The History of the Flora | Français

Walter Robyns

Exploration of the Congo and precursory studies (1885–)

Upon the establishment of the Independent Congo State (1885) ruled by King Leopold II of Belgium, its state secretary Baron van Eetvelde made an agreement with the National Botanic Garden (Jardin botanique de l’État) to assemble and study herbarium specimens from the Congo in the Garden. Frans Hens, a painter from Antwerp, was the first Belgian to collect plant specimens (1887-1888) in the Congo (the exploration of which had begun with the British Christian Smith in 1816, followed by many British and Germans, e.g. Cameron, Schweinfurth, Büttner, Pogge). Other early Belgian explorers of the Congo include Fernand Demeuse (1891–1893; thousand of his specimens were however lost in a shipwreck), father Justin Gillet (1893-1943) and Emile Laurent (1893 and 1895-1896).

About the same time (1895-1896), Alfred Dewèvre was charged with the very first official mission by the Independent Congo State for a botanical exploration; his journey should take two years, but he returned earlier due to health problems, and died in the Lower Congo before he could embark; his collection (about 1200 numbers) remained unlabeled until the rediscovery of his original field notes in 1965.

Meanwhile, Emile De Wildeman assisted Théophile Durand in the study of the flora of the Congo. A book providing the results of the Laurent expedition mentioned above, with numerous fine engravings of Congo plants, was one of the first results of his contribution (De Wildeman 1905-1907). He continued the study of incoming central African plants for about fifty years, publishing 491 articles and books and describing more than 3000 new species.

As early as 1909, a first checklist summarized the results of the early botanical exploration of the Congo, the Sylloge Florae Congolanae (Durand & Durand 1909).

In 1934, the herbarium of the Congo Museum (Tervuren) was transferred to the Garden, including inter alia the collections of Corbisier-Baland. The period 1935–1970 was no doubt the most intensive period for the botanical exploration of Congo, mainly due to the activity of two institutes. The INEAC (Institut National pour l’Etude Agronomique du Congo) had a botany department undertaking a global botanical inventory, with several research stations (Luki, Mulungu, Yangambi, ...) throughout the country. It was carried out by numerous collectors, such as Devred, Gilbert, A. Léonard, J. Léonard, Pierlot. Amongst these, Jean Louis no doubt assembled, from 1935 to 1939, the best collection from the Congo Basin (c. 17,000 specimens with very complete labels, all represented by two sheets in BR). The Institut des Parcs nationaux du Congo on the other hand made a systematic exploration of the National Parks (collectors inter alia de Witte, de Saeger, Lebrun, Troupin). In this period, mycological work on central Africa was carried out at the Garden (M. Beeli), while the collector Goossens-Fontana made very fine water paintings of fungi from the Congo. Their work culminated in the “Flore iconographique de champignons du Congo” (17 issues, later continued as “Flore illustrée des champignons d’Afrique centrale”, from 2007 onwards “Fungus Flora of tropical Africa”). Phycological and bryological afrotropical contributions were made by the Garden too.

The Flore du Congo Belge et du Ruanda-Urundi (1948–1963)

The initiative for a monographic flora series for Central Africa developped by W. Robyns (see photo) was approved in 1942, after that two earlier attempts (1927, 1935) had failed. The first volume of the Flore du Congo Belge et du Ruanda-Urundi[1] saw the light in 1948. It was published by the INEAC, but Belgian bodies (National Botanic Garden, U.L.B.) actively participated in the project. The initial planning divided the Flore in four subseries (Spermatophyta, Pteridophyta, Bryophyta and Thallophyta). Nothing has ever been prepared with regards to the last two categories, however.

The volumes were arranged in a systematic order, mainly taken from Engler’s Syllabus, and started with Gymnosperms and Dicotyledons. Ten Spermatophytes issues saw the light from 1948 to 1963 (volumes I to X).

Family instalments (1963–2005)

In 1963, after the independence of the countries concerned and the subsequent closing of the INEAC, the National Botanic Garden took over the project. With the new option to continue the series with family instalments, the systematic arrangement was abandoned. Five botanists from the former “cellule Flore” of the INEAC were transferred to its staff (Paul Bamps, Raymond Boutique, Jean Léonard, Louis Liben and Auguste Taton). Upon their retirement, the post was not always filled by a central African botanist contributing to the Flora. Moreover, in depth precursory work was considered useful for many of the large families to be dealt with, causing that interest shifted to monographical work. In the last decades, these were dealing with Acanthaceae and Rubiaceae.

Between 1963 and 2005, 72 instalments for flowering plant families were published, including a number dealing with very large families such as the orchids (1984, 1992) or the Scrophulariaceae (1999); fifteen other issues saw the light in the subseries for Pteridophytes. Some major plant families remain to be done, e.g. the Poaceae, Cyperaceae, Lamiaceae, Rubiaceae. The percentage of species still to be dealt with is therefore high, probably at least 40%[2].

Revitalization (2013–)

In 2010, the Garden decided to revitalize the Flore d’Afrique centrale. All volumes publishes until 2005 were digitized and made available on the web (here). A Checklist was created using an e-Flora platform (which can be found here). In 2013, a new coordinating editor was appointed, a less elaborate format adopted, the Board expanded, a new cover designed, and a new international network of experts created. The aim is to finish the series within a period of 15 years. From 2014 onwards, 14 new family installments were produced and more are to come.

  • [1] The name was often modified to translate changing political facts. At present, the serial work is published as Flore d’Afrique centrale (République démocratique du Congo – Rwanda – Burundi), nouvelle série.
  • [2] J. Léonard (Statistiques des Spermatophytes de la Flore d’Afrique centrale de 1940 à 1990. Bull. Jard. Bot. Nat. Belg. 63: 181-194. 1994) estimated the total number of vascular plants in the Flore area to be around 10,000; about half that number were treated in 1990. To date, the estimated number has increased to 11,000.

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