A leading botanical collection of approximately 3 million specimens, representing half to two thirds of the world’s flora.
The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh's (RBGE) extensive Herbarium numbers approximately three million specimens, representing half to two thirds of the world’s flora. It is a leading botanical collection, with researchers from around the world visiting to study our specimens in a well-designed and user-friendly setting.
The collection is actively used to support research at RBGE and other institutes around the world. Each year we receive visits from around 200 scientists and we send approximately 4,000 specimens out on loan.
The specimens cover over 300 years of biodiversity, the oldest specimen collected in 1697. The collection is still one of the most active in the world, receiving up to 30,000 specimens each year. We have a major digitisation programme which has imaged nearly half a million specimens and these are now freely available online.
What is a herbarium?
A herbarium is a collection of preserved plants stored, catalogued and arranged systematically for study by both professional taxonomists (scientists who name and identify plants), botanists and amateurs.
The creation of a herbarium specimen involves the pressing and drying of plants between sheets of paper, a practice that has changed very little since the beginning, 500 years ago. Thanks to this simple technique, most of the characteristics of living plants are visible on the dried plant. The few that are not (e.g. flower colour, scent, height of a tree, vegetation type) are written on the collection label by the collector. Most importantly, the label should tell us where and when the specimen was collected.
A working reference collection
A herbarium acts like a plant library or vast catalogue with each of our three million specimens providing unique information – where it was found, when it flowered, what it looks like and it’s DNA, which remains intact for many years. DNA is now routinely extracted from herbarium specimens. The most important specimens are called 'types'. The type specimen, chosen by the author of the species name, becomes the physical reference for the new species.
This unique working reference collection brings species from all over the world together into one place to be discovered, described and compared. The work is disseminated through the writing of Floras (a description of all the plants in a country or region), monographs (a description of plants or fungi within a group, such as a family) and scientific papers. This fundamental research provides an essential baseline for other plant-based research and helps inform conservation practices.
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