Garden News Blog

Global Plant Initiative Reigns in Spain

Herbarium specimens
Two specimens from BBG's Herbarium.
BBB's Herbarium scanner
BBG Herbarium technician Karen Kongsmai scanning type specimens from the herbarium collection on the Mellon Foundation sponsored HerbScan. Photo by Paul Harwood.

BBG’s Herbarium contains more than 310,000 preserved plant specimens, and we are working to make the information stored in it accessible to all by posting it on the internet. The Global Plants Initiative, funded by the Mellon Foundation, is an international partnership of museums and gardens with that same goal, and I just returned from the group’s annual conference in the golden-hued city of Madrid. The Initiative has revolutionized our field, changing the way that botanists work, making it faster and easier to get the information we need from these valuable specimens.

BBG’s herbarium contains important collections from Mexico, Bolivia, and the Galapagos Islands, and as our representative, I joined 220 colleagues from the herbaria of 42 nations at the meeting. The Real Jardín Botánico de Madrid, which hosted the conference, is beautiful. It is laid out in a grid of systematic beds that display plant families as they were understood in the 18th century. It is a garden of its time, the Enlightenment, and as such it is a garden for teaching as well as display. The beds are filled with thousands of plants including many that were brought back by Spain’s scientific expeditions throughout its former empire. Its extensive herbarium is filled with preserved specimens from these expeditions. Many of them are the first record of a species and are critical to our understanding of tropical plants. Once, researchers would have had to travel to Madrid and search the herbarium to see these specimens. Now, the Initiative is helping make images of these specimens available online.

The Initiative provides high-resolution scanners to herbaria so that we can all make images of our historical collections. We received our scanner three years ago and have already completed the scanning of all our types and historically important specimens. The scanner has also become a useful tool in the herbarium. We use it to make images to send to researchers at other institutions and to record the specimens we use in our own research. We also continue to find hidden types in our collection.

Next year’s conferrence will be held in Panama, and it is there that the future of the program will be decided. Next year funding will end from the Mellon Foundation. In order to continue, the Initiative will have to become self-supporting and find new sources of support. The Initiative has brought beneficial change, now we must try to sustain it.

More images from the GPI are available through JStor. You can also browse the collections of the Real Jardín Botánico de Madrid.

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