A herbarium (Lat herba, "herb," formerly any medicinal plant) is a collection of dried specimens of plants mounted on sheets of heavy paper and stored in cabinets or bound in book form, as well as the building that houses such a collection. The term replaced (Lat Hortus siccus, "dried garden"), which was used until the late 1700s.
Herbaria hold the original material that all plant species are based on and identified by (the type specimen); they are a depository of material for genetic and comparative analyses, including studies that utilize DNA. They are used as databases for studies of BIODIVERSITY and are invaluable biological resources in that they hold the documentation for the world's plant and fungal species.
Specimens of any group of plants (ALGAE, bryophytes, FERNS, gymnosperms and angiosperms) and all groups of FUNGI can be found in herbaria. Herbarium staff not only curate and maintain the specimens under proper conditions, but also pursue research activities in plant and fungal taxonomy and BIOGEOGRAPHY. They write regional and national floras and attempt evolutionary-based revisions of plant and fungal groups. Much of our horticultural and ecological knowledge is based on these research activities.
The oldest herbaria are in Kasses, Germany (founded 1569), and Bologna, Italy (founded 1570). The world's herbaria hold over 273 million specimens in more than 2600 herbaria in 147 countries. The largest herbarium in the world, the Muséum national d'histoire naturelle in Paris, France, holds 8.9 million specimens.
The herbaria in Canada contain about 2.5% of the world's specimens, holding over 6.8 million specimens. Seven of them have over 250 000 specimens: the Canadian Museum of Nature, Ottawa (1 204 000); the Eastern Cereal and Oilseed Research Centre, Ottawa (1 050 000); Université de Montréal, Montréal (730 000); University of British Columbia, Vancouver (500 000); Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto (455 000); Université Laval, Québec City (327 000); and University of Alberta, Edmonton (290 000).