Plants in Toronto: The Royal Ontario Museum Herbarium

Seed Collection

H.B. Sifton Seed Collection in the Green Plant Herbarium at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto

While I was in Toronto for the History of Science Society meeting (see last post), I visited the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) to see its herbarium, or rather, one of its herbaria.  These collections were originally in the University of Toronto which is adjacent to the museum.  One was for phanerogams (TRT) and one for cryptogams (TRTC).  Eventually, ferns, bryophytes, and lichens were moved into the phanerogam collection, which was renamed the Green Plant Herbarium.  This left fungi in a separate collection (TRTC) and housed in a different part of the museum.

On the day of my visit, there was also another herbarium aficionado there, Jasmine Lai, a student at the University of British Columbia who is doing an internship at the National Herbarium of Canada at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa.  Deborah Metsger, assistant curator at TRT, gave us an extensive tour of what is a packed facility.  It has working space and compactors in a facility that Metsger helped to design and which is discussed in a volume she co-edited, Managing the Modern Herbarium (1999).  However, after years of acquisitions, most of the cabinets are nearly full, and Deb said that she is looking to add more cabinets above them.  As with most large collections, the exact number of specimens isn’t known, but it is probably over 1 million if the seed and pollen collections are included as well as economic botany material.  There are over 500,000 vascular plant specimens and 150,000 bryophyte specimens.

The herbarium was founded in the mid-19th century with the collections of H. H. Croft, the first Professor of Experimental Philosophy and Chemistry, and William Hincks, the first Professor of Natural History, appointed in 1853.  Thomas Henry Huxley applied for the job at the time he was seeking economic stability so he could marry.  Hincks, however, had local connections that gave him the edge.  Over the years, the collection grew with specimens from a number of noted Canadian botanists, including John Macoun.  I first encountered his name when I was databasing specimens at New York Botanical Garden; there are thousands of his specimens in that collection.  Then I read a biography of the Danish-Canadian arctic botanist Alf Erling Porsild who was one of a number of botanists who took up Macoun’s work in the next generation (Dathan, 2012).  Finally, this summer Macoun’s name came up again while I was reading a book on Irish natural history (see earlier post).  Macoun was born in Ireland and eventually served as a botanist for the Geological Survey of Canada after he immigrated to Ontario.  To me, this is a great example of how different parts of the botanical world are interwoven and delving into its history helps to reveal the connections.

While on the tour, another important contributor to the collection arrived.  Timothy Dickinson is a retired curator at the herbarium who continues to do research there on hawthorns.  Deb had explained to Jasmine and I that this is a particularly difficult group to work out taxonomically because they are apomictic plants, meaning that they are genetically identical from one generation to the next, so each lineage could be identified as a separate species.  This can lead to taxonomic chaos, and Dickinson along with others have tried to bring order to the group.  Another Canadian to do so is James Bird Phipps who donated 20,000 specimens, including many hawthorns, to TRT.  It’s a wonderful acquisition, but one that still needs to be integrated into the collection.

The extensive pollen collection was developed by John H. McAndrews who took core samples from bogs and studied the pollen and fossil pollen found in them.  These specimens are mounted on slides and are a resource for ecological and climate change research.  The Sifton Seed Collection was created by H.B. Sifton of the Seed Laboratory in Ottawa in the early 20th century.  It’s housed in beautiful wooden cases with drawers holding hand-labeled boxes containing the seeds (see photo above).  The entire collection has been cleaned and organized by volunteers and is a treasure for artistic as well as scientific reasons.  The topic of art came up several times during our tour.  Metsger has worked with ROM and the Bata Shoe Museum on an exhibit called Flower Power and was involved in developing ROM’s Schad Gallery of Biodiversity (Metsger, 2009).  She also showed us some botanical illustrations in the herbarium collection as well as the moss herbarium of Robert Muma who developed A Graphic Guide to the Mosses of Ontario.   He was a book binder by profession enclosed the envelopes of moss in folded sheets of thick paper with accompanying drawings of the specimens and notes in beautiful lettering.  These are kept in boxes he created for the purpose.  In addition, TRT has an extensive slide collection of plant photos, including those taken by Mary Ferguson and Richard Saunders (1995) for their Wildflowers through the Seasons.   A recent acquisition is a work called Strata by Dana Munro, an artistic interpretation of the meaning of herbaria.

As Deb showed us one herbarium jewel after another, it became clear that this is a collection that is well cared for by curators who are not afraid to accept items that extend far beyond herbarium sheets.  Among the economic botany pieces are necklaces made from a variety of different kinds of seeds and pods.  These are kept in display boxes and many of the specimens are poisonous.  When wearing such jewelry became popular, there were instances of children chewing on the colorful beads and becoming ill.  So the herbarium staff developed a display that could be used in informational presentations at the museum.

The herbarium’s location does, I think, influence its collection strategies in that there might be a greater willingness to collect the unconventional because others in the museum have expertise that can be used to preserve these items.   Also, the museum has a broad visitor base that would find many of these materials intriguing.   One that came from Deb’s family’s garage intrigued me (see photo below).  Deb said she had used it many times as a brush without paying attention to it, but after seeing a sample of lace bark in the herbarium, she realized that the brush had been made from the same material, the net-like inner bark of the lacebark tree, Lagetta legetto.  She decided to treat it with more respect and put it in the collection.   In the next two posts, I will discuss two special collections at TRT that are particularly valuable and beautiful, with wonderful stories attached to them.  In the meantime, you might enjoy Jasmine Lai’s herbarium video that includes images from TRT.

Lace Bark

“Brush” made from the lacebark tree Lagetta lagetto in the collection of the Green Plant Herbarium at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto

Note: Thanks especially to Deb Metsger, and also to Tim Dickinson and Jasmine Lai, for a wonderful afternoon at TRT.


Dathan, W. (2012). The Reindeer Botanist: Alf Erling Porsild, 1901-1977. Calgary: University of Alberta Press.

Ferguson, M., & Saunders, R. M. (1995). Canadian Wildflowers through the Seasons. Toronto: Discovery Books.

Metsger, D. (2009). “Planting” life in crisis: The Schad Gallery of Biodiversity–A community effort. Canadian Botanical Association, 43(3), 60–63.

Metsger, D. A., & Byers, S. C. (Eds.). (1999). Managing the Modern Herbarium: An Interdisciplinary Approach. Vancouver, Canada: Elton-Wolf.

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