Treasure chests & libraries of plants: learn about herbaria

Written by Catherine Clulow and Thaakira Samodien

Herbaria are treasure chests of knowledge and a priceless resource often not (or seldom) acknowledged or understood. Much scientific research ground work relies on herbarium collections. These collections enable and aid plant identifications and are the keys to open doors of understanding of studies of vegetation change and plant diversity, unpacking lineages, ecology, morphologies and so much more. Working in herbaria may not be everyone’s cup of tea but these vaults of specimen and collection gems are so valuable and important. The Botanical Society of SA (BotSoc) wish to highlight this to folk and acknowledge the great value herbaria offer.

What is a herbarium?

Did you know that plants and books have something in common? A Library! A library for plants is called a Herbarium. A herbarium is like a warehouse or library of information about plant biodiversity. Preserved plants are stored, catalogued and systematically arranged by professionals and amateurs from different walks of life. Herbaria are of immense practical use and of fundamental importance to science.

Preserved collections and information about these specimens, including description, where it is found, its uses, when they flower and more, facilitate current and future generations to identify plants and study biodiversity, to support conservation, ecology and sustainable development.

What is in a collection?

A large variety of plant specimens and information about them. For a list of herbaria around the world, with the scope and size of their collections see this link.

What is collected?

A specimen may be a whole plant or parts of a plant. Includes samples of leaves, stem, bark, ideally flowers and/or fruits. Exactly what is collected is dependent on the plant. Specimens may also include photographs and DNA samples. Many specimens are donated. Others exchanged and others targeted collections.

What are herbaria used for?

Common research that may use herbaria collections include:

  • Mapping current and past ecological and geographic distributions of plants to help with landcare and bioprospecting
  • Evolutionary history of plants
  • Existing and changing nature of plant communities and their habitats
  • Invasion biology and weed ecology
  • Molecular phylogenetics
  • Classification and naming of plants

BotSoc’s strategic partner (you can read about this partnership in another of our blogs, here), The South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) has 3 herbaria (PRE; NBG; NH) staffed by scientists and technicians who continuously maintain and expand the collections, to research on plant groups and provide a number of services to a wide range of national and international clients. These services and products include: plant identifications; specimen exchanges and loans; botanical information; regional floras; plant checklists; taxonomic revisions; E-flora.

A bit about four of South Africa’s herbaria.

1. The National Herbarium:

The Pretoria National Botanical Garden is the home of The National Herbarium (PRE): Founded in 1903 by Joseph Burtt Davy. The current collection stands at approximately 1.2 million specimens, mostly from southern Africa, but extends into the rest of Africa and surrounding islands, and includes small collections from outside of Africa. This is the second largest herbarium in the southern hemisphere. Email

2. The Compton Herbarium:

The Compton Herbarium (NBG) is situated in the Kirstenbosch Research Centre at the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, Cape Town. Founded in 1937 by Prof. RH Compton. The Compton Herbarium is the second largest herbarium in southern Africa, leading the exploration of the diversity of the Greater Cape Floristic Region flora. It houses approximately 750 000 specimens covering mainly the winter rainfall region of southern Africa, as well as many valuable specimens in the South African Museum (SAM) collection. Email

3. The KwaZulu-Natal Herbarium:

The KwaZulu-Natal Herbarium (NH) is located adjacent to the Durban Botanical Gardens, in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal. Founded in 1882 by John Medley Wood. This herbarium curates the KZN region’s rich plant diversity of over 7000 species. It houses about 140 000 specimens, mainly from KZN and the IUCN-recognised centres of plant diversity- namely the Maputaland, Pondoland and Drakensberg centres of plant diversity. Email

4. The Bolus Herbarium

Another famous herbarium is the Bolus Herbarium at the University of Cape Town. Established in 1865, the Bolus herbarium is the oldest functional herbarium in South Africa. With over 350 000 specimens, it’s the 3rd largest herbarium in SA and the 3rd largest university herbarium in the southern hemisphere. As part of an academic institution, its primary function is to aid teaching and research of the diversity of southern African flora, particularly of the Cape Floristic Region. The collection is recognised for its superb representation of Cape Flora and large number of type specimens housed.

The process . . . from the field to the herbarium

Simple steps:

Step 1: Visits to the field to collect specimens

Step 2: Back in the lab/herbarium, pressing and drying the specimens (keeping them in the fridge until ready to mount).

Step 3: Identifying and labelling of specimens

Step 4: Capturing all information into the electronic database

Step 5: Mounting specimens on herbarium sheets

Step 6: Filing specimens into the herbarium

The Compton Herbarium, Kirstenbosch ©T. Samodien

Significance of herbaria in a nutshell

Chatting to some folk who have knowledge on and work in, or with information provided by, herbaria, here are a few reasons they shared as to why herbaria are so important:

  • The Herbarium holds historical records of plants which have been archived for many years
  • Herbaria information allows one to work out distribution and locality of species from past to present which is vital in conservation
  • Herbaria facilitate taxonomic reviews
  • They hold all the records of flora that has been collected in South Africa over the years which is important in assessing how the flora has changed from the past to the present and it also allows taxonomists to identify and name new species
  • A Herbarium also provides a home for many different types of studies (taxonomy, botany etc.)
  • Herbaria allow information to go onto the Red List Database which is accessible for anyone to view and which is highly important when it comes to threatened species
  • The specimen collections provide data about the species’ morphology while the label offers taxonomic and locality data

Herbaria are highly important when it comes to botanical studies and therefore the Botanical Society of South Africa supports the work and research that occurs within South Africa’s Herbaria.

For more information:

  • To read an overview about SANBI’s biosystematics and collections, click here.
  • The Herbarium Catalogue, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Published on the Internet [accessed on 01 December 2016].

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The Botanical Society of South Africa (BotSoc) are an NGO conserving and educating about biodiversity for over 100 years.

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