A herbarium is a collection of preserved plant specimens, which are used for scientific study. Most specimens in a herbarium are pressed, dried plants. These pressed specimens are mounted on sheets of card and stored in flat folders in banks of cupboards following a logical sequence for easy referral.
This sequence can either be arranged alphabetically, like an index, or by similarity, placing those plants that are most closely related beside each other.
Other specimens may be dried large fruiting bodies, pieces of wood or bark, seeds or material stored in spirit to preserve more delicate three-dimensional structures. A herbarium also keeps document records about the specimens - where, when and by whom they were collected.
Herbaria are used by botanists for the identification and classification of plants. They preserve most of the important features of a plant, allowing botanists to carry out research on the plants without needing to see a living specimen. As the plant is usually preserved when flowering or fruiting, the botanists can examine the most important features irrespective of the time of the year.
They also provide a historical record of what was growing in a particular place at a particular time. Many historic collections in herbaria now record plants long since lost from the locality from which they were collected. For cultivated plants, these records will give a latest date for when a particular plant was first grown.
Collections in the RHS Herbarium
RHS Herbarium history
The RHS Herbarium – situated at RHS Garden Wisley - is the largest herbarium dedicated to ornamental plants in the UK and dates from 1917, although the oldest specimen is from 1731.
More on the history of the herbarium
RHS specimen database
The RHS Herbarium is in the process of being put in a database so that the information is more easily accessible to members and the public. An initial study from 2004-2006 allowed all the specimens in the main herbarium to be catalogued to a basic level. This recorded the name, the date it was collected and whether the plant was from the wild or cultivation.
The database currently contains records for more than 60,000 herbarium specimens and almost 40,000 slides, photographs and paintings.
Learn more about the database and search for specimens
Nomenclatural standards help fix the name of cultivars by preserving a sample or an image of a plant known to have come from the breeder of that plant. The RHS Herbarium is one of the few herbaria internationally that is actively collecting standard specimens.
Learn about and search for nomenclature standards
Press and collect your own herbarium specimen
Send in a herbarium sample
The RHS Herbarium welcomes material of plants in cultivation that are new or unusual. Material can either be pressed before sending or material can be sent in fresh and it can be processed here.
More on sending a sample to the RHS Herbarium
National Plant Collections
One of the requirements of a National Plant Collection holder is to make a collection of herbarium specimens from their living collections. The RHS Herbarium works in conjunction with plant collection holders by offering advice and knowledge for the preparation and archiving of the specimens.
More on National Plant Collections