Unlocking the Fungal Treasures of the National Herbarium of Victoria

A project undertaken by the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne, and supervised by TW May & C Coles

The National Herbarium of Victoria at the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne has one of the largest preserved plant collections in Australia and ranks among the world’s greatest herbaria.

Collections are fundamental to taxonomy and other forms of research, particularly in fields such as ecology and conservation. Collections also act as a vital reference for identification of weeds and poisonous plants.

The fungi collections of the Herbarium had not been actively curated for much of the 20th century because there were no suitably trained staff.

The project had the following objectives:

  • curating the main collection of fungi
  • checking the nomenclature of named specimens and naming un-named specimens
  • establishing the latitude and longitude of the site where each specimen was collected
  • entering data for each specimen into the herbarium database (MELISR); and
  • reincorporating specimens into the herbarium collection

The major achievements of the project are:

  • The entire main collection of fungi is curated, databased and reincorporated
  • Bar codes assigned to all collections to allow tracking specimen movements, especially when on loan to other institutions
  • Data on 16,067 fungal collections entered into the herbarium database
  • Latitude and longitude established for each specimen
  • Some 190 type specimens identified. These are the prime reference specimens for new species
  • Historic specimens from the 19th century, including those collected by Baron Ferdinand von Mueller, curated and databased
  • Recent collections from across Australia curated and databased, including numerous collections of truffles (from studies of Potoroo diet)
  • Some 2,710 names of fungi added to a database (FUNLIS) that stores information on the currently accepted name. This enables specimens to be filed under the most up-to-date names; and
  • Distribution maps for all species of fungi in the Herbarium accessible through the World Wide Web, along with data on individual collections

Outcomes of project for the Herbarium and the scientific and broader community are:

  • Herbarium staff now highly proficient in processing fungal collections
  • Fragile historical collections no longer need to be physically handled because label data is all entered in database
  • Rapid searches for information on a variety of topics (individually or in combination) now possible through database
  • Examples of searches include those on host and substrate. These will be of particular use for fungi that are pathogens of plants of importance to agriculture and forestry
  • Distribution and other data from the fungal collections is already being utilised by community groups (such as the Fungimap scheme)
  • Research is being published based on analysis of collections, made easier by ready access to information through databases; and
  • Better informed decisions may now be made concerning the conservation and management of fungi, which are a valuable but understudied component of Australia’s biodiversity


These recent publications have utilised the databased information, or provide background information which contributed to the completion of the project.

May, TW (2001). Documenting the fungal biodiversity of Australasia: from 1800 to 2000 and beyond. Australian Systematic Botany 14, 329-356.

May, TW (2002). Where are the short range endemics among Western Australian macrofungi? Australian Systematic Botany 15, 501-511.

Tonkin JE & May TW (1999). A preliminary bioclimatic analysis of the distribution of Mycena interrupta. Fungimap Newsletter 11, 3-4.

Web sites

May TW, Milne J, Wood AE, Shingles S, Jones RH & Neish P (2002). Interactive Catalogue of Australian Fungi. Version 2.0. Australian Biological Resources Study, Canberra / Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne. http://www.rbg.vic.gov.au/fungi/cat/

Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne (2002). Distribution Maps of Australian Fungi. http://www.rbg.vic.gov.au/fungi/


Standard label now used for all fungal collection in the National Herbarium of Victoria, including barcode for specimen tracking

Label information for a collection of Geastrum saccatum made by Ferdinand von Mueller in 1851. Various original and later labels are glued onto card to prevent damage or accidental loss

Photograph of un-named collection of Lactarius accompanying herbarium specimen (photo Barbara Archer). Fungal collections often lose important characters on drying, so photos are important sources of information when taxonomists come to name species

Map available over the World Wide Web of the distribution of the fungus Amanita xanthocephala based on the National Herbarium of Victoria specimen database. Data on an individual collection is shown in the box on the upper right