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Herbaria: botany’s final frontier


More than half of the world’s undiscovered plant species may reside in musty herbaria cabinets, not pristine habitats in remote parts of the planet.

While assembling a comprehensive study of Strobilanthes, a genus of purple-flowered plants native to Asia, Robert Scotland of the University of Oxford, UK, noticed that many species in the genus were formally described long after they had been placed in herbaria.

To see if this was a general trend of botanical systematics, he and colleagues at London’s Natural History Museum and at Kew Gardens and other herbaria calculated this lag for hundreds of flowering plant species in five other genera that have been described since 1970.

The gap ranged from 1 to 210 years and averaged 32 or 38 years, depending on where the description was published. Fewer than 17% of plant species were described within 5 years of their discovery, Scotland’s team report this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. By his team’s calculation, 47% to 66% of still-to-be-discovered plant species have already been collected and await discovery.

Scotland says expeditions are still important for finding new plants but thinks more resources should be devoted to maintain herbaria, as well as to training scientists to find the finding hidden species lurking within them.

“When the final plant collections have been made from the more inaccessible parts of the world,” his team writes, “herbarium cabinets will still represent a final frontier for the discovery of a large number of new species of flowering plant.”

Image of Strobilanthes wakasana via nobuflickr under Creative Commons.


  1. Report this comment

    Judith said:

    Natural history museum collections everywhere contain riches literally untold, but those of us in charge of their care do our best to keep them from smelling “musty”. You might not like the smell of those “prisitine habitats” either.

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