The Importance of Herbaria

by Jessica O’Connor

On my first day of college starting in Botany we were shown the famous botany building with its wisteria growing on the front, which were beautiful even though they weren’t in flower. Attached to the botany building is the herbarium. I have to be honest; I was unaware we had a herbarium in the college let alone one that holds such wondrous samples, including specimens from Charles Darwin himself.

When one enters the herbarium, they are greeted by dark, old, wooden cabinets filled to the brim with plant specimens from all over the world. Plant ID books both old and new line the walls and small desks by windows are scattered with notecards and papers. Most people are unaware of its existence. From that day I knew I wanted to write about herbaria and their importance: this article is the result. 

“Herbaria hold vast collections of plant specimens from all over the world, with some specimens dating back hundreds of years”

What are herbaria and why should you care?

Scientifically, a herbarium is defined as a collection of dried plant specimens, but it is more than that. To me, a herbarium resembles a library and it is important for the same reasons. Libraries hold vast amounts of knowledge about our history, science, language, art, the list goes on. If a library were to be lost, the knowledge it held would be lost along with it. The same can be said for herbaria.

As described herbaria hold vast collections of plant specimens from all over the world, with some specimens dating back hundreds of years. These old plant specimens may seem like relics especially when one sees the browning paper and broken book spines, but they have a key use in some extremely important scientific research, such as identification of plant species, informing us of the uses of certain plant species, their ecological spread, and assistance in climatic research.

Historical samples enable scientists to examine these specimens and compare them with newer samples collected. The difference between them can help scientists understand the changes that were occurring in the wider environment such as changes in temperature. By having these collections scientists are also able to monitor changes in the spread or location of certain plant species. As each plant sample in a herbarium must be labelled, the label should carry basic information such as the plant species’ name, where and when it was collected, and by whom.

From this information future scientists are able to see where certain plant species were once abundant and monitor their distribution. Herbaria also help to ensure that plants are named correctly. By using what are called “type specimens” scientists (taxonomists) are able to compare the collected material with the original sample gathered. Type specimens are defined as the original material that was used to give the plant its description. Trinity’s own herbarium hosts an impressive amount of type specimens, including a cone nearly the size of a small shoebox, collected on the coast of America in the 1800s.

Herbaria are of significant cultural importance along with their scientific value. University herbaria around the world hold vast collections of their national flora along with international samples over the years. They aid in the recognition of the contributions made by the people of their countries to the world of science. For example, Trinity’s herbarium has the biggest collection of algae in Ireland, and one of the biggest of any University globally! Trinity’s herbarium has a vast collection (roughly 300,000 specimens), some being unique, meaning that as a herbarium it is of great historical value. Because of this historical importance and vast collection one can assume that the herbarium has a long history. You would be correct!

“Historical samples enable scientists to examine these specimens and compare them with newer samples collected. The difference between them can help scientists understand the changes that were occurring in the wider environment”

Trinity herbarium dates back to the 18th century with the donation of a volume of dried specimens to the Trinity Museum by Sir Hans Sloane, however, the museum curator deemed this volume of no value as the specimens within were mostly plants grown in his own garden. Around the same time other notable donations were made from the voyages of Captain James Cook as well as a set of Wallich’s plants.

The next step in the development of Trinity’s herbarium was taken by Thomas Coulter. In the Summer of 1835, he was given 3 rooms in House 28 where he housed his personal herbarium of 20,000 specimens. Two years later Coulter had to leave 2 of the rooms, this is thought to be due to a difference of opinion between himself and the new provost. However, in the June of 1840 he was appointed, by the provost (must have mended that bridge!) to be the curator of the herbarium and was given rooms in a newly built house 40. This marked the separation of the Herbarium and the College Museum.

William Henry Harvey was the next curator from 1844 until 1866. Harvey was a leading expert on algae at the time and wrote and illustrated many books, some of which are housed in the Botany library. E.P Wright succeeded Harvey as curator during a time when the herbarium experienced unsatisfactory conditions. Despite these troubles, it still accumulated a small number of donations. H. Henry Dixon, who saw the completion of the school of Botany in the year 1907 took over following E.P Wright.

He, with a grant from Lord Iveagh, ensured that the herbarium was built in the year 1910. The current building that I saw that first day of my degree (and that you may see if you choose a degree in Botany) was, thus, a result of Dixon’s work. D.A Webb then took over as curator and is also responsible for writing a synoptic Irish flora, which has gone through 7 editions as of today.

After Webb, John Parnell became curator and helped bring the herbarium up to date, including some rewiring and reroofing. He oversaw the incorporation of old specimens into the collection and the expansion of the collection, with the addition of modern collections coming from Thailand. He was also responsible for the expansion of the botany library, which is now considered one of the best of its type in Europe! 

I set myself the task of answering two questions at the start of this; what is a herbarium and why should you care? The first question was a relatively easy one to answer as it merely requires a definition, however, the importance of herbaria will depend on personal opinion. I believe they are important not only so that crucial scientific work can continue but to remind us of the richness of our natural history. The intricate and multifaceted history of Trinity’s Herbarium above is just one example. Think of the history preserved globally in buildings such as these, waiting to be appreciated!

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