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The Protean Plant 

“Minerals grow. Vegetables grow and live. Animals grow, live, and feel.” 

Carl von Linnaeus

“The underlying kinship of the various external members of the plant, such as the leaves, calyx, corolla, and stamens, which develop after one another, and, as it were, from one another, has long been recognised by naturalists in a general way; it has indeed received special attention, and the process, by which one and the same organ presents itself to our eyes under protean forms, has been called the Metamorphosis of Plants.” (4) 

“When now the plant vegetates, blooms, or fructifies, so it is still the same organs which, with different destinies and under protean shapes, fulfill the part prescribed by Nature. The same organ which on the stem expands itself as a leaf, and assumes a great variety of forms, then contracts in the calyx – expands again in the corolla – contracts in the reproductive organs – and for the last time expands as the fruit.” (115)  

Goethe, An Attempt to Interpret the Metamorphosis of Plants. Translation by Agnes Arber.

Head image: Welwitschia mirabilis Plate 5368 from Curtis's Botanical Magazine, published 1863 

Hand coloured lithograph 

Walter Hood Fitch (1817-1892) 

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Two specimens of Welwitschia from Kew’s Spirit Collection labelled Welwitschia bainesii (synonym of Welwitschia mirabilis) from Van Vuuten 1959 and Kirstenbosch, South Africa 1969 showing the leaves, male and female cones. 

“No plant is more suggestive, or more worthy [of] the attention of morphologists than the Welwitschia” 

Maxwell Masters

When Welwitschia mirabilis was introduced to European botanists by Dr Frederic Welwitsch it generated palpable excitement. Sir William Hooker (first director of Kew) was first alerted to the plant in a letter from Dr. Welwitsch in August 1860. 


Writing in the Transactions of the Linnean Society of 1869, William Hooker’s son and successor Joseph Dalton Hooker describes the Welwitschia as having “a fanciful resemblance to the open mouth and palate of some monstrous animal”

Joseph Dalton Hooker

Type specimen for Welwitschia mirabilis, collected in Angola in 1859 by Friedrich Welwitsch (1806-1872) Specimen: K000076241 

Kew Herbarium 

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“Goethe was a poet, ergo, he could not have been a scientific thinker: that is said openly.”

The Westminster Review, 1852

Title page of first English translation of The Metamorphosis of Plants with an inscription at the front which reads "Dr. Hooker with thankful acknowledgments of much assistance and many valuable suggestions in the ensuing notes MM.” (Maxwell Tylden Masters -1833-1907) 

Reprinted from the London : [Journal of Botany], 1863. 

The Metamorphosis of Plants was published in 1790 but it was not translated and printed in English until over 70 years later. In the interim years it attracted both praise and dismissal. It met with particular distrust within British botanical circles; motivated by what The Westminster Review of 1852 described as a general antipathy to aprioristic reasoning when in fact, to the contrary, Goethe advocated deduction based on observation and scientific rigour. Goethe was wary of metaphysics and wrote that “A man who speculates is like an animal led round in a circle by some malignant spirit on a dreary heath, while beyond the circle lies the beautiful pasture”

The Westminster Review

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Goethe conceived of a protean plant which he labelled an “Urpflanze” variously translated and discussed as a prototype plant, an original or archetypal plant, and a typical plant. The lack of an equivalent term in English in translation from German has, in part, contributed to its misinterpretation. Some translations describe it as a ‘primitive’ or ancestral plant but this mistakenly presents Goethe’s work as a precursor to evolutionary theory (Agnes Arber)

“Goethe definitely regarded his archetypal plant as a supersensible conception, but he perhaps hardly realised how easily one might slip into the error of thinking about it pictorially, while believing oneself to be approaching it abstractedly”  

Agnes Arber

Illustration of the Urpflanze from The plant : a biography : in a series of popular lectures (London : H. Bailliere, 1848.) to accompany M.J. Schleiden’s lecture on The Morphology of Plants. 

Schleiden presented an illustration of the Urpflanze, deriding an earlier attempt by the artist P.J.F. Turpin (1775-1840) of which he says "This much is certain, that the disagreeable, tasteless heaping up of a number of individually possible forms into such an actual vegetable monster as Turpin has anything but what [Goethe] pictured to himself in his ideal plant”.  

Matthias Jacob Schleiden

Thirty-eight plates, with explanations, intended to illustrate Linnaeus's System of vegetables, and particularly adapted to the Letters on the elements of botany [by J.J. Rousseau] 

Illustrations drawn and engraved by F.P. Nodder. 

Published in London : 1799. 


While Goethe never lost his admiration for the work of Linneaus, he found his taxonomy too rigid and, along with the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), began to gravitate towards the work of Antoine Laurent de Jussieu (1748-1836) who advocated a system based on several morphological characters rather than the few given by Linnaeus.  In France divergence of thought on biological structure culminated in a famous exchange in 1830 between the naturalists Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) and Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (1772-1844); with Cuvier arguing that function determined form and Saint-Hilaire instead stressing the importance of homology, or unity of parts. 

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Chamaerops humilis – Dwarf Fan Palm  

Hand coloured engraving by Weddell (artist not cited) from Curtis’s Botanical Magazine – Plate 2152, 1820 


Seen in the botanical garden at Padua. Goethe’s observations of the plant led him to believe that an analogy could be made between all flowering plants. 

“The Date Palm affords a striking instance of the most simple form of leaf becoming gradually but deeply divided. As the leaves succeed each other the midrib lengthens; till at last it tears asunder the numerous compartments of the simple leaf, and an extremely compound, branch-life leaf is formed” 


Study of the “Plant of life” 

Bryophyllum calycinum (synonym of Kalanchoe pinnata

Painting 182 by Marianne North (1830-1890) 

Oil on paper 


A favourite plant of Goethe as he was fascinated by its ability to proliferate. It is variously called the ‘Leaf of life’, ‘Miracle Leaf’, and ‘Air Plant’. 

“When placed on damp earth the leaves...produce in the notches buds that grow into independent plants”

Marianne North Gallery Guide, 6th ed, 1914

“...we see youth break forth in age, and enter into the midst of the process, for the purpose of completing or metamorphosing the structures. This is the phenomenon of Rejuvenescence...which is repeated in infinitely varied ways in all domains of life, but nowhere asserted more distinctly and more accessibly to investigation, than in the Vegetable kingdom.”

Alexander Braun

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Bignonia radicans (synonym of Campsis radicans) – Illustration made for Robert Wight (1796-1872) and received at Kew from the India Museum in 1879. (RWMC 90) 

Bodycolour and ink over pencil  

Wight commissioned artists to illustrate the plants growing in the Botanic Garden at Madras where he was Superintendent. 

“In September of 1786, in the Botanical Garden of Padua, I gazed upon a broad, high wall completely covered with Bignonia radicans. The clusters of deep-yellow, chalice-like flowers, growing in endless luxuriance, made such an impression upon me that I became especially attached to this plant...”  

Of its beadlets of grapelike clusters  “...I myself have observed them only once – at the end of August, 1828 – but I shall be on the alert for this phenomenon next spring. Meanwhile, I have put my present specimens into alcohol, where their form is fully preserved, though their colour has turned brown” 

Goethe – Dornburg, 1828 (in Mueller) 

Type specimen for Bignonia purpurea   

Stamped 'Herbarium Hookerianum 1867' Specimen: K000449511 

Kew Herbarium 

The 'type specimens' of herbaria are those cited by scientists when publishing plant names not previously recorded to science. Specimens include as much morphological content on the plant as possible and usually feature samples of leaves, stems, bark, flowers and/or fruit where available. 

“The notion of the Type lies at the basis of biological philosophy; with its associations of modification and development.”

The Westminster Review

“Goethe’s recognition that neither the foliage leaf, nor any other appendage, is in itself the ‘type’ leaf, is perhaps the most original feature of his theory”

Agnes Arber

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Sketchbook study of Jadevine fruit, 2021 

Pencil and watercolour on paper 

Lucy T. Smith 

Drawn from a specimen in the Princess of Wales Conservatory,  Kew.  

© Lucy T. Smith 

“Botany is not to be learned in the closet: you must go forth into the garden or the fields, and there become familiar with Nature herself; with that beauty, order, regularity, and inexhaustible variety which is to be found in the structure of vegetables” 

Thomas Martyn (1735-1825) writing in the preface to the translation of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Letters on the elements of botany, 1787

Colutea arborescens  

Proof plate 707 for Flora Graeca (1806-40)  

Ferdinand Bauer (1760-1826) 

Hand coloured engraving  


In his ‘Metamorphosis’, Goethe makes the observation that Colutea pods contain a gas. 


“The last and greatest instance of expansion effected by the plant in the course of its growth, is seen in the fruit, which is often great, nay monstrous, both in internal power and in outward form... Since, after fertilization, it generally increases in size, it would appear that whilst the seed, now in a more perfected state, draws those juices from every part of the plant which its own growth demands, they become centred in the fruit; by which means its vessels are nourished, enlarged and often swollen and expanded to the greatest extent. That refined gases have a great share in this, may be inferred from what has been previously stated; the fact that the distended pods of the bladder nut (Colutea arborescens) contain pure gas, has been established by experiments”  


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“From earth’s deep wastes electric torrents pour 

Or shed from heaven the scintillating shower; 

Pierce the dull root, relax its fibre-trains 

Thaw the thick blood, which lingers in its veins; 

Melt with warm breath the fragrant gums, that bind 

The expanding foliage in its scaly rind...” 


Extract from The Botanic Garden, 1791, by Erasmus Darwin. The accompanying explanatory text reads 

“Since by the late discoveries or opinions of the chemists there is reason to believe that water is decomposed in the vessels of vegetables; and that the Hydrogene or inflammable air, of which it in part consists, contributes to the nourishment of the plant” 

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Page from notebook on Teratology by Maxwell Tylden Masters (1833 –1907) 

Archives, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew   


The note on the left hand page to the right of the illustrations reads

“Proliferous flowers M. Courtois. Where describes 2 ‘mutations’ one in Erysimum cheiranthoides another in Veronica media var phyllantha perpetuated for several years in the Botanic Garden at Liège” 


Teratology is the study of anomalies in plant form. Agnes Arber notes that so called abnormalities show what the plant can do

Agnes Arber

“...macroscopic nature is never really anomalous, so that even the so-called ‘abnormalities’ are essentially law-abiding"

Agnes Arber

Goethe regarded...”nature as unified and directional, rather than inconstant and capricious” and “...he came to see her apparent inconsistencies merely as masks for essential oneness. It was from this viewpoint that his morphological work was developed.” 

Agnes Arber

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Pyrethrum uliginosum 

Illustration by Mary Anne Stebbing (1845-1927) 

Tunbridge Wells, 1884 

Stebbing was one of the first women to be elected to the Linnean Society in 1904 and illustrated numerous plant anomalies. 


“It will not, of course, be forgotten that this fasciated.. [approximating flattening and enlargement] condition occurs so frequently in some plants as almost to constitute their natural state” 

Maxwell Masters

“By a monstrosity I presume is meant some considerable deviation of structure in one part, either injurious to or not useful to the species, and not generally propagated” 

Charles Darwin

 “...those anomalies are, in truth, the results of the same laws, operating upon the same materials which produce the normal structure; that the organs are merely disguised, by a modified arrangement...He, therefore, who is most sagacious in observing those phenomena – and in detecting the various disguises which veil the original symmetry of the organs – must ever be the most successful and accomplished Naturalist".

William Darlington

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