Digital database of pressed plants a valuable research tool

Cindy Lincoln
Cindy Lincoln

When visitors explore the Naturalist Center at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, they often skip the section containing plants and fungi. With almost 8,000 natural history specimens in the Naturalist Center’s hands-on collection, it can be difficult to decide what to focus on (mammals, birds and butterflies are the most popular).

But as coordinator of the Naturalist Center and a botanist, I’m always striving to communicate to the public how important the study of plants is and how it relates to everyday life. A recent project to digitize our small collection of pressed plants, in partnership with the N.C. State University Vascular Plant Herbarium, will help connect museum visitors to exciting and innovative plant collections research.

Herbariums are collections of dried and preserved plant specimens. The oldest known herbarium specimens date from the mid-16th century. Carefully pressed and dried plants last indefinitely, making herbariums function like time capsules or storehouses full of vital information waiting to be discovered. Herbarium specimens are traditionally used as taxonomic references to confirm the identity of a known plant or to differentiate a new plant species. Increasingly, however, these specimens are being used to study climate change, loss of biodiversity, habitat destruction and even the spread of invasive insect pests.

Until recently, scientists who wanted to study herbarium specimens had to request a loan (have specimens shipped) or travel to the herbarium, thus severely limiting use of these collections and putting fragile pressed plants at risk. Digitizing herbarium specimens involves creating a high-resolution image combined with information such as plant name, collector’s name, where and when the specimen was collected and other important details. Unlike animal specimens, such as a fish preserved in a jar of alcohol, pressed plants are two-dimensional and relatively easy to scan.

The Naturalist Center’s herbarium collection contains approximately 2,500 plants collected primarily from North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. We are close to completing the digitization of these plant specimens. Once completed, we plan to share our data with SERNEC (Southeast Regional Network of Expertise and Collections) and online, in searchable databases that can be shared and easily accessed around the world, via the museum’s website at Our work represents a small part of ongoing efforts to digitize the museum’s extensive research collections of natural science specimens of all kinds.

Cindy Lincoln is coordinator of the Naturalist Center at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.