National Herbarium of Victoria
The National Herbarium of Victoria (MEL) houses a collection of approximately 1.4 million dried plant, algae and fungi specimens from all around the world. The majority of the collection is Australian, with a particular emphasis on the flora of Victoria. MEL's collection is rich in historical specimens and foreign-collected specimens: about half of the specimens were collected before 1900, and one third were collected overseas.
These specimens provide a permanent record of the occurrence of a plant species at a particular place and time and are an invaluable resource for scientists, land managers and historians. The Herbarium building also houses a library of botanical literature and artwork.
The Herbarium is a dynamic collection: new material is continually accessioned, and access to the collection is assured by ongoing curation and databasing.
What is a herbarium?
A herbarium is a repository for dried plant specimens that underpin research on taxonomy, systematics and conservation. In many ways it is similar to a library, but the information is stored in biological form rather than in book form. The first herbarium was established in Kassel, Germany in 1569. Today there are herbaria in most major cities around the world.
Herbaria are vital resources for plant identification and provide a reference point for clarifying how plant names should be applied. The most important specimens within a herbarium are the types. A type specimen is the designated specimen to which a taxon name is permanently attached. Preservation of, and access to, type specimens ensures that plant names can be used unambiguously.
A herbarium specimen comprises the physical plant specimen and the associated collecting data. The specimens provide verifiable documentation of the past and present distribution of plant species. They can reveal valuable information about plant biology including flowering time, habitat preference and associated species. Herbarium specimens are also a source of DNA for molecular studies that elucidate the evolutionary relationships between plants.
Take a walk through the Herbarium with us - Hidden Secrets of the Herbarium (YouTube clip — 3:11)
History of the Herbarium
The National Herbarium of Victoria is the oldest scientific institution in the state. It was founded by Ferdinand von Mueller in 1853 when he was appointed the first Government Botanist of Victoria. Mueller was an outstanding botanist and a prolific collector. He named and described more than 2,000 new species, and acquired over half of MEL's existing collection.
The first Herbarium building was situated in Kings Domain near the Shrine of Remembrance. It was built in 1861 after Mueller repeatedly petitioned the government for space to house his collection of 45,000 specimens. The new building had room for 160,000 specimens, but was filled within a year of its construction.
The Domain building was used until 1934 when it was demolished. The collection was transferred into the current building within the Royal Botanic Gardens, which was a gift to the state from Sir Macpherson Robertson to mark the centenary of Melbourne. An extension was added in 1989 to house the ever-growing collection.
Inside the Herbarium
The MEL herbarium collection consists mainly of pressed and dried plant specimens mounted on archival paper, but it also contains photographs, microscope slides and collections preserved in alcohol. The collection is housed in rows of metal cabinets and is arranged systematically.
The specimens are accessed by staff botanists and visiting researchers for taxonomic, historical and ecological research. A team of dedicated curation staff maintain the collection and coordinate a range of curatorial tasks including:
- mounting specimens
- databasing specimens
- protecting the collection
- servicing loans and exchange
- filing specimens
The National Herbarium of Victoria's collection comprises approximately 1.4 million specimens. It includes representatives of most of Australia's vascular flora plus algae, bryophyte, lichen and fungi collections of international significance. It is one of the largest herbarium collections in Australia, and the richest in historical and type specimens.
Among the Australian collection are plants collected by Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander at Botany Bay in 1770. Other historical riches include over 2,000 specimens collected by Robert Brown during Flinders' circumnavigation of Australia (1801–1805), and several hundred specimens collected on Burke and Wills' expedition. Important twentieth-century acquisitions include the herbaria of Raleigh Black, Cliff Beauglehole and Ilma Stone, and a collection of wood-rot fungi from CSIRO.
The majority of the foreign collection comes from the herbarium of German botanist Otto Sonder. It spans all major plant groups and contains specimens from every reach of the globe. The oldest specimens in MEL's collection are from the herbarium of James Petiver and were collected in India in the 1690s. Less than ten per cent of the foreign collection has been mounted and databased, and consequently is not fully accessible for research. The collection is gradually being curated as resources permit. A recent grant made the curation of the foreign-collected Fabaceae specimens possible.
The collection continues to grow through the collecting efforts of herbarium staff; exchange of specimens with other herbaria and by donations of specimens by government agencies, students and researchers.
Accessing the collection
The National Herbarium of Victoria's collections are a great resource for botanical, historical and anthropological research.
Basic collecting data for MEL's databased collections (including taxon name, accession number and generalised latitude and longitude) is available through Australia's Virtual Herbarium (AVH). Requests for more detailed specimen information (including collector, collecting date and locality description) are serviced at the discretion of the Collections Manager and charges may apply. MEL also accepts requests for images of individual herbarium specimens. Requests for specimen data or images should be sent to the Collections Manager. Please include an outline of the research project and a description of how the data will be used.
MEL participates in a loan program with recognised herbaria around the world. Specimens are loaned for the purpose of taxonomy and systematic research. Researchers wishing to loan specimens from the Herbarium must abide by the Herbarium's Conditions of Loan. Loan requests should be sent as formal letters addressed to the Collections Manager. Strict conditions apply to the importation of herbarium material into Australia. Institutions wishing to send material to MEL should first contact the Collections Manager for information on quarantine requirements.
The Herbarium is not open to the public and access for researchers is by prior appointment only. Please contact the Collections Manager to arrange an appointment. Researchers wishing to use the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne Library should make a separate appointment with the Librarian.
Researchers wanting more information about loans, appointments and detailed specimen data or images, please contact:
Collections Manager, Pina Milne
Researchers wanting to access the Library, please contact:
Librarian, Sally Stewart
Contributing to the Herbarium
The National Herbarium encourages people with an interest in plants to submit good quality, well-preserved specimens with adequate field notes. Incomplete or poorly preserved specimens with inadequate collecting data can be difficult to determine with confidence. There are guidelines for the preparation and submission of voucher specimens. Note that a permit is required to collect plants or plant material from public land. MEL will not accept any material collected without a valid permit.