What is a Herbarium?
A herbarium (her bear' ee um) is a collection of pressed, dried plants. Normally herbaria are located at a museum, botanic garden, arboretum, university, or other research institution where scientists study botany. Each herbarium specimen contains actual plant material as well as label information detailing attributes of the specimen such as the collector(s), date of collection, and location details (e.g., geopolitical location, GPS coordinates, or habitat information). The specimens in a herbarium are normally preserved on archival-quality, acid-free paper and housed within airtight storage cabinets. As long as the specimens are kept free from damage by insects, rodents, mold, moisture, or drastic temperature changes they can last hundreds of years. In a herbarium, specimens are arranged according to a particular system, not unlike how libraries use different systems to catalogue books. The details of the organization system at each herbarium differs, but typically the name of the plant on the sheet (normally in Latin) is the key piece of data used to place the specimen at the correct location within the system.
Other collections in a herbarium
A herbarium may also contain fungus specimens such as mushrooms and lichens. Because these are rarely pressed flat, they are typically stored in boxes or paper packets. An ethnobotany collection contains man-made products of plants such as clothing, tools, and other objects, as well as resins and other extracts. A paleobotany collection consists of plant fossils.
How are specimen data useful?
Herbarium specimens record the past, providing users with documented occurrences of plants in specific locations over time. Often the data on specimen labels present the best information about past species and community distributions or the historical coverage of particular habitats. Without online collections databases, this data is hard to access and requires a visit to the herbarium. Further, searching specimen collections from different institutions is time consuming and exhausting even if the data is available electronically. By providing world-wide or region-specific specimen data from multiple herbaria, resources such as MycoPortal.org or vPlants.org make important information available to anyone, not just scientific researchers.
Users of a traditional herbarium may include the following:
- Identify and validate specimen data
- Annotate the scientific names used to describe the specimen
- Conduct molecular genetics studies
- Compile regional floras or keys
- Perform research
- Sample plant material for chemical or genetic analyses
Conservation Stewards, Students, and Educators
- Interpret the past for guidance in restoration projects
- Learn characteristics of native and cultivated plants
- Foster future botanists
This page is adapted from a vPlants.org page by Gayle Tonkovich and Patrick Leacock, 2007.