Tabula picta 5v* – The plants.

reprinted by request from material first published in 2017.

The author’s rights are asserted.

c.3,000 words.


“A major headache … is the unfortunate[ly] frequent occurrence of taxa whose Latin name has changed with time…’

Plants of California website.

I’ve limited discussion of folio 5v* to two components – two ‘Elms’ – the ‘Yoke Elm’ or Hornbeam (C. betulus) and the Field Elm (Ulmus minor).

Here are some extracts from a paper by Miller Christy. Though written in 1924, it remained unknown to me until a number of years after I’d published the analysis of folio 5v* being republished now.

“As for this tree – its nomenclature and history are as confused as they are obscure..”

quoting the Rev. John. Ray, a seventeenth-century botanist whose entry for the Hornbeam (Yoke Elm) reads “In hujus arboris, nomenclaturis et historia admodum confusi et obscuri sunt. Botanici, ut apud J. Bauhinum videre est.” “).

re: YOKE-ELM/HORNBEAM (C. Betulus) ‘Sukhumi’

In Suffolk, the tree is often known as the ” Harber,” as I am informed …. This word has often been regarded erroneously as a corruption of Hardbeam, but it is merely an old and otherwise obsolete form of “harbour” (formerly sometimes spelled “harbur” and “arbour”), meaning, not the name of any particular tree, but “harbour,” “harbourage,” or “cover”.. [and] it burns brightly, steadily, and without crackling or sparking, even in the green state, when quite freshly cut.”

In many respects, the leaves of the Hornbeam are very elm-like in general appearance...

The Dioscuri

Both the ancients and the early herbalists found much difficulty in classifying the Hornbeam…

Gerard says, The Hornbeame tree is called in Greek ζυγόν; which is as if you should say Conjugalis … bicause it serveth well to make ζυγόν or, in Latin Juga, Yokes, wherewith oxen are yoked togither … and, therefore, [it] may be Englished Yoke-Elme…

[In Essex] I believe it to be more abundant than any other tree, except, perhaps, the Elm.. [yet its] .. remarkably restricted distribution has led some botanists to surmise that the tree may not be truly indigenous to Britain.”

“In southern Russia,, on the edges of the Oak forests which lie to the north of the open steppe region bordering on the Black Sea … Carpinus betulus is prominent .. so that oak woods and hornbeam woods exclusively form the forest formations on the border.”

Miller Christy, ‘The Hornbeam (Carpinus Betulus L.) In Britain’, Journal of Ecology, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Jan., 1924), pp. 39-94.

FIELD ELM (Ulmus minor)

“The most important relevant fact .. is the complete inter-fertility within sect. Ulmus. A major discriminant for specific distinction is therefore lacking ..”

R. H. Richens. ‘On Fine Distinctions in Ulmus L.’, Taxon, Vol. 29, No. 2/3 (May, 1980), pp. 305-312.


continuing now from the previous post.

A translation begins..


To begin, the translator whom we imagine presents the image on folio 5v* to those Genoese in Mosul, and who will know already what the image contains, might adopt Homeric style, speaking first of the Dioscuri, alluding to their inseparability, their role as protectors of the trader and mariner, bringing light in time of distress and so forth as described earlier. If he knew the Roman version of Dioskurias’ legend, he might also mention those charioteers Amphitus and Cercius. (This unifying theme came as the end-point, not the beginning, of the present writer’s investigations, but we hope the reader will allow us this licence).

Template/default construction.

To be included in a given group, the plants must (a) occur naturally in proximity – that is, occur in a common habitat (b) have comparable appearance and/or uses and (c) usually simultaneously, complementary qualities and approximately equivalent commercial value – such as, for example, flax and hemp, or two (or more) kinds of sorrel-leafed vegetable, or an eastern and a western source for dragonsblood (both Dracaenas occur in dry, rocky habitat not far from shore).[2]

[2]Another reason for considering the image on f.9v an outlier is that I find no reference to any of the violas as commodities traded over the relevant period, despite their various uses for the medieval and later pharmacist-perfume-makers.

It does occur in some rare instances that when the uses for one group (as e.g. of plants used to make paper) were inextricable from those of another (such as those used to give scent, colour or insect-resistance to papers), both groups will be combined into a single drawing – but this is very rare.[3]

[3] the present writer found only two instances of combined groupings among the 60-odd plant-pictures analysed in detail.

You will see, though, how sensible a system of classification it is for practical purposes in a time before there emerged the type of scientific botany practiced today. It allowed easy substitution of one good for another should the one preferred be unavailable – due to the market’s situation, or the season, or fluctuations in the routes’ accessibility (a common problem).

Reading the image.

One reads by following this fixed order:

First come elements we’d describe today as literally or realistically rendered:

  • Habit – (I have yet to find a single instance where the ‘habit’ is wrongly indicated – D).
  • leaves and petioles – (ditto)
  • whether leaves and branches occur alternate, opposite or both. – (ditto).


USES – must be closely similar and/or complementary. (… for a given historical period).

For modern researchers – It is essential that assertions about use refer to historical evidence and/or to modern studies. This constraint serves not only readers but the researcher, acting as a constant check for any evolving identification, helping to rein in any tendency to rely less on the tedium of investigation than on the ease of imagination and it also demonstrates for others that there’s more to the final opinion than guesswork-termed-theory. One wishes the requirement could be imposed retrospectively..)

Then, we take into account whether the image includes such characteristics as vine-like tendrils and certain consistent motifs – not relevant for folio 5v* – which further assist in classification.

and last –

  • Optional details – flowers. seedhead and/or fruit.

Quite contrary to the custom in western Europe to 1440, in these images none but such outliers as folio 9v regard the flower as primary or sole definition of a group. If the image includes a flower, it is only when the flowers, as flowers and/or seed-heads, had an independent commercial value, or were the only convenient cue to distinguishing near-identical items. Even then, a conventional stylization might be employed as readily as any effort to represent them by physical appearance. Flowers are regarded an ephemeral phase in the formation of the fruit/seed-head.

Fruit – seedheads. One telling custom in the graphic vocabulary of the Voynich plant-pictures is that of turning all fruit upwards as if towards the sun, even if naturally pendulent (as, for example, the banana-fruit is). This, as a fixed habit, is not unknown from other non-Latin traditions but I’ve already treated the matter in detail elsewhere. It is certainly one item in the original enunciators’ visual vocabulary that has proved frustrating for many who supposed all botanical images should be – or be trying to be – specimen ‘portraits’. Another affect, whose date is uncertain, sees constant avoidance of anything in the purple-to-black range even when naturally occurring. In some cases that element is rendered in blue; in other cases ‘cut’. Both customs are seen in the way the flower-fruit is represented on folio 13r** – among many other instances, though not every ‘cut’ carries that implication.

Other optional details: Mnemonic devices

Mnemonic devices – In the usual way, these are to be added/considered last and in the opinion of the present writer, the great majority of the ‘root-mnemonic’ elements are contributions made by those persons who maintained the original corpus over the centuries following the demise of the Seleucid and Ptolemaic kingdoms, but before the images came to Latin notice.

It seems that Arabic trade reached its climax with the territories of South and East Asia during the rule of the Abbasid in tenth to eleventh centuries[AD]. (pp,29)

Amar Zohar and Efraim Lev, ‘Trends in the Use of Perfumes and Incense in the Near East after the Muslim Conquests’, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, THIRD SERIES, Vol. 23, No. 1, Special Issue: Perfumery and Ritual in Asia (JANUARY 2013), pp. 11-30.

A reader should look to the mnemonic devices only as final evidence for, or potential disproof of, an evolving analytical study. They are a last ‘check’ but valuable nonetheless. So, if the analysis has reached a posited reading for a group as trees native to dry mountains, but then the root-mnemonic provided is that signalling an aquatic, the analysis must be scrapped and the labourer begin again. The drawing is never wrong.

Modern readers are particularly cautioned against imagining that if a mnemonic device includes e.g. a pair of eyes that it may be understood to mean the plant(s) will serve as remedy for eye-disease, or be named something like ‘eye-plant’. Analogies with those habits which certainly occur in medieval Islamic and European herbals are tempting to make, but are inapt here. I cannot emphasise strongly enough that no analysis should begin from any subjective impression of the root-mnemonic. Explaining folio 5v* in an order opposite that of the research itself has been done here to highlight the compact elegance of the finished drawing, the whole of which is reasonably described as ‘mnemonic’.

Folio 5v* from the top down.

1. Habit

The drawing shows as the group’s definition, a plant whose habit is upright, open, with limbs slender, but apparently not having any a bole or trunk. Is it perhaps a herb, or a shrub?

The present writer spent quite some time on those possibilities before realising that cultivated trees often present an appearance different from those in the wild. I’ve illustrated below the difference as it applies to elms.

Photo courtesy ‘twincitiesoutdoors’. This illustrates only the elm’s natural habit of growth in earlier years. The particular species is not specified..

So now – might the defining plant in this group be that tree whose name supplanted in local parlance the older ‘Disokurias’ and Sebastopol? Greeks anciently called the tree ζυγόν – ‘yoke’ – as oxen are literally, and twins metaphorically, ‘yoked’ together. Following Gerard we may call it Yoke-Elm. Hornbeam is another common term for it modern English.

This picture illustrates the tree’s wide, open, habit and slender-looking often-curving, branches. And, further, how a cultivated specimen may have had its lower branches and suckers removed to show a neat trunk.

It’s a possibility, but must survive testing against the other points of the default ‘template’.

herb or shrub‘ – A large number of ‘shrub’ possibilities, in particular, were investigated but each met opposition at a subsequent step in the ‘template’ and all were eventually discarded, one by one, so that phase of the research is omitted here, With a modern botanical identification of a living plant, one may build a sort of identikit from various flow-chart menus, but the opposite applies in treating these drawings. One usually begins with a daunting list of ‘possibles’ which must then be reduced by elimination until – one hopes – all noted elements within the image and the posited plants survive testing against the default format, including the crucial issue of complementary and/or similar use.

Ideally, evidence of use would be obtained from the time and region proper to the drawing, but in practice – given the era to which I date first enunciation – one must often be content with more recent and secondary sources.

2. The leaf.

Leaves of the Yoke Elm are described as “dark green, ovate, and doubly serrated”. In this they differ from both the Beech proper and from the Birch or the Maple, with all of which, at one time and another, the Yoke Elm has been classed by botanists of the early modern and modern era.

On the tree, the leaves appear as if in clusters. The drawing certainly emphasises the strongly serrated leaf-margin and contains, in one detail, an allusion to another characteristic – a ‘drooping wing’ effect which signals a leaf shielding its fruit. I’ve ringed that detail in the drawing and in the photo for the Yoke Elm.

It may be nothing the original maker had in mind, but nice to know – Homeric Hymn 33 gives the Dioskuri tawny wings. “Children who are deliverers of men on earth and of swift-going ships when stormy gales rage over the ruthless sea … the strong wind and the waves of the sea lay the ship under water, until suddenly these two are seen darting through the air on tawny wings. Forthwith they allay the blasts of the cruel winds and still the waves …fair signs are they and deliverance”

Doubly-serrated leaves are common to both the Yoke Elm and to one of its naturally-occurring companions, one with qualities complementing its own – the Field Elm, described in modern botany as Ulmus minor.

(Added Feb 21st., 2022: some readers may know only the smooth-leafed forms. I add the following from a wiki article:

” the field elm is by far the most polymorphic of the European species … Current treatment of the species owes much to Richens, who in 1984 … listed the small-leaved U. minor of France and Spain; the narrow-leaved U. minor of northern and central Italy; the densely hairy leaved U. minor of southern Italy and Greece; the U. minor with small-toothed leaves from the Balkans; the U. minor with large-toothed leaves from the Danube region; and the small-leaved U. minor from southern Russia and Ukraine.

What we do not see in the drawing, and what a modern reader would surely suppose ought to be there, are strongly-marked veins, common to both those ‘Elms’ .

“doubly serrated” – true of both the Yoke elm and the Field Elm. – the latter illustrated above. image courtesy luirig.

Should one take that absence as sign that this developing identification of the ‘two elms’ must be scrapped – not an uncommon thing when working on these plant-pictures.

Not necessarily. Not all elms have such deep veins and the aim in these drawings is to create an easy means to identify, and to be able to correlate, plants of complementary or equivalent value. monetary and practical. If the elm of China is equivalent to the elm of Europe, or the Honbeam ‘elm’ of Asia to that of the Black Sea, it matters little whether the leaves are a little larger, or smaller, or more- or -less deeply veined. What matters is whether it serves the wanted purpose, has salient features in common, and can be obtained along with the group’s other ‘companions’ in a given market.

Leaves of Ulmus parvifolia. Chinese elm.

Additionally, one must consider whether venation was considered important in graphic terms – that is, in representing plants, according to the conventions which applied for the enunciator and his intended audience, and maintained by those who preserved, transmitted and finally copied these images?

In the present case – and the question was investigated – comparative iconography shows that by ancient and medieval peoples, reference to a leaf’s veining was conventional for most depictions of the grape-leaf but not (for example) olive-leaves; in representing the oak-leaf, veins might or might not be included.. and so on. This reminds us, yet again, that we are dealing with a graphic language and a time before modern botanical science emerged.

In the present case, the author concluded that to have drawn the deep-set veins would not have served any useful purpose as a way to distinguish the plant(s) wanted, but the strongly serrated margins would. This doesn’t erase the question, which has to be kept in mind – added to a tally – as the rest of the ‘default’ form is addressed.

3. Plants grouped occur naturally in proximity..

I hope modern distribution maps will do to show natural occurrence of C. betulus and U.minor in the Colchian lowlands and around Trebizond (now Trabzon). I’ve taken C. betulus as the group’s defining member. This tree’s occurence in swampy ground led to its being known in the Gaelic as leamhan bog.

maps (upper) from G. Caudullo, D. de Rigo, ‘Ulmus – elms in Europe: distribution, habitat, usage and threats’ in European Atlas of Forest Tree Species.
(lower) from the Global Biodiversity Information Facility.

For people whose daily occupation involved wood-work or the work of selecting and purchasing plants, the question of common and complementary uses would have been the easiest part of learning how to read these drawings.

The opposite is so for the modern student, who must demonstrate from their research that a plant was known and used to a specified purpose by a specific people over a specific temporal range. It really is slog work, and information is often very scarce – but in the case of the Voynich plant-pictures, its the most vital part of that work.

The information will be found scattered across sources of a wide range and variety – ancient and medieval literature and documents; historical studies by professional and by amateur scholars; books intended for craftsmen, and even conversations online between them. The plants and their qualities today are what they were three thousand years ago, even if some applications for them will have changed – we no longer build chariots or sail long distances in wooden ships with pitch-coated hulls.

Sometimes, to determine whether some particular plants have, or once had, a common habitat and identify former economic uses, it’s necessary to turn to matter published by specialists in such subjects as historical ethno-botany, pollen analysis, and also to technical textual commentaries on ancient, classical and medieval texts. Most researchers will soon wish the list of languages they have were very much longer, but while you won’t find all the information, it is not good enough to argue that something might have been so (“bananas of some sort were in Crete – they could have been brought by Crusaders to England”); one must demonstrate that it was so (‘bananas are mentioned in an eleventh century document from the Cairo geniza).

bananas… I have seen this mentioned in one of the studies published about ‘materia medica’ lists from the Cairo geniza. It is mentioned in one of them, but not as a medicine. Any reader intent on knowing details – let me know and then give me a couple of weeks to hunt it up again.

Another tree native to the same region(s), and which might be among those included by the grouping here is Ostrya_carpinifolia, a member of the birch family known as the ‘Hops Hornbeam’ but apart from showing its current distribution, I’ll leave that aside. It mention it chiefly because at times the Hornbeam C.betulus has been classed ‘Ostrya’.


A long section, so I’ll break here.

So far, the posited plants have survived ‘habit’, and ‘common habitat’, and been given a temporary pass for ‘Leaf’. So far, so good.

2 thoughts on “Tabula picta 5v* – The plants.

  1. concerning bananas

    For those wanting literary references:
    In the tenth century, Al-Muqaddasī (al-Maqdisi) “gives detailed accounts of the agricultural produce of Palestine. He lists 36 products for which the region was renowned, including citrons , almonds , dates , nuts , bananas , olive oil, figs and dried figs, grapes and raisins, carobs, apples, cherries, plums, sumac, lupine, and of course sugar and indigo, which grew in the Jordan Valley”.
    from – Elias Khamis, ‘The Fatimid Metalwork Hoard from Tiberias… Final Report, Vol. II (2013)’,
    Qedem, Vol. 55, pp. I-X, 1-430.
    in that connection Khamis mentions Gil for the Geniza reference.

    Khamis’ Bibliography has, as his sources:

    Al-MuqaddasI, Ahsan al-Taqasîm fi Mďrifat al-Aqâlîm, Leiden (1906) – presumably Brill imprint.
    M. Gil 1992, A History of Palestine, 634-1099, (1992). The press is listed as ‘Cambridge’ – presumably CUP.

    al-Maqdisi lived in the 10thC AD, a time when we know (see Riddle and others) that vegetable products from south-east Asia could be purchased by monks in France at their local market. The region about Tiberius is also of interest for Voynich researchers since from we find the first extant example of ‘arcitenans’ represented as fully-human standing/striding archer, the same type which came to used to provide a centre- emblem for the ‘December’ diagram in Beinecke MS 408.


  2. as above.
    The source earlier seen:
    Lev, E., ‘Drugs held and sold by pharmacists of the Jewish community of medieval (11th–14th centuries) Cairo according to lists of materia medica found at the Taylor-Schechter Genizah collection’, Cambridge, Journal of
    (2006) pp.10, 11.


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