Been reading more than writing lately, and thought I’d share a few interesting posts and stories concerning the beginning and possible ending of field and practical botanical science in the western world.
Starting with the excellent ArtPlantae blog and their posts about the intriguing German/Dutch naturalist Georgius Everhardus Rumphius over April and the republished English translation of his seminal volumes on Indonesian and SE Asian foods, medicines and spices, The Ambonese Herbal.
A quite remarkable tale from the 17th and 18th centuries, it is a wonder the beautiful botanical art and original descriptions ever made it to print and are again available over 300 years later.
The history of the Dutch East Indies Company, or for that matter the British East India Company, and the spice trade of the 17th century is littered with incredible calamity and conflict, for locals often. Making it perhaps all the more remarkable that Rumphius was able to create such a work of ethnobotanical and natural science significance amidst all that.
I have seen it yet though wish I could.
The original Latin/Dutch version of The Ambonese Herbal can be found at Botanicus.org
There are numerous other historical herbal and botanical texts back to the 16th century also available online or as pdf downloads at the great Botanicus.org site using material from the Missouri Botanic Gardens Library.
So 300+ years after Rumphius, through the industrial revolution, deep into the end game of the age of fossil fuel and oil, how does the future of practical botanical science in western society and the documentation of the world’s botanical diversity look?
Well students in agriculture and botanical sciences appear to be mostly absent or perhaps the opportunities, recognition or funding are not there. The ever more urbanised human world means many are simply alienated from understanding the importance of plants and biodiversity in a functioning global ecosphere and local ecosystems.
Aside from a few large botanical gardens, in a seemingly ever more corporatised world, where are resources and recognition for this work of cataloguing and understanding of the world’s biodiversity going to come from?
Another ArtPlantae post and this recent Nature article (via Among The Stately Trees) ponder some of the many issues.
Though interest in plants, gardening, herbs and ethnobotany amongst the public seems high, overall it seems inevitable that the general level of direct and practical knowledge of plants in human civilisation is on the way down.
Despite that I think plants will be vital for human existence on earth forever. Increasing ignorance I’m certain does us no good in the long run.
I’m sure there will aways be interest, it’s kind of necessary for someone to know enough for us all to survive. Though perhaps it will reside more in the gardeners and amateur naturalists rather than institutions like universities and their generally more corporatised interests these days.
Superstars of botany: Rare specimens
A handful of plant collectors has shaped the field of botany. Now they are disappearing, and there are no clear successors.