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 acknowledged or understood. Much scientific research relies on herbarium collections. These collections aid plant identifications and are the keys to opening doors of understanding for 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 plant specimens and other collection gems are highly valuable. The Botanical Society of South Africa (BotSoc) wish to highlight this and acknowledge the great value that herbaria have to 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 are 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 is found in any herbarium. 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. This includes samples of leaves, stem, bark, 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 are exchanged or targeted collections.

What are herbaria used for?

Common research that may use herbarium collections include:

  • Mapping current and past ecological and geographic distributions of plants to help with landcare and bioprospecting;
  • Learning more about the evolutionary history of plants;
  • Documenting the existing and changing nature of plant communities and their associated habitats;
  • Invasion biology and weed ecology;
  • Molecular phylogenetics;
  • Classification and naming of plants (Also known as plant taxonomy).

BotSoc’s strategic partner, The South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) has 3 herbaria (PRE, NBG and NH) staffed by scientists and technicians who continuously maintain and expand the collections, to undertake research on various plant groups and to 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, providing botanical information,  producing regional floras, plant checklists, undertaking taxonomic revisions and writing and maintaining  various E-floras.

A short introduction to South Africa’s main herbaria

1. The National Herbarium:

The Pretoria National Botanical Garden is the home of The National Herbarium (PRE). It was founded in 1903 by Joseph Burtt Davy. The current collection stands at approximately 1.2 million specimens, mostly from Southern Africa, but also encompasses the rest of the African continent and surrounding islands. As well as this it also 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. It was founded in 1937 by Prof. RH Compton. The Compton Herbarium is the second largest herbarium in Southern Africa, leading exploration of the diversity of the Greater Cape Floristic Region flora. It houses approximately 750,000 specimens and mainly covers the winter rainfall region of Southern Africa.  It also houses many valuable specimens from 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. It was founded in 1882 by John Medley Wood. This herbarium collection encompasses 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 is the 3rd largest herbarium in South Africa 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 about 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

  • The Herbarium holds historical records of plants which have been archived for many years.
  • Herbarium information allows one to work out distribution and localities of species from past to present which is vital for 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 provide a valuable source of information for the Red List Database which is accessible for anyone to view and which is highly important when it comes to conservation planning for 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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