Nepal's Herbarium

Happening Issue 81 Jul, 2010

When you tumble on anunfamiliar plant species in Nepal, where do you go to find out its taxonomy? Either the UK or Japan! That’s where you go or send a plant specimen to have it identified and its details traced. With more than six million specimens, the UK’s Natural History Museum has the largest collection of plant specimens stockpiled from all over the world. Approximately 60,000 specimens from Nepal are among the collections currently held at the Natural History Museum, London, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and the Royal Botanical Gardens, Edinburgh, combined.

While Nepal has a little more than 10,000 plant species, the number of specimens can be many more, owing to the multiple samples of plants that collectors gather.

The Nepal Herbarium, whose main responsibility is to research and amass information about the plants of Nepal, has specimens of only about 50 percent of the total vascular (evolved) species recorded in the country. The specimens of lower plants like algae, fungi, lichen and bryophytes, account for only a quarter of the total.

The vast collection of specimens of Nepalese plants found in museums abroad were gathered by botanists of many countries who visited Nepal before the Nepal Herbarium, now
Department of Plant Resources, was established in 1961 at Godavari. Prior to that, for want of a local institution where they could be kept safe and for use later, botanists from abroad had no place to hand over their  extra specimens so, ultimately, they were placed in the museums of their own countries. 

The collection of specimens of Nepalese plants by foreigners began at the turn of 19th century. Francis Buchanan Hamilton, a botanist from Scotland, entered Nepal from Calcutta in 1802, walking all the way from Raxaul (on the Nepal/India border) to Thankot, which was then the official entry point to Kathmandu. On the way he collected many plants specimens. Following in his footsteps, so to speak, was another botanist named Nathan Wallich, who came in 1820. Wallich, however, traveled farther and explored more extensively. The book Prodromus Flori Nepalensis (Flora of Nepal) was published in 1825 based on their combined findings. That book was first serious step towards recording Nepal’s floral wealth. Of the 600 Nepalese plants introduced in the book, around two thirds were new to the world. The Hamilton and Wallich book generated a great amount of interest among botanists, other scientists, journalists and nature enthusiasts the world over.

One of the most prodigious collectors during the early to mid-1800s, was Brian Hodgson, the official British Resident to the Kingdom of Nepal. And, following him, the work of Joseph Dalton Hooker is also well known, especially for plants in the eastern part of the country. Both men published extensively about their findings, and both were colleagues of the most preeminent scientist of the time, Charles Darwin. Subsequently, in the century or more since Hodgson and Hooker hunted plants in Nepal, other British, as well as Americans, Japanese and others visited the country to collect botanical specimens to take home with them on their return. People from countries like France and Switzerland, who came mainly for mountaineering, also collected plants in small numbers. None of these specimens, however, are in Nepal, as all such botanical expeditions occurred before the Nepal Herbarium came into existence.

With the Herbarium in place after 1961, however, a handful of Nepalese botanists were inspired to take the task of finding and profiling the floral wealth of the country into their own hands. A target of five years was set, too short a time, however, to get much done. The first book published by Nepalese botanists profiled less than 50 percent of the total known species. Later, with the assistance of botanists from Britain and Japan, they were able to increase the number, up to 3,500, still far short of the 6,500 species of flowering plants recorded in Nepal. After frequent requests, Japan and the UK returned some specimens to Nepal of which they had extra samples, but lack of more samples (specimens) still made it difficult to identify new found species. For awhile Nepalese botanists also sought help from India’s National Herbarium in Calcutta, which was a partial help.

Ultimately, Nepal’s botanists realized that without the assistance of outside
experts from institutions in other countries holding the largest botanical collections from Nepal, their dream of having all the specimens representing the flora of Nepal could not be realized. Since then, Nepalese botanists have collaborated many times, especially with Japanese and British experts, to identify, collect and record the nation’s floral wealth.

Beginning in 1997, for example, under the aegis of the UK government’s ‘Darwin Initiative’, The Natural History Museum (London) and the Botany Department of Tribhuvan University (Kathmandu) collaborated to enhance the capacity for plant biodiversity
inventory and conservation in Nepal. Nepalese botanists were joined by British botanists, both in field investigations and in laboratories. One objective of the project was to record the details of the Nepalese plants in the National Herbarium in a digitized format.

At the end of the project, apart from the digital database, findings from this collaborative work were published in a book entitled An Updated Checklist of Flowering Plants of Nepal. But the database and the book still did not have a complete profile. Nepalese botanists working on the project could find the records of only 5,600 species; another 900 species were still missing. Information about those other known species is believed to be in other countries in the form of collections gathered during various mountaineering expeditions. Many expeditions over the years have included botanists who made small collections to take back to their home institutions. Nepalese botanists say that they must have published information about their collections in journals and books, because many species were new to the world.

Work continues to improve the record of the flora of Nepal. Six institutions from three countries: Tokyo University, the Royal Botanical Garden (Edinburgh), the Natural History
Museum (London), the Nepal Academy of Science and Technology, the Department of Plant Resources, and Tribhuwan University’s Botany Department have recently pledged to work together to publish a comprehensive Flora of Nepal, including a record of all flowering species found in the country.

Once the book is complete it will be easier for Herbarium scientists to gather specimens of the remaining plants, and Nepalese botanists can determine the taxonomy of new found plants from their offices and laboratories right here, in Godavari. 

We appreciate Dr.Sushim Ranjan Baral, Chief, National Herbarium and Plant Laboratories, for his cooperation in helping us with this article.