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Brief History

Botanical Survey of India at a GlanceView Document 24 Mb

The Botanical Survey of India (BSI) was established in 1890 with the objectives of exploring the plant resources of the country and identifying plant species with economic virtue. In 1954, the Government reorganised the BSI with the objectives of (1) undertaking intensive floristic surveys and collecting accurate and detailed information on the occurrence, distribution, ecology and economic utility of plants in the country; (2) collecting, identifying and distributing materials that may be of use to educational and research institutions; and (3) acting as the custodian of authentic collections in well planned herbaria and documenting plant resources in the form of local, district, state and national flora

Diverse geographical conditions

India has diverse geographical features, including the lofty Himalayan mountains, the tablelands and plateaus in the Vindhyan ranges and the Western and Eastern Ghats, the deep valleys and foothills of Assam, the central Indian highlands, the alluvial plains of north India and the lower terrain of southern India. As a result, the Indian region exhibits a variety of flora and forest types. There is perhaps nothing similar in any other country of the world.

Vegetable resources

Since ancient times, the vegetable resources of India have attracted the attention of traders from both within and outside the region. The trade with India based on plants and other forest produce grew over time, attracting Arab, Turkish, Portuguese, Dutch, French and finally British traders. The Portuguese were probably the first amongst the Europeans to enter India for trade, and they were followed by the Dutch. In 1570 the British entered the arena and subsequently established the East India Company.

Forest wealth

In 1599, Elizabeth I of England granted the company a charter, and subsequently the British traders became rulers. They gave priority to discreet utilisation and scientific management of the forest wealth of India and set out definite policies. And the idea of an institution for surveying the tremendous botanical resources of the country was conceived.

Medicinal plants

Towards the latter part of the 16th century, live and ‘dry and preserved’ gardens were developed in north Italy for teaching medicine because of the medicinal uses of plants. The dry gardens consisted of dried and mounted specimens maintained in a definite sequence, and they were used as aids for teaching plant science. Soon medical professionals extended such activities to places outside Italy.

Even before the formation of the East India Company, similar botanical pursuits were carried on in India. The Portuguese were the first to pay attention to the useful plants of India. Garcia de Orta, a renowned Portuguese physician who came to India in 1534, studied plants from which drugs are obtained and other species of economic importance, growing them in his garden at Goa. He contributed much to the study of the plant resources of India. To the plant species that were locally used and traded, he introduced several.

Hendrik van Rheede, governor of the Dutch settlement in the Malabar, devoted himself to studying and collecting the plants of this region in the 17th century. He inspired local medical men to collect data and specimens of medicinal plants. He accumulated a vast treasure of dried and mounted specimens from various places in southern India. His monumental work, HortusMalabaricus (1678 – 1703), in 12 volumes with 794 plates, has the distinction of being the first work on the systematics of Indian plants. Linnaeus himself declared that it was accurate. The East India Company, which had its own physicians and surgeons, engaged them in the collection of plants from Madras to cultivate in Britain.

Botanical collections

Interest in botanical collections grew further in the 18th century, and different agencies became active in exploring all parts of India, as well as Assam and Burma, for plants. Members of the clergy, medical professionals and servants of the East India Company were all actively engaged in searching different forested areas for plant material. Koenig, Roxburgh, Hayne, Wight, Campbell, Thunberg, Buchanan and Wallich were among the principal contributors. The collections made by some of them were sent to Linnaeus, Sir Joseph Banks, Hooker and others.

Sibpur Garden

Along with botanical studies, horticulture gained importance. New botanical gardens were set up for introducing and cultivating exotic species. The East India Company established a garden at Sibpur, Calcutta in 1787, following the recommendations of Colonel Robert Kyd. This garden was known as the Company Bagan. Similarly, gardens were established at Bombay, Saharanpur, Madras and other centres. Each garden had its own herbarium, with dried specimens for reference. During this period, plant taxonomy emerged as an indispensable instrument in the study of medicine, horticultural practices, forest utilisation and conservation. Achievements in the study of plants were mainly due to the efforts of individuals rather than any central authority or institution. In 1858, when the Crown of England took over the affairs of the East India Company, the garden at Sibpur was renamed the Royal Botanic Garden. An effort was made to form a central survey for coordinating activities related to the flora of the country.

By the end of the 19th century, botanical studies were conducted by the governments of the Bengal, Bombay and Madras presidencies and the North-Western Provinces through their botanical departments in the gardens at Sibpur, Poona, Madras and Saharanpur. Brigade Surgeon Lieutenant Colonel Sir George King, who took charge of the Royal Botanic Garden, Calcutta in 1871 was instrumental in getting a new building built for the herbarium in 1882. All the books and about half a million plant specimens were transferred to the new building in the following year. By the time Sir George King left the Botanic Garden in 1897, the number of herbarium specimens had risen to a million.

Formation of the Botanical Survey of India

At that time, the Government of India was preparing to explore the frontier and trans-frontier regions in north-west Punjab, the Central Provinces, central India, Rajputana, Assam, Burma and the Andamans. The time was right for setting up a central organisation by pooling the available resources to coordinate the botanical work. A proposal for organising a survey was put forth before the government, and in July 1887 the Secretary of State for India approved it. On 13 February 1890, a survey was formally constituted and designated as the Botanical Survey of India.

The functions of the newly formed survey were laid down:

Exploring the vegetable resources of the Indian Empire Coordinating the botanical work in different parts of India

For the purposes of the survey, the country was divided into four botanical regions--the East, North, West and South--with centres at Calcutta (Sibpur), Saharanpur, Bombay (Poona) and Madras, respectively. The Calcutta unit was the acknowledged centre of the Botanical Survey of India. Sir George King, who was then the superintendent of the Calcutta (Sibpur) Garden, was made the Director of the newly formed survey.

Some of the most renowned naturalists and botanists of the world of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries have left the Botanical Survey a rich legacy. Prominent amongst them are Thomas Henry-Colebrooke, H. Falconer, William Griffith, Buchnan-Hamilton, William Roxburgh, Nathaniel Wallich, David Prain, J.F. Duthie, R. Strachey, J.E. Winterbottom, W. Moorcroft and J.F. Royle. They have made invaluable contributions to our knowledge of the country’s flora.

Plant explorations and taxonomical studies were carried out in South Asia and South-East Asia to exploit the biological resources of the British Empire, with India as their base. These explorations and studies progressed significantly during the period of British rule. But after independence, with changed political boundaries, the need was felt for a more comprehensive documentation of the country’s plant resources to boost the economy. Dr. E.K. JanakiAmmal was appointed Officer on Special Duty on 14th October 1952. The reorganisation plan was finally approved by the Government of India on 29 March 1954, with Calcutta as the headquarters of the Botanical Survey of India.

Objectives of the Botanical Survey of India

The prime objectives of the reorganised Botanical Survey of India (BSI) were the following:

  1. To undertake intensive floristic surveys and collect accurate and detailed information on the occurrence, distribution, ecology and economic utility of plants in the country.
  2. To collect, identify and distribute materials which may be of use to educational and research institutions.
  3. To act as a custodian of authentic collections in well planned herbaria and to document the plant resources in the form of local, district, state and national flora.

Circles of the BSI

To cope up with the enormous task assigned to the BSI, four circles were established:

  1. Botanical Survey of India, Southern Circle at Coimbatore on 10 October 1955.
  2. Botanical Survey of India, Eastern Circle at Shillong on 1 April 1956.
  3. Botanical Survey of India, Western Circle at Pune on 12 December 1955.
  4. Botanical Survey of India, Northern Circle at Dehra Dun on 1 August 1956.

Laboratory at Lucknow

The Central Botanical Laboratory was established at Lucknow in December 1957 for studying various aspects of plant biology such as cytology, plant physiology, plant chemistry, seed biology and ecology in order to provide a multidisciplinary approach to conventional taxonomy.

In 1957, the Royal Botanic Garden, Calcutta was renamed the Indian Botanic Garden. The herbarium became the Central National Herbarium. The Indian Botanic Garden remained under the administrative control of the West Bengal State Government until 1 January 1963, when it was transferred to the Botanical Survey of India.

A number of new circles were opened in different phytogeographical regions to strengthen the survey in carrying out its assigned mandate more effectively and expeditiously:

  1. Central Circle, Allahabad in 1962
  2. Arid Zone Circle, Jodhpur in 1972
  3. Andaman and Nicobar Circle, Port Blair in 1972
  4. Arunachal Pradesh Circle, Itanagar in 1977
  5. Sikkim Himalayan Circle, Gangtok in 1979
  6. Botanic Garden of Indian Republic, Noida in 2002
  7. Deccan Circle, Hyderabad in 2005


The activities of the BSI were publicised largely through its official organs, namely its annual reports and its Records. These publications won appreciation in India and abroad. With the requirements of the country changing over time and with the BSI having considerably expanded its activities, there was a corresponding change in the pattern and policies regarding its publications. It became necessary to publish at regular intervals information on the flora of India for the benefit of scientific workers.

Last Updated : 01/07/2020