The first attempt to identify the plants in the Tipiṭaka was made by Robert Childers in his A Dictionary of the Pali Language of 1876. Childers gave about 165 plant names and provided the Linnaean nomenclature for most of these. However, more than half these names are from Pali works composed in Sri Lanka and are not mentioned in the Tipiṭaka itself. Rhys Davids and Stede’s Pali English Dictionary published between 1921–25, includes about 420 Pali plant names with the botanical names for about a third of these. Included also are about 185 animal names of which only eight include the zoological names. It is unclear what authority Rhys Davids and Stede used for the nomenclature they did give but they seem to have relied heavily on Monier-William’s Sanskrit English Dictionary.

In her translation of the Vinaya Piṭaka published between 1938 and 1966, I. B. Horner tried to identify the various medical plants mentioned in that work and in her subsequent 1975 translation of the Buddhavaṃsa, she identified the various trees associated with the 28 Buddhas and other plants. In this first translation, Horner seems for the most part to have followed Rhys Davids but where not she gave her reasons for preferring a different identification. In the Buddhavaṃsa she followed George Luce who in turn must have relied on the Burmese sayadaws whom, it would seem likely, were not familiar with plants endemic to northern India.

Studies in the flora and fauna in Sanskrit literature are very extensive, especially so in the case of flora because of the interest in Ayurvedic medicine. As many Sanskrit names have Pali equivalents such studies are relevant to the present book and I have consulted as much of this research as I have been able too. Modern Indian colloquial names for certain plants and animals likewise have proven helpful in making some identifications, although I have kept in mind Klaus Karttunen’s comment that these are ‘to be used with caution’.

A thorough compilation of material on flora, fauna and the environment from the Pali Tipiṭaka is more than justified. Despite being a rich source of information on these subjects Indian scholars have largely ignored Pali literature. In their contribution to the magisterial History of Science, Philosophy and Culture in Indian Civilization series, Rajan and Sridhar use a wide range of religious and secular literature but have only three brief references to Pali canonical or post-canonical works. Ghosh and Sen’s study of botany in the post-Vedic period for A Concise History of Science in India utilize no Pali material. Many other examples of this neglect could be given.

In trying to identify the flora and fauna in Pali literature I chose not to rely on my predecessors so as to avoid perpetuating any mistakes they might have made, and only looked at their works after having finished my own. In some cases I found that I had come to the same conclusions as them although in other cases I had not. On many occasions I was unable to identify a plant or animal but found that Rhys Davids, Horner, etc. had done so, although I could find no justification for their conclusions. It should be pointed out however, that the identity of many plants and animals mentioned in ancient Indian literature is very conjectural. As G. J. Meulenbeld has shown, there is wide disagreement amongst scholars as to which Sanskrit plant name can be identified with which plant and this comment is equally valid for Pali. I have no doubt made some mistakes. My hope is that in the future someone will be able to correct these mistakes and also fill in the many gaps I have left.