Stories Plants Tell: Flora Batava 1800-1934


In 1800, the publication of the Flora Batava started. The Flora Batava is an illustrated overview of all Dutch plants, mushrooms, mosses and algae known in the 19th century. The Flora was published as a serial by J.C. Sepp en zoon and edited by Jan Kops.

Science meets heritage

The Flora Batava ran from 1800 to 1934 and became one of the longest running series in the Netherlands. More than 2630 plant species are depicted in 2240 engraved plates. The plants in the series were collected in the field and drawn from life.

WUR has a special relationship with the Flora Batava, not at least because the Special Collections are the proud owners of about half of the original drawings that were created as preliminary studies for the publication.

The Flora Batava is one of the key works in natural history that are indispensable if we want to investigate the state of Dutch nature in the past. It provides the historical perspective that is often vitally important for effective, well-founded and well-considered decisions in, for example, carrying out nature management and nature conservation. And it contributes to acquiring ecological insights, or providing insight into biodiversity and its loss.

In June 2023 a special reissue of the Flora Batava was published on the initiative of the Koninklijke Bibliotheek and publisher Lannoo. Several scientists from different disciplines, including WUR scientists, (amateur) botanists, artists and plant lovers have contributed to this book. 

We hope that this online exhibition and all the stories inspire you and make you think about your connection with plants! 

Poster of the on site exhibition Stories Plants Tell

Scroll down or click the tiles to see and read more…

The start
The start
A long running series (1800-1934)
Plant names and descriptions
Plant names and descriptions
The drawings
Flora Batava at WUR Library
Flora Batava, edition of 2023

The start

The idea for the Flora Batava, an illustrated serial publication describing all plants in the wild in the Netherlands, came from the publisher family Sepp, a publisher also known for publishing serial works about birds (Nederlandsche Vogelen, 1770-1829) and insects (Beschouwing der wonderen Gods…, 1762-1860)

The father of Jan Christiaan Sepp (born around 1710 in Goslar) was interested in physics and biology. He built his own instruments to study insects and started drawing insects at a young age. In the 1730s, he moved to Amsterdam.

J.C. Sepp

In Amsterdam Sepp worked as a draftsman and engraver, creating land and sea charts. He was also well known for his knowledge of entomology. Together with his son Jan Christiaan Sepp (1739 – 1811) he collected and bred insects. Their butterfly cabinet with drawers for storing butterflies can still be seen in the Rijksmuseum Boerhaave in Leiden. In 1762, Beschouwing der wonderen Gods, in de minstgeachte schepzelen : of Nederlandsche insecten,  ….  about Dutch insects appeared, containing insects accurately drawn from life, engraved in copper and hand coloured. This work appeared in installments that could later be bound into volumes. Sepp created the first 30 plates with descriptions alone, after that he worked together with his son, who established himself as a publisher.

Jan Kops became the first editor of the Flora Batava. At the time Kops was the Commissioner of Agriculture at the National Economy Agency as well as an experienced and enthusiastic botanist.

The Anabaptist Jan Kops (1765 -1849), originally a theologian, was fascinated by botany from an early age. Despite this, his professional career mainly focused on agriculture. Until the Batavian revolution, Kops was only allowed to practice a theological profession, but after 1800 he started a civilian career.

In 1800 he was appointed “commissioner for the affairs of agriculture” at the agricultural department of the National Economics Agency in The Hague. In 1811, on his initiative, a Cabinet of Agriculture was established, first in Amsterdam and  later in Utrecht.

In addition to his career in agriculture, Kops also remained active in the field of his beloved botany. He accepted the publisher Sepp’s request to become editor of the Flora Batava and dedicated himself to this publication for almost 50 years. However, he accepted this position under certain conditions which he comments upon in his biography.

“Maar ik verlangde een ander plan, dan dat van Sepp te volgen. Ik wilde geene kopyen, maar oorspronkelijke afbeeldingen leveren. De planten moesten van den vaderlandschen grond zijn genomen, hetgeen voor eene inlandsche Flora volstrekt noodzakelijk is. …” 

From: J. Kops, Levensberigt betrekkelijk mijne werkzaamheden voor het publiek en hetgeen hierop invloed had (1839)

Jan Kops

In his biography, Jan Kops writes that he did not agree with Sepp’s idea of using foreign publications for the drawings of the Flora Batava. The first 40 drawings for the Flora Batava were taken from the Flora Londinensis by William Curtis. However, Kops wanted the plants to be drawn from Dutch flora. And so it happened, local specimens were collected and used for the plant descriptions from plate 41 onwards. The collected plants were used as examples by the botanical artists, whose drawings serve as an example for the engraving and the final colouring of the prints.

But Kops had more ambitions: he also wanted the native plants to be described in a scientific, understandable and useful way. The plants were described according to the system of Linnaeus and then Dutch names and folk names were also added. Descriptions were made in Dutch and in French and information about the practical applications of the plants was included.

Text and Plate 1 (Veronica Chamaedrys) of the Flora Batava
Plate 2 (Veronica Chamaedrys) of the Flora Londinensis

A long running series (1800-1934)

As is usual with these kinds of serial masterpieces in the 18th century, the publication was pre-subscribed and published in periodical issues. Interested parties could subscribe to the voluminous work in installments. The individual issues were bound into volumes by the subscribers themselves, for which Sepp supplied a title page and a foreword. Four or five plants were included per installment, and an illustration with a description in French and in Dutch was included for each plant.

More than 230 subscribers were listed in the first volume of the Flora Batava. These subscribers could not have imagined that they would not live to see the end of the series. Over 134 years, 461 installments were published for a total of 28 volumes. Over 2600 plant species are described in the Flora Batava.

The Flora Batava was marketed by the publisher in two formats: a quarto format and a smaller, cheaper and slightly simpler coloured octavo format.

When their publishing house closed in 1868, the Sepp family business had spanned four generations and was until then responsible for publishing the Flora Batava. After that, the publishers De Breuk & Smits in Leiden, Vincent Loosjes in Haarlem and Martinus Nijhoff in The Hague successively took over the Flora’s publication.

Jan Kops remained editor of the texts for more than 50 years. J.C van Hall supported him in later editions. The following individuals also successively worked as the  editor of the Flora Batava: J.E. van der Trappen, P.M.E. Gevers Deynoot, F.A. Hartsen, F.W. van Eeden, L. Vuyck, W.J. Lütjeharms, and A. de Wever.

A large group of both amateur and professional botanists and botanical illustrators also contributed to the publication.

The Flora Batava is not only one of the most complete inventories of the country’s native flora. It is also a collective work (Gesamtkunstwerk) that illustrates the major changes in the Dutch landscape, science and the appreciation of the national nature. In addition, it shows the change in printing techniques and the technical evolution of botanical illustrations.

Title page volume 1 of the Flora Batava
Title page volume 22 of the Flora Batava

Plant names and descriptions

Plant names and descriptions

The plants in the Flora Batava are described according to the system of Linnaeus. He described the rules for this system in Species Plantarum (1753). In the Plantarum Linneaus divided the vegetable kingdom into 24 classes, based on their reproductive organs. The system is based on the number and arrangement of male (stamens) and female (pistils) organs. 

According to Linnaeus’ system, all plant names consist of two parts (binomial nomenclature): a genus name and a second term. Together, these uniquely identify each species of organism.

The order in which plants appeared the Flora Batava was not scientifically based. The plants in the Flora Batava were drawn from life. As such, the sequence in which the different plants were described and included in the series depended on the availability of the plant, for example, when they were found.

Since the plants were all named according to Linnaeus’ binomial naming system and the series was published in single installments, readers could apply a scientific order themselves.

The descriptions contain a lot of interesting facts about the plants. First the name is stated in Latin, Dutch, German and English. Sometimes folk names are added. Then the flowering time, characteristics and varieties of the plant itself are mentioned, together with a list of similar looking plants. An accurate indication of where the plant was observed is always given, which can be of great value for contemporary biodiversity research. Information about the practical applications of the plants is also included, such as the use as medicine, pigment, food, fodder and fertilizer. Knowledge that has sometimes been long forgotten. Although the information about the practical applications disappeared in later editions, this topic can still be an important source for stories that still inspire and enthuse plant lovers of today.

Myrica gale, in Dutch Ruikende Gagel, was also called Luiskruid, due to the fact that a decoction of the leaves was used to expel aphids.

Myrica gale (Luiskruid), plate X of the Flora Batava

Stachys sylvatica, Bosch Andoorn / Hedge Woundwort or Clown’s Alheal, which leaves also were used to produce a dye, this time a yellow one. The leaves had also a medical use, soaked in oil they provided healing for wounds and burns. Hence the English name Woundwort?

Stachys sylvatica

The drawings

The first 40 drawings for the Flora Batava were copied from the Flora Londinensis (William Curtis). Thereafter, the plants (specimens) were collected in the Netherlands and depicted by artists from life. This could be a long process because the drawings depict the plant parts from different life stages (e.g. the seeds, the flowers). This meant that the artist had to capture a specimen at several moments in its life cycle.

Many artists contributed to the Flora Batava. Because the engravings in the Flora Batava are not signed, the identity of the artists is not always known. Some editions of the Flora, however, list some artists in the editorial preface while other artists are known because they signed their original drawings.

Artists who are known to have contributed to the Flora Batava include G.J. van Oss, C.J. van Hulstijn, Ms. La Chapelle, H.C. van de Pavord Smits and A. Weiss.

Anton Weiss (1801-1851) and Greorgius Jacobus Johannes van Os (1782-1861) are also known for their flower still lifes. The contribution of Helena Christina van de Pavord Smits (1867-1941) to the Flora Batava is impressive. She made all the drawings, nearly 800, for the last 10 volumes.

Original drawing of plate 314, Brassica napus (rapeseed)
Final print of plate 314, Brassica napus (rapeseed)

Once the artists finished the drawings, they sent them to the editor, who checked them and provided comments for the engraver, if necessary. Occasionally, the editor provided minor comments but sometimes he demanded a new drawing. In these cases, the old drawing was not destroyed but kept.

After editing, the editor forwarded the illustrations to the printer, where they were engraved. After printing, first as a copper engraving, later as a stone lithograph, the engravings were then manually coloured, using the original drawings as an example. The engravings were hand coloured until the 24th volume. The last four volumes were illustrated with chromolithographs.

Original drawings of plate 389, two varieties, Lamium album (white dead-nettle). The drawing on the right, made by Anton Weiss, was used as example for the print.

The original drawings offer a wealth of information. For example, some plant species were drawn several times and we assume by different illustrators most likely because the initial drawing did not meet the editorial requirements. Some of the original drawings include editorial comments, whilst others are signed, revealing the artists who contributed them to the Flora Batava.

Flora Batava at WUR Library

In an article in the Arnhemse Courant “Delight of mother nature, a walk through Wageningen’s arboretum” (22 September 1948), mention is made of a special acquisition by the Rijkslandbouwhogeschool’s library, the predecessor of WUR Library:

‘And then this remarkable book ‘Flora Batava’ by J. C. Sepp and Son of 1800, in which the images have become works of art, fine in colour, sensitive in drawing. The library has managed to obtain the original drawings of all these illustrations.’

The drawings referred to in this article are almost all original drawings of the first seven parts of the Flora Batava. These drawings are bound together with the final printed issues.

WUR library also has a collection of loose drawings that belong to volumes eight through thirteen. In total, this collection comprises approximately 1000 drawings of the 2240 drawings that were produced for the Flora Batava. The drawings were purchased for 1500 Dutch guilders from auction house Theodorus Bom in 1948.

The provenance of the original drawings in the Special Collections of WUR Library is still being researched. Most likely these drawings were originally owned by the publisher Sepp and Son, which closed after the first 13 volumes of the Flora Batava were published, from which point the publication of the Flora Batava was transferred to other publishers. The original drawings belonging to volumes 13 and further of the Flora Batava are now part of the collection of Naturalis Biodiversity Center.

WUR Library owns several series of the Flora Batava: https://wur.on.worldcat.org/oclc/72725467

More examples of drawings bound together with the final prints

Flora Batava, edition of 2023

In Juni 2023, a facsimile of the Flora Batava was published. In addition to all 2240 original plates, this reissue in one volume also contains 100 new stories from plant connoisseurs and admirers. Several WUR employees have contributed to this publication. The wide variety of themes and insights illustrates the continuing importance of a publication such as the Flora Batava, a publication that tells something about biodiversity, biogeography, but also about species, about art history, the use of plants then and now…

In short, it forms the basis for a colourful group of stories that deal with various subjects, but all have one factor in common: the love of plants.

This part of the online exhibition highlights the contribution of several WUR employees to the Flora Batava. We show the plants they wrote their story about and also included some Special Collections material that they used for their contributions.

The following employees from WUR (in alphabetical order) contributed to the reissue of the Flora Batava

Tinde van Andel, Professor Biosystematics wrote about Cochlearia officinalis (common scurvygrass)

Click the thumbnail to read ‘Vergeten groente van de brakke grond’ (in Dutch). Contribution of Tinde van Andel about Cochlearia officinalis (common scurvygrass)

Cochlearia officinalis (common scurvygrass)

Anneke Groen, curator at the WUR Library-Special Collections wrote about Lamium album (white dead-nettle) and Beta vulgaris subsp. Maritima (sea beet)

Click the thumbnail to read ‘Was getekend… Anton Weiss’ (in Dutch). Contribution of Anneke Groen about Lamium album (white dead-nettle).

Lamium album (white dead-nettle)

Click the thumbnail to read ‘Onontbeerlijk voor toekomstige inzichten’ (in Dutch). Contribution of Anneke Groen about Beta vulgaris subsp. Maritima (sea beet)

Beta vulgaris subsp. Maritima (sea beet)

Liesbeth Missel, former curator of Special Collections wrote about the Fritillaria meleagris (fritillaria) and Vinca minor (common periwinkle)

Click the thumbnail to read ‘Dobbelbloembekers en de Goudse tulpenslacht’ (in Dutch). Contribution of Liesbeth Missel about Fritillaria meleagris (fritillaria)

Fritillaria meleagris (fritillaria)

Click the thumbnail to read ‘Palmen voor kleine maagden’ (in Dutch). Contribution of Liesbeth Missel about Vinca minor (common periwinkle)

Vinca minor (common periwinkle)

Liesje Mommer, Professor Plant Ecology and Nature Conservation wrote about the Leucanthemum vulgare (oxeye daisy)

Click the thumbnail to read ‘Ik zie, ik zie… wat jij niet ziet’ (in Dutch). Contribution of Liesje Mommer about Leucanthemum vulgare (oxeye daisy)

Leucanthemum vulgare (oxeye daisy)

José van Paassen, researcher in Plant Ecology and Nature Conservation wrote about Senecio jacobaea (common ragwort), Hylocomium splendens (mountain fern moss) and Carex pilulifera (pill sedge)

Click the thumbnail to read ‘Een kwestie van smaak’ (in Dutch). Contribution of José van Paassen about Senecio jacobaea (common ragwort)

Senecio jacobaea (common ragwort)

Click the thumbnail to read ‘De echte dr. mos’ (in Dutch). Contribution of José van Paassen about Hylocomium splendens (mountain fern moss)

Hylocomium splendens (mountain fern moss)

Click the thumbnail to read ‘De zwakheid der halmen’ (in Dutch). Contribution of José van Paassen about Carex pilulifera (pill sedge)

Carex pilulifera (pill sedge)

Joop Schaminee, Professor Vegetation Ecology, wrote about Lilium bulbiferum subsp. Croceum (orange lily) and Agrostemma githago (common corn-cockle)

Click the thumbnail to read ‘Aan de voet van de hemelpoort’ (in Dutch). Contribution of Joop Schaminee about Lilium bulbiferum subsp. Croceum (orange lily)

Lilium bulbiferum subsp. Croceum (orange lily)

Click the thumbnail to read ‘Akkervlam van weleer’ (in Dutch). Contribution of Joop Schaminee about Agrostemma githago (common corn-cockle)

Agrostemma githago (common corn-cockle)

Anastasia Stefanaki, researcher at the Department of Plant Sciences, Group Biosystematics wrote about Tulipa sylvestris (wild tulip)

Click the thumbnail to read ‘Een mediterrane stinzenkoningin’ (in Dutch). Contribution of Anastasia Stefanaki about Tulipa sylvestris (wild tulip)

Tulipa sylvestris (wild tulip)

Nils van Rooijen, researcher Vegetation, Forest and Landscape Ecology, wrote about Teucrium montanum (mountain germander).

Click the thumbnail to read ‘Op de rand van de afgrond’ (in Dutch). Contribution of Nils van Rooijen about Teucrium montanum (mountain germander)

Teucrium montanum (mountain germander)

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