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UK Virtual Herbarium - a pilot project

Sally King
3 August 2012
Blog team: 
Will you join Kew's quest to unlock the information hidden behind the closed doors of our Herbarium cupboards?

Concealed within Kew’s collections is a wealth of knowledge about the world’s plant diversity, including important clues to the changing fate of different species over time. My name is Sally King and I am currently studying for a BSc in Biology at the University of Bath. During a year’s placement at Kew, I have been helping to pilot a ‘crowd-sourcing’ approach to specimen digitisation, which may hold the key to a step-change in access to Kew’s data.

During this pilot project we have focused on the digitisation of herbarium specimens of UK plants. Digitisation is helping to turn Kew’s vast collection of dried plant specimens into a 21st century online resource accessible to scientists, historians and plant-lovers across the world.

Working with the Herbaria@Home initiative of the Botanical Society of the British Isles (BSBI), my project uses the help of volunteers to digitise a selection of Kew’s preserved plant specimens collected in the UK and Ireland. Whether you are an academic, a keen gardener or just somebody with some time on their hands and a willingness to help, this is an opportunity for you to join in and support Kew’s valuable work. Read on to find out more.

Kew’s Herbarium collection

It has been estimated that Kew’s Herbarium houses around 400,000 plant specimens collected within the British Isles, including many collections by reputed Kew botanists such as Charles E. Hubbard and William B. Turrill. From this dauntingly large collection, we needed to select a group of species that could be digitally imaged within a year. With this in mind, and looking to support the plant conservation community, we decided to focus on 50 species selected by the Botanical Society of the British Isles (BSBI) for their Threatened Plants Project. These 50 species - as the name of the project suggests - were identified as threatened in The Vascular Plant Red Data List for Great Britain or else little was known at the time about their current distribution and status. The BSBI project aims to increase our understanding of these species, helping us to conserve them for future generations.  


Collecting herbarium specimens

 Kew's Herbarium specimens are carefully catalogued and stored for reference


For further details of three of the chosen plant species, take a look at the species pages that I have created during my placement (click on the green links below). These pages illustrate the varied and fascinating nature of our native threatened plant species, and highlight some of the ways that Kew is working to help protect them for the future:

Burnt-tip orchid

This orchid grows wild in the UK but like many of our native orchids it is now endangered because of  habitat loss

A group of Neotinea ustulata photographed by D.M. Turner Ettlinger on Salisbury Plain


Clover dodder

Cuscuta epithymum herbarium specimen

Detail of a herbarium specimen of Cuscuta epithymum (clover dodder) 


Sea barley

Hordeum marinum (sea barley)

A photograph of Hordeum marinum taken in Lagos, Portugal by Júlio Reis

(Image: Wikimedia Commons) 


Why are herbarium specimens important for conservation?

The information written on herbarium specimen sheets could be vital to the creation of effective conservation plans for these species. Digitisation of specimens involves imaging and recording written data from herbarium specimens, ensuring that the vital information locked up in these collections is made available to conservation researchers worldwide.


How does the information on specimens help with conservation?

Details recorded on plant specimen sheets can provide valuable information about past locations of a species; information which can then be compared to current distributions to see if any changes have occurred, such as a decline in numbers. The information on the specimen labels may also provide clues to help explain these changes. For example, an accurate description of where a plant was collected in 1870 might allow a botanist to visit the exact same spot today, over 140 years later, to see if that particular species can still be found nearby. If the species seems to have disappeared from the area, any notes the original collector made about the habitat in 1870 can be compared with the current use of the land, and these comparisons may help explain a decrease in number of a species.


Herbarium specimen of green-winged orchid

Left: Herbarium specimen of a green-winged orchid
Right: Enlarged image of the specimen label 


Herbaria@Home promises exciting new discoveries about UK flora

As an interactive resource Herbaria@Home allows registered users to leave comments about individual specimens. For example among the specimens imaged during my year at Kew is one of Blysmus compressus collected in the Outer Hebrides in 1935. To date, there is no published record of this species occurring in the Hebridean Islands, so Kew botanists are currently investigating whether this is a simple case of misidentification or a genuinely new record. As part of this one-year pilot we have uploaded digital specimen images to Herbaria@Home.


Imaging a herbarium specimen

Placing a specimen to be imaged with the Digital Collection Unit’s camera set-up 


Checking a herbarium specimen image

Checking the resulting specimen image to ensure that it is focused correctly 


Why not get involved?

The Herbaria@Home website has been developed as part of an initiative by the BSBI and enables volunteers to view specimen images and capture details written on the original specimen label, and any other annotations that might be present. The hope is that if many people like you take part, we can speed up the process of digitisation significantly, ensuring that vital information for plant conservation is made available rapidly to those that need it. While this project is currently only at the pilot stage, if we can demonstrate that this volunteer-aided approach is successful, it has the potential to play a significant role in future digitisation projects at Kew.

You can help capture the information from the specimens I have imaged by registering with Herbaria@Home. You don’t need to be a plant expert to help; the website provides a quick video guide to take you through the process and a more detailed written guide is also available.

- Sally -



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