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The Doomed Blind Botanist Who Brought Poetry to Plant Description

German naturalist Georg Everhard Rumpf joined the Dutch East India Company in 1653 and shipped off to Batavia in the Spice Islands (now Jakarta, Indonesia). He settled in Ambon, and there he spent the rest of his life studying and cataloging tropical plants, despite a life full of calamity. Rumphius went blind. Then his wife and two of his daughters were killed in an earthquake. A fire destroyed his files. He went bankrupt. His reconstructed manuscripts were stolen. Rumphius reconstructed them again, and the Dutch East India Company prevented them from being published. But he soldiered on.

In setting about his great work, Rumphius’ first task was one of naming. For each plant and shell in his collection, he would list its name in Latin, Malay, Ambonese, and, when possible, Javanese, Hindi, Portuguese and Chinese as well. He also had to invent names in his adopted language, Dutch. He took on this burden with all the exuberance of a new Adam. A tour through Rumphius’ work is a masterclass in the poetry of the concrete noun. His shells bear names like Little Dream Horn, the Prince’s Funeral, Peasant Music and the Double Venus Harp.

His plant names are even more adventurous. In the pages of his Herbal, one meets, among others, the Writer’s Fern, the Nude Tree, the Adultery Plant, the Blue Clitoris Flower, the Memory Plant, the Astonishment Plant, the Wondrous Quis-Qualis Shrub, the Bilious Rope, Stinking Bindweed, Redolent Conyza, Saturn’s Beard, Hair of Nymphs, the Wild Drumstick Tree, Eyes of the Sea Crabs, the Mountain Fish-Slayer Tree, the Blinding Shrub, the Berries-Bearing Tuba Shrub, the Notched Appendage, and the Tart Rottangh.

There’s a lot more to Rumphius’ life and work to read about at Atlas Obscura.


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