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The love of plants: from love to sex in the history of botany

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Love and sex were concepts prevalent in botanical writing well before Erasmus Darwin composed his Love of the Plants. Here I focus on the Greek and Roman tradition of plant love. While the Greeks and Romans were completely ignorant of what we now recognise as the principles of plant sexuality and pollination, they used sexual vocabulary in their description of plants. Some of the passages where this imagery is used are well known: in particular passages relating to the reproduction of the fig and the palm trees. I want to cast my net wider and show that love rather than sex is the prevalent concept in ancient botany. For beside sexual lust, ancient plants felt maternal love, filial love, hatred and friendship. I will show that this anthropomorphism in the description of plant relationships has various roots: some to be found in philosophy (where the concepts of sympathy and antipathy are important); some in poetry; some even in economic thought. My sources will be varied, ranging from the classic History of Plants of Theophrastus (fourth century BCE ), to less well-known astro-botanical texts, and passing by the poems on grafting by Columella (first century CE) and Palladius (fifth century CE).

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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