Herbaria: Sorting Things Out

Specimen of Zollernia glabra from Brazil, Herbarium Wied [140], photo by P.L.R. des Moraes from article (2009)

It’s hardly news that the preponderance of type specimens are in Northern Hemisphere collections (Park et al., 2021).  To increase accessibility for countries in the species-rich Southern Hemisphere, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation funded the digitization of over two million botanical type specimens that are now available through JSTOR Global Plants.  Yes, for most of us there is a paywall to scale to fully use the site, but support is available for third-world institutions to gain access.  It is an impressive resource and botanists are using it for more than just finding type specimens of interest.  For two Latin-American botanists, Sandra Reinales and Carlos Parra-O. (2022), Global Plants was a major tool in “disentangling” the specimens of José Jerónimo Triana (1828-1890).  He was a Colombian botanist who collected plants from 1851-1857 for the Chorographic Commission set up by the newly organized government of Colombia.  After the survey was completed, he turned over to the commission a full set of the plants he collected along with a catalogue where the specimens were numbered and organized taxonomically.  This became the “Colombian Catalogue.” 

Triana then took his duplicates to Europe and worked at the Paris herbarium.  There he created a new list, renumbering the specimens.  It ended up in the Natural History Museum, London and so is the “London Catalogue.”  I think you can probably figure out where this story is going, but to add one more level of complexity.  In the listing of some species in the second catalogue is another set of numbers:  collection numbers for specimens gathered by Jean Jules Linden with whom Triana had a long collaboration.  These are designated “Linden numbers.”  The article includes photographs of pages from the catalogues; they are hand written neatly, with the information given in columns. 

The problem is how to relate these catalogues to the many collections containing Triana material.  Obviously the catalogue numbers and specimens sync for those that remain in Colombia.  However, there were multiple duplicates for many of his gatherings located in the NHM, Paris, Geneva, Vienna, and several other European and North American herbaria.  To attempt to figure out the location of type specimens, the authors searched for Triana specimens in JSTOR Global Plants and found over 5000 records.  They then searched in other databases for additional types and cleaned the data by reading the label information and removing those specimens that didn’t fit their criteria.  Obviously this was a lengthy and tedious process, and they were rewarded with some knotty problems to solve.  I can’t even scratch the surface of their detailed work, but I’ll give a brief summary of a couple of issues.  There were cases where the same Triana gathering was used to describe different species; the different numbers on the labels of duplicates was one of the issues.  There were also cases where Triana and other botanists collected in the same area at the same time. One of the specimens designated as a type for Meriania umbellata, a species collected and described by Karl Wilhelm Karsten, also has a Triana label and collection number on it.  To alleviate some issues, Reinales and Parro-O. present guidelines for lectotypification of some names of specimens that Triana described based on his specimens.

Now I soldier on to another herbarium, no less problematic (Moraes, 2009).  Again, it involves South American plants, this time collected by Prince Maximillian of Wied when he was in Brazil from 1815 to 1817.  He explored along the southeastern coast, a species-rich rainforest area.  In 1998  historians were searching family records in what had been his palace and rediscovered his private herbarium.  It had been missing for 20 years and was found when an intrepid researcher decided to investigate a difficult to get at cabinet.  In it were 22 parcels of plants collected over 26 years, so they obviously contained more than the Brazilian material.  In all there were 7000 plants including some from his trip to North America and his European collections, and there were 125 Brazilian plants.  Though this is modest compared to the 5000 specimens of 1000 species that he gathered in Brazil, it does contribute to knowledge of Wied’s work because there are still many of his specimens that haven’t been located.  As with a number of German collections, some might have been destroyed in the large-scale damage to the Berlin-Dalhem herbarium during WWII. 

To bring up the major issue with the Triana specimens of collection numbers, the situation is not as confusing here, though hardly ideal.  Wied didn’t used collection numbers, but he did number some specimens later as he studied them, and some were also numbered by others in the course of their work.  Of the 125 Brazilian specimens in his personal collection, there are 98 species represented, several of which are not found in other Wied material.  Unfortunately, he rarely gave location information on his labels.  Still, Moraes notes:  “Species kept in the private collection of Brazilian plants gathered by Wied represent a precious register of the flora of the Atlantic rainforest of the 19th century.  Its historical value is indisputable since Wied’s vouchers are among the first ones collected in Brazil that are still extant”(p. 46).  In other words, the contents of that cabinet were a pleasant botanical surprise.


Moraes, P. L. R. (2009). The Brazilian herbarium of Maximilian, Prince of Wied. Neodiversity, 4(2), 16–51. https://doi.org/10.13102/neod.42.1

Park, D. S., Feng, X., Akiyama, S., Ardiyani, M., Avendaño, N., Barina, Z., Bärtschi, B., Belgrano, M., Betancur, J., Bijmoer, R., Bogaerts, A., Cano, A., Danihelka, J., Garg, A., Giblin, D. E., Gogoi, R., Guggisberg, A., Hyvärinen, M., James, S. A., … Davis, C. C. (2021). The colonial legacy of herbaria. bioRxiv (p. 2021.10.27.466174). https://doi.org/10.1101/2021.10.27.466174

Reinales, S., & Parra-O., C. (2022). Disentangling the historical collection of José Jerónimo Triana from the República de la Nueva Granada between 1851 and 1857. Taxon, 71(2), 420–439. https://doi.org/10.1002/tax.12653

One thought on “Herbaria: Sorting Things Out

  1. Pingback: Herbaria: Specimens Get Around | Herbarium World

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