So far the herbarium stories I’ve told in this series of posts are about discovering hidden collections and bringing more order and attention to them. The story in this post is about an orderly collection that has been thrown into disorder. The National Herbarium of Ukraine (KW) at the M.G. Kholodny Institute of Botany in Kyiv was hit by a Russian missile strike on October 10, 2022. The specimens themselves were spared damage as were the staff members, but windows were broken, debris strewn around, walls and ceilings crumbled. The staff worked to return things as close to normal as they could: boarding up windows, cleaning up fallen plaster, getting things back into some semblance of order. In fact, there were even plans to begin some restoration work in November, but by that time it was clear that materials and tools wouldn’t be available for the foreseeable future.
As with so much of the devastation in Ukraine, this was an obvious attack on a civilian target. You can’t get much more nonmilitant than an herbarium. The same was true for the entire area surround the Kholdny Institute: university buildings, museums, the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, and other facilities. All this is outlined in an article by Sergei Mosyakin of the Institute of Botany and Natalia Shiyan of the National Herbarium. They include photographs of the interior and exterior damage. The trauma of the attack is palpable in their descriptions. As with any such destruction, they kept discovering new problems, such as a leaky roof with the first rain after the bombing.
It is apparent from the herbarium’s website, and from the information on Index Herbariorum as of this post, Ukraine has a sizable botanical infrastructure, with 26 active herbaria, though the activity has slowed to a trickle since the war began. There are no loans being exchanged, though if possible curators will send digital images. The herbarium at Karazin University in Kharkiv had been hit on March 3, 2022 also with infrastructure damage, but no harm to personnel. Across Ukraine, scientific endeavors of all kinds have been seriously impacted by the war, mirroring what has happened to all aspects of Ukrainian life. Yet botanists are still attempting to protect their collections, so this is a story of hope as well as devastation.
The National Herbarium, which celebrated its hundredth anniversary in 2021, holds over two and a quarter million specimens, the largest collection in Eastern Europe. Some specimens date to the 18th century. Obviously, there is an impressive collection of Ukrainian plants, with others from around the world, particularly from countries in the former Soviet Union. It was an active collection too. In the ten years before the war, there were a hundred thousand accessions. One of the great things about investigating the herbarium world, is that, as I’ve mentioned in the earlier posts in this series, it increases geographical awareness. Unfortunately, war has a similar effect. I am now much more aware of the countries surrounding Ukraine, because of the large-scale movement of refugees across its borders, and the areas of support and threat that lie there. The present situation in Ukraine is a reminder that herbaria in many parts of the world have precarious existences. This is also true of collections in Europe and North America, where a few herbaria continue to be threatened with extinction, but in some parts of the world, the threatened collections can make up the majority.
There was a recent article in Plant Systematics and Evolution about a survey of Balkan Peninsula herbaria (Jogan & Bacic, 2020). The authors sent out a survey to each of the area’s 57 herbaria listed in Index Herbariorum to assess their activity and resources. Over 50% responded and the results were quite discouraging. Now almost every herbarium administrator feels overworked and coping with insufficient resources, but the circumstances seem particularly severe in the Balkans. Even something as basic as pest control doesn’t meet minimal standards in many cases, and two thirds of facilities have no air conditioning. There are very low rates of specimen exchanges and loans. Databases are often not accessible to the public, and many collections are largely undigitized. This speaks to a weakened botanical community that includes notable institutions such as the Budapest Herbarium with a significant historical collection among its over 2 million specimens. Geographically, these areas have long fascinated botanists like John Sibthorp who traveled there twice at the end of the 18th century (Harris, .
It is easy to find stories on the web about what is going on at the Kew or Missouri Botanical Garden herbaria, but it’s important to remember that there are about 3,250 active herbaria according to Index Herbariorum. Each one is a jewel, each one containing a history of plant life at particular places and times. No specimens are really replaceable. Yes, an herbarium that has been damaged such as the one at Berlin-Dahlem in World War II can be partially restored by the gifting of duplicates that had been sent to other institutions, but then these institutions are less rich (Hiepko, 1987). Those in the herbarium world are making their institutions more public-facing so people outside the botanical world become aware of the scientific and cultural importance of their collections. However, I think they also have an obligation to communicate with and about institutions that have too long been undervalued, no matter where in the world they may be.
Harris, S. (2007). The Magnificent Flora Graeca: How the Mediterranean Came to the English Garden. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hiepko, P. (1987). The collections of the Botanical Museum Berlin-Dahlem and their history. Englera, 7, 219–252.
Jogan, N., & Bačič, M. (2020). Balkan herbaria: Do we have to worry about them? Plant Systematics and Evolution, 306(2), 12. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00606-020-01651-1
Mosyakin, S. L., & Shiyan, N. M. (2022). The M.G. Kholodny Institute of Botany and the National Herbarium of Ukraine (KW), Kyiv: Damage due to the missile strikes on 10 October 2022. Ukrainian Botanical Journal, 79(5), 339–342.