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Plants Intertwined with Culture

Volume 1 Number 19 - December 1999

Dr I. Wayan Sumantera





Knowledge of Balinese ethnobotany, as with many other traditional customs, is passed by word of mouth from generation to generation.  Kebun Raya Eka Karya Bali (Eka Karya Botanic Garden), is using a variety of techniques to introduce Balinese culture, heritage and indigenous knowledge to the younger generation through its plant collection.  The aim of using a variety of techniques is to increase  visitors' understanding of the utilisation of plants, and the importance of biodiversity, cultural heritage and plant conservation.  The botanic garden has developed a special ethnobotanical collection that includes medicinal and ceremonial plants, and the garden has an Ethnobotanical Museum.

A Balanced Environment

Of the 3 million people living on the island of Bali, the majority (93%) is Hindu.  Within Kebun Raya Eka Karya Bali there is a Hindu shrine and every 210 days a big ceremony is conducted on the Day of Plants ‘Tumpek Udah’ to say ‘thank you’ to the plant kingdom for its kindness in looking after the welfare of people and to pray that the plants continue to grow well.

A balanced living environment is an important part of Balinese culture and one of the environmental philosophies is ‘Tri Hita Karana’, the Three Causes of Goodness.  Tri Hita Karana places emphasis on three essential harmonies; People and God; People and People; and People and Nature.

Plants have a very important role in Balinese culture and traditionally their use is communicated orally from generation to generation.  However, Kebun Raya Eka Karya Bali is committed to communicating Balinese culture, and the importance of harmony between people and nature, by using its plant collection and Ethnobotanical Museum.

Interpreting Biodiversity

The garden has prepared a self-guided walk, the Biodiversity Route, in conjunction with the non government organisation Indonesian Institute for Forest and the Environment, and the Hanns Seidel Foundation.  Visitors can choose from a variety of walks such as those focusing on ornamental plants, traditional ceremonies or tropical rainforests.  A guide book has also been produced that describes aspects of the garden including the tropical mountain forest, birds in the gardens, the traditional Balinese house, and the orchid and cactus collection.

Plants Tell Their Own Stories

Oral tradition has not solely been relied upon in Balinese culture to communicate cultural heritage.  A traditional book made from the Palmyra Palm (Borassus flabilifer) called ‘Lontar’ describes the utilisation of many plants.  Heritage and plants are intertwined in Balinese culture and plants used for ethnomedicine ‘Usada’, architecture ‘Asta Koasala Kosali’ and ceremonies are described in the ‘Lontar’.  One soon discovers the many uses of plants after reading the ‘Lontar’, but the problem the botanic garden faces is finding many of these plants to include in its collection.

Balinese tradition involves a special method of answering questions about the utilisation of plants.  It is said that the 160 plants in the ‘Lontar Taru Pramana’ each tell their own story of their ethnomedicinal uses.  For example, the wild plant Lantana (Lantana camara) has leaves and bark that are cold to touch; therefore if an infusion of these is drunk it will reduce a high body temperature.  The temperature of the root is halfway between hot and cold when touched; so it is drunk when intoxicated so a person can be ‘balanced’ and become sober.  Using the ‘plant stories’ is an effective way to introduce people to these plants and is a very successful interpretive technique for teaching children.

Interpreting Balinese Ethnobotany

Ethnobotanical knowledge is an important part of Balinese culture and shows the younger generation the many functions of plants, and builds their awareness of the importance of conserving plant diversity.

An Ethnobotany Museum was built in Kebun Raya Eka Karya Bali in 1992.  The museum is situated in a traditional Balinese house located in a strategic position within the garden.  There are 79 artefacts within the collection, many of which are used in Hindu Ceremonies such as those conducted in the rice fields.  It is anticipated that the collection will increase in the future as there are more that 350 races of people in Indonesia and 25,000 plant species, over 6,000 of which are used in daily life.

The garden’s plant collection includes 1085 tree species, 120 medicinal plant species, 130 ceremonial plant species and 384 species of orchids.  With such an extensive collection, there are many opportunities to increase understanding of Balinese ethnobotany and ensure that biodiversity is conserved for future generations.

Plants are a Part of Everyday Life

A house designed in traditional Balinese architecture is known as ‘Asta Kosala Kosali’.  These houses have physical and philosophical harmony based on Hindu environmental philosophy: ‘Tri Hita Karana’.  Many of the plants must be planted in the courtyard to create harmony and they are very important to the people of Bali.

A traditional Balinese house consists of many buildings located inside a perimeter wall, such as a waiting house, mens' accommodation, womens' accommodation, parent accommodation, guest accommodation, a kitchen, rice storage, a resting house, and a family meeting room.  These are all situated within a lawn courtyard.  In the north-east, there is the family temple ‘Pemerajan’ and at the southern outside perimeter wall is the ‘Tebe’ for the family garden and the dumping of refuse.

The plants for daily use are usually located in the area where they are used:

  • Ritual plants must be planted around the ‘Pemerajan’ such as frangipani (Plumeria rubra), croton (Codiaeum variegatum) and andong (Cordyline fruticosa).
  • Fruit and medicinal plants are planted around the accommodation, these plants include; star fruit (Averrhoa carambola), orange (Citrus maxima), pomegranate (Punica granatum), turmeric (Curcuma domestica), dadap (Erythrina subumbrans), and sembung (Blumea balsamifera).
  • The plants used in cooking are planted near the kitchen such as; lime (Citrus aurantifolia), ginger (Zingiber officinale), and galanga (Alinia galanga).  At the ‘Tebe’ useful plants such as bamboo, banana, and taro (pig food) are planted.


La Connaissance ethnobotanique indigène des Balinais, comme beaucoup d'autres coutumes traditionnelles, a oralement été transmise de générations en générations.  Kebun Raya Eka Karya Bali (Jardin Botanique Eka Karya), sur l'île de Bali, présente de diverses façons, par le biais de ces collections végétales la culture, le patrimoine et la connaissance indigènes Balinais aux jeunes générations.  Le but, en diversifiant les approches est d'éveiller leur compréhension de l'utilisation des plantes et de leur conservation, de les sensibiliser à l'importance de la biodiversité et du patrimoine culturel.  Basé sur les traditions Balinaises, le jardin botanique a développé, après la construction d'un musée ethnobotanique une collection ethnobotanique exceptionnelle comprenant des plantes médicinales et cérémonielles.  De plus, les collections du jardin ont une valeur considérable au regard de la conservation.


Los conocimientos indígenas de la etnobotánica balinesa, al igual que otras muchas costumbres tradicionales, han pasado de generación en generación de forma oral.  El jardín botánico Eka Karya Bali (Keburn Raya Eka Karya Bali ),en la isla de Bali, utiliza una variedad de técnicas para presentar a las generaciones más jóvenes la cultura, patrimonio y conocimiento indígena balines a través de su colección de plantas. El objetivo del uso de esta serie de técnicas es el de que conozcan la utilización de las plantas y la importancia de la biodiversidad y del patrimonio cultural, así como de su conservación. El Jardín botánico ha desarrollado una colección  etnobotánica especial basada en la tradición balinesa, que incluye plantas medicinales y ceremoniales, además de la construcción de un Museo de Etnobotánica. La colección de plantas también tiene un valor de conservación muy significativo.

About the Author

Dr I. Wayan Sumantera is an Ethnobotanist Researcher at Kebun Raya Eka Karya Bali (Bali Botanic Garden), PO BOX 3424 Denpasar BALI 80034 Indonesia.
Tel/Fax : (62) 368 21273.