"The Easy Transmutableness of Water": The Alchemy of Seed Steeps and "Fructifying Waters" in Seventeenth-Century English Agriculture

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Abstract Summary
Johan Baptista van Helmont’s famous willow tree experiment purported to demonstrate that “164 pounds of wood, bark, and roots had come up from water alone,” suggesting the preeminence of water as the foundation for botanical growth. This experiment has a long afterlife among agricultural reformers in seventeenth-century England, but rather than accept water as the sole driver of the development of plants, many of these reformers adopted various alchemical techniques designed to determine what discrete substances within water conveyed fertility. In the process, they explored the nutritive properties of substances such as alum, quicklime, natron, distilled water, blue vitriol, potash, vitriolic acid, verdigris, copperas, and all manner of salts, and created mixtures of numerous, sometimes secretive substances often called “fructifying waters,” among many other things, as liquid solutions in which to steep seeds or use as pest control for crops. In this presentation, I argue that these reformers incorporated these chymical substances normally associated with alchemical laboratories and apothecaries into agriculture and aqua-culture. Their goals were manifold: they sought to improve agricultural yields, increase the quantity of viable seeds and alleviate the risks of poor harvests, and develop marketable and sometimes patentable recipes for profit. In the process, they added to the growing body of knowledge about the function of seed growth, the lifecycle of plants, and the relationships between plants and soil, water, air, and fertilizers. They also sought to answer two of the knottiest questions in botany—what caused seed germination and could this be controlled?
Abstract ID :
HSS920
Submission Type
Contributed Paper
Abstract Topic
Chemistry
Chronological Classification :
17th century
Self-Designated Keywords :
alchemy, agriculture, plant science, environmental history

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