Botany is the study of organisms in the kingdom Plantae, otherwise known as plants. The word botany comes from the adjective botanic, which in turn comes from the Ancient Greek word botane, referring to plants, grasses, and pastures. Botany also has other, more specific meanings; it can refer to the biology of a specific type of plants (e.g., the botany of flowering plants) or to the plant life of a certain area (e.g., the botany of the rainforest). One who studies botany is called a botanist.
History of Botany
Humans have always been interested in the plant life around them, not only because plants are inherently fascinating but also because they can serve useful purposes as food and medicine. The ancient Greek scholar Theophrastus, who lived during the 4th Century B.C., was one of the most famous early botanists. He wrote two major sets of books on plants, and his writings made him known as the “Father of Botany”. One set of books was called Enquiry into Plants, and it classified plants into different categories like geographic ranges, sizes, ways of growing, and uses. It covered all aspects of plants, such as anatomy, reproduction and best methods of growing, and included separate books for trees, herbs, shrubs, and plants that produced food and useful resins or juices. The other set of books was called On the Causes of Plants. It was an in-depth guide on the best ways to grow plants, and also went into detail about the physical properties of plants, including their tastes and smells. On the Causes of Plants was more about the economics of growing plants rather than their medicinal uses. Theophrastus was apparently the first to discover the process of germination in plants, and he realized how important factors such as climate and soil type were to the proper growing of plants.
Another important ancient Greek physician was Dioscorides, who lived during from 90-40 A.D. He wrote an encyclopedia about herbal medicines called De Materia Medica (“On Medical Substances”). It was a scientific tome that grouped plants by their medicinal uses, and Dioscorides did extensive personal research on each plant, traveling to different towns to get a sense of the medicinal properties of each plant according to their local usage. De Materia Medica served as an important medicinal guidebook for over 1500 years, until widespread use of the compound microscope in the 19th Century.
Once the microscope started to be used, many advances in scientific knowledge were made. The compound microscope was invented in 1665 by Robert Hooke, who was able to use it to look at cork close up (and coined the term “cell”). In the 17th and 18th centuries, botanists studied and advanced scientific knowledge in the fields of plant sexuality, plant physiology, and plant classification. In the 19th Century, chlorophyll was discovered, and scientists began to understand the process of photosynthesis. Also, the Austrian monk Gregor Mendel made advances in understanding genetic inheritance through his experiments with pea plants.
Presently, new technology is used to understand the structure of plant cells further, and research is being done on genetic engineering of plants in an attempt to solve the problem of world hunger. Research is also focusing on ecology and climate change (ecology itself became a separate discipline in the 1940s). The goals of much present-day research include finding ways of producing better crops, developing new medicines from molecules found in plants, and figuring out how best to conserve natural resources in a time of population growth and changing climate.
Branches of Botany
By Biology Subcategory
Botany research can be broken down into categories based on what subcategory of biology the research is based in. For example, botanists may study:
- Plant anatomy
- Plant genetics
- Cytology (the study of cells—in this case, plant cells)
- Plant taxonomy
- Molecular Biology
- Paleobotany (the study of plant fossils)
By Type of Plant
Botanists may also specialize in studying a specific type of organism, including:
- Bryology—the study of mossesli>
- Lichenology—the study of lichens, organisms composed of both fungi and algae. Neither of these are plants, but their study has traditionally been included within botany.
- Mycology—the study of fungi
- Phycology—the study of algae
- Pteridology—the study of ferns
Applied Plant Sciences
These categories are often related to the uses of plants, such as agriculture. They include:
- Agronomy—crop and soil science
- Food science
- Horticulture—the production of ornamental plants and of crops
- Natural resource management
- Plant breeding
- Plant pathology—the study of plant diseases
A bachelor’s degree, at the very least, is necessary for most careers in botany. An individual who wants to become a botanist can get a bachelor’s degree in fields like botany, plant science, or plant biology, depending on the college; alternatively, they may major in general biology and take botany classes as part of this major. Botanists can work at a variety of locations depending on specific interests. Some botanists work in academic or government laboratories. Some work in museums, offices, parks, and botanical gardens. Still others work for pharmaceutical companies or biotechnology firms. Botanists who work in agriculture may spend most of their time indoors, while those who do research may spend most of their time indoors in the lab. Entry level botanist positions include lab technicians and technical assistants. Many botanists go on to get master’s degrees and/or PhDs, which opens up other opportunities for more authority and supervisory roles. PhDs are necessary for teaching and being the head of a laboratory at a college or university.
A solid understanding of biology is important for being a botanist. Even if an individual goes for an undergraduate degree specifically in botany, they will have to take other biology courses in different areas, starting with general biology courses and moving to more specific ones like microbiology. In addition, it is often necessary to take courses in other sciences like chemistry and physics; these courses are usually required of general biology majors as well. Courses outside of science may also be useful depending on one’s interests; for example, those interested in conservation may also take courses in subjects like social studies and public affairs. It is also important to gain hands-on experience working with plants through volunteering, summer jobs, on-campus jobs, and internships.