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Matthias De L'obel / Lobelius

Matthias De L'obel / Lobelius. A fleming who settled in 1566 (died 1616). He was the first botanist to conceive the idea of arranging plants in natural orders.


A distinguished botanical author and traveller who did much to arouse interest in British field-botany and gave an impetus to its study was Matthias De L'Obel, better known as Lobelius, a Fleming who settled in England in 1566, and became physician to James I. After working in this country for a while with his friend Pena, they jointly published in 1570 the Stirpium Adversaria, through which L'Obel is chiefly remembered. As a naturalist this author was far in advance of his British contemporaries. He was the first botanist to conceive the idea of arranging plants in natural orders. The Adversaria has little bearing upon the medical uses or curative properties of herbs. It is an illustrated descriptive work, in which a great number of species-many British, but the bulk from Southern Europe-are roughly placed in groups very much as they would be to-day under Cruciferae, Leguminosae, Labiatae, Gramineae, etc. Moreover, some of the plant names used were adopted by Linneus and continue with us unaltered; e.g., Chrysanthemum segetum, and Phlomis Lychnitis. L'Obel's industry must have equalled his botanical insight; for within four years his researchers enabled him to publish first records for as many as eighty British flowering plants. Ten of these were detected by him near Bath of Bristol. Serveral are comparatively common, but great interest attaches to two or three of the local discoveries; for instance, Euphorbia pilosa at Prior Park where it still grows, and the two prickly-headed poppies found in Somerset cornfields. At that date corn crops must have covered a larger proportion of tilled land than they now do, and the last mentioned plants may have been more frequent than they are at present. I cannot fix the date of L'Obel's first visit to Bristol, but it must certainly have taken place between 1566 and 1570, very probably in 1569, judging from the expressions "superiore anno" and "aestate superiore" used when Bristol plants are mentioned. He must have been here in spring as well as in late summer, for of Ornithogalum luteum (Gagea) he says, "Angliae nemorosis Sommerseti collegimus." And there was a later visit, in 1581, when he was accompanied to Bristol by the celebrated Clusius, then making a long stay in England. L'Obel speaks of travelling by the high road from London through Marlborough and Chippenham, to Bath and Bristol; whence he reached the channel and Steep Holm on his way into "both Wales and the shires neare thereunto" as Parkinson tells us of him. Together with a few Swiss friends he went to see the hot springs at Bath, and whilst there found amongst some ruins "in the mole templi diruti Bathoniae," a perplexing plant that cannot be recognised from the description given. Reference is made to it later under Verbascum. On St. Vincent's Rocks he gathered several of our rarer flowers, and saw an abundance of a remarkable fern-some variety of Hartstongue-which has long since totally disappeared. He got also Chlora, and Hypericum hirsutum in Leigh Woods. To him Bristol was "urbs peramoena," a place of pleasant remembrances. We hear of a sunny garden, perhaps on the Kingsdown slope, where L'Obel was presented with a ripe or well-grown Mandrake-whether fruit or root is not stated, but it was probably the former-and of Edward Saintloo's hospitable entertainment on the Somerset side of the city, where grew plenty of Carduus eriophorus. At Steep Holm, where L'Obel does not appear to have seen the Paeony or the Great Wild Leek, he speaks of plucking a quantity of Suoeda fruticosa, "Blitum fruticosum maritimum" a plant which, from that day to this, has never been met with on our Channel shores. For that reason, and because limestone cliffs are practically impossible for the Shrubby Sea-blite-however loath we may be to impute error-we must consider that a mistake was made, and no explanation can now be hoped for. L'Obel's writings have never been translated into English.