Enquiry into Plants

Arum's weird roots ; the deeper they go the thicker they get.


380–327 BCE Theophrastus, pupil of Aristotle (and both pupils of Plato), writes his Enquiry into Plants.

Arum first puts in an appearance in the early herbals and writings of Ancient Greece. It is from this time and culture that our knowledge of Arum’s herbal properties has its origins, firmly embedded within the roots of western culture. Three works by the founding figures of the great Mediterranean tradition of herbal medicine all mention Arum.

The first of these is by a student of Plato and Aristotle, named Theophrastus. Around 340 BCE he wrote his Enquiry into Plants, one of the earliest written attempts to codify the natural world and a precursor to modern botanical classification. It is also the earliest written reference we have to Arum. In his Enquiry into Plants, Theophrastus gives the first description of Arum being used as food and mentions a medicinal use: ‘The root of cuckoo-pint is also edible, and so are the leaves, if they are first boiled down in vinegar; they are sweet, and are good for fractures’.

Theophrastus was a philosophical botanist. In the style of his time, he debates whether Arum really has roots in the same way that other plants do because instead of tapering to a point, the way that ‘
true roots do’, they instead get wider the deeper into the ground they go. Hence, they cannot really be ‘proper’ roots. An interesting point for discussion perhaps, but he didn’t really come up with any suggestions as to what else they might be, if not roots.

Theophrastus’ work was less a herbal as we might understand the term and more a very early work of botanical enquiry about the nature of plants. It was an attempt to understand, mostly from a philosophical viewpoint, how plants ‘worked’ and how they could be classified. Agnes Arber says in her book Herbals, ‘
Aristolelian botany suffered from one serious handicap: an inadequate basis of actual fact’. She describes how Greek botany was created by philosophers who, being completely at home in the world of ideas, believed that any knowledge could be derived from thinking about ‘general principles of the world’ without any need for actual observation: ‘… it was left for workers in the apparently less promising field of medicine’ to do that. Ouch.

Perhaps there was some truth to that criticism but Theophrastus also embodied the spirit of intellectual investigation that the Greek's excelled in and in many ways set out the foundations of today's scientific worldview. He took issue with faith healing, religious authority and beliefs not based on experimentation. He ended up being known as the Father of Botany and was even the tutor of Alexander the Great, which is impressive enough in itself. But for us, his main claim to fame of course is that he was the first to put pen to paper about Arum.

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