Specimens, Specimens

Neesenbeckia punctoria specimen,  Natural History Museum, London

A herbarium, by definition, is a collection of preserved plant material.  The Index Herbariorum provides the best information on how many herbaria there are in the world, over 3300, holding approximately 390,000,000 specimens.  But rather than look at the large picture, sometimes it’s good to examine individual specimens, to appreciate what a single specimen can reveal not only about the living world, but also about the people who collected and cared for it.  To keep track of intriguing specimens and lots of other stuff I come across on the web, I use a bookmarking site called Pearltrees, a visually interesting way to save URLs.  It also makes for an easy way to review what I have, since each item has a brief introduction and related image.  I recently went through what I’ve saved in the specimen department, and in this series of posts I’ll describe some items I find particularly interesting.  The first post will ramble across a variety of themes, but in future ones I’ll get more serious about the history, art, and usefulness of specimens.

I have to admit that some of my finds are just plain odd, such as the sedge Neesenbeckia punctoria (pictured above) from the Natural History Museum, London (NHM) that was mounted in 1790.  There are many earlier specimens at the museum including those from William Courten who wrote his labels in a code that is still being studied. Also at the NHM is a giant Alaria brown alga that stretches across seven sheets.  It must have been difficult to so beautifully arrange a specimen that’s over nine feet long.   Then there are the unmounted specimens at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew wrapped in bright pink tissue paper, much more attractive but less informative than the usual old newspapers.  A specimen from the University of Illinois is mounted on black paper, and a Sequoia sempervirens branch from the US National Arboretum has its background dotted with dozens of seeds.  Sometimes there is even more whimsy on display as in the specimen below of Clematis tangutica, with a note that it had been filed by an unidentified person.

Clematis tangutica specimen, Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh

With about 7.8 million specimens, it’s not surprising that the herbarium at the New York Botanical Garden has many curious treasures, enough for collection manager Amy Weiss to have found 26 sheets where the specimen arrangements resemble the letters of the alphabet.  In another post Weiss describes how a number of the noted NYBG botanist Arthur Cronquist’s sheets include a photo of the plant from which the specimen was taken—nothing that unusual there.  However, Cronquist would often place his hat on the ground beside the plant to give a sense of scale.  To keep things consistent, he apparently kept buying the same style chapeau over the years.

In some cases specimens are intriguing because of their labels that may provide information on provenance, such as a plant grown from seeds found in monkey dung or moss found on the bones and clothes of a dead camper in the Australian bush.  Or even more explicit evidence of origin is lichen attached to a deer skull.  At times context adds to the interest value of a plant collection, as with an account book among the papers of King George IV in the British Royal Collection Trust.   Along with lists of expenses, this ledger also has seaweed specimens neatly pasted onto some of its blank pages.  Was George interested in collecting, as his mother Queen Charlotte had been, or was there a clerk who satisfied a hobby while at work?  Then there is a herbarium sheet in the Denver Archives with several species of plants from Yellowstone National Park.  This item is among court record holdings because it was used in a legal case 80 years ago.  There has to be a story there, as with a Michigan State Herbarium specimen of a fern collected in the state in 1888, but labeled with stationary for the London and Lancashire Fire Insurance Company of Liverpool, England.

While I don’t want to dwell on the topic, there are posts on what are termed “curation crimes,” such as a specimen in the George Clifford herbarium at NHM that was used by Linnaeus in describing the species Crotalaria villosa, but the specimen is really a twig of Podalyria with a Crotalaria flower carefully attached.  Other crimes include Robert Brown snipping a piece from a William Dampier specimen while Brown was working on Australian plants, and John Lindley cutting small pieces from specimens in Thomas Walter’s (really John Fraser’s) herbarium of Carolina plants and giving them to Asa Gray (Dupree, 1959).

And finally, also to be found in herbaria are what could be called non-specimens or ghosts.  When sheets are stacked on top of each other for long periods of time, and particularly in bound herbaria, the chemicals and dyes in plants can leach onto adjacent sheets leaving a faint, or not so faint, imprint depending upon the paper.  These are fairly common with older collections, so common that they are often ignored.  But some curators take a moment to photograph these images and post them on Twitter so other members of the herbarium community can appreciate them (1,2,3).  Not ghosts, but real plants are often found between pages of books, so libraries can be repositories of plant specimens aside from bound herbaria.  Anna Svennson wrote about such finds in her doctoral dissertation, and she continues research on the topic.  She and librarian Will Beharrell have posted about plants she found tucked between pages in herbals in the Linnean Society Library.  At the New York Academy of Medicine Library there is a gentian in the chapter on gentians in Samuel Henry’s New and Complete American Medical Family Herbal (1814), providing more information for the reader.


Dupree, A. H. (1959). Asa Gray: American Botanist, Friend of Darwin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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