Field of Science

A very short history of Paleobotany

"There are so many plants on the earth, that there is a danger to thinking them trivial...[]...What a marvellous cooperative arrangement, plants and animals each using the others waste gases, the whole circle powered by abundant sun light. But there would be carbon dioxide in the air, even if there were no animals. We need the plants much more then they need us."
Carl Sagan in "Cosmos", ep. 2 "One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue"

Fig.1. A modern fern blade compared to a fossil of the Carboniferous (almost 300 Ma) from Southern France.

Plant fossils are possibly the first petrifactions recognized as the remains of once living organisms - many fossils species still resemble extant species and it was therefore straightforward to compare and match them together.
Already in 1699 the English naturalist Edward Lhwyd (ca. 1660-1709) depicted various fossil plants in his catalogue of the English fossil titled "Lithophilacii Britannica ichnographia". Also Carl von Linné (1707-1778) studied and published some notes about plant fossils
hosted in the cabinets of curiosities of Swedish noblemen.
The oldest publication dealing almost exclusively with plant fossil
s is however the "Herbarium diluvianum" by the Swiss scholar Johann Jakob Scheuchzer, published in various edition in 1709 and 1723.

Fig.2. Plate from J.J. Scheuchzer´s opus magnus "Herbarium diluvianum" (1709-1723).

Scheuchzer published his studies and observation of many fossils plants coming from the English Carboniferous, the Permian of Germany and the Swiss Cainozoic, including plant casts found in travertine. He argued that these imprints were once living plants like recent ones that became buried in sediments by the biblical flood. His was so convinced of the similarities of fossil to moder
n plants that he even tried by phenology to determinate the month when the flood occurred.

Unlike bones, shells and ammonites, collected and studied avidly by amateurs, paleobotany was since its early origins dominated by professional scholars - the identification of fossil plants requires apparently more skills and profound knowledge in modern botany, abilities or interests not encouraged enough in all times?

Fig.3. Plate from Caspar von Sternberg´s "Versuch einer geognostisch-botanischen Darstellung der Flora der Vorwelt" (Attempt to a geognostic-botanical representation of the flora of the ancient world) (1820-1838), showing the "bark" of an extinct Lepidodendron-"tree" related to the modern Lycopsids.

In 1804 the German Geologist and Palaeontologist Ernst Freiherr von Schlotheim (1764-1832) published a description of Permian plants "Beschreibung merkwürdiger Kräuter-Abdrücke und Pflanzen-Versteinerungen" (Description of curious imprints of herbs and plant-petrifactions), where he adopted on the fossil plants the systematic-system developed by Linné and compared their ecology to modern plants, establishing finally the principles of modern Paleobotany.
Important contributions to botany of fossil plants and pollen grains and there use in stratigraphy came from the French geologist Alexandre Brongniart (1801-1876 - with Cuvier one of the first to draw startigraphic profiles in Europe) with his "Histoire des vegetaux fossiles, ou recherches botaniques et geologiques sur les vegetaux renfermes dans les diverses couches de globe"(1828-1838).

Fig.4. Plate from A. Brongniart´s "Histoire des vegetaux fossiles" (History of fossil plants) (1828-1838).

After the first general works on paleobotany surprisingly fast more specific research on single formations, geographical areas or plant groups was published, for example the German Heinrich Robert Göppert (1800-1884) studied the Tertiary brown coal deposits and the Austrian physician Franz Unger (1800-1870), after becoming professor for paleobotany in Graz and Vienna, studied the coal deposits of Styria. In his "Iconographia plantarum fossilium" he compares the fossil flora with the forests of Indonesia, South America, the Caribbean and Mexico, recognizing that the plants indeed can be used to reconstruct the climate of a tropical past - it is no wonder that geologist Henry de la Beche (1796 -1855) collocated "Professor Ichthyosaurus" in a tropical jungle with palm-trees and gigantic ferns.

Fig.5. Plate from H.R.Göppert´s "Die Tertiärflora auf der Insel Java" (Tertiary flora of Java) (1854).

To be continue...

Online Resources:

ROBERTS, B.F.; SHARPE, R. & WATT, H. (): Edward Lhwyd. (Accessed 09.06.2011)


  1. C'mon! That was great! I am absolutely captivated and want to read more. You have me hooked!

  2. In the jurasic limestone area of Germany where I live plant fossils tend to be brown outlines on sheets of yellow stone looking like rather elegant 19th century sepia prints.


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