$100 Million Dollars Worth of Plants

The word vault usually conjures up thoughts of dark, scary places where hugely valuable or dangerous things are kept. Banks have vaults, as do big companies with dark secrets. Another place with a vault is the National Herbarium of NSW at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney. Yep, a vault of plants. My favourite kind.

Held within this vault is a collection of over 1.2 million plant specimens, each a holder of unique stories of discovery, evolution and human scientific advances. It’s a treasure trove of botanical riches and is valued at over $100 million dollars.

Prior to my visit to the National Herbarium of NSW, my notions of a herbarium were rather romantic. I thought about Emily Dickinson’s collection of over 400 plant specimens, inspiring a prodigious poetic output. Of sending home-pressed violets in birthday cards as a child. The reality of a proper scientific herbarium is different entirely.

What appealed to me most about my visit to the herbarium was the merging of both the science and the stories behind each species. Layer upon layer of scientific and cultural storytelling are woven into each herbarium sheet, in the dates, names, locations and notations.

Around 250 years ago James Cook sailed to Australia on the Endeavour. On board were Sir Joseph Banks, a wealthy scientist, and Dr Daniel Solander, a Swedish botanist. Banks & Solander collected over a thousand plant specimens from the east coast of Australia, all completely new to science including wattles, eucalyptus, and banksia (named after Sir Joseph Banks). 805 of the specimens they collected are now housed in the National Herbarium of NSW. These specimens, whilst having vast historical value and holding many rich stories, are still used in a practical sense today to help classify, understand, and track changes in Australia’s native plant communities.

Dale Dixon, a botanist and the manager of the collection at the National Herbarium of NSW tells of his first interaction with a Banks and Solander specimen;

I was a university student and was entering data from a big pile of specimens into the computer. It was an automated process. I picked one up and started reading ‘Banks & Solander, 1770’. I stopped and there were tears pouring out of my eyes. I couldn’t believe I was handling one of Australia’s most important plant specimens. We still use them today.

A Ficus congesta specimen, first collected by Banks & Solander in 1770. Note the numerous name changes noted on the herbarium sheet.

The management, curation, and protection of over a million plant specimens is no mean feat. Dixon leads a team of curators, botanical illustrators, and a bunch of keen volunteers, some of whom have been working at the herbarium for over 30 years. The volunteers sew the pressed plant specimens onto acid free paper with dental floss (apparently dental floss has longevity like no other, lasting at least 100 years!). This is a never-ending task, with Dixon estimating there are hundreds of thousands of plant specimens waiting to be mounted.

And then there are the bugs. Drug store beetles are presently threatening the collection – they like laying their eggs in dried plant material ‘and we have a supermarket’, says Dixon. The vault has therefore become a quarantine zone. The herbarium is not opened to the public and each visitor needs to declare any plant material they are carrying. Each new specimen is taken to a separate quarantine room before being dried and frozen at minus 27 degrees for seven days before being allowed into the vault. As Dixon suggests,

The collection is valued at $100 million dollars. When you start thinking in that dollar value, you can understand why we do what we do to try and preserve it.

As both our scientific knowledge and impact on the earth changes, so do the uses of the herbarium. Whereas once it was purely used for naming and classifying plants, nowadays it’s used for an ever-evolving range of scientific purposes, such as tracking the impact of climate change on plant communities. As each specimen includes a date and location, scientists can collect a series of different specimens of the same species collected over a hundred years or more and compare their genetic makeup and structure, drawing conclusions about the different environments they existed within.

The concept of a herbarium seems a little antiquated in our current technology obsessed age, but when you think about it, plants (like humans!) can’t be improved upon by digitisation. They need to be examined in the flesh. Dixon suggests that whilst they are utilizing technology to digitize parts of their collection, nothing beats a physical specimen;

The specimens are the foundation resources for botanical research. Without them our staff can’t do their research. If there is some sort of taxonomic problem requiring a botanist to quantify the attributes of the species involved, they physically need to see the specimen.

The herbarium is a collection of more than just scientific records. It’s a hugely valuable transcript of our ongoing conversation with plants. It records what we once thought, what we now think, and in generations to come will record what our children’s children think and know about plants, environment, and humanity. As Dixon suggests, ‘We’re just a blip in time, standing on the shoulders of the people before us. People will be standing on our shoulders in the future and building on the knowledge that we have created or discovered.’ And on and on. What a legacy.

This story was originally titled ‘One Million Plants of History’ and commissioned by Broadsheet for their Spring print issue, 2014.

The extremely valuable Banks & Solander collection