What is a herbarium?

Herbarium (Plural herbaria)

– A systematically arranged collection of dried plants;

– A room or building housing a herbarium;

– A box or other receptacle where dried plants are kept.

The very first herbarium is attributed to an Italian physician and botanist named Luca Ghini (1490-1556), also creator of the first botanical garden in Europe. He disseminated his practice to students around Europe and in most part, his methods and techniques are still used in herbaria around the world today, more than 400 years on.

A notable departure from his procedure came in the 18th Century, instigated by the great naturalist Carl Linneaus, who mounted specimens on single sheets and stored them separately rather than in bound volumes. Either way, the procedure of pressing and drying plant specimens for storage and observation has been a remarkably successful one, providing a huge archive of material for past, present and future studies with like-mounted specimens numbering in their hundreds of millions.

While herbaria are essential for the study of plant taxonomy (the science that finds, identifies, describes, classifies and names plants), their geographic distributions and their nomenclature, each mounted specimen can also be a work of great beauty.

The artist Paul Klee took great inspiration from his own personal and treasured herbarium, as did the philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau and the poet Emily Dickinson. Delve into some of the greatest herbaria in the world – such as those at Kew and Harvard – and you’ll also be awestruck by the diversity of each collection but also the fastidious way in which each specimen has been preserved.

Once pressed and dried in the herbarium way, flowers and plants can show features of themselves that might not always be obvious when growing in a garden or in the wild… seed-heads peaking out from delicate petals, the many varied shapes and strengths of stamens and pistols, undersides of leaves and petals, colour gradations and the numerical composition of a flower head.

Working within the bounds of traditional and archival methods – including specific mounting sizes, labelling, composition, presentation, conservation and storage – also brings a kind of purity to the herbarium specimen, letting each pressed plant or flower speak for itself.

On a lighter note, it’s also really exciting when it comes to the big reveal and a brilliant way to get outside and learn about plants.