Herbaria: Pre-Linnaean

Specimen of Helichrysum arenarium from Breyne’s 1673 herbarium, Naturalis Biodiversity Center (Jong et al., 2022)

As I‘ve previously mentioned, older herbaria particularly pre-Linnaean ones are receiving increased attention.  In the past, the fact that they were of little use in investigating nomenclatural issues and often had scant label data meant they weren’t of much interest.  But historians are now finding them rich sources for studies on botanical inquiry in earlier centuries.  In addition, these collections are gold mines of information about the ecology of the areas where the plants were gathered and in some cases about agricultural and horticultural practices.  Historical research is often about solving mysteries of the past, and herbaria are full of clues.  This set of posts will deal with a few interesting collections.  The first is pre-Linnaean, that of the Prussian merchant and collector Jacob Breyne (1637-1697). 

In a previous series of posts on early modern herbaria (1,2,3,4) I discussed several in the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, the Netherlands.  This institution not only has an outstanding collection but has supported a great deal of research on pre-Linnaean herbaria under the direction of Tinde van Andel, who holds appointments at both Leiden and Wageningen Universities.  She and her colleagues examined Jacob Breyne’s two book herbaria in Naturalis and set them in the context of what has been uncovered about his life (Jong et al., 2022).  With every personal herbarium there is an interplay between the plants and the maker in terms of where that person lived, where they might have traveled, and who else they knew in the botanical world.  In this case, Breyne was from a Dutch family that had moved to what is now Gdansk, Poland where they were traders in raw materials for medicines and dyes.  He learned botany in school and collected around Gdansk.  He then spent time in the Netherlands while he trained as a merchant with this uncle.  He also visited botanical gardens and studied botany at Leiden.  After returning to Gdansk he continued his interest in plants and corresponded with Dutch botanists and collectors connected to the Dutch East India Company, giving him access to plant material from South Africa and Asia.

Breyne’s two bound herbaria, one dated 1659 and the other 1673, indicate he had a sustained interest in plants.  In the two are a total of 105 specimens, some with original labels.  However there’s evidence of many missing specimens, often with the labels missing as well:  60 from the first, which only has 48 remaining, and 10 from the second, from which 10 pages were also cut out.  Most of the plants in these volumes are European species, many from the Gdansk area.  They give a picture of what was growing there at the time and how the flora has changed.  Breyne noted that the frog orchid Dactylorhiza viridis was abundant, though it’s now designated as regionally extinct for Gdansk and its vicinity.  Though there are few exotic specimens included, most plants in these collections are from this area.  Breyne may have collected them on his travels or gotten them from others; the labels contain little information on provenance.

There is another collection of Breyne specimens at Naturalis as part of the large Van Royen Herbarium, which was compiled by Adriaan van Royen (1704-1779) director of the Leiden botanic garden and his nephew David (1727-1799).  Van Andel and her colleagues examined the 89 specimens designated as from Breyne, but found that only 59 had labels with his handwriting, and some of the remainder had nothing indicating a connection to him (Jong et al., 2021).  They studied the 59 with the aim of finding specimens that might have been removed at some point from the two bound herbaria.  However, it became clear that there was probably no such link.  Most of unbound plants were from southern not northern Europe and specifically from the area around Montpelier in southern France, site of a university with a long tradition of botanical inquiry.  There are a couple of possibilities of how Breyne acquired this material since he was not known to have traveled that far.  Historians sift through a collector’s life experience to attempt to find links to collection specimens.  A contemporary of his, Ernst Gottfried Heyse, studied at Leiden and Montpelier before returning to Gdansk to teach and direct the botanical garden there.  Also Breyne corresponded and traded specimens with the French botanist Joseph Pitton de Tournefort.

There are limits to how many questions old collections can answer.  There is no good explanation as to why or when so much of Breyne’s older herbaria was removed.  Also, there’s no convincing hypotheses to explain how some of his specimens ended up in the van Royen Collection.  Breyne died several years before the elder van Royen was even born, but specimens do have a tendency to be passed from botanist to botanist.  The specimens in question appear to have been cut from larger sheets, perhaps from a bound volume.  After his father’s death, Breyne’s son was known to have sent parts of his collection to other botanists, and Leiden was a likely place to send them because of the family’s Dutch heritage.  Perhaps more information will turn up in the future, but even now a great deal has been learned recently about Breyne and his collections.  In the next post in this series, even deeper mysteries surround another old herbarium, and the results of the latest investigations are still open to debate.  


de Jong, M., Duistermaat, L., Stefanaki, A., & Andel, T. van. (2022). The book herbaria of Jacob Breyne (1637-1697) in the collection of Naturalis Biodiversity Center (Leiden, the Netherlands). Blumea, 67, 77-96.https://doi.org/10.21203/rs.3.rs-885416/v1

de Jong, M., Stefanaki, A., & van Andel, T. (2022). Mediterranean specimens of the Prussian Botanist Jacob Breyne (1637–1697) in the Van Royen Herbarium, Leiden, The Netherlands. Botany Letters, 169(2), 294-301. https://doi.org/10.1080/23818107.2022.2038667

One thought on “Herbaria: Pre-Linnaean

  1. Pingback: Herbaria: Specimens Get Around | Herbarium World

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