What is an herbarium?

students and folder low

Researchers working in the herbarium at Appalachian State University

An herbarium is a place that houses plant specimens. Many people expect that an herbarium will be filled with living plants. However, these plant specimens are pressed, dried and glued to sheets of paper. They are dead. The sheets of paper are typically stored inside of cabinets for safekeeping and organizational purposes. An herbarium is similar to a library in that both house artifacts (specimens or books) in a safe and organized way that allows them to be found and used by researchers. If plant specimens are stored properly they will last hundreds of years with little sign of degradation.

If you think about it, it makes sense to store plant specimens in this way (as dead samples). Logistically you can fit and care for many more pressed specimens than living plants in the collection. In addition, an herbarium often contains plants from all over the world including plants from diverse habitats such as deserts and alpine tundra. It would be tough to grow all of these different plants in one place.

Herbaria are sometimes part of natural history museums, associated with botanic gardens or academic institutions. The largest herbarium collections in the world are housed in Paris and New York. These large collections contain millions of specimens. However most herbarium collections are much smaller. There are more than 3500 herbaria scattered across the world. In fact, you likely have a local herbarium that contains specimens of the plants that occur in your area. To learn more about the herbaria in your area you can search Index Herbariorum, a global directory of herbaria.

-Michael Denslow



9 responses to “What is an herbarium?”

  1. Dileep Rangan says :

    This is a great project and I am happy to log in from time to time and update the record. How does the system avoid duplication of effort, e.g. starting people at different points in the data set and/or removing items once the records are complete?

    • mwdenslow says :

      Hi and thanks for your efforts! Our current plan is to get 3 transcription of each specimen. If the transcriptions for each field match then we will remove the record from the system.

  2. Sarah says :

    Hi, I’ve encountered an issue with the dropdown menu for dating the herbarium specimens. The earliest year available is 1930, but I have come across 2 specimens (so far!) dated much earlier than this (the earliest being 1896). How would you suggest I label these (I have just been leaving out the year, but this seems a shame)?

  3. Jay Moore says :

    I wondered whether you are planning to geolocate the records, and how you might do this. Once you have the location data transcribed, will you be semi-automating the geolocations, or storing geolocation data at county level, or crowdsourcing the effort to find the best guess collection locations in Google Earth or similar?

    • mwdenslow says :

      Great idea! Our team has talked a lot of about this and hope to implement some sort of georeferencing task in the near future. Once the records are transcribed then they can be mapped based on the county (for U.S. specimens). However, we would ultimately like to have the location mapped as accurately as possible.

    • Rob says :

      Jay, the biocollections community has developed some awesome tools to help with this task. Geolocate is one, and Biogeomancer (which is being reconfigured to be more Google-oriented) is another. Michael is absolutely right that we’d like to build in an advanced feature to have help with georeferencing, which is such an important task! We hope to seek out the means to get this into Notes from Nature sometime really soon!

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