Introduction to the March 2016 re-print.

Ok, it’s not really a diagrammatic flow-chart, but that’s the title I gave the original post, published March 18th., 2012 on a blog linked to “Findings” but entitled  Voynich imagery 2 ~ botanical folios. Both of those blogs are now locked.

I have reprinted to this blog only a few of my analyses for the botanical folios,  so this won’t make as much sense as it did when first published, and when readers could link direct to the post which explained e.g. mangroves etc. and had about forty examples explained in detail with comparative imagery.  The post itself had a fairly lengthy lead-in, but I’ve left it in this reprint.

If it’s any consolation, the book I’m working on now will include about 20 of my analyses and id’s for the botanical section. I expect the book to be finished by the end of this year  (2016) though it’s up to the publisher to decide when it becomes available to different parts of the world.

One important point of difference between how these images are constructed and our own custom in taxonomy and image-making is that plants were defined, and associated with others of their perceived group, NOT by the flower as we would do, but by the form of leaf-and-petiole, habit and habitat.

The drawing of the leaf and petiole, and the way it attaches to the stalk, stem, or branch is always absolutely exact, literal and precise. If that doesn’t match your hypothetical id, then scrap the hypothetical id and look further. Except... except when the whole picture is formed as a mnemonic. This is relatively rare, and the only example that comes immediately to mind is that showing the Artocarpus group. In that folio, the whole image is designed to evoke a ‘dragon boat’ . It makes sense, because various of the Artocarpus group provide timber, wood-glue, long-life food, and even a safe means of keeping fire available without risk of fire at sea – so the Artocarpus group was a real treasure for the shipmen and mariners – and for those who supplied them.    The dragonboat festival celebrated a safe sailing season and included races along the major rivers from the sea.

Here’s that post, reprinted. Hope it’s still of some use. Let me know.

 Sunday, March 18, 2012

The identification ‘flow-chart’

I’ve been asked whether or not I start by hunting manuscripts for plants which resemble those in the botanical folios. To say ‘no’ may just seem perverse, or as if I’m relying on imagination. So I thought I’d summarise the points in a list which has evolved over the past three years of my own research, and which has increasingly proved very helpful. These days an identification can take as little as a day, where once it took no less than ten; and that’s one reason why the ‘banana plant’ post includes much less explanation than did early ones, such as the ‘sorrels’ group. I think the turning point came with discovering the structure used to compose the Myrobalans’ picture.

Anyway, here’s the makers’ conceptual “template” as it were. In explaining it system, I’ll  refer chiefly to one or other of two posts: that on the Artocarpus and that on the Mangroves, because although neither links to the Theophrastan corpus – no Mediterranean equivalents existed for those two groups – between them those two folios include examples of most items listed below  apart from that habitual reference to the Theophrastan ‘base type’ for the leaf. I omit the additional classes of root-type, and the system for those mnemonic elements set between the base of the stem and the root.

Whoever designed, or developed the images in the botanical section did not know the algorithmic (or ‘flow-chart’) method we use today to identify and classify plants, but for all that had a rational and logical approach.

Using the form of leaf, and a plant’s habit, as the basis for classification reflects a style attested in Mediterranean works from the time of Theophrastus, whose works I take as a defining corpus here.

[ 27/12/2016  – format glitch corrected; illustrations added]

In addition to that basic classification method, various parts of the drawing regularly include ‘cues’ (not ‘clues’) which indicate to the viewer just what constitutes that perceived ‘natural similarity’ uniting the plants referenced in a given botanical image.  All the botanical folios show a plant-group, not a single plant as we see in the Dioscuridan corpus, and in the Latin and then the Islamic afterwards.

The same  details (as ‘cues’) can indicate differences between the members in that same group, too, and do so clearly, and sometimes very precisely indeed. I would have liked to spend more time defining the leaf-classes and the classes intimated by variations in the style of root, but time has not permitted that yet.

I must make clear that this conceptual ‘template’ which informed the expression of these images did not emerge immediately, but with increasing clarity as the research proceeded.  So these points are not points of an hypothesis, so much as a list of observations – the patterns of consistency that emerged from the growing list of botanical ids.

Nor is this list a way to reach an initial identification for each folio’s plant-group.  It is more a way to keep posited identifications from going off the rails.   The Theophrastan corpus would appear to have been taken as the ‘base type’ when the makers formed these pictures, and so the eastern spinach vines have a leaf formed in the same way as the Mediterranean sorrel.  The Spinach vines, though eastern plants had and have equivalent uses (including as dye-plants) which the western sorrels did.  And the people who first constructed these images knew that.  However the Spinach vines are vines, where the sorrel isn’t – so the group is pictured with the undulating stem which indicates a vine in these folios… and that’s about as brief as I can make it.

1. Leaves… resemble a style for depicting a plant-type (x) from the Theophrastan corpus (Y/N)? THE LEAF and NOT THE FLOWER is the critical and defining element in these botanical folios. See e.g. style for depicting the sorrel.

if yes – if you recognise the leaf  as like a Mediterranean plant’s style in medieval or earlier images from Europe, then consider what Theophrastus has to say about that plant’s nature and uses now,  before proceeding … to step 2

if no…. if you cannot recognise the leaf as like a plant in the Theophrastan corpus, then on to step 2

2. Mnemonic

Is there a detailed mnemonic device at/near the point where root and stem meet?If yes , consult local names and/or vernacular Latin vocabularies to identify the reference here, and note down that the plant/s in the picture will have those routine associations – if you have rightly read the mnemonic!.. If you find this difficult in the early stages of identification, skip it and come back to it after an id is proposed.  But it must be consistent with any posited id.

and so..

[Habitat and Habit. – prelude..

Where a ground-line is drawn in detail (e.g. the mangroves) it indicates usual habitat. Among the more common are:-

*water (see posts on water-plants),

*lowland (usually tidal and/or sea-shore – again see mangroves)

*flat, brown, not emphasised – ordinary soil.]

to 3b..

3b  Is habitat indicated Y/N

If yes the plant will occur in that habitat. Plants which do not  belong there can be struck off the list of possibilities.

4. Is the plant cultivated (i.e has it a circumscription mark?) Y/N

fol 53 v circumscription mark

If yes , discard from the list of possibilities any plants not known as having been under cultivation in the east before the fifteenth century (or more probably, before the thirteenth century), then move to 5

If no, discard any plants known to have been chiefly cultivated ones – move to 5.



5. Are the roots drawn ‘flowing’ (e.g. myrobalans)

fol.22r detail

If yes , the plant is likely to yield an oil and or oily dye, employed for hair or textiles. (‘Likely’ because I have not yet classified  variations of  the  ‘flowing’ motifs). Go to 7

If no, go to 6

6. are the roots drawn as withies? (interlaced or interwoven with regular thicknesses – see mangroves post)

fol 43r Mangrove prob S alba and others

If yes , then one use for the plant will be to provide flexible lengths of wood, for such uses as stakes, staves and poles – in addition to any others. Go to 7

7. Is the habit..

*upright but very slender – a vine or creeper

*upright but thick – tree or tree-like

*spreading from close to ground level – a shrub or shrubby-looking plant

*springing sprouts from a cut bole – at least one member of the group is used for timber (in addition to any other uses).

Cross of the list of possibilities all which do not have that habit indicated. (The list should be fairly short by now).

… and to 8..

8. Are the leaves of a group shown densely massed, of near-identical shape, yet painted as variegated (cf. again image of the mangroves group – fol.43r).

The variegation indicates that these leaves have a noticeable difference in colour and tone on one side of the leaf as against the other.  Again cf. image of the mangrove group, which has a silvery colour to one side, noticeable at a distance.  One useful property of the mangrove was its collection and extrusion of salt crystals through the leaves. 9..

9. Are any flowers or buds shown?

If stylised, treat as a mnemonic (see above)

If apparently literal, use as a final test or refinement between species included in the picture, but only after an initial identification for the group by reference to leaf-type, petiole and whether leaves are alternate or opposite, to the plants’ common uses, habit, habitat and mnemonics.  Where the flower appears in the drawing may or may not be literal, and in general the flower is irrelevant to the ‘template’. It is added only if the flowers have an independent usefulness and commercial value. Except for folio 9v, which is anomalous for many reasons, the flowers are not used as a way to indicate the members of a plant-group.

..last checks.. go to 10

10. Having now made an identification, see if any root-mnemonics make sense to you.  If not, you may want to learn more about that group of plants and try to explain the mnemonic devices, or even re-think the identification.  And last of all

11. Anomalies. These are extra details usually specific only to one or two folios in the botanical section. As example the fish attached by its mouth to a hook, or the latex detail in the Artocarpus species.

Anomalies often point to – I’m tempted to say emphasise –  the commercial purpose for one particular plant a group, as with Artocarpus elasticus, treated as particularly important or even the essential item to be obtained.


After running through these initial checks you should have a basic list of features as criteria which have to be met by any posited identification.

Even before starting to consider particular plants, that search can be limited by knowing:

* where ( in terms of geography) the species, or most members of the group are likely to occur.

* a fair idea of the habitat usual for the group, or at least for its most important members.

* the group’s habit and general appearance, though within a shrubby group one or more members might differ – such as the way the convulvus differs from the hibiscus, though they are grouped together in the one folio’s image.

* whether or not the group was cultivated or  wild.

*some of the chief uses for the group – invariably defined in commercial terms.

*and, often as not, there will be some allusion to traditional  lore. (e.g. Peacock trees)..

The method of construction for the botanical imagery is systematic, rational and very clear – though not necessarily as clear to us as evidently it was to those for whom the images were designed.
Despite the present author’s being no botanist, the check-system outlined above does appear to explain the maker’s intentions and method, and it does get results. A fair bit of work is still needed, but the model appears so consistent that it is very difficult to get away with lazy or with overly imaginative identifications.

It must also be kept in mind that one or more of the plants may now be extinct. I believe this to be the case with the plant having an ‘eagle’ mnemonic. Documentary evidence suggests to me that the plant was the enormously popular “Eaglewood” which was in so much demand through the eastern seas – especially by China – that the plant is now said to be extinct, and no description of its appearance is known to exist.