A "flora" is an exhaustive listing and description of plants with a geographical focus. To celebrate Fiji Language Week, Yumiko Baba (Associate Curator, Botany) and Paula Legel (Associate Curator, Heritage Publications) examine an exquisitely illustrated 19th-century flora.

‘Flora Vitiensis: a description of the plants of the Viti or Fiji Islands: with an account of their history, uses and properties…’  is the first of its kind for Fiji and was published in 10 parts between 1865-1873*1 by Berthold Seemann. Seemann included all the plants known to science in Fiji at the time. A total of 297 new plant species were named and described in this work, and 204 species of which were done so by Seemann. 

Dr Berthold Carl Seemann was a German-born botanist who moved England to pursue his career as a botanist, initally at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, where Sir William Jackson Hooker was the director. After completing the “Herald” expedition to the Artic and  North and South America, subsequently publishing a catalogue from this journey1, he was contracted to survey potential land for cultivation and the plants in economical use in Fiji. He was also commissioned directly to collect scientific specimens of native plants to study, by Hooker, who was very supportive of his work2

Seemann left England in February, 1860, first to Sydney, Australia. On arrival, he could not contact a ship to arrange travel to Fiji3. This however, did not stop him, and he made his own arrangements with a Wesleyan missionary vessel, eventually arriving later in 18603. From there a schooner was used to travel between the islands to fulfill his mission; he had a truly extraordinary explorer’s spirit.

It is estimated he collected over 1000 plant specimens during the six-month trip1. His collections, together with the previous voyages by others, set a foundation to produce the monumental publication, ‘Flora Vitiensis’.

One of the joys of this book are the very beautiful hand coloured lithographic plates by Walter Hood Fitch that illustrate in great detail 100 of the plants discussed in the text. Fitch was an exceptionally prolific botanical illustrator, also mentored by William J. Hooker. All elements of the plant are highlighted; leaves, flowers and their structure, bark, seeds and anything else that provides clarity to the written description.

In fact, these illustrations are so highly regarded that they’ve been reproduced in other books about Fijian botany and also on items such as stamps.

One of the most beautifully drawn species included in ‘Flora Vitiensis’ is Elaeocarpus storckii or qaiqai which is a tall endemic forest tree that is found on Viti Levu, Vanua Levu and Ovalau Islands. Qaiqai is largely used for timber, however traditional knowledge holders also use the crushed bark added to Bovo (Mussaenda raiateensis) and Psychotria sp., both in the coffee family, to provide a drink for treating asthma.4

Another is Amylotheca insularum or Fijian mistletoe which has a number of Fijian names; saburu, buadatokaikau and buatoka. This is a parasitic plant often found growing in forest trees and is used to treat skin diseases.5

In tandem with Flora Vitiensis, Seeman published a narrative account of his travels in Fiji called Viti : an account of a government mission to the Vitian or Fijian Islands in the years 1860-61, which is also held in the collection. This provides greater context to Flora Vitiensis with aspects of culture descibed alongside the descriptions of plant collecting.

References

1 Smith, A.C., 1979. Flora Vitiensis Nova: a new Flora of Fiji (spermatophytes only), v. 1:43-46. Pacific Tropical Botanical Garden, Lawaii Hawaii

2 Seemann, B.C., 1869. Flora vitiensis :a description of the plants of the Viti or Fiji islands, with an account of their history, uses, and properties. Pp:I-V. L. Reeve, London.

³ Seemann, B.C ., 1862. Chapter I in Viti : an account of a government mission to the Vitian or Fijian Islands in the years 1860-61. Pp: 1-18. Cambridge: Macmillan & co., London.

4 Cambie, R.C. & Ash, J., 1994. Fijian medicinal plants, page 129. CSIRO Publishing, Clayton.

5 Cambie, R.C. & Ash, J., 1994. Fijian medicinal plants, page 189. CSIRO Publishing, Clayton.