The Botanical Magazine was started in 1787 for the purpose of showing “the most Ornamental foreign plants cultivated in the Open Ground, the Green-House and Stove ... accurately represented in their natural Colours”. Its founder, William Curtis, was a London apothecary who saw the periodical as “a work in which Botany and Gardening might happily be combined”.

With a bounty of newly discovered plants from around the world arriving in England for cultivation, the magazine set out to describe and illustrate these new introductions for the general public. The first volume presented such exotics as the Creeping Cereus from South America, Stapelia from the Cape of Good Hope, and Rudbeckia from America. In 1892, a Saguaro from the Sonoran Desert that was blooming in a greenhouse in England was portrayed in the magazine.

Illustrations for the first 70 volumes of the magazine were engraved on copper plates and hand-colored. Beginning in 1845, lithography was employed to greatly streamline the production of the plates, as the artists could draw directly on the lithographic stone. Handcoloring of these printed plates continued until the end of the 19th century.

From its beginning the magazine has utilized the talents of notable botanical artists of the day. The earliest volumes were illustrated by William Kilburn, Sydenham Edwards and James Sowerby. Beginning in 1834 the prolific Walter Hood Fitch began drawing for the magazine and for many years was its sole illustrator. Other artists have included Matilda Smith, Lillian Snelling, Margaret Stones, Pandora Sellars, and Christabel King.

After Curtis’s death in 1800, the new editor of the magazine renamed it Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, the name that it bears to the present day. In spite of occasional periods of financial uncertainty over the years, the magazine has been published continuously since its founding, making it the oldest such periodical to feature full-color botanical illustrations. It is currently published by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and is available by subscription.