Edinburgh World Heritage - The Plant Man - John Hope, 1725-1786, Botanist

The Plant Man - John Hope, 1725-1786, Botanist

John Hope, the botanist, turned Edinburgh’s botanic garden into a world leader in the study and cultivation of plants. He was also a little bit obsessed with rhubarb…

The garden where doctors were trained in how to use plants for medicine – known as a physic garden – once stood where Waverley Station is now. By the 1760s it was simply too small, and so Dr. John Hope decided to have it moved, plant by plant, across the city to Leith Walk, and transformed it into a world leading Royal Botanic Garden. He was passionate about plants!

Hope used to teach trainee doctors about plants, which were essential for medicines at this time. His lectures were well known, because they took place in the botanic garden, and he used beautiful hand painted illustrations to help his students learn.

One of his favourite plants was rhubarb. Like other 18th century people Hope was interested in bowel movements, and rhubarb helped people to go to the toilet. Hope planted 3000 rhubarb plants in Leith Walk, and once said that one of his greatest achievements was that, thanks to his championing of a special medicinal rhubarb, barely a garden in Scotland did not grow the plant by the 1780s!

Another plant which interested him was asafoetida. It is used in medicine and Indian and Middle Eastern cooking, and it is often used in lentil dhal. He gave samples to the aristocracy. Uncooked it smells terrible, indeed the Germans call it “devil’s dung”. Cooked in oil it smells more like onions.
As well as being a botanist John Hope was also a medical doctor, and he would often advise people on which plants to use if they got sick.

Why is he so important?
- He used innovative methods to teach people about plants, using beautiful paintings of flowers and undertaking experiments
-    He had plants sent to him from all over the world, some of which he grew in the garden, and others which he dried and preserved in a herbarium - some of which still survive today
-    He changed the way people designed gardens, mixing trees, shrubs and flowers, as well as organising them in a new way (the Linnaeus system)

Things to do:
Have a go at one of John Hope's experiments which use plants to test the power of light and gravity

Have a go
Try drying and pressing plants like in a herbarium

The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and see the very classroom where Hope taught

Curriculum links: Expressive Arts, Health and Wellbeing, Languages, Sciences

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