Month: January 2010

100 Uses for an Herbarium (Well at Least 72)

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When I talk about my job people invariably ask ‘What is a Herbarium?’ and ‘What is it used for?’  In order to answer these questions I thought I’d post excerpts from a paper I found online.  The paper, 100 Uses for an Herbarium (Well at Least 72), was written by Vicki Funk from the US National Herbarium and can be found in full here.

…Herbaria, dried pressed plant specimens and their associated collections data, ancillary collections (e.g., photographs) and library materials, are remarkable and irreplaceable sources of information about plants and the world they inhabit. They provide the comparative material that is essential for studies in taxonomy, systematics, ecology, anatomy, morphology, conservation biology, biodiversity, ethnobotany, and paleobiology, as well as being used for teaching and by the public. They are a veritable gold mine of information and the foundation of comparative biology. According to the updated website of Index Herbariorum (Holmgren & Holmgren, 2003), there are 3240 herbaria in the world…

An herbarium can be used to:

Basic Functions & Research

1. discover or confirm the identity of a plant or determine that it is new to science (taxonomy);

2. document the concepts of the specialists who have studied the specimens in the past (taxonomy);

3. provide material for making morphological measurements (taxonomy, systematics);

4. provide locality data for planning field trips (taxonomy, systematics, teaching);

5. provide data for floristic studies (taxonomy);

6. serve as a repository of new collections (taxonomy and systematics);

7. provide data for revisions and monographs (systematics);

8. verify plant Latin names (nomenclature);

9. serve as a secure repository for “type” specimens (taxonomy);

10. provide infrastructure for obtaining loans etc. of research material (taxonomy and systematics);

11. facilitate and promote the exchange of new material among institutions (taxonomy);

12. allow for the documentation of flowering and fruiting times and juvenile forms of plants (taxonomy, systematics, ecology, phenology);

13. provide the basis for an illustration of a plant (taxonomy and general publishing);

14. provide material for DNA analysis (systematics, evolution, genetics);

15. provide information for GIS studies of past and future collecting expeditions (taxonomy, ecology, etc.);

16. house vouchers for photographs that can be used in lectures, web sites, and publications (taxonomy);

17. provide information on rare, extirpated, or extinct species that can no longer be found in nature (taxonomy, conservation biology);

18. provide modern specimens for comparisons with fossils (e.g. classification of leaf patterns; paleobotany);

19. to trace the history of usage of binomials for a given taxon in a given area (local flora); Related Research – Collections are the lynchpin of biological research

20. provide pollen for taxonomic, systematic, and pollination studies as well as allergy studies (taxonomy, systematics, pollination ecology, insect ecology, and medical studies);

21. provide reference samples for the identification of plants eaten by animals (animal ecology);

22. determine native ranges and document which plants grew where through time (invasive species, climate change, habitat destruction, etc.)

23. document what plants grew with what other plants (phytogeography, ecology);

24. provide material for microscopic observations (anatomy and morphology);

25. document the morphology and anatomy of individuals of a particular species in different locations (environmental variation);

26. serve as a repository for voucher specimens (ecology, ethnobotany, environmental impact studies, etc.);

27. provide material for chemical analysis (lead-uptake; pollution documentation; bio-prospecting, for coralline algae – determining past ocean temperatures and chemical concentration);

28. provide information for studies of expeditions and explorers (history of science);

29. provide the label data and field notebooks necessary for accurate data-basing of specimens (biodiversity and conservation biology, biogeography);

30. serve as a reference library for the identification of parts of plants (e.g., seeds) found in archeology digs (paleoethnobotany);

31. provide context for accompanying library and other bibliographic resources (library sciences, general research, taxonomy, etc.);

32. serve as an archive for related material (field notebooks, letters, reprints, etc.);

33. provide information on common names and local uses of plants (anthropology, linguistics, ethnobotany, economic botany);

34. provide insect collections that have been incidentally collected along with the plants (entomology, ecology);

35. serve as a means of locating rare or possibly extinct species via recollecting areas listed on label data (conservation biology, environmental impact statements, endangered species, etc.);

36. provide information on plant predators (e.g., leaf miners, leaf-cutter ants; entomology, ecology);

37. establish the presence and distribution of plant diseases (e.g. anther-smut);

38. track introduction and spread of invasive species (ecology);

39. document CO2 change over past 10,000 to 10,000,000 years, a more precise proxy for this than ice core data (climate change);

40. provide information for foliar physiognomy studies of leaf form as it is related to climate change (paleoecology);

41. to document polyploid populations that occur naturally by leaf and epiderml stomatal complex size (phylogeography, paleoecology);

42. to document fungal/vascular plant symbionts;

43. to document biogeography of past plant distributions including regional extinctions (paleobiogeography);

44. document the evolution of major groups of vascular plants (paleobotany);

45. document minor cycles in climate (paleoecology);

46. provide carbon isotope ratios (e.g., Lewis and Clark specimens from 200 years ago have increased C12) (climate change);

Education & Training

47. provide material for teaching (botany, taxonomy, field botany, plant communities; ethnobotany; agriculture; dendrology, forestry);

48. promote appreciation of botanical diversity by making specimens available for viewing by students, researchers, and the public.

49. provide internship and job opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students

50. provide opportunities for students and young scientists to meet more established scientists;

51. expose students to systematic research;

52. train local volunteers for specimen handling, scanning, and databasing etc.;

53. run education courses for the public (e.g. local plant families);


54. serve as an identification center for all kinds of plants parts for many different groups of individuals, e.g., samples for the identification of plants that may be significant to criminal investigations (forensics);

55. serve as an educational tool for the public (garden clubs, school groups, etc.);

56. provide a focal point for botanical interactions of all types (lectures, club meetings, etc.);

57. provide samples for museum and educational exhibits;

58. provide a location for government and state agencies to work on specimens, i.e., USDA, USGS, NPS;

59. provide a home for long-term initiatives (e.g. Smokey Mt. NP ATBI);

60. provide a home for global, regional or local studies;

61. help establish new museums;

62. foster good international relations (e.g. sister institutions, joint field tribs);

63. provide material for the public (e.g. accurate illustrations);

64. provide inspiration for painters;

65. interact with the local people to form volunteer groups for conservation efforts;

66. maintain websites for dispersing specimen information, databases, images, public service information;

67. repatriate data and images from collections to the country where they were collected (international relations);

68. help artists prepare accurate drawings for children’s books;

69. provide information on the wild relatives of cultivated plants;

70. facilitate international exchanges of field expeditions;

Money Making Ventures?

71. organize photographs of plants associated with voucher collections;

72. help design natural history products for sale in gift shops (e.g. old illustrations for note cards).

You must agree it is quite an impressive list, but can you think of anything that is missing?

Specimen of the Day: 18/1/2010 – Eucalyptus

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The cold weather we’ve been having here at the moment has left many people (myself included) fighting the symptoms of colds and flu.  In order to clear blocked noses and sinuses many of us will have used decongestants containing Eucalyptus oil. The essential oil of eucalyptus is obtained, by using a steam distillation process, from the leaves and the branches of the eucalyptus tree.  The medicinal properties of the oil were most likely first discovered by the Aborigines, the native inhabitants of Australia (where the tree is originated from). They had used the oil as a remedy for skin problems and fevers. Modern herbalists rely on the oil to treat these conditions as well as colds and other respiratory ailments. The oil is a fine decongestant and has stong germicidal and antibacterial effects.

There are more than 700 species of Eucalyptus with almost all of them being native to Australia.  Eucalyptus are fast growing plants and most of them are evergreen. Several eucalypts are among the tallest trees in the world. Eucalyptus regnans, the Australian Mountain Ash, is the tallest of all flowering plants; today, the tallest measured specimen named Centurion is 99.6 metres tall.

The specimen I have chosen for today, however, is Eucalyptus incrassata.

Eucalyptus incrassata collected by Richard Helms during the Elder Explorer Expedition, 1891

Although we have many specimens of Eucalyptus in the Herbarium, I was drawn to this one because of its interesting label.  I knew nothing about the Elder Exploring Expedition nor Richard Helms but was intrigued to discover more.

Sir Thomas Elder (1818 – 1897) was born in Scotland but emigrated to Australia in 1854.  He became a successful and wealthy man with interests in copper mines, horse racing and breeding and he was said to have held at one time a pastoral area greater in extent than the whole of Scotland.  He was a keen supporter of exploration and was the first person to import camels to Australia seeing them as a solution for the transport problems of the outback.

Thomas Elder funded  The Elder Scientific Exploration Expedition (1891-92) and it’s objectives were:

Notwithstanding the numerous Explorations which have been so admirably and heroically conducted by Australian Explorers, the Map of Australia is still far from complete; the vast extensive blank spaces between latitudes  15ºS. and 30ºS. represent a vast area of country of which the physical geography remains altogether unknown.

The object of this Expedition is to make an exhaustive Scientific Exploration of these regions, and to determine and map with certainty and accuracy the position and nomenclature of all geographical physical features, and ascertain the nature of its fauna, flora, geological structure, and climatic condiditons.

It will also be a special object of the Expedition to search for information of the long-lost Explorer, Ludwig Leichardt, and his exploration party, which left in the year 1848 and of which no reliable information has been ascertained, although strenuous efforts have been made by all subsequent explorers to throw some light upon the fate of this heroic though ill-fated explorer.

The full expedition Handbook and instructions for the officers can be viewed here.

Despite its careful planning the expedition was plagued by problems and was eventually terminated on 4 March 1892.  Although the expedition was generally thought of as being a failure it did have some successes.  Richard Helms (1842-1914), the expedition’s naturalist, collected 150 new species of insects and of the 700 specimens of plants collected, there were 19 new species. Collections of land and fresh water molluscs, lichens, fungi birds/mammals and reptiles (116 specimens) were also made. The mammals included several species now extinct in South Australia.

Fritillaries (2)

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The name fritillary is also used to describe a group of butterflies, which are readily recognised by the beautiful chequered orange and black patterns on their wings. Eight species are native to the British Isles and others have been recorded as rare visitors. The best place to see fritillaries in the North of England is at nature reserves on the limestone of southern Cumbria such as Arnside Knott and Gait Barrows.

The small pearl bordered fritillary (top) and the dark green fritillary, both photographed in south Cumbria at the Gait Barrow and Arnside Knott reserves.

David Green

Spring’s on the way…

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Spring’s on the way…

…maybe, and it might not be too early to pocket a few relatively unusual things to look out for over the next few months.  I’ve picked out fritillaries for starters, mainly because we’ll have some Snake’s-head fritillaries coming up in the university’s Old Quadrangle when things warm up.  Later, when it gets to be out-and-about time, there are some fairly unusual trees dotted around south Manchester to watch out for on future Herbology blogs.  Our Grindon Herbarium specimens, illustrations and reference material yield a number of species in addition to the Snake’s-head Fritillary and illustrations of many more.

Fritillaria sp., 178/139

The International Plant Names Index (IPNI) yields 558 taxonomic records for fritillaria, although this is an exhaustive list of names and no doubt includes many duplications.  The RHS says,

“This is a genus of approximately 100 species of bulbous perennials. They are distributed throughout the temperate regions of the northern hemisphere, particularly the Mediterranean, Asia and North America. They occupy a range of habitats from woodland to open meadows and high screes.

“The majority bloom in spring, with flowers that are generally bell-shaped and pendant. The leaves are usually linear or lance-shaped. The name comes from the Latin word fritillus, a dicebox, from the spotted markings on the flowers of F. meleagris, which are suggestive of a dice-board.

“Fritillaria meleagris

“The name meleagris means ‘spotted like a guinea fowl’. It is found growing naturally from southern England to western Russia. This species is suitable for rock gardens, raised beds or woodland gardens. F. meleagris var. unicolor subvar. alba has white flowers. F. meleagris var. unicolour subvar. alba ’Aphrodite’ has white petals with green veining.”

The snake’s-head fritillary “…is native to Europe, but in many places, including France, Slovenia and Romania it is an endangered species that is

rarely found in the wild, but is common in horticulturists’ gardens. In Croatia the flower is known as Kockavica and is part of the country’s national symbol. It is the only species of Fritillary native to Britain, growing in traditional grass meadows. Due to changing land usage, it is now quite rare in the wild. The Meadow of Magdalen College, Oxford, the village of Ducklington,

Oxfordshire (which holds a Fritillary Sunday festival), and the North Meadow National Nature Reserve, Wiltshire are some of the best locations to view this flower.” – Wikipedia

Fritillaria meleagris, W. Curtis, Flora Londinensis (1777), t.20 (above left)

There is a colony of them under the trees in the NE part of the Old Quadrangle of the University of Manchester.  We planted some bulbs at home last autumn, and hope to see some sprouting in our own garden.

Fritillaria verticillata, C. F. von Ledebour, Icones Plantarum Rossicam (1829), t.2

Fritillaria meleagris specimen, and illustration from O. W. Thome, Flora von Deutschland (1886), t.119

Fritillaria pudica, The Garden xiii 598, 1878

– Daniel King

2010: International Year of Biodiversity

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Happy New Year!  This year I have pledged to do one small thing in support of the International Year of Biodiversity.  I am not going to make any other new years resolutions so this is it

I, Lindsey, am supporting biodiversity by enjoying the seasons and the changes each month by going for a walk.

I’ll be posting my 12 walks on the blog, one a month, with some pretty pictures too.


Want to do it too?  Biodiversity is life – pass it on is a social media campaign asking everyone to pledge to do one small thing for biodiversity during 2010, the International Year for Biodiversity.  Choose a pledge from or make one of your own.
The Manchester Museum is a partner in this international initiative.


Specimen of the Day: 7/1/10 – Ley’s Whitebeam

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Christine, one of the Herbarium’s many volunteers, sent me a link to a very interesting Radio 4 programme about Britain’s Rarest Trees –

If you thought that all the world’s rarest trees were only in virgin rainforest or on remote tropical islands, then prepare to be surprised. Brett Westwood joins botanist Tim Rich from the National Museum of Wales to look for the whitebeam trees, which are found nowhere else in the world. Ley’s whitebeam near Merthyr Tydfil has only 17 specimens growing in the wild, and new species are still being described from the Avon Gorge in Bristol. Thanks to analysis of their DNA we know more than ever about these trees and their conservation presents some fascinating challenges.

You can listen to the full programme again here.

A quick search of our collection revealed that we had a specimen of Ley’s Whitebeam (Sorbus leyana) collected by Rev. Augustin Ley (1842 – 1911) in Wales in 1899.  See here for more information on Rev. Ley.

Manchester’s Materia Medica Museum

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At the far end of the herbarium is a door to a spiral staircase which leads to the rooms in the main tower of the University of Manchester.  One of these rooms is known as the Materia Medica Room as it houses our collection of medicinal plants.

The materia medica collection is stored in a room in the main tower of The University of Manchester

The majority of these plants have come from the University’s Pharmacy department and were transferred to the museum at the beginning of the last century.

When we were looking for specimens of frankincense and myrrh for our Christmas posts, the Materia Medica collection was the obvious place to look.  Whilst photographing the jars I noticed that the original old labels stated that they were from the Materia Medica Museum, Victoria University.  I knew that the University had a Medical School Museum but hadn’t realised that the Materia Medica collection was previously a ‘museum’ in its own right.

I started delving a bit further into the history of the collection and discovered that it was put together by Daniel John Leech, M.D., D.Sc., F.R.C.P., Professor Of Materia Medica And Therapeutics In The Owens College; Consulting Physician To The Manchester Royal Infirmary; Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the Victoria University.

Here’s an excerpt from Daniel John Leech’s obituary in The British Medical Journal, (Vol. 2, No. 2062 (Jul. 7, 1900), pp. 63-65)

Daniel John Leech

…In 1876 he was offered and accepted the co-Lectureship of Materia Medica and Therapeutics in the Owens College. On the death of Mr. Somers he became sole lecturer, and in 1881 he was appointed Professor of Materia Medica and Therapeutics. At the time of his appointment the Owens College possessed no materia medica museum; Dr. Leech threw himself into the work of his department with the greatest energy, and at no small cost to himself. He has formed one of the finest museums of materia medica in this country, has organised a department for experimental pharmacology, a pharmaceutical department in which instruction is given to medical students in dispensing and practical pharmacy, and also a pharmaceutical school for the education of pharmacists. He made himself master of his own subject, and kept him self constantly up to date. His lectures on pharmacology and therapeutics, while being thoroughly scientific, nevertheless bore the stamp of his eminently practical mind and wide experience of the needs of actual practice…

… The lecturership of Materia Medica to the the Owens College to which he was elected in I874 opened out a new avenue for him and gave him opportunities to create a new department at the College and to distinguish himself as a scientific pharmacologist. He was not satisfied to give merely a course of lectures on materia medica – the driest of all medical subjects. He had heard and read a good deal of the pharmacological laboratories of Germany, and he started one at first of modest dimensions scantily equipped with scientific apparatus, but by his zealous endeavours, his perseverance and his industry and at great expense, which he mostly himself defrayed, it gradually developed into the present magnificent laboratory, in which such good work has been done and from which several of our young and prominent pharmacologists have gone forth.


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Suzanne invited a contribution on gold to add to the seasonal herbological musings on frankincense and myrrh. And who could resist the chance to write about gold? It is probably fair to say that of the Christmas triumvirate, gold is the most valuable. The heavy yellow metal has an affinity for bank vaults that is not shared by its biblical companions. Gold is easy to work, does not tarnish and is relatively rare. This combination of rarity, permanence and beauty accounts for its value.

Gold is heavy and resistant to weathering so it is concentrated in the beds of streams and rivers. It is in these deposits, that gold nuggets are found.

Gold nuggets for sale at the Mining Exchange, Ballarat, Australia

Nugget gold precipitated the gold rushes that were a feature of European expansion in the nineteenth century. Unlike mines, which require skilled labour and significant investment, anyone could try their hand at digging gold from river gravels! The best known gold rushes were in California, Alaska and Australia, but there were smaller gold rushes closer to home. The most famous of these was on the Gold Mines River in Ireland where it is estimated that 400kg of nugget gold was recovered.

Large nugget of Irish gold from the collection of Philip Rashleigh (1729-1811) in the Royal Cornwall Museum, Truro

Britain’s only working gold mine is in Co. Tyrone in northern Ireland. Recent research at The Manchester Museum has described barite with a very unusual morphology from this deposit.

SEM image of baryte from Cavancaw Mine, Co. Tyrone. Britain's only working gold mine.

The same gold-rich rocks that are common in Ireland stretch in a belt across Scotland. A mine was developed on a deposit at Cononish near Tyndrum in the 1990s. It was mothballed when gold prices slumped but will soon come back into production. With gold now trading at more than a thousand dollars an ounce, it is likely to be profitable.

Abandoned ore carts at Cononish Mine near Tyndrum, Scotland. The mine is likely to come back into production this year.

Mines in Wales have supplied gold to the Royal family for many years and because of this, Welsh gold commands a patriotically high price (much higher than normal bullion). As a result, Welsh gold specimens are very hard to get.

Britain’s most unusual gold deposit is to be found in the unlikely setting of the English Riviera at Hope’s Nose near Torquay. Here, the gold occurs in limestone. It forms beautiful dendritic fronds which are highly prized by collectors. A fine example can be seen in the Rashleigh Gallery at Truro Museum.

Gold from Hopes Nose, Torquay, Devon collected by Richard W. Barstow (1945 - 1982)

Gold panning is a popular hobby today. There are competitions every year and one of the museum volunteers, Dr Oneta Wilson, is a gold panning champion.