10 Jul 2024

Pressed plants going digital – our progress so far

El James

Update from El James, Science Engagement Officer

Digitisation of the Botanic Garden’s Herbarium is well underway through our Plants Past Present and Future project!

Back in January, the digitisation team visited both the Natural History Museum Herbarium and Kew Gardens Herbarium. We were greeted with a very warm welcome at both places and staff kindly gave us in-depth tours behind the scenes. Both organisations have been digitising their collections over the past few years and this fact-finding mission gave us invaluable insights into their processes and experiences. We came away feeling confident about our planned digitisation workflow and we were very keen to get started!

At the beginning of the year, we also held two workshops for new volunteers who had waited very patiently since before Christmas whilst we figured out the workflow logistics. It was great to train everyone in the process of attaching plant specimens onto archival paper for long-term preservation and to learn about all the different materials used at this stage. We were lucky to have some relatively new material from Tasmania to work with, which had sat safely in its original box ready to be mounted since it was collected in 2008 during a seed collecting trip.

Volunteers are fundamental to the project and they have taken to the daunting tasks really well. In just over a month, we have managed to attach barcodes to over 4,000 specimens in the James Cosmo Melvill collection and photographed over 1000!

The process also involves the tricky task of transcribing information on handwritten labels but we have completed almost 500 of these. These are numbers we weren’t expecting so early in the project, so we’re really excited to have made such good progress.

One particular volunteer, Oscar, joined us early on in October 2023 and since then, he has been working through hundreds of herbarium specimens. Lucky for us, he’s not tired of it! He shares below a little bit about his experience so far.

Update from Oscar Fox, Herbarium Volunteer

As El mentioned, I started volunteering on this project last autumn, and I had no clue what to expect and no idea how big of a project this would end up being. My first introduction to the project was being shown the four massive cupboards full of all the specimens that were to be pre-curated and digitised and I was thoroughly intrigued by the sheer variety of different plants in the collection, as well as the size of some of the folders the specimens were kept in! At this time I was also graciously given the option of doing different tasks, but I remained undeterred! 

To begin learning about the process, I was shown how plants are preserved – first pressing and drying them, and then mounting onto archival paper with linen tape, as well as sticking down any labels with water soluble glue and adding seed/fragment packets wherever necessary. To get used to handling delicate specimens, I was tasked with mounting a few hundred Ragwort Senecio specimens that had remained untouched in their boxes since they were collected back in 2004 as part of a research project.

While some may find the process of sticking plants onto paper for hours on end tedious, I found it can be quite therapeutic once you get into the swing of it! 

We eventually moved on to photographing the specimens, which was a huge learning curve. Getting the imaging station set up and the camera configured with all the right settings took a while, but we soon reached an image quality that we were happy with! Since then, I’ve been helping out with photographing. We have currently photographed the entire grass, sedge and rush collection and a good portion of the pondweed Potamogeton specimens. Photographing them all has been quite fun for me as I’ve figured out my own routine to get them done efficiently. It’s been a fantastic experience seeing all the different plant species I never would have come across otherwise.

The final step in the process will be to replace the folders that the specimens are kept in, which I’m quite looking forward to as the condition of some of them is currently poor and the new archival folders will keep the specimens safe for decades to come.

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