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Flowers from the Cape of Good Hope

‘This protruding corner of … Africa is also outstanding with regard to plants and trees… which are fragrant in their leaves or flowers, so that doubtless the soil brings forth many potent herbs to serve the health of humankind, if they were but known and used appropriately.’

Hendrik Adriaan van Rheede tot Drakenstein, quoted in Scott and Hewett (2007, p. 355).

The rise to power of the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Companie, or VOC) not only led to a botanical exploration of South East Asia but also ensured that the plants of South Africa were brought back to Amsterdam for inclusion in the city’s newly founded Hortus Medicus, whose collections were detailed in Worth’s copy of the Horti Medici Amstelodamensis.


Johannes Commelin, Horti medici Amstelodamensis rariorum (Amsterdam, 1697), vol 2, Fig 27: Aster Africanus.

The Cape of Good Hope was of vital interest to the VOC as an important way station on their voyages to Asia. In December 1651 the VOC commander had set up a garden and began to explore the flora of the Cape area. As Scott and Hewett (2007) demonstrate, their motivation was practical: they were aware that European plants used in medicinal preparations needed to acclimatise and it was for this reason that an ‘acclimatisation garden’ was set up. Later Commanders and Governors of the VOC, continued this interest: for example, when Hendrik Adriaan van Rheede tot Drakenstein visited the Cape in 1685 in his role as VOC Commissioner-General he declared that he wished to publish a Hortus Africanus along the lines of his celebrated Hortus Malabaricus (which Worth also collected). His untimely death put paid to that project but later Commanders and Governors of the Cape, especially Commander Joan Bacx van Herentals and his successor Governor Simon van der Stel (1639-1712), played an essential role in building up the African plant collection of the Hortus Medicus of Amsterdam. Undoubtedly an important factor in this was the fact that both of men were nephews of one of the founders of the Hortus Medicus at Amsterdam, but, as Scott and Hewett (2007) make clear, the VOC itself was immensely interested in the medicinal use of such plants and were keen to learn local medicinal lore from members of the Khoi-Khoi and San peoples. Both van der Stel and his predecessor were therefore encouraged to send specimens back to Amsterdam and, according to Wijnands (1983), a total of 227 plant species from the Western Cape were sent to the Amsterdam Hortus Medicus during the period 1682-1710. Many of these plants are illustrated in Worth’s Horti Medici Amstelodamensis, including this picture of Felicia fruticosa L. Felicia is a genus of the family Asteraceae.


Scott, G. and Hewett, M. L. (2007), ‘Pioneers of ethnopharmacology: The Dutch East India Company (VOC) at the Cape from 1650 to 1800’ in Journal of Ethnopharmacology vol 115, pp. 338-360.

Wijnands, D. O. (1983), The Botany of the Commelins (Rotterdam).

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