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Erik Smets

Prof. dr. E. F. (Erik) Smets, Scientific director and Group leader - Taxonomy and Systematics


Email: erik.smets@naturalis.nl
Phone: +31 (0)71 751 92 59
Room number: Vondellaan 55, 2332 AA Leiden, Room e06.12
“First-rate education, good questions and detailed observations are at the heart of good research in systematics and biodiversity.”

I am fascinated by flowering plants. More specifically, I am very interested in defining good characteristics - morphological as well as phytochemical and molecular - to order flowering plants in predictive groups reflecting their phylogeny. My MSc project was about the definition of placentation types, seed types and nectaries, and in my PhD thesis I continued studying the floral nectaries of the flowering plants. Both degrees were obtained at the KU Leuven (Belgium).

From the early start of my career I had many managerial tasks and a huge teaching load, two aspects of my professional life that I found very rewarding, also from a research perspective.


Former and present positions 

  • 1-7-2010 – present: Scientific Director of Naturalis Biodiversity Center
  • 1-9-2005 – present: Director of the National Herbarium of the Netherlands (NHN)
  • 1-9-2005 – present: Full Professor (Chair of Systematic botany), Leiden University
  • 1-9-2005 – present: Professor (Chair of Systematic botany), KU Leuven (http://bio.kuleuven.be/eebcs/plant-conservation-and-population-biology/)
  • 1-9-2005 – 31-1-2016: Scientific Director of the Hortus botanicus Leiden (http://www.hortusleiden.nl/)
  • 1-8-2000 – 31-7-2005: Head of the Department of Biology, KU Leuven
  • 1-10-1989 – 30-11-2008: Professor and Head of the Laboratory of Plant Systematics, KU Leuven


  • Member of the Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Science and the Arts (2012)
  • Member of The Royal Holland Society of Sciences and Humanities (2010)
  • Foreign Member of the Linnean Society (2005) 

Other past and current academic activities

  • Executive Committee member (Treasurer) of the Consortium of European Taxonomic Facilities (CETAF), since 2016.
  • Member of the Board of the Graduate School for Production Ecology and Resource Conservation (PE&RC), since 2012.
  • Member of the Committee of Scientific Advisors of the National Authority for Data concerning Nature (GAN), since 2012.
  • Member of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Natural History Museum Stuttgart (SMNS) and the Natural History Museum Karlsruhe (SMNK), since 2012.
  • Council Member of the International Organisation for Systematic and Evolutionary Biology (IOSEB), since 2011.
  • Member of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Fungal Biodiversity Centre (CBS-KNAW), since 2011.
  • Member of the Leopold III-Fund for Nature Research and Nature Conservation, since 2009.
  • Member of the Board of the Alberta Mennega Foundation, since 2007.
  • Chair of the Professor Lam Fund, since 2007.
  • Vice-Chair of the Board of the Flora Malesiana Foundation, since 2006.
  • Board of Directors of the Consortium of European Taxonomic Facilities (CETAF), since 2005.
  • Chair of “Leidse Bibliotheekstichting” Collectanea Botanica, since 2005.
  • Chair of the Dr. E. Kits van Waveren Foundation, since 2005.
  • Member of the Scientific Advisory Board of the National Botanic Garden of Belgium, now Botanic Garden Meise, since 1997.
  • Member and Chair (1997-2005) of the Board of the Alumni Society PDL (“Vereniging van Afgestudeerden in de Plantkunde en de Dierkunde van de Universiteit te Leuven”), since 1991.
  • Member of the Board of ETI Bioinformatics; 2008-2012.
  • Member of the Examination Committee Biology of Leiden University; 2006-2013.
  • Board of Directors of the EU Network of Excellence “European Distributed Institute of Taxonomy”; 2006-2011.
  • Member, Vice-Chair (2008) and Chair (2009) of the Expert Panel Biodiversity and Ecology of The Research Foundation Flanders (FWO-Vlaanderen); 2000-2009.
  • Member of the Board of the Research School Biodiversity; 2005-2012.


Research interest

My research interest focuses on the evolution of flowering plants, the world’s most dominant plant group. Initially, I was fascinated by the huge diversity in floral morphology. Later, my research interests expanded into floral development, pollen morphology, fruit and seed morphology, and wood anatomy. Monographic studies, still crucial for the inventory of Earth’s biodiversity, also became a major topic in my research group. The introduction of molecular systematics provided a new framework to comprehend the evolutionary relationships of plants. I strongly favor a multidisciplinary approach in which morphological features are combined with DNA sequence data and evolutionary developmental genetics (which I like to call molecular morphology) because integrative systematics will ultimately lead to better insights in the evolution of characters and in understanding the evolutionary history of flowering plants. 

Since November 2015 I am part of the Research goup Understanding evolution. I am also leading the Research group Taxonomy & Systematics.


biogeography, phylogeny, dioscoreales, ericales, gentianales, floral development, morphology and anatomy, poales, evo-devo, systematics

Current research topics

As scientific director and member of the management team of Naturalis one of my main duties is to make our motivated group of scientist more effective. Since a few years my direct participation in research is limited, and therefore all my PhD candidates are supervised by a very dedicated daily supervisor (co-promotor). It is very rewarding though to be involved in the PhD projects mentioned below because it enables me to stay connected with current research.

Ongoing PhD projects (preliminary titles)

  • Phylogeny, evolutionary diversification and biogeography of Lower Central American orchids. (Bogarín, D.; co-promotor Gravendeel, B.)
  • Phylogeny and morphological evolution of Leucobryaceae Schimp. (Bryophyta, Dicranales). (Bonfim Santos, M.; co-promotor Stech, M.)
  • A xylem physiological approach to better understand insular woodiness - is drought stress involved? (Chacon Dória, L.; co-promotor Lens, F.)
  • Functional genomics of orchids. (Dirks-Mulder, A.; co-promotor Gravendeel, B.)
  • Phylogeographical pattersn between the Atlantic and Amazon rainforests: an approach with the family Dicranaceae s.l. (Bryophyta) and other haplolepideous mossess. (Gama Dies Neto, R.; co-promotor Stech, M.)
  • The evolution of niches: a case study in Annonaceae. (Hoekstra, P.; co-promotors Wieringa, J. & Chatrou, L.)
  • Patterns of epiphytic bryophyte diversity in Gede-Pangrango National Park, Java, Indonesia.(Iskander, E.; co-promotors Stech, M. & Mota de Oliveira, S.)
  • Phylogenetic prospecting of Indonesian Coelogyninae (Orchidaceae) used as traditional antimicrobials. (Kusuma Wati, R.; co-promotor Gravendeel, B.)
  • Genomic barcoding as a tool to trace and identify illegal logged African trees. (Mascarello, M.; co-promotor Janssens, S.)
  • The Evolution and development of orchid flowers and fruits. (Pramanik, D.; co-promotor Gravendeel, B.)
  • Systematics, Evolution, and Pollination Biology of Balsaminaceae in SE Asia. (Ruchisansakun, S.; co-promotors Van der Niet, T. & Janssens, S.)
  • Bacterial leaf symbiosis. Origin, function, evolutionary gain and transmission mode of endophytes in bacteriophilous Rubiaceae. (Sinnesael, A.; co-promotors Panis, B. & Verstraete, B.)



Most collaborations are via my research fellows, postdocs and PhD candidates. Active collaborations exist ao. with Royal Botanic Gardens Kew (http://www.kew.org/), Botanic Garden Meise (http://www.br.fgov.be/), and - of course - the laboratory of Plant conservation and population biology, KU Leuven (http://bio.kuleuven.be/eebcs/plant-conservation-and-population-biology/).


All collections of flowering plants (herbarium, fruits, seeds, wood, fixed material).

Supervision PhDs


Promotor (*co-promotor) of successfully defended PhD projects

  • Schwallier, R. 2016. Evolutionary diversification of Nepenthes. PhD thesis Leiden University.
  • Semenova-Nelsen, T. 2016. Fungi of the greening Arctic: compositional and functional shifts in response to climatic changes. PhD thesis Leiden University.
  • Morgado, L. 2016. Peeking into the future: Fungi in the Greening Arctic. PhD thesis Leiden University.
  • Karremans, A. 2015. Systematic, phylogenetic and pollination studies of Specklinia (Orchidaceae). PhD thesis Leiden University.
  • Mennes, C. 2015. Antiquities of the rainforest. Evolution of mycoheterotrophic angiosperms on Glomeromycota. PhD thesis Leiden University.
  • Lang, A. 2014. Phylogeny and species delimitation within the moss genus Dicranum Hedw.PhD thesis Leiden University.
  • Towns, A. 2014. Fertility and Fontanels. Women’s knowledge of medicinal platns for reproductive health and childcare in western AfricaPhD thesis Leiden University.
  • Chaowasku, T. 2014. The Miliuseae revisited. Phylogenetic, taxonomic, and palynological studies in a major clade of Annonaceae. PhD thesis Leiden University.
  • Verstraete, B. 2013. Bacterial leaf endophytes in African Rubiaceae. PhD thesis KU Leuven.
  • Caris, P. 2013. Bloemontogenetische patronen in de Ericales sensu lato. PhD thesis KU Leuven.
  • Kok, P. 2013. Islands in the Sky: Species Diversity, Evolutionary History, and Patterns of Endemism of the Pantepui Herpetofauna. PhD thesis Leiden University.
  • *Vekemans, D. 2012. Diversification of MADS-box genes in flowering plants. PhD thesis KU Leuven.
  • Rabaey, D. 2012. Micromorphological study of pits in tracheary elements of woody angiosperms. PhD thesis KU Leuven. 
  • Appelhans, M. 2011. Phylogeny and biogeography of Spathelioideae (Rutaceae). PhD thesis Leiden University.
  • Lemaire, B. 2011. Diversity and Evolution of Bacterial Endosymbionts in Leaf Nodulated Angiosperms. PhD thesis KU Leuven. 
  • Subedi, A. 2011. New species, pollinator interactions and pharmaceutical potential of Himalayan orchids. PhD thesis Leiden University.
  • Boedeker, C. 2010. Phylogenetic, taxonomic and biogeographical studies in the Pithophoraceae (Cladophorales, Chlorophyta). PhD thesis Leiden University. 
  • Pruesapan, K. 2010. The rise and fall of Sauropus (Phyllanthaceae). A molecular phylogenetic analysis of Sauropus and allies. PhD thesis Leiden University.
  • Van den Hof, K. 2010. Evolution of Viola stagnina and its sisterspecies by hybridization and polyploidization. PhD thesis Leiden University.
  • *Viaene, T. 2010. Evolution of ancient MADS-gene functions. PhD thesis KU Leuven.
  • Jacobs, B. 2010. Fruits and seeds of Dipsacales. Morphology and evolution. PhD thesis KU Leuven.
  • Tosh, J. 2009. Biogeography of Madagascan Rubiaceae: Case studies from the Afro-Madagascan genus Tricalysia and the pantropical genus Ixora. PhD thesis KU Leuven.
  • Geeraerts, A. 2009. Phylogenetic reconstructions, morphological diversity and historical biogeography of Ebenaceae. PhD thesis KU Leuven.
  • Groeninckx, I. 2009. Integrated study of the herbaceous Spermacoceae (Rubiaceae). Systematics & Evolution. PhD thesis KU Leuven.
  • Moon, H.-K. 2008. Systematic studies in Mentheae (Lamiaceae). Morphology, evolutionary aspects, phylogeny. PhD thesis KU Leuven.
  • Merckx, V. 2008. Myco-heterotrophy in Dioscoreales. Systematics and evolution. PhD thesis KU Leuven.
  • Janssens, S. 2008. Evolutionary studies in Balsaminaceae: integration of evidence from molecular and morphological data. PhD thesis KU Leuven.
  • Vrijdaghs, A. 2006. A floral ontogenetic approach to homology questions in non-mapanioid Cyperaceae. PhD thesis KU Leuven.
  • Geuten, K. 2006. Bayesian phylogenetics and perianth evolutionary developmental genetics of the balsaminoid Ericales. PhD thesis KU Leuven.
  • Lens, F. 2005. Systematic significance of wood anatomical characters in Ericales. PhD thesis KU Leuven.
  • Ntore, S. 2004. Contribution à la connaissance systématique du genre afrotropical Pauridiantha (Rubiaceae). PhD thesis KU Leuven.
  • Schols, P. 2004. Contributions to the palynology and phylogeny of Dioscorea (Dioscoreaceae). PhD thesis KU Leuven.
  • Dessein, S. 2003. Systematic studies in the Spermacoceae (Rubiaceae). PhD thesis KU Leuven.
  • Vinckier, S. 2003. Orbicules: morphology, ultrastructure, and development in Gentianales and their possible role as vector of allergens. PhD thesis KU Leuven.
  • Vermoere, M. 2002. Holocene vegetation history in the territory of Sagalassos (southwest Turkey). A palynological approach. PhD thesis KU Leuven.
  • Pyck, N. 2001. Phylogenetic relations within Dipsacales. A combined molecular and morphological approach. PhD thesis KU Leuven.
  • Jansen, S. 2001. Comparative wood anatomy of the Rubiaceae and phylogenetic implications of aluminium hyperaccumulation and vestured pits in angiosperms. PhD thesis KU Leuven.
  • Piesschaert, F. 2001 Carpology and pollen morphology of the Psychotrieae (Rubiaceae-Rubioideae). Towards a new tribal and generic delimitation. PhD thesis KU Leuven.
  • Huysmans, S. 1998. Palynology of the Cinchonoideae (Rubiaceae). Morphology and development of pollen and orbicules. PhD thesis KU Leuven.
  • Roels, P. 1998. Phylogenetic position and delimitation of the order Dipsacales. A multidisciplinary approach. PhD thesis KU Leuven.
  • Stoffelen, P. 1998. Coffea and Psilanthus (Rubiaceae) in tropical Africa: a systematic and palynological study, including a revision of the West and Central African species. PhD thesis KU Leuven.
  • De Laet, J. 1997. A reconsideration of three-item analysis, the use of implied weights in cladistics, and a practical application in Gentianaceae. PhD thesis KU Leuven.
  • Ronse Decraene, L.-P. 1992. The androecium of the Magnoliophytina: characterisation and systematic importance. PhD thesis KU Leuven.



In 1999 I received a Teaching Certificate at the KU Leuven (Onderwijskundige Vorming Docenten), and in 2012 I obtained the Certificate Basic Teaching Qualification (BKO) from Leiden University).

Apart from some guest lectures, for example in the courses ‘Diversity of Algae, Fungi and Plants‘ (3rd Year Biology, KU Leuven) and ‘Plant Families of the Tropics’ (Masters Biology, Leiden University) I am teaching ‘Anatomy’ in the course ‘Tree of Life’ (1st Year Biology, Leiden University). Next, I am involved in the minor ‘Biodiversity and Natural Environment’ (3rd Year Biology, Leiden University) where I teach in the course ‘Evolutionary Developments’.

Available student projects

Public outreach

On a regular basis I am invited to talk about Plant systematics, The classification of Flowering plants, or to introduce Naturalis Biodiversity Center.

Examples of recent talks are:

  • Character evolution and the classification of angiosperms. Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Science and the Arts, Brussels, Belgium (2013).
  • Research and Education at Naturalis. Univeridade de Brasilia, Brasil (2013), and Universitas Padjadjaran, Bandung, Indonesia (2013).
  • Plant Systematics: Past and Present. HOVO, Leiden (2013).
  • Research at the Natural History Museum of the Netherlands: Naturalis Biodiversity Center. Royal Academy for Overseas Sciences, Brussels, Belgium (2014).
  • Lessons learned from experiences at the KU leuven and Leiden University: a personal view. Vietnam Forestry University, Hanoi, Vietnam (2014)
  • Naturalis: More than a Museum. Visit Bachelor students of Wageningen University (2015)
  • Naturalis: Museum, Natural History Collection, and Research Institute. Leidse Kennisdag, Leiden (2015).
  • Naturalis Biodiversity Center: Museum, Collection Infrastructure and Research Institute. Chiang Mai University, Thailand (2016).