Flora Sinensis

Flora Sinensis – Orbis Pictus – 412 – Biblioteka Kórnicka (Kórnik, Poland)

Vienna (Austria) — 1656

Exotic plants in a special herbal with 23 hand-colored woodcuts: The first systematic encyclopedia on the botany of distant China, compiled by the Polish missionary Michał Boym

  1. The Polish Jesuit and missionary Michał Boym (ca. 1612–1659) was one of the first European scientists to visit East Asia

  2. His work, the first systematic botanical encyclopedia about China, was first published in Vienna in 1656

  3. The herbarium has 23 hand-colored woodcuts that also depict foraging unicorns and swimming hippos

Flora Sinensis

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Flora Sinensis

The natural environment of Asia was still largely unknown to 17th century Europeans. Few researchers dared to penetrate into such remote regions. The Polish Jesuit and missionary Michał Boym was one of the first European scientists to visit the regions of East Asia. He created the first systematic botanical encyclopedia about China, the so-called Flora Sinensis. His work was first published in Vienna in 1656. It contains highly-detailed woodcut illustrations of plants, which were hand-colored with watercolors. Boym described the most important plants in China and particularly emphasized their medicinal and economic worth.

Flora Sinensis

The so-called Flora Sinensis was the first description of an ecosystem in the Far East, which appeared in Europe. This work is simultaneously the first written depiction of the plant world of a geographic region bearing the designation “flora.” It was composed by the scientist and Jesuit Michał Boym, who emphasized the medicinal properties of Chinese plants above all else in his collected edition. Similarly, it contains a poem of homage to Emperor Leopold I, in which each line contains a chronogram for the year 1655, the year of Leopold’s coronation as King of Hungary.

A Well-Travelled Scientist

Michał Piotr Boym lived ca 1612–1659 and was a Polish scientist, explorer, Jesuit, and missionary in China. He was one of the first Europeans to have travelled central China and composed numerous books about Asiatic fauna, flora, and geography. The son of a doctor joined the Jesuits at age 16, was ordained a priest, and travelled the regions of the entire world at the behest of his order. His travels led him from Lisbon and Goa, through Venice, and across Persia to Vietnam and the remotest regions of Asia. Boym spent a long period at the court of the Christian Emperor Yongli, the last ruler of the Ming dynasty. The Jesuit was famous for his descriptions of the flora, fauna, history, traditions, and customs of the lands he visited. His most famous work is the Flora Sinensis, the “Chinese Flora,” first printed in Vienna in the year 1656.

The First Plant Lexicon of China

Boym’s treatise comprises 75 pages with 23 color illustrations. The pictures are woodcuts that have been colored by hand with great care. It is not only plants, but also creatures great and small in typical artistic poses, e.g. foraging unicorns or hippos wading through shallow waters. The focus of the work lies however on the description of far-eastern plant life. He considered these from various perspectives and analyzed their respective medical and economic uses. With his work, he created the first and most important source of information about the land of China, which was still largely unknown among his contemporaries. The text was translated into various texts soon after its publication. It is still of immense significance today for the research of the natural and scientific history of Europe.


Alternative Titles
Flora of China
Pflanzen Chinas
Flora Sinensis, Michał Boym
Size / Format
75 pages / 34.4 × 23.6 cm
23 hand-colored woodcuts
Artist / School

Available facsimile editions:
Flora Sinensis – Orbis Pictus – 412 – Biblioteka Kórnicka (Kórnik, Poland)
Orbis Pictus – Pelplin, 2012
Limited Edition: 299 copies
Detail Picture

Fitzwilliam Book of Hours

Squirrel Chasing a Turtle

According to Boym’s text, the Chinese domesticated squirrels, identified here as Sum Xu, putting silver collars on them and using them for pest control, mice specifically. It is depicted here with red eyes, long claws, and a bushy tail as it chases the amphibian. Boym’s term “green-haired turtle” is a mistranslation and otherwise notes that they are animals who move very slowly, but can jump with the help of their wings. Depicted with a red shell, the turtle is kicking back at its pursuer.

Flora Sinensis – Orbis Pictus – 412 – Biblioteka Kórnicka (Kórnik, Poland)
Single Page

Flora Sinensis


Although this work is famous for being the first encyclopedia of Chinese botany, especially those with medical applications, it also includes plants that are neither Chinese nor medicinal, such as the delicious papaya. Indigenous to Southern Mexico, the rapidly growing plant was soon cultivated in tropical climates around the world, including China and India.

The papaya tree is depicted with patterned bark and drooping leaves that appear to be changing colors, perhaps reflecting the plant’s life cycle. Its fruit is presented in detail, one showing it whole from the outside and the other showing it cut in half and partially deseeded. Names for both the plant and its fruit are clearly written in Latin and Chinese.

Flora Sinensis – Orbis Pictus – 412 – Biblioteka Kórnicka (Kórnik, Poland)
Facsimile Editions

#1 Flora Sinensis

Orbis Pictus – Pelplin, 2012

Publisher: Orbis Pictus – Pelplin, 2012
Limited Edition: 299 copies
Binding: Hand dyed leather with gold embossing
1 volume: Exact reproduction of the original document (extent, color and size) Reproduction of the entire original document as detailed as possible (scope, format, colors). The binding may not correspond to the original or current document binding.
Price Category: € (under 1,000€)
Edition available
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