About 200 years ago, a former surgeon of the Madras Presidency turned his lifelong passion of studying the plants he saw around him into a project that would create one of the most exhaustive listings of India’s flora. Sadly, he didn’t live to see his magnum opus published in 1820, and botany lovers had to wait well over a century to see the vivid illustrations that Dr William Roxburgh commissioned come alive.
The book in question, Flora Indica, or Descriptions of Indian Plants, was a first-of-a-kind book on India’s botanical heritage written in English. For the next century, it served as a basis of subsequent Indian botanical works on taxonomy and floristic. It also earned its author, Dr William Roxburgh, (1751-1815), the epithet of ‘Founding Father of Indian Botany’.
Thanks to its prolific use in Indian medicine i.e. Ayurveda, the study of plants and herbs has been of great importance in India since ancient times. The arrival of European traders in the 15th century led to a renewed interest in Indian botany, albeit for more commercial reasons. One of the earliest and most iconic works on local flora is the ‘Hortus Malabaricus’, a treatise on the plants of the Malabar, compiled in 1674 CE, by the Governor of Dutch Malabar, Hendrik van Rheede.
After British rule was established in Bengal following the Battle of Plassey in 1757, the East India Company too decided it was time to look more closely at Indian plants. Pretty early in its presence in Bengal, it decided to create a botanical garden in Calcutta. The aim of this exercise was to identify new, and even more lucrative, plant strains of ‘cash crops’ like cotton, tobacco, coffee and tea along with other commercial products, such as indigo, sandalwood, pepper, cardamom, camphor, nutmeg and clove, which would be suited to Indian conditions. The idea was to use the botanical garden as a laboratory to, quite literally, ‘seed’ these strains and introduce them to other areas where the company was pitching its flag.
The new botanical garden, a 300-acre sprawl on the banks of the Hooghly came into being in 1787, and the man behind the project was Colonel Robert Kyd, a British officer with a keen interest in botany. Five years later, after his death, Dr William Roxburgh took over the job.
Roxburgh had begun his work on documenting Indian plants long before he took up his position at the botanical garden. His journey had begun 16 years earlier, when he had been appointed assistant surgeon in the Madras Province in 1776. He was posted in Samalkot (in East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh), where he had established an experimental garden to follow his passion and study the region’s flora.
Under Roxburgh, the botanical garden flourished and plants were brought in from across the world. While new varieties of teakwood were introduced to India, specimens of clove, nutmeg and tapioca were sent to Malaysia to be planted there. He also developed an extensive collection of dried plant specimens, or a herbarium of Indian plants. This herbarium eventually became the ‘Central National Herbarium’ of the Botanical Survey of India. Today, this herbarium is still in operation and has a repository of 2.5 million plants.
In 1813, Roxburgh decided to return to England and complete his most ambitious project, that of cataloguing India’s flora i.e Flora Indica. Throughout his career, first in Andhra and then in Calcutta, Roxburgh had been making detailed descriptions as well as commissioning illustrations of the plants he had worked with. He used to note down the number of each plant description as it was written and assign the same number to the drawing made of that particular plant.
About 2,600 species of plants were described and illustrations of about 2,572 of them were done. He guided Indian artists to execute the drawings and watercolour paintings of plants and it was duplicated, with one copy going to the East India Company in London. In 1795, about 300 of Roxburgh's descriptions and illustrations were published in a book titled the Plants of the Coast of Coromandel.
At the time of leaving India, Roxburgh handed over one set manuscript of Flora Indica to his friend Rev Dr William Carey at the Baptist mission in Serampore. The first volume of Flora Indica was published in 1820 from the Serampore Press, five years after Roxburgh’s death in 1815, and the second volume arrived four years later, edited by Carey. The third volume remained unpublished till 1832, when all three volumes were published.
Sadly, due to the prohibitive costs, only the description of the plants was published in Flora Indica. The original 2,500 drawings commissioned by Roxburgh remained in the collection of the Calcutta Botanical Garden, with copies of them at the Kew Botanical Gardens in London. Roxburgh’s legacy of studying Indian plants was carried forward by the Botanical Survey of India, which was established in 1890.
In the 1950s, renowned British botanist Robert Sealy (1907-2000) revived an interest in Roxburgh’s drawings, which were scattered at the time. Sealy and his team collected the drawings, listed them, and checked them carefully against Roxburgh’s publications, including Flora Indica and Plants of the Coast of Coromandel. This mammoth task was published in the Kew Bulletin No. 2 in 1956 as The Roxburgh Flora Indica Drawings at Kew. On the basis of Sealy's List, a web portal () has been developed by the Andrew W Mellon Foundation. This portal, dedicated to botany enthusiasts, brings together Roxburgh's three-volume Flora Indica 1832 Edition along with the illustrations.
Today, the Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Indian Botanic Garden still thrives at Shibpur in Howrah. And near the famous ‘Great Banyan tree’ (considered the biggest tree in India), in the garden that he so loved, is a simple but neglected memorial to Dr William Roxburgh, who spent his life chronicling India’s rich natural heritage.