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Thursday, May 24, 2012

St. Lucia’s Herbarium

Article by:  Nicole La Force

Plants have an enormous impact on our lives. They are the planets primary producers of food; they constitute a major part of our forest and are important sources of medicines, building materials, and fibers for manufacture of paper. Many plants have aesthetic value as ornamentals thereby improving the quality of our lives.

A herbarium is a collection of preserved plants; stored, catalogued, and arranged systematically to be used as a reference collection for studies in taxonomy, natural history, ecology, genetics, pharmacology, molecular biology etc. Herbarium collections are central in providing the basis for our understanding of biodiversity. They document the flora of a region and provide crucial data on the variation and distribution of particular plant groups.

Such a collection is a vital reference when you need to identify a plant and also serves to fix forever the identity of thousands of plant names. A herbarium in itself is like a museum, a warehouse of birth certificates for plants and acts as a source of information about plants; where they are found, what chemicals they have in them, when they flower, what they look like etc.  Preserved plant specimens can be used to provide samples of DNA and to validate scientific observations. A herbarium is therefore of immense practical use and of fundamental importance to science.

Individual plants or parts of plants, are preserved, stored and cared for over time so that current and future generations can identify plants, study biodiversity and use the collection in support of conservation, ecology and sustainable development.

The herbarium found at the Forestry Department is one of a kind in St. Lucia and has catalogued a little over 5200 plants and the work continues. Ultimately the goal is to catalogue all the plant species on the island. It is estimated that probably 90% has been collected.  The collection and Identification of these plants has been a labor of love and a collaborative effort on the part of many individuals. Sad to say, a few of the catalogued species are thought to be extinct since they have not been encountered in the wild of their recorded locations for some time now.

The specimens are mounted on herbarium mounting sheets with labels attached stating; date, location, GPS point, habitat, plants habit or description and collector’(s) name(s).  They are later filed alphabetically in special cabinets in cool temperatures according to genus, family and specie.

The mounted specimen must contain the fruit and or flower, leaves and in the case of grasses the roots must definitely be included. This ensures proper identification. The paper used for mounting and labels are chemical free so as not to react in any way with the specimen. Plants properly preserved in a herbarium can last hundreds of years.

The earliest herbariums were used as references by physicians who prepared many of their medicines directly from plants and were usually portable. 

Did You Know?
  • The oldest herbaria are in Kasses, Germany founded in 1569, and Bologna, Italy founded in 1570.
  • The world's herbaria hold over 273 million specimens in more than 2600 herbaria in 147 countries.
  • The largest herbarium in the world, the Muséum national d'histoire naturelle in Paris, France, holds 8.9 million specimens. Wow!
Want to learn more about St. Lucia’s plants? Visit Roger Graveson’s website @ a gentleman who has contributed greatly to our existing herbarium.