History of botanic research in Liberia


History of botanic research in Liberia



by Lex Voorhoeve



EARLY EXPLORATIONSTravelers by sea – traders, researchers, missionaries – started visiting the coast of West Africa as early as the mid 15th century. Names like Montserrado County, Mesorado swamp, Cavally river, and the word ‘palaver’ suggest a Portuguese influence because the Portuguese mapped the coast of Liberia in 1460/61.



The earliest herbarium samples, recorded from Liberia, were collected by naval surgeons between 1697 and 1703 – before the Linnaean era. Some herbarium material is still present in the British Museum. Around 1800 the reconnaissance of West Africa by European colonial powers was in full swing, but not until 1841 collections were made in Liberia by Dr. Theodore Vogel, botanist of the second Niger expedition. He collected 150 species (now at the Kew herbarium), some of which were new to science (Anthocleista vogelii). In the following 60 years several botanists visited Liberia, making small collections that often included ‘new’ species: 1855, Philipp Schoenlein, 14 samples (Ouratea schoenleiniana); 1874, Dr. Naumann, 20 species (Scleria naumannii, Sawgrass); 1895/96, Dr. O.F. Cook, an Americn botanist. All in all, however, the floral composition of Liberia was still largely unrecorded.THE PERIOD 1900 – 1960

Several small collections were made in the early nineteen hundreds: D. Sim in the Sinoe area, A. Whyte (Dactyladenia whytei) near Kakata and the Sinoe area (1903), H. Reynolds (Spiropetralum reynoldsii) near Monrovia (1905), and Sir Harry Johnston (Rinorea johnstonii), 1907. In 1910 Bunting made a small but important collection in the Gola forest (Cola buntingii). His specimens are at the British Museum (BM).

The earliest major collections from Liberia were made by Max Dinklage (Dialium dinklagei, Dinklageodoxa scandens). As a botanist to the Woermann company, Dinklage was charged to study the commercial prospects of the vegetation of Cameroon. However, he proved himself to be an able businessman, and in 1894 he was appointed director of the Woermann company in Liberia. He gained an important position in Monrovia and even became German Consul before the first world war. With short intervals he lived in Monrovia until 1930. He returned in 1934 as botanist to a botanical expedition sponsored by the Harvard University (USA). Although 70 years old Dinklage planned to make a trip up-country, to the Nimba region, but he fell ill with dysentery and died in the Ganta Methodist Mission, January 1935.

Dinklage made eleven field trips, mostly along the coast, and collected some 1650 specimens. His total collections number 3388 specimens, but the balance was collected outside Liberia. His Liberia collections include unrecorded 32 species and one new genus: Polystemonanthus dinklagei, an endemic tree. He was a productive collector but, interestingly, he attached only minimal notes to his collections, many of them in Latin. An almost complete set of Dinklages collections is at Hamburg (HBG) and many of the duplicates are at the Kew herbarium (K).

In 1926/27 Dr. H.D. Linder (Trichoscypha linderi) botanist of the Harvard African Expedition made a long field trip in the Central Province of Liberia, collecting some 1600 specimens which now are in the Arnold Arboretum (A), but the first duplicate set is at Kew (K).

Hitherto collections mainly included herbs, shrubs, and climbers. Little was known about the tree species of Liberia. This changed when in 1928 G. Proctor Cooper of the Yale University, School of Forestry (U.S.A.) came to Liberia to make a study of the forest cover of the Firestone concession in the Du river watershed. He collected some new species (Cassipourea firestoneana, Diospyros cooperi) and numerous species of which the occurrence in Liberia was as yet unknown: Amphimas, Klainedoxa, Duguetia etc. Many of his specimens are at Kew and in the Missouri Herbarium (MO).

In 1943/44 J.C. Bequaert made some limited collections for the Arnold Arboretum (A). Between 1947 and 1950 Dr. J.T. Baldwin collected thousand of specimens in West Africa for phyto-pharmaceutical research (Strophantus). He visited Liberia three times and made extensive collections, now at the Arnold Arboretum (A) and Kew (K).

On instructions of the U.S.Economic Mission to Liberia Karl Mayer made a survey of the forest resources of Liberia in the years 1947-1949. He collected 235 specimens but not all were preserved. His collection ought to be at the Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC. His collection contains at least one dubious identification: Cylicodiscus gabonensis. Its occurrence in Liberia has never been confirmed and we suspect that Mayer mis-identified a NewtoniaI species.

Since 1933 Dr. and Mrs. G.W. Harley, missionaries at the Ganta Methodist Mission collected numerous plants. Dr. Harley made a study of medicinal use of local plants and published his findings in “Native Afrrican Medicine, with special reference to its practice in the Mano tribe of Liberia (1941). In this narrative account of medical practices in a wide sense, frequent reference is made to species collected by the Harleys, but no collection numbers are given as reference. Ms. Harley focused on collecting ferns and published two accounts of her work (see list of publications). In 1960 Dr. and Mrs. Harley left Liberia after working for 35 years in Ganta. The Harley collection included 2200 specimens, most of which are represented in Kew (K). A duplicate set of some 1200 specimens, however, was acquired by the then College of Forestry of the University of Liberia. It formed the foundation of the Harley Herbarium (LIB) of the University of Liberia. The physical quality of the Harley collection showed how difficult it is to set up and maintain a herbarium under moist tropical conditions.


Liberia has three neighbouring countries, ruled – at that time – by the colonial powers Great Britain (Sierra Leone) and France (Guinée and Côte d’Ivoire). Botanical explorations in these countries were numerous, very often initiated by the Forest Service. In the context of this story it suffices to name two explorers who have had a great impact on the knowledge about the forests in these adjoining countries: Chevalier, a botanist who collected thousands of speciments between 1898 and 1932, and A. Aubréville, who wrote several books and – most important for Liberia – the “Flore Forestiere de la Cote d’Ivoire” (Forest Flora of Ivory Coast), first edition 1936, second edition 1959 (a.k.a. “Aubréville”). Both Chevalier and Aubréville are remembered in many species names, like Drypetes chevalieri and Calpocalyx aubrevillei. By and large the forests if Liberia’s neighbouring countries were fairly well known at the time the inventory of the Liberian forests started. The inventory team would be in for a surprise!

THE PERIOD 1960 – 1990

With the exception of the work of Dinklage, who must have been a true collector at heart, but not by profession, most of the interest in the flora of Liberia was fueled by the U.S.A. Not surprising, given the close historical and economical ties between the two countries. The establishment of a herbarium at the University of Liberia was, in a sense, a turning point in the history of botany in Liberia. Until that year all collections and gathered information was exported, to be stored in various herbaria abroad. The Harley Herbarium made it possible to keep duplicates of collections at the University to serve as teaching and research material for staff and students in the botany department of the University. The initial facilities were minimal: an improvised impregnation station, using pentachlorophenol (now prohibited!), in a locked corner of a garage, and rough wooden boxes in an air-conditioned class room. Over the years, however, these facilities gradually improved. Mr. Willy Goll, who startyed out as janitor of the college, eventually became Keeper of the Herbarium.

In the late fifties “National Forests” were established with the help of US-Aid. Large tracts of forest were set aside – not as National Parks but as potential resources for economic development. The next step was to make an inventory of what was growing in these forests, and how much of it. Expectations were high because the timber trade in the neighbouring country, Ivory Coast, had become a major resource and industry. An agreement was signed between Liberian and the German governments, resulting (1959?) in the German Liberian Forestry Mission. A joint team of Liberian and German foresters would, in the following eight years, execute a detailed forest inventory (see Survey of literature).

The Germans, however, could not find a botanist able or willing to be part of the inventory team – which was essential because the dendrology knowledge of all foresters involved was limited. They turned to Professor H.C.D. de Wit of the herbarium in Wageningen (the Netherlands), who was focusing his taxonomy department on African flora in general. He, in turn, approached A.G.Voorhoeve, one of his graduate students, for this job. And so it happened that March 1960 Voorhoeve arrived in Liberia with a double assignment: being lecturer at the F.A.O.* sponsored College of Forestry, and dendrologist for the Inventory team. Dendrological information was very limited. The American expert involved with establishing the National Forests, Jim White, left soon after Voorhoeve arrived; he did not leave behind any tangible (samples) or written information: it was all in his head. Naturally Voorhoeve turned to “Aubréville”, but he soon found out that that standard work could not serve as teaching material because hardly anybody could read or speak French and the Liberian forests turned out to be rather different from the Ivory Coast forest. The major part of Liberia has a rainfall of over 2000 mm/year and this is reflected in a totally unique forest composition. There was no existing literature reflecting this phenomenon. So Voorhoeve set himself the task of creating teaching materials written in English, both for his dendrology classes at the College of Forestry and the training of the Inventory team.

Author: Lex Voorhoeve



Posted in Flora of Liberia.

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