Herbarium specimen mounted on paper

The Australian National Herbarium

The Australian National Herbarium is the national collection of plant specimens that provides a warehouse of information about Australia's native flora.

  • 16 August 2007 | Updated 14 February 2013

What is a herbarium?

A herbarium is like a warehouse of information about plant biodiversity.

Plant samples are taken from the field by people with special collecting permits, then dried or otherwise preserved.

They are then carefully stored in archival conditions to ensure their longevity.

These preserved specimens, including information about them, are kept to learn more about the plants and their habitat.

To see an example of a herbarium specimen visit Australia's Virtual Herbarium.

The Australian National Herbarium

The Australian National Herbarium (ANH) has over 1 million herbarium specimens, mostly located in Canberra, in the Australian Capital Territory, but also including 150,000 in North Queensland.

As one of the largest herbaria in Australia, the ANH is recognised as the national herbarium with an international reputation for maintaining its collections under high quality standards.

Around 40 researchers, doctoral students and technical and support staff work at the ANH.

This is supplemented by honours students, summer students, botanical interns, visiting scientists and a group of about 50 volunteers who assist with specimen processing, especially mounting.

Research at the ANH focuses on Australian native plants and the plants of:

  • Papua New Guinea
  • Indonesia
  • New Zealand.

ANH staff use a range of techniques in molecular biology, environmental modelling and community ecology and have specific expertise in:

  • eucalypts
  • orchids
  • melaleucas
  • daisies
  • mosses
  • hopbushes
  • lilly pillys.

To share scientific knowledge and resources, the ANH loans herbarium specimens to other scientific institutions where scientists can research them.

Although the research collection is not open to the public, the ANH offers guided tours to special interest groups.

The ANH also maintains a Public Reference Collection in both Canberra and in Cairns, Queensland, which are both available to the public.

The ANH is jointly supported by CSIRO and the Australian Government Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities as part of the Centre for Plant Biodiversity Research.

What are herbaria used for?

Herbaria are especially set up with laboratories and specialist facilities to allow scientists to study herbarium specimens and information about them for scientific research including:

  • mapping current and past ecological and geographic distribution of plants to help with land management and bioprospecting
  • evolutionary history of plants
  • existing and changing nature of plant communities and their habitats
  • invasion biology and weed ecology
  • products based on herbarium collection such as hard copy and electronic floras, and tools to identify plants including books and CDs
  • molecular phylogenetics
  • classification and naming of plants.

Many specimens in herbaria are unique.

The Australian National Herbarium holds specimens from Captain Cook’s 1770 expedition to Australia.

These specimens are particularly valuable not just because of their cultural significance, but also because they are a snapshot of Australia’s botanical history that can never be recaptured.

Owing to the precious nature of herbarium specimens they are not usually available for the public to view or handle and most herbaria have restricted access to minimise damage to their collections.

Some have a secondary collection, often called a ‘Public Reference Herbarium’, of duplicate specimens for students and the public to use.

Related information sheets

Read more about The Australian biological collections.