The Fungarium

Our Fungarium contains specimens from every part of the globe and reflects the importance of fungi as providers of food, medicines, enzymes and essential ecosystem services.

Researcher looking at fungal specimen

The Fungarium explained

The Fungarium houses our reference collection of fungi which includes an estimated 1.25 million dried specimens. This collection is the largest, and one of the oldest and most scientifically important, in the world. There are samples of fungi from all seven continents, spanning the entire fungal tree of life and representing well over half of known global diversity.

Our oldest specimens date back to the 18th century, and we have a rich collection of historically significant material, including fungi collected by John Ray, Charles Darwin and Alexander von Humboldt.

Our fungal collections are particularly rich in type specimens: original material that is used to make unequivocal links between the fungus as a living organism and the name applied to it. Recent advances in DNA technologies mean that these types can be sequenced and included in phylogenetic research.

The Fungarium was founded in 1879 with the donation of Rev Miles J Berkeley’s personal collection of around 30,000 specimens (including 6,000 type specimens). Numerous other bequests and donations over the years have greatly enhanced the collection, alongside many specimens collected by Kew staff from all corners of the globe. In 2007, the International Mycological Institute (IMI) fungarium (owned by CAB International) was housed alongside the Kew collection, adding very substantially to our overall holdings.

The Fungarium holds an estimated 375,000 specimens from the UK, which are designated as the British National Collection of fungi. Collections from other parts of the world focus especially on historically significant collectors from the 19th century. Reflecting the research interests of our mycologists over the years, the Fungarium contains particularly important collections of dried mushrooms and toadstools, and the IMI samples are especially significant for tropical plant pathogens.

All of the label information has been databased for incoming specimens since 1997, and basic data are available for the entire IMI collection. Label data for around 40% of the combined collections can now be searched online. 

Researcher looking in green boxes
Lee in Kew's Fungarium © Steve Lancefield/RBG Kew.

Use of the Fungarium

Our Fungarium is a highly significant cultural resource in itself, but it is much more than a museum exhibit. It has five main scientific purposes:

1. It is a source of data for ecological, biogeographical and conservation research. The collections (and especially the data associated with them) can be used to help understand distributions, plant/fungus interactions, fruiting period and rarity – among many other branches of biology.

2. The Fungarium allows scientists to compare new samples with existing collections, making identification activities more robust, and making it possible to describe previously unknown species. We believe that fewer than 10% of the world’s fungi have been discovered to date, and currently species are becoming extinct much more rapidly than they can be described.

3. Our collections provide robust and challengeable evidence of the presence of fungi in particular countries. This is particularly important in the context of world trade, where the presence of crop pests and pathogens can heavily influence decisions over import and export. Millions of GBP can be involved, affecting the livelihoods of farmers and many others in the supply chain. Our national food security depends on effective detection and identification of species that threaten crops.

4. The Fungarium provides historical context to the presence of fungi. We can examine changes in distribution over time, charting the impacts of climate change and gaining a better understanding of the spread of invasive species, and their effects on native populations. We can also re-sample specimens to assign them to newly recognised species following their original accession.

5. Recent advances in molecular biology mean that the DNA of historical collections is now accessible. This is immensely important for research into relationships, but also means that specimens collected decades or even centuries ago can be examined for useful characteristics. These might include novel metabolic pathways leading to the discovery of new antibiotics, traits such as heat or cold tolerance, or factors affecting mycorrhizal relationships (between fungi and plant roots). We have very little baseline data regarding extinction rates in fungi, but habitat destruction over the past century means that many species in the Kew Fungarium may no longer exist in the wild.

Fungi mushrooming near a leaf
State of the World's Fungi, ©RBG Kew

Research projects

The Fungarium is an irreplaceable resource for scientists. It features prominently in a range of research projects, including:

  • Maintenance and extension of the Checklist of the British and Irish Basidiomycota. This is the definitive list of mushrooms and toadstools, bracket fungi and puffballs, as well as rusts and smuts. It is an essential framework and it will be extended to include all British fungi.
  • Carrying out conservation assessments of British fungi potentially at threat, using internationally recognized IUCN guidelines.
  • Research towards a major global revision of the mushroom genus Cortinarius, one of the most speciose in the world with around 2,000 currently known species. Cortinarius is a genus of mycorrhizal fungi, especially prominent in boreal and austral forest ecosystems.
  • Development of the Fungi of Great Britain & Ireland, an online identification tool for British and Irish fungi, including lichens. To date it has focused on ascomycete fungi, which constitute perhaps two thirds of all our species. Many are especially challenging to recognise due to their small size. It uses innovative software designed by scientists at the Natural History Museum.
  • The Lost and Found Fungi project, harnessing the willing efforts of the UK’s volunteer mycological community to search for rarely recorded species to establish whether they are genuinely rare or only overlooked.
  • Work towards a new edition of the Lichens of Great Britain & Ireland (2009). Published by the British Lichen Society, Kew scientists are gathering data on species recognised in the UK since 2009, also made accessible via the Fungi of Great Britain & Ireland.  
  • Research into the phenology (fruiting period) of fungi: comparing historical data with modern collections to identify changes in fruiting period over the past hundred years, thus charting the impact of climate change.
  • Molecular barcoding of species of fungi which are of conservation concern in the UK, clarifying their identity and population structure to support conservation management policy and practice.
  • Digitisation of specimen labels, initially focusing on plant pathogens of quarantine significance.
  • PAFTOL (The Plant and Fungal Trees of Life)
Opening a drawer in the Fungarium

Access the Fungarium

Find out how to arrange visit or access the online databases. Please note visits to our Collections are for academic researchers only.

Discover more