Exquisite rare antiquarian books plus the intriguing and fantastical stories behind many of our medicinal plants makes a fabulous Sydney exhibition. ‘HERBALS: Myths Magic, Medicine‘ at the Red Box Gallery, Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney. And don’t miss the zombie fungus!
Since earliest times, humans have used plants to aid in maintaining their health. This knowledge was preserved and compiled in handwritten, illuminated and later, printed books and almost always illustrated. These were Herbals and along with useful information; mythic tales, legends, bizarre and sometimes macabre magical remedies were recorded.
Curated by the Daniel Solander Library’s Miguel Garcia with the assistance of Dr Henry Oakley of the Royal College of Physicians London and also the generous Barry Kinnaird, who has donated many of the 16th-17th century framed illustrations on show to the Library, this new exhibition has a display books that will astonish you. Certainly I was astonished at the detail, the drawings, the writing, and the interesting ideas that bubble up from these historical herbals, dating from the late 15th century.
The companion booklet to the exhibition is also an excellent read as it looks in depth a seven medicinally important plants – Nicotiana sp, Galega officinalis, Cannabis sp, Artemisia annua, Cinchona sp, Digitalis purpurea, and Papaver somniferum. And as plant-based drugs still form the basis of 70% of our modern medicines, reading about these essential plants and examining these herbals should also remind us that today’s deforestation could mean that tomorrow’s wonder drug forever eludes us.
Highlights for me were:
• reading plant descriptions made before botanical words like petiole were used
• a facsimile copy of Gerard’s Herball or generale historie of plantes from 1636 you can read yourself
• understanding the terrible significance of scurvy – did you know more than 2 million sailors died of this disease?
• the parasitic zombie fungus!! As Miguel will tell you, a spookier and creepier thing than any sci-fi movie has dreamt up…
Herbals: Myth, Magic, Medicine
10am to 4pm, from 16 August to 16 September 2016
Red Box Gallery, National Herbarium of NSW, Mrs Macquarie’s Road, Sydney