Project Herbarium: Bringing Botany to the 21st Century

Herbaria are an integral part of botanical research. Each specimen provides invaluable information about the species from which it was collected. Each specimen may contain biological material such as pressed or mounted plants, seeds, fruits, wood sections, or pollen. More recently DNA extracts are taken from specimens to provide vital genetic data. From this we can reconstruct past plant communities, monitor invasive species and species population studies. 

Create your very own herbarium sheet at home! (See pics)

Collecting plants to create herbaria is credited to the physician and botanist Luca Ghini (1490-1556). He would mount dried plants onto paper and create bound books from these herbaria sheets. This practice was popularised by his students as they travelled across Europe for research. 

Following popularisation, the practice of keeping the specimens in cabinets was popularised by famous Swedish naturalist and taxonomist Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778). Herbaria are still kept in cabinets (see pictures below) to this day. 

Collections must be protected from temperature fluctuations, moisture, UV light and pests in order to keep them in good condition.

Oldest existing herbarium:
Initiated in 1532
Created by Gherardo Cibo (1512-1600), Ghini’s student
Located in Rome

Largest herbaria (between 7 – 9.5 million specimens):
Paris Natural History Museum
Royal Botanical Gardens, England
New York Botanical Garden
Komarov Botanical Institute, Russia

Here at the the Botany department within the museum we have over 200, 000 herbarium specimens. They are lovingly cared for many people, but our very own Heini Emil, (pictured) goes above and beyond for this collection. 

Previously, if someone wanted to view a specimen, one would have to contact the collection curator and apply to have it sent out to them, or to come visit it. However, with the modern technology, digitising the entire collection has become a possibility.  So, with a department-wide effort we packed up the 2000,000 specimens into hundreds of boxes to be sent off.

The company that was used was Bioshare Digitization. Over the course of ~100 days, 202,441 images were produced, that’s a whopping 22 terabytes of data! 

Now, thanks to the hard work of everyone involved, we have the specimens with corresponding codes, a high resolution picture and even DNA data from some the corresponding specimens.