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A History of Philippine Botanical Exploration

by J.F. Barcelona

Early History of Philippine Botany (1688-1900)

Early European Philippine Botany

The written history of Philippine Botany may very well have started with the Jesuit missionary and pre-Linnean botanist, Georg Joseph Kamel (also known as Camellus).  Born in Brünn, Moravia (now Brno, the Czech Republic) on 21 April 1661. Kamel arrived in Manila in 1688 where he established the first pharmacy in the Philippines.  Here, he formulated remedies from local plants and dispensed these freely to the poor (Vallejo, 2007).  Kamel’s botanical sojourns were concentrated in and around the already established Chinese gardens in Manila and he sent many of those plants to London.  The results of his work were presented in his Herbarium aliarumque stirpium in insula Luzone Philippinarum (“Herbs and Medicinal Plants in the island of Luzon, Philippines”), published in 1697-1698.  Copies of this pioneering ethnobotanical work were sent to the eminent English botanist John Ray and apothecary-botanist James Petiver; however, those manuscripts, accompanying botanical drawings and specimens fell into the hands of pirates and were subsequently lost. The following year, Kamel sent another volume which was subsequently appended in John Ray's Historia plantarum; species hactenus editas insuper multas noviter inventas & descriptas complectens (1703) and later published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Kamel was not only interested in plants but also in birds.  In fact, he wrote Observationes de Avibus Philippensibus, the first account of the birds of the Philippines published in 1702 in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Kamel died in Manila on 2 May 1706.  In his honor, Linnaeus named the popular ornamental flowering plant genus Camellia. The 300th anniversary of Kamel’s death in 2006 was listed by UNESCO as one of the most important anniversaries of the world.

The Malaspina Expedition

About a century after Kamel’s contributions to Philippine botany, the country was explored as part of Spain’s Malaspina Expedition. This mission was carried out by two corvettes, Atrevida (commanded by José de Bustamante y Guerra) and Descubierta (commanded by Alessandro Malaspina), that left Cadiz, Spain on July 30, 1789 on a five-year journey in which much of America’s west coast was explored and mapped. When this was completed, the expedition crossed to Guam and the Philippines, and then proceeded southward to New Zealand, Australia, and Tonga. Naturalists aboard the ships included Antonio Pineda, the head of the team, and botanists Luis Née and Thaddäus Haenke who missed the boat in Cadiz but joined the expedition in Santiago de Chile in 1790 (Wikipedia).  The corvettes visited Luzon from March to December 1792. During this period, Malaspina sent Bustamante, who was aboard the Atrevida, to Macau, China (Wikipedia) while he and his team aboard the Descubierta visited Manila and nearby provinces including Bulacan, Illocos, Panquasing, Pampanga, W. Luzon, Sorsogon, Albay, Camarines, Tayabas, Laguna, Cavite, Cagayan, and Pangasinan. From mid-September, they spent some time at Taal Volcano and Laguna de Bay to study cinnamon. While in the Philippines Pineda died of a tropical disease whereas the remaining crew proceeded on Nov. 22 to New Zealand and Australia via Mindanao.

Specimens of the Malaspina expedition are now at MA, with duplicates in B, BM, BR, C, DS, F, FI, G, GH, K, KIEL, L, M, MO, MPU, NY, PNH, PR, and W.  Most of Haenke's material were from South America.  Of the 10,000 collection numbers that Née, gathered, four thousand were considered new (Merrill, 1915; van Steenis, 1958). His Philippine collections totalled 2,400 but only ca. 1,000 specimens were left in Madrid (MA) (Ashton in van Steenis, 1958) because some were lost in transit from Manila to Spain (Madulid, 1989). No duplicates were distributed of Née's Philippine collections and much of these still remain unidentified. Née’s drawings and manuscripts are nowadays in Madrid (MA), as well as his fern collections which are part of the Cavanilles herbarium. From his collections, a few species were described by Cavanilles in his Description de las Plantas (1802-1803) as well as come by Lagasca and by Née himself. Née’s most significant contributions to botany were his numerous botanical collections that at that time formed the core collection of MA. Erroneously labelled specimens, however, resulted in some Philippine species being attributed to South America.  For instance, Ophioglossum pendulum, a species collected in either Guam or the Philippines, was credited to South America “in Regno Quitensi,” by Cavanilles whereas Chloris dolichostachya, which may have originated from Australia, was reported to have come from the Philippines (Merrill, 1915).

The Malaspina Expedition resulted in several botanical publications.  In his “De la abaca que es la Musa textilis” (1801), the Philippine endemic source of fiber more popularly known as “Manila hemp”, Née described in detail this plant including its economic uses, local names, geographical distribution and propagation techniques.  “Del buyo” was Née's account of the betel nut (Areca catechu L.), describing its economic and masticatory importance in some areas in the Philippines (Madulid, 1989).

Blanco and his Flora de Filipinas

Father Francisco Manuel Blanco was a Spanish Augustinian friar who arrived in the Philippines in 1805.  His position as Curate and later as delegate of the Augustinian order brought him to Luzon and the Visayas. Here, he not only accomplished his religious duties but also satisfied his botanical curiosity, the latter resulting in the publication of the three editions of his Flora de Filipinas.

The first edition (1837), written in Spanish, consisted of 887 pages in which the genera were arranged in classes following the Linnaean classification system.  It provided treatments for 903 species and varieties under Latin names and an additional 31 were presented with only their common names. Included in this edition were economically important species, especially cultivated ones. Most of the large families (e.g. grasses, orchids, and sedges) were, however, almost ignored.  Shortly after Blanco’s death in 1845, the second edition of the Flora was published.  This was a 619 page volume, in which 1131 species and varieties were described using scientific names and 27 using their vernacular names.  As Merrill (1905) stated, the second edition of Blanco’s Flora was full of typographical errors, perhaps because Blanco died months before it was printed and therefore had not seen the proofs himself. In other respects this edition was, unfortunately, not an improvement on the first edition. Blanco arbitrarily changed the generic and specific names for some species, whereas for others, that had been correctly identified in the first edition, incorrect names were used.  The third edition (Gran Edicion or the Augustinian Edition) of Blanco’s Flora was published between 1877 and 1883.  Two priests, Andreas Naves and Celestino Fernandez-Villar, were solely responsible for its publication. It consists of four volumes of which the first three were mere reprints of the second edition with slight and negligible modifications.  The fourth volume contains the Novissima Appendix which consisted of an index of the species pages from Blanco’s three editions of the Flora de Filipinas. This volume also provides a Latin translation of Blanco’s Spanish plant descriptions, thus making his works more widely accessible. Interestingly, of the total of 4479 included species (classified in 1223 genera and 155 families), 116 genera, 1 family and about 1948 species (44%) do not occur in the Philippines. These mistakes likely stemmed from many sources including 1) the authors’ lack of knowledge of the Philippine and its neighboring Indo-Malayan flora, 2) the failure to communicate with and send materials to European botanists to verify identifications by comparing these with types deposited in public and private herbaria, 3)the absence of Philippine and extra-Philippine herbarium specimens with which to compare their specimens, 4) the lack of a good botanical library and 5) their inadequate knowledge of phytogeography.  The botanical legacy of the Gran Edicion was summarized in the following statement by Merrill (1918):

"The errors of Blanco, working between 1805-1845 and of Llanos, working between the years 1850-1873, sink into insignificance when compared to the authors of the third edition of Blanco's Flora".

While the work of Blanco was considered a great accomplishment in the Philippines, most of his European contemporary botanists, especially DeCandolle, considered his work of little importance and even claimed that it has retarded rather than advanced the knowledge of the Philippine flora (Merrill, 1905). Hooker f., likewise, considered it undesirable to devote much time on identifying Blanco’s plant species on the grounds that his account of the Philippine flora was unsatisfactory (Merrill, 1918).  Most of Blanco's generic and specific descriptions were based on materials collected near heavily settled areas in the provinces around Manila, few from other provinces in northern Luzon and still fewer were from the islands of Mindoro, Cebu, and Marinduque.  Hence, most species discussed are cosmopolitan in distribution. The mountain flora was nearly absent in his Flora.  Likewise, the large families/classes, e.g., orchids, grasses, sedges, and the pteridophytes, were underrepresented, if not ignored. However, considering the unfavorable conditions under which Blanco’s Flora was accomplished and that most of the data presented were the result of one man’s field observations, Blanco's Flora de Filipinas is a monumental work that must be acknowledged for its initiative, industry, and perseverance (Merrill, 1918).  In his Species Blancoanae, Merrill provided interpretations of Blanco’s species and initiated a collection of plants that would represent these species in the absence of preserved types.

Hugh Cuming (1791-1865)

Cuming was a 19th century English collector who was interested in gathering natural history specimens, especially in conchology and botany. He arrived in Manila on 24 July 1836 and spent the next three years exploring mostly forested and otherwise inaccessible areas (ignoring settled areas and shorelines) in the Philippines.  He collected plants, terrestrial snails, and other animals with the exception of fishes and aquatic invertebrates. Cuming visited all the major Philippine islands and islets except Palawan. His itinerary included Calauan, Laguna in the centre of Luzon and areas around Laguna Lake. Most of 1837 was spent exploring Panay, Guimaras, Negros, Siquijor, Cebu, Bohol, Camiguin de Misamis and Mindanao, Samar, Leyte, Masbate, Ticao, Burias, Mindoro and the SE provinces of Luzon, namely, Albay, Camarines, Tayabas and Batangas.  In Nov. 1838, he was at Manila preparing for a trip to the northern part of Luzon.  Cuming left Manila on Nov. 1839 for Malacca, Sumatra, and Singapore and visited St. Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean before arriving back in England on 5 June 1840.

His collections of dried plants during his travels between 1836 and 1840 totaled 130,000, some 10% of which were ferns.  His snail collection was vast, about 30,000 specimens, and he also collected a substantial number of specimens of other animals. Cuming was the first to successfully ship live orchids from Manila to England, of which 33 species were unknown to science. He was responsible for the introduction of the orchids Aerides quinquevulenerum, Dendrobium anosmum, Dendrobium superbum, Grammatophyllum scriptum, Phalaenopsis ambilis var. aphrodite, and Vanda lamellata, amongst others. Unfortunately, Cuming did not maintain field numbers, and the distribution numbers for his collections were not added until after the ferns and other cryptogams, orchids, figs, and specimens of some other groups had been separated. These numbers were given as the bundles were successively distributed, and only partially indicate the sequence in which the collecting localities were visited (Rolfe, 1908). Hence, some of his Malaccan collections were erroneously labeled as from the Philippines (e.g. Henslovia philippinensis, Eriocaulon truncatum, and Mangifera lagenifera). About 140 species of plants have been described from Cumming’s Philippine collections with their scientific names chosen to honor this remarkable collector (Merrill, 1926, p. 162) (e.g. Coelogyne cumingii, Podochilus cumingii, the tree fern Dicksonia cumingii, Selaginella cumingiana and Pleocnemia cumingiana). Cuming's vast collection formed the basis of much of the knowledge on Philippine plants at the turn of the 20th century. Tagged as the “Prince of Collectors,” no collections of a single person have surpassed the value of Cuming’s plant (and conchological) collections because a high percentage of them were types of new species (

Fedor Jagor (1816-1900)

Jagor, a German ethnologist of Russian descent, travelled to Singapore, Malacca, Java and the Philippines in 1857-1860.  He was in the Philippines in 1859-1860 and visited Manila, Bulacan, Bataan, Laguna, most of the Bicol region, Samar, and Leyte. Jagor’s contribution to the study of the Philippine flora is his collection of 345 specimens (Van Steenis, 1958) now deposited in Berlin (B) with duplicates at Leiden (L).  Jagor returned to some parts of the Malaysian region between 1873-1876 and 1890-1893, although no botanical collections have been reported from these later trips.  Some of the plants named after Jagor by Warburga (a German botanist) are Begonia jagori, Sterculia jagori, Vaccinium jagori, and Freycinetia jagori (Perkins, 1904). Hieronymous named Selaginella jagori after him.  Jagor’s contributions to the study of the natural history of the Malesian region also included significant zoological collections, including Microphis jagorii (a fish), Enhydris jagorii (Jagor's water snake), Phoniscus jagorii (Peter's Trumpet-Eared Bat).

Sebastian Vidal y Soler (1842-1889)

In 1871, Vidal came to the Philippines as Inspector General of the Forestry Bureau.  From 1873 to 1875 he was back in Spain but returned to Manila in 1876 where he was appointed Chief for the Commission of the Forest Flora of the Philippines (van Steenis, 1958). Vidal was the first botanist based in the Philippines to recognize the significance of having a good library, a herbarium, in comparing new collections with existing ones in herbaria abroad, and in collaborating with known botanists during his time.  He collected in Luzon, Panay, Guimaras, Marinduque, Palawan, Samar, and Cebu.  His herbarium, which included collections by R. Garcia, Maximo Ramos, and Maeso, was housed at the then Forestry Bureau Building in Manila. Unfortunately, this collection and his botanical library were destroyed by fire in 1897. His botanical collections were estimated to be 14,000 numbers with duplicates at K, MA, Fl, L, G, A, and P.  Of the 4000 or so numbers promised (by MA?) to Manila, only 319 were brought back by E. Quisumbing from Madrid in 1954 (van Steenis, 1958).

August Loher (1874-1930)

August Loher was a German botanical pharmacist who was a resident of the Philippines since 1889.  His Philippine plant collections made from 1889 to 1896 numbered over 5200 and were mostly from Luzon, especially from Rizal and adjacent Umirey (Umiray) region of Tayabas (Quezon) and Provinces, Caraballo Mountains in Nueva Viscaya, Polillo Island and the vicinity of Lake Mainit in Surigao, Mindanao.  Most of his specimens are now deposited at Kew (K) with duplicates widely distributed among different herbaria, including M, B, P, L, CAL, US, GH, NY, UC, PNH (van Steenis, 1958).  Most of his botanical collections after 1908-1915 (over 3000 numbers) were deposited in the Herbarium of the Bureau of Science in Manila in 1923 and became the basis of Merrill’s New species of Philippine plants collected by Loher (1925).  In this publication, Merrill described 41 new species of plants based solely on Loher’s collections.  Genera with the specific epithet 'loheri' in this paper include Pilea, Cinnamomum, Cryptocarya, Clausena, Dysoxylum, Xanthophyllum, Dimorphocalyx, Ilex, Saurauia, Garcinia, Diplocasia, Embelia, Palaquium, Fragraia, Rauwolfia, Paveta, Randia, and Williamsia.


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Hugh Cuming (1791-1865). Website by Sinu (

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Merrill, ED. 1905.  A review of the identifications of the species described in Blanco's Flora de Filipinas. Publication No. 27 of the Bureau of Government Laboratories. Bureau of Printing, Manila. 132 pp.

Merrill, E.D. 1902-1906.  Notes on Cuming's plants in the herbarium of the Bureau of Government Laboratories, No. 28-36: 69-77.

Merrill, E.D. 1915.  Genera and species erroneously credited to the Philippine flora. Philipp. J. Sci. 10(3): 171-194.

Merrill, E.D. 1918. Species Blancoanae: A critical revision of the Philippines species of plants described by Blanco and Llanos. Bureau of Science Publications No. 12. 425 pp.

Merrill, E.D. 1925.  New species of Philippine plants collected by A. Loher. Philip. Journ. Sci. 27: 21-59.

Merrill, E.D.  1926.  Hugh Cuming's letters to Sir William J. Hooker. Philipp. J. Sci. 30(2): 153-184, with portrait.

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Née, L. 1803. Del Buyo. Anales de Ciencias Naturales 6: 289-297.

Perkins, J. 1904. Enumeration of the recently collected plants of Ahern, Jagor, Loher, Merrill, Warburg and others in Fragmentae Florae Philippinae: Contributions to the Flora of the Philippine Islands. 4-66; 77-202.

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Rolfe, RA. 1908. The localities of Cuming's Philippine plants. Bulletin of Miscellaneous Information (Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew): 116-119.

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Vidal y Soler, S. 1883. Sinopsis de familias y géneros de plantas leñosas de Filipinas. Introducción a la flora forestal del archipiélago filipino (+ Atlas).

Vidal y Soler, S. 1885.  Phanerogamae Cumingianae Philippinarum, ó Indice numérico y catálogo sistemático de las plantas fanerogamas colleccionadas en Filipinas por Hugh Cuming, con caracteristicas de algunas especies no descritas y del género Cumingia (Malváceas).

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Recommended Citation: Pelser, P.B., J.F. Barcelona & D.L. Nickrent (eds.). 2011 onwards. Co's Digital Flora of the Philippines.

Copyright © 2011, Co's Digital Flora of the Philippines

Last updated October 21, 2012