A Source Book in Greek Science

Author: Theophrastus




Theophrastus, History of Plants VIII. 7.6–7; II. 2.7–12. Translation of Arthur Hort

VIII. 7.6. For growth and nourishment the climate is the most important factor, and in general the character of the season as a whole; for when rain, fair weather, and storms occur opportunely, all crops bear well and are fruitful, even if they be in soil which is impregnated with salt or poor. Wherefore there is an apt proverbial saying that "it is the year which bears and not the field."

But the soil also makes much difference, according as it is fat or light, well watered or parched, and it also makes quite as much difference what sort of air and of winds prevails in that region; for some soils, though light and poor, produce a good crop because the land has a fair aspect in regard to sea breezes. But, as has been repeatedly said already, the same breeze has not this effect in all places; some places are suited by a west, some by a north, some by a south wind.

Again the working of the soil and above all that which is done before the sowing has an important effect; for when the soil is well worked it bears easily. Also dung is helpful by warming and ripening the soil, for manured land gets the start by as much as twenty days of that which has not been manured. However, manure is not good for all crops; and further it is beneficial not only to corn and the like but to most other things, except fern, which they say it destroys if it is put on. (Fern is also destroyed if sheep lie on it, and, as some say, lucerne is destroyed by their dung and urine.)

II. 2.7. . .In some places, as at Philippi, the soil seems to produce plants which resemble their parent; on the other hand a few kinds in some few places seem to undergo a change, so that wild seed gives a cultivated form, or a poor form one actually better. We have heard that this occurs, but only with the pomegranate, in Egypt and Cilicia; in Egypt a tree of the acid kind both from seeds and from cuttings produces one whose fruit has a sort of sweet taste, while about Soli in Cilicia near the river Pinaros (where the battle with Darius was fought) all those pomegranates raised from seed are without stones.

If anyone were to plant our palm at Babylon, it is reasonable to expect that it would become fruitful and like the palms of that country. And so would it be with any other country which has fruits that are congenial to that particular locality; for the locality is more important than cultivation and tendance. A proof of this is the fact that things transplanted thence become unfruitful, and in some cases refuse to grow altogether.

There are also modifications due to feeding and attention of other kinds, which cause the wild to become cultivated, or again cause some cultivated kinds to go wild, such as pomegranate and almond. Some say that wheat has been known to be produced from barley, and barley from wheat, or again both growing on the same stool; but these accounts should be taken as fabulous. Anyhow those things which do change in this manner do so spontaneously,1 and the alteration is due to a change of position (as we said happens with pomegranates in Egypt and Cilicia), and not to any particular method of cultivation.

So too is it when fruit-bearing trees become unfruitful, for instance the persion when moved from Egypt, the date-palm when planted in Hellas, or the tree which is called "poplar" in Crete, if anyone should transplant it. Some again say that the sorb becomes unfruitful if it comes into a very warm position, since it is by nature cold-loving. It is reasonable to suppose that both results follow because the natural circumstances are reversed, seeing that some things entirely refuse to grow when their place is changed. Such are the modifications due to position.

As to those due to method of culture, the changes which occur in things grown from seed are as was said; (for with things so grown also the changes are of all kinds). Under cultivation the pomegranate and the almond change character, the pomegranate if it receives pig-manure and a great deal of river water, the almond if one inserts a peg and removes for some time the gum which exudes and gives the other attention required. In like manner plainly some wild things become cultivated and some cultivated things become wild; for the one kind of change is due to cultivation, the other to neglect: however, it might be said that this is not a change but a natural development towards a better or an inferior form; (for that it is not possible to make a wild olive, pear, or fig into a cultivated olive, pear, or fig). As to that indeed which is said to occur in the case of the wild olive, that if the tree is transplanted with its top-growth entirely cut off, it produces "coarse olives," this is no very great change. However, it can make no difference which way1 one takes this.


Theophrastus, History of Plants IV. 8.1–4. Translation of Arthur Hort

Next we must speak of plants which live in rivers, marshes, and lakes. Of these there are three classes, trees, plants of "herbaceous" character, and plants growing in clumps. By "herbaceous" I mean here such plants as the marsh celery and the like; by "plants growing in clumps" I mean reeds, galingale, phleo, rush, sedge—which are common to almost all rivers and such situations.

And in some such places are found brambles, Christ’s thorn, and other trees, such as willow, abele, plane. Some of these are water plants to the extent of being submerged, while some project a little from the water; of some again the roots and a small part of the stem are under water, but the rest of the body is altogether above it. This is the case with willow, alder, plane, lime, and all water-loving trees.

These too are common to almost all rivers, for they grow even in the Nile. However, the plane is not abundant by rivers, while the abele is even more scarce, and the manna-ash and ash are commonest. At any rate, of those that grow in Egypt the list is too long to enumerate separately; however, to speak generally, they are all edible and have sweet flavours. But they differ in sweetness, and we may distinguish also three as the most useful for food, namely, the papyrus, the plant called sari, and the plant which they call mnasion.

The papyrus does not grow in deep water, but only in a depth of about two cubits and sometimes shallower. The thickness of the root is that of the wrist of a stalwart man, and the length above four cubits; it grows above the ground itself, throwing down slender matted roots into the mud, and producing above the stalks which give it its name "papyrus"; these are three-cornered and about ten cubits long, having a plume which is useless and weak, and no fruit whatever; and these stalks the plant sends up at many points.

1 I.e., cultivation has nothing to do with it.

1 I.e., whether nature or man is said to cause the admitted change.


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Chicago: Theophrastus, "Plants of Rivers, Marshes, and Lakes," A Source Book in Greek Science, trans. Arthur Hort in A Source Book in Greek Science, ed. Morris R. Cohen and I. E. Drabkin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1948), 460–463. Original Sources, accessed July 23, 2024, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DKUVPZGZIKC1DC3.

MLA: Theophrastus. "Plants of Rivers, Marshes, and Lakes." A Source Book in Greek Science, translted by Arthur Hort, Vol. IV, in A Source Book in Greek Science, edited by Morris R. Cohen and I. E. Drabkin, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1948, pp. 460–463. Original Sources. 23 Jul. 2024. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DKUVPZGZIKC1DC3.

Harvard: Theophrastus, 'Plants of Rivers, Marshes, and Lakes' in A Source Book in Greek Science, trans. . cited in 1948, A Source Book in Greek Science, ed. , Harvard University Press, Cambridge, pp.460–463. Original Sources, retrieved 23 July 2024, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DKUVPZGZIKC1DC3.