Ruskin's Botanical Drawings

John Ruskin Hot House Orchid - Aeria RF1106 © Ruskin Foundation

Ruskin John (1819-1900)

Hot House Orchid - Aeria - Botanical Study
3 X 4 4/10 in.
Inscribed "Aeria of posted petals. Fig 1 of page 1"

RF 1106


The word ‘Aeria’ occurs in Chapter XI of Proserpina, entitled Genealogy. In this chapter Ruskin explains why he rejects many of "the received names of plants; and … substitute[s] others for them, relating to entirely different attributes from those on which their present nomenclature is confusedly edified". He says that he calls the "present system of nomenclature confusedly edified, because it introduces, - without, apparently, any consciousness of the inconsistency, and certainly with no apology for it, - names founded sometimes on the history of plants, sometimes on their qualities, sometimes on their forms, sometimes on their products, and sometimes on their poetical associations". He then goes on to consider the various approaches to devising an alternative system of nomenclature and says that his own method "consists essentially in fastening the thoughts of the pupil on the special character of the plant, in the place where he is likely to see it; and therefore, in expressing the power of its race and order in the wider world, rather than by reference to mythological associations than to botanical structure." He then refers to Plate VII (labelled "CONTORTA PURPUREA. PURPLE WREATH - WORT.") which he says is "an ordinary spring flower in our English mountain fields". It is possibly the Early Purple Orchid (Orchis mascula (L.) L.), although the details of the flowers and leaves are not entirely correct for this or any other native orchid species (errors may have been introduced during the copying of Ruskin’s drawing to produce the engraving). He then goes on to describe his system of nomenclature for three different groups of orchids, which he summarises as follows "Thus we have one general name for all these creatures, 'Ophryd'; and three family or group names, Contorta, Satyrium, and Aeria". The last, Aeria, he defines earlier as "living actually in the air, and only holding fast by, without nourishing itself from, the ground, rock, or tree-trunk on which it is rooted, may of course most naturally and accurately be called 'Aeria', as it has long been popularly known in English by the name of Air-plant."

This drawing appears to be of a single flower of a tropical (S.E. Asian), epiphytic orchid belonging to the genus Aerides (epiphytic = growing on a rock, tree-trunk or other support and absorbing its water through aerial roots from the saturated air, and its mineral nutrients from trapped debris). Members of this genus, known in the nineteenth century as Air Plants, are easy to grow and have long been popular as stove-house plants which may be grown in baskets hanging from the roof (see one of the many editions of J. C. Loudon’s An Encyclopaedia of Gardening, first published in 1822 and D. J. Mabberley’s Plant Book, 3rd edn., CUP, 2008).

This entry was researched and written by Professor David Ingram.