What are herbaria for?

In the more than 4 decades since I first visited a herbarium, it has become increasingly clear that very few people, amongst them most scientists including biologists and even many botanists, actually know what a herbarium is for!  Hardly anyone seems to realise that traditional plant identification has been based upon the characteristics of plants which can be observed on the pressed, dried reference specimens of each species stored in these herbaria. For many, herbaria are unknown, rather quaint places from another age - completely removed from the process of plant identification.  Indeed, I have only just (as of 2016) realised that the collection of pressed specimens for herbaria has not just largely gone out-of-fashion but is disapproved of in some quarters!  This represents a misunderstanding of the importance and NECESSITY if one is to achieve RELIABLE and CONSISTENT levels of plant identification - without which we CANNOT study our plants properly.  Much is TALKED about CONSERVATION but unless we have sufficient field botanists who can undertake extensive and thorough surveys to CONSISTENT levels, we will only PRETEND to be conserving our flora, rather than actually PROTECTING it.

Thanks to the advent of digital photography and the ready availability of compact digital cameras with remarkable lenses which enable, with some practise and experience, field botanists to reliably and rapidly take between 15-30 images of EVERY species/specimen encountered during a survey, a fundamental progression can be made. Such images can cover close-ups of floral parts, foliage (not forgetting undersides of leaves) plus habit and habitat.  But there will still be a need for some pressed specimens to be collected, as these cameras have their limits and at present examination under a binocular microscope @ x20-40 magnification is required to distinguish between certain species for certain genera.   For digital images of each species to be sufficient, reference DIGITAL herbaria are required to cover floras all over the world. My speciality and expertise lies primarily with the flora of the Western Himalaya (with particular reference to Ladakh's flora and species found in the borderlands of Western Tibet), which is what I am focussing on - more than sufficient, I might add but the principles apply world-wide.  There are many regions of the world, including the Western Himalaya, which do not even have a reliable check-list, let alone a full, up-to-date flora.  Because there are a small number of places such as the UK, which thanks to hundreds of highly skilled, volunteer amateur botanists (who are of professional standard) belonging to the Botanical Society of the British Isles & Ireland, which have been surveyed in detail to a level far beyond that which exists in most of the world, a false impression is gained as how well-studied the flora of most of the world is.   Given the scale of the Himalaya and many constraints combined with a very small number of active, skilled field botanists, the region is understandably under-recorded. Nobody actually knows which species are rare, let alone endangered - those who claim they do, are at best, misleading the international community and conservation bodies. One of my objectives over the past 30 years has been to help improve this situation.  Botanists the world over need to collaborate.  Being patriotic is all very well but when expertise exists in developed countries, the botanical community in developing countries should embrace assistance from plant enthusiasts the world over.

Returning to herbaria, let me explain what they are and why we UREGENTLY require more - without them it has been impossible to accurately and reliably identify plants in any given region of the world (though with the potential of digital photography, provided digital herbaria are developed, a combination of digitised images of pressed reference specimens and digital images of living plants taken in the wild can enable the vast majority of species to be RELIABLY identified using such resources - though specialist plant taxonomists will still be needed to revise genera and families).  It SHOULD be a matter of PRIORITY to rectify the demise of herbaria and herbarium botanists in Western countries along with the inadequate numbers in developing countries.  Without their services (combined with active field botanists), one CANNOT meaningfully survey and assess the abundance or not of individual species of plants.

To be continued.

For an explanation of what a herbarium actually is see: https://sites.google.com/a/shpa.org.uk/main/what-is-a-herbarium

 
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