To take this photograph of a Phalaenopsis venosa in flower in Sulawesi, I had to climb up on the shoulders of a hardy guide. A minute later, as I got back down on to what I thought was solid ground, I fell through a pile of debris on the forest floor into a deep hole. Luckily, I grabbed onto a nearby root, so I was not lost forever, although I did lose my lens cap.
But really, this preamble is an excuse to tell you about the remarkable botanist Georg Everhard Rumpf or Rumphius (1627-1702 CE), who was the first to “find and describe any member of the genus Phalaenopsis.”1
Rumphius, “the blind seer of Ambon” (for he lost his eyesight in middle age), was a Dutch-German botanist who lived for over thirty years on Ambon, one of the easternmost islands of Indonesia, collecting and recording various species of endemic plants.
He was, effectively, the father of Indonesian, nay, Asian, botany, and when I say this, I do not mean that he “discovered” these plants, for all were already known to and used by native populations.
I do, however, mean “botany” in the sense of a Linnean way of knowing the world, where knowledge is binary and can be conveniently classified into distinct boxes we call “truths” and “untruths.”
But Rumphius, who predated Linnaeus by a century, “because his mind and training were pre-modern and pre-Linnean, was more receptive to the Asian reality that surrounded him.”2
In the seven volumes of his magnum opus, Het Amboinsche Kruidboek, he did not erase indigenous plant knowledge.
In his descriptions of each plant, he listed not only the Latin but also the indigenous names, not just in Ambonese but also Malay. And even the Latin names, which he often coined himself, acknowledged their indigenous context. Orchids were given the genus name Angraecum, from the Malay word “Angrek” for orchids. And why not, since Indonesia alone, according to one account, has over five thousand species of orchids.3
Moreover, very unusually for the time, Rumphius also credited his local informants in his work.
A proto-ethnobotanist, he also described the uses, medicinal, culinary, ceremonial and so on, of each plant. He did so not as mere curiosity, however, for this was his lived reality, as much as any Ambonese. For instance, to treat his many illnesses, he usually preferred the herbal medicine of Indonesian dukuns to the few Western physicians to whom he had access.
Despite his unorthodox methods, he made serious contributions to botany, being the first to describe epiphytes, the first to describe orchid seeds (at that time, Western botanists thought orchids spontaneously generated from bird semen) and their dispersal by wind.
This balancing act between the new and the old is remarkably contemporary to those of us raised in traditional cultures who struggle to reconcile scientific and traditional ways of knowing.
But I will leave the final word with Rumphius, who gives a very readable account of epiphytic and terrestrial orchids, the sort that one wishes would make its way into more scientific textbooks:
“We shall now describe the Aristocrats of wild plants, who convey their nobility by wanting to live only high up in trees, and never below on the ground, just as one will commonly see Noble Castles and Fortresses built on high, wherefore they have a strange way of growing and are strangely fashioned, just like Aristocrats flaunting their finery. The Moluccan Princesses add a third reason, to wit, that they will not permit anyone to wear these flowers unless they be Gentle Ladies. But one will also find among these Nobles some who, as is the case with people, will change into Peasants, and grow on the ground, and these seem to form a particular family.”