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Rigor and sensibility

The electronic version of the Flora brasiliensis widens access to knowledge about Brazil's plants

FLORA BRASILIENSISThough indirectly, the electronic version of the reference work concerning Brazil’s plants, officially presented on the 8th of March, was born because one of the Austrian Emperors, Francis I, liked botany gardens and especially tropical forests. The rainforests on this side of the Atlantic always fascinated the Europeans, with their thick, fine, high and low trees mixed in amongst each other, and with their branches intertwining – they were exaggerated, mysterious and varied, so different from the relatively uniform and well-behaved forests that they were used to seeing.

In 1817, Francisco I reconciled his interest in plants with the possibility of widening the political influence of his kingdom. To accompany his 20-year-old daughter – the Archduchess Maria Leopoldina, fluent in six languages and equally appreciative of the natural sciences – who would be sent to Brazil to marry the future Emperor Pedro I, the Austrian monarch brought together representatives of the European scientific elite. They formed the Austrian Mission, created with the purpose of studying the plants and animals of tropical forests, symbols of the lost paradise.

The Emperor’s daughter, who would play  an important role in the independence of Brazil, arrived in Rio in November of 1817. Married and had seven children before dying as a consequence of a pregnancy in 1826, at 29 years of age. In July of 1817 a part of the Austrian Mission had arrived and shortly afterwards were in the field. During three years the botanist Carl Friedrich Philipp von Martius and the zoologists Johann Baptiste von Spix and Johann Natterer, accompanied by sketchers and assistants, covered 10,000 kilometers of the Atlantic Rainforest, Cerrado ( wooded savanna), Caatinga ( semi-arid scrubland) and the Amazon, attentive to everything that they had found to be different. Years later, starting from the samples of plants and the impressions collected by Von Martius, the Flora brasiliensis would be born, a work of 40 volumes that became a reference about Brazil’s plants and that now can also be consulted via the internet, by way of Flora brasiliensis on-line.

The electronic version of Von Martius’s work is brought together on the internet page (, a data bank with the names of the species identified in the Flora and the images of 3,811 cardboards with the designs of the leaves, fruit and flowers. The illustrations can be consulted from the scientific name of each species or the volume or the page of the original work in which they were described. With this data base, funded by FAPESP, the Vitae Foundation and Natura Cosméticos, the botanists of Brazil and of other countries can gain time in the identification of plants, which, in the most difficult of cases, can presently consume years of work, and in the study of the situation of a species. Volker Bittrich, a botanist with the State University of Campinas (Unicamp) who participated in this project, whilst he was preparing data for the on-line Flora, found one single registration of Sciaphila caudata, carried out by the Frenchman Auguste-Francois-Marie Glaziou in Rio de Janeiro around 1870. As it was never again collected, this species of a miniscule flower could have become extinct – and the illustration in the Flora brasiliensis is practically the only clue for botanists who might want to reencounter this plant. For the public in general, especially teachers, students and artists, they can make use of an archive of beautiful images, previously guarded in no more than ten Brazilian libraries.

“The Austrian Mission was one of the first efforts to scientifically get to know Brazilian nature” comments Vanderlei Perez Canhos, the director of the Reference Center on Environmental Information (Cria in the Portuguese acronym), responsible for the development of this free access data base. The monumental work of Von Martius represents not only the only complete survey made up until now concerning Brazil’s plants, but also a panoramic vision, integrated and of rare erudition about the very countryside of the country. In a facsimile of the first volume published posthumously in 1906, Von Martius enriches his descriptions with citations from Plato, Goethe and Socrates, all by themselves already refined, of the Cerrado, Caatinga and the Atlantic and the Amazonian Rainforests.

“Von Martius was extremely cultured and  demonstrated lots of concern with the life forms and culture of the natives, something highly unusual for that time” comments the botanist George Shepherd, a professor at Unicamp and one of the project’s coordinators. Some parts of the first volume, with the descriptions of plants, came out in 1840, twenty years after Von Martius had returned to Europe. He himself edited the first volumes, before he died in 1868. Other editors picked up the work that would only be finished 38 years later in 1906, with the publication of parts of volumes 3 and 1. The volumes, parts and facsimiles of the Flora came out as soon as they were ready, without any logical sequence.

To put the Flora on-line on the air was only the beginning. In parallel the updating of the scientific names of the plants, under the responsibility of a team headed by Shepherd from Unicamp, is underway . In his opinion, since there have been major changes in the classification of many species since the work was published, perhaps it will be necessary to correct more than half of the 22,767 names of the described species  – that plant that nobody has seen since, the Sciaphila caudata, is now called the Peltophyllum caudatum. “The very concept of a species has changed” says the botanist from Unicamp. There are cases in which a species described in the Flora was divided into two or three – or the contrary. In the almost complete version of the Flora brasiliensis that the National Library of France put on the internet in 1995, there are only the names created by Von Martius or his team, which brought together 65 botanists from various countries.

The electronic version is equally a collective work and does not run only to Brazil. One of those responsible for the initial idea was Paul Berry, from the University of Michigan, United States, who has stayed on as one of the collaborators. There were also participations from researchers at the Botanic Gardens of Missouri, United States, and from Munich, Germany, and the next stage will be able to count upon botanists from the University of Sao Paulo (USP), such as Lúcia Lohmann and José Rubens Pirani, from the State University of Londrina (UEL) with Ana Odete Vieira, and from Unicamp with Ingrid Koch and Luiza Kinoshita, as well as from Daniela Zappi from Kew Botanic Gardens in the United Kingdom.

In the background there is not only botanists. In one of the Cria’s computers, the mathematician Sidnei Souza, after having set out the data form for the on-line Flora, is restructuring the international system of classification of plants currently accepted. “There’ll be two data banks independent but interlinked” he explains. His goal is that the user be able to pass from one to the other without noticing the change and arrives at the plant being sought, it being unimportant whether starting from an old or new scientific name. Known by the acronym APG, for Angiosperm Phylogeny Group (plants with flowers), this new system of classification defines the principal plant groups by way of similarities in their DNA, as well as the external characteristics of their leaves, fruit and flowers. The APG is bringing about a silent revolution in botany, because there are cases of radical changes – and one family of plants could open itself up into four or five others. The updating of the scientific names, the specialists allege, is essential so that the on-line Flora can serve as a base for integration with ongoing floral surveys in Brazil – and perhaps then it will be finally known what the number of species in the country is. The 22,767 species described by Von Martius and by his team represent the group of plants known up until the middle of the 19th century, but it is believed that the total of plant species in Brazil could be at least double and reach 50,000, according to Shepherd’s estimates, while other calculations vary from 35,000 to 70,000 in total.

The Project
Flora brasiliensis: the development of a prototype; Modality Regular Line of Research Project Assistance; Coordinator George John Shepherd – Unicamp; Investment R$ 119,895.55 (FAPESP), R$ 121,000.00 (Vitae Foundation) and R$ 185,000.00 (Natura)