Beckler's Botanical Bounty Melbourne Odds and Ends

At the Herbarium

With all my prattling here on the blog, I don’t think I have told you about my Tuesday mornings at the Herbarium.Today I just want to fill you in on the importance of herbaria; next time I will be a little more personal.

A herbarium is a scientific institution that houses dried specimens of plants collected in the field ~ not a place where herbs are grown! The following quotes are from the website of the National Herbarium of Victoria

A herbarium is a repository for dried plant specimens that underpin research on taxonomy, systematics and conservation. In many ways it is similar to a library, but the information is stored in biological form rather than in book form. The first herbarium was established in Kassel, Germany in 1569. Today there are herbaria in most major cities around the world.

The State Botanical Collection at Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria (MEL) comprises a collection of approximately 1.5 million dried plant, algae and fungi specimens from all around the world. The majority of the collection is Australian, with a particular emphasis on the flora of Victoria. MEL’s collection is rich in historical specimens and foreign-collected specimens: about half of the specimens were collected before 1900, and one third were collected overseas.

These specimens provide a permanent record of the occurrence of a plant species at a particular place and time and are an invaluable resource for scientists, land managers and historians. The State Botanical Collection also includes a library of botanical literature and artwork.

Collectively, the dried specimen collections and the library collections comprise a rich cultural and scientific resource in the State Botanical Collection and is a dynamic collection with new material continually accessioned, and access to the collection is assured by ongoing curation and databasing.

A cultural and scientific treasure! A potted history of the Herbarium is

The National Herbarium of Victoria at Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria is the oldest scientific institution in the state. It was founded by Ferdinand von Mueller in 1853 when he was appointed the first Government Botanist of Victoria. Mueller was an outstanding botanist and a prolific collector. He named and described more than 2,000 new species, and acquired over half of MEL’s existing collection.

The first Herbarium building was situated in Kings Domain near the Shrine of Remembrance. It was built in 1861 after Mueller repeatedly petitioned the government for space to house his collection of 45,000 specimens. The new building had room for 160,000 specimens, but was filled within a year of its construction.

The Domain building was used until 1934 when it was demolished. The collection was transferred into the current building within Melbourne Gardens, which was a gift to the state from Sir Macpherson Robertson to mark the centenary of Melbourne. An extension was added in 1989 to house the ever-growing collection.

And so ….

Among the Australian collection are plants collected by Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander at Botany Bay in 1770. Other historical riches include over 2,000 specimens collected by Robert Brown during Flinders’ circumnavigation of Australia (1801–1805), and several hundred specimens collected on Burke and Wills’ expedition. Important twentieth-century acquisitions include the herbaria of Raleigh Black, Cliff Beauglehole and Ilma Stone, and a collection of wood-rot fungi from CSIRO.

The bust of von Mueller in the Royal Botanic Gardens


(Von Mueller is one of my scientific heroes. However, like all of us, he did make some booboos. Apparently as he walked the bush he spread blackberry seeds!)

This short video shows how the specimens are processed, and also touches on some of the ways the Herbarium makes the information from the specimens available for wide use.

Plants are collected in the field, pressed and labeled on site. Detailed information about location, habit, habitat, soil type and so on is also collected, and accompanies the specimen to the herbarium. I know this because part of our work with the Beckler’s Botanical Bounty Project is collecting the plants we are painting. The specimens have to be collected to the high standards set by the National Herbarium of Victoria. We were delighted to hear that all of our specimens have been accepted into the Herbarium.

Here are some links to other aspects of the Herbarium and research, if you are interested in finding out more.

Australia’s Virtual Herbarium is a fascinating site that allows you to search for specific plants, including being able to find the plants collected on different historical expeditions.

The Atlas of Living Australia is another fascinating site, and it includes Australian fauna.

The Biodiversity Library is the website of a project to digitalise all biodiversity literature. It is especially rich in publications from the 1800s.

The Herbarium’s website has more information about mounting specimens and protecting the collection.



7 replies on “At the Herbarium”

That building looks a trifle familiar! All the herbaria in all the world are such important resources, a sort of How To guide if, God forbid, we have to resort to the Seed Ark at Svalbard. Oh, and I’m absolutely blown away by the magnificence of Cliff Beauglehole’s name!


Heaven help us if we need to use the seed bank in Svalbard. (I sometimes wonder who actually owns those seeds, and what guarantees are there that they will be used for the common good?) Herbaria are not seed banks, although collecting the seed capsule of the plant is always good.


No, what I meant was, herbaria will tell us what the plant looked like, where it grew, what its natural environment was, whereas Svalbard is more row upon row of seedstock. I agree, control of the seed stock is a dubious issue, and I doubt the scientists will triumph over industry…


Hi Anne – just catching up with some of the Sisters’ postings – this is wonderful and a reminder that I must, must, must go and take a look. I always wander past when I go to the Bot Gardens and think ‘I’ll make time next time…’


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