The Importance of Herbaria

American Society of Plant Taxonomists Position Statement
24 August 2004

The American Society of Plant Taxonomists affirms the crucial role of natural history collections, and of plant collections in particular, in research, teaching, and public outreach. Collections of plant specimens (herbaria) are the foundation for all studies of plant diversity and evolution. Specimens provide enormous economic and scientific returns to society and are irreplaceable resources that must be preserved for future generations.

Specimens provide the foundation of nomenclature, the basis for identification, the common reference for communication, and the vouchers for floras, as well as for evolutionary and genomic studies. Molecular and morphological characters that allow us to reconstruct the history of life can be obtained from herbarium specimens. All fields of biological science from the level of molecular biology to ecosystem science are dependent on collections, not just for application of names, but as the basis for referencing all aspects of biodiversity.

Beyond their scientific importance, herbarium collections offer many benefits to society by providing data or reference materials for critical endeavors such as agriculture, human health, biosecurity, forensics, control of invasive species, conservation biology, natural resources, and land management. Herbarium collections provide a wealth of information on our natural heritage and extend back hundreds of years; thus they provide the only reliable, verifiable record of the changes to our flora during the expansion of human population.

Because natural history collections play such an important role in societal endeavors, continued physical and financial support is absolutely critical. Collections are most valuable in their original institutional and geographical context. Because they are historical records linked to a time and place, lost collections cannot be replaced. Moreover, many populations documented in herbaria no longer exist and others are now protected. Furthermore, some specimens cannot be replaced due to the imposition of constraints on collecting. Therefore, ASPT strongly advises institutions to maintain their collections in perpetuity. Once an institution divests itself of a collection the institution can never regain the benefits associated with the collection.

It is imperative that minimum standards regarding environmental conditions and pest control be met so that specimens can be maintained indefinitely into the future. As a body of considerable expertise with regard to all aspects of herbarium curation, research, education, and outreach, the membership of the American Society of Plant Taxonomists hereby offers its expertise to help institutions develop management plans for maintaining collections and to integrate herbarium collections more effectively into research, education, and outreach activities.