John Parkinson (botanist)

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John Parkinson (botanist) : biography

1567 – Summer 1650; buried 6 August 1650
  • 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 poemThe poem reads: 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 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.

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 Gerard, 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.There is no extant memorial to Parkinson at St Martin-in-the-Fields. The present church was completed in 1726 and in the process records of the locations of all original burials were lost. Ledger slabs from earlier memorials exist, but James Gibbs, the architect of the new church building, used them as paving stones and there is no clear record of which slab is where: personal e-mail communication between Jacklee and Mr. Chris Brooker, Parish Clerk of St Martin-in-the-Fields, on 3 December 2007. 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,Later republished in book form as See 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."

Notes

Gallery

File:External Statues, Palm House, Sefton Park .jpg|John Parkinson marble by Léon Chavalliaud (1899), outside the Palm House at Sefton Park, Liverpool

Works

  • Folio. In some copies the title page is woodcut; in others it is printed (dated 1635). Later editions and reprints:
    • Folio.
    • Facsimile of the 1629 edition without the letterpress title page, made from copies in the Bodleian Library.
    • Facsimile of the 1629 edition.
  • Folio. Reprints: