Sangeeta Rajbhandary, Krishna K. Shrestha, Mark F. Watson – Wallich and the First Explorations of the Nepalese Flora

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Event Date: 6 December 2011
Flett Lecture Theatre
Natural History Museum
London SW7 5BD

 

Wallich and Indian Natural History:
Collection Dispersal and the Cultivation of Knowledge

 

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  • Sangeeta Rajbhandary (Central Department of Botany, Tribhuvan University),
  • Krishna K. Shrestha (Central Department of Botany, Tribhuvan University),
  • Mark F. Watson (Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh)

Wallich and the First Explorations of the Nepalese Flora

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Abstract: In western eyes Nepal remained an enigmatic terra incognita until the end of the 18th Century when a Chinese invasion gave the Honorable East India Company (EIC) the opportunity to send a mediating diplomatic mission to Kathmandu in 1793. William Kirkpatrick led this seven-week expedition, accompanied by surgeon-naturalist Adam Freer. Although no botanical collections are known from this expedition, Edinburgh-trained Freer would have taken notes and these probably formed the basis of discussions on medicinal plants in Kirkpatrickís An Account of the Kingdom of Nepal (1811).

The signing of an Anglo-Gurkha trade treaty in 1801 provided a better opportunity for exploration and when Captain Knox took up the post of Resident in Kathmandu in 1802 he took with him Francis Buchanan, another surgeon-naturalist and Edinburgh alumnus. Buchanan (later Hamilton, and known botanically as Buchanan-Hamilton) made good use of his 14-month stay in Nepal, recording over 1100 species, collecting some 1500 herbarium specimens (mostly now at LINN-SMITH and BM), preparing over 100 coloured drawings (LINN) and sending over 100 batches of seed and living material back to William Roxburgh in Calcutta. In 1810 and 1813/14 Buchanan was stationed close to the Nepalese frontier and took the opportunity to send local collectors over the boarder to gather economically important plants. Buchanan acquired specimens of a further 100 Nepalese species this way, forming part of his Bengal Survey collections of more than 2000 specimens which Nathaniel Wallich distributed as part of the EIC Herbarium. Buchanan retained a duplicate set for himself that is now at E.

After the Anglo-Gurkha war in 1816, at Buchanan’s request, Wallich arranged for the new British Resident in Kathmandu, the Hon. Edward Gardner, to send back living plants and herbarium specimens to Wallich in Calcutta. Gardner and his team collected many plants between 1817-1820, and Wallich sent all the specimens to London (now at LINN-SMITH and BM). Wallich either sent seeds back to Britain (some to Buchanan and RBG Edinburgh) or tried to grow them in the Botanical Garden in Calcutta. Wallich himself visited Nepal in 1820-21, extending the exploration of the Nepalese flora beyond the Kathmandu Valley by employing pilgrims to collect plants up to the alpine zone around Gossainthan (Gossainkund). Wallich amassed more than 1700 herbarium specimens from Nepal and distributed them as part of the EIC Herbarium (K, K-W, BM, E, CAL, G-DC, etc.) in which 1834 plants are from Nepal.

In the following years many hundreds of new species were described from these early collections in publications such as Wallichís Tentamen florae Napalensis Illustratae (1824-26), Plantae Asiaticae Rariores (1830-32) and A Numerical List of dried specimens of Plants in the East India Company (1828-49). David Donís monumental work Prodromus Florae Nepalensis (1825) was based on the collections of Buchanan and Gardner (wrongly attributed to Wallich) and alone accounted for over 800 species. These early collections, particularly those in the Wallich distribution, are very important for the taxonomic study of Nepalese plants, but they are unavailable to botanists in Nepal. To facilitate use of these collections, high quality digital images of the specimens in the UK and scattered around world are urgently needed.

Biography: Sangeeta Rajbhandary and Krishna Shrestha are plant taxonomists and senior lectures in the Central Department of Botany, Tribhuvan University. They have a long interest in the historical collections of western botanists in Nepal, including extended study visits to the Natural History Museum, and Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh and Kew. Mark Watson is also a plant taxonomist, and since 1991 has been based at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. His expertise lies in Sino-Himalayan Floristics and he is currently Editor-in-Chief of the Flora of Nepal project. In recent years he has developed an interest on the often misunderstood historic collections that relate to Nepal, in particular those of Francis Buchanan-Hamilton and Edward Gardner.
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