Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Unlocking the doors of the Leiden treasure rooms

Which plants are depicted, described or collected in these century-old objects? Who made these objects, where and for what purpose? What is their scientific and societal relevance today?

2015 - 2020
Tinde van Andel
Naturalis Biodiversity Center Naturalis Biodiversity Center
Clusius Stichting

Naturalis Biodiversity Center,
Wageningen University,
Artis library (University of Amsterdam)
Rijksmuseum Amsterdam,
Royal Library, the Hague
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (UK)
Uppsala University (Sweden)
Natural History Museum (Norway)

The treasure rooms of Naturalis Biodiversity Center and the Leiden University Library contain magnificent old books and herbaria with dried plant specimens, botanical drawings, and thousands of glass jars with roots, seeds and barks, collected from the 16th to the 19th century.

Our major study objects are:

The herbaria of Leonhard Rauwolf (1560-1576), collected in southern France, Italy, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. This early German explorer travelled to the Near East in search for herbal medicine. Risking his own life but driven by curiosity, Rauwolf documented useful plants among Arabs, Turks, Kurds and Jews in Aleppo, Mosul, Baghdad and Tripoli.

Icones Plantarum Malabaricarum

18th century botanical drawings from Sri Lanka. An unknown VOC doctor made 262 watercolour drawings of medicinal plants and recorded the recipes from traditional healers and local people around 1700 in the Dutch colony Ceylon.

The En Tibi herbarium

One of the oldest herbaria in the world (ca. 1555), made by an unknown Italian botanist, containing almost 500 specimens, including the oldest tomato and hot pepper from the recently discovered American continent.

Herbaria Simone D’Oignies

A mysterious army surgeon collected six volumes of plant specimens around 1780. The origin of the collections in unknown, but point towards botanical gardens in the Netherlands and Belgium.

Chinese medicine

Hundreds of small glass jars with medicinal barks, roots and seeds from China are kept in museums and private collections throughout the Netherlands. They reflect centuries of trade in Chinese herbal medicine. What species are involved? Do these medicines still contain active properties after all these years?


  • Ghorbani, A., de Boer, H.J., Maas, P.J.M., van Andel, T.R. 2017. The typification of two Linnaean plant names based on illustrations published by Leonhard Rauwolf in 1583. Taxon, published online 14 September 2017.
  • Van Andel, T.R. 6 January 2017. Open the treasure room and decolonize the museum. Inaugural lecture, Clusius chair of History of Botany and Gardens, Leiden University.
  • Andel, T.R. van, Alcantara Rodriguez, M. 2016. Vreemde planten uit verre landen: het geheim van de copaiba olie uit Nederlands-Brazilië (1648). Hoofdstuk 11 in: Botanische Meesterwerken , Joop Schaminee, Nils van Royen en Eddy Weeda (eds.) KNNV Uitgeverij, Zeist. pp. 133-144.
  • Andel, T.R. van; Maas, P.J.M. 2016. Botanical identifications of the plants depicted in the Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium. In: van Delft, M. and Mulder, H. (eds.) Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, edited version and complete facsimile of the Transformation of Surinamese Insects of Maria Sybilla Merian (1705). Lannoo Publishers, Tielt, Belgium.
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