Rudimentary botanical science began with empirically-based plant lore passed from generation to generation in the oral traditions of paleolithic hunter-gatherers. The first written records of plants were made in the Neolithic Revolution about 10,000 years ago as writing was developed in the settled agricultural communities where plants and animals were first domesticated. The first writings that show human curiosity about plants themselves, rather than the uses that could be made of them, appears in the teachings of Aristotle's student Theophrastus at the Lyceum in ancient Athens in about 350 BC; this is considered the starting point for modern botany. In Europe, this early botanical science was soon overshadowed by a medieval preoccupation with the medicinal properties of plants that lasted more than 1000 years. During this time, the medicinal works of classical antiquity were reproduced in manuscripts and books called herbals. In China and the Arab world, the Greco-Roman work on medicinal plants was preserved and extended.
In Europe the Renaissance of the 14th–17th centuries heralded a scientific revival during which botany gradually emerged from natural history as an independent science, distinct from medicine and agriculture. Herbals were replaced by floras: books that described the native plants of local regions. The invention of the microscope stimulated the study of plant anatomy, and the first carefully designed experiments in plant physiology were performed. With the expansion of trade and exploration beyond Europe, the many new plants being discovered were subjected to an increasingly rigorous process of naming, description, and classification.
Progressively more sophisticated scientific technology has aided the development of contemporary botanical offshoots in the plant sciences, ranging from the applied fields of economic botany (notably agriculture, horticulture and forestry), to the detailed examination of the structure and function of plants and their interaction with the environment over many scales from the large-scale global significance of vegetation and plant communities (biogeography and ecology) through to the small scale of subjects like cell theory, molecular biology and plant biochemistry.
Botany (Greek Βοτάνη - grass, fodder; Medieval Latin botanicus – herb, plant) and zoology are, historically, the core disciplines of biology whose history is closely associated with the natural sciences chemistry, physics and geology. A distinction can be made between botanical science in a pure sense, as the study of plants themselves, and botany as applied science, which studies the human use of plants. Early natural history divided pure botany into three main streams morphology-classification, anatomy and physiology – that is, external form, internal structure, and functional operation. The most obvious topics in applied botany are horticulture, forestry and agriculture although there are many others like weed science, plant pathology, floristry, pharmacognosy, economic botany and ethnobotany which lie outside modern courses in botany. Since the origin of botanical science there has been a progressive increase in the scope of the subject as technology has opened up new techniques and areas of study. Modern molecular systematics, for example, entails the principles and techniques of taxonomy, molecular biology, computer science and more.
Within botany there are a number of sub-disciplines that focus on particular plant groups, each with their own range of related studies (anatomy, morphology etc.). Included here are: phycology (algae), pteridology (ferns), bryology (mosses and liverworts) and palaeobotany (fossil plants) and their histories are treated elsewhere (see side bar). To this list can be added mycology, the study of fungi, which were once treated as plants, but are now ranked as a unique kingdom.
Nomadic hunter-gatherer societies passed on, by oral tradition, what they knew (their empirical observations) about the different kinds of plants that they used for food, shelter, poisons, medicines, for ceremonies and rituals etc. The uses of plants by these pre-literate societies influenced the way the plants were named and classified—their uses were embedded in folk-taxonomies, the way they were grouped according to use in everyday communication. The nomadic life-style was drastically changed when settled communities were established in about twelve centres around the world during the Neolithic Revolution which extended from about 10,000 to 2500 years ago depending on the region. With these communities came the development of the technology and skills needed for the domestication of plants and animals and the emergence of the written word provided evidence for the passing of systematic knowledge and culture from one generation to the next.
During the Neolithic Revolution plant knowledge increased most obviously through the use of plants for food and medicine. All of today's staple foods were domesticated in prehistoric times as a gradual process of selection of higher-yielding varieties took place, possibly unknowingly, over hundreds to thousands of years. Legumes were cultivated on all continents but cereals made up most of the regular diet: rice in East Asia, wheat and barley in the Middle east, and maize in Central and South America. By Greco-Roman times popular food plants of today, including grapes, apples, figs, and olives, were being listed as named varieties in early manuscripts. Botanical authority William Stearn has observed that "cultivated plants are mankind's most vital and precious heritage from remote antiquity".