John Gerard - The Nantwich botanist, the first person to catalogue the potato

John Gerard's main claim to botanical fame is that he was the first person to catalogue the potato, 'solanum tuberosum'. But, born in Nantwich in 1545, John Gerard is something of a man of mystery WORDS BY MAGGIE CAMPBELL-CULVER

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the death of John Gerard, known as ‘the Nantwich botanist’. About a century and a half before Gerard was born in Nantwich and educated in the nearby village of Willaston, the inventions of paper making and printing were beginning to form his world.

Seemingly few details survive of his early life in Cheshire, although he may be descended from a branch of the Gerards of Ince in Lancashire. Likewise his move to London is a matter of conjecture, and he emerged from the shadows aged 17 in 1562 when it was recorded that he was apprenticed to the surgeon Alexander Mason of the Barber-Surgeons Company.

He completed the apprenticeship and was admitted to the freedom of the Company in 1569. During the 1570s he became superintendent of the gardens belonging to Lord Burghley (1520-98) both in London, at Cecil House on the Strand and in Hertfordshire where the gardens at Theobalds were being laid out, these were according to Sir Roy Strong considered to have been ‘the most influential of Elizabethan gardens’.

His gardening reputation rests on his two books, both lists of garden plants then in cultivation in English gardens. Gerard used his own garden, in Holborn, London, to compile the first which was known as ‘The Catalogue’. This appeared in 1596, and his second book was a translation from a Latin text which he completed in 1597 and called ‘The Great Herball, or General Historie of Plantes’.

Numerous native ‘Herbals’ had been published, but his list focused exclusively on garden flowers. Some of these had been discovered in newly explored parts of the world. There was the Yucca Yucca gloriosa, which arrived in England from Mexico during the 1550s, and was called the ‘Spanish Bayonet’, (Spain held sway in its native area). It was in 1593 that Gerard receiving the plant to try out in his garden, misreading the information he thought it was the Manioc plant, from the root of which comes cassava and that awful childhood favourite – tapioca!

So helpfully he catalogued the plant as ‘Yucca’ the Carib word for the Manioc. It was soon recognised as a case of mistaken identity, but by then the name was so commonplace that no one had the courage to change it.

Most Read

A ‘Lillie of Constantinople’ Lillium Bizantinum was listed by Gerard; it would have been strange if it had been omitted, as for over 1,000 years this was the only lily in cultivation. From the time of Charlemagne the flower had been revered as the flower of the Virgin Mary and today is known as the Madonna lily, Lillium chalcedonicum.

John Gerard recorded a number of southern European flora that had been made welcome in Britain from pre-Roman times, but it was plants from much further afield that were catching the eye of the 16th and 17th century gardener. There was ‘the blew bindweed’ collected from southern America and known now as Morning Glory (Ipomea indica), as well as the Canna (Canna indica) collected by Spanish travellers and brought home to Europe in 1568. About the same time, from Central America the ‘Great Flower of the Sunne’ Chrysanthemum Peruvianum began to make an impact, or as we more familiarly call it the Sunflower, Helianthus annuus.

Another newly introduced plant that Gerard listed was the French Marigold Tagetes patula which despite its name is a native of Mexico.It was brought to Britain with the French Huguenots during the 1570’s, and Gerard’s only comment was regarding its ‘disagreeable smell’ however the plant achieved popularity and is still a great favourite.

Perhaps John Gerard’s main claim to botanical fame is that he was the first person to catalogue the potato Solanum tuberosum, so important was it that it has been identified as the plant Gerard is holding in the portrait of him. Although the potato as a vegetable proved to be unpopular, right up to the mid-eighteenth century, the tuber had been known about and brought to Europe (from South America) by the mid-1570s, when Gerard catalogued it as ‘the potato of Virginia’.

Gerard’s ‘Catalogue’ of his garden plants amounts to about eight hundred names, many of them native growers, which were useful either medicinally or in the kitchen. John Evelyn the diarist and garden writer lists about the same number some sixty years later when he was compiling his ‘Kalendarium’. Most of the introduced plants were from Europe and the Mediterranean and only a very few came from further afield.

The importance of John Gerard is that he laid the foundation for the recording of garden plants. These eventually arrived from all over the world to fill our gardens, but it was his initial catalogue that set the trend for others to follow. So right up to the modern day gardeners can trace not only where plants originated from but when they arrived on these shores, and it is all the result of the initiative first shown by the sixteenth century Nantwich born John Gerard.


Maggie Campbell-Culver would like to thank the archivist Joy Thomas of the Barber Surgeons Company and Lynda Brooks of the Linnaean Society for help in the writing of this article.

Images by kind permission of the Linnean Society of London

The print version of this article appeared in the February 2012  issue of Cheshire Life 

We can deliver a copy direct to your door – order online here