Botany The botanical treasures of India are put online

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During the Covid-19 pandemic, the Botanical Survey of India (BSI) was busy preparing manuscripts for the flora of India and also presenting them on its open access website (wwwbsi.gov.in) with the treasure of archival documents he owns.

When you get to “Public Information” on the site, click on “Plant Discoveries” to access the Preface and Preamble (2019-20) by Dr AA Mao, Director, BSI.

He writes: “So far, over 54,000 plant taxa have been recorded and identified in India, which includes flowering plants as well as cryptogams and microbes…. Trends in taxonomic research over the last decade show a significant increase in interesting findings especially concerning the wild relatives of many economic plants, namely Musa, Gingers, Balsams, Syzygium, Palms, Begonias, Forage grasses, Legumes, Orchids and Blackberries. .

He adds: “This period (2020) has also witnessed an overwhelming addition of 267 plant taxa to Indian flora…. Hotspot regions such as the Western Ghats, Himalayas, and northeastern regions contributed 59% of the total finds. Maximum discoveries were made in the state of Kerala, followed by Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Arunachal Pradesh… BSI released India’s latest flowering plant checklist recruiting over 21,000 Flower taxa present in India under 268 families and 2,774 genera.

Sample from the Botanical Survey of India Collection of Botanical Illustrations.

The telegraph

BSI’s exclusive portal (wwwbsi.archive) provides access to its rare collections via wwwbsi.gov.in. During a decade of exercise, more than 15,000 samples of textile designs, natural dyes and botanical illustrations and 60,000 archival documents were digitized by photography and digitization respectively.

The digitization of the handwritten correspondence and of the Watt’s Ledger (the Scottish physician and botanist George Watt compiled The Dictionary of Economic Products of India) is underway.

Photographic digitization of ancient archival documents, correspondence, manuscripts and herbarium specimens, historical textile designs and natural dyes was undertaken at the Industrial Section of the Indian Museum.

The family business of the Scottish silk trade John Forbes Watson in Europe was languishing. He visited India in the 1860s to learn traditional Indian dyeing techniques. He compiled and published the collections in 18 volumes containing 700 samples and 14 volumes (2nd series) containing 1,082 samples of Indian textiles – silk, cotton, muslin and wool – being one of 20 sets titled Textiles Manufactures and Costumes of the People of India in 1866 and 1874.

The entire BSI collection of 6,000 botanical paintings comprising the 2,532 drawings by Roxburgh – named after William Roxburgh (1751-1815), known as the father of Indian botany – and the 3,280 others made thereafter have been digitized.

It is a tribute to the Indian artists who painted them. Roxburgh paid them Rs 3 for a painting. A similar set of paintings exist at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew.

When asked why the botanical paintings and Wardle’s collection are needed today, Dr Mao said, “Photographs of plants do not have flowers or plant parts dissected. Some figures like the hair are not visible in the photographs but can be depicted in the paintings after microscopic studies. In addition, the photographs contain many unwanted elements. Many ancient species only exist in paintings / illustrations. For example, illustrations play a major role in William Roxburgh’s description of Hardwikia binnata in 1819. No original herbarium specimen of this species exists. Therefore, Roxburgh’s drawings are original reference documents. These now play a major role in the identification of the species.

“Botanical paintings are basic taxonomic research material. While researching the identity of unknown plants, we search for available literature, specimens and illustrations / paintings. Sometimes certain species are extinct in the wild – for example, Corypha taliera, native to the region of Myanmar and Bengal, was described by Roxburgh in 1820. Now we only have one painting as proof of Corypha wild taliera.


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