Creating a Herbarium Project: Tips and Tricks for Beginners
Herbarium collections are essential resources for scientific study, as they provide a comprehensive record of plant diversity, taxonomy, and distribution. These herbarium collections consist of dried plant specimens that have been carefully arranged, preserved, and stored for future research. The word “herbarium” is derived from the Latin word “hortus siccus,” which means “dry garden.” The process of collecting, identifying, and preserving plant specimens has been practised for centuries, with some of the world’s largest herbaria housing millions of specimens, such as the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and the New York Botanical Garden. In this blog, we will discuss how to create a herbarium project, focusing on collecting, preparing, and storing plant specimens.
1Collecting plant specimens
Before starting your botanical herbarium project, it is essential to familiarise yourself with the common plants in your area. You can do this by visiting botanical gardens, national parks, and other natural habitats. The Chinese National Herbarium and the Herbarium Bogoriense in West Java, Indonesia, are two examples of well-known herbaria the world over that house extensive collections of local plant species.
To identify species and collect plant specimens, follow these steps:
- Choose a suitable location and time for collection. Most plants are best collected during their flowering or fruiting period, as this aids in the identification and preservation of specimens.
- Obtain permission if required. Many herbaria collections, botanical gardens, and other protected areas require permission before collecting plant material.
- Gather necessary materials, such as pruning shears, plastic bags, a notebook for recording data, and a GPS device or map to identify and record the location of collected flower specimens.
- Select healthy, representative specimens that display the plant’s diversity in terms of leaves, stems, flowers, and fruits. Avoid damaged or diseased species of plants.
- Collect small specimens in their entirety, including roots, stems, leaves, and flowers. For collections of larger plants or trees, collect a branch with leaves, flowers, and fruits if possible.
- Record essential data such as identifying the date, location, habitat, soil type, and any other relevant identifying information. Additionally, note the plant’s common names and any known uses, such as medicinal properties.
Place the collected specimens in plastic bags to prevent moisture loss and contamination. Store them in a cool, shaded area until they can be processed.
2Preparing plant specimens
The following steps are involved in preparing plant specimens for your herbarium project:
- Assemble the necessary materials, including a plant press, blotter paper, absorbent paper, acid-free paper, and newspaper or other interleaving materials.
- Remove any excess soil or leaf debris from the plant specimen. If necessary, rinse the stem and roots gently to remove dirt, then pat them dry with a paper towel.
- Carefully arrange the plant specimen on a sheet of acid-free paper, ensuring that all parts are visible and identifiable. For large specimens of plants, such as tree branches or long stems of flowers, it may be necessary to fold or trim them to fit the paper.
- Place the acid-free paper containing the collection of dried plant specimens between two sheets of blotter paper or absorbent paper. This will help the collected to absorb moisture and speed up the drying process.
- Place the sandwiched specimen between two sheets of newspaper or sheets of other interleaving materials.
- Place the prepared specimen stack in a plant press, ensuring that it is evenly spaced and not overcrowded. Tighten the straps or bolts of the plant press to apply even pressure on the specimen.
- Allow the plant material to dry for approximately 1-3 weeks, depending on the specimen material’s size and moisture content. During this time, periodically check the plant press, and replace the blotting paper and interleaving materials as needed to ensure they remain dry and continue to effectively absorb moisture from the plant specimen.
- Once the plant specimen is thoroughly dried, carefully remove it from the plant press, ensuring that the stem of the plants within it remains intact and undamaged.
3Mounting and labelling plant specimens
After the drying process is complete, you will need to mount and label your plant specimens to create a herbarium sheet. Follow these steps:
- Select a sheet of acid-free paper that is slightly larger than the dried specimen. Most herbaria use paper measuring 11.5 x 16.5 inches (29.2 x 41.9 cm), but you can choose a size that best suits your needs.
- Carefully arrange the dried specimen on acid-free paper, ensuring that all parts are visible and identifiable. Use a small amount of adhesive, such as white glue, to secure the plant material to the paper. Some researchers prefer to use strips of gummed linen tape or archival-quality adhesive tape for this purpose.
- Prepare a label for your herbarium sheet that includes essential information such as the plant’s scientific name, family, and common names, as well as the date, location, and habitat of the collection. Include any additional data you recorded during the collection process, such as the soil type, plant height, and any known uses or medicinal properties.
- Attach the label to the lower right-hand corner of the herbarium sheet using glue or archival-quality adhesive tape. Ensure that the label is securely attached and will not detach or damage the plant specimen.
4Storing and organising herbarium specimens
Once your herbarium collections plant specimens have been mounted, preserved, and labelled, you will need to store and organise them in a manner that preserves their integrity and facilitates future identification and research. Follow these guidelines for storing and organising your herbarium project:
- Store herbarium sheets in a cool, dry, and dark environment, such as a cabinet or drawer, to prevent damage from light, moisture, and pests. Many herbaria use specially designed cabinets or cases with tightly sealed doors to protect their collections.
- Organise your herbarium sheets according to a classification system, such as the plant’s family, genus, or species. This will make it easier to locate specific specimens and facilitate future research and identification efforts.
- Maintain a catalogue or database of your herbarium project, including essential information such as the plant’s scientific name, family, and common names, as well as the date, location, and habitat of the collection. This will help you keep track of your collection and make it easier for other researchers to access and utilise your herbarium specimens.
- Regularly monitor your herbarium project for signs of damage or deterioration, such as mould, pests, or fading. Address any issues promptly to ensure the long-term preservation and integrity of your collection.
Creating a herbarium project is a rewarding and educational endeavour that can help you develop a deeper understanding of botany medicinal plants, plant taxonomy, and the diverse plant species in your area.
By following the steps outlined in this blog, you can collect, prepare, and store plant specimens in a manner that preserves their integrity and facilitates future research and identification efforts. Whether you are creating a small herbarium for personal use or contributing to a larger collection at a national herbarium, your efforts will help advance the scientific study and identification of plants and contribute to our understanding of the world’s diverse and fascinating flora.
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