National Herbarium of Victoria

The National Herbarium of Victoria

What is a Herbarium

The National Herbarium of Victoria (MEL) houses a collection of approximately 1.2 million dried plant, algae and fungi specimens from all around the world. The majority of the collection is Australian, with a particular emphasis on the flora of Victoria. MEL's collection is rich in historical specimens and foreign-collected specimens: about half of the specimens were collected before 1900, and one third were collected overseas.

These specimens provide a permanent record of the occurrence of a plant species at a particular place and time and are an invaluable resource for scientists, land managers and historians. The Herbarium building also houses a library of botanical literature and artwork.

The Herbarium is a dynamic collection: new material is continually accessioned, and access to the collection is assured by ongoing curation and databasing.

What is a herbarium?

A herbarium is a repository for dried plant specimens that underpin research on taxonomy, systematics and conservation. In many ways it is similar to a library, but the information is stored in biological form rather than in book form. The first herbarium was established in Kassel, Germany in 1569. Today there are herbaria in most major cities around the world.

Herbaria are vital resources for plant identification and provide a reference point for clarifying how plant names should be applied. The most important specimens within a herbarium are the types. A type specimen is the designated specimen to which a taxon name is permanently attached. Preservation of, and access to, type specimens ensures that plant names can be used unambiguously.

A herbarium specimen comprises the physical plant specimen and the associated collecting data. The specimens provide verifiable documentation of the past and present distribution of plant species. They can reveal valuable information about plant biology including flowering time, habitat preference and associated species. Herbarium specimens are also a source of DNA for molecular studies that elucidate the evolutionary relationships between plants.

Inside the Herbarium

The MEL herbarium collection consists mainly of pressed and dried plant specimens mounted on archival paper, but it also contains photographs, microscope slides and collections preserved in alcohol. The collection is housed in rows of metal cabinets and is arranged systematically.

The specimens are accessed by staff botanists and visiting researchers for taxonomic, historical and ecological research. A team of dedicated curation staff maintain the collection and coordinate a range of curatorial tasks including:

    mounting specimens
    databasing specimens
    protecting the collection
    servicing loans and exchange
    filing specimens

The Herbarium is not open to the public and access for researchers is by prior appointment only. Please contact the Collections Manager to arrange an appointment. Researchers wishing to use the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne Library should make a separate appointment with the Librarian.  The Friends run regular behind the scenes tours to the Herbarium, please check their events list for the next tour.