Treasures from the Herbaria: Morison’s Historia Plantarum Universalis Oxoniensis

Wed March 8th, 2017

Oxford University Herbaria had its origins in the mid-seventeenth century with the foundation of the Oxford Physic Garden. Today it comprises approximately one million specimens, of which there are at least 35,000 types, and is the the oldest collection of dried plant specimens in the UK. As well, there is a vast collection of botanical illustrations and books from across the centuries. Dr Stephen Harris, Druce Curator Oxford University Herbaria,  took some time to share with us about Morison's Plantarum historiae universalis Oxoniensis (pictured below and in the banner image above).

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Scotsman Robert Morison (1620-1683) took up his post as the first Professor of Botany in a British university in 1669. His major research project was the Plantarum historiae universalis Oxoniensis, a new classification of the world’s plants based on fruit characteristics. The work was to be published in three volumes. Morison only lived to see the publication of the second volume in 1680. The third volume was completed in 1699 by Jacob Bobart the Younger, second Keeper of the Oxford Physic Garden. The first volume was never published.

In 1672 Morison had written the world’s first taxonomic monograph, a detailed account of all the plants in the carrot family. Morison adopted the same method in the Historia; detailed plant descriptions complemented by high-quality illustrations, together with pioneering-use of botanical keys to aid species identification. Despite individual plates being sponsored, the project proved enormously expensive, bringing both Morison and the University Press to the brink of financial collapse.

The original copper plates used in the publication have survived to the present day. The publication is complemented by a collection of dried plants made by Bobart and is known as the Morisonian Herbarium. This collection and the associated publications are a rich resources for modern researchers interested in seventeenth century plants. It was visited by Carolus Linnaeus in 1736.