interdependence. Without the evolution of plants, animals would not have been able to subsist. Animals, in turn, contribute to plant distribution, plant pollination, and every other aspect of plant growth and development. It is through this interdependence that plants continue to adapt and change. Human intervention in the cultivation of plants has contributed equally to plant development. Today, the study of botany is only one aspect of ecology, the study of the environment. Plant ecologists are concerned with the effects of the environment on plants.


Aristotle and Theophrastus, living in ancient Greece about the fourth century B.C., were both involved in identifying plants and describing them. Theophrastus is called the "father of botany," because of his two surviving works on plant studies. While Aristotle also wrote about plants, he received more recognition for his studies of animals.

The early study of plants was not limited to Western cultures. The Chinese developed the study of botany along lines similar to the ancient Greeks at about the same time. In A.D. 60, another Greek, Dioscorides, wrote De Materia Medica, a work that described a thousand medicines, 60% of which came from plants. It remained the guidebook on medicines in the Western world for 1,500 years until the compound microscope was invented in the late sixteenth century, opening the way to the careful study of plant anatomy.

During the seventeenth century progress was made in experimenting with plants. Johannes van Helmont measured the uptake of water in a tree during the 1640s, and in 1727 Stephen Hales, an Englishman who is credited with establishing plant physiology as a science, published his experiments dealing with the nutrition and respiration of plants in a work entitled Vegetable Staticks. He developed techniques to measure area, volume, mass, pressure, gravity, and temperature in plants. In the latter part of the eighteenth century, Joseph Priestley laid the foundation for the chemical analysis of plant metabolism.

During the nineteenth century advances were made in the study of plant diseases because of the potato blight that killed potato crops in Ireland in the 1840s, an event that led to a mass migration of Irish to America. The study of plant diseases developed rapidly after this event. When the work in genetics by Gregor Mendel, an Austrian monk, was applied after 1900 to plant breeding, the development of modern plant genetics began. During the early part of the nineteenth century, progress in the study of plant fossils was made, and ecology began to develop as a science in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Technology has helped specialists in botany to see and understand the three-dimensional nature of cells, and genetic engineering of plants has improved agricultural output. The study of plants continues as botanists try to both understand the structure, behavior, and cellular activities of plants in order to develop better crops, find new medicines, and explore ways of maintaining an ecological balance on Earth to continue to sustain both plant and animal life.

See also Taxonomy.


Resources

Books

Campbell, N., J. Reece, and L. Mitchell. Biology. 5th ed. Menlo Park: Benjamin Cummings, Inc. 2000.

Evans, Howard Ensign. Pioneer Naturalists. New York: Holt, 1993.

Heiser, Charles B. Of Plants and People. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985.

Morton, A.G. History of Botanical Science. London: Academic Press, 1981.

Roth, Charles E. The Plant Observer's Guidebook. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1984.


Vita Richman

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Boolean algebra to Calcium Propionate