The Harvard University Herbaria include six collections and more than five million specimens of algae, bryophytes, fungi, and vascular plants. Together they form one of the largest university herbarium collections in the world, and the third largest herbarium in the United States. With their state-of-the art research laboratories and world class libraries, the HUH have been a centerpiece of biodiversity science since the early 1800s.
The Harvard University Herbaria are among some several
thousand collections of pressed, dried plant specimens worldwide that are used
by researchers to further our understanding of the plant world. Some of the
earliest herbaria were founded in Europe in the early 1600s, during the days
of exploration, when knowledge of the earth's flora was growing at such a rapid
pace that botanical gardens could no longer maintain living examples of every
known species. While herbarium collections of all sizes exist today, there are
fewer than 75 herbaria worldwide with more than one million specimens.
The herbarium houses the documentation of the world's flora;
the specimens are the key to understanding plant relationships, geographic
distributions, economic usefulness, even their molecular makeup. As we lose
natural habitats the world over, herbaria increasingly serve as a record of the
recent history of plant life, and as a repository of precious genetic
information. Herbaria hold the tools for our understanding of the plant world.
The botanical collections at Harvard comprise specimens in
the Gray Herbarium (2,000,000 specimens from around the world, with particular
emphasis on North America), the Herbarium of the Arnold Arboretum (1,300,000
specimens, including those of cultivated origin), the Economic Herbarium of
Oakes Ames (40,000 specimens), the Oakes Ames Orchid Herbarium (131,000 specimens),
the New England Botanical Club Herbarium (350,000 specimens from the new
England states) and the Farlow Herbarium (1,400,000 specimens of lichenized and
non-lichenized fungi, bryophytes, and algae). Together with the Bailey-Wetmore
Wood Collection, the Paleobotanical Collections, and the Botanical Museum
Collection, the Herbaria have more than five million specimens, making the
total collection one of the ten largest herbaria in the world and the world’s
largest university owned herbarium.
Herbarium collections have been built up over the
years by the efforts of numerous botanists and plant collectors who have
searched from remote and isolated jungles to inner city waste lots and railroad
tracks to document the diversity and distribution of the earth's flora.
Representatives of most known species of plants can be found in herbaria today,
carefully mounted on sheets of archival quality paper, labeled with important
information about them, and stored on shelves in cabinets. In essence, a
herbarium is analogous to a library of carefully preserved plants where the
specimens themselves and the labels associated with them provide a wealth of information
once they have been read and studied by scientists.
A specimen and its label are equally important. The
care with which the specimen is collected and pressed gives essential clues to
its morphology; the extent to which the label documents and describes features
of the plant and its habitat, the exact collection locality, the name of the
collector and date of collection, and the correct identification, ultimately
determines a specimen's scientific value.