John Parkinson (botanist)

John Parkinson (botanist) bigraphy, stories - English herbalist and botanist

John Parkinson (botanist) : biography

1567 – Summer 1650; buried 6 August 1650

John Parkinson (1567–1650; buried 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 Pharmacopœia Londinensis (London Pharmacopœia) in 1618. See .

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.

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). Later editions were published in 1630 (publisher and place of publication unknown), and 1633 and 1636 (London: Adam Islip, Ioice Norton and Richard Whitakers). The book has been republished in the following versions: