How you can use online herbaria to learn about plants

As part of Plant Facts Week (#PlantFactsWeek🌱)  we present this post about online herbaria and the great things you can learn about plants and get involved in a citizen science project from Louise Marsh, Communications Officer at The Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland.

For almost a decade, I was fortunate enough to work in a university herbarium.

One of life’s great pleasures was showing students around the collection for the first time. You really get a feel for a particular species as you leaf through the sheets in a folder. You can see how it looks early in the year and then compare with how it looks after it has fruited; you can see a plant species when it’s growing in optimal conditions and compare it with a specimen hanging on for dear life in a totally ‘wrong’ place; you can look at a specimen of, for example, Sweet Violet from the 1800s and compare it with one collected a century later and hundreds of miles away.

Viola odorata 1838
Viola odorata 1930s

The pressed specimen itself is only part of the picture – the information on the label can give you details such as what sort of habitat the plant was growing in, its associates (the plants it was growing with), the altitude it was growing at, etc.

And there is often a ‘human interest’ story too: I always found it particularly poignant seeing specimens collected during the First World War, especially when the same person had collected in Britain and then a few months later in Northern France. Finding a specimen collected by a famous botanist at the start of their career was also exciting. The image below left shows Prof Clive Stace in the herbarium at University of Leicester a few years ago looking at a specimen he collected as a teenager in the 1950s. He told me “I remember the day, I remember the plant – and I remember the friend who was with me!

1915 Blue bell (Scilla nutans) collected during World War I, in England.
Clive Stace

But what if you don’t have easy access to such a helpful and fascinating resource? With natural history collections under-resourced and under-used (these two things are probably related!) many budding botanists are simply unable to nip into the herbarium every time they want to check on the diagnostic characters mentioned in Stace 3 (aka the British Botanists’ Bible) or Poland & Clement’s Vegetative Key.

Fortunately an increasing number of herbarium collections are being digitised so that anyone with a computer and an internet connection can browse them whenever they like. The Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland (BSBI) was a pioneer in this field, setting up the Herbaria@Home project back in 2006, when terms like ‘crowd-sourcing’ and ‘citizen science’ hadn’t yet entered the general lexicon of biologists.

Herbarium volunteers

Over the past decade, more than 166,000 specimens have been digitised by hundreds of volunteers. Thanks to them, we can view herbarium sheets from the Natural History Museum, the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and Edinburgh, university herbaria such as Oxford and Cambridge, the South London Botanical Institute, museum collections from Manchester to Launceston and even herbaria in Florida and Belgium. Botanists can search by taxon name, by collector, by date or by locality and if you can’t find what you’re looking for – or if you can and then want to ‘give something back’ – we’d encourage you to sign up for Herbaria@Home and get digitising!

Chris Metherell

One person who really values herbaria, both virtual and actual, is Chris Metherell, BSBI’s Hon. Gen. Sec. and County Recorder for North Northumberland who is currently writing a BSBI Handbook for Eyebrights (Euphrasia spp.) I asked him to tell us a bit more about how he has used herbaria over the years:

“Nowadays we are taught from an early age not to pick plants. However I come from an earlier generation when the taboo did not really apply. At primary school we were encouraged to collect as many plants as we could find over a weekend and bring them in on Monday morning. I don’t remember how well I did, but I do remember my mother taking me out most springs to collect primroses.

“Of course the days of collecting for the sake of it, uprooting plants for no better reason than to fill one’s ‘stamp collection’, are – quite rightly – no more. But we have every reason to be thankful to those earlier generations of botanists whose extensive collections are now in herbaria large and small all over the UK. As a country I suspect we have the best herbaria, both local and national, in the world. Without them I could not have even begun the task of understanding how some of the critical groups worked, and certainly not have pursued my desire to get to grips with Euphrasia, for which I am now the BSBI referee, and certainly not researched and written the forthcoming BSBI Handbook on the genus.

“Looking back at my, then very ineffectual, notes I see that I started out looking at Euphrasia at the Natural History Museum almost a decade ago. Of course nothing beats seeing plants in the field, but with a large genus that can take several seasons and many hundreds of miles of travel. Fortunately, in a large herbarium multiple examples of each species can be spread out on the bench and examined under a microscope, often in the knowledge that the plant’s identity has been vouched for by an expert in the field. And now, with electronic resources like Herbaria@Home one can look at many of those specimens on a screen.”

Eyebright (Euphrasia) from Scotland. Photo credit: S. Rae, Flickr. CC BY 2.0

So, whether you are an expert botanist like Clive Stace, a County Recorder or author like Chris Metherell, or a beginner botanist who wants to know what a particular plant looks like RIGHT NOW but can’t (wait to) get out to see it in the field, you will find Herbaria@Home a valuable resource. Why not try entering the name of your favourite plant here and see what comes up? And then raise three cheers for all those collectors and volunteer digitisers who make it possible for us to access herbarium collections from the comfort of our own homes and offices!

Louise Marsh

Louise Marsh is The Communications Officer for The Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland. Read the BSBI News & Views blog here or follow BSBI on Facebook and on Twitter.


1 comment

  • Great article! Digitizing herbaria is a fantastic idea. But just in case anyone should wonder why, in that case, we still need to keep the original collections, the following short video should help explain.

    The physical specimens stored in herbaria contain huge amounts of information that can’t be recorded in an optical scan. For example, you can take small samples to sequence their DNA, or measure pollution levels. You can identify plant pathogens or other microbes, and you can look at anatomical details of the plants under the microscope. As analytical techniques expand and become more sensitive, so herbarium specimens become more and more useful to document changes to the biological and physical world.

Read this in your language

The Week in Botany

On Monday mornings we send out a newsletter of the links that have been catching the attention of our readers on Twitter and beyond. You can sign up to receive it below.

@BotanyOne on Mastodon

Loading Mastodon feed...