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?


One thought on “100 Uses for an Herbarium (Well at Least 72)

    Ruben Palacio said:
    March 19, 2012 at 3:14 am

    Herbariums work so efficiently because they are botanical institutions. The list of 72 uses of an herbarium show how important they are in contributing to botany and biology knowledge in general.

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