Garden blogs

Quantifying the number of specimens in our herbarium

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On a rainy day in December, Abi and Kevin decided to do a tally. Counting every single herbarium specimen would be an overwhelming task. Instead, we counted the number of specimens on an average shelf and multiplied up to get an estimate of the total number of specimens.

The total came to 30,188!

Many of these specimens have been collected as part of our ongoing scientific research. In 2012, research led by the Garden made Wales the first country in the world to create a DNA barcode library of all of its native flowering plants and conifers, later extended to include all the UK native flowering plants and conifers. Our herbarium plays a crucial role in this research, as each DNA barcode is physically complemented by a herbarium specimen, known as a voucher specimen, in case the identification and naming of a plant needs to be checked. We also have many voucher specimens from further afield, like from our DNA barcoding project in Borneo.

Our herbarium also houses important bequeathed historical collections. James Cosmo Melvill (1845-1929) was an eminent botanist and an avid collector. His collection of UK plants, kindly donated by Harrow School, forms the bulk of our herbarium collection, with around 23,600 specimens. We also care for around 1,500 specimens collected in Wales by professional botanist, Ann Connolly (1917-2010).

Many of these herbarium specimens are beautifully pressed and presented and are a pleasure to look through. They also have a wide range of research applications for ecologists and botanists, like looking into the past distributions of plants, assisting plant identification and taxonomic queries or extracting DNA.