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Hortus botanicus increases focus on Asia

The Hortus botanicus Leiden has one of Europe’s largest collections of living plants from the Asian region. This rich resource is no longer the sole domain of botanists. Multidisciplinary research, teaching and the general public are equally at home in the Hortus. This is the view of Paul Kessler, professor by special appointment, who will give his inaugural lecture on 21 April.

The links between the Hortus botanicus Leiden and Asia goes back to the early years of the botanical garden, Kessler explains. The first prefect (director) of the Hortus, Carolus Clusius, asked merchants of the Dutch East India Company to bring back cuttings, flowers and fruits from spice plants. Since then, the Asian collection – both ‘dried’ in the herbarium and the living plants in the garden and glasshouses – has continued to expand. ‘The collection of Asian plants here is the largest in the Netherlands, and perhaps even in Europe. This makes the Hortus a tremendous source of knowledge in this area.’

Focus on Asia

It was this large Asian collection that originally brought Kessler himself to Leiden. ‘I’d already done my PhD research on a family of trees in Indonesia, the Annonaceae, and my supervisor said: “If you can get a position in Leiden, you’ll have made it!” So that was what I aimed for,’ says the botanist, with a smile. Now he is the prefect of the Hortus and professor by special appointment in the Botanical Gardens and the Botany of South-East Asia. ‘It’s great to be able to increase the Hortus’s focus on Asia even more, now that I’m a professor here and can add and expand my scientific expertise in this area.’

Partnership in research

In the research area, Kessler sees important developments in botany. ‘We do a lot of research on the lineage of plants, the question of whether certain species are in the same family. This was always done based on external characteristics, but we can now do it more easily with modern DNA analysis methods.’ There is also increasing collaboration with other disciplines. ‘For instance, my PhD candidate Roderick Bouman is researching the plant genus Phyllanthus. A few species of this are used locally for their medicinal effects.’ Together with the Institute of Biology, research is being conducted on the active substances in those plants. ‘We’re also working increasingly with data scientists, so that we can analyse the vast quantities of data that we obtain from our plants.’ In Kessler’s view, the future of research – and certainly in botany – lies in this kind of multidisciplinary research. ‘The Hortus is no longer the sole domain of botanists.’

Oldest museum

Scientific research is one of the three pillars on which the Hortus focuses. In addition to research, these are teaching – every year, biology students from the Netherlands and elsewhere follow courses in the botanical garden – and the public function. Kessler: ‘The garden has fulfilled all three of these functions since it first began.’ The Hortus was, of course, created as part of the University for research and teaching, but prints from as early as the 17th century depict women visiting the Hortus. They certainly were not students, because in those days women were not permitted to attend university. ‘They were here to see the collection of plants, for recreation. This actually makes the Hortus botanicus Leiden the oldest museum in the Netherlands!’

Crown jewels

The Hortus still fulfils this public function today: this week sees the opening of the ‘Crown Jewels from Asia’ exhibition – not quite coincidentally at almost the same time as Kessler’s inaugural lecture. ‘It is 200 years since the Hortus botanicus Leiden prefect Reinwardt started a sister garden in Bogor, Indonesia, formerly Buitenzorg. In addition, this year is Leiden Asia Year, and also I’m starting as professor by special appointment in South-East Asian Botany. An excellent time to shine the spotlight on our most beautiful Asian plants.’

Paul Kessler holds the chair Botanical Gardens and Botany of South-East Asia, which is a chair by special appointment of the Leiden University Fund (LUF). By appointing special chairs, the Leiden University Fund (LUF) supports new scientific areas. Thanks to this support, professor Kessler is able to intensify the botanical research on certain species of orchids and carnivorous plants. He also aims to expand the connections with botanical gardens and universities in Indonesia and China. When there appears to be a structural need for this chair, it is up to Leiden University to appoint a regular chair.