Michał Piotr Boym’s Flora sinensis, fructus floresque humillime [Flora of China, fruits and flowers].

Flora sinensis is one of the first natural history books on China by a European. Authored by Michał Piotr Boym, it was published in 1656 by Matthæi Rictii in Vienna. Boym dedicated it to Leopold I (1640-1705), Holy Roman Emperor, King of Hungary and Croatia, King of Bohemia and King of Serbia, and included a poem incorporating chronograms alluding to his coronation date, 1655.

Augustin Pyramus, a Swiss Botanist, identified Boym as the first person to use ‘flora’ to define the plants of a particular region, habitat or geological period. Despite the title, it contains some animals, as well as a selection of choice plants, some of which are non-Chinese natives introduced from the Americas in the previous century, including guava (Psidium), papaya (Carica) and pineapple (Ananas) (fig. 2). Others, including cinnamon (Cinnamomum) (fig. 9), ginger (Zingiber) (fig. 3) and pepper (Piper), were important commodities of the spice trade.

Flora sinensis contains 48 pages of text and 23 black and white woodcut illustrations, 17 of plants, five of animals and one of a Nestorian Stele. Boym describes each species, its physical characteristics, common names, geographical distribution and medicinal virtues. The plates have titles in Chinese, transliterated into Latin, and in the Kew Gardens copy most of the Latin plant names have also been added to genus level.

Whilst the book was originally published uncoloured, some rare hand-coloured copies exist, notably at the Natural History Museum in London, Université de Namur, and SLUB Dresden.

In 1664, Melchisédech Thévenot published a 15 page French translation, Flora Sinensis, ou traité des fleurs, des fruits, des plantes et des animaux particuliers à la Chine In: Relations de divers voyages curieux : qui n’ont point esté publiées, est qu’on a traduit or tiré des originaux des voyageurs françois, espagnols, allemands, portugais, anglois, hollandois, persans, arabes & autres orientaux, the 1696 edition of which is available on BHL.

Unfortunately the illustrations in this edition appear to be composites derived from the originals and some, notably the Chinese leopard (fig. 5), are not included. Flora sinensis was also the source for much of the natural history content of Athanasius Kircher’s China illustrata (1667).

Michał Piotr Boym was born the son of a wealthy merchant in Lwów, Poland in 1612. He joined the Jesuits in 1629 and was ordained in 1641. He sailed from Lisbon in 1643, reaching Macao, via Madeira, the Cape Verde Islands, Mozambique, the Bay of Bengal, Siam, and Goa, in 1647.

It was probably in Mozambique that he observed the hippopotamus, illustrated in Flora Sinensis (fig. 8), and wrote an account of the natural history of Mozambique, one of the oldest works on Africa in Polish (Cafraria: a P.M. Boym Polono Missa Mozambique 1644 Januario 11).

Boym taught and studied Chinese in Macao and started to write on medicine, natural history and Chinese society after he moved to Hainan. It was there that he founded a mission, but had to flee to Tonkin when the Manchus invaded the island. He was then sent on a diplomatic mission to the court of the last Ming dynasty ruler, the Emperor Yongli, in Guangxi.

In 1650, Boym left Zhaoqing carrying letters from the court to Pope Innocent X, requesting support against the Manchus. He arrived in Venice in 1652, where he began work on various publications, including Flora sinensis and Fondo Borgia Cinese 531. (The latter unpublished collection of 18 maps is still in the Vatican Library, and includes the first European map to include Korea as a peninsula, not an island. It also features Chinese topography and Chinese and transliterated place names). He finally reached Rome in 1653, but it was not until 1655 that he was granted an audience with Pope Alexander VII.

In 1656, Boym set out again from Lisbon to China, but only four of the eight priests accompanying him survived as far as Goa and the news from the Chinese court was ominous. He persevered, arriving in Siam in 1658, but died on 22 June 1659 somewhere in the province of Guangxi before reaching the emperor’s court. He has no known grave.

One of the plants described by Boym is a favourite Christmas spice. The rich spicy flavour of cinnamon (fig. 9) is a Christmas ingredient in recipes such as cakes, puddings, mince pies, Zimtsterne (Christmas stars), lebkuchen, mulled wine and glühwein. It was also used in medicine and as an ingredient of oils and perfumes.

Early trade in cinnamon to the Roman and Greek empires was controlled by Arab traders, who kept the source secret. It was thought, by both Herodotus and Theophrastus (4th and 5th century BC) to have come from Arabia, and locating the source was an ambition of 15th and 16th century European explorers.

In the 13th and 14th centuries, Venetian traders controlled the cinnamon trade in Europe until the Portuguese broke their monopoly when they arrived in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) in the early 1500s, when cinnamon was one of the most highly prized and valuable spices in Europe. The Dutch expelled the Portuguese from the island in the mid 17th century, monopolising the trade and maintaining cinnamon’s rarity by refusing to allow commercial farming until the 1770s. The East India Company obtained control in 1796, when the Dutch were ousted, and retained it until 1833, when the cinnamon trade was opened to all.

Cinnamon is the prepared bark of Cinnamomum verum (synonym C. zeylanicum Bl., Laurus cinnamomum) in the family Lauraceae. It is indigenous to Sri Lanka and south India and widely cultivated in Sri Lanka (approximately 80% of total output), Indonesia, Java, Seychelles, Madagascar, South West Indies, Brazil, Martinique, and Jamaica.

Other items written by Boym include:


  • Lehner, M. & Lehner, G. (2016) M.Boym: Flora Sinesis [online]. Bibliotheca Sinica 2.0. [Accessed 12 December 2016].
  • Davidson, A. (2006). The Oxford companion to food. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p.186-187.
  • Hart, A. (2015). Michał Piotr Boym: Flora Sinensis In: J. Magee, ed., Rare treasures from the Library of the Natural History Museum. 1st ed. London: NHM, p. 38-45.
  • Jeong, S. (2016). The Silk Road Encyclopedia. Irvine, California: Seoul Selection. [Accessed 12 December 2016].
  • Rema, J. &. (2008). Cinnamon and cassia. In: V. P. Parthasarathy ed., Spice crops, Volume 2, tree spices. New Delhi: Today & Tomorrow’s, p. 29-75.
  • Van Wyk, B. E. (2013). Culinary herbs and spices of the world. Kew: Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, p. 104.
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Anne Griffin is the Head of Cataloguing at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, Library, Art & Archives.