What is the best way to collect plant specimens?

I don’t think that’s true. This issue has been mentioned during pretty much every rare plant meeting I’ve been to. We have locally some iconic and beautiful endangered species of flowering plants that have been so over-collected by enthusiastic botanists wanting them for bragging rights that there are more dead plant specimens in herbaria than there are living ones left in the wild. I think it depends on a case-by-case basis.


The issues you are bringing up relate to poor or totally absent regulation in the local collections framework but not of the act of collecting itself

If I fill my car up with a mixture of 3 quarters petrol and 1 quarter effluent, I cannot blame the car for spluttering along and performing dismally, but rather what I put into it.

Oh, you can overcollect. I say this as someone that works within herbaria; some species are way over collected and collection has led to the loss of populations. Let’s not pretend that collection doesn’t have an impact. In NJ we had a good stand of Platanthera nivea, which is very out its usual range. This species didn’t need to be collected every 5 years as a record it was still there. It’s extirpated now, although the site it was at remains fairly intact with good records for all the other species there.

Why should there be 20 records of that plant and one or two or even none of others? What made it so special that it needed to be collected so often?


Sounds as if there would be a story behind that? Why did who keep on collecting the last of the rare plants?

There isn’t any good cohesive story. Collectors (of the past, and even now) want to collect rare things. The ones in question here are well-known local collectors. Orchids are often rare and even more often fetishized. An orchid way out of its normal range in a unique, well-known locality just didn’t stand a chance.


Supply and demand. It’s like asking why gold is so much costlier than granite. Also, there is a certain ego stroke inherent in obtaining or possessing something that few people can. In some ways, having one’s name as collector on an herbarium specimen of a rare plant is a status symbol.

WEIRD people who see the last living whatever and want to be recorded as The Extinctioner. I thought that died out with Victorian explorers.

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Your comment to Elias mentioned the value of collecting specimens for taxonomic study - and I have no problem with that. It is, as you say, essential. My comment about it being better to take a photo than a physical specimen in the field was aimed at the other 99.9% who are not taxonomists and can do nothing useful with their collected specimens.


See my reply to another person directly above your comment

I don’t know what country or region you are from, but without trying to guess, I’d say that any herbaria which do not regulate who is collecting for them and where/ how much they are permitted to collect have only themselves to blame for what you describe

Herbaria are to blame because collectors behave unethically? How do you even regulate who collects and what they collect? Herbaria are just a place to house the specimens, so don’t blame them.

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This thread is moving toward the kind of gatekeeping that creates the rift between citizen and science in the first place.

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As a rule, when I go out, usually as a trip leader I make it clear no specimen collection.


A lot of discussion on the pro’s and con’s on specimen collection. And as @ asonhernandez74 says there is a rift that does exist.

I wholly agree with this -

I know of schools who have summer projects for their students making herbariums. At the end of the projects kilogrammes of badly pressed and badly annotated herbariums are piled up and then in the not so distant future just thrown out. Labelling is with sparkly colour pens. Yes, sure, there is nothing like getting up close and personal with individual beings - but the damage caused not just to many individual plants , but also to the learning that “it is ok to pluck and preserve just because one can is a very dangerous idea” . What’s next - pickled specimens of reptiles ? (yes that I have seen too and been party to it too)

A collection is useful if a) it is professionally done with long term viability b) is accessible to the larger public c) is not a duplicate of the already many specimen collections. (esp if specimens are collected from common / open access lands. Not everyone can do collections.

Added to that photography techniques and minimalist genetic techniques have changed the way physical attribute based taxonomy are looked at. A surely the era of colonial collection expedition is long gone. And smaller collections would (should) have to have a really high standard

Give our insatiable curiosity and our knack of developing new techniques (and ease of access to such techniques) to look at things in the past I don’t think we will ever get over the desire to “collect” - and this is a scary prospect.

As has already been pointed out different countries (and different land use regimes) have rules about the act of specimen collection itself. However I am curious to know if there are rules that exist about how collections are to be maintained. It seems pointless to make a collection and then have it rot in the corner of an institution.

Another thing I am curious about is what is the long term viability of collections received by “scientific” institutions and what do they do with what they get from private collectors who are now tired or unable to maintain their collections.

See this programme about digitizing a billion specimens


This is another topic altogether - collecting specimen for herbaria are one thing, Collecting live plants for alleged ex-situ conservation is a whole another story. My experience has to do with confronting people collecting orchids and “quietly” sending it by post.


Thank you. You clarify the dilemma very well. I started plants photography 30 years ago, and whenever I showed my photos to botanists to help me in identification, 90% of them would tell me, no, you have to bring a specimen! I started taking a press with me but due to the logistics of making long expeditions, I found it hard to keep the specimens well so I quickly gave up on the idea. Instead of having specimens, I focused on taking more photos with more angles especially for the flowers and fruits. There was still a problem if there were neither but this did not deter me from not taking any more specimens.


@sunbird - thanks for sharing. Maybe some other day we can start a topic on how much detail is enough. And whether it will ever be “good enough”

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I’ve been an avid amateur photgrapher of plants for many years as well, and I got exactly the same reply from professional botanists. After signing up with the scouting wing of our National Biodiversity Institute, I committed myself to doing collections when and wherever possible and have made 3 so far, soon to do my 4th. The raw truth is that for the time being and far into the foreseeable future, physical collections will remain the only reliable records that taxonomists can refer to to get a complete perspective on all features of any given taxon indefinitely. Photos, no matter how detailed or plentiful, just do not provide the same result

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I’m sure there’s a lot of valid criticism on how institutions and individuals in South Africa manage biodiversity that can be spoken about without painting an entire country and everyone in it with a broad brush.


Of course

In fact, maybe it would better serve us to open a new topic on the matter for people to get a better idea of the con’s and pro’s of their countries NR&BM strategies

Your profile says you’re from New Jersey, as is your place of study. Maybe you can tell us about the collection management system your herbaria utilize and the strong points of it? In all likelihood, there’s alot that your institutions do which countries like mine could learn from, and vice versa

If collection also extends to gathering for one’s garden:

  1. If dry and seeds are available, collecting them and growing the plant from seed.
  2. If sizeable sprout, uprooting with a hori hori and storing in a paper bag or wide-mouth plastic HDPE jar, like the kind that dietary fiber powder or protein powder is sold in. Easier for transporting in a backpack that way.

Trying #1 with Abutilon palmeri (Palmer’s Mallow)
Trying #2 with Cyclospermum leptophyllum (Marsh parsley)

I don’t collect anything larger than that, though.