Plants of the past, research of the future

The herbarium at the New York Botanical Garden is a resource for scientists looking for new ways to study plants

November 16, 2021
Eight dried plant specimens from the NYBG Herbarium, laid out in a grid
Dried and pressed plants in herbaria serve as a historical record — they can also be a vital resource for researchers. [Images Courtesy of The C. V. Starr Virtual Herbarium]

Barbara Thiers slowly folds open a tiny paper envelope to reveal a green-brown clump of what looks like dried grass, barely half an inch long. It’s an unassuming piece of vegetation, and only one of nearly 8 million specimens housed in the New York Botanical Garden’s herbarium. It just happened to be collected by Charles Darwin. 

Thiers is the director of the herbarium, and I joined her there on a spring morning, where she showed me preserved plants from all over the world and explained the painstaking lengths the staff goes to in order to keep these plants safe. The Darwin sample is special to her, both because of the celebrity factor and because Thiers spent the first part of her career studying similar plants: bryophytes, or mosses and their relatives. 

But the herbarium isn’t just about preserving history. Each year, dozens of scientists use herbarium samples from the New York Botanical Garden and other collections around the world for their research. Pam and Doug Soltis are among those — they hope that herbarium samples might provide clues in their research about how plants partner with bacteria to get the nutrients they need.

Join us as Scienceline learns more about the herbarium at the New York Botanical Garden and how it’s enabling the next generation of plant research. 

Music: “Bloom” and “Curves” by Jahzzar

CC BY-SA 4.0

Herbarium Sample Images Courtesy of The C. V. Starr Virtual Herbarium

Additional footage courtesy of University of Florida

About the Author

Casey Crownhart

Casey writes about the environment, public health, and materials science. When not on deadline, you can find her tending to her small army of houseplants, running, or watching college football.


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