Herbarium Travels: Paul Hermann

1 Aerva lanata

Specimen of Aerva lanata collected by Paul Hermann. In Sloane Herbarium at the Natural History Museum London.

In the past I’ve written about the early herbaria of the 16th century (see 1,2).  The practice of preserving plants seems to have caught on quickly after Luca Ghini and his students developed the idea.  One reason for the popularity of pressed plants was that they were easily portable.  Not only were they frequently sent in letters among European botanists, but packages of them were also transported over long distances by explorers investigating plants around the world.  Specimens were what Bruno Latour (1987) terms “immutable mobiles,” forms of evidence that retain their information over time and distance.  In this series of posts, I’ll introduce just a few of these explorers and their specimens, the “immutable mobiles” they brought back.  There are a surprising number of these collections that have been at least partially preserved to the present day, and in many cases, they did further traveling once they arrived in Europe, as specimens were sold, bequeathed, and traded among plant enthusiasts.

A significant portion of Paul Hermann’s (1646-1695) collections survive in several different countries.  Hermann was born in Germany and studied medicine in Padua.  In 1672, he was recruited by the Dutch East India Corporation to be a medical officer in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka.  This was at the behest of Hans Willem Bentinck, a member of the aristocracy interested in acquiring new plant species for his impressive gardens.  At the time, horticulture was becoming an important driver of plant discovery.  On his trip to the East, Hermann stopped in Cape Town, South Africa, where he became the earliest known collector in the area.  He gave his specimens and seeds of 22 plants to a Danish surgeon, Hieremias Stolle, who was heading back to Europe.  This was perhaps as insurance against their loss on Hermann’s travels East.  Three years later, descriptions and illustrations of these species were published in Denmark.

Hermann spent five years in Ceylon where he amassed a large collection of hundreds of plants and illustrations.  There are four volumes of these specimens and one of illustrations at the Natural History Museum, London (NHM).  All the hands through which they passed on their way there aren’t known.  In fact, after Hermann’s death in 1695, they didn’t surface until 1744 when they were owned by the Danish Apothecary-Royal August Günther who loaned them to Carl Linnaeus.  It’s from here that their scientific interest arises, since many of the plants were studied, described, and named by Linnaeus, making them type specimens.  He published this work as Flora Zeylanica.  The collection was then returned to Günther who passed it on to the Danish Lord Chamberlain, Count Adam Gottlob Moltke, whose heirs sold it to a professor, who then sold it to Joseph Banks in 1793.  Banks eventually donated his herbarium to the British Museum, from which the NHM subsequently branched off.  Such journeys aren’t uncommon for old herbaria.  All this shuffling around suggests that these specimens were considered valuable, and especially after Linnaeus’s work on them.  But this is not the only extant Hermann material; the rest is spread over several collections.

Some specimens are at Oxford.  The British botanist William Sherard had studied at Padua with Hermann and later worked at Oxford.  He wrote a catalog of the Ceylonese plants after Hermann’s death.  Called Musaeum Zeylanicum, it was published in 1717.  Another set of specimens is at the Institut de France and was consulted by Johannes Burman for his Thesaurus Zeylanicus of 1736.  There is also an extensive collection of Hermann Ceylonese material in Leiden, but since it wasn’t consulted by Linnaeus it has attracted less attention.  However, a new study suggests that among the specimens there are four that were collected not by Hermann, but by Georg Eberhard Rumpf (1627-1702), more commonly known as Rumphius.  He spent almost 50 years on the island of Ambon in the Moluccas, now part of Indonesia.  Until now, no Rumphius specimens have been identified, but the authors of this paper argue that these four plants don’t grow in Ceylon, and that they have notations in Hermann’s handwriting referring to either Rumphius or Ambon (van Andel, et al, 2018).  That the collection dates overlap Rumphius’s in the area strengthens the argument and suggests even more travel for some of Hermann’s specimens.

Also in Leiden is another volume owned by Hermann, but with plants that weren’t collected by him.  They are from another area of Dutch interest in the 17th century, Suriname in northern South America.  They are attributed to Hendrik Meyer who was in the area and had a serious interest in plants and ethnobotany (van Andel et al., 2012).  They were collected around 1687 and have now been digitized so they can be viewed online.  After Hermann returned from Ceylon, he became director of the Leiden Botanical Gardens.  One of its most important patrons was Hieronymus Beverningk to whom the Suriname herbarium was later given.  So this group of plants has done much less traveling than some in this story.  As with many collections, Hermann’s are not totally that of one person, and even more so, their survival depended upon numerous individuals: Danes, British, Dutch, and French.  The many collections in which Hermann material can be found speaks strongly to the need for digitizing specimens so they can be accessed without extensive travel, and also for integrating digital collections from different institutions so related material can be accessed through one portal.  This is the present focus of interest by curators in many museums who have spent years getting collections on line (Soltis et al., 2018).  Now is the time to figure out how to get collections in different institutions, different countries, and even different continents to interact “seamlessly” with each other—no easy task.  Further examples of the challenge will come up in the following posts in this series on plants and explorers.


Latour, B. (1987). Science in Action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

van Andel, T. R., Mazumdar, J., Barth, E. N. T., & Veldkamp, J. F. (2018). Possible Rumphius specimens detected in Paul Hermanns Ceylon herbarium (1672-1679) in Leiden, The Netherlands. Blumea, 63, 11-19.

van Andel, T., Veldman, S., Maas, P., Thijsse, G., & Eurlings, M. (2012). The forgotten Hermann Herbarium: A 17th century collection of useful plants from Suriname. Taxon, 61(6), 1296–1304.

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