One of the reasons why the South Indian state of Kerala, became renowned for ayurveda was due to the availability of a large variety of medicinal herbs in the Malabar Coast. Malabar coast incidentally was usually known then as to extend from Goa to Kanyakumnari ( Cape Comorin) a distance of about 900, which was rich with tropical foliage.
It was this which motivated Hendrik Adriaan van Rheede tot Draakenstein a Dutch naturalist and explorer who embarked on compiling it while he was the Governor of the Dutch administered Cochin. Van Rheede was basically a soldier with hardly any grounding in botany, but hew was fascinated by the flora and fauna of this exotic place. In the preface to Vol.3, Van Rheede writes “...on the way I observed large, lofty and dense forests it was often very pleasant to behold on one tree, leaves, flowers and fruits of ten or twelve different kinds displayed. And yet they did not harm this tree in any way so that the trunks of such trees were very close to each other and very thick, or at all events they lifted their heads in air to an elegant height of as much as eighty feet… and thus these forests resembled a house of a very elegant structure rather than virgin forests. Since I perceived all this repeatedly, this had led me believe that I judged not without reason that this part of India was truly and rightly the most fertile part of the whole world….’
He embarked on the project of identifying and documenting this vast treasure trove of herbs with the active support of an ayurvedic medical practitioner called Itty Achudan . He had employed over 200 local collectors to bring whole plants or twigs and with the help of about 15 local physicians and botanists he compiled it curative properties. About four Dutch soldiers meticulously illustrated these plants and herbs. It was Achudan who helped him extract information from palm leaf manuscripts and have it compiled as an encyclopedia of ayurvedic herbs. HORTUS MALABARICUS was the outcome of recording the rich flora and fauna of medicinal plants found in the Malabar coast which extended from Goa to Kanyakumar i ( Cape Comorin).. This work comprises of 12 volumes of about 500 pages each. The first of the 12 volumes was published in 1678, and the last in 1703. It was an elaborate project which comprised of a team of nearly a hundred physicians, professors of medicine and amateur botanists carried out with the patronage of the King of Cochin and the Zamorin of Calicut. The major Indian contributors were Itty Achudan, Ranga Bhat, Vinayak Bhat, and Appu Bhat.
Over 742 different plants and their indigenous uses were meticulously recorded in these books, and the classification system used was those adopted by traditional ayurvedic practitioners. .
A description of each plant was written in Malayalam which was translated into Portuguese by Emmanuel Carneiro., who was a resident at Cochin, and later into Latin, by, Herman Van Douep who was the Secretary to Government at that time. A modern English edition of this great work was done by Mr. K.S.Manilal which has been published by the University of Kerala which took him 35 year to complete.