Symposium “Plants in Health and Culture”

Historical and modern motives for plant exploration in SE Asia

Pieter Baas, Nationaal Herbarium Nederland, P.O. Box 9514, 2300 RA Leiden, The Netherlands


This paper will review western involvement in plant exploration of SE Asia. Carolus Clusius, the founder and first Prefect of the Leiden Botanical Garden provided a clear agenda for research and collecting by apothecaries and surgeons aboard ship of the East India Company, founded in 1602. Early botanists of the 17th century such as Rumphius (Herbarium Amboinense) and Van Reede tot Drakesteijn (Hortus Malabaricus) effectively synthesised traditional local knowledge on plant uses with western analytical approaches to species delimitation and classification. Their motivation was basically to further the interest of the East India Company and the Dutch economy in commercial spices, and medicinal and ornamental plant species. Such "selfish" motives in plant exploration and systematic botany have not disappeared, but are now largely replaced by the scientific drive to reconstruct the Tree of Life as a prerequisite for understanding plant evolution, and the strategic and applied motivation to provide a sound knowledge base for plant conservation and sustainable use of botanical resources in the extremely species-rich but seriously threatened tropical ecosystems of SE Asia. Botanists from the Netherlands continue to play key roles in SE Asiatic plant research, but the focus has shifted from neocolonial domination to support for training, capacity building and sharing of collection-related information. These general trends will be illustrated by selected highlights of four centuries history of botanical exploration in SE Asia: from Clusius to Van Steenis, and from Herbarium Amboinense to Flora Malesiana and the PROSEA Handbook series (Plant Resources of SE Asia).