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William Curtis and "The Botanical Magazine, or, Flower-Garden Displayed"


The world's longest running botanical magazine was (eventually) named after its founder William Curtis (1746–1799), who was an English botanist and entomologist. From 1771 to 1777 Curtis worked as demonstrator of plants and Praefectus Horti at the Chelsea Physic Garden, which was established a century earlier by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries for its apprentices to study the medicinal qualities of plants. 

In 1778 Curtis published Proposals for Opening by Subscription, A Botanic Garden, to be Called the London Botanic Garden: Designed for the Use of the Physician, the Apothecary, the Student in Physic, and a year later he managed to create it. At that time he was already working on  Flora Londinensis (6 vols., 1777–1798; an abridgement 1792; and a new enl. ed 1835). This pioneering study devoted to urban nature did not bring him financial success. While working on it he published other books:

It was ultimately the magazine which he started publishing in 1787 that did bring him financial success. It had a long title, characteristic of that epoch: 

  • The Botanical Magazine; or, Flower-Garden Displayed in which the most Ornamental Foreign Plants, cultivated in the Open Ground, the Green-House, and the Stove, are accurately represented in their natural Colours. To which are added, Their Names, Class, Order, Generic and Specific Characters, according to the celebrated Linnæus; their Places of Growth, and Times of Flowering together with the most approved methods of culture. A work intended for the Use of such Ladies, Gentlemen, and Gardeners, as wish to become scientifically acquainted with the Plants they cultivate. 

The financial success of the 14 volumes that were released by 1800 had a lot to do with including in them hand colored, elegant botanical plates by artists such as James Sowerby (1857-1822) and Sydenham Edwards (1768-1819), both of whom also worked with Curtis illustrating his Flora Londinensis . The often-repeated claim that Irish-born botanical artist and calico-pattern designer William Kilburn (1745-1818) was also involved in illustrating the magazine has been dismissed by E. Charles Nelson (look up his 2008 article in Academic Search Premier).

Amaryllis Vittata. Superb Amaryllis. Of what country it is a native is not known with certainty, most probably of the Cape, was first introduced into England by Mr. Malcolm.
Ferraria Undulata. Curled Ferraria. In the vegetable line, it is certainly one of the most singular and beautiful of natures productions; much it is to be regretted that its flowers are of very short duration, opening in the morning and finally closing in the afternoon of the same day.

Each issue carried on an average 3 plates which more then 200 years later are still in superb condition. Some 3,000 copies of each issue of The Botanical Magazine, or, Flower-Garden Displayed  were printed and sold. After Curtis died the magazine has been continued as:

​Two volumes of his Lectures on Botany, As Delivered to his Pupils were arranged by Samuel Curtis and appeared posthumously (1803-1804) as did some of his other works. 

Cistus Ladaniferus. Gum Cistus is native of Spain and Portugal, prefers a dry soil and warm sheltered situation, and in very severe seasons requires some kind of covering.

Scilla Campanulata . Though not remarkable for the fineness of its colours, or pleasing from its fragrance, it contributes with other bulbous plants to decorate the flower border or plantation in the spring, when flowers are most wanted.

The illustrations in his magazine depict both familiar and unusual plants. Curtis had to defend himself for including the common plants. He wrote in volume 3: "(...) It has been suggested by some of our readers, that too many common plants, like the present, are figured in this work. We wish it to be understood, that the professed design of the Botanical Magazine is to exhibit representations of such. We are desirous of putting it in the power of all who cultivate or amuse themselves with plants, to become scientifically acquainted with them, as far as our labours extend; and we deem it of more consequence, that they should be able to ascertain such as are to be found in every garden, than such as they may never have an opportunity of seeing. On viewing the representations of objects of this sort, a desire of seeing the original is naturally excited, and the pleasure is greatly enhanced by having it in our power to possess it. But, while we are desirous of thus creating Botanists, we are no less anxious to gratify the wishes of those already such; and we believe, from a perusal of the Magazine, it will appear that one-third of the plants figured, have some pretensions to novelty.(...)"

The Hibiscus syriacus, known generally by the name of Althæa frutex, is a native of Syria.

Golden-Flowerd Henbane. A native of Crete, and other parts of the East. 


Illustrations in this blog are from volumes 3 (1790) and 4 (1791).

​In 1931 the Royal Horticultural Society published a book compiled by Ernest Nelmes and William Cuthbertson: Curtis's Botanical Magazine Dedications, 1827-1927 : Portraits and Biographical Notes which is one of the best resources for more information about this impressive publication. 

Please also consult numerous blogs by our Kenneth Johnson who has been posting contemporary plant patents (yes plants are patented!).

This species, by far the most magnificent of the Iris tribe, is a native of Persia, from a chief city of which it takes the name of Surfing; Linnæus informs us, that it was imported into Holland from Constantinople in 1573.

The Centaurea montana is a native of the German Alps, flowers during the greatest part of the summer, is a hardy perennial, and will grow in any soil or situation, some will think too readily.


The Gorteria, of which there are several species, and most of them, like the present, natives of the Cape, has been named in honour of David de Gorter, author of the Flora Zutphanica and Ingrica
The Bladder Senna, a native of the South of France and Italy, produces a profusion of bloom from June to August, when its inflated pods please from the singularity of their appearance; on these accounts, it is one of the most common flowering shrubs cultivated in gardens and plantations



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