Reading matters – The Beginning and End of Western Botanical Sciences?

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.

Georgius Everhardus Rumphius, Soldier & Naturalist

Rumphius: A Naturalist for the People

Inside ‘The Ambonese Herbal’

I have seen it yet though wish I could.

The Ambonese Herbal – 6 volume reprint with English translation

The Ambonese Herbal

The original Latin/Dutch version of The Ambonese Herbal can be found at

There are numerous other historical herbal and botanical texts back to the 16th century also available online or as pdf downloads at the great 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.

The last botany student in the UK

Plant collectors becoming as rare as the plants they seek

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.

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9 Responses to Reading matters – The Beginning and End of Western Botanical Sciences?

  1. In response to your kind offer of another botanical illustrator to consider– (I ought to allow readers to see the comments on SG without having to comment themselves, but –as you see- I’m a little obsessed with the aesthetics of the whole thing), Berthe Hoola van Nooten & the Buddha Hand Citron—I wondered whether you’d come across the Paper Museum of Cassiano dal Pozzo.
    “Cassiano was particularly interested in abnormality, both in animals and plants, and commissioned numerous watercolours of misshapen fruits. His interest was based on the belief that a study of abnormality could result in a better understanding of normal growth. The deformity in the citron is caused by the action of a mite on the bud of the flower. At the time, however, this was not known – one explanation of the digitated, or ‘fingered’, appearance of this fruit involved the tragic transformation of a mythical youth into a citrus tree.”

    ‘translation’ of Nehemiah Grew (1641-1712), an English physician, vegetable and plant anatomist and one time secretary of the Royal Society.
    “Despite the incredible abundance of plants in our environment, it remains baffling that most people don’t seem particularly disposed to learning more about them…It’s fundamentally illogical to assume that the amount we know about plants at the moment is all that there is to be known. Mother nature has evolved over a long time in comparison to our relatively short period on earth so we are wise to have some regard for the observations passed on by our forebears…We just don’t know how ignorant we are and there is no way to determine the magnitude of that deficit…
    Our destiny imposes a duty to achieve a balance with our environment that goes beyond mere exploitation.”]

    In an essay on naming, Paul Gruchow writes that we are “at precisely that moment in our history when we fear that our very lives may depend upon how well we understand nature and our own responsibilities and limits within it.”

    • Nature and Science says:

      Thanks again, great quote and link
      How much has our real understanding of nature changed in 300 yrs?

      • Well, it’s gotten more precise & clinical; we’ve stretched further–out into space, back into time, deeper into the cell. But the average person –oh, wait, I have another quotation (of course. If my own mind were strong & interesting, and knowledgeable -I’d have a whole different kind of blog).
        “.. most people .. have lost their connexion with the earth; they hang, as it were, in the air, hover in all directions, and find no place where they can settle.” Rilke

      • Nature and Science says:

        Seems to to me that there is this contradiction, that the deeper and further you go with investigating nature and life, or the cosmos, the less precise and clinical everything seems to be, as a whole.

        Our connexion with the earth and life is always there, but we often forget. The modern world makes that easy for many but not all, that seems like it can’t last.

  3. dianabuja says:

    Yes, and as I commented in a blog a couple of days ago – Egypt’s finest botanist, Dr. Mohammed Kassas, recently passed away and there seem to be few to follow up his decades of work…

    • Nature and Science says:

      Just dug your comment out of spam. Interesting blog you have there too, tales of another continent.

      • dianabuja says:

        Hum. Wonder why spam? We’re both on wordpress…

        Happily, I did receive serveral responses from Egypt, from persons working in fields of botany and environmental sciences in response to my blog about Dr. Kassas – which was quite rewarding. I’ll revise my blog to include their remarks. (It’s always nice to have positive – rather than negative news about this part of the world…)

        Glad you find my blog interesting. Reflects what I happen to be doing or thinking about at the time….

      • Nature and Science says:

        A view of, and from, Africa I found very interesting, cheers

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