The word “vault” usually conjures thoughts of dark, secure places where hugely valuable or dangerous things are kept. Another place with a vault is the National Herbarium of New South Wales at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney. A plant vault.

Held in this vault is a collection of more than 1.2 million plant specimens, each a holder of unique stories of discovery, evolution and human scientific advances. It’s a trove of botanical riches and is valued at more than $100 million.

Before my visit, my idea of what a herbarium is was rather romantic. I thought of Emily Dickinson’s collection of plant specimens and the prodigious poetic output it inspired. I thought of sending home-pressed violets in birthday cards as a child. The reality of a scientific herbarium is something different entirely.

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Around 250 years ago, James Cook sailed to Australia on the Endeavour. On board were Banks, a wealthy scientist, and Dr Daniel Solander, a Swedish botanist. Banks and Solander collected more than 1000 plant specimens from the east coast of Australia, all completely new to science. Their haul included wattles, eucalyptus, and banksia (named after Sir Joseph Banks). Eight hundred and five of the specimens they collected are now housed in the National Herbarium of NSW. These specimens, while having vast historical value and holding many rich stories, are still used in a practical sense today to help classify, understand, and track changes in Australia’s native plant communities.

Dale Dixon, a botanist and the manager of the Herbarium collection, tells of his first interaction with a Banks and Solander specimen. “I was a university student and was entering data from a big pile of specimens into the computer. I picked one up and started reading “Banks & Solander, 1770”. I stopped and there were tears pouring out of my eyes. I couldn’t believe I was handling one of Australia’s most important plant specimens. We still use them today.”

The management, curation and protection of more than a million plant specimens is no small feat. Dixon leads a team of curators, botanical illustrators and a group of keen volunteers, some of whom have been working at the herbarium for more than 30 years. The volunteers sew the pressed plant specimens onto acid-free paper with dental floss (apparently dental floss has longevity like nothing else, lasting at least 100 years). This is a never-ending task, with Dixon estimating there are hundreds of thousands of plant specimens waiting to be mounted.

And then there are the bugs. The Drugstore beetle is threatening the collection – they like laying their eggs in dried plant material. The vault has therefore become a quarantined zone. The herbarium is not open to the public and each visitor needs to declare any plant material they are carrying. Each new specimen is taken to a separate quarantine room before being dried and frozen for seven days before being allowed into the vault. “When you start thinking about its dollar value, you can understand why we do what we do to try and preserve it,” says Dixon.

As our scientific knowledge and impact on the earth changes, so do the uses of the herbarium. Once it was used purely for naming and classifying plants. Nowadays it’s used for an ever-evolving range of scientific purposes, such as tracking the impact of climate change on plant communities. As each specimen includes a date and location, scientists can collect a series of different specimens of the same species collected over 100 years or more and compare their genetic makeup and structure, drawing conclusions about the different environments they existed in.

The concept of a herbarium may seem a little antiquated, but when you think about it, plants (like humans) need to be seen physically in order to learn about them. They need to be examined in the flesh. Dixon suggests that while they are utilising technology to digitise parts of its collection, nothing beats a physical specimen. “The specimens are the foundation resources for botanical research. Without them our staff can’t do their work. If there is some sort of taxonomic problem requiring a botanist to quantify the attributes of the species involved, they physically need to see the specimen.”

The herbarium is more than just a collection of scientific records. It’s a hugely valuable transcript of our ongoing conversation with plants. It records what we once thought, what we now think, and in generations to come, will record what our children’s children think and know about plants, the environment and humanity. “We’re just a blip in time, standing on the shoulders of the people before us,” says Dixon. People will be standing on our shoulders in the future and building on the knowledge that we have created or discovered.” And on and on. What a legacy.

National Herbarium Archive of NSW

Royal Botanic Gardens

Mrs Macquaries Road, Sydney

(02) 9231 8111