What is Botany? - Definition, History & Uses

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  • 0:04 What Is Botany?
  • 0:52 History of Botany
  • 5:08 Practical Uses of Botany
  • 6:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Michael Quist

Michael has taught college-level mathematics and sociology; high school math, history, science, and speech/drama; and has a doctorate in education.

Expert Contributor
Maria Airth

Maria has a Doctorate of Education and over 20 years of experience teaching psychology and math related courses at the university level.

What is your shirt made of? What do you take for a headache? Plant life is all around us, making oxygen, becoming food, clothing, and medicine, and restoring our planet. In this lesson, we explore the science of plants.

What Is Botany?

A lot of the earth is covered with plant life that gives us oxygen, food supplies, and many other necessities. This teeming greenery all over the world carries an unimaginable variety of designs, colors, lifestyles, and uses; and the botanist studies all of those things. In this lesson, we'll discuss the definition of botany, the history of botany as a science, and the practical applications of botanical knowledge.

Botany is the scientific study of plant life, including the life of some things, such as fungus, which aren't really considered plants anymore. The structure, properties, life processes, classifications, diseases, and environmental impacts and interactions are all included in botanical science. Botany is a branch of biology, which is the study of living organisms.

History of Botany

Since plant life is so fundamental to human survival, people have been studying plant life from the beginning of recorded time. When people were looking to trees, bushes, and grasses for food, they began to notice where and when these food items would show up. They made the connection between water and plant life and noticed how soil differences controlled the growth of plants.

Theophrastus, a Greek philosopher who lived roughly 2300 years ago, is called by many the father of botanical science. His writings on plant classification, patterns of growth, natural locations, and practical applications are considered by many to be the most important writings on the subject to reach us from ancient times. It was in his day that people of science and thought began to realize the empirical (careful observation) and logical approach that can be taken in the pursuit of scientific knowledge. Much of his writing contained detailed instructions on how to cultivate and use a wide variety of plants, making his botanical science very practical.

In 60 C.E., Greek physician Dioscorides wrote a general medical manual, called De Materia Medica, which became the medical guidebook in general practice for over 1,500 years. Most of the medicines described in that work are botanical in nature and helped maintain the knowledge and use of non-food plants.

Near the beginning of the Renaissance, Theophrastus' writings were rediscovered and circulated, generating a new interest in the scientific study of plants themselves. Beginning in the 17th century, many scientists in the field of botany began to make remarkable discoveries in the history of the study of plants.

Let's now take a look at what we can call botany's rebirth and the early researchers from the Renaissance onward.

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Additional Activities

Compare and Contrast Botanists

Students will learn more about what it means to be a botanist, and thus about botany in general, by comparing and contrasting famous botanists.

Begin by selecting two to three of the famous botanists from the Renaissance onward that were noted in the lesson.

Spend some time researching these botanists. Find out:

  • When they conducted their work.
  • What their major focus was.
  • What major contributions they had on the field of botany.
  • Where they conducted the majority of their work.

Next, create a Venn diagram identifying what each of these people had in common and how they differed.

  • Remember that a Venn diagram is a chart of interlocking circles.
    • Each circle represents one item in the chart and characteristics of that item.
    • Areas of interlocking between circles indicate characteristics shared between the items represented by those circles.
    • Areas of a circle that do not interlock with another circle represent information that is unique to the identified item.


If a student chose Jan Baptist van Helmont and Joseph Priestley, he/she might have a Venn diagram that indicated the following similarities and differences:

  • Similarities
    • Both male
    • Both chemists
    • Both published books on their respective discoveries
  • Differences-Unique to van Helmont
    • worked and studied in Belgium in the early 1600s
    • known to have coined the word 'gas' in the field
  • Differences-Unique to Priestley
    • Studied and worked in the late 1700s in the USA
    • Discovered oxygen

Students may want to challenge themselves to add more botanists to their Venn diagram to see how each of these scientists are similar to each other even as they are unique in their own focus of work and study.

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