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Plant Families of the Tropics


Admission requirements

BSc-courses Biodiversity 1 & 2 and Training flora are advantageous

Contact information

Coordinator: Prof.dr. P.C. van Welzen Email:


The tropics comprise the hottest hotspots of global biodiversity. They contain more than two thirds of the vascular plant species worldwide with a density 10 times higher than European flora. Many well-known and economically important plant taxa such as bananas, cocoa, coffee, and sugar are of tropical origin.

The identification of tropical plants is a crucial aspect in conservation biology, systematic, ecological, evolutionary and ethnobotanical research. Because of the high species diversity, the poor exploration of many tropical regions, and the unavailability of regional floras and identification tools, identification is often problematic.

The botanical diversity of the tropics is being explored and documented by the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in international projects such as Flora Malesiana and Flora of the Guianas, involving numerous experts with an in-depth knowledge of the plants and habitats of the tropics. One of the aims of Naturalis Biodiversity Center and Hortus Botanicus Leiden is the knowledge transfer of plant diversity. This course has been set up to provide an overview of the most commonly encountered tropical plant families, and the knowledge and tools needed for their identification.

Specialists working at Naturalis and botanical gardens in Amsterdam, Leiden and Utrecht will give the participants an overview of the most commonly encountered tropical plant families, including their key features, characteristic genera, and ecological and economic importance. General introductions to plant morphology, identification tools, plant collection techniques, tropical vegetation types, biogeography and ethnobotanical research will be given.

The course will mainly be housed in the Leiden Hortus Botanicus.

Learning goals

After completion of this course, students can:

  • Recognize and identify the most common tropical plant families.

  • Apply descriptive plant terminology when identifying plant families.

  • Recognize and name the function of the various plant organs.

  • Generate an overview of the characters or combinations of characters needed to identify the tropical plant families.

  • Apply different identification tools (dichotomous and multi-access keys).

  • Evaluate various collection techniques for plant material (e.g. suitability of different methods).

  • Outline and exemplify the ecological and economic importance of tropical plant taxa and their biogeography.


9 – 27 January 2023; details will be communicated on Brightspace, participants also receive the course schedule of the course via email.

Mode of instruction

Through lectures, extensive hands-on practicals and excursions to various botanical institutions in the Netherlands, the participants will learn to identify more than 40 tropical plant families based on generative (flower and fruit) and vegetative (leaf and bark) characters. The participants will learn to use both identification keys in traditional Floras and interactive on-line keys. During the practical the participants will be able to examine living, herbarium and alcohol preserved material, and during excursions to the tropical greenhouses of botanical gardens in Amsterdam, Leiden, Utrecht and Burger’s Bush special attention will be paid to collection techniques, biogeography and field characteristics.

Assessment method

Friday 27 January: Examination: Several open questions (max. 10) to test knowledge and 30 plant families that have to be identified from dried or fresh material, thereby mentioning the characters on which the identification is based.

Inspection and feedback on the examination

28 January: After the examination a course evaluation, including attention to the answers and discussion of the exam, will be given, followed by a handout of certificates to those with sufficient marks.


All information of lectures and papers will be available on Brightspace; non-Leiden participants receive the information via email or download links.

Reading list

Compulsory book: Utteridge&Bramley, the Kew Tropical plant families identification handbook (2014), which can be bought with a discount during the course.


Via uSis However, register in time (October), because there is a maximum of 15 students from Leiden University. Students from other Dutch universities, international students and staff of the botanical gardens will compete for the remaining 15 positions.

Exchange and Study Abroad students, please see the Prospective students website for more information on how to apply.


Minimum 8, maximum 30 students. Students from other Dutch universities, international students and staff of the botanical gardens will also compete for these positions. Ca. 15 places are available for Leiden University Biology students.
The course will mainly be housed in the Leiden Hortus botanicus.