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In the Beginning

Let the fields and the gliding streams
in the valleys delight me.
Inglorious, let me court the rivers and the forests.

Virgil, Georgics I

Gardens have been with humanity since we started to settle down and cultivate crops. But it is possible that some gardens predated settled civilization.

It is almost certain that early nomadic peoples valued certain fruit trees they would encounter on their travels, and would likely have 'assisted' the development of groves of these trees to ensure good crops on their seasonal return to the region. Since the production of fruit suitable for human consumption takes considerable resources on the part of the trees, these groves would have occurred in areas where natural resources were already abundant.

These fruit trees would have been cared for and cultivated, and eventually propagated by seed to increase and ensure a continuing supply, and would have been spread, both intentionally and unintentionally, along the migration routes of early nomadic peoples. It is therefore not unreasonable to suggest that 'gardens' predate both settlements and civilization, and were a likely catalyst for both.

As early as the days of Alexander the Great, a brisk trade in plants thrived in the Mediterranean area. And by the earliest days of the Roman Empire, the Silk Road was already ancient . This may explain the introduction of cultivated forms of the peony and rose from as far away as China. Although there is evidence of wild native forms of these plants growing in the Mediterranean area, it is likely that the more refined varieties originated in the ancient pleasure gardens of China.

And then there were the enigmatic Hanging Gardens of Babylon, possibly born of fantasy, but nonetheless an inspiration to gardeners and plant collectors for aeons. From such mythical beginnings arose the gardens of Persia, which in turn would eventually give rise to the Paradeios (Gardens of Paradise), built on the model of Eden, perhaps a faded memory of the world's first garden.

The philosopher and teacher Aristotle wrote several exhaustive works on all the known plants and animals in his day, and his pupil Theophrastus condensed these works into a 450 page summary. Although the originals were lost, the summary survived to become the one of the great reference works influencing the works of naturalists and scientists for centuries. Other early works of note;

Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) circa 77 AD wrote the 37 volumes of Historia Naturalis, a remarkable work that covered all branches of natural science, including geology, meteorology, botany and zoology. His fascination with the natural world lead to his demise in 79 AD while observing the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. He wanted to get closer for a better look. Versions of his work are still in print.

Dioscorides (40-90 AD), Physician to the Roman court wrote De Materia Medica (about 77 AD) covering the medicinal qualities of some 600 plants.

From these early works, and many more over the ages, arose the inspiration for generations of plant explorers.



Selected by the SciLinks program, a service of
the National Science Teachers Association.
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