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Ancient Indian Botany and Taxonomy

Ancient Indian Botany and Taxonomy
by Lalit Tiwari

Posted 6/24/03

Before the invention of microscope, and of course its super-cousin (SEM), the microscopic world was not visible to humans. Microscopes made it possible to study the vascular structures and their function in nutrient transport, as also cellular basis of growth. But minute and careful observation of plants in India dates back to a few thousand years. The ancient science of botany was quite developed in its understanding of the plant kingdom, as also in taxonomy. Below we give a glimpse of the various attempts in antiquity to classify plants according to their properties.

The beginning of relationship between humans and plants can be traced back to the prehistoric times. The Indus Valley people used to live in villages, cities and towns, wore clothes, cultivated crops including wheat, barley, millet, dates, vegetables, melon and other fruits and cotton; worshipped trees, glazed their pottery with the juice of plants and painted them with a large number of plant designs. They also knew the commercial value of plants and plant products. There are sufficient indications to show that Agriculture, Medicine, Horticulture, developed to a great extent during the Vedic Period. In the Vedic literature we find a large number of terms used in the description of plants and plant parts, both external features and internal structures; a definite attempt at classification of plants and evidence that use of manure and rotation of crops were practiced for the improvement of fertility of soil and nourishment of plants. Even Rgveda mentions that Vedic Indians had some knowledge about the food manufacture, the action of light on the process and storage of energy in the body of plants. In the post-Vedic Indian literature there is enough evidence to show that botany developed as an independent science on which was based the science of medicine (as embodied in the Charaka and Susruta Samhitas), Agriculture (as embodied in the Krsi-Parasara) and Arbori-Horticulture (as illustrated in the Upavana-vinoda as a branch of Botany). This science was known as the Vriksayurveda, also compiled by Parasara.

Plants in Vedas

The most celebrated plant that finds frequent mention in the Rgveda and later Samhitas is the Soma plant. The Vedic Indians hail Soma as the Lord of the forest (vanaraja). The botanical identity of Soma plant, however, has not been decided till today. The probable candidates are Ephedra (a Gymnosperm); Sarcostemma (flowering plant); and mushroom (a fungus).

The second most mentioned plant was peepal or the Asvattha (Ficus religiosa) during the Vedic period. The Rgveda refers to utensils and vessels fashioned out of the wood of the Asvattha tree.

Some of the other trees that find mention in the Vedas are: (i) Silk cotton (Salmalia malabaricum); (ii) Khadira (Acacia catechu) (iii) Simsupa (Dalbergia sissoo); (iv) Vibhitaka (Terminalia bellerica); (v) Sami (Prosopis sp.); and (vi) Plaksa (Ficus infectoria); lksu (sugar cane – Saccharum offcinarum) finds a mention as a cultivated plant in the Atharvaveda, Maitaryani Samhita, and other texts.

The Vedic Indians knew about many flower-bearing and fruit-bearing plants, like Palasa (Butea monosperma), two varieties of lotus – white (pundarika) and blue (puskara), white lily (kumuda), cucumber (urvaruka), jujuba(Zizypus jujuba), udumbara (Ficus glomerata), kharjura (Phoenix dactylifera) and bilva (Aegle marmelos), etc.

Written records, in the form of manuscripts, are available in Sanskrit and several other Indian languages. Sanskrit literature includes the Vedas, the Upanisadas, and epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The lay literature includes prose, poetry, and drama of a number of Sanskrit authors like Kalidasa, Magha and Bhavabhuti, in whose works the information on plants is incidental and given by way of comparison. Technical literature comprises medical works like the Charaka and Susruta Samhitas, lexicons like Medininighantu and Amarakosa, as well as the encyclopedic works like Arthasastra and Brhatsamhita. These works generally give excerpts of botany or what is known as vrksayurveda. In addition, there are a number of exclusive works under the title of VrksayurvedaParasara’s Vrksayurveda is supposed to be the most ancient work in actual botany, to have been composed during first century BC and first century AD.

From the literary evidence it is clear that even in the First Millennium BC, botany was fully systematized and taxonomy well developed.


Casual references to different parts of the plant are found scattered throughout the Rgveda, and almost complete details of plants are found in the Atharvaveda. Here we can say that the Atharvaveda is perhaps the earliest recorded authority on plant morphology. It presents an account of eight types of growth habits of trees. These are: (1) Visakha (spreading branches); (2) Manjari (leaves with long clusters); (3) Sthambini (bushy plants); (4) Prastanavati (which expands); (5) Ekasrnga (those with monopodial growth); (6) Pratanavati (creeping plants); (7) Amsumati (with many stalks); and (8) Kandini (plants with knotty joints).

The Taittiriya Samhita and the Vajasenayi Samhita explain that plants comprise mula (root), the tula (shoot), the kanda (stem), the valsa (twigs), puspa (flowers) and phala (fruits). While trees have in addition skandha (the crown), sakha (branches) and parna (leaf). Different kinds of plants are distinguished, namely, vrksa, vana and druma (trees), visakha (shrubs with spreading branches), sasa (a herb), amsumali (a spreading or deliquescent plant), vratati (a climber), stambini (a bushy plant), pratanavati (a creeper), and alasala (those spreading on the ground). The Vrksayurveda of Parasara deals extensively with the morphology of plants. According to Parasara, the vrksangas (parts of plant) are: patra (leaf); puspa (flowers); phala (fruits); mula (root); tvak (bark); kanda (stem); sara (heart-wood); svarasa (sap); niryasa (exudation); kantaka (spines); bija (seed), and praroha(shoot).

Ancient literature has classified the roots on the basis of their growth behavior and structures, like, sakha sipha (root originating from the branches), krsnamuli (black coloured root), sveta muli (coloured root), bahumuli (many roots), tripadi (plant with three main roots), asta padi (plant with eight roots), sthulamula (thick root), suksmamula (thin root) and jatamula (fasciculate root).

Some ancient Sanskrit works also took notice of texture, colour, taste, surface etc. for morphological classification of plants.

  • Texture: Lomasa-vasana for hairy stem; mrdu patra for soft leaf; komal patra for tender leaf; and snigdha patra for rough thick leaf.
  • Shape: Dirgha patra for long leaf; mandala patra for rotund leaf; and visala patra for broad leaf.
  • Colour: Sveta patra for white coloured; rakta patra for red coloured; nila parna for blue coloured; suvarna parna for gold coloured; and dhumra parna for smoke coloured.
  • Taste: Svadu patri for sweet leaf; amla patra for sour leaf; katu patra for leaves with spines; and tiksna patra (hot taste).
  • Surface: Romasa patri for with hairy outgrowth; and randhra patri for leaf with holes; and valka patri for bark-like.
  • Leaflets: Ekapatrika for one leaflet; dvipatrika for two leaflets; tripatrika for three leaflets; catuspatrika for four leaflets; pancapatrika for five leaflets; saptaparni for seven leaflets; and bahupatrika for a number of leaflets.

There are some other botanical terms, which can be identified with the modern terms, like pedicel (stalk of flowers) is called prasava bandhana (means the attachment to the mother plants); puspacchada, jalaka (calyx); puspadala (corolla); kesara (androecium); paraga (pollen); and varataka (pistil). Some examples about inflorescences are also present in ancient texts like, manjari (racemose inflorescences), stabaka, guccaka (cymose inflorescences), srihastini (helicoid cyme), chatra (umbellate), etc.

Plant Physiology

Udayana, in his Prthviniraparyam, says that in plants there is life, death, sleep, waking, disease, drugging, transmission of specific characters by means of ova, movement towards what is favourable and away from what is unfavourable. The Buddhist logician Dharmottara in his Nyayavindutika records the phenomenon of sleep in certain plants, in the form of contraction of their leaves during night. Gunaratna, in his Saddarsana-samuccaya, enumerates different characteristics of life: (1) the plant passes through three stages of infancy, youth and age; (2) they have regular growth; (3) their various kinds of movement are conditioned by sleep, walking, response to touch or need for support; (4) plants deal with wounds and laceration sustained by their organs and make use of drugs to overcome wounds as well as diseases; (5) assimilation of food from the soil is determined by requirements of plans for growth; (6) recovery from wounds and diseases by the application of drugs; (7) dryness or the opposite due to sap; and (8) special food favourable for impregnation.

Sankaramisra in his Upaskara mentions that after a wound or laceration, there is natural recuperation due to the growth of organs (bhagnaksatasamrohana). The Santiparva of Mahabharata enumerates several physiological principles including the sense of touch, hearing (response to sound), vision, smell, irritability, etc, in respect of plants.


As to the physiology of nourishment, scattered references amply indicate the knowledge that plants receive their nutrients from the soil in the form of solution through the agency of the root. The use of padapa for the root, as already pointed out, is significant. Santiparva explains the phenomenon of ascent of sap in the following lines, “the tree sucks water from its base (root) with the force, and along with air, water is drawn up the tree”. Dixona and Joly explained this theory only in 1894.

The nutritive value of absorbed water and its role in plant metabolism is clearly illustrated in the following lines of the Santiparva “the water absorbed by the plant is converted into food under the influence of agni (energy) and maruta (air), and due to this, plant can grow”.

Vrksayurveda of Parasara, explained the food preparation in the leaf. According to Parasara, “the watery sap obtained from earth (parthivarasa) is transported from root up to the leaf through syandana (xylem). There it gets digested with the help of chlorophyll (ranjakena pacyamanat) into nutritive substance and a by-product (malam)”.

Several Sanskrit texts also describe the movements of the plants. According to literature, plants show movements towards a direction, which is favourable to them, and move away from a direction unfavourable to them.

The sensitiveness property of the touch-me-not plant (Mimosa pudica) is also clearly described in some ancient texts.

The concept of flowering at different times during a day – morning or evening – has also been observed by the ancient botanists.

Plant Pathology

Many references to plant diseases and their treatment are also available in the Vedic literature. According to S. Sundara Rajan, the Atharvaveda explains the destruction of corn due to insect pests. Vinaya, the famous Buddhist text, describes the blight and mildew diseases. A much later text, Sukraniti, gives a detailed account of danger to grains from various agents such as fire, snow, worm, insect, etc. Gunaratna, in his Saddarsanasamuccaya, observes that plants are afflicted by diseases, displacement or dislocation of flowers, fruits, leaves and barks in the same way as the human body suffers from jaundice, dropsy, emaciation, stunted growth of finger, nose, etc., and respond to treatment like human bodies.

According to Varahamihira, plant diseases are caused by cold climate (low temperature), wind (dryness) and sun (heat) and indicated by the yellowness of the leaves, non-or under-development of buds, dryness of the branches and the exudation of the sap. He also described the treatment: the paste of ghee, vidanga (Embelia ribes) and mud kneaded in the infected parts and then diluted milk should be sprinkled over the area. Agnipurana prescribes a mixture of vidanga with rice, fish and flesh. Agnipurana and Brhatsamhita suggested following treatment when a tree is not producing flowers and fruits: the hot decoction prepared of kulattha (horsegram, Dolichos biflorus), masa (blackgram, Phaseolus mungo), mudga (greengram Phaseolus radiatus), tila (Sesamum indicum) and yava (barley) in milk. Cool the mixture and sprinkle it on trees.

Consciousness in Plants

Ancient Indians believed that plants as living organisms possess consciousness, but it remained dormant and was not comparable to Indian animals. Manu writes that the plant has a latent consciousness, which is capable of perceiving both pleasure and pain.

In Mahabharata, Santiparva explains that the plant has life, touch, feel, smell, vision, and hearing senses.


The technical term used for seed is vija. The seed is enclosed in a vessel called vijakosa. The endosperm is called sasya and the cotyledon vijapatra. Parasara used the term vijamatrka to denote cotyledon and recognizes monocotyledonous (ekamatrkavija) and dicotyledonous (dvimatrkavija) seeds.

Germination of a seed is called ankurodbheda, which means sprouting of the seed to life; ankura means seedling. According to Susruta, proper season, good soil, requisite supply of water and good seeds are required for germination of the seed.

Gunaratna observes in his commentary that the seeds of vata (Ficus indicum), pippala (Ficus religiosa), nimbu (Melia azadirachta), etc. are germinated during the rainy season under the influence of dew and air.

Parasara also gives the descriptive commentary on the process of germination in Vrksayurveda. According to Parasara, “during the sprouting up of the seedling (praroha), its body receives nourishment from the cotyledons. This nourishment enables the seedling to grow until its root develops and comes of its own. The cotyledons dry up as soon as the seedling is able independently to receive nourishment directly from the soil of the earth”.

Reproduction, Sex and Heredity

Ancient Indian literature also deals with sex, genetics, and reproduction of plants by fruits, seeds, roots, cuttings, graftings, plant apices and leaves. Buddha Ghosa, in his Sumangala-vilasini, a commentary on the Digha Nikaya, describes some of these methods under such terms as mula-vija (root seed), khandabija (cuttings), phaluvija (joints), agravija (budding) and bija-bija (seed). Atharvaveda and Arthasastra describe the propagation by seed (bija-bija or vijaruha) and bulbous roots (kandavija), respectively. The method of cutting (skandhavija) is described in the ArthasastraBrhatsamhita and Sumangala-vilasini in the case of sugar cane, jackfruit, blackberry, pomegranate, vine, lemon tree, asvattha (Ficus religiosa), nyagrodha (Ficus bengalensis), udumbara (Ficus glomerata) and several others. Some ideas related to sexuality in plants are noticeable in the Harita andCharak Samhitas. Charak recognized male and female individuals in the plant called Kutaja (Hollerhina antidysenterica), and the male categories of plants bearing white flowers, large fruit and tender leaves and the female categories characterized by yellow flowers, small fruits, short stalk, etc. The Rajanighantu mentions the existence of male and female plants in the plant Ketaki (Pandanus odoratissimus). The male plant is called sitaketaki, and the female is called svarna ketaki. Regarding heredity, Charaka and Susruta mention that the fertilized ovum contains in miniature all the organs of the plants, for example the bamboo seed containing in miniature the entire structure of the bamboo tree, and further that the male sperm cell have minute elements derived form each of its organs and tissues. Such ideas closely resemble Darwin’s ‘gemmules’.

Plant Taxonomy & Nomenclature

In ancient times, plants were named to mark:

  1. Special associations, like bodhidruma (Ficus religiosa), asoka (Saraca indica) and Sivasekhara (Datura).
  2. Special properties such as medicinal, domestically useful, etc., like dadrughna (Cassia fistula), arsoghna (Amorphophallus campanulatus), kusthanasini (somaraji), dantadhavana (Acacia catechu), karpasa (cotton) and lekhana (reed).
  3. Morphological characteristics, e.g. shape of leaf, number of leaflets in a compound leaf, shape and colour of flowers, etc., like kisaparni (Achyranthes sp.), asvaparnaka (Shorea robusta), pancangula (Ricinus sp.), tripatra, saptaparna, vakrapuspa (Sesbania grandiflora) and satamuli (asparagus sp.).
  4. Local association and environmental association, like saubira (Zizyphus jujuba), magadhi (Jasmine), vaidehi (Pepper), jalaja, pankeruha (lotus) and maruvaka (Ocimum sp.).
  5. Other peculiarities, like vakrapuspa (plant having curved flowers), vranari (enemy of boils) for the plant Sesbania grandiflorakantaphala (having spiny fruits), ghantapuspa (possessing bell-shaped flowers) and mahamohi (great intoxicator) for the plant Datura alba.

According to S. Sundara Rajan, in the ancient Indian texts, the nomenclature of the plants was generally based on the plant’s botanical characters (paricaya prjnapikasamjna) and their therapeutic properties (guna prajnapikasamjna).

Classification of Plants

Plants were classified in accordance with three distinct principles, botanical (udbhida), medicinal (virecanadi) and dietetic (annapanadi).

The Rgveda divides plants roughly into three broad classes, namely, Vrska (tree), Osadhi (herbs useful to humans) and Virudh (creepers). Plants are further subdivided into Visakha (shrubs), Sasa (herbs), Vratati (climbers), Pratanavati (creepers) and Alasala (spreading on the ground). All grasses are separately classified as Trna, flowering plants are Puspavati, and the fruit bearing ones are Phalavati. Leafless plants are placed under the group, Karira. The Atharvaveda has classified plants into various categories based on their morphological characters and other properties, such as Prasthanavati (spreading), Sthambini (bushy), Ekasugna (with single whorl of calyx), amsumati (having many shoots), Kandini (jointed), Visakha (having extending branches), Jiivala (lively), Nagharisa (harmless) and Madhumati (very sweet).

Some ancient scientists, like Manu, Charaka and Udayana, etc. also classified the plants in various classes.

Manu divided plants under eight classes as follows:

  1. Osadhi – plants bearing abundant flowers and fruits, but withering away after fructification, e.g. rice, wheat.
  2. Vanaspati – plants bearing fruits without evident flowers.
  3. Vrksa – tress bearing both flowers and fruits.
  4. Guccha – bushy herbs
  5. Gulma – succulent shrubs
  6. Trna – grasses
  7. Pratana – creepers which spread their stems on the ground
  8. Valli – climbers and entwiners.

According to Charaka and Susruta Samhita the plants are categorized into four classes: (1) Vanaspati – which bear fruits but not flowers, (2) Vrksa or vanaspatya – which bear both fruits and flowers, (3) Virudh – which creep on the ground or entwine, (4) Osadhi – annual herbs which wither away after fructification).

Susruta subdivides Virudhs into two groups, pratanavatya (creepers with spreading stem on the grounds) and gulminya (succulent herbs), and Charaka subdivides Virudhs into lata (creeper), gulma and osadhis into annuals or perennials bearing fruits and grasses which go without fruits. He further divided the plants into 50 groups based on their physiological actions and diseases they cure,and flowering plants into the following seven heads based on dietetic principles: 1) Sukadhanya (cereals), 2) Samidhanya (pulses), 3) Saka varga (pot herbs), 4) Phala varga (fruits), 5) Harita varga (vegetable), 6) Ahayogi varga (oils), and 7) Iksu varga (sugarcane).

The Vaisesikas classify plants under seven heads, e.g. Vrksa, Trna, Osadhi, Gulma, Lata, Avatana and Vanaspati. Defining the characteristics of the various groups Udayana’s Kiranavali, remarks that Vrksas are plants with trunk, branches, flowers and fruits; Trnas are exemplified by ulupa like plant; Osadhis are plants like kaluma which die after fruition; Gulmas are plant like bhatalatas are represented by kusmanda, a species of CucurbitaAvatanas are plants like ketaki;i and Vanaspatis are trees which produce fruits without flowers.

According S. Sundara Rajan, the Vanausadhivarga of Amarakosa identifies plants under three categories, mushrooms (citraaticatra and phalghna), parasites (Vanda and Vrksadani) and epiphytes (Vrksaruha and jivantika).

In his Vrksayurveda, Parasara developed a more elaborate classification. Parasara mentions two types of plants: Dvimatrka (Dicotyledons) and Ekamatrka (Monocotyledons). He further classified plants into families (gana vibhaga), like:

  1. Samiganiya (Leguminosea) – This family covers samivrksa, a plant bearing simbiphala, (legume or pod, compound leaves held on a common stalk and leaflets arranged like a feather). Flowers are hypogynous (puspakrantabijadhara) and five-petalled, with gamosepalous calyx and an androecium of 10 stamens. This family has three subtypes: vakra-puspa, vikarnika-puspa and suka-puspa.
  2. Puplikagalniya (Rutaceae) – In this family the plants bear spines, odoriferous leaves and winged petioles, flowers are hypogynous (tundamandala) with free petals and stamens. Fruits formed of superior ovary (puspa-krantaphala) contain hairy succulent flesh and multiple seeds. Family has two subtypes: kesaraka and maluraphala.
  3. Svastikaganiya (Cruciferae) – According to the name, the shape of the calyx looks like a svastika. The flower has four sepals, four petals and six stamens, and a superior ovary (tundamandala). In the inflorescence flowers are arranged in rows.
  4. Tripuspaganiya (Cucurbitaceae) – The plant is epigynous (kumbhamandala), which are sometimes unisexual. The flower has five united sepals and petals and three stamens and a style with three-pointed stigma (trisirsavarata). The ovary is trivartaka (tri-locular).
  5. Mallikaganiya (Apocynaceae) – Plants having mixed inflorescence and which are hermaphrodite (samanga), calyx and corolla are united having five stamens, epipetalous (avyoktakesara). The seeds having long fine hairs (tulapucchasamanvita).
  6. Kurcapuspaganiya (Compositeae) – The flowers are sessile and borne on a common axis, surrounded by a common calyx and look like a brushy head (kurcakara). The ovary is inferior (puspasirsakabijadhara).

Plant Anatomy

Detailed study of internal structure of plants becomes possible only after the invention of the compound microscope. But in the Rgvedadaru or the wood is distinguished from the softer outer part of a tree. Taittiriya Samhitaseparates the outer part into valka (outer) and vakala (inner) bark. The Brhadaranyaka Upanisad shows more detailed picture in this field. According to Brhadaranyaka Upanisad the five regions present in a plant are: tvak(skin or bark), mamsa (soft tissues); asthi (wood or xylem), majja (pith), and snayu (fibres both xylem and sclerenchyma).

But the Vrksayurveda of Parasara gives more detailed and clearer description of the plant anatomy. According to Parasara, there are tissue systems meant for the transportation of nutrients and sap. The whole of the vascular system has been given the name sarvasrotamsi (that which helps in the flow). This is divided into two categories, first is syandana and second in sirajala, which is obviously xylem and phloem, respectively. He explains that the syandana is involved in the transportation of rasa, which is absorbed from the Earth (Prthvi) to all parts of the plant body and sirajala (pl. sirajalani) helps in the re-distribution of nutrition from the leaf to other parts of a plant.

But the most remarkable anatomical observation made by Parasara relates to a detailed description of the plant-cell. He gives a more detailed study than Robert Hooke who discovered the cell in 17th century. Parasara notes that the internal structure of the leaf consists of innumerable compartments, which are filled with the sap. They are the storehouse of sap (rasasrayah) and covered by a boundary-cell wall or cell-membrane (kalavestana). The structure has five elemental principles (pancabhautika gunasamanvita) as well as a colouring principle (ranjakayukta), and cant be visible to the naked eye. The thin boundary originates from a fluid (kalaladupajayate), which is called protoplasm by the modern botanists.

Medical Botany

The bulk of the Ayurvedic medicines belong to the plant kingdom. And all the Ayurvedic texts deal with botanical aspects, mainly the identification and categorization of plants as source of drugs. The Charaka Samhita has a chapter titled Vibhagavidya, dealing with the classification of plants and animals. The Susruta samhita, the second Ayurvedic classic, also deals with several aspects of botany such as morphology and taxonomy. Susruta also provides classification of plants on the basis of medicinal properties.


Thus we see that the ancient scientists did realize the need to classify plants according to their various properties. In some cases they come close to modern calcifications. Some of the descriptions, especially by Parashar, make one wonder if they could magnify the views of plant parts for more detailed study.


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Ghose, A. K. 1971. Botany: The Vedic and Post-Vedic Periods. In A Concise History of Science in India (Ed.) D. M. Bose, S. N. Sen and B.V. Subbarayappa. New Delhi: Indian National Science Academy. Pp. 375-392.

Majumdar, G. P. 1982. The history of botany and allied sciences. In Studies in History of Science in India (Ed.) Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya. New Delhi: Editorial Enterprise. Pp. 356-411.

Rajan, S. Sundara. 2001. Plant science. In Medicine and Life Sciences in India (Ed.) B.V.Subbarayappa. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Pp.242-270.

Lalit Tawari