Last update:13 March 2018
An herbarium is a museum collection of dried plant specimens. The specimens are generally filed according to a systematic classification system that not only permits ready retrieval but also serves to group specimens of closely related plants in close physical proximity. When dried properly, many plants retain their characteristic morphological features, even to the microscopic level. Herbarium specimens can be dissected, sectioned for study by light microscopy, studied by scanning electron microscopy, and in some cases molecules, even nucleic acids, can be extracted from herbarium specimens for study–and, of course, none of this is possible with a photograph of a plant. Herbarium specimens, therefore, are essential for teaching and research in plant anatomy, plant morphology, and plant systematics. The specimens themselves embody the morphology of the species they represent and the whole collection becomes a working example of the classification. Moreover, herbarium specimens are always accompanied by detailed labels, so the collection also provides a record of what plant grew at what place at what particular time in the past.
Specimens accumulate in herbaria for a variety of reasons. General collections of plants are often made for the purpose of enriching the herbarium, i.e., to produce a collection that mirrors the full diversity of plant life in nature. General collecting to build an herbarium collection is much like librarians seeking all sorts of different kinds of books to place on their shelves. Library collections and herbaria are actually rather similar; the larger and more diverse the collection, the broader and deeper the opportunities for meaningful study. Some herbarium specimens, called vouchers, play an additional specialized purpose. Vouchers are specimens deposited in herbaria for the specific purpose of serving as a potential check on the statements (published or otherwise) of a researcher. Let's say someone wanted to study leaf development in Euphorbia maculata. The genus Euphorbia is large and contains many species that are sometimes difficult to distinguish from each other. There is always the possibility that the researcher thinks the material at hand is Euphorbia maculata but it is actually Euphorbia humistrata. Mistakes do happen. But if a voucher specimen exists in an herbarium and that voucher is cited in the research publication, the possibility always exists for someone to go back and either confirm or disprove the identification. Sometimes vouchers are deposited in great series. For example, any sort of floristic project should have at least one specimen to represent every species included on the checklist or flora.
So if it a cold winter's day in Richmond and you want to know what Euphorbia maculata looks like, or you need some pollen grains or seeds for detailed study, you can bet there won't be any live plants outdoors, but the herbarium collection will provide what you need. Or if you want to find a living specimen of Euphorbia humistrata but don't happen to know offhand any place where it grows nearby, a quick look at the herbarium collection will tell you where and when it has been collected in the past–maybe some will still be growing in the same place.
The Department of Biology at the University of Richmond, Richmond, Virginia, maintains an herbarium of approximately 30,000 specimens known to the botanical community by the acronym URV (Index Herbariorum).
The first herbarium collection at the University of Richmond was that of Paul R. Merriman, who assembled a set of vouchers for his Flora of Richmond and Vicinity. Unfortunately, his collections were lost in a fire which destroyed the Science Building on 20 October 1925. Despondent, Merriman died shortly thereafter. His manuscript and a set of illustrations prepared by Mary S. Lynn survived the blaze, and from these the Flora Committee of the Virginia Academy of Science published Merriman's florula posthumously in 1930. This work excluded grasses, sedges, and trees; nevertheless, it has been widely used in the Richmond area for the identification of wildflowers.
In essence, the extant herbarium collection at the University of Richmond was founded by Robert F. Smart, who joined the staff of the Department of Biologv in 1929. Smart was responsible for the early growth of the herbarium by his own collections (primarily myxomycetes and fungi), the collections of his students, and by his contacts with botanists at Harvard University where he did his graduate work. Through Smart's Harvard connection, many specimens collected by David H. Linder and Merritt L. Fernald in Virginia were deposited in the University of Richmond Herbarium. Ultimately, Fernald conducted some 44 field trips in Virginia on which he was accompanied variously by Bayard Long, Ludlow Griscom, Robert Smart, John M. Fogg, Everett Luttrell, and others. On several of these trips, Fernald used Maryland Hall, which then housed the Department of Biology, as base camp for his collecting forays. Fernald's accounts of these excursions are published in Rhodora, the first installment appearing in volume 37. Virginia plants collected by Fernald form the nucleus of the vascular plant specimens in the University of Richmond Herbarium.
Curatorship of the herbarium succeeded to John C. Strickland when Smart became engaged in administrative duties during the 1940's. Strickland concentrated primarily on Myxophyceae (blue- green algae) during his tenure as curator. In 1977 the herbarium was moved to its present location in room E-210 of the Gottwald Science Center and, since 1980, W. John Hayden has curated the collection.
Estimates of holdings for major groups of plants in the University of Richmond Herbarium, with notes on the most important collectors, are as follows:
Works of a floristic nature based upon the collections in URV include the following:
Hayden, W. J. 1983. Jamaican blue-green algae collections of J. C. Strickland. Rhodora 85: 381-384.
Hayden, W. J. 1985. Eryngium prostratum in Central Virginia. Castanea 50: 266-267.
Hayden, W. J. 1989. Noteworthy collections (Virginia): Cyperus difformis L., Draba brachycarpa Nuttall, and Eryngium prostratum DC. Castanea 54: 207-208.
Hayden, W. J. 2005 onwards. Flora of Kaxil Kiuic (Yucatan, Mexico) web site
Hayden, W. J., M. L. Haskins, M. F. Johnson, & J. M. Gardner. 1989. Flora of Richmond National Battlefield Park, Virginia. Castanea 54: 87-104.
Luttrell, E. S. 1954. The Cladoniaccae of Virginia. Lloydia 17: 275-306.
Puckett, R. N. 1936. The myxomycetes of Richmond and vicinity. Master's thesis, University of Richmond, Richmond, Virginia.
Smith, E. R. 1981. The vascular flora of the Kersey-Crump Creek watershed, Hanover County, Virginia. Master's thesis, University of Richmond, Richmond, Virginia.
Simmons, M. P., D. M. E. Ware, & W. J. Hayden. 1995. The vascular flora of the Potomac River watershed of King George County, Virginia. Castanea 60: 179--209.
Strickland, J. C. 1940. The Oscillatoriaceae of Virginia. Amer. J. Bot. 27: 628-633.
Terry, M. A., & W. J. Hayden. 2007. Vascular Flora of Powhatan County, Virginia. Castanea 72: 138-158.
Walton, H. M. 1937. A critical study of the plants deposited in the University of Richmond Herbarium with notes on their geographical distribution. Master's thesis, University of Richmond, Richmond, Virginia.