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Herbarium (SEL)

The Selby Gardens Herbarium consists of over 115,000 specialized collections of tropical flora, largely neotropical, with an emphasis on epiphytes. The herbarium is open for study to visiting scientists and students. Loans are available internationally to recognized institutions, generally for a period of one year with renewal upon request. The floras of the Andes and Central America are well represented.

Of the 115,000 specimens, 40,000 are Orchidaceae, nearly 13,000 are Bromeliaceae, 9400 Gesneriaceae, and 6500 are collections from Florida. The remainder include species of many other epiphyte families, as well as representatives from across the Plant Kingdom. Approximately two thousand specimens are added to the collection every year, with most of the plants being collected by Selby Gardens’ staff members on expeditions to the tropics and subtropics.

Selby Gardens is working to provide online access to its collections. Until then, type specimen images and information can be found through JSTOR Plants and Florida collections through the Southeast Regional Network of Expertise and Collections (SERNEC).

More detailed information about staff and holdings can be found through the New York Botanical Gardens’ Index Herbariorum page.

WHY ARE HERBARIA IMPORTANT?

  • Collectively, the millions of specimens gathered in herbaria around the world provide us with important knowledge relating to plant classification, variation, distribution, seasonality, and uses.
  • They house collections from diverse habitats and localities that can be studied in one place, including plants from different climatic regions that are impossible to cultivate in Sarasota. Plant species vary in size and shape across their geographical range, and this variation can be observed and studied easily in a herbarium,
  • they serve as a place to deposit voucher specimens from scientific studies — if anyone questions the study, they can always refer to the voucher to make their own judgment,
  • they can provide a treasure chest of information, perhaps containing notes on pollination, common names, historical information on vegetation formations, etc.,
  • they facilitate plant identification — collections can be compared directly with others to see if they match,
  • they are a source of genetic and biochemical information — this is particularly important as species go extinct in the wild; the herbarium may be the last source of their genetic blueprints and may contain traces of their potentially important chemical compounds.
  • well-cared for herbarium specimens can last for centuries, providing important historical information on plant species.

THE VALUE OF HERBARIA IN CONSERVATION

Essay by Bruce Holst, Vice President for Botany

An often repeated statement is that “you must know what you have before you can conserve it” …but how do you know what you have in the first place? Field biologists have been working on this question for hundreds of years by conducting inventories—from general natural history inventories to small, highly detailed plot studies of flora and fauna. These inventories result in preserved specimens, which in the case of plants, are placed into herbaria along with their associated original locality information. Herbarium specimens then serve as documented proof of a plant’s occurrence at a specific time and place. Herbaria have an advantage over living collections that if well cared for, specimens can last for hundreds of years if not longer. Although living collections are valuable for many purposes, they are expensive and difficult to maintain in cultivation for long periods of time. It is the vast number of preserved plants and their longevity in storage that make them ideally suited for the purpose of archiving information on plants and their habitats.

Worldwide, approximately 3100 herbaria collectively hold 390 million specimens, nearly all with labels that include collector and collection locality information. The labels may also include a variety of information, such as ecology, flowering time, ethnobotany, geology, pollination, fragrances, and dispersal. Herbarium specimens can also provide insights into which plants grew where over time and when did a particular invasive plant invade a particular region. Herbarium label information is most often summarized and published in floras and monographs though its potential for biodiversity mapping is being realized through the accumulation of its data on computers in combination with global information systems. One of the most valuable outcomes of this type of work is the ability to determine which areas are the most species-diverse or rich in endemic-species, allowing them to be given higher conservation priorities. A great challenge for herbaria, and for biological sciences in general, is capturing plant label information electronically so that it can be made widely available for conservation purposes.

Perhaps of greatest importance, herbaria are potential repositories of genetic information for every species of plant known to science. Techniques are continually refined to extract DNA and other chemical information from plants preserved decades or even centuries ago. Newer techniques of DNA extraction, particularly amplification, allow for genetic analysis from smaller and smaller pieces of herbarium material, thus preserving the herbarium specimens for other types of studies. Recognizing that some traditional preservation techniques may hinder the future extraction of DNA, herbaria and botanical gardens are adapting and placing more emphasis on the collection of materials in silica gel and cryopreservation of seeds and tissues.

As a fundamental tool for plant taxonomy, herbaria play other roles in plant conservation efforts. The simple act of correctly identifying a plant species is necessary for conservation, providing the language (Latin names) for biologists of far-flung regions and ethnicities to be able to communicate accurately. Herbaria facilitate taxonomic studies by enabling collections from diverse habitats and localities to be studied in one place. Plant species vary in size and shape across their geographical range, and this variation can be observed and studied easily in a herbarium. Herbaria also house voucher specimens from scientific studies where the correct identification of a plant is essential and serve as fertile ground for teaching the next generation of field biologists.

Considered as relics of the past by some biologists, there is a renewed appreciation in the vast amount of information stored in herbaria, their relatively inexpensive operation, and their potential to help us understand and conserve life on earth.

To explore herbaria worldwide, visit the Index Herbariorum page of the New York Botanical Gardens’ Steere Herbarium. http://sweetgum.nybg.org/science/ih/

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