Literary Landscapers: horticulture in the special collections

November’s blog post featured Philip Miller’s Gardeners’ dictionary (1731), collecting names and offering advice for his fellow gardeners. This month the Special Collections blog further explores the theme of horticulture in early printed books.

In commodum ruralium, or the Ruralia Commoda, Pietro de Crescenzi, c. 1490-95.

The Ruralia Commoda by Pietro de Crescenzi of Bologna was originally written c. 1305. In 1471, it became the first printed modern book on farming, and for a century remained a hugely popular and widely translated text. It notably featured in the libraries of royal figures such as Henry VIII due to its section instructing kings and lords on how to lay out a regal garden.


De herbis caeterisque simplicis medicinalibus, Dietrich Dorsten, 1540.

Dorsten’s text, which depicts different herbs and their use in medicine, would likely have been used as a guidebook by a medical student or professional. The copy at St John’s has been thoroughly consulted and comes with numerous annotations. The woodcut illustrations have also been hand coloured. Sadly, a lost title page means that the name of the dedicated owner remains a mystery.


Maison rustique, or, The countrey farme, Charles Estienne, 1616.

Estienne, better known for his works on anatomy, compiled ancient agricultural texts from different languages in 1554 to create the Maison rustique. The book includes diagrams and calendars instructing the reader on various topics within farm management.


Theatrum Botanicum, or, The theater of plantes, John Parkinson, 1640.

John Parkinson was a key Renaissance botanist, acting as apothecary to James I and Royal Botanist to Charles I. His Theatrum Botanicum was written as a comprehensive guide for apothecaries and features over 3,800 plants. When Henrietta Maria came to England as Charles’ bride, Parkinson allegedly introduced her to the world of horticulture and later dedicated a book to her.


Sylva, or, A discourse of forest-trees, John Evelyn, 1664.

John Evelyn’s Sylva is a foundational text on forestry and the first book published by the Royal Society. The text urges the reader to plant forest trees in order to prevent the collapse of the British tinder stock. Its themes still resonate, and a New Sylva was written in 2014 by Gabriel Hemery and Sarah Simblet featuring updated descriptions and illustrations for a 21st century audience. While Evelyn’s original text primarily focuses on forestry, some interesting supplements include horticultural calendars and instruction on making cider.


The practical kitchen gardiner, Stephen Switzer, 1727.

Stephen Switzer was an accomplished designer and landscaper of gardens, contributing to the creation of famous gardens at locations such as Castle Howard and Grimsthorpe Castle. He notably created the term ferme orneé or ‘ornamental farm’, combining the beauty of the garden with the practicality of the farm. This philosophy can be seen in this Practical kitchen gardiner, which contains both horticultural instruction and fold-out diagrams of intricate gardens.

For further information on gardens and their history, readers should consult the Landscape Gardening books in our Architecture section at shelfmark ARCH / 423.

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