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Plants during the 18th century

Updated: Jul 21, 2023

In the 18th century, the practice of walking became popular in France and England, and this new relationship with nature is attributed in part to literary works such as The New Heloise (1761) by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and The Elective Affinities (1809) by Goethe. This art of strolling now made it possible to appreciate gardens, which acquired a more aesthetic status, with the appearance of trompe-l'œil, belvederes, etc.

PART 1 : Plant trade

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the world was strongly influenced by world trade, and Europeans exploited the cultivation of tropical plants. The plants traded were also studied, and this is known as botany. The plants that attracted the most interest were initially spices, followed by stimulants such as coffee, tea, chocolate and tobacco. More attention was gradually paid to medicinal plants and so-called "dye plants", used for dyeing.

America was the source of tropical plants, including cocoa, sugar cane and vanilla. Asia was the main production centre for plantations, particularly spices. During this period, these continents intensified their trade, accentuating the rivalries and issues between the various colonial powers.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, plants grown in warm regions, such as cocoa and cotton, were among the most highly traded and considered luxury items. Cocoa, in particular, was highly prized by Europeans.

Medicinal plants include camomile, borage, mint and ginger, as well as cinchona. The bark of this plant was used to make decoctions to treat fevers. Due to the high value of this product on the market, there was a high risk of fraud, and controls were rare outside Europe.

What about France?

In the 18th century, France was the main importer of sugar into Europe, mainly thanks to its American colony in Santo Domingo (now Haiti) in the Caribbean Sea. The major expansion of the plant trade occurred in the 18th century, with a significant increase in the French and English islands. This plant trade created many jobs, and slaves in America worked mainly on sugar plantations (45.5%), followed by coffee plantations (18.2%), with only 4.5% on cotton fields and 2.3% on cocoa fields. Forced slave labour enabled plantation owners to increase production considerably, make large profits and stimulate the plant trade on an unprecedented scale. Slaves were often subjected to extremely difficult living and working conditions, with no rights or freedoms, and their exploitation was profoundly unfair and inhumane.

In France, medicinal plants were particularly prized. The trade in medicinal plants was regulated, and certain species were subject to strict controls because of their value and rarity. Ornamental plants were also in great demand. French gardens were fashionable, with their geometric parterres and symmetrical paths, and many plants were needed to create these formal arrangements. Roses, exotic flowers and decorative shrubs were very popular.

PART 2 : Plants from the 18th century

There are different categories of plant, including ornamental, medicinal, aromatic and food plants. It is these four main categories that drive the plant trade.

Botanical classifications

The discovery of a great diversity of flora was a decisive event for the life sciences in the 18th century. The collections brought back by exploration missions led to the creation of natural history cabinets and museums. The main aims of naturalists were to identify and classify organisms and to understand the diversity of living organisms. They endeavour to catalogue and group different species according to specific criteria, in order to gain a better understanding of the variety of life forms present on Earth. This quest for knowledge aims to document and organise information about living organisms, highlighting their distinctive characteristics and evolutionary relationships. The identification and classification of organisms are essential tools for exploring and preserving biodiversity, as well as for conducting in-depth studies into the interactions between species and their environment.

In the 16th century, botanists began to think about the classification of plants, seeking to establish natural groups by observing their similarities. Botanists were no longer simply trying to classify plants empirically on the basis of their size, place of growth or similarities, but aspired to a universally valid classification. John Ray, an English botanist, proposed a system for classifying plants based on the characteristics of the fruit, flower and leaf. Pierre Magnol was a French botanist who first used the term "family" in 1689 and defined 76 plant families. Joseph Pitton de Tournefort, also a French botanist, classified plants on the basis of flower structure and introduced the concepts of genus and species. These advances contributed to the establishment of a more rigorous and scientific classification of plants.

In Europe, the classification of the Swedish botanist Carl Von Linné is the most popular. His work, entitled "Systema naturae", shows a system for classifying plants divided into 24 classes according to the number of male organs (stamens) they possess. Each class is then subdivided into orders according to the type of female organ (pistil) present in the plant. Linnaeus' classification was widely accepted and used because of its simplicity and clarity, and laid the foundations for modern botanical nomenclature.

Photo: Extract from Systema naturae, 1735 edition (public domain) Source: Tela Botanica

The most commercialised plants in the 18th century

  1. Spices were among the world's first commodities, characterised by their high value in proportion to their low volume. They were the first products to be traded over very long distances, which motivated numerous commercial expeditions. In the 18th century, pepper was the main spice. Its trade, markets and price have been the subject of numerous economic studies. The price was very high, reaching 20 to 30 grams of silver for 1 kilogram of pepper.

  2. Coffee became more popular in Europe in the 18th century. Coffee beans were imported mainly from Africa and the American colonies, then roasted and consumed in the form of hot drinks.

  3. Tea, mainly from Asia, was also very popular in Europe. It was imported mainly from China and India. Tea was appreciated for its stimulating properties and varied aromas. Its consumption was associated with social and cultural rituals.

  4. Tobacco, mainly from the American colonies, was a widely consumed and traded plant. It was used to make cigarettes, cigars and snuff. Its trade was closely linked to the growth of the tobacco industry in Euro

  5. Sugar was an increasingly popular product in Europe. Sugar colonies such as Santo Domingo (now Haiti) and the West Indies were major suppliers of sugar.

  6. Cotton was a widely cultivated and traded plant. Cotton fibres were used in the textile industry to make fabrics and clothing. The American colonies, particularly the southern states, were major cotton producers.

Plant use in the 18th century

In the 18th century, plants were used in a variety of ways, for culinary, medicinal, industrial and cosmetic purposes.

  1. Medicine: Plants were used in traditional medicine. Herbalists and apothecaries prepared herbal remedies to treat various ailments and illnesses. Medicinal plants such as camomile, mint, ginger and cinchona were used for their healing properties.

  2. Industry: Some plants were used in industry to manufacture products. For example, cotton was harvested and used in the textile industry to produce fabrics and clothing. Dye plants, such as indigo and madder, were cultivated to produce natural dyes.

  3. Perfumery and cosmetics: Plants were used for their fragrance and cosmetic properties. Flowers, essential oils and plant extracts were used to make perfumes, eau de toilette, ointments and soaps. Rose, lavender and patchouli are plants that were mainly used in cosmetics and perfumery.

  4. Gardens and landscaping: Plants were used to create ornamental gardens. French and English gardens were in vogue, where plants were arranged aesthetically to create beautiful landscapes. Exotic plant species were imported to embellish the gardens and show off the wealth and refined taste of the owners. Orangeries were popular with the aristocrats and wealthy landowners of the time, who used these structures to house their collections of citrus fruits, including orange, lemon and grapefruit trees. Orange trees were considered precious and luxurious plants, and their presence in gardens was often a symbol of high social status. Eighteenth-century orangeries were often located close to principal residences, such as châteaux or manor houses.

  5. Food: Plants were used as food ingredients. Vegetables, fruit, cereals and aromatic herbs were grown and eaten as staple foods. Spices such as pepper, cinnamon and ginger were used to enhance the flavour of dishes. Sugar extracted from sugar cane was a commonly used sweetener.

In the 18th century, new plants began to be discovered. It was at this time that the potato began to be widely consumed in France. Compared with wheat, potatoes produced a higher yield, enabling five times as many people to be fed from the same area of land.

Herbariums :

In the 18th century, herbariums played an essential role in the study and preservation of flora. Herbariums are collections of dried plants. They are used to document and preserve plant specimens for scientific purposes. They have played an essential role in the identification and description of plants, as well as in the advancement of botanical knowledge.

Herbariums developed significantly during the 18th century. Numerous botanists, explorers and naturalists undertook expeditions around the world to collect plant specimens and incorporate them into herbariums. They were often organised according to a classification system based on plant morphology, in line with advances in botany at the time. Specimens were usually accompanied by labels giving information such as the scientific name of the plant, the place and date of collection and the name of the collector.

Eighteenth-century herbariums also contributed to the spread of botanical knowledge. They were often consulted by other botanists, researchers and students, enabling knowledge to be passed on and botanical research to continue. Today, these herbariums are carefully preserved in scientific institutions and museums, providing an important source for historical studies, species identification and research into the evolution of plants over time.

Photo 1: Waldersbach 1792 herbarium, 78 specimens fixed in a notebook eaten away by mice, marked Waldersbach 1792. Source: La Société Botanique d'Alsace

Photo 2: Herbarium Loterie - Hieracium aurantiacum, 184 specimens of very good quality fixed on a lottery register from 1792/1793. Source: La Société Botanique d'Alsace

PART 3 : The different types of garden

French garden

The French garden is characterised by an extremely organised structure, using geometric lines and shapes, symmetry and perspective. The aim is to master nature and assert man's superiority. This style represents the ancient, classical form of the large pleasure garden designed for the elite. The central feature of formal gardens was often a large main avenue, known as the "main axis" or "axis of symmetry", which served as a focal point. This walkway often included features such as fountains, pools, statues and sculptures. French gardens were famous for their fountains, pools and sculptures.

Photo: Garden of Versailles. Source :

English garden

In the 18th century, English-style gardens appeared in other European countries before being adopted in France. A notable example is the Château de Versailles, where the king's garden (the garden of the Grand Trianon) is in the French style, while the queen's garden is laid out in the English style. The Queen's Garden (part of the Petit Trianon garden) was originally a botanical garden, but Marie-Antoinette later decided to transform it into an English garden. The aim of the English garden, also known as the landscape garden, is to reconnect with nature, which is no longer perceived as hostile. By using irregular, sinuous shapes, it seeks to break away from the rigidity of French-style gardens. This type of garden values natural beauty and seeks to create a harmonious atmosphere.

Photo: Difference between a French garden and an English garden. Source:

Chinese garden :

Chinese gardens in Europe are characterised by their oriental influence and distinct aesthetic, often incorporating architectural elements such as pavilions, kiosks, zigzag bridges and pagodas. Water features play a central role in Chinese gardens. They can take the form of ponds, lakes or meandering streams. The bridges spanning the bodies of water are curved and asymmetrical. Unlike French gardens, Chinese gardens favour winding paths and walkways.

Photo: The Regenerated Moon Garden in Berlin-Marzahn, Germany, Europe's largest Chinese garden. Source: Wikipedia

Botanical garden

In the 18th century, interest in botanical gardens grew considerably in Europe. While the first botanic gardens were established in the 16th century, it was in the 18th century that their importance and popularity really took off. They were seen as an extension of the great scientific expeditions of the time, which collected and brought back many exotic plants from faraway lands.

These scientific expeditions, undertaken with the aim of exploring and studying the diversity of the natural world, provided a constant stream of new plants to present to the public. Gardeners and botanists seek to display these newly discovered plants in controlled, well-cared-for environments, in order to study, cultivate and present them to the public.

Botanic gardens thus become places of research, education and discovery for scientists, botanical enthusiasts and the general public. They conserve and display a wide variety of plants, both local and exotic, and play an essential role in the acquisition of knowledge about botany, plant classification and plant use.

In the 17th century, the Jardin des Plantes in Paris was created as a teaching garden for future doctors and apothecaries, with the emphasis on medicinal plants. It was a place dedicated to the observation and study of nature.

The botanical garden of King Louis XIII

The King's Garden site acts as an educational establishment offering free teaching in French in the fields of botany, anatomy and chemistry. It also acts as a research centre, studying different varieties of plants from around the world and seeking to acclimatise them to new environments. Source: History through images

PART 4 : CMN project with visitor experiment at Ferney Voltaire castle.

In collaboration with the CMN, Farm3 has developed a project entitled "conservatoire du végétal" as part of its participation in the fifth promotion of the Heritage Incubator. As part of this project, plants used in the perfume industry in the 18th century, such as lemon balm and patchouli, were grown in our climate-controlled growth chambers.

Farm3 presented these plants on site at the Rendez-vous aux jardins, held on 2 and 3 June at the Château de Voltaire in the Ain region. School groups took part in workshops designed to raise awareness of the importance of the plant world. The workshops included activities such as potting and planting Farm3 plants in the gardens of the château, board games, reading comics popularising agriculture, and discovering herbariums.

These workshops were accompanied by a temporary exhibition on Farm3's experiments and the plants used in 18th century perfumes. You can see this exhibition until 17 September in the hall of the Château de Voltaire.


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