Theophrastus: Περὶ φυτῶν ἱστορίας – Enquiry into Plants, Bk I

Book I Section 1

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[Introductory: How plants are to be classified; difficulty of defining what are the essential 'parts' of a plant, especially if plants are assumed to correspond to animals.]

In considering the distinctive characters of plants and their nature generally one must take into account their parts, their qualities, the ways in which their life originates, and the course which it follows in each case: (conduct and activities we do not find in them, as we do in animals). Now the differences in the way in which their life originates, in their qualities and in their life-history are comparatively easy to observe and are simpler, while those shewn in their 'parts' present more complexity. Indeed it has not even been satisfactorily determined what ought and what ought not to be called 'parts,' and some difficulty is involved in making the distinction.

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Now it appears that by a ‘part,' seeing that it is something which belongs to the plant's characteristic nature, we mean something which is permanent either absolutely or when once it has appeared (like those parts of animals which remain for a time undeveloped) —permanent, that is, unless it be lost by disease, age or mutilation. However some of the parts of plants are such that their existence is limited to a year, for instance, flower, ‘catkin,’ leaf, fruit, in fact all those parts which are antecedent to the fruit or else appear along with it. Also the new shoot itself must be included with these; for trees always make fresh growth every year alike in the parts above ground and in those which pertain to the roots. So that if one sets these down as ‘parts,' the number of parts will be indeterminate and constantly changing; if on the other hand these are not to be called ‘parts,' the result will be that things which are essential if the plant is to reach its perfection, and which are its conspicuous features, are nevertheless not ‘parts '; for any plant always appears to be, as indeed it is, more comely and more perfect when it makes new growth, blooms, and bears fruit. Such, we may say, are the difficulties involved in defining a 'part.'

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But perhaps we should not expect to find in plants a complete correspondence with animals in regard to those things which concern reproduction any more than in other respects; and so we should reckon as ‘parts' even those things to which the plant gives birth, for instance their fruits, although we do not so reckon the unborn young of animals. (However, if such a product seems fairest to the eye, because the plant is then in its prime, we can draw no inference from this in support of our argument, since even among animals those that are with young are at their best.)

Again many plants shed their parts every year, even as stags shed their horns, birds which hibernate their feathers, four-footed beasts their hair: so that it is not strange that the parts of plants should not be permanent, especially as what thus occurs in animals and the shedding of leaves in plants are analogous processes.

In like manner the parts concerned with reproduction are not permanent in plants; for even in animals there are things which are separated from the parent when the young is born, and there are other things which are cleansed away, as though neither of these belonged to the animal's essential nature. And so too it appears to be with the growth of plants; for of course growth leads up to reproduction as the completion of the process.

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And in general, as we have said, we must not assume that in all respects there is complete correspondence between plants and animals. And that is why the number also of parts is indeterminate; for a plant has the power of growth in all its parts, inasmuch as it has life in all its parts. Wherefore we should assume the truth to be as I have said, not only in regard to the matters now before us, but in view also of those which will come before us presently; for it is waste of time to take great pains to make comparisons where that is impossible, and in so doing we may lose sight also of our proper subject of enquiry. The enquiry into plants, to put it generally, may either take account of the external parts and the form of the plant generally, or else of their internal parts: the latter method corresponds to the study of animals by dissection.

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Further we must consider which parts belong to all plants alike, which are peculiar to some one kind, and which of those which belong to all alike are themselves alike in all cases; for instance, leaves roots bark. And again, if in some cases analogy ought to be considered (for instance, an analogy presented by animals), we must keep this also in view; and in that case we must of course make the closest resemblances and the most perfectly developed examples our standard; and, finally, the ways in which the parts of plants are affected must be compared to the corresponding effects in the case of animals, so far as one can in any given case find an analogy for comparison. So let these definitions stand.

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[The essential parts of plants, and the materials of which they are made.] Now the differences in regard to parts, to take a general view, are of three kinds: either one plant may possess them and another not (for instance, leaves and fruit), or in one plant they may be unlike in appearance or size to those of another, or, thirdly, they may be differently arranged. Now the unlikeness between them is seen in form, colour, closeness of arrangement or its opposite, roughness or its opposite, and the other qualities; and again there are the various differences of flavour. The inequality is seen in excess or defect as to number or size, or, to speak generally, all the above-mentioned differences too are included under excess and defect:

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for the ‘more' and the ‘less' are the same thing as excess and defect, whereas ‘differently arranged ' implies a difference of position; for instance, the fruit may be above or below the leaves, and, as to position on the tree itself, the fruit may grow on the apex of it or on the side branches, and in some cases even on the trunk, as in the sycamore; while some plants again even bear their fruit underground, for instance arakhidna and the plant called in Egypt uingon; again in some plants the fruit has a stalk, in some it has none. There is a like difference in the floral organs: in some cases they actually surround the fruit, in others they are differently placed: in fact it is in regard to the fruit, the leaves, and the shoots that the question of position has to be considered.

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Or again there are differences as to symmetry: in some cases the arrangement is irregular, while the branches of the silver-fir are arranged opposite one another; and in some cases the branches are at equal distances apart, and correspond in number, as where they are in three rows.

Wherefore the differences between plants must be observed in these particulars, since taken together they shew forth the general character of each plant.

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But, before we attempt to speak about each, we must make a list of the parts themselves. Now the primary and most important parts, which are also common to most, are these—root, stem, branch, twig; these are the parts into which we might divide the plant, regarding them as members, corresponding to the members of animals: for each of these is distinct in character from the rest, and together they make up the whole.

The root is that by which the plant draws its nourishment, the stem that to which it is conducted. And by the 'stem' I mean that part which grows above ground and is single; for that is the part which occurs most generally both in annuals and in long-lived plants; and in the case of trees it is called the 'trunk.' By 'branches' I mean the parts which split off from the stem and are called by some 'boughs.' By 'twig' I mean the growth which springs from the branch regarded as a single whole, and especially such an annual growth.

Now these parts belong more particularly to trees.

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The stem however, as has been said, is more general, though not all plants possess even this, for instance, some herbaceous plants are stemless; others again have it, not permanently, but as an annual growth, including some whose roots live beyond the year. In fact your plant is a thing various and manifold, and so it is difficult to describe in general terms: in proof whereof we have the fact that we cannot here seize on any universal character which is common to all, as a mouth and a stomach are common to all animals;

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whereas in plants some characters are the same in all, merely in the sense that all have analogous characters, while others correspond otherwise. For not all plants have root, stem, branch, twig, leaf, flower or fruit, or again bark, core, fibres or veins; for instance, fungi and truffles; and yet these and such like characters belong to a plant's essential nature. However, as has been said, these characters belong especially to trees, and our classification of characters belongs more particularly to these; and it is right to make these the standard in treating of the others.

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Trees moreover shew forth fairly well the other features also which distinguish plants; for they exhibit differences in the number or fewness of these which they possess, as to the closeness or openness of their growth, as to their being single or divided, and in other like respects. Moreover each of the characters mentioned is not 'composed of like parts'; by which I mean that though any given part of the root or trunk is composed of the same elements as the whole, yet the part so taken is not itself called 'trunk,' but 'a portion of a trunk.' The case is the same with the members of an animal's body; to wit, any part of the leg or arm is composed of the same elements as the whole, yet it does not bear the same name (as it does in the case of flesh or bone); it has no special name. Nor again have subdivisions of any of those other organic parts which are uniform special names, subdivisions of all such being nameless. But the subdivisions of those parts which are compound have names, as have those of the foot, hand, and head, for instance, toe, finger, nose or eye. Such then are the largest parts of the plant.

Book I Section 2

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Again there are the things of which such parts are composed, namely bark, wood, and core (in the case of those plants which have it), and these are all 'composed of like parts.' Further there are the things which are even prior to these, from which they are derived—sap, fibre, veins, flesh: for these are elementary substances—unless one should prefer to call them the active principles of the elements; and they are common to all the parts of the plant. Thus the essence and entire material of plants consist in these.

Again there are other as it were annual parts, which help towards the production of the fruit, as leaf, flower, stalk (that is, the part by which the leaf and the fruit are attached to the plant), and again tendril, 'catkin' (in those plants that have them). And in all cases there is the seed which belongs to the fruit: by 'fruit ' is meant the seed or seeds, together with the seed-vessel. Besides these there are in some cases peculiar parts, such as the gall in the oak, or the tendril in the vine.

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In the case of trees we may thus distinguish the annual parts, while it is plain that in annual plants all the parts are annual: for the end of their being is attained when the fruit is produced. And with those plants which bear fruit annually, those which take two years (such as celery and certain others) and those which have fruit on them for a longer time—with all these the stem will correspond to the plant's length of life: for plants develop a stem at whatever time they are about to bear seed, seeing that the stem exists for the sake of the seed.

Let this suffice for the definition of these parts: and now we must endeavour to say what each of the parts just mentioned is, giving a general and typical description.

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The sap is obvious: some call it simply in all cases 'juice,’ as does Menestor among others: others, in the case of some plants give it no special name, while in some they call it 'juice,’ and in others 'gum.' Fibre and 'veins' have no special names in relation to plants, but, because of the resemblance, borrow the names of the corresponding parts of animals. It may be however that, not only these things, but the world of plants generally, exhibits also other differences as compared with animals: for, as we have said, the world of plants is manifold. However, since it is by the help of the better known that we must pursue the unknown, and better known are the things which are larger and plainer to our senses, it is clear that it is right to speak of these things in the way indicated:

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for then in dealing with the less known things we shall be making these better known things our standard, and shall ask how far and in what manner comparison is possible in each case. And when we have taken the parts, we must next take the differences which they exhibit, for thus will their essential nature become plain, and at the same time the general differences between one kind of plant and another.

Now the nature of the most important parts has been indicated already, that is, such parts as the root, the stem, and the rest: their functions and the reasons for which each of them exists will be set forth presently. For we must endeavour to state of what these, as well as the rest, are composed, starting from their elementary constituents.

First come moisture and warmth: for every plant, like every animal, has a certain amount of moisture and warmth which essentially belong to it; and, if these fall short, age and decay, while, if they fail altogether, death and withering ensue.

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Now in most plants the moisture has no special name, but in some it has such a name, as has been said: and this also holds good of animals: for it is only the moisture of those which have blood which has received a name; wherefore we distinguish animals by the presence or absence of blood, calling some 'animals with blood,’ others 'bloodless.' Moisture then is one essential 'part,’ and so is warmth, which is closely connected with it.

There are also other internal characters, which in themselves have no special name, but, because of their resemblance, have names analogous to those of the parts of animals. Thus plants have what corresponds to muscle; and this quasi-muscle is continuous, fissile, long: moreover no other growth starts from it either branching from the side or in continuation of it.

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Again plants have veins: these in other respects resemble the 'muscle,’ but they are longer and thicker, and have side-growths and contain moisture. Then there are wood and flesh: for some plants have flesh, some wood. Wood is fissile, while flesh can be broken up in any direction, like earth and things made of earth: it is intermediate between fibre and veins, its nature being clearly seen especially in the outer covering of seed-vessels. Bark and core are properly so called, yet they too must be defined. Bark then is the outside, and is separable from the substance which it covers. Core is that which forms the middle of the wood, being third in order from the bark, and corresponding to the marrow in bones. Some call this part the 'heart,’ others call it 'heart-wood': some again call only the inner part ot the core itself the 'heart,' while others distinguish this as the 'marrow.'

Here then we have a fairly complete list of the 'parts,’ and those last named are composed of the first 'parts'; wood is made of fibre and sap, and in some cases of flesh also; for the flesh hardens and turns to wood, for instance in palms ferula and in other plants in which a turning to wood takes place, as in the roots of radishes. Core is made of moisture and flesh: bark in some cases of all three constituents, as in the oak black poplar and pear; while the bark of the vine is made of sap and fibre, and that of the cork-oak of flesh and sap. Moreover out of these constituents are made the most important parts, those which I mentioned first, and which may be called 'members': however not all of them are made of the same constituents, nor in the same proportion, but the constituents are combined in various ways.

Having now, we may say, taken all the parts, we must endeavour to give the differences between them and the essential characters of trees and plants taken as wholes.