A 200-year-old treasure-house
Paradise between paper covers
The Bavarian State Collection for Botany in Munich is celebrating its 200th birthday. A symposium devoted to its history and the significance of the plant materials it holds will be held on 7. June.
The Bavarian State Collection for Botany (Foto: Munich 01 / fotolia.com)
Plants, dried and pressed paper-thin, are a joy to behold. Indeed, nearly everyone has, at one time or another, tried to preserve the fragile and ephemeral flowers, leaves and other parts of plants by inserting them between the large pages of heavy tomes – either in the hope of being able to admire their beauty for years to come, or with the intention of using them to create attractive arrangements for decorative purposes.
For botanists, however, this tried and tested way of conserving plants and plant tissues has another essential function, beyond its purely documentary and aesthetic value. Collections of dried plants, so-called herbaria, have always played an important role in botanical research, and this remains true today. “Herbaria serve as an indispensable gene bank for modern botany, because next-generation sequencing now offers a relatively economical way of sequencing whole plant genomes, starting from small amounts of conserved herbarium material – but, of course, this only one aspect of their worth,” says Susanne Renner, Professor of Systematic Botany and Mycology at LMU and Director of the Botanische Staatssammlung in Munich. Renner is responsible for a collection that ranks 21st on the list of the approximately 3400 herbaria now in existence. Founded in the early 19th century, the Munich collection consists of almost 3 million dried plants, fungi and lichens. In the year 1813, King Maximilian I. Joseph of Bavaria provided the funds that enabled the Bavarian Academy of Sciences to acquire the plant collection assembled by Johann Christian Daniel von Schreber (1739-1810), which would serve as the basis of the new Royal Collection, the Herbarium Regnum Monacense. When the future LMU was transferred from Landshut to Munich in 1826, the University’s own collection, which had been initiated in 1809, was amalgamated with the Academy’s holdings, leaving the existing rights of ownership intact. The founding director of the new institution was Franz von Paula von Schrank (1747-1835), who had established the first botanical garden in the city, the present Alte Botanische Garten on the Elisenstraße. Director Schrank – and all his successors since – also held the post of Professor of Botany at LMU.
Around the world in search of plants
„Martius reiste nach Brasilien
suchte Kräuter, Petersilien;
Gottlob, daß ihn nicht verschlang,
This rather irreverent tribute to the great scientific achievements of Carl Friedrich von Martius was penned by his contemporary, the author and illustrator Count Franz Pocci. (The following English version conveys something of its flippant but affectionate tone: “Martius travelled to Brazil/In search of herbs, parsley and dill./Thanks be, he managed to escape/Being gulped down by some giant snake.”). Von Martius (1794-1868) succeeded von Schrank both as Director of the Botanic Garden and as Professor of Botany at LMU. He was an indefatigable plant hunter, and the specimens he collected have remained an important part of the Munich collection to this day. Needless to say, his expedition to Brazil in the years 1817- 1820 was not concerned with species of parsley. Palm trees were von Martius’ real passion. His sampling activities and his illustrated notebooks culminated in the classical treatise “Historia naturalis palmarum”. This three-volume work, with its 135 full-page illustrations, is one of the great masterpieces of botanical illustration. Von Martius brought back between 20,000 and 25,000 specimens from his journey to Brazil, and they belong to the major treasures in the Munich collections.
Unlike the dried specimens themselves, these collections continue to grow and, in their composition and significance, Munich’s holdings are unique. No part of the world is unrepresented. For instance, the Botanische Staatssammlung includes about 1000 specimens that document the diversity of the flora of Japan. These are the fruits of the work of Philipp Franz von Siebold (1796-1866), a pioneer in botanical research on Japan, and remain a basic resource for studies of that country’s plant life.
The LMU herbarium is also especially rich in plants that are native to the highland steppes of Southwest Asia, including Iraq and Afghanistan. These collections reflect the special interests of researchers such as Professor Dieter Podlech. His area of expertise is the legume family (Leguminosae) – in particular species belonging to the genus Astragalus, of which about 3000 have been described. Munich is now home to about 20,000 specimens – one of the most extensive assemblages devoted to this genus worldwide.
Of course, the local flora – that of Munich itself and of Bavaria as a whole – also finds its place in the collection. “The Botanische Staatssammlung is the only institution that can claim to fulfill the function of a Center of Excellence for Plant Diversity in Bavaria,” says Susanne Renner. She goes on to point out that this involves more than the assembly and collation of the data that have been accumulated so far. Tracking of long-term change on the ground also requires the continuous acquisition and analysis of new herbarium samples and careful comparisons with previously collected material.”