Introduction to Botany

Botany, the science of plants. Botany is one of the major branches of biology, the science of living things. Other major branches are zoology, the science of animals, and microbiology, the science of microscopic organisms.There are more than two hundred thousand plant species throughout the world.

The Work of the Botanist

Botanists deal with the entire range of plants—from inconspicuous water-dwelling plants to giant sequoia trees. They study the structure, function, occurrence, and economic importance of plants, how they grow and reproduce, and how the various forms of plants are related to each other. A botanist, however, usually specializes in one of several separate but related fields into which botany is divided; for example, plant morphology, the study of plant structure; or plant ecology, the study of plants in relation to their surroundings. These and other fields are explained in Biology, subtitle The Work of the Biologist.

Many botanists teach or do research at colleges and universities. Others are employed by arboretums and botanic gardens, by such businesses as seed or drug companies, and by such government agencies as the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the National Park Service. A knowledge of botany is important in such applied sciences as agriculture, biochemistry, forestry, horticulture, pharmacy, plant breeding, and soil conservation.

The Study of Botany

Botanists study classification, habitat, functioning and uses of plants. Because of the great diversity within the plant kingdom, botanists cannot study all of these areas. Therefore they specialize in certain areas of botany. These four areas are discussed below in detail.

Systematics is the study of identification of plant species. A botanist must be able to identify a particular plant. Related to systematics is taxonomy, a field of botany concerned with the classification of plants. Within a classification system, botanists group plants according to characteristics possessed by all individual plants of the same kind. Reproductive structures are the most reliable guide. Although such characteristics as growth habits and leaf structure are also considered, they are of secondary importance because they can be affected by climate, soil, and other factors. There is no single classification system that is accepted by all botanists. Furthermore, systems change as new discoveries are made, making it necessary to reclassify certain plants.

Morphology is the study of the form of the plant. Apart from external form of the plant, plant morphologists also study the internal structure of the plant, such as the cells and tissues in plants. Botanists also study plant genetics in order to learn how various traits are passed down through generations.

Molecular biology involves the study of the effect of genes on the characteristics inherited by the offspring from parent, and how these genes affect the functioning of plants.

Genetic engineering in plants involves altering the characteristics of a plant or its offspring by changing the genetic makeup of plants.

Ecology is the study of the relationship between the plant and its environment. It also involves the study of how plants interact with other organisms.

Plant geography is the study of geographical distribution of plants. Its tries to answer questions like why particular plants grow in particular areas.

Agronomy is the study of crops. Agronomists develop ways to improve crop yield.

Horticulture is the study of cultivation of flowers, ornamental plants and fruits.

Forestry involves the study of trees and their cultivation for use in lumber and other industries.


Prehistoric people cultivated plants for food, medication and other purposes. The ancient Egyptians and Greeks studied the growth, distribution, and cultivation of plants. The first known attempt to classify and describe plants was made about 300 B.C. by the Greek Theophrastus in his two works On the History of Plants and On the Causes of Plants. Pliny the Elder authored Historis Naturalis, where he described the plants he had studied.These works remained standard references through the Middle Ages, when most plant study took place in monasteries and in the botanic gardens of some universities. The period of Renaissance, from 14th to 17th century, was the time modern botany developed. Because of the start of explorations to undiscovered lands, many new plant species were discovered and studied.Books published in the 16th century, called herbais, contained woodcuts of plants, but added little to scientific knowledge. Some attempts at plant classification were made toward the end of the Middle Ages.

The modern scientific study of plants began about the time of the English botanist Nehemiah Grew (1641–1712). He described the production of seeds and wrote an important book on plant anatomy. The invention of the microscope made it possible to study microscopic structures of plants. Marcello Malphigi and Robert Hooke discovered plants cells by studying plants through the microscope.An important step forward was made in the mid-18th century when Carolus Linnaeus established the binominal system of classification. In the late 18th century, Antoine-Laurent de Jussieu, elaborating on his uncle Bernard's work, grouped plants into families according to the number of seed leaves they contained. In the 16th century, Alexander van Humboldt traveled to various destinations across the world and studied the distribution of plants. This was the start of the study of plant geography.As knowledge of plants grew, such practical fields of study as agronomy and horticulture branched off from botany and became separate, but related, sciences.

During the 19th century botanists discovered that plants are composed entirely of cells, and that these cells have individual parts. In the early 1800's, Augustin de Candolle devised a system of plant classification that became the basis of modern taxonomy. Frederick Clements and Robert Wittaker were the pioneers in the field of plant ecology. They studied the relationship between plants and their environment and published their findings in the late 19th century.The theory of evolutionary development of plants gradually gained acceptance after Charles Darwin published his Origin of Species (1859). Gregor Mendel's findings on heredity, reported in 1865 and rediscovered in 1900, became the basis of the science of plant genetics. Luther Burbank showed how improved species and varieties of plants could be bred.

During the 20th century, and particularly since World War II, such other sciences as chemistry, mathematics, and physics have been used to increase botanists' knowledge. Barbara McClintock made important contributions to genetics. New discoveries made through this period convinced some botanists to discard the Linnaean system of plant classification and adopt one based on the evolutionary history of plants. Today, through the efforts of botanists, there exist methods through which weeds can be selectively destroyed, and fruit can be made to ripen before or after its normal time. Plants with certain desired traits have been created using techniques such as hybridization, genetic engineering, and tissue culture. Examples of such plants are high-yield corn and disease-resistant tomatoes.

Careers In Botany

A botanist can work in both government and private organizations. They can work as research scientists or technicians. Technicians help out in laboratories and handle various instruments. Many botanists study plants in their natural habitat. For a career in botany, you need a master’s degree. For pursuing research and taking up higher level teaching, you need a doctoral degree.