Submission by Stephen Harris, curator of the Oxford University Herbaria.
A herbarium is a collection of pressed, dried plants, and is a fundamental conservation tool. Herbaria are central to the initiatives to catalogue plant life on Earth, the debate about the future of global plant biodiversity and its conservation and understanding plant evolution. There are many herbaria scattered around the world, and may contain a few thousand specimens to more than ten million specimens.
A herbarium specimen comprises the dried plant and, importantly, the label. The label indicates when and where the specimen was collected, together with the plant’s ecology. Thousands of people have collected, thousands of specimens in some of the world’s most remote regions. Each specimen is therefore a record of when and where a particular plant was found but also a historical document. When many herbarium specimens are analysed together it is possible to state where species are distributed and how their distributions have changed over time. Herbarium specimens are also important for correctly naming plants. Furthermore, it is possible to extract pollen and DNA from herbarium specimens, study anatomy and even carbon-date them. Herbarium specimens can be used in ways that the original collectors would have found impossible to conceive. Free from damp, fungi and insects herbarium specimens will survive for hundreds of years. In Oxford University Herbaria we have specimens that were collected in the first decade of the 17th century by an Italian monk; these specimens are so well preserved they could have been collected only a few years ago.
Oxford University Herbaria has been concerned with biodiversity issues, in various guises, for nearly four centuries. Established in 1621, the Herbaria had its roots in the Oxford Botanic Garden, and is the oldest herbarium in the United Kingdom and the fourth oldest such collection in the world. Oxford University Herbaria contain c. 1,000,000 specimens collected from around the world. Some of the species in the collection are now extinct; whilst other might be known only from the single specimen stored in the cupboards. Today, the collections and the data that they contain are being made available on the web through the botanical research and herbarium management data base BRAHMS online.
An example of a herbarium specimen collected in Mexico in 1992. This specimen was used to describe a new species in the genus Leucaena (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leucaena). The genus includes about 30 species of woody plants, mostly small to medium sized tree. Some species of Leucaena are widely planted in the tropics and subtropics as multi-purpose trees – fast growing, used for firewood, animal fodder, fencing and so on.
Sturt's desert pea, collected by the pirate William Dampier (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Dampier) in western Australia in 1699 is one of the many historic specimens stored in the Oxford Herbaria. This was 50 years before the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus developed the species naming science now uses. Before this time, all plants were named with phrases in Latin as seen on this specimen. Sturt's desert pea is the national flower of western Australia.
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