John Parkinson (botanist)

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John Parkinson
An engraving of Parkinson from his monumental work Theatrum Botanicum (1640), reprinted in Agnes Arber's Herbals (1912).
DiedSummer 1650 (aged 82–83); buried 6 August 1650
Probably London, England
Known forPublishing Paradisi in Sole, Paradisus Terrestris (1629) and Theatrum Botanicum (1640)
Scientific career
FieldsHerbalism and botany

John Parkinson (1567–1650; buried 6 August 1650) was the last of the great English herbalists and one of the first of the great English botanists. He was apothecary to James I and a founding member of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries in December 1617, and was later Royal Botanist to Charles I.[1] He is known for two monumental works, Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris (Park-in-Sun's Terrestrial Paradise, 1629), which generally describes the proper cultivation of plants; and Theatrum Botanicum (The Botanical Theatre or Theatre of Plants, 1640), the most complete and beautifully presented English treatise on plants of its time. One of the most eminent gardeners of his day, he kept a botanical garden at Long Acre in Covent Garden, today close to Trafalgar Square, and maintained close relations with other important English and Continental botanists, herbalists and plantsmen.


Parkinson, born in 1567, spent his early life in Yorkshire. He moved to London at the age of 14 years to become an apprentice apothecary.[2] Rising through the ranks, he eventually achieved the position of apothecary to James I, and a founding member of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries in December 1617; until 1622 he also served on the Court of Assistants, the Society's governing body. In addition, he assisted the Society in obtaining a grant of arms and in preparing a list of all medicines that should be stocked by an apothecary.[3] He was on the committee that published their Pharmacopœia Londinensis (London Pharmacopœia) in 1618.[4]

Then, on the cusp of a new science, he became botanist to Charles I.[5] Anna Parkinson, a "distant descendant"[2] of Parkinson and the author of a new popular biography of him, asserts that in 1625 when Charles I's bride, Henrietta Maria of France, came at the age of 15 years to live at St. James's Palace, "he took on the role of introducing the young queen to horticulturally sophisticated circles."[6] When he summed up his experience in writing Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris (Park-in-Sun's Terrestrial Paradise, 1629 – "Park-in-Sun" is a pun on "Parkinson"), with the explanatory subtitle A Garden of all sorts of pleasant flowers which our English ayre will permit to be noursed up, it was natural that he dedicated this work, which he called his "Speaking Garden",[3] to the queen.[6] Blanche Henrey called the work the "earliest important treatise on horticulture published in England",[7] while the Hunt catalogue described it as "a very complete picture of the English garden at the beginning of the seventeenth century, and in such delightful, homely, literary style that gardeners cherish it even to the present day."[8]

Narcissi, Paradisus Terrestris 1629. 8. Great Double Yellow Spanish Daffodil

Parkinson actively sought new varieties of plants through his contacts abroad and by financing William Boel's plant-hunting expedition to Iberia and North Africa in 1607–1608. He introduced seven new plants into England and was the first gardener in England to grow the great double yellow Spanish daffodil (Pseudonarcissus aureus Hispanicus flore pleno or Parkinson's Daffodil, see illustration).[3][9] ("I thinke none ever had this kind before myselfe nor did I myself ever see it before the year 1618 for it is of mine own raising and flowering first in my own garden".)

His piety as a Roman Catholic is evident from Paradisi in Sole. In his introduction, Parkinson saw the botanical world as an expression of divine creation, and believed that through gardens man could recapture something of Eden. Nonetheless, a short French poem[10] at the foot of the title page warned the gardener against hubris and in having excessive regard for his efforts, for whoever tries to compare Art with Nature and gardens with Eden "measures the stride of the elephant by the stride of the mite and the flight of the eagle by that of the gnat".[3] However, struggles between Protestants and Catholics compelled Parkinson to keep a low profile.[6] He did not attend any parish church.[11] At the height of his success, the English Civil War (1642–1651) tore his family apart.[6]

Parkinson's London house was in Ludgate Hill, but his botanical garden was in suburban Long Acre in Covent Garden,[6] a district of market-gardens, today close to Trafalgar Square. Not much is known about the garden, but based on a study of the writings of Parkinson and others, John Riddell has suggested[12] that it was at least 2 acres (0.81 ha) in size and probably surrounded by a wall. Four hundred and eighty-four types of plant are recorded as having been grown in the garden.[3] Thomas Johnson and the Hampshire botanist, John Goodyer, both gathered seeds there.[5]

An illustration of a Double Daffodil from the second edition of Paradisi in Sole (1656).

Parkinson has been called one of the most eminent gardeners of his day. He maintained close relations with other important English and Continental botanists, herbalists and plantsmen such as William Coys, John Gerard, John Tradescant the elder (who was a close friend), Vespasian Robin, and the Frenchman Matthias de Lobel (also known as Matthias de L'Obel or Matthaeus Lobelius). Together, they belonged to the generation that began to see extraordinary new plants coming from the Levant and from Virginia, broadly speaking. In his writings, de Lobel frequently mentioned the Long Acre garden and praised Parkinson's abilities. Parkinson, on his part, edited and presented in Theatrum Botanicum the papers of de Lobel, who had spent the final years of his life in Highgate supervising the gardens of Edward la Zouche, the 11th Baron Zouche.[3]

Parkinson died in the summer of 1650, and was buried at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, on 6 August.[13] He is commemorated in the Central American genus of leguminous trees Parkinsonia. Paradisi in Sole also inspired the children's writer Juliana Horatia Ewing (1841–1885) to write the story Mary's Meadow,[14] which was first published from November 1883 to March 1884 in Aunt Judy's Magazine (1866–1885), produced by her mother Margaret Gatty. In the story, some children read Paradisi in Sole and are inspired to create their own garden. The magazine received much favourable correspondence about the story, and in July 1884 it was suggested that a Parkinson Society should be formed. The objects of the society were to "search out and cultivate old garden flowers which have become scarce; to exchange seeds and plants; to plant waste places with hardy flowers; to circulate books on gardening amongst the Members... [and] to try to prevent the extermination of rare wild flowers, as well as of garden treasures."[3]


Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris describes the proper cultivation of plants in general, and is in three sections: the flower garden, the kitchen garden, and the orchard garden. It does not include specific growing instructions for each type of plant, but at the start of each main section Parkinson provides instructions on "ordering" each type of garden, advising on situating and laying out a garden, tools, soil improvement, grafting, planting and sowing and the types of plants that should be included in each type of garden. It contains illustrations of almost 800 plants in 108 full-page plates. Most of these were original woodcuts made by the Swiss artist Christopher Switzer, but others appear to have been copied from the works of Matthias de Lobel, Charles de l'Écluse and the Hortus Floridus[15] of Crispijn van de Passe the Elder.[3]

Illustrations of parts of an oak tree from page 1386 of Theatrum Botanicum (1640).

In Paradisi in Sole Parkinson hinted that he hoped to add a fourth section, a garden of simples (medicinal herbs).[3] He delivered the promise in his other great book, the monumental Theatrum Botanicum (The Botanical Theatre or Theatre of Plants) which he published in 1640 at the age of 73 years. The release of this work was delayed due to the popularity of Thomas Johnson's edition of John Gerard's book The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes (1597).[16] Theatrum Botanicum, with 1,688 pages of text,[11] describes over 3,800 plants and was the most complete and beautifully presented English treatise on plants of its day. It was the first work to describe 33 native plants, 13 of which grew near Parkinson's Middlesex home. Some of these plants, such as the Welsh poppy, the Strawberry Tree and the Lady's Slipper, were very common but had gone unnoticed or at least unrecorded.[3] He intended the book to be a reliable guide for apothecaries, and it remained so for more than a hundred years after his death.[6] Parkinson presented the work to Charles I, who conferred on him the title "Botanicus Regis Primarius" ("Royal Botanist of the First Rank") though this came without a salary.[11]

Published works[edit]

Frontispiece of Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris (1629) by Swiss artist Christopher Switzer. Of interest is a depiction of a Vegetable Lamb of Tartary near the river behind the figure of Adam.
Later editions and reprints


  1. ^ Gunn, Mary (1981). Botanical exploration of southern Africa : an illustrated history of early botanical literature on the Cape flora : biographical accounts of the leading plant collectors and their activities in southern Africa from the days of the East India Company until modern times. L. E. W. Codd. Cape Town: Published for the Botanical Research Institute by A.A. Balkema. p. 16. ISBN 0-86961-129-1. OCLC 8591273.
  2. ^ a b Richardson, Tim (1 December 2007). "10 best Christmas reads: Nature's Alchemist: John Parkinson, Herbalist to Charles I by Anna Parkinson". The Daily Telegraph (Gardening). p. G5. Archived from the original on 5 May 2013.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Cahill, Hugh (April 2005). "Book of the month: Paradisi in sole, paradisus terrestri". Information Services and Systems, King's College London. Archived from the original on 23 June 2007. Retrieved 30 December 2014.
  4. ^ Medicorum Collegij Londinensis [College of Physicians of London] (1618). Pharmacopœia Londinensis in qua medicamenta antiqua et nova vsitatissima, sedulò collecta, accuratissimè examinata, quotidiana experientia confirmata describuntur. Opera Medicorum Collegij Londinensis. Ex serenissimi Regis mandato cum R.M. Priuilegio [London Pharmacopœia in which are Described the Most Useful Old and New Drugs, Diligently Collected, Very Accurately Examined, Confirmed by Daily Experience. The Work of the College of Physicians of London. By the Mandate of the Very Serene King with (?)R.M. Privilege] (in Latin). London: Printed by Edwardus [Edward] Griffin for Iohannis [John] Marriot, ad insigne iridis albæ in platea vulgò dicta Fleet-street [at the sign of the white iris in the square commonly called Fleet-street]. See "Treasures of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society's collections: Pharmacopoeia Londinensis 1618 (the London pharmacopoeia)". The Pharmaceutical Journal. London: Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain. 273: 299. 28 August 2004. ISSN 0031-6873..
  5. ^ a b Linh Tran. "Theatrum Botanicum: The Theater of Plants, or, An Herbal of a Large Extent". Texas A&M University Bioinformatics Working Group. Retrieved 24 November 2007.
  6. ^ a b c d e f Parkinson, Anna (17 November 2007). "John Parkinson: An ancient alchemist's wisdom [print version: Unearthing an ancient alchemist's wisdom]". The Daily Telegraph (Gardening). p. G3. Archived from the original on 21 April 2013.
  7. ^ Henrey, Blanche (1975). British Botanical and Horticultural Literature before 1800: Comprising a History and Bibliography of Botanical and Horticultural Books Printed in England, Scotland, and Ireland from the Earliest Times until 1800. London: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-211548-0.
  8. ^ Hunt, Rachel McMasters Miller (1991). Catalogue of Botanical Books in the Collection of Rachel McMasters Miller Hunt. New York, N.Y.: Maurizio Martino.
  9. ^ Parkinson 1629, p.103 .
  10. ^ The poem reads:

    Qui vent parangonner l'artifice a Nature
    Et nos pares a l'Eden indiscret il mesure.
    Le pas de l'Elephant par le pas du ciron,
    Et de l'Aiglele vol parcil du mouscheron.

  11. ^ a b c Wroe, Ann (17 January 2008). "Herbalist to the King [print version: True to his roots]". The Daily Telegraph (Review). p. 24. Archived from the original on 3 February 2008. Retrieved 16 November 2021.
  12. ^ Riddell, John (1986). "John Parkinson's Long Acre Garden 1600–1650". Journal of Garden History. 6 (2): 112–124. doi:10.1080/01445170.1986.10405163.
  13. ^ There is no extant memorial to Parkinson at St Martin-in-the-Fields. The present church was completed in 1726 and in the process records of the locations of all original burials were lost. Ledger slabs from earlier memorials exist, but James Gibbs, the architect of the new church building, used them as paving stones and there is no clear record of which slab is where: personal e-mail communication between Jacklee and Mr. Chris Brooker, Parish Clerk of St Martin-in-the-Fields, on 3 December 2007.
  14. ^ Later republished in book form as Ewing, Juliana Horatia Gatty (1886). Mary's Meadow, and Letters from a Little Garden. London: Christian Knowledge Society. See Ewing, Juliana Horatia Gatty. "Mary's Meadow and Letters from a Little Garden". A Celebration of Women Writers, Digital Library Projects, University of Pennsylvania Libraries. Retrieved 1 December 2007.
  15. ^ van de Passe, Crispijn [the Elder] (1614–1617). Hortus floridus in quo rariorum & minus vulgarium florum icones ad vivam varamq[ue] formam accuratissime delineatae et secundum quatuor anni tempora divisae exhibentur incredibili labore ac diligentia Crisp. Passaei junioris delineatae ac suum in ordinem redactae [Floral Garden in which are Exhibited Images of Rather Rare and Less Common Flowers, in Living and True Form, Delineated Very Accurately and Divided According to the Four Seasons of the Year, Exhibited by the Unbelievable Labour and Diligence of Crispus Passaeus the Younger, Delineated and Brought Back into their Own Order]. Arnheimij [Arnhem]: Ioannem Ianssonium [?Jan Janszoon the Elder].
  16. ^ Gerard, John (1597). Thomas Johnson (ed.). The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes... Very Much Enlarged and Amended by Thomas Johnson, etc. London: Edm. Bollifant for Bonham Norton and Iohn Norton. Later editions were published in 1630 (publisher and place of publication unknown), and 1633 and 1636 (London: Adam Islip, Ioice Norton and Richard Whitakers). The book has been republished in the following versions:
    • Gerard, John (1927). Marcus Woodward (ed.). Gerard's Herball: The Essence thereof Distilled by Marcus Woodward from the edition of Th. Johnson, 1636. London: Gerald Howe.
    • Gerard, John (1971). Marcus Woodward (ed.). Gerard's Herball: The Essence thereof Distilled by Marcus Woodward from the Edition of Th. Johnson, 1636. London: Minerva Press. ISBN 0-85636-001-5.
    • Gerard, John (1975). Thomas Johnson (ed.). The Herbal: Or, General History of Plants. New York, N.Y.: Dover Publications. ISBN 0-486-23147-X.
  17. ^ International Plant Names Index.  John Parkinson.


The Endive, illustrated in the second edition of Paradisi in Sole (1656).


Further reading[edit]

Some works listed in this section were obtained from Cahill, Hugh (April 2005). "Book of the month : Paradisi in sole, paradisus terrestri". Information Services and Systems, King's College London. Archived from the original on 26 May 2007. Retrieved 30 November 2007.

External links[edit]