Herbarium in Focus, a free exhibition in Ireland’s National Herbarium at the National Botanic Gardens was officially opened on Thursday 3rd October 2019 by Office of Public Works (OPW) Commissioner, John McMahon. The purpose of the exhibition is to showcase the key role herbarium’s play in our understanding of the natural environment and to encourage public participation in this important resource.

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A herbarium is a collection of preserved, dried, and pressed plant specimens and the National Herbarium contains a unique archive of some 600,000 preserved herbarium specimens dating from as early as 1661. Herbari play a central role in the discovery of new plant species and crucially they also hold evidence of the response of plants to environmental changes. Herbarium specimens can show how plants are adapting to environmental changes as well as the impact that humans are having on the landscape.

Dr Matthew Jebb, Director of the National Botanic Gardens and Rosemary Collier, Principal Officer of National Historic Properties in the National Herbarium

Visitors to the exhibition at the National Herbarium now have an opportunity to learn about the ongoing process of pressing and drying plants, see specimens collected from as far back as the 17th century, and see how we are still learning from the specimens through DNA extraction. As part of the Office of Public Works’ mission to promote awareness of the work of the National Herbarium, members of the public are also invited to bring plant specimens which they would like to have identified to the National Botanic Gardens where staff on site will aim to help them in that process.

Visitors to the launch with OPW Commissioner John McMahon

There are in the region of 600,000 individual specimens held in the National Herbarium, a museum collection of over 7,500 items along with a collection of seeds, DNA and plant tissues that complement the collections. Key collections in the National Herbarium include the work of female pioneering scientist Matilda Cullen Knowles and specimens that Roger Casement brought back to Dublin from the Congo while on a mission there to report to the British government on the Belgian colonial regime.

Dr Colin Kelleher, Keeper of the National Herbarium and Dr Matthew Jebb, Director of the National Botanic Gardens at the launch of the Herbarium in Focus

Opening the exhibition, OPW Commissioner Mr John McMahon, said “The art of pressing and drying a specimen is something that will feel familiar to most children who have tucked a flower away in a heavy book. What has changed is what we are now able to learn from the huge archive of specimens which have been catalogued over centuries. Each individual herbarium specimen is considered to be a snapshot in time and here in the National Herbarium we are capable of retrieving DNA from specimens retrieved by botanists in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries and see what is changing and why. It is endlessly fascinating to think that botanists in the field 150 years ago were effectively sampling for us here in 2019.”

Dr Nigel Monaghan, Keeper of the Natural History Division at the National Museum of Ireland

Entry to the Botanic Gardens and the National Herbarium is free of charge. To find out more and book tours email botanicgardens@opw.ie or call (01) 804 0319/ 857 0909