Friday, January 28, 2011

Name That Plant

Unicorn_in_Captivity Calendula_detail Doronicum_detail

Above: Three details from The Unicorn in Captivity, 1495–1505, South Netherlandish; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of John D. Rockefeller Jr., 1937 (37.80.6).

Many of the superbly rendered plants and flowers depicted in The Unicorn in Captivity are botanically correct: most are detailed portraits of individual species that are lifelike enough to be immediately identifiable; a number of others are somewhat stylized depictions that conform to a recognizable convention, and a few are so highly stylized that they can’t be given a specific identity. Medieval tapestries as late in date as this one (about the year 1500) have a much higher proportion of recognizable plants than millefleurs tapestries of the early fifteenth century, in which many if not all of the plants may be highly stylized generic types, rather than naturalistically rendered botanical species.

The extraordinary degree of verisimilitude with which most plants in the Unicorn Tapestries are represented is unmatched in other tapestries of comparable date and quality. Eighty-five of the 101 plants depicted in the tapestries were identified by two botanists, E. J. Alexander and C. H. Woodward, in an article first published in The Journal of the New York Botanical Garden (May 1941). The authors included a checklist of the plants of the tapestries, with a visual key to their position in each of the seven hangings. The article has been reprinted several times, in several contexts. (See the sources below for more information.) The taxonomic method used by Alexander and Woodward is a scientific method developed, long after the Middle Ages, for the identification and classification of all living things. Botanists and horticulturists use this method to “key out” the identity of a plant that is not immediately recognizable. The plant’s structure and parts are closely examined. These characteristics are checked against those of other plants of similar type in order to systematically narrow the range of possibilities and arrive at the positive identification of a distinct species or cultivated form. Some species are very variable in form, some are not. Even if the identification can’t be reduced to the rank of species or even genus, the family to which the plant belongs may be identifiable. This scientific method can be successfully applied to a work of art in which there is a relatively high degree of naturalism and specific detail, as in The Unicorn in Captivity. (See a special Explore & Learn feature for more plant identifications in this tapestry.)

Alexander and Woodward were able to identify two flowering plants in the same very large family, the Asteraceae or daisy family. The first of the two details above comes from the section of the tapestry below the enclosure, and shows the conventionalized but convincing yellow flower of the pot marigold, Calendula officinalis in the foreground and a much smaller, unidentifiable yellow flower in the upper right-hand corner.

The second detail, which comes from the section to the right of the enclosure, includes a depiction of calendula’s relative, great leopard’s bane (Doronicum pardalianches). Both of these plants are more stylized than the most naturalistically depicted plants in the tapestry, but they are still recognizable. In the tapestry, as in life, the leaves of the two plants are quite different.

The leopard’s bane is shown fully open and full face, with the ray petals lying flat. The ray petals surround a central disk of florets that form the “eye” of the daisy, a structure common to many flowers in this family. The ray petals of the leopard’s bane are pointed, while those of the calendula are broader, more rounded, and notched at the tip. (See Wikispecies to learn more about the classification of leopard’s bane.)

All the calendulas in the tapestry are shown in profile rather than full face, with the upright ray petals forming a chalice. A disk of florets is visible at the base of some of the flowers on each plant, but other blossoms on the same plant show only the ray petals. This formula is a commonly used stylistic convention for medieval renderings of the calendula, which was an iconographically significant flower, and it can be seen in many other contexts. [For more on calendula, see Calendar Girl (November 5, 2010).]

The color of the ray petals of Calendula officinalis varies from a bright, golden orange to a sunny yellow. The disks at the center may be pale in color or a dark brown. Although the medieval form was single or semi-double, fully double forms are now common. The characteristic notching at the tip of the calendula petals—visible in the photographs below—was not elaborated in the large, restored depiction of the plant seen in the detail from The Unicorn in Captivity, but it is clearly indicated in the smaller, original calendulas rendered nearby.

calendula-officinalis-open_200 calendula-profile-winter_200

Left: An open calendula flower, viewed “full face” in Bonnefont Garden; Right: A calendula flower in profile. Photographs by Corey Eilhardt

Multiple artistic purposes may be served simultaneously in a single work of art. A plant form may be simplified, exaggerated, or modified for a particular reason, which may or may not preclude a positive identification. More to come on the identification of plants in art…


Alexander, E. J., and Carol H. Woodward. The Flora of The Unicorn Tapestries. Second edition. New York: The New York Botanical Garden, 1947.

Cavallo, Adolfo. The Unicorn Tapestries at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1998.

Freeman, Margaret B. The Unicorn Tapestries. New York: E. P. Dutton, Inc., 1956.

—Deirdre Larkin

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Comments (2)

  1. Eric Erb Says:

    Thank you so much for this article. So often i’m asked ‘how do we know that a plant is the same as what they had back then’ and it isn’t always an easy answer.

  2. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    Yes, Eric—I’m often asked if there are medieval plants that are now “extinct.” Spontaneous forms of grain field weeds, such as corn poppy (Papaver rhoeas), cornflower (Centaurea cyanus), and corn cockle (Agrostemma githago) are under threat. Although named cultivars have been developed as garden forms, these agricultural weeds have been the target of systematic eradication with herbicides for generations.

    Some of the plants we grow are of such ancient cultivation that no wild form is known; even though hybridization depends on an understanding of plant sexuality that doesn’t come about until well after the Middle Ages, people have been selecting and manipulating plant forms since the Neolithic.

    At least one species common in Roman antiquity is thought to be extinct. (See The species known to the Middle Ages are still extant, although some of them may no longer be easily obtained in the horticultural trade because they have been supplanted by garden forms. In such cases, we acquire seeds from botanical gardens who maintain seed banks in the interest of biodiversity.

    Although we know of named varieties of medieval fruits, named varieties of flowering plants don’t predate the Renaissance, when there was a significant increase in plants brought under cultivation, as well as a major shift in the way that plants were described and categorized. Many garden forms of the Renaissance have been lost to cultivation, although the species and more recent garden forms are still with us.

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