Medicinal and other useful plants from Historia Naturalis Brasiliae (1648): Are they currently used in Brazil?
Mireia Alcántara Rodríguez and Tinde van Andel Naturalis Biodiversity Center
The Dutch West India Company (WIC) occupied northeastern Brazil for thirty years in the 17th century. Count Maurice of Nassau, the newly appointed governor of the Dutch possessions in Brazil, invited German biologist Georg Marcgrave and Dutch physician Willem Piso to explore Brazil's natural history. They undertook the first zoological, botanical, and astronomical expedition, exploring various parts of the colony. Together they publsihed Historia Naturalis Brasiliae an eight-volume work on the botany and zoology of Brazil in 1648. The book lists hundreds of 17th century plant uses by indigenous peoples, Portuguese and Africans. Surprisingly, the plants in this magnificent work and their ethnobotanical importance have hardly been studied in detail.
This project focuses on four research questions:

1) Which useful plants, vernacular names and uses are listed in the Historia Naturalis Brasiliae?
2) Are these same vernacular names for these species still known in Brazil today?
3) Are these plants still used for the same purposes in modern day Brazil?
4) Which species described in Historia Naturalis Brasiliae are of African origin?

The descriptions and drawings of the original book and the Portuguese translations, both present in the rare book room of Naturalis Biodiversity Center are compared to Brazilian plant collections in the Leiden herbarium and the original Marcgrav collections in Copenhagen.
The project started in February 2014 and will last till November 2014.


Original drawings in the Historia Naturalis Brasiliae, showing Genipa americana and Crateva tapia. Both fruits were eaten in 1648. Are they still popular in Brazil today?

At the end of July 2014, we visited the Botanic Garden and Herbarium of Copenhagen, Denmark, to consult the original Marcgrav herbarium. This ancient collections forms the bases of the book Historia Naturalis Brasiliae. The dried plants are in good state, kept in a recently restored book, and remarkably well-collected compared to other 17th century herbaria. We were exited to be allowed to consult this historical collection and grateful to Prof. Ib Friis from the Copenhagen herbarium for his hospitality.


Mireia Alcantara Rodriguez showing the Crescentua cujete voucher in the Marcgrav herbarium, collected around 1644 in Pernambuco, Brazil.
While identifying the plants in this herbarium, we discovered several mistakes in the later interpretations of the drawings of the book Historia Naturalis Brasiliae.