John Parkinson (1567 - 1650; died 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. 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. 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. He was on the committee that published their Pharmacopia Londinensis (London Pharmacopia) in 1618. Then, on the cusp of a new science, he became botanist to Charles I.
Anna Parkinson, a "distant descendant" 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." 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", to the queen. Blanche Henrey called the work the "earliest important treatise on horticulture published in England", 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."
The work, which describes the proper cultivation of plants in general, was in three sections: the flower garden, the kitchen garden, and the orchard garden. It did not include specific growing instructions for each type of plant, but at the start of each main section Parkinson provided 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 contained illustrations of almost 800 plants in 108 full-page plates. Most of these were original woodcuts made by the German 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 of Crispijn van de Passe the Elder.
Sometime in the 1630s, John Parkinson, with two other learned gentlemen, was summoned by Charles I to Windsor. The occasion was not an honour or a reprimand, but a consultation to see whether the King's unicorn horn was from a real unicorn or "a sea unicorn". The doctors considered the artefact; the news was not good.
Parkinson was just the man to ask. He might cut a shabby figure, with his untidily cropped hair and his threadbare, old-fashioned clothes, but he was one of the best apothecaries in England, and its finest herbalist. Besides, as a blunt northerner ("somewhat too tart and quick", as he admitted himself), he had no time for fancies and fantasies. He relied on observations and facts; gardener's dirt lay under his fingernails.
While other ostensibly learned men still believed that the barnacle goose was generated from spume and shells on the seashore, Parkinson called this an "admirable tale of untruth", and "utterly erronious ", "their breeding and hatching being found out by the Dutch and others in their navigations to the Northward...in Anno 1536".
In the years when America and Asia were being opened up by the Spanish, the English and the Dutch, Parkinson never left England. The new-found plants that fascinated him - Mimosa pudica, passion flowers, tomatoes, bananas - arrived as seeds, dried roots or half-dead cuttings brought to him by friends. From 1597 onwards, he attempted to grow them in his two-acre garden in Long Acre, the last remaining patch of countryside in the middle of a press of new houses.
An appendix in this delightful and poignant book shows the exotics, such as Indian gourd and Marvel of Peru, jostling with milkweed, cornflowers and thistles, ordinary flowers of the English fields and hedges, in a plot so beautiful that it drew many scholars and admirers.
In Paradisi in Sole Parkinson hinted that he hoped to add a fourth section, a garden of simples (medicinal herbs). 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). Theatrum Botanicum, with 1,688 pages of text, 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. He intended the book to be a reliable guide for apothecaries, and it remained so for more than a hundred years after his death. 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.
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. 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 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". However, struggles between Protestants and Catholics compelled Parkinson to keep a low profile. He did not attend any parish church. At the height of his success, the English Civil War (1642 - 1651) tore his family apart.
Parkinson's London house was in Ludgate Hill, but his botanical garden was in suburban Long Acre in Covent Garden, 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 that it was at least 2 acres (8,100 m2) 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. Thomas Johnson and the Hampshire botanist, John Goodyer, both gathered seeds there.
The city around him heaved with controversies - between the grocers and the apothecaries over selling cures, between the physicians and the apothecaries over dispensing medicines, between Catholics and Protestants and, in the last years of Parkinson's long life, between the King and Parliament. Secure in his small cottage among his flowers, he kept his head down.
For him the greatest excitement was to see a new hyacinth bloom, to observe the colours in a tulip grown from seed, or to see the fresh curling leaves of his rhubarb, the first grown successfully in England. He attended no parish church, keeping his Catholicism secret and probably, Anna Parkinson supposes, worshipping God in a safer way, by scrupulously observing and cataloguing His creation.
The great monasteries of England had disappeared when he was a child. With them had gone much practical knowledge of the medical and culinary uses of plants and flowers. Parkinson determined to catalogue their beauty and "vertues" in a new way, without recourse to fantasy or astrology, while not forgetting to include choice recipes for salads and soups.
His life's work was contained in two extraordinary books, the Paradisi in Sole: Paradisus Terrestris (his "feminine" work, a treatise on flowers, presented to Queen Henrietta Maria in 1629), and the Theatrum Botanicum, a complete Herbal in English with 1,688 pages of text, presented in 1638 to Charles. His labours earned him the "beautiful title" of Herbalist to the King, though with no salary.
Parkinson's works are forgotten now. It is an irony, as Anna Parkinson points out, that this should be, when NICHOLAS CULPEPER's largely astrological Herbal is still in print. But Parkinson always worked unshowily and slowly, letting himself be overtaken by younger, brasher plant enthusiasts like Thomas Johnson, who updated and corrected Gerard's Herbal of 1597 and, in the process, scooped some of Parkinson's rarities. ("While I beate the bushe, another entereth and eateth the birde.")
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 GERRARD , 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.
Parkinson died in the summer of 1650, and was buried at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, on 6 August. 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, 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."
His ambition was not to be famous or well known, but to tabulate knowledge responsibly for the generations to come.
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