Herbarium: The Quest to Preserve & Classify the World’s Plants
by Barbara M Thiers
Timber Press, £24
Data collection informs and steers the course of humanity, but few of us have considered the origins of plant- and fungi-based data. In the preface to Herbarium, Barbara M Thiers recalls childhood herbarium trips with her mycologist father; ‘I loved to read about the adventure but was happiest when I was able to learn about the less exciting but ultimately more important work of preserving and studying the plants they collected’.
Having spent much of her life immersed in botany, Thiers currently manages one of the largest archive collections in the world. Originally known as Hortus Hiemalis (winter garden) or Hortus Siccus (dry garden, such collections are fundamental to our knowledge of plant diversity, but unlike the living collections found in public botanical gardens, they remain primarily accessible to the scientific community.
This book shines a light on global herbaria. Early chapters delve into the history of botanical exploration, the Renaissance shift to learning by direct observation and scientific developments that followed, all framed within the expansion of colonial trade interests by European powers. The focus is on the European and US origins of herbaria but includes brief histories of collections in China, India, the Islamic world and those of the Aztecs. Further chapters detail key botanical pioneers and their legacies in countries as diverse as Australia, Brazil, South Africa and China.
The final chapter ponders the modern role of herbaria, explaining technological advances that make this shared data pool an invaluable tool in the urgent quest to safeguard the earth’s ecosystems and shrinking biodiversity. Thiers has scoured academic libraries and museums for a cornucopia of wonderful photographs, maps, artists renderings and specimen sheets that enrich and enliven the meaty text. A gem of a book for plant geeks, conservationists or anyone interested in natural history.