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History of Herbarium

The word Herbarium is formed from ‘herb’. A herb is a small plant. The plural of herbarium is herbaria. A herbarium is essentially an organized library of dried plant specimens. Appreciating, using, and learning from greens around us is nothing new, so documenting plants also goes back in history.

The First Herbarium

Along with the drastic development seen during Renaissance in Italy, documentation of the first herbarium is also credited to this era. Called hortus siccus in Italian, the first Herbarium was made by Luca Ghini, an eminent Italian physician and botanist of the sixteenth century. He founded the world’s first two botanical gardens. The first was established in Pisa in 1543. He founded the second herbarium in Padua in 1545. Both of these herbaria were part of Universities and were used to teach students Botany. Students helped the herbarium grow and in the next eight years, the first herbarium already contained 300 sheets of documented plants. Ghini fired the imagination of his students and inspired two of his students Andrea Cesalpino and Ulisse Aldrovandi to create even bigger herbaria, specimens of which are still intact to this day.

Renaissance Herbarium

Typical to the age, Botany saw great interest and progress. New botanical gardens came into existence and simultaneously the first herbals with accurate illustrations were printed. The texts that went with them were based on ancient learning. Though it took almost a century for botanical vocabulary to develop, the illustrations of that time are as accurate as of the specimens in the herbarium. These visual tools helped Botanists make great headway in their field. They established relationships amongst the plants as well as with other organisms. The scope of Botany grew from being just used in medicine.

Herbarium Crossing Seas

During the age of exploration, new species of plants were introduced to Europe. In those days, the journey was long and overseas, so keeping the plants alive in the long harsh journey was impossible. So Europeans got introduced to seeds and dried specimens of new plant species. These specimens were collected by the government as well as private collectors. Both parties financed such expeditions. Since it cost a lot to finance such an expedition, a herbarium also became a rich man’s or the country’s status symbol and display of its wealth and education.

Herbaria in Britain

In Britain, Hans Sloane, a botanist, physician, and an enthusiastic collector of herbs, created one of the largest herbaria of the pre-Linnaean era. Linnaean classification is the old-age division of living things into broad categories. Aristotle divided living beings into two groups of plants and animals. His student Theophrastus further divided the plant kingdom into trees, shrubs, and herbs. This is how Sloane classified plants in his enormous herbarium. Sloane’s collection in 265 volumes forms the base of what today has become the British Museum. Later, French banker Benjamin Delessert created an even bigger and finer Geneva Herbarium with his impressive collection.

Botany Transcends Classes

Botany grew as a favourite of the masses by the mid-19th century, and it became common to find both wealthy as well as the labouring classes, meeting at leisure on Sundays to discuss plants and trade specimens. It was this time that great contributions were made by people from all classes, both amateurs and professionals into the field of Botany. They collected and preserved specimens, identified new species, and even wrote significant botanical publications. Though wealthier contributors are more prominent because of their means, lesser known contributors also paved the way for the development of the study of plants.

Adding to Universities

Often wealthy collectors would leave their collection to big educational institutions. Henry Borron Fielding was the heir to a British millinery fortune and also an avid collector. He willed his large collection to Oxford University, where botanists are still discovering and typing specimens in this vast horde. In Florence, rich British collector, Philip Barker Webb, left his enormous collection of over 300,000 specimens to the University of Florence. This made the old and relatively modest herbarium of the university into a significant one.

Botany Envelops the Globe

So far the herbaria have been flourishing. By the mid 19th century, the East and the Middle East were also emerging as Botany enthusiasts. There would often be tension among the field collectors of different backgrounds. But this was just the way the interest in Botany was catching up all over the globe.

Botany and Herbarium

Botany is the study of plants. The herbarium is defined as a storehouse of collected plant specimens. These plant specimens are dried, pressed, and are then preserved in sheets. These sheets are then stored and arranged in a sequence that is universally accepted by the system of classification. The herbarium botany comes under taxonomical studies. Taxonomic studies are the collection and preservation of the actual specimens of plants and animals. This becomes a prime source for taxonomic studies. The taxonomic study of a newly discovered organism is done by collecting its actual specimen and then identifying and classifying them. Under this topic of herbarium botany, we will learn about how the herbarium sheets are made, some of the names of herbariums in the world, the technique of making herbarium botany, and the functions of herbarium and botanical gardens.

Taxonomical Aids

It is very useful for us to study diverse organisms and learn about them. We can exploit this knowledge of various species of plants, animals, and other organisms. It is thus necessary to make accurate studies about them. This accurate classification demands rigorous hard work. The first step is the collecting of specimens, storing them, and then making studies on them. The taxonomic studies help in the following things:

  • Studying different living organisms.

  • Storing specimens for future studies.

  • All this provides aid in systematic studies. 

So, biologists have established certain procedures and techniques that make our work easier. Herbarium and botanical gardens are also one of them.


As we studied above, the herbarium is a storehouse of collected specimens that are dried, pressed, and then they are preserved on sheets. These sheets that have different specimens along with their accurate information forms a herbarium. These sheets are preserved carefully for future use. They carry a label on the right-hand side at the lower corner and the label provides the following information:

  • The date on which the specimen was collected.

  • The English name of the specimen.

  • The family of the specimen.

  • The name of the collector who collected the specimen. 

  • The place from which the specimen was collected. 

  • The local name of the specimen.

These herbaria serve as a quick source of reference in taxonomic studies. They are also very useful as they provide information about the local flora and the fauna. With the help of this information, we can locate the wild varieties and their relatives of the economically weaker plants.

The list of some herbaria of the world are:

  • The Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, England

  • Central National Herbarium, Calcutta

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Herbarium Technique

To make herbarium, there is a certain technique that is followed. This technique involves Collection, Drying, Poisoning, Stitching, Labelling, and Deposition.

  • Collection: In this step, the plant materials are collected. This can be done with a scientific mind and aesthetic sense. The material for determination should be perfect and complete for determination. This means that they must have fully grown leaves and complete inflorescence. The twigs represent the woody elements. They are 30–40cm in length. The herbaceous plants are collected with underground parts. When making herbarium and botanical gardens, one thing that should be kept in mind is that the collection of diseased plants should be avoided. The collections that are made should be kept in metallic vasculum or polythene bags. This should be done to preserve moisture. 

  • Drying: The plant specimens that are collected should be pressed in ordinary newspaper folders and overlapping should be avoided. These folders should then be preserved in a field press. To avoid the blackening and decay of plant material, the moistened folders should be changed. 

  • Poisoning: Poisoning is necessary to avoid the growth of microbes. Mercuric chloride is the reagent that is used in the process of poisoning. After this treatment, the specimens are dried again. 

  • Mounting, Stitching, and Labelling: The specimens after the treatment from poison are dried and then are glued and stitched on the herbarium sheets. On the right-hand lower side, the field data is entered. Fragment packets are small paper envelopes that are attached to the herbarium sheets to hold the seeds and flowers. 

  • Deposition: The sheets are arranged according to the genus and the classification. These sheets are arranged according to the Bentham and Hooker system of classification. DDT and copper sulphate are also sprayed upon them in intervals of 6 months to kill the insects such as silverfish.

Functions of Herbarium

The herbarium has primary and secondary functions. The primary function is accurate identification and taxonomic research. The secondary function is that it is easy for the students to learn about classification.

Some other important functions are:

  • It helps to preserve the plant wealth that includes type material. 

  • We can carry out loans of plant materials and these can be further preserved for research and exhibitions.

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FAQs on Herbarium

1. How are Herbaria Classified?

The herbaria are classified into 2 types:

  • Major or National herbaria: It covers the flora of the world and this can serve as the purpose of research. This can also serve the purpose of identification.

  • Minor herbaria: Regional herbaria that are smaller herbaria are included in minor herbaria. The local area serves the purpose of smaller herbaria for the district or a very small area. A college or university herbaria serves the purpose of herbarium for students of graduation and post-graduation. 

2. What are the Botanical Gardens?

These are the institutions that are located in an enclosed space. On this enclosed piece of land, numerous kinds of plants are grown and obtained. It is one of the ex-situ strategies for the conservation of plants. The plants are identified and they are labelled according to the scientific names and classification. Lists of some botanical gardens are as follows: 

  • Royal Botanical Garden, Kew.

  • Indian Botanical Garden, Howrah

  • National Botanical Garden, Lucknow

  • Lloyd Botanical Garden, Darjeeling

3. Is pressing flowers between pages a part of the herbarium?

Pressing flowers forms the basis of how specimens are collected in a herbarium, though herbarium tends to make it last by using poisons and bug repellents.

4. Where can one see the first herbarium?

World’s first herbarium is currently a tourist attraction in Pisa, called Orto e Museo Botanico. The Leaning Tower of Pisa is one of the world’s seven wonders and is a three-minute walk from the herbarium.

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