Inside the largest herbarium imaging project in the southern hemisphere - National Tree Day Blog

Inside the largest herbarium imaging project in the southern hemisphere

The largest herbarium imaging project in the southern hemisphere is underway at Australia’s oldest scientific institution – the Royal Botanic Garden.

The collection of plant specimens at the National Herbarium of New South Wales is being relocated from the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney to a new facility at the Australian Botanic Gardens Mount Annan. The botanical specimens at the National Herbarium of NSW are becoming high-resolution digital images for the world to access. The project began in 2018 to safeguard a growing collection of over 1.4 million botanical specimens.  

The new herbarium facility will join the Australian PlantBank at Mount Annan, to ensure the survival of plants and build more resilient ecosystems for future generations. 

Doctor Claire Brandenburger is the Herbarium Digitisation Officer at the National Herbarium of New South Wales. Her role is to coordinate and prepare the plant specimens for digitisation and check the images for quality control before they’re uploaded. She describes the herbarium as “a giant library of plant specimens, most of which are stored in special red plastic boxes.” 

The current herbarium is housed on four levels of the Robert Brown building, situated in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney. There are over 70,000 boxes of specimens in the building. Groups of closely related specimens are stored in the same box, with each specimen housed on a mounting board or in a folder. Plants are arranged in taxonomic order which makes them easier to locate. The herbarium also holds collections of specimens in liquid and DNA samples, as well as original artworks, illustrations and rare books. 

In 2022, the herbarium will be moving to a new facility at the Australian Botanic Gardens, Mount Annan, which will become the Australian Institute of Botanical Science’s main hub for scientific research and conservation. Before the plant collection moves, Claire and her team have the huge job of digitising all the specimens. They are up to 847,474 scanned of the 1,100,000. 

Claire says her favourite is the algae, “most land plants lose a lot of colour during the drying process but some of the algae are colourful, delicate and gorgeous.” 

Some of the oldest specimens are over 250 years old, collected by Sir Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander in 1770 on Captain Cook’s first Pacific voyage. 

The institute will be one of the nation’s premier botanical research organisations, driving effective conservation solutions to ensure the survival of plants and all life dependent on them.  

Jennifer McMillan

Jen worked as a vet nurse while studying environmental science and completing her master's degree in Journalism. She loves bushwalking, storytelling, caring for baby animals, Australian birds and river red gums. Jen works on the National Tree Day and National Recycling Week campaigns.