Category Archives: The Voynich Large Plants

Investigation of the large Voynich plant images.

Voynich Large Plants – Folio 95r


Folio95rThumbPlant 95r fills most of the page, especially toward the bottom. There is an eight-line block of text across the top of the page that is worked around the top edges of the plant.

The plant has trifoliate leaves at the end and an overall odd-pinnate arrangement, with each group of leaves opposite the other.

The flower stalk is fairly thick and has been left unpainted. It divides into four narrower stalks with round shapes that resemble berries with a knob or spot at the end of each one. The spots are colored a pale yellow. The “berries” are arranged opposite and are fairly closely spaced. They might also be flower knobs—there are a few plants that have “knobs” rather than petals, but there’s no calyx present and no rough areas, pistils or stamens, so it seems more likely these are fruiting bodies rather than flowers.

The elliptical leaves have been painted a fairly even color of medium green except for one on the lower left that has a bit of brown mixed in. The leaves on the left are joined across the stem, as is the top set of leaves on the right. The ones bottom-right have some stem showing between the leaves.

The leaf margins are very interesting, different from any of the other Voynich plants. They look more like hairs than serrations—and not straight hairs, but hairs with a very slight curve at the ends. But are they hairs or are they stylistic interpretations of serrated edges? In some ways they resemble hairs, but a couple of the leaves on the left look like they might be curved serrations.

The base of the stem has a few fibrous “hairs” but is not overtly fibrous and the top edge of the upper roots have some fibrous hairs or protrusions, as well. Is this perhaps a plant that has roots slightly protruding from the soil?

The roots are fairly broad, medium-thickness and branch fairly evenly toward the bottom. They have been painted a reasonably consistent color of brick red.


Prior Identification


Edith Sherwood has identified Plant 95r as elderberry (Sambucus nigra), possibly due to the “berries” at the end of the stalks.

Sambucus nigra does tend to have an odd-pinnate arrangement of leaves, but the group of three at the end of each elderberry branch is not as tightly fused as Plant 95r and the berry-stalks of Sambucus nigra branch frequently to create a more umbellate shape, rather than running out from the stalk in long, more singular stems.

While Sambucus nigra and Plant 95r superficially resemble each other (and we don’t know how accurately the VM illustrator portrayed plants), I believe there are plants more closely resembling 95r than Sambucus nigra.


Other Possibilities

RhusvernixPoison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix), and its close relative poison ivy, are both similar to Plant 95r, including odd-pinnate leaves and long stems with opposite-spaced berries that have a dot in the center, but the leaves are not as fused as the VM plant and the leaf margins are unlikely to inspire an illustrator to draw unusual leaf margins with a hair-like shape. Also, the VM illustrator created a large open dot and took the time to color it pale yellow. The dots on poison sumac and poison ivy tend to be small and dark.

Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium) has long clusters of tightly-spaced berries and odd-pinnate leaves that sometimes look almost fused at the stem. The leaves are spiny and sometimes slightly ruffled and thus the leaf margins might be depicted differently by an imaginative illustrator, but the VM plant doesn’t “feel” like Mahonia aquifolium and M. aquifolium is a west coast plant unlikely to have been seen by a medieval European.

Lantana is an African and tropical American plant with opposite leaves and “berries,” and the leaf margins have a somewhat curved appearance from some angles, due to the slight ruffles in the serrations—it’s definitely possible that the leaves of some species of Lantana might be depicted as seen in Plant 95r—but Lantana doesn’t match in other ways. It tends to have shorter fruiting stalks in tight clusters that grow from the leaf nodes, rather than long fruiting stalks emerging from the ends of the branches. While it’s tempting to include Lantana as a possibility based on the leaf margins alone, the arrangement of the leaves and fruits isn’t similar enough to VM 95r to make it a strong contender.

ActaeaSpicataActaea spicata (baneberry) resembles Plant 95r more closely than any of the previously mentioned plants. The leaves are odd pinnate, the terminal leaves are sometimes so tightly clumped that they are fused-trifoliate, the leaf margins are raggedly serrated (one could almost call them lacerate), and the berries extend beyond the leaves from the ends of slender stalks.

Most varieties of Actaea have a small dark dot or an indentation in the fruiting bodies, but there are some that have a slightly raised, rounded protrusion.

Even with all these similarities, I wouldn’t call Actaea a perfect match. The leaf margins are different from many plants, but perhaps not enough to warrant such an unusual interpretation by an illustrator, and Actaea berries do not usually have a significant protrusion, but Actaea should probably still be considered as a possibility.


Posted by J.K. Petersen

© Copyright 2013 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved 

Large Plants – Folio 94v


Plant 94 fills most of the page, especially toward the bottom. There are two blocks of text broken across the stalk and flower head.

The plant has a thick mat of overlapping leaves, yam-like tubers on long “strings,” a central stalk with a vase-shaped calyx, narrow, pointed sepals, and a scalloped or many-petaled flower head.

The central flower stalk is a little thicker than flower stalks in some of the other VM plants. The blossom at the end of the stalk is a darkish-blue that looks like it may have been mixed with a bit of brown to darken it, or perhaps the blue was applied before the brown scalloped edge was completely dried. It appears to have been turned toward the reading audience to show its internal shape. It’s also possible that the flower itself, in real life, curves at the end.

The elliptical leaves are green and greenish-teal (a small amount of blue may have been added to the green) and some are watery blue, as though the illustrator tried to create a lighter shade of blue by adding more water. The lighter blue isn’t terribly successful, it is blobby and washed out, but does create another tone. The alternating tones might represent leaves that have a slightly different color front and back or it might be a device to make it easier to distinguish alternate leaves.

The leaves are elliptical and somewhat lanceolate at the tips. The margins are serrated. The central stalk and petioles have been left unpainted.

There are several aspects of the roots that are noteworthy. First, they are rendered in two colors, brick red on the left, darkish brown on the right. Of particular interest is the rounded notch in each one. The notch is less obvious in the fourth tuber, it’s slightly filled with pigment, but it is located in the same place as on the other tubers, if you consider each one is successively rotated counter-clockwise.

The cross- or star-like symbol on the rightmost tuber is unusual and it’s difficult to tell from a scan whether it was scored into the image after the paint was applied, or whether the scoring existed in the parchment before the paint was applied and showed as “white” because the pigment didn’t fully fill the lines. Investigation of the original manuscript with a miscroscope could probably determine whether the score lines were added before or after the image was painted.

Prior Identification



Edith Sherwood has identified Plant 94v as Lychnis coronaria, Rose Campion, probably based on the numerous basal leaves and the fact that it has a vase-like calyx.


Other than these two points, however, Lychnis coronaria differs from Plant 94v in several ways:

  • L. coronaria tends to branch many times, with small opposite leaves at the branch nodes.
  • L. coronaria typically has four or five larger petals emanating from a very tiny steeple in the center, while Plant 94v appears to have many small, short petals surrounding a larger inner ring.
  • L. coronaria does have a basal whorl when the plant first starts, but the basal leaves are quite ruffled, not serrated, and are barely visible in mature flowering plants. The long slender branching stems and bright pink or white blossoms overwhelm the view of the basal leaves as the plant blooms.
  • L. coronaria does not have large rounded tubers. The roots are somewhat delicate and hairlike.

LychnisCoronaria   LychnisCoronariaBot       LychnisCoronariaRoot

The basal leaves of L. coronaria are difficult to see under the multitude of long slender branching stems and distinctive flower heads (L. coronaria Image courtesy of the Göttingen Viewux jardin botanique). The roots of L. coronaria are somewhat fine and delicate (right), not tuberous like 94v.

Other Possibilities

Apios tuberosa (American ground-nut) has yam-like tubers and somewhat elliptical leaves, but the leaves are arranged very differently from 94v, and the long plumes of flowers aren’t a match either. It’s a vine rather than an upright plant, so it probably has to be ruled out as a contender.

Harpagophytum procumbens (Devil’s Claw) has yam-like tubers attached to long strings, but the leaves are quite different from 94v. They are palmate, with very ruffled edges, and somewhat feathery compared to the leaves of 94v. The flowers are trumpet-shaped. Except for the flowers, H. procumbens, is a closer match to Plant 93v than Plant 94v.

Cyperus has yam-like tubers on strings, basal leaves, and a central stalk, but the tubers are small and the flower head doesn’t match 94v—the flower heads are branching and grain-like.

Asphodelus alba is a little closer to the VM plant in that it has yam-like tubers, many basal leaves and a flower head on a central stalk, but the flower is a long plume of blossoms with prominent stamens rather than a vase-shaped single flower-head. It’s worth considering, but probably isn’t a match.

Cochlearia armoracia (Horseradish) has many serrated basal leaves, a sometimes-rounded tuber and a central flower stalk with petals at the end. the main difference from the 94v stalk is that Cocklearia branches.

The above plants tend to resemble Plant 94v in having prominent basal leaves that are roughly elliptical, yam-like tubers or bulbs, and a central stalk with a flower on the end. The biggest difference between these plants and 94v is that the flower heads are somewhat or significantly different from 94v.

CurcumaLongaBot  Curcuma  CurcumaZedoaria

Curcuma longa (turmeric, left) has long been known as a medicinal plant and has elliptical/lanceolate leaves that can be quite large and numerous. In contrast to Plant 94v, however, the leaves tend to rise above the flower stalks.

Curcuma zedoaria (ginger, center) also has yam-like tubers at the ends of long “strings” and elliptical/lanceolate leaves growing from the base (C. zedoaria photo by Michael Wolf, GNU Public License).

Of the plants mentioned so far, a species of Curcuma with leaves not as high as C. longa seems like the best choice except for the flower head and the fact that the leave margins are somewhat irregularly smooth rather than serrated. The Curcuma calyx differs from the 94v flower head with overlapping protrusions and lighter “petals” that follow the same general pattern.

What is noteworthy, however, is that Curcuma flower stalks grow from a leafless underground rhizome. Could the two reddish tubers on the left and two darker tubers on the right represent the leaf part and the flower stalk drawn together? Curcuma stalks and leaves grow in the same vicinity, and rhizomes connect different above-ground plants, but the stalks and leaves are separate in the sense that the stalk doesn’t actually rise from the center of the leaves, it rises from a rhizome.

Or is there another plant with a comparable flower head and serrated leaves that better matches 94v, perhaps a broadleaved Senecio?

Posted by J. Petersen



Voynich Large Plants – Folio 90r


Vm90rPlant 90r fills most of the page from top to bottom—in fact, it barely fits on the page and one wonders if the parchment at the top has been trimmed.

The leaves are medium green and painted with a light touch, with some a little lighter green than others and a few with a slightly yellow-green tint. Note how the paint has been applied more carefully than in may of the VMS illustrations. The painting of the roots is less sloppy also.

The leaves are lanceolate, opposite, and odd pinnate. The stem is slender and upright and divides into three at the top, with fluffy flower heads cupped in dark green calyces.

The roots are slightly curved, medium brown, relatively uniform (as roots go)—the kind of roots that are found on many buttercup plants (in other words, no lumps, not distinctly a tap root, and without a distinctive rhizome) except that the top of the root is thick, like a thumb.

There is a sprinkling of small black spots on this page that look like worm holes.

There are two blocks of text near the base that divide across the stem of the plant.

Prior Identifications

Sherwood90rEdith Sherwood has identified this plant as fleabane (Conyza bonariensis), probably based on fleabane’s fluffy seedheads, but the resemblance is only superficial. The VM drawing might be seedheads, but it might also be the flowering phase of the plant and, if so, it doesn’t match as well because C. bonariensis has a fairly tight small flower like a groundsel—it’s shaped a bit like a microphone rather than being broadly open. Even if the VM plant is in the seed stage, it still doesn’t match C. bonariensis very well because fleabane fluffs out into a ball with the calyx hidden within the fluff, like a dandelion.

C. bonariensis does match Plant 90r in that it has narrow lanceolate leaves, but that’s where the resemblance ends. Unlike C. bonariensis, the leaves of 90r are not branched and they are not opposite. They are not odd pinnate either. Furthermore, the roots are not a good match. C. bonariensis has a fairly beefy tap root that doesn’t branch significantly until a few inches below the ground. Plant 90r has kind of a thick nub that splits into fingers rather than a tap root.

There are a number of plants that more closely resemble the VM plant than C. bonariensis.

Other Possibilities

TmastichinaDetailYou could argue that Plant 90r is Spanish thyme (Thymus mastichina), a culinary and medicinal plant that grows in Portugal and Iberia. Like Plant 90r, it has fluffy greenish-white heads, branching stems, and opposite leaves. The problem with T. mastichina is that it doesn’t branch as evenly as Plant 90r. The fluffy heads do sometimes split into three (though not as evenly as 90r) but more often they are tiered. The top end of the root isn’t as thick as the VM plant either.

There is a tall spindly plant called Cephalaria uralensis that grows in eastern Europeand Russia. It is related to teasel and has odd-pinnate lanceolate leaves that branch opposite each other, directly from the stem, as they do in the VM plant. It has round, fluffy, creamy-white flowers with long stamens. It might be a good candidate for Plant 90r except that the flower stems are distinctively long (very long) and it has a fairly thick tap root.

ScabArvensAnother cousin of the teasel is Scabiosa canescens, a charming flower with leaves that branch almost exactly like Plant 90r, and a fluffy flower head that turns into an almost spherical seed capsule with protruding sepals. There is usually only one flower at the end of the stem, but sometimes it branches into three lower down on the plant (with long stems like Cephalaria uralensis). A flower that grows in fields in France, Scabiosa arvensis, is similar. Both of these, however, have tap roots.

Is it possible to find a plant that matches the flowers/seedhead, leaves and the root?

An Old Medicinal Herb

ValSylvValOfficinalisThere is a plant that comes very close to Plant 90r in significant ways. It has lanceolate odd-pinnate leaves growing opposite along the stem, stems that split near the top, often into three or more flower heads. Some species have a root with a thumblike knob near the top before it splits into finer roots.

Valeriana is a fairly variable species, but several have  odd-pinnate leaves that are a good match for Plant 90r, possibly Valeriana phu, V. sylvatica, or V. dioica. It’s notable that the herbal tradition for depicting this plant in medieval times is to show it splitting into three flower heads even though in nature, it often has more.

ValPhuWhiteValerian has a very long history as a medicinal plant and is still a staple in many medicine cabinets. It also has some toxic properties and must be processed and used with care.

It would be hard to say whether Plant 90r resembles Valeriana or Scabiosa more closely. The main difference is the root. Scabiosa has a distinct tap root whereas Valerian sometimes has a tap root that is knobby near the stem but then branches more broadly. Depending on how literally one takes the VM drawing, one might lean toward Valeriana. Also, given Valerian’s significant history as a medicinal herb, it would not be surprising to find it in a health-related compendium.

Plant 90r may not be Valeriana (or Scabiosa), but it’s more likely to be either of these than Conyza bonariensis.


J.K. Petersen

© Copyright 2013 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved


Addendum: I found another picture in my files that illustrates why I’m leaning toward Valerian phu as an ID for Plant 90r. It’s drawn by Elizabeth Blackwell, known for her accuracy in portraying herbs.

Note the fine-textured odd-pinnate leaves that branch to either side (Scabiosa also has this), the three-branched heads of white blossoms, and the three green protrusions cupping each flower head. The root is moderately thick with many root hairs. It matches well with the VMS drawing.