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The Father of South African Amateur Botany

Who started it all: this contagious preoccupation with growing, studying and loving funny little green things with leaves?   The green things grow very big sometimes as we know.  So did the fraternity of plant enthusiasts, their knowledge and range of activities in this country so blessed with diversity in its vegetation.  But who made the first notable move in this direction?

In April 1624 a 37 year old Dutch doctor and minister of religion from Leiden, Justus van Heurne, landed at the Cape when the sailing ship, the Gouda that he was travelling on to Batavia, stopped briefly for replenishing their supplies.  How many days they stayed is not known.  How far away from the beach he and his travelling companions ventured to look around, to exercise their tortured limbs after months at sea or to collect things of interest, we also do not know.  There were dangers, including lions, snakes and the unknown lurking in the dense bushes!   It was 28 years before the first Dutch settlement would be started at the Cape of Storms, later Good Hope.

But in the time available Justus walked far enough, probably on Table Mountain, to collect samples of plant material from ten species that interested him; things he had never seen.  He proceeded to describe and draw them adequately for us to know today what he had collected!  They were (although in his day the names we use now did not even exist yet):

Centella villosa
Cotyledon orbiculata
Haemanthus coccineus
Kniphofia uvaria
Manulea rubra
Micranthus tubulosus
Myrica serrata
Oxalis purpura var. alba
Oxalis versicolor
Stapelia variegata 

His notes, sketches and who knows, maybe even his plant material samples were sent to his brother, Ottho in Holland, who passed them on to Johannes Bodaeus van Stapel, who was at the time writing a book about the botanical work of Theophrastus, the famous Greek student of Aristotle who is regarded as the father of all botanical writing and studies in the civilized world ever! 
 
Well, poor van Stapel, or Stapelius, to use the Latin form of his name as was common at the time (both van Heurne and Stapelius wrote in Latin), died before he could finish his book.  Van Stapel’s father, however, completed and published this book (Theophrastii eresii de historia plantarum) in commemoration of his son and included four pages on the contribution received from van Heurne.

Justus never became as illustrious as his father, Johannes van Heurne, who was the first professor of medicine at Leiden University, was the personal physician to Prince William of Orange and repeatedly honoured as Rector Magnificus by the University.  Brother Ottho succeeded his father as professor of medicine and also wrote a notable book on the history of theological philosophy.
 
In the meantime Justus had proceeded to Batavia where he worked as a missionary for over 14 years under four successive, mainly hostile Dutch governors, the most notable being Jan Pieterszoon Coen.  Another of them, Governor Specx, even banished van Heurne to India for nearly a year in 1632, for criticism of governance practices from the pulpit.  The local Batavian rajahs were as hostile towards him, probably for the influence of his religious teachings.  In 1635 he was invited to a banquet where his food was poisoned and he suffered severely for over a year. 

On the positive side he managed to translate parts of the Bible into Malay after making a dictionary for the language he found there.  He also translated some theological material into a form of Chinese. He returned to Holland in 1638 to continue his church work in the parish of Wijk bei Durstede and received honours from the Chamber of Amsterdam for his work in the East.  He left a publication on missionary work and lived to 1652, or the year after, without ever having married.  A thesis on his religious work was written by J.R. Callenbach at the University of Utrecht in 1897.

Van Heurne was surely an amateur in the botanical field, making his career in theology (and originally medicine, which he gave up after two of his sisters died of the plague in 1604).  Would he be surprised to find that his primary life work and main struggle for what he believed in have centuries later become secondary to his name being associated with an admired genus of succulents?

Unbeknown at the time, he definitely rose to the occasion as a noted amateur botanist during his one brief but memorable visit to the Cape centuries ago.   The genus Huernia is named after him, albeit through incorrect spelling (transposing the second and third letters of his surname) by the first botanist to record the plants in 1809, Robert Brown, when he wrote the original and officially recognized description of Stapelia as four genera.  Today the conventions of nomenclature still prescribe adherence to this incorrect spelling!  Van Stapel is, of course, also remembered in the Stapeliaceae.  
 
The contribution of Justus van Heurne to Cape of Good Hope botany was years later praised in Flora Capensis (1759) by Carl Linnaeus, who laid the foundations of our global botanical nomenclature.   The question has been asked whether Linnaeus should have used van Heurne's name and not van Stapel's in naming the entire genus of Stapelia?

The indigenous gardeners in South Africa may well look upon Justus van Heurne as the founder of a great plant interest movement, comprising scientists, business people, gardeners, students and plant lovers that form a network of people sharing the need to care for our plants on a sustainable basis.  For how far would Justus have to walk from the Waterfront in Cape Town today before he would be able to collect samples of the same ten plants he found in 1624?


[Some of the information obtained from:  Gunn, M. and Codd, L.E. (1981)  Botanical Exploration of Southern Africa, Balkema, Cape Town

White, A. and Sloane, B.L. (1937) The Stapelieae (Vol III, Second Edition), Abbey San Encino, California]

Written by Ivan Latti
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