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The work in the Herbarium is based upon the extensive research and reference collections of preserved plants. There are about one million specimens, together with associated data such as the name of the collector and the place and date of collection.

Plant material is represented from all parts of the world, with regional representation varying according to the plant group. For example in flowering plants, the European (non-British) collections are twice the size of the combined non-European and British material. In both mosses and liverworts, the non-British collections are more than twice the size of the British, and in ferns nearly three times the size.

The bulk of this plant material (about 70%) is of flowering plants; other major elements include mosses (10%), ferns (2.6%), lichens (3.6%), liverworts (3.5%), and algae and fungi (about 2% each). Almost all the material is dried, either pressed and mounted on herbarium sheets, or in the case of smaller cryptogams (non-flowering plants such as mosses, algae, lichens, or fungi) stored in paper packets.

The Herbarium was founded in 1860 by the coalition of several major individual or corporate collections. In particular the two nineteenth century Manchester businessmen and amateur naturalists, Charles Bailey and Cosmo Melvill, inspired by the original and substantial collections of the Manchester Natural History Society, collaborated to collect and buy plant material from around the world, and arranged for their final deposition at the Museum. Bailey and Melvill alone provided a wide range of plant collections unequalled by any but a few major national museums. Also, at that time the museum acquired the very special collection of plants, many cultivated, together with illustrations and text, that were assembled by Leo Grindon in connection with his pioneering work in Adult Education.

In addition to this foundation material, the Museum's Herbarium incorporates collections from thousands of other people, ranging from small personal herbariums donated or bequeathed, to material collected today by expeditions to tropical rain forests and other endangered habitats. There are also many items of historical importance and interest, such as specimens collected by Charles Darwin during the voyage of the Beagle, specimens collected by Admiral Franklin's expeditions in search of the N.W. Passage, and collections of the great Swedish naturalist Linnaeus. In particular, the 16,500 Richard Spruce items (mostly Amazon and Andes hepatics) have a value far in excess of their number.

Estimated size of the collection:

Flowering Plants  600,000
Mosses   100,000
Cultivated Plants (Grindon Collection)   39,000
Lichens   36,000
Liverworts   35,000
Vascular Plants (Duplicates)   30,000
Ferns   27,000
Fungi (excluding diatoms)   20,000
Boxed Plants & 3D Material   10,000
Palaebotanical Slides   10,000
Algae (excluding 8,000 diatoms)   9,000
Exsiccata   9,000
Miscellaneous (including spirit and pharmacy)   6,000
Unsorted   50,000  

Herbarium material is made available to all institutional researchers (bona-fide private researchers should apply via a recognised local institution), either by postal loans or by providing bench space in the Museum.

A large proportion of loans are made to overseas institutions. Over 100,000 plant specimens have already been computer catalogued; the process is continuing; the British Flowering Plants can be searched from this site. The collections are also used on a daily basis to help identify plants for members of the public, other researchers (e.g. pharmacy, anthropology), hospitals, public health inspectors, forensic science laboratories, timber and building industries, shop keepers, etc. Those wishing to use the identification service, or to borrow material, should contact the Curator, Rachel Webster.

Thanks to a generous grant from the DCMS/Resource Designation Challenge Fund, the Museum has been cataloguing the British Flowering Plants collection. At least one record for each species of has been created, as well as records for every type specimen and all specimens of 'critical groups'. Together with images of each specimen these can now be searched on this site.

Herbarium blog

To keep up with what's going on with our botany collection and let us know what you think take a look at our Herbology blog

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The Botany Collection

hands holding a herbarium sheet, a document with plant samples attached
Herbarium material is made available to all institutional researchers.