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11 Jun 2018

What’s the NATIONAL Herbarium of NSW?

As you stroll, jog or drive down Mrs Macquaries Road in the heart of Sydney towards the iconic Mrs Macquaries Chair, you pass over the expressway and on your left is a 4-storey block building sandwiched between two lovely heritage buildings. This is where the National Herbarium of New South Wales has been located for over half a century.

Many of our visitors ask us what is in the Herbarium, especially since the recent announcement that the collections will be relocating to a new, improved home at the Australian Botanic Garden Mount Annan. The Herbarium houses the state’s botanical reference collections and is the heart of plant sciences for the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney. 

The items in this collection range from stems of woody plants with flowers or fruits, or whole plants of smaller herbs, that have been pressed flat, dried and then mounted on archival paper. Other items are pieces of wood or bulky woody fruits; small fragments of plants such as mosses and liverworts in packets; or small bottles of seeds.

There are also flowers and fruits that have been preserved in alcohol and remain in suspended animation in glass jars, and glass slides of sections for the study of the internal structure of plants. 

All of these items, or specimens, comprise the research collections of the National Herbarium of NSW – and there are more than 1.4 million of them. Every year this number increases by more than 10,000 collection items.  Each day, the botanists and collections team are carefully compiling the information associated with each of these items (the who, what, where and when of the taking, or collection, of these specimens from the wild, gardens and green spaces) and making this information – our virtual collection - available through online resources such as the Australasian Virtual Herbarium and PlantNet

An active research centre

The collections of the National Herbarium of New South Wales date from 1770, made by Sir Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander on the first voyage of Captain James Cook on the Endeavour, to today. A little over half of our specimens are from Australia – and NSW in particular. The remainder are voucher specimens from our nearest neighbor countries and the rest of the world. 

The name given to the collection in 1901, the National Herbarium of NSW, was bestowed by the then Director of the Botanic Garden, Joseph Maiden. It indicates the scope of the herbarium and its scientific work, like plants themselves, are not limited by state borders.  We share and exchange our specimens with national and international herbaria for scientific study, much like a library loan system. 

The specimens in the National Herbarium of NSW are primarily used for scientific research such as the naming of species, studying the relationships between plants, and how populations of a species differ. Because the specimens have been collected at different places at different times, they help us to understand how the plants and forest types – and their associated animals – have changed, migrated or been lost to us forever. 

They are used as an aid in identifying plants, and are also used by artisans - see Art Inspired by Science here.  Many uses, many of which we would not have thought of when the collection was first established. The specimens also tell the story of the many collectors, naturalists, curators, and volunteers that have carefully studied and preserved each item.

If you are interested in learning more about the history of the Herbarium you can explore some of the collections in the National Herbarium of NSW on display in the Red Box Gallery, open Monday-Friday, 9:30am to 4:30pm, or join us virtually by touring the exhibit via the Twitter video below. 

To learn more about why the National Herbarium of NSW is being relocated to the Australian Botanic Garden Mount Annan please visit the project page here. 

Category: Science
Tags: herbarium
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