19 June 2020 is the 200th anniversary of the death of English botanist Joseph Banks. 2020 is also the International Year of Plant Health.

Our national plant collection

There are more than a million specimens held in the collection of the Australian National Herbarium. They are a record of Australia's plant biodiversity and a resource for research.

The Australian National Herbarium exists to understand what plants exist in Australia – where they are and what they are. It is not a static collection but is vibrant and full of research that supports biodiversity discovery, biosecurity and more.

Banks specimens in the herbarium

Among our collection are 56 Australian plant specimens collected by Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander in 1770. These specimens were originally held in the British Museum of Natural History, which is now the National History Museum in London.

Title: Banks at the Australian National Herbarium

Preserved Banksia flower with description label
Scientists looking at plant specimens at Herbarium bench

Dr Linda Broadhurst, Director, Australian National Herbarium:
“We have more than a million specimens in the collection at the Australian National Botanic Gardens and here at CSIRO. It’s really important to have a national herbarium because to understand what we’ve got and to manage it we need to know where it is and what it is.”

Wider view of Banksia specimen

Brendan Lepschi, Curator, Australian National Herbarium:
“We hold 56 specimens collected by Banks and Solander on their voyage to Australia. Our Banks specimens came from the British Museum of Natural History which is now the National History Museum in London. Specimens all date from 1770. We also have material collected by Robert Brown during the early 1800s.”

Details of various plant specimens collected by Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander

Linda:
“People often think of herbaria as dusty old crusty intuitions and in fact we’re very vibrant and full of research. It’s important that we do this research so that we can better understand Australia’s biodiversity and for us that means plants. Historical specimens are really important because it gives us that time line for change so we can document change across broad timeframes and so for us with the Banks specimens that’s more than 200 years.”

Triptych of orange Banksia flowers in the bush
Specimen stacks in the Herbarium, showing scientific names and shelves full of folders
Details of Banks plant specimens

Brendan:
“We can keep specimens indefinitely as long as they’re preserved and maintained at constant temperature and free from insect attack.”

Large yellow Banksia in the bush
Preserved Banksia specimen, close up of flower

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Banks specimens :  Joseph Banks at the Australian National Herbarium

Plant specimens can be stored indefinitely as long as they're preserved correctly, maintained at constant temperature and protected from insect attack. They lose some of their colour but maintain rich information, including in their DNA.

Historical specimens are important for reasons beyond their cultural and heritage value. They provide a time series for understanding change in Australia's vegetation. We can use this knowledge to help preserve biodiversity and plant health for the future.

The Australian National Herbarium is part of the Centre for Australian National Biodiversity Research, a joint venture between Parks Australia's Australian National Botanic Gardens and CSIRO.

Want to find out more?

Find out more about digitisation of our natural history collections.

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