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By  Andrea Wild 26 June 2023 2 min read

Key points

  • Research specimens stored in spirit retain their three dimensional structure, which is helpful for delicate flowers like orchids.
  • We'll soon be moving our spirit collection to the ethanol vault in our new National Collections Building.
  • But first, we're curating our spirit collection to ensure it's safe and accessible.

Drop everything, Venkman. We got one.

Floating in vials, jars and buckets in our spirit collection are:

  • About 17,000 orchids (likely the world's largest collection of orchids in spirit)
  • Wild bananas collected in Papua New Guinea (PNG) during expeditions in the 1950s and 60s
  • Important ‘type’ specimens from around Australia and PNG, which anchor the name of a species to that exact specimen.

The largest of our specimens is stored in a bucket. It’s an inflorescence of Tapeinochilos, which looks like a large red cylinder of flowers. However, most of our specimens are stored in 40 millilitre vials.

Orchids stored in spirit sometimes leach a rainbow of colours into the liquid.

Peter (Pete) Gray is a relocation technician at the herbarium.

"A spirit collection is an assortment of specimens suspended in a solution, usually containing ethanol," Pete said.

"Unlike plants that are dried, pressed and stored on sheets on paper, specimens in spirit retain their 3D morphology (shape and structure). This is helpful for storing the delicate flowers of orchids. But storing plants this way degrades their DNA, which makes it tricky to use them for genomic work.

"There are also safety regulations with storing a spirit collection because ethanol is flammable."

In 2024, the spirit collection will move to our new National Collections Building, which is currently under construction at our Black Mountain site in Canberra. We will store them in a specially designed vault alongside specimens in spirit from our insect and wildlife collections. They include tiny vials containing intestinal parasites of wildlife, and frogs, snakes and other reptiles stored in large jars.


Peter Gray working out our changeover set-up, which is in a fume hood with absorbent sheets and a spray, both of which neutralise formaldehyde spills.

Before moving our spirit collection to our new National Collections Building, the relocation team is transferring specimens stored in FAA into BANG mix. FAA is a mix of formaldehyde, acetic acid, ethanol and water.

"Formaldehyde has long been used to preserve specimens, but it’s toxic so we no longer want to use it," Pete said.

"BANG mix is made up of 70 per cent ethanol, 20 per cent water and 10 per cent glycerol. It’s a lot like hand sanitiser, so it’s safe to handle, and supports the 3D structure of the specimens and prevent microbes attacking them.

"If you unscramble the letters, BANG becomes ANBG, which stands for the Australian National Botanic Gardens, whose staff developed the mix for storing plant specimens."

The relocation team is updating vials and jars and assigning a new spirit numbering system to each specimen. They're also entering information into a database so the specimens can be found easily and used for research.

"Moving specimens into new jars might sound simple, but one batch of specialised jars took a year to arrive from overseas," Pete said.

"We also need to create new labels for the new jars. The information on the label about what a specimen is and who collected it, where and when, is just as important as the specimen inside."

The new National Collections Building is jointly funded by CSIRO and the Department of Education through the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy.

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 our National Research Collections Australia.

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