The National Museum of Natural History in Paris: one of the largest herbaria in the world

Karine Alix introduces a blog post by her students about a visit to the herbarium of the National Museum of Natural History of the Jardin des plantes in Paris

Jardin de Plantes
Photo: Karine Alix
Exhibition in the Botany Building
Exhibition in the Botany Building. Photo: Karine Alix

The Jardin des Plantes in Paris was created in the 17th Century, in order to first conserve medicinal plants, at a time when medecine and botany were two inseparable disciplines. This first mission of the Garden to conserve plants has been maintained and reinforced throughout the centuries: as a well-known scientific research center, the National Museum of Natural History in Paris is now in charge of one of the most important herbaria in the world.

My students at AgroParisTech and Université Paris-Saclay and myself had the great privilege to enter the Botany building to visit the famous herbarium of the National Museum of Natural History. Florian Jabbour who is Associate Professor at the Museum kindly guided us along the corridors of this giant catalogue of plant biodiversity, from the past and the present. Here are conserved the collections, among others, from Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck (1744-1829), Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) and Aimé Bonpland (1773-1858). I invite you to read the short article my students wrote about this visit to know a little about the secrets of this fantastic historic scientific place.

Karine Alix, Associate Professor at AgroParisTech.
ORCID 0000-0002-8133-0743

The National Museum of Natural History in Paris: one of the largest herbaria in the world

by Anastasia-Diane Agouros, Célestine Belloeil, Charlotte Bourgoin, Betty Debourg, Florian Deligne, Mégane Grondin and Amandine Laigle – with the kind participation of Florian Jabbour, Associate Professor at MNHN.

A herbarium is a great place for scientists and researchers because it keeps a lot of interesting data on plants and crops. It is also a great place for someone who is interested in botany. In Paris, the National Museum of Natural History owns 8 million specimens with 6 million flowering plants. The specimens come from the whole world. The oldest ones were collected during the 16th century. Most of them were collected after the 18th century.

How are the collections preserved?

Spirit collection
Spirit collection. Photo: Mégane Grondin
Most specimens are kept in cabinets. Some others are placed in an envelope or in a jar with alcohol. There are not only plants in the herbarium. We can also find very precious texts that witness the history of botany. The National Museum of Natural History also owns a collection of dry fruits, called “carpothèque” and a collection of wood and fibres, called “xylothèque”. To make a herbarium specimen, it is necessary to have a non-acid sheet, some tape and a plant dried in a heat chamber. Each specimen is labelled to show where it was collected. Scientists have always been very careful with the conservation of herbarium specimens. It is desirable to keep the DNA structure intact for genetic analyses in the future. Angiosperms are classified according to APG IV (Angiosperm Phylogeny Group 2016). Then each genus is split into the different geographical areas where it has been collected. Within each region, species are classified in alphabetical order.

How is the herbarium organized?

Open Cabinets.
Open Cabinets. Photo: Mégane Grondin

To conserve all these collections, the herbarium is organized with four levels of four rooms each. The collections are kept at 19°C and protected from UV rays. The collections must be protected from insects and pests. Each room is fumigated when necessary to kill any insect. That is why the collections are kept in open cabinets.

Who has created these collections?

Herbarium Specimen
Herbarium Specimen. Photo Mégane Grondin

Collections are from different origins. Most of them have been made by botanists during expeditions. Some others are given by people or were created by well-known people. For instance, the National Museum of Natural History owns the famous collections of the botanist Joseph Pitton de Tournefort (1656-1708) or the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). Part of these collections is shown to the public trough an exhibition in the Botany building.

The botanical collections of the National Museum of Natural History are presented on the museum’s website. The collections of vascular plants of Paris Herbarium are also accessible online.