Florilegium is a modern Latin term for a type of book composed of a collection of flowers, either literal drawings and descriptions of real flowers, or, metaphorically, a collection of the flowers of literature. We’ll explore the second type of book in another post, but for now let’s think about the florilegia created as botanical records.
Florilegia as literal collections of flowers emerged as a genre in the 1400s, with a few earlier works of a similar nature. Herbals were books devoted to the description of plants used for cooking or healing, and florilegia were devoted to ornamental plants and flowers. Botanical illustration as an art form rose in popularity as the interest in documenting plants increased, along with the ability to collect and distribute information.
At first, these books were gorgeous and expensive to produce, created at a time when private gardens were on the brink of becoming all the rage among wealthy Europeans. Before the printing press made books easy to reproduce, artists had to be commissioned, parchment had to be made (although starting around 1450 or so, paper became more commonly available), scribes needed to be engaged to handwrite the descriptions, and the pages, once completed, needed to be bound. Books of this type were private, shared with a select audience, and rarely served a public function.
Sweerts, E.: Florilegium amplissimum et selectissimum. Amstelodami: J. Janssonium, 1647-54.
Of course, the printing press changed everything, and between more readily found paper (by the 1600s, paper mills could be found all over Europe) and the ability to print multiple copies, the drawings and descriptions found in florilegia could be shared widely.
Passions for exotic plants collected from overseas travel spurred on the production of botanical illustrations as a way to share (or show off) one’s collection, especially as overseas exploration in the 1600s brought more variety. Later versions tended to focus on the plants and flowers growing in a specific region or garden, and the florilegia that survive often contain precious information about extinct or endangered species.
Florilegia strike me as the great-great-great-grandmothers of today’s gardening notebooks or nature journals. How so? While today’s gardeners aren’t going to hire an artist and plan a fancy book to show off, a modern gardening notebook documents both the current state of a garden, along with its past and future. Similarly, a nature journal is a collection of nature experiences, drawn or written by a regular person to document the experience. Both types of collections typically operate along a chronological timeline, noting what is happening when.
Gardening notebooks, though, have room to expand beyond simply documenting what is growing to include notes and reference material. Plant care information is collected, and logs are kept throughout the year to note watering and feeding efforts, pests noted and battled, and so on. In terms of function, a gardening notebook is valued more as a useful product rather than a creative experience in itself or a finished work of art, although there are exceptions.
Nature journals tend more towards combining the creative experience and finished product, depending on the mindset of the journaler.
To me, the value of a nature journal is in the experience of tuning into the natural world and tuning out my own thoughts and impressions. Similar to the way you are instructed in yoga class to focus on your breath, I say in nature journaling workshops: focus on one color, one line, one movement, just the one thing. Forget everything else.
I encourage people to draw on paper bags or plain paper on a clipboard, aiming for a process over a product. Other nature journalers draw in nice hardbound books, using a pen and watercolors, aiming for artistic integrity. In keeping a nature journal, your experiences of tuning into the natural world are collected and embodied in the material form of whatever kind of book you decide to keep