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Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation

Virtues and Pleasures of Herbs through History

Physic, Flavor, Fragrance and Dye


Through history the virtues and pleasures of herbs have enhanced our daily lives and connected us to the natural world through all of our senses. Although botanists consider an herb to be a small seed-bearing, non-woody plant that dies back to the ground, for this exhibition we are using the broader horticultural description of any plant that is useful for many purposes. Through the centuries, herbs have been used not only for medicinal purposes but also to flavor and preserve food, to scent and protect household environments and to dye or stain the skin and textiles. Interest in the use of herbs has waxed and waned in modern times, but in recent decades renewed interest in natural and organic products has inspired recognition of the importance of these plants in all aspects of our lives. From the countless cultivated or wild herbs with overlapping applications we have chosen a selection within the four categories of physic, flavor, fragrance and dye. Each topic provides highlights of the usage of five herbs at specific points in history. All of the twenty herbs are illustrated by original watercolors and prints, rare books or manuscript pages from the Hunt Institute's Art, Library and Archives collections.

On display in the Hunt Institute's gallery from 22 March to 29 June 2007, the original exhibition was organized by Lugene Bruno (assistant curator of art, 1996–2009; curator of art, 2010–), Charlotte Tancin (librarian, 1987–) and Angela Todd (archivist, 2000–2013), with assistance by Western Pennsylvania Unit, Herb Society of America members Kathryn Giarratani, Nancy Hanst, Ruth Rouleau and Margaret Trevanion. This online adaptation does not contain all of the items that were on display in the original gallery exhibition.

Row 1 from left, Sage of Virtue [Salvia Linnaeus, Lamiaceae alt. Labiatae], hand-colored engraving by Cornelius Heinrich Hemmerich; Common Fennel [Foeniculum Miller, Apiaceae alt. Umbelliferae], unsigned hand-colored engraving by Cornelius Heinrich Hemmerich or James Basire; row 2 from left, Common Rosemary [Rosmarinus Linnaeus, Lamiaceae alt. Labiatae], hand-colored engraving by James Basire; Saffron [Crocus Linnaeus, Iridaceae], hand-colored engraving by Cornelius Heinrich Hemmerich after originals by Timothy Sheldrake (fl.1734–1759) for his Botanicum Medicinale: An Herbal of Medicinal Plants on the College of Physicians' List ... Most Beautifully Engraved on 120 Large Folio Copper-Plates (London, Printed for J. Millan, [?1759], pls. 94, 37, 88, 93), HI Library call no. DF5 S544B.