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Botanical challenge: Identifying specimens in Kew's Herbarium

Gemma Bramley
18 January 2011
Blog team: 
Find out how Kew botanists, specialising in the flora of southeast Asia, get together every Friday afternoon for the 'family sort' of specimens newly arrived to the Herbarium.

The southeast Asia family sort

It’s Friday, and for any Kew botanist with an interest in the flora of southeast Asia, that means the afternoon will be spent at the weekly  ‘family sort’. At this sort, a group of about eight botanists work through any dried plant specimens collected in southeast Asia that are newly arrived to Kew from other herbaria around the world.  Since the opening of the new Herbarium and Library extension, we have a purpose built sorting room to work in.  This week, the bundle is from the Sarawak herbarium (Malaysian Borneo), and includes specimens I collected with colleagues from Kew and Sarawak on an expedition in 2007.

Sorting specimens in Kew's new Herbarium and Library extension

Before the extension was complete: sorting in the Kew Guild room

Each year we get 30-40,000 specimens sent to the Herbarium. Plants are only incorporated into Kew's collection if they have been collected and brought into the UK according to a set of strict procedures established by international treaties such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

Every specimen must be named so that we can incorporate it into the Herbarium collections. The first step is to identify which plant family the specimen belongs to, and that’s what we do in the family sort. We all have a chance to look at the specimen; from its physical appearance we can spot features, or characters, that are associated with particular plant families. This is a great way for us to become familiar with the features of plant families that are important for identification, and it really whets our appetites for getting out and seeing the plants in the field. 

What happens next?

Once we have agreed on which family the specimen belongs to we have to label the specimen - it now goes back to our Collections Management Unit for distribution to the teams responsible for further identification. We don’t write the family names on; each family has a number. Until 1 January 2011 these were based on a modified version of the original sequence that George Bentham and Joseph Hooker outlined in their Genera Plantarum (1862-1883).  But now it is all change: we have started rearranging our collections to the latest accepted classification (APGIII), which involves learning and using a whole new set of family numbers.  The Herbarium rearrangement will see all eight million specimens reorganised, certainly no mean feat - but that’s another story…watch the blog for updates.

  - Gemma -


19 January 2011
Sooo cool! Keep up the great job, good luck on the herbarium rearrangement. Saludos!

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