The Scientific Treasures of the Royal Botanic Gardens - Myrtaceae Project

A project undertaken at the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne, and supervised by K. Sommerville

The Herbarium houses a collection of 1.2 million specimens of plants, algae and fungi from around the world. The collection is of worldwide scientific, historic and cultural significance. However, due to a lack of resources many specimens have been completely inaccessible. This is a major impediment to research.

The objective of this project is to increase access to specimens of one of Australia’s most important plant families, the Myrtaceae family. This family contains many of the species that characterise the Australian landscape. The eucalypts, tea tree, paperbarks and bottlebrush are all found in the Myrtaceae family.

In order to increase access to specimens in this family, material needed first to be mounted and databased. The project began on 28th May 2001with the mounting of the first Myrtaceae specimen. Mounting involves fixing a dried pressed plant specimen and its label to a piece of cardboard. Without mounting, a fragile dried plant can be damaged or can become separated from its label thus rendering it useless in scientific research. A variety of methods, each dependent upon the plant material to be mounted, are used. Standard methods include gluing the plant with PVA to a card, sewing the plant with linen thread to a card or securing the plant to the card with paper strips.

Funds provided by the Hermon Slade Foundation have allowed mounting of the three thousand unmounted Myrtaceae specimens held in the National Herbarium of Victoria. A well-mounted specimen will last many hundreds of years. Indeed, some of our oldest specimens were mounted in 1696. Hermon Slade Foundation funding has allowed the protection of all Myrtaceae specimens held in the National Herbarium of Victoria. This has consequently ensured that these specimens remain useful in scientific research for many years to come.

The advent of computer technology has created tremendous opportunities for the storage and rapid retrieval of large amounts of information. In 1990 the Herbarium commenced entering the label data associated with each specimen into an institutional computer database. Once label information is entered in this database, it becomes readily accessible through the Australia’s Virtual Herbarium website (http://www.rbg.vic.gov.au/avh/). This wonderful resource enables any person, whether they be staff member, scientist or member of the community, to search for information about a species. The Herbarium database is unique in that its records date back to the late 1600s. This allows a terrific view of the change in species distribution through time as well as through space.

Herbarium specimens are the working tools of botanical researchers all over the world. With the increasing emphasis on preservation of our natural environment, herbarium specimens can be extremely valuable as a reference for assessing the state of the vegetation at any given point in history. This kind of information can enable strategic environmental planners and conservationists to make more informed decisions in the conservation of Australia’s vegetation. The databasing of National Herbarium of Victoria Myrtaceae specimens is thus of great value in assisting in the conservation of Australia’s native vegetation.

Funds provided by the Hermon Slade Foundation have allowed the databasing of Myrtaceae specimens held in the National Herbarium of Victoria. The National Herbarium of Victoria has completed databasing of approximately 85% of its Myrtaceae specimens. Eighty-four Myrtaceae genera have been added to the Herbarium database and all specimen names in these genera have been updated according to the latest scientific literature. The in-house Myrtaceae CENSUS (a record of all names used in the Collection and where material of a particular name is currently stored) has been updated to reflect all the name changes that have been accepted during the databasing process.

Specimen data available through the Melbourne Royal Botanic Gardens portal to the Australia’s Virtual Herbarium website has already elicited a great response from the community. Currently, there is an average of 3284.6 hits on this site every month. The National Herbarium of Victoria believes the greater accessibility of the valuable data associated with our Myrtaceae specimens has led to an increased awareness of the usefulness of herbarium specimen information as well as a greater understanding of Australian vegetation.

The National Herbarium of Victoria is making good progress and is on track to complete the Scientific Treasures of the Royal Botanic Gardens - Myrtaceae Project by April 2004.

One of the many Myrtaceae specimens held in the National Herbarium of Victoria. This specimen of Eucalyptus chapmaniana is referred to as the Holotype. It is the designated specimen, which becomes the standard, to which other examples of this species can be compared to for confirmation of identity.

This is the tree from which the Eucalyptus chapmaniana Holotype specimen material was originally taken. This special tree was fortunate to survive the recent bushfires in the Victoria high country.

Employees at the National Herbarium of Victoria sew dried plant specimens with linen thread to cardboard. This is called mounting and protects specimens from damage.

A map of the distribution of Eucalyptus chapmaniana produced from specimens databased at the National Herbarium of Victoria using Hermon Slade Foundation funding.