Considered to be John Ray’s greatest achievement, Historia Plantarum is of lasting importance.
On leaving Cambridge in 1662, Ray decided to attempt the first systematic recording of the entire natural world. The following year he left England, accompanied by three of his former pupils, to tour the Low Countries, Germany, Italy, Austria, Switzerland and France. He also visited Malta and Sicily and, during the three-year journey, observed not only different species of plants but fish, birds, animals and insects.
This journey and others around England, Wales and Scotland, provided the material for Historia Plantarum. The first two volumes, published in 1686 and 1688, described 6,900 species of British and European plants. The third volume, published in 1704 with a further 11,700 entries, describes plants from the Philippines, Maryland, Africa, the Far East and Jamaica, following the visit to that Caribbean island by Ray’s friend, Hans Sloane, and before Sloane used them later for his own Natural History of Jamaica.
In the early days of botany, flowers had ‘coloured leaves’, but John Ray used the word ‘petal’ in the way we understand it today. ‘Petal’ and ‘pollen’ are both used for the first time in Historia Plantarum.
To produce the massive work, each week for six months a bundle of manuscripts had been sent by stage coach from Black Notley to London and back, with his friend Samuel Dale checking them in Black Notley and another friend, Tancred Robinson, revising them in London. Ray received £30 per volume – less than two pence a page! Ray’s dearest wish was to have the works illustrated and the Bishop of London tried to raise funds from Queen Anne to do this, but the cost was prohibitive.
‘… if he had lived in a cloister or library the work would still have been heroic; he did it in a cottage with few books, dependent on an unreliable carrier and on the good offices of friends in London. He was nearly 60 and already in indifferent health and the four baby girls were born during its production … there have been giants in the earth and on the evidence of these books Ray would have a claim to stand among them’. Charles Raven, 1942