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The Flowers of Spring as seen in Medical Botany by William Woodville

Posted by Jane Metters LaBarbara.
February 29th, 2016

Blog post by Stewart Plein, Rare Book Librarian.


Recent weather conditions have showered rain and snow on West Virginia with just a few sunny days sprinkled in between.  These bright days let us know that Spring is around the corner, but just how far away is that corner?  While it seems Spring may never get here, we can enjoy the flowers of Spring through the beauty of illustrated botanical and medical texts.  Let’s take a look at some of the beautiful flowers from William Woodville’s Medical Botany that can be found right here in West Virginia. 


Portrait of William Woodville

Portrait of Woodville

Title page of William Woodville’s Medical Botany book

Title Page

Colored book plate of crocus plant


William Woodville was an English physician with an interest in botany, particularly in the field of medical botany, which involves the study of plants for medicinal use.  Woodville’s interest led him to experiment with plants believed to have medicinal properties and as part of his studies he maintained a botanical garden at his own expense on two acres near the King’s Cross Hospital where he served as a physician.  Because of this work, Woodville was inducted into the Linnaean Society in 1791, a year after his master work, Medical Botany, was published.

Colored book plate of foxglove plant

Colored book plate of fern plant Colored book plate of ginseng plant

Foxglove, fern, and ginseng, all plants native to WV

Woodville’s Medical Botany is a classic botanical work.  Information within its pages included descriptions and commentaries of plants that have, or were believed to have, medicinal properties.  All the flowers pictured here can be found in West Virginia.

Crocuses may not be native to the state but they are blooming in my yard now.  The stamens of certain crocuses can be used as an herb in cooking, but they were also thought to be helpful when used for fevers and depression.  Today we know that foxglove, scientific name digitalis, is used in heart medicine.  Foxgloves can be seen growing wild near the entrance to Cathedral State Park.  The plant is poisonous and if taken improperly it can be fatal.

Ginseng, also known as “sang,” is well known for its medicinal properties and widely collected in West Virginia.  It be believed to lower blood sugar, aid in control of diabetes, and promote general well-being.  Ferns were considered by the Cherokees as sacred medicine.  The early fiddlehead fronds can be eaten in soups and sautéed like a vegetable, but they also have other medicinal uses.

Besides documenting a plant’s medical properties, Woodville’s Medical Botany is a work of great beauty as well.  Every plant described in the five volume set of Medical Botany is accompanied by an illustrated plate that was printed as a line drawing then colored by hand, as shown below.  The plates are exquisitely colored, beautiful in their shading of color and delicate in their subtlety and style.

Uncolored Iris book plate

Uncolored iris plate

Yellow colored Iris book plate

Colored iris plate

As originally published in 1790, Woodville’s Medical Botany was a three volume set.   Two volumes and a supplement were later published in 1792 – 1794 with plates by artist James Sowerby.  A third edition comprising the full five volume set was published in 1832.  Thirty-nine new plates were included in the third edition with descriptions by the world renowned botanist Sir William Hooker.

The West Virginia and Regional History Center Rare Book Room has three volumes of the five volume set.  It appears that the WVRHC set was used on field explorations as many of the plates are soiled and muddy.  Curiously, this does not affect the beauty of the plates.  They have retained their color, and the presence of the mud and dirt give a romantic impression of botanists in the field using these volume to identify medicinal plants.

Stop by to see these volumes and admire the beauty of their plates in the Rare Book Room at the West Virginia and Regional History Center.



Biographical information:

Rare Books from the MBG (Missouri Botanic Garden) Library:


Portrait of William Woodville: Bond, William  Public Domain,

Plant Portraits:



Uncolored Iris:

Colored Iris:


Health/medicinal information:

Fern uses:

Ginseng health benefits:

Medicinal uses of the crocus:

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