What is a Herbarium?

It is a common enough question asked by people visiting the Gardens. Herbaria contain collections of preserved vascular plants, bryophytes, algae and fungi, which form the essential research tools for scientists, conservationists and historians. The oldest herbarium was established in Kassel, Germany, in 1569. The National Herbarium of Victoria (MEL) houses the State Botanical Collection. This is comprised of 1.5 million dried specimens, a comprehensive botanical library and a collection of some 5,000 botanical artworks. The history of our Herbarium really starts with the birth of Ferdinand Mueller in Rostock, Germany in 1825. He trained as a pharmacist and began to collect plants during his apprenticeship. His passion for collecting, along with his scientific contacts overseas, has resulted in about half of the specimens held here having been acquired by him. We are fortunate the Victorian Lieutenant Governor, Charles La Trobe, chose to appoint him as Government Botanist in 1853. Mueller initially arrived in Adelaide in 1847 and traversed the countryside collecting, describing and preserving plants. He began to send seeds and plants to the fledgling Botanic Gardens in Melbourne. One of the first he collected was Stenopetalum lineare (Narrow Thread-petal), in the Southern Lofty Ranges in South Australia. These early specimens help to provide a historical record of Australia’s vegetation in the early days of European colonisation. Initially Mueller’s collection was housed in what is now the Plant Craft Cottage, where he lived with his two sisters until the early stage of the Director’s Residence (Gardens House) was built in 1857. His first dedicated herbarium building was a bluestone structure built in 1861, across the road from the RBGV and just south-east of the Shrine. It was soon filled to capacity and was demolished after the Shrine of Remembrance was completed in 1934.

The Herbarium we have today was built in two parts. The art-deco building facing Birdwood Avenue was constructed with a grant from Sir Macpherson Robertson, in honour of Victoria’s centenary in 1934. The rear section of the building, which actually fronts the Gardens, was built in 1989 as a bicentennial project. To help raise awareness of what goes on inside the building, and to open up the curved façade to the public, the Herbarium Discovery Walk was opened in 2010. The windows display examples of some of the plant specimens stored inside, the working tools of the botanists, and information on how the specimens are mounted. One of the specimens displayed is an image of the Banksia serrata collected by Sir Joseph Banks at Botany Bay in 1770, an invaluable piece of Australia’s botanic history. There are around 300 specimens in our Herbarium that were collected by Banks and Solander in 1770. This particular specimen of Banksia is a type specimen, the most important sort of specimen held in a herbarium. MEL holds over 35,000 types, with more species still being discovered. The type is the specimen to which all botanists can refer to ensure correct identification, and naming of newer specimens collected.

Much of Australia’s botanic history is held within these walls. There are specimens collected by Robert Brown during Matthew Flinder’s circumnavigation of the continent in 1801-1805 and specimens collected during the Burke and Wills expedition of 1860-61. There is a specimen of the aquatic fern Marsilea drummondii (Nardoo) collected at Cooper’s Creek during Howitt’s Expedition (1861- 62) in search of Burke and Wills. Nardoo also refers to flour prepared by Aborigines from the sporocarps of the fern, consumption of which, without proper preparation, may have been instrumental in the deaths of the explorers. The past and the present come together here. An important participant on the Victorian Exploring Expedition with Burke and Wills was Dr Hermann Beckler. He left the main expedition party at Menindee and in the following months collected hundreds of specimens which were sent back to Mueller for identification and storage. They included the first collection of an Acacia that bears his name, Acacia beckleri and a Spiny Everlasting (Acanthocladium dockeri) that is now critically endangered. Beckler’s collections are still used for research by botanists today. Read more about Beckler’s Botanical Bounty on pages 14-15 (Summer 2017-18 Botanic News). In some cases, specimens held at MEL provide a historical record of plants now extinct. One example is the Senecio georgianus (Grey Groundsel), collected by Alan Cunningham from the Central Tablelands of NSW in 1817. It is one of the few records that show this plant ever existed.

The most important source for the foreign collection was the herbarium of Otto Wilhelm Sonder (1812-1881), which amounted to some 250,000-330,000 specimens, including not only flowering plants but ferns, bryophytes and algae from all over the world. Mueller’s international recognition as a scientist, and his close links with other German scientists in particular, led to the collection’s purchase. The destruction of the herbarium in Berlin during WWII meant that Sonder’s collection in Melbourne became of even greater scientific importance. Another part of the MEL collection is the many tens of thousands of fungi. Most are from around Victoria but also from the rest of Australia and from Europe. Early collections of fungi were often accompanied by a watercolour painting, to depict the fungi in its fresh, coloured form, before it was dried. These days coloured photographs are used to add necessary detail to the dried specimens. The vast majority of fungi in Australia are yet to be named and collecting expeditions still head out to remote areas in search of new finds. Perhaps one will be found by mycologists to provide important new food or medicinal sources.

The mounting of specimens in the Herbarium is carried out by a team of volunteers. Some of the specimens being mounted have tantalising historical connections, like the specimens collected in Africa during the Livingstone Expedition. Did Dr Livingstone actually touch this specimen too? We can imagine the plant collectors of the 19th century marvelling at new and exotic species in then little-known parts of the world and sending their pressed examples back to herbaria around Europe. One example which conjures up images of an intrepid explorer is the Medicago falcata, collected in Tibet in 1856, near ‘the left shore of the Indus’. Much of the Foreign Collection is yet to be mounted so unexpected treasures are sure to appear from time to time. So far, the oldest specimen in the collection is believed to date from the late 1500s to the early 1600s. Some of the specimens that have been mounted are environmental weeds. Their preservation allows botanists to trace their spread across different areas as with, for example, a specimen of Cape Weed (Arctotheca calendula) collected near Fremantle in 1843. This weed arrived in Australia from southern Africa and has now spread across the continent. The identification of potential weeds is an important part of the botanists’ role. Weeds, particularly those that have invaded our grasslands, are a threat to primary production and biodiversity, as they tend to displace our native species, and the annual cost of eradication runs to many millions of dollars. In 2008, botanists at MEL identified a serious environmental weed, Nassella tenuissima (Mexican Feather Grass) with the help of DNA technology. This plant had been put on sale at a major outlet and its positive identification and withdrawal from sale saved further environmental damage.

The Herbarium, with its contents and the daily research that is carried out, is of great importance to the RBGV and the people of Victoria. It is important for our environment that weeds are quickly identified and removed from commercial sale. Rare and endangered plants can be identified and protected for the future with targeted seed collection, while at the same time, new species can be identified and named. An example of the importance of the seed collection held here in the Victorian Seedbank occurred after the Black Saturday bushfires in 2009. The only population of the rare Shining Nematolepis (Nematolepis wilsonii), near Marysville, was wiped out in the fires, with the extreme heat also destroying any seeds in the ground. Fortunately seeds had previously been collected by RBGV botanists and stored in the Seedbank. From those seeds some 150 seedlings were later replanted into four ‘founder’ populations, so that they would no longer be vulnerable to a single incident. Few collectors could hope to emulate Baron von Mueller, the founder of our Herbarium and first Director of the Botanic Gardens. He was arguably Australia’s most prominent scientist of the 19th century. He covered many thousands of kilometres on horseback across the whole country, often travelling alone, collecting as he went. He investigated, named and described some 2,000 botanical species. The work that continues means that the building we see in the Gardens today, like Mueller’s bluestone original, is bursting at the seams. A bright new, spacious replacement is needed to house this precious collection and to enable scientists to continue Mueller’s groundbreaking work into the future. As for Mueller himself, after being replaced as Director by William Guilfoyle in 1873 he reputedly never set foot in the Gardens again. He remained the Government Botanist until his death in 1896.

Mary Ward
(article from Botanic News Summer 2017-18)

Herbarium 1888


Ferdinand von Mueller


1930's Herbarium building


1989 extension


Herbarium Discovery Walk


Herbarium specimen sheet of Banks' original collected Banksia Type


1930's painting of Cortinarium subarcheri 'Purple Emperor' painted by collector and artist Malcolm Howie