Where dry gardens wilt

India is one of the 17 megadiverse countries, with over 11 per cent of the world's plant species. Herbaria across the country store millions of rich biological samples, helping scientists to connect with the past and better understand evolution, extinction, climate change and even introduction of invasive species. But due to inadequate funds and little government support, these repositories of knowledge remain forgotten in cupboards. The Biological Diversity Act of 2002 has further restricted access to these resources. Vibha Varshney analyses the state of Indian herbaria and suggests ways to increase scientific collaboration while safeguarding the biodiversity

By Vibha Varshney
Last Updated: Tuesday 15 March 2016

Where dry gardens wilt

The 320-year-old sprig
of Cyperus procerus
at the Central National
Herbarium in Howrah.
It is one of the oldest
specimens in the country (Courtesy: Botanical Survey Of India)

It's a dead place. More than two million dried and poisoned plants and plant parts, accumulated over two centuries, are lying in rows of wooden and steel cupboards at the Central National Herbarium in Howrah, Kolkata. Some of these specimens are among the oldest in Asia.

One such is a 320-year-old sprig of Cyperus procerus, a type of sedge that grows profusely in marshy places like swamps, paddy fields and pools across the world. It was collected in June 1696 from an area somewhere between Fort St George and Tirupati in Chennai by an East India Company surgeon, Samuel Brown. Since his arrival in Chennai, then called Madras, Brown was fascinated by the abundance of plants around him and their many therapeutic uses by the communities.

This was the period of scientific renaissance, and scientists worldwide were trying to understand the living organisms around them. Brown wanted these plants to be documented. He would send samples of plants, dried and preserved between sheets of blotting paper along with notes on their local names and medicinal uses, to his friend James Petivar in London. Petivar, who was then a fellow of Royal Society of London, described Cyperus in the 1704 issue of Philosophical Transactions, the world’s first science journal. Some of Brown’s samples eventually made their way to the National Herbarium in Melbourne, Australia, which in 1900 gifted the Cyperus specimen to Howrah herbarium.

Known as one of the largest in the world, the Howrah herbarium also has 2,583 coloured illustrations from the 18th century that were commissioned by William Roxburgh, often referred to as the father of India Botany. It also houses more than 15,000 type collections—specimens that were used by taxonomists to describe and name plants—and a set of 12,000-odd plant specimens, collected by Nathaniel Wallich, who was superintendent of the herbarium’s botanical garden between 1815 and 1846. Dried, pressed and treated with poisonous chemicals, these specimens have been carefully stitched on sheets of cartridge paper or kept preserved in bottles of alcohol, with labels attached to indicate their identity, name of the collector, and when and where they were collected.

These illustrations and specimens are not?just relics. They are critical to today’s research. By providing information about plants in the past, they offer a time-lapse view of their evolution, spread or extinction, and help track invasive species and climate change (see ‘Breathing out of a time warp’,).

There are around 100 such herbaria across the country which boast of a similar wealth of information. While the Howrah herbarium and its 11 regional centres, representing different biodiversity zones, are part of the Botanical Survey of India (BSI), a premier research institute of the Union government, the remaining are part of university departments and non-government research institutes. Many of these are specialised herbaria. For example, the National Herbarium of Cultivated Plants under the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (NBPGR) focuses on cultivated plants. The herbarium at the Forest Research Institute at Dehradun records forest resources.

Unfortunately, very few people are aware of their significance. Worse, compared to most herbaria in other parts of the world, Indian herbaria do not receive adequate government attention for their upkeep, modernisation and enhancement. The apathy is clearly visible from the meagre funds they receive.


Herbaria in the country struggle due to lack of funds

A researcher in University of
Delhi treats plant specimens
with chemicals to prepare
them for preservation (Photo: Vikas Choudhary)
Herbaria need to carry out frequent excursions to enrich their collections. Once collected and identified, these specimens need to be preserved and catalogued, which requires skilled human resource and infrastructure. But herbaria in the country do not have enough funds for this.

This is no different for the 11 herbaria under BSI, which is under the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC). A 2014 MOEFCC report shows a steady increase in the fund the ministry received in the past 10 years: the amount increased from Rs 280 crore in 1992-93 to Rs 2,430 crore in 2013-14. Of the funds received in 2013-14, MoEFCC set aside Rs 1,564 crore for biodiversity conservation. But BSI receives just a small fraction of the fund. In 2013-14, it received Rs 15.87 crore. In 2014-15, it received Rs 18 crore. A large part of the fund, say BSI authorities, goes into paying salary and maintenance of infrastructure.

Other herbaria are left to their own devices. Ujwala Bapat, director of Blatter Herbarium at St Xavier’s College, Mumbai, says maintenance of the herbarium requires more than Rs 6 lakh a year. Established in 1906 by Swiss priest Ethelbert Blatter, the herbarium maintains 200 type specimens and over 200,000 samples. Some of these specimens date back to the 19th century. “Due to lack of funds we have to depend more on poisonous chemicals to preserve plant specimens instead of using air-conditioners and dehumidifiers,” says Praveen Kale, assistant curator of the herbarium.

To meet the expenses, Blatter Herbarium charges a fee: Rs 500 per herbarium sheet from those who want to study a type specimen, Rs 250 per day from those studying general herbarium specimens, and Rs 200 per photograph of the sheet. It also charges Rs 250 for identification of plants and an authentication certificate which is necessary to be submitted with a PhD thesis. But this does not amount to much as hardly 15 researchers visit the herbarium in a year to study type specimens and 50-odd for referring to herbarium sheets. The authorities have also turned to philanthropic organisations. “This year, we received Rs 2.5 crore for modernisation from the Sir Ratan Tata Trust. Using the fund, we plan to digitise our samples (see ‘making of e-herbarium’,). After this, we would charge only for type specimens,” says Rajendra Shinde, vice-principal of the Department of Biological Sciences at St Xavier’s College, who was curator of the herbarium for eight years.

The herbarium at the Department of Botany at the University of Delhi, which houses 8,000 specimens, including some of the sheets prepared by J K Maheshwari who has authored Flora of Delhi, has managed to modernise its herbarium using a one-time grant from the university in 2013.

But these herbaria need more funds to harmonise with global standards. One such step requires them to shift from the present classification system, based on morphological features, to a system that arranges organisms as per their genetic make-up. BSI has set up a laboratory in Shillong and begun genetic profiling of plants, but says it has no immediate plans to shift to the new system. “Many genera and families of plants are yet to be resolved in the system. Moreover, morphological features are still the most important tool to understand and differentiate biodiversity” says Paramjit Singh, director of BSI. Besides, genetic profiling requires huge funds.

There is also a lack of will to protect these rare bioresource. S P Khullar, former professor of botany at the Panjab University, Chandigarh, says how valuable collections in the university herbaria are wasted. “As old researchers retire, their specimens were thrown out to make space for new researchers. I had to see my collections being burned. Many specimens were from places where collection is no longer possible,” he says. Khullar had studied Himalayan plants, particularly ferns, for three decades and has authored four books on the subject.

The government did wake up to the importance of herbaria six years ago. In 2009, it released a special grant of Rs 15 crore each for BSI and the Zoological Survey of India to upgrade their infrastructure and institutional capacity. That year, MoEFCC, set up a taskforce headed by ecologist Madhav Gadgil to help these institutions prepare an action plan, a vision document 2020 and figure out ways to spend the special grant. The taskforce made a number of recommendations, including digitisation of the database; making these organisations part of international collaborative projects like Biodiversity Heritage Library and Consortium for the Barcode of Life, an initiative that supports development of DNA barcoding as a global standard for species identification; and most importantly to make them autonomous “Based on the recommendations, we have sent our action plan to MoEFCC. We are yet to hear from it,” says Singh.

The recommendations are crucial for the future research on biodiversity, particularly at a time when excessive restrictions by National Biodiversity Authority (NBA) is limiting access to biological resources and the scope of research.


Do excessive restrictions imposed by the biodiversity authority help?

A curator at Blatter Herbarium in
Mumbai displays a specimen. The
herbarium struggles for funds in the
absence of government support (Photo: Vibha Varshney)

With six climate zones, India is one of the 17 megadiverse countries in the world—at least 47,791, or 11.4 per cent, of the world’s 0.4 million plant species are found in the country. To safeguard the rich biodiversity and promote its conservation, sustainable use and equitable sharing of benefits arising from using the resources, the government in 2002 enacted the Biological Diversity Act. The following year it established NBA in accordance with the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity. A biological specimen can now be sent out of the country only if it is in accordance with the rules set by NBA, which has a multi-step approval process to prevent biopiracy and patent claims by foreign companies and researchers.

Though the Act initially did not consider herbarium specimens as separate entity, to address the concerns of some taxonomists the MoEFCC in November 2014 introduced a separate provision into the Act. The Guidelines on Access to Biological Resources and Associated Knowledge and Benefits Sharing Regulations, 2014, allow sending or carrying biological resources, including preserved herbarium specimens, says R S Rana, member of NBA and former director of NBPGR. Under the new provision, the applicant does not need to pay a fee to NBA, he adds.

However, these revisions have not encouraged the NBA or herbarium authorities to share specimens with researchers. BSI sources say none of its 11 herbaria has shared specimens with researchers within or outside India in the past year.

Scientists say excessive restrictions by NBA are a major hindrance in biodiversity-related research, which cannot be done in isolation.

For instance, those studying phylogenesis and taxonomy need to study living plants as well as specimens deposited in herbaria worldwide. But NBA’s cumbersome approval process often dissuades foreign researchers from studying Indian specimens.

Making of e-herbarium
Indian herbaria are digitising plant collections to make them easily accessible Much OF the information herbaria hold remains stored in cupboards. To make the information more accessible to researchers, and to anyone interested in plant diversity, herbaria worldwide have begun providing high-resolution images and data of their specimens online. The database are not only searchable, one can see minute structures like trichomes (fine growths on plant surface) on the high-resolution images.

Herbaria in India are rich repositories of 3.5 million plant specimens, representing over 23,000 type specimens. However, their digitisation is still in the nascent stage. So far, only smaller herbaria like the one at Forest Research Institute in Dehradun and the National Botanical Research Institute in Lucknow have been digitised, and the Botanical Survey of India (BSI) is in the process of digitising its collection. As of now, digital specimens are not available online. The images are sent to researchers only on request.

Once the BSI herbaria are digitised, the large collections would provide data on the country's plant diversity. Specimen collections of the smaller herbaria and the specialised ones would add to the data, says E Roshini Nayar, emeritus professor at the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources.

Quentin Groom, researcher at the Botanic Garden Meise, Belgium, is trying to determine the genetics of Oxalis corniculata, a weed found across the globe, and understand how it has evolved. To study its Indian variety, Groom would need to collaborate with an Indian researcher, or travel to the country to collect the sample. In either case, he would have to apply for NBA’S permission and pay it a fee. “This is global research. I can’t afford to pay for specimens if countries are not willing to share. As of now, my only source for most Asian countries is to find old herbarium specimens already in Europe and extract DNA from these. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work very well as DNA degrades with time,” he says. “I just have to accept that there will be a big hole in my global study.”

Till September 1, NBA had approved only 193, or 18 per cent, of the 1,071 applications it received under access and benefit sharing of bioresources. An analysis by Down To Earth shows that approval of the applications mostly depends on the whims and fancies of the NBA chairperson. About 40 per cent of the applications were approved in just two years­—35 between 2008 and 2009 when four chairpersons were in-charge of NBA for a few months each, and another 42 during 2014-15, after the approval process was made time-bound.

The approval process also affects Indian researchers, particularly those who have to consult foreign experts about their experimental biological material. This often require sending the material to foreign experts. But under BDA, researchers do not have ownership over the biological resource they possess and cannot share it with anyone they wish.

The NBA is clear that it will not weaken provisions under the Act. “The Act provides for facilitated access to biological resources. It does not prohibit but only regulates,” says Hem Pande, chairperson of NBA. If a project is collaborative research project as notified by the competent authorities under the Act, then germplasm exchange could be allowed, he adds.

Such restrictions are important to check the exploitation of the country’s natural resources, says Anil Gupta, director of the National Innovation Foundation, an autonomous body of the Department of Science and Technology. Foreign researchers are not willing to enter into collaborative research. “We should not allow unilateral exchange of material. Indian researchers are not labourers to collect plant material for foreigner researchers. The research has to be mutually rewarding, and there should be recognition, reciprocation and reward for the Indian researcher too,” says Gupta, also a member of the NBA.


Biodiversity-related research cannot be done in isolation

A specimen of the pod of Entada pursaetha, a gigantic woody shrub, at the
herbarium of the Forest Research Institute in Dehradun (Photo: Souparno Banerjee)
The distribution of plants does not stop at national borders, and individual species must be understood throughout their entire ranges in order to be classified properly. But due to restrictions, Indian plants are poorly understood than those of Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, peninsular Malaysia, Russia or Thailand, says Peter H Raven, president emeritus of Missouri Botanical Garden, USA. In fact, the country is fast losing out in its effort to understand its plants. The number of plant collections in the country is unusually low. Indian researchers do not use all the available techniques to study plant specimens. But above all, the country is failing to use its biological resources for national and international benefits due to its bureaucracy, restrictive laws and poor international collaborations, Raven adds.

Some researchers suggest different policies for live plants and dry herbarium specimens.Herbarium specimens are poisoned and cannot be used for propagation of the species, says Arun K Pandey of the Department of Botany, University of Delhi. “So exchanging them with foreign researchers does not pose a risk of biopiracy.” He suggests that NBA should give some leeway to taxonomists to interact with others. “Without collaborations, neither can we carry out taxonomic revisions and name changes, nor add new information from genetic data to our studies and create global monographs of plants,” he says.

It is also important to distinguish academic research from research for commercial application, says Patrick S Herendeen, senior director at Chicago Botanic Garden in the US. A botanist extracts DNA from a specimen to understand how it is related to other plants, while a scientist with commercial interest extracts the DNA to put into another organism for financial benefit, says William R Buck, senior curator at the New York Botanical Garden, USA. “But often politicians make laws that treat herbarium specimens like archeological artefacts,” says Buck.

The NBA should develop a code of conduct for exchange of herbarium specimens with the world herbaria, suggests G S Rawat, taxonomist with the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun. This is especially important as a large number of herbaria outside the country have plant specimens collected from India, he says.

Indian scientists also suffer because of such restrictive policies. There is a lot of international collaboration happening these days between scientists in many different countries, and Indian scientists and students are not benefitting from this as much as they could in part due to the restrictive policies, says Herendeen.

It is clear that excess of control is making it difficult for Indian scientists to carry out meaningful research. NBA’s heart might be in the right place but it would be a shame if the biodiversity that belongs to the people fails to help them. It is also clear that if India wants to protect its biodiversity and benefit from it, the government would have to help the herbaria enrich their treasure. There is an urgent need to increase funds for BSI and other herbaria so that they can protect the existing specimens and carry out frequent excursions to enrich their collections. With its limited fund, BSI adds around 5,000 new specimens each year to its collections. This year, it has reported 173 new species and genera of plants. Singh says BSI needs more budgetary support.

There is also a need to create awareness about the rich history of herbaria. If museums can survive, so can herbaria.

Breathing out of a time warp
While preserving plants or plant parts in a herbarium, collectors neatly label the specimens, indicating their identity, name of the collector, and the time and place of collection. These details offer a time-lapse view of their existence. From studying plant evolution, mapping diversity and correcting age-old botanical errors to tracking plant diseases, conservation efforts and climate change, herbaria offer a deep insight into the environment


DNA extracted from centuries old plant specimens can help track origin of species and correct taxonomical error. One such error crept into taxonomy in the early 1930s, when an American expert erroneously clubbed a wild watermelon variety with the cultivated variety, which has sweet and succulent red pulp. The type specimen of the wild variety at the herbarium in Sweden was collected by Carl Peter Thunberg from South Africa in 1773. He had described its fruits as dry and bitter and covered with woolly hairs. But the American expert merged Thunberg's sample and the cultivated variety, under one species Citrullus lanatus. And since Thunberg's type specimen was from South Africa, it was assumed that the true watermelon must have originated there. The confusion was cleared recently, after scientists extracted genetic material of the type specimen and compared it with the cultivated variety. The cultivated variety evolved in tropical West Africa, and diverged from its wild relative three million years ago. The findings were published in New Phytologist in 2014.


Bengaluru-based non-profit ATREE has recently used herbarium specimens to address the issue of species-specific conservation. Though Phyllanthus emblica is generally considered the Indian gooseberry or amla, ATREE researchers found that another species, P indofischeri is also an important source of the fruit. While P emblica is widely distributed across Southeast Asia, P indofischeri is endemic to the Deccan Plateau and not found anywhere else in the world. ATREE researchers studied amla specimens at various herbaria and observed that the two species have a distinct distribution pattern. But the forests of Deccan Plateau are of poor quality and are being mined or cleared for infrastructure development. "Using details of herbarium collections and Geographical Information System, we have developed a map for P indofischeri, which could be used for conservation of the tree," says Rengaian Ganesan, in-charge of the herbarium at ATREE.


Herbaria offer the evidence of climate change. For instance, scientists in the US and China analysed the flowering time of 10,295 herbarium specimens of Himalayan rhododendron, collected since 1884, to investigate the climate-driven change in flowering time. They found that the plant starts flowering 2.27 days early with every 1oC rise in annual temperature, and 2.54 days later per 1oC warming during the spring season. This shows that rhododendron's response to warming is variable. The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on June 5, 2014, suggests that herbarium specimens can be used to understand the impact of climate change on plants.


Do invasive species maintain their dominant status over a long period, or do new ecological and evolutionary forces eventually develop to limit their populations? To understand this, researchers from University of Illinois in the US studied 140 years of herbarium records of garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata), Eurasian species that has invaded forests in the northeastern and midwestern US. The species managed to proliferate by producing a toxin that does not allow other plants to grow in the area. Analysis of the specimens showed a marked decline in its toxin production in every 50 years. The pattern was consistent with the finding of slowing A petiolata population growth and rebounding of native species in the region. The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2009. Conservators can carry out such studies to identify recently invaded areas, where the maximum damage occurs, and act accordingly.


The specimens at herbarium provide a wealth of information at one place, and this helps save money. For example, most genetic studies require collecting plant samples from around the world. A study demonstrates that sampling from herbarium collections is one way to avoid the trade-off between projects that are feasible and those that are exciting. Large sets of herbarium DNAs could also be the key to an array of novel, ambitious studies of plant diversity, say the researchers who have successfully extracted DNA from almost 100 herbarium specimens collected between 1970 and 2010. This suggests that expanding herbarium collections is more important than ever. The study was published in Applications in Plant Sciences in June 2015.


Quite often while preserving plant specimens, pests on them also get preserved. The genetic material of the pathogen can be extracted from the herbarium specimens and help scientists track the disease.

The feasibility of such experi-ments was proved recently when US scientists used herbarium specimens from 1887 to 2006 to identify two fungal species that cause soybean rust—Phakopsora pachyrhizi and P meibomiae.

The study was published in Plant Disease in May 2015.


Plant species look nearly identical. To identify new species, researchers need to compare its morphological features with herbarium specimens. Recently, researchers of University of Delhi have found a new species of Indigo in Himachal Pradesh. They named it Indigofera himachalensis. It has longer and hairy pods and larger seeds that are greater in number per pod than its closest relative I heterantha. This genus now has 60 known species of which 15 are endemic to India, says Arun K Pandey, taxonomist with the university.

Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :
Related Stories

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.