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Collecting plant specimens

Specimens should be as complete as possible to facilitate identification and to be useful as a plant collection. A typical branch or portion of the stem c. 20-30 cm long, showing the leaves in position and with flowers and/or fruit is required. In the absence of open flowers, buds should be included. If variation in leaf form is apparent, specimens should include different parts of the same plant to represent this variation. Seeds can be useful in the identification of plants and should be included with the specimen if available.

The size of a specimen is usually governed by the size of the herbarium sheet. Samples about 30 cm long make suitable specimens of most species, as herbarium sheets are about 43 cm long x 28 cm wide. Smaller sheets (e.g. foolscap size, c. 32 cm x 23 cm) may be used if necessary, but they are not recommended since they encourage the collection of inadequate specimens.

For plants with large leaves or massive fruits, do not limit the collection in the name of convenience. It is more important to have a complete, useful specimen than to conform to arbitrary rules (but see below about storage of large specimens).

The features most important for identification vary between different plant groups.The specific requirements for major plant groups are listed below.

Specimens should include fertile (spore-bearing) fronds and sterile fronds, as well as part of the rhizome (if present) or base of the stem (stipe). For tree-ferns, a portion of a fertile frond and the base of the frond stalk bearing scales or hairs should be collected.

In the case of small herbs the whole plant should be collected. Herbs with underground storage organs should be dug up complete with storage organs. However, if the plant is uncommon, make notes on the characteristics of these basal parts and leave them to shoot again in the following year. This is especially important in the case of orchids and rare species.

Grasses and other plants of grass-like habit should be collected whole so as to show the root-stock. Grass clumps may be broken up into small tufts of leaves and flowering stalks, and two or three of these tufts should make a satisfactory specimen. All dirt adhering to the roots should be carefully knocked off or washed away. Grasses are best collected after the flowers have opened, but before fruits are ready to drop. If the grass specimen is longer than the herbarium sheet, it should be bent once, twice or more so as to form a V, N or M (according to its length) and pressed in this position. Attempts to bend it after it is dry will probably cause it to break. In the case of exceptionally tall grasses, the flowering parts and a piece of the basal parts should be collected, and a note made of the height and habit.

Eucalypt specimens should include flower buds as well as fruits, adult and juvenile leaves (the latter often from suckers near the base of the trunk). Notes should describe the type of bark (rough, smooth, stringy or fibrous) and if rough, how far it extends (e.g. over the base of the trunk only, on the main branches, and/or on fine twigs), sometimes it may be appropriate to collect a wood and bark sample as an ancillary collection.

When collecting plants such as agaves, palms or Xanthorrhoea (grass trees), the lengths of the flowering and non-flowering parts of the inflorescences and trunk heights should be noted. For plants such as large-leaved palms and aroids, the smallest complete leaf is many times larger than the standard sheet. There are two collection and storage methods for such plants. One technique is to cut the leaf into numerous (carefully numbered) portions which are put onto multiple sheets. This has the advantage of not requiring alternative storage areas. Disadvantages include the need for additional documentation, preferably including photographs, and the difficulty of relating the specimen to the living plant. The alternative technique is to collect the leaf whole and to provide special separate storage for such material. The main disadvantages of this technique are that the material is difficult to handle (press and dry) and greater storage space is required.

Field notes and observations

Locality information and details of the appearance of the plant in the field are important for identification purposes. These are also necessary if the specimens are to be usefully incorporated into a herbarium collection.

Observations should be noted down at the time of collection and should include the locality (the distance and direction from a well-known landmark or town should be given and if possible the longitude and latitude of the site), collector's name, date, the shape and size of the plant, and the colour(s) of the flowers or floral parts when fresh. Notes should also indicate whether the plants were cultivated or grew in natural vegetation, disturbed sites, or pasture areas. Except for cultivated plants, it is desirable to note the altitude, rock or soil type if known, and to describe briefly the habitat (e.g. in eucalypt woodland on dry sandstone ridge; moist grassy site near river bank; rooted in gravel, in water 30 cm deep, in fast-flowing stream). The names or specimen numbers of plants surrounding vegetation may be notes.

When collecting more that a few specimens it is necessary to assign a number of each collection and record the corresponding field notes in a notebook. A page of a typical field notebook is shown.

Photographs of whole or part of the plant may be use to supplement the information included in the notes (a note in the field notebook 'photo taken' is then useful).

If additional material (e.g. photos, seeds, wood, spirit collection) is taken, it should also be numbered with the same collection number as the specimen. The collection number may be written directly onto wood samples with a felt-tipped marking pen. Numbers for material preserved in liquid fixative (e.g. alcohol solution) should be written in pencil and placed in the container as many inks are soluble in alcohol; an additional label on the lid or exterior of the container is advantageous.