The earliest known record of Nepenthes dates back to the 17th century. In 1658, French colonial governor Étienne de Flacourt published a description of a pitcher plant in his seminal work Histoire de la Grande Isle de Madagascar. It reads:
It is a plant growing about 3 feet high which carries at the end of its leaves, which are 7 inches long, a hollow flower or fruit resembling a small vase, with its own lid, a wonderful sight. There are red ones and yellow ones, the yellow being the biggest. The inhabitants of this country are reluctant to pick the flowers, saying that if somebody does pick them in passing, it will not fail to rain that day. As to that, I and all the other Frenchmen did pick them, but it did not rain. After rain these flowers are full of water, each one containing a good half-glass.
Flacourt called the plant Amramatico, after a local name. More than a century later, this species was formally described as N. madagascariensis.
The second species to be described was N. distillatoria, the Sri Lankan endemic. In 1677, Danish physician Thomas Bartholin made brief mention of it under the name Miranda herba, Latin for “marvellous herb”. Three years later, Dutch merchant Jacob Breyne referred to this species as Bandura zingalensium, after a local name for the plant. Bandura subsequently became the most commonly used name for the tropical pitcher plants, until Linnaeus coined Nepenthes in 1737.
Nepenthes distillatoria was again described in 1683, this time by Swedish physician and naturalist Herman Niklas Grim. Grim called it Planta mirabilis destillatoria or the “miraculous distilling plant”, and was the first to clearly illustrate a tropical pitcher plant. Three years later, in 1686, English naturalist John Ray quoted Grim as saying:
The root draws up moisture from the earth which with the help of the sun’s rays rises up into the plant itself and then flows down through the stems and nerves of the leaves into the natural utensil to be stored there until used for human needs.
One of the earliest illustrations of Nepenthes appears in Leonard Plukenet’s Almagestum Botanicum of 1696. The plant, called Utricaria vegetabilis zeylanensium, is undoubtedly N. distillatoria.
Around the same time, German botanist Georg Eberhard Rumphius discovered two new Nepenthes species in the Malay Archipelago. Rumphius illustrated the first one, now considered synonymous with N. mirabilis, and gave it the name Cantharifera, meaning “tankard-bearer”. The second, referred to as Cantharifera alba, is thought to have been N. maxima. Rumphius described the plants in his most famous work, the six-volume Herbarium Amboinense, a catalogue of the flora of Ambon Island. However, it would not be published until many years after his death.
After going blind in 1670, when the manuscript was only partially complete, Rumphius continued work on Herbarium Amboinensis with the help of clerks and artists. In 1687, with the project nearing completion, at least half of the illustrations were lost in a fire. Persevering, Rumphius and his helpers first completed the book in 1690. However, two years later, the ship carrying the manuscript to the Netherlands was attacked and sunk by the French, forcing them to start over from a copy that had fortunately been retained by Governor-General Johannes Camphuijs. The Herbarium Amboinensis finally arrived in the Netherlands in 1696. Even then, the first volume did not appear until 1741, 39 years after Rumphius’s death. By this time, Linnaeus’s name Nepenthes had become established.
Nepenthes distillatoria was again illustrated in Johannes Burmann’s Thesaurus Zeylanicus of 1737. The drawing depicts the end of a flowering stem with pitchers. Burmann refers to the plant as Bandura zeylanica.
The next mention of tropical pitcher plants was made in 1790, when Portuguese priest João de Loureiro described Phyllamphora mirabilis, or the “marvellous urn-shaped leaf”, from Vietnam. Despite living in the country for around 35 years, it seems unlikely that Loureiro observed living plants of this species, as he stated the lid is a moving part, actively opening and closing. In his most celebrated work, Flora Cochinchinensis, he writes:
(the) leaf-tip ends in a long hanging tendril, twisted spirally in the middle, from which hangs a sort of vase, oblong, pot-bellied, with a smooth lip with a projecting margin and a lid affixed to one side, which of its own nature freely opens and closes in order to receive the dew and store it. A marvellous work of the Lord!
Phyllamphora mirabilis was eventually transferred to the genus Nepenthes by Rafarin in 1869. As such, P. mirabilis is the basionym of this most cosmopolitan of tropical pitcher plant species.
Loureiro’s description of a moving lid was repeated by Jean Louis Marie Poiret in 1797. Poiret described two of the four Nepenthes species known at the time: N. madagascariensis and N. distillatoria. He gave the former its current name and called the latter Nepente de l’Inde, or simply “Nepenthes of India”, although this species is absent from the mainland. In Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s Encyclopédie Méthodique Botanique, he included the following account:
This urn is hollow, as I have just said, usually full of soft, clear water, and then closed. It opens during the day and more than half the liquid disappears, but this loss is repaired during the night, and the next day the urn is full again and closed by its lid. This is its sustenance, and enough for more than one day because it is always about half-full at the approach of night.
With the discovery of new species and Sir Joseph Banks’ original introduction of specimens to Europe in 1789, interest in Nepenthes grew throughout the 19th century, culminating in what has been called the “Golden Age of Nepenthes” in the 1880s.However, the popularity of the plants dwindled in the early 20th century, before all but disappearing by World War II. This is evidenced by the fact that no new species were described between 1940 and 1966. The revival of global interest in the cultivation and study of Nepenthes is credited to Japanese botanist Shigeo Kurata, whose work in the 1960s and 1970s did much to bring attention to these plants.