Uses of Herbaria: There Are Still More . . . .


WeDigBio is a program to encourage citizen scientists to participate in specimen digitization projects

Before I began this set of posts on uses of herbarium specimens, I wrote several on employing herbaria in the study of history. I want to return to history here, but in a different way, namely botanical collections as cultural heritage. I first became aware of this topic when I heard Krishna Shrestha, a Nepalese botanist, speak at the 2011 International Botanical Congress in Melbourne, Australia. He was a curator at the National Herbarium in Nepal and was arguing for the importance of digitizing collections as a way for botanists in developing nations like his own to have access to specimens that had been collected by colonial powers and sent to their home countries without leaving duplicates behind. This practice is long gone thanks to both national and international regulations on collecting, but the results of past practices linger. The largest collections of Nepalese material are in Kew, Edinburgh, Calcutta, and Japan. The Nepal herbarium started in 1940 so all their specimens are from after that date. The herbarium now has about 150,000 specimens, but Japan alone had 160,000 Nepalese specimens. In Africa the same problem exists. As an example, for the Rubiaceae family with 13,000 species in 611 genera, Europe has only 14 genera while Angola has 108. However, European herbaria hold 96% of the types for this family (Figueiredo & Smith, 2010).

The Global Plants Initiative, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, has had types specimens from all over the world scanned and the label information digitized in an effort to deal with this situation. Still, digital access is not the same as having specimens available close at hand. Individuals in many countries are realizing the value of the material, though in some cases it is no longer available. For example, historic plant specimens collected in the early 20th century in Korea were destroyed during the Korean War (Im et al., 2016). Now botanists are examining duplicates housed in the herbarium of the University of Tokyo, which survived World War II. A set of duplicates was donated to Korea by the Japanese, so some Korean botanical history has been restored. There is work being done at the herbarium in Uzbekistan on the flora of that country (Sennikov et al., 2016) and the Regnellian Herbarium in Stockholm is working with Brazilian botanists in electronic “repatriation” of Brazilian specimens collected by Swedish botanists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (Santos & Santos, 2016). Alarmed by the loss of a number of species of medicinal fungi from Indian forests, the National Fungal Culture Collection of India is augmenting its specimen collection through its own collecting efforts.

In an intriguing use of specimens, researchers have done genetic analysis of the paper mulberry, a common East Asian tree that was carried to the islands of Oceania where it became a source of barkcloth, a significant element in Austronesian cultures (Chang, et al., 2015). The aim of the study was to see if genetic studies could trace the origin of the tree and thus hint at the origin of the original settlers. This is a debated question with evidence in favor of Taiwan as the home country, but with other hypotheses seeing the origin in South China or even further into Southeast Asia. The mulberry data point to Taiwan as the home base for these explorers, since the trees in Oceania are most similar to those on the island than to those on the Chinese mainland or elsewhere. I’m sure this won’t end the controversy but it does suggest a new use for herbaria to add to Vicki Funk’s list. In addition, archaeologists have frequently examined herbarium specimens to aid in identification of plant material found at a site and paleobotanists compare their finds with present-day specimens in terms of such characteristics as leaf venation (Coiffard & Mohr, 2016).

I’m skipping around in this post, but there are so many ways to use specimens, and more are being devised thanks to digitization of specimens. In what may develop into a major focus, researchers in Germany have used the high-resolution images of specimens of 26 species of German trees to test attempts at automated identification (Unger et al., 2016). There were problems, overlapping leaves being a major one. However, they found that they could characterize species well enough for identification in a significant number of cases. In the future, they see such a system as being able to rapidly identify at least frequently collected taxa. It will be interesting to see if this technology will ever play a significant role in taxonomic research. I can’t resist mentioning another novel use: Alfred Traverse (2013) suggests that herbarium specimens can be a source of soil on the roots. Since I’ve spent some time mounting specimens and attempting to remove as much soil as possible, as per instructions, I’m left wondering what is the right approach here.

I’d like to end this litany with a brief mention of education. It’s obvious that herbaria are key in the development of the next generation of plant taxonomists, and as some of the research cited in these posts suggests, future ecologists and environmentalists as well. But I am thinking of those in high school and even elementary school. In the past, their exposure to such institutions has been almost nil. But herbarium administrators are now realizing that if these collections are to remain relevant into the future, a wider audience is needed. Tours of herbaria for people of all ages are becoming more common, and some are geared to a young audience. A number of herbaria have taken advantage of the Harry Potter craze to stage events focused on plants featured in some of the potions used at Hogwarts. Other herbaria have taken part in the WeDigBio events where high school students participate in digitization of specimen labels. Such activities get young people into a new world to which some of them may return in the future. Not a bad use for a herbarium.


Chang, C.-S., Liu, H.-L., Moncada, X., Seelenfreund, A., Seelenfreund, D., & Chung, K.-F. (2015). A holistic picture of Austronesian migrations revealed by phylogeography of Pacific paper mulberry. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(44), 13537–13542.

Coiffard, C., & Mohr, B. (2016). Afrocasia kahlertiana gen. et sp. nov., a new tropical member of Araceae from Late Cretaceous strata of northern Gondwana (Baris, Egypt). Taxon, 65(6), 1374–1384.

Figueiredo, E., & Smith, G. F. (2010). The colonial legacy in African plant taxonomy. South African Journal of Science, 106(3/4), Article 161.

Im, H.-T., Son, H.-D., & Im. (2016). Historic plant specimens collected from the Korean Peninsula in the early 20th century (I). Korean Journal of Plant Taxonomy, 46(1), 33–54.

Santos, K. dos, & Santos, K. dos. (2016). Brazilian plant specimens at the Regnellian herbarium: history and repatriation. Rodriguésia, 67(4), 879–892.

Sennikov, A. N., Tojibaev, K. S., Khassanov, F. O., & Beshko, N. Y. (2016). The Flora of Uzbekistan Project. Phytotaxa, 282(2), 107–118.

Traverse, A. (2013). Dr. Pugh’s herbarium. Journal of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas, 7(2), 751–764.

Unger, J., Merhof, D., & Renner, S. (2016). Computer vision applied to herbarium specimens of German trees: Testing the future utility of the millions of herbarium specimen images for automated identification. BMC Evolutionary Biology, 16, 248.


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