Otto Sonder herbarium

Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria (MEL) holds approximately 1.5 million herbarium specimens housed at the National Herbarium of Victoria. 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 by sourcing specimens from leading botanists and plant collectors. When Sonder's herbarium grew to the point that he could not manage it himself, he agreed 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. In the meantime, the collection was somewhat diminished by the sale of much of Sonder's South African material to the Swedish Museum of Natural History, and some of the Australian material to French botanist Jean Michel Gandoger. Nevertheless, the remaining collection is vast (Mueller estimated it contained between 250,000 and 330,000 specimens) and a new annexe had to be built to house it in Melbourne's Botanical Museum.

Unfortunately, there is no detailed account of the content of Sonder's herbarium and less than 15 per cent of the collection has been mounted and databased to date. 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 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.

Gallagher, C. and Moraes, P.L.R. de (2014). Hidden treasures: Brazilian plants collected by Prince Maximilian zu Wied held in the National Herbarium of Victoria (MEL). Muelleria 32.

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.