Taxonomy Is Not Just Stamp Collecting

When I was in Singapore at the end of January I had the pleasure of meeting Sue Hick, a fellow plant-lover and Northumbrian, for a walk round the Botanic Gardens and tea in the lovely Halia restaurant in the Ginger Garden.  She divides her time between Allendale and Singapore and works as a volunteer in the Singapore Herbarium.  As part of a series of guest posts, I asked Sue if she would write a piece about her work there.  I’m delighted to include it here, with some pictures from my own tour of it.


Taxonomy is not just stamp collecting. Whether you’re talking about answering basic problems in evolution or practical questions on climate change, you can’t begin unless you know what’s there.

Lord May of Oxford, FLS (2003)

This quote sums up the work and importance of a herbarium. The Singapore Herbarium, where I work as a volunteer, is a reference library of all the plants in the region, covering the greater part of SE Asia.  There are specimens collected from all over the area and this is only a small fraction of the regions flora – some have yet to be discovered and some are already extinct.

I have worked there on and off for almost two years. My job is the lowest – I liken the work to a filing clerk in an old fashioned office – I check the dried plant specimens for damage, and then check the label for accuracy and finally re-file it. The herbarium is a quiet, peaceful place, air-conditioned and cool, a refuge from the busy city outside.

herbarium 2

New samples are constantly being collected from the field, pressed, fumigated and mounted on card before filing. Sometimes requests for samples come from researchers in other herbariums; some go to Kew Gardens for inclusion in their massive Herbarium.

Many of the older specimens are brittle and insect-eaten but every piece is kept – it has historical value if nothing else. Sometimes they can be repaired and remounted. The label is vital – a specimen is useless without knowing where it grew and in SE Asia countries change name and boundaries shift with time, e.g. many countries have new names since colonial times and it is even harder to pinpoint a plant collected on mountain ‘A ‘ if you have no knowledge of the country. I work with an atlas at my right hand – the last time I studied geography was in high school too many years ago!

Working there we see many researchers from all over the world who come to study the specimens. It is interesting talking to them as they discover new species or lament the absence of others. There is a sense of history as I find specimens collected by the old plant hunters from years ago – missionaries or colonial officers, or even ones collected by Ridley – Director of the Herbarium from 1888 to 1911 and who introduced the rubber tree to Malaya, which helped to make it a rich and prosperous colony of the British Empire.  I have worked at his desk and felt he would be proud of his followers who work there now.

Sue Hick                                                                                                                                  

February 2013

herbarium 3

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