A Brief Look at an Herbarium

By Patricia Dalton Haragan

The concept of a herbarium took shape around 1530 when Luca Ghini, a professor of Botany at the University of Bologna and avid plant collector, discovered that when plants he collected from the field were dried under pressure and pasted on sheets of paper, they could be preserved in an economical way for a very long time. Taking his 300 sheets of plant specimens, he bound them into a book, each with the scientific name written on the page along with other valuable data pertaining to the specimen. His students and other colleagues recognized the value of preserving the flora this way, so they copied his method. Soon, botanists in Italy, and eventually throughout Europe, were using this early herbarium technique for documenting the flora of an area.

In the beginning of the eighteenth century, the great Swedish botanist, Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), changed history by preferring a different technique. Known as the “Father of Botany” Linnaeus decided that preserving plant specimens on separate sheets of paper stored horizontally in boxes or cases made for easy access: this technique is still used today.

An herbarium is a collection of pressed and dried plant specimens mounted on special paper, filed into metal cases and arranged in some specific order. These are maintained by a Curator and used for teaching and outreach, reference, and research. The aim of an herbarium is to accumulate in one place all the plants (or only a special group of plants like native orchids of Kentucky) within a given geographical area such as a park, country, state, or continent. Labels, with the scientific name, location, collector, date, and other important information are essential for making a worthy specimen. No matter the size of the collection, be it 6 million specimens like at the Missouri Botanical Gardens Herbarium, or as little as 500, it is a permanent record of the flora and a valuable repository on which our knowledge of floras, past and present rely.

Beginning this March and continuing through November, the plants growing on the Botanica 23-acre landfill site will be catalogued and herbarium specimens will be made. This small reference collection will be used for teaching as the Waterfront Botanical Gardens evolves into a renowned, state-of-the-arts facility.