Theophrastus of Eresos – the Father of Botany

Theophrastos of Eresos, who studied in Plato’s philosopher’s school, is most famous for his groundbreaking work on plants. Thus, he is often referred to as the ‘father of botany’. His two surviving botanical works, Enquiry into Plants (Historia Plantarum) and On the Causes of Plants, were an important influence on Renaissance science.

Theophrastus of Eresos was a native of Eresos in Lesbos and his given name was Tyrtamus. It is believed that he was educated in philosophy in Lesbos from one Alcippus, later he moved to Athens, where he may have studied under Plato. Further, it is assumed that he became friends with Aristotle and may have joined Aristotle in his self-imposed exile from Athens. It seems that it was on Lesbos that Aristotle and Theophrastus began their research into natural science, with Aristotle studying animals and Theophrastus studying plants. It was also through Aristotle, that Theophrastus began teaching in the Lyceum. Theophrastus also stayed head of the Peripatetic school after Aristotle’s death in 322/1. Theophrastus presided over the Peripatetic school for thirty-five years, and died at the age of eighty-five according to Diogenes. It is believed that the school as well as Theophrastus became very popular. At one period, it is said, there were more than 2000 students, among them the comic poet Menander. After his death, Theophrastus was honored with a public funeral, and “the whole population of Athens, honouring him greatly, followed him to the grave.”

Two of the most important of his books are two large botanical treatises, Enquiry into Plants, and On the Causes of Plants, which constitute one of the most important contribution to botanical science during antiquity and the Middle Ages. Theophrastus probably published the first systemization of the botanical world and that is why he has been regarded as the ‘father of botany’ by his followers.

The Enquiry into Plants is arranged into a system whereby plants are classified according to their modes of generation, their localities, their sizes, and according to their practical uses such as foods, juices, herbs, etc. On the Causes of Plants deals with the growth of plants, the influences on their fecundity, the proper times they should be sown and reaped, the methods of preparing the soil, manuring it, and the use of tools. Also, Theophrastus described the smells, tastes, and properties of many types of plants. The scientist was able to detect the process of germination and realized the importance of climate and soil to plants. Much of the information on the Greek plants may have come from his own observations, as he is known to have travelled throughout Greece, and to have had a botanical garden of his own.

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