Otto Sonder herbarium

The National Herbarium of Victoria (MEL) holds approximately 1.2 million herbarium specimens. Around 400,000 of these are foreign (ex-Australian) collections. The majority of MEL's foreign collection derives from the herbarium of Otto Wilhelm Sonder (1812–1881) and was acquired by MEL in 1883.

Sonder was a German apothecary and botanist. During his lifetime, he amassed a vast private herbarium, sourced from leading botanists and plant collectors. Sonder's herbarium grew to the point where he could not manage it himself, and he resolved to sell it to his long-time friend Ferdinand von Mueller, Victoria's first Government Botanist. After receiving three cases of Sonder specimens in 1870, it took Mueller 24 years to persuade the Government of Victoria to purchase the bulk of the collection. Unfortunately for Mueller, he did not secure the collection before much of Sonder's South African material was sold to the Swedish Museum of Natural History, and some of the Australian material to French botanist Jean Michel Gandoger. Even so, the remaining collection is vast: Mueller estimated it contained between 250,000 and 330,000 specimens. Such was the size of the collection that a new annexe to Melbourne's Botanical Museum had to be built to house it.

Unfortunately, there is no detailed account of the content of Sonder's herbarium and to date less than ten percent of the collection has been mounted and databased. Despite this, the value of Sonder's herbarium is undisputed. Mueller described it as 'the richest of all private botanical collections in existence'. The collection is remarkable for its breadth: it spans all major plant groups from every reach of the globe, including the least accessible parts of tropical South America, southern Africa and India. In addition to flowering plants, it includes pteridophytes (ferns), bryophytes (mosses, liverworts and hornworts), algae, fungi and lichens. Most importantly, it contains thousands of type specimens.

Of particular note are:

  • an extensive collection of algae, including authentic specimens from C.A. Agardh, W.H. Harvey and Sonder himself
  • specimens used in Carl Martius' Flora brasiliensis, including Myrtaceae material studied by O.C. Berg and collected by C.F.P. Martius, J.W.K. Moritz, A.F. Regnell, F. Sellow, J.F. Widgren and M.A.P. zu Wied
  • parts of J.G.C. Lehmann's herbarium, including most of his Boraginaceae collection
  • material from southern Africa (C.F. Ecklon, W. Gueinzius, C.L.P. Zeyher)
  • a large Ericaceae collection, including types from J.C. Wendland and C.P. Thunberg (one of Carl Linnaeus' disciples).

Other notable collectors include: F.A. Campbell (Vanuatu), J.A.L. Preiss, F.W. Sieber, O. Swarz and W.G. Tilesius von Tilenau.

Further information

Anderson, J.A. (1971). Otto Carl Berg's types of Myrtaceae in the National Herbarium of Victoria. Muelleria 2, 119–131.

Court, A.B. (1972). Preliminary notice on the Sonder collection in the National Herbarium of Victoria. Muelleria 2, 188.

Nordenstam, B. (1980). The herbaria of Lehmann and Sonder in Stockholm, with special reference to the Ecklon and Zeyher collection. Taxon 29, 279–291.

Short, P.S. (1990). Politics and the purchase of private herbaria by the National Herbarium of Victoria. In P.S. Short (ed.) History of systematic botany in Australasia,  pp. 5–12. Australian Systematic Botany Society Inc., South Yarra.