Materia Medica, Pharmacology & Bio-Prospecting

An Investigation of Five Plants from Rumphius' The Ambonese Herbal

Georg Eberhard Rumphius (1627-1702) was a naturalist who spent most of his life living on the island Ambon in Indonesia, starting in 1654 until his death. During this time, the Dutch East Indies Company was a megacorporation that controlled much of the trade between Europe and Asia, and the company headquarters were located on the island of Ambon. Ambon was the major outpost of the Dutch East Indies Company between Indonesia and Europe. This was an ideal location for Rumphius to observe both the native plants of Ambon, and the huge variety of plants that passed through Ambon. All of his work culminated in The Ambonese Herbal (Herbarium Amboinense as the original title), which was over five decades of information gathered on plants and their medicinal properties, habitats, and economic uses. This work has had a huge impact on botanists, anthropologists, scientists, and other scholars for over three hundred years due to the sheer number of plants illustrated and identified, as well as the multitude of languages used for native plants. In this project, we identify the types of data Rumphius collected, his own manner of bioprospecting, the five categories of medicinal qualities, and the five individual plants investigated from The Ambonese Herbal.

In the Volume I of The Ambonese Herbal, which contains all sorts of trees that bear edible fruits and cultivated by the local people, is just one of seven volumes, which was completed in 1702, after Rumphius lost his records in multiple incidents. The Ambonese Herbal finally reached the Netherlands in 1696. However, the publication was halted because the East India Company decided it contained “sensitive” information. It was finally given permission and published in 1741.

Rumphius’ research brings to attention that although high-throughput screening is already in use, the value of ethnobotany and traditional healing methods has increased. “Old wives tales” have proven to lead to effective pharmacology. Based on the modern research, out of the 63 plants mentioned in the Volume I of The Ambonese Herbal, 42 were used in the traditional medicine of Ambon. Of the plants with medicinal properties 64% had associated ethnomedical data, 57% had associated biochemical data, 57% had their bioactive compounds isolated, and 36% have no ethnomedical, pharmacological, or isolated compounds reported in the current literature by NAPRALERT. Based on Rumphius’ work and modern research results, the plants investigated in this project include Garcinia mangostana, Aegle marmelos, Lodoicea maldivica, Dracontomelum sylvestre, and Ceiba pentandra.

As for Rumphius' own manner of bioprospecting, he relied on local plant relationship knowledge when classifying plants. The local framework put emphasis on certain key characteristics, such as leaf appearance; wood appearance; presence/absence of latex; and the taste and smell of leaves, flowers, and fruit. By adopting this local framework, Rumphius could become more imbued in the relevant social and cultural context for the usage of the local plants; inhabiting a local mindset allowed Rumphius to better understand the forces that led locals to utilize plants the way they did.

Rumphius' depictions of plants were more concerned with practicality than exact replication. His descriptions of plants were not absolute -- they were relative, in comparison to relatively common objects (ex. "thick as a man", "tall as a lemon tree", "two fingers wide"). This method of relative measurement had the benefit of being more universally understood than a particular absolute measurement system only adopted by certain nations. Absolute measurement systems differ across time and place (ex. compare the usage of the imperial and metric system during different time periods and in different locations). Absolute measurement systems also require a precise point of reference for standardization (ex. what shall the quantity of a fathom be?). Relative measurement systems, though less precise, can be more widely understood. These systems only require a shared understanding of the object of comparison.

Similarly, the drawings of the plants -- which were not done by Rumphius himself, as he had become blind -- were focused on practicality, rather than exact replication. Sometimes the drawings were disproportionate to the actual plant; flowers and fruit (among other parts of particular interest to European botanists) were enlarged. Rumphius gave extra attention to especially useful plant parts, such as fruits, which are often edible and/or have medicinal value.

The 42 plants documented by Rumphius in this Volume can be categorized into five categories of medicinal qualities: antibacterial, analgesic, antifungal, antipyretic, and anti-inflammatory. Of the five plants that this project has studied in detail, three had mainly antibacterial properties and two had mainly anti-inflammatory properties. The Lodoicea maldivica contains Eugenol which kills bacteria. The Garcinia mangostana contains alpha-mangostin in the peel of its fruits which is also antibacterial and mainly fights against Staphylococcus aureus. The Dracontomelum sylvestre is also antibacterial and contains xanthones that fight against Staphylococcus aureus and E. coli. The Aegle marmelos contains palmitic acid which combats inflammation. The Ceiba pentandra contains catechin and B-sitosterol in its leaves which are heated up in order to fight inflammation.

These plants are used for their healing medicinal qualities. Most of the plants are found in Southeast Asian countries and consumed to alleviate symptoms of diseases like dysentery, diarrhea, skin infections, fevers, and arthritis. Some of the plants have fruit that is consumed, some have leaves that are consumed or grinded into teas and oils, some have stems that are consumed, etc. The natives use these plants as natural remedies for the previously mentioned diseases, seeking out antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. Rumphius documented detailed accounts of each of the plants, including drawings. They include valuable illustrations of each plant’s stem, leaves, seeds and flowers and fruits if they have them. The images are accurate when compared to other sources, showing that Rumphius and his assisting illustrators really paid attention to detail when documenting these plants and their uses.

Rumphius’s work led the way for many researchers studying plants and their medicinal effects. In history, societies relied on botanists and apothecaries to cure people’s ailments through natural sources. Although time has brought many advancements to medicine and pharmacology, utilizing historical primary sources, such as Rumphius’ The Ambonese Herbal, has proven to be like a goldmine. Currently, some researchers have dedicated their careers to analyzing the chemical components of plants that have cured various diseases for centuries. Components found to have an impact on healing can be recreated synthetically and mass produced to become standard treatments. The main direction for further research on The Ambonese Herbal that would be beneficial. It exemplifies the approach in which to gather information from historical sources and begin investigations on which substances can be used for new treatment options. This would also create more widely used natural remedies that have been lost over time.


Buenz, E.J., H.E. Johnson, E.M. Beekman, T.J. Motley, and B.A. Bauer. 2005. “Bioprospecting Rumphius’s Ambonese Herbal: Volume I.” Journal of Ethnopharmacology 96 (1): 57–70.
Merrill, E.D. 1917. An Interpretation of Rumphius’s Herbarium Amboinense. Manila: Bureau of Science.
Rumphius, Georgius Everhardus. [1743] 2011. The Ambonese Herbal. Translated by Eric Montague Beekman. New Haven: Yale University Press & National Tropical Botanical Garden.

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