Indian Virtual Herbarium, the largest flora database in the country, is a global success

The portal, with nearly one lakh of specimen images, has registered two lakh from 55 countries since its launch on July 1; site to host all herbaria in India by 2024

The portal, with nearly one lakh of specimen images, has registered two lakh from 55 countries since its launch on July 1; site to host all herbaria in India by 2024

With details of around one million plant specimens, Indian Virtual Herbarium, the largest virtual flora database in the country, is attracting a lot of interest and proving to be an eye-catching endeavor. While herbarium specimens are considered important tools for plant taxonomy, conservation, habitat loss and even climate change, Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently described India’s virtual herbarium as an example of how digital tools can help us connect to our roots.

In the ‘Mann Ki Baat ‘ July 31, 2022 episode, the Prime Minister spoke about the new initiative and said that India’s Virtual Herbarium is an interesting collection of preserved plants and plant parts. “The virtual herbarium also presents a rich botanical diversity of the country. I am confident that the Indian Virtual Herbarium will prove to be an important resource for plant research in the country,” Mr Modi said.

Developed by scientists from the Botanical Survey of India (BSI), India’s virtual herbarium was inaugurated by the Minister of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, Bhupendra Yadav, on July 1 in Kolkata. Just five weeks after its launch, the portal has nearly 2,000 visits in 55 countries.

Each record in the digital herbarium includes an image of the preserved plant specimen, scientific name, locality and date of collection, collector’s name and barcode number. The digital herbarium also includes features to extract data by state, and users can search for plants from their own states, which will help them identify regional plants and create regional checklists.

The portal includes approximately one lakh of herbarium specimen images; The director of the Botanical Survey of India (BSI), Dr AA Mao, has said that by the end of this year, the number of digitized species will increase to two lakh. “By 2024, we plan to provide a platform for all herbaria in the country so that they can post their herbaria collection on the platform,” Dr. Mao said.

Scientists say there are about three million plant specimens in the country which are in different herbaria located at BSI Zonal Centers and at the Central National Herbarium located at Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Indian Botanical Garden at Howrah in the West Bengal.

“Work on the digitization of the specimens began in 2019, and most of the digitization was done by the BSI. Around 52% of our type specimens come from overseas and were collected from 82 countries around the world during the British era,” said Kumar Avinash Bharati, Scientist, BSI.

India’s virtual herbarium is also deeply linked to the botanical history of the country. The portal provides the most valuable historical collections of botanists like William Roxburgh, Nathaniel Wallich, Joseph Dalton Hooker among others who are considered to be the founding fathers of botany in India.

The digital herbarium contains some of the oldest botanical specimens dating back to 1696. Cyperus procerus was collected between June 15 and 20, 1696, near Chennai. The oldest type specimen Lepidagathis scariosa was collected in 1817 by Robert Wight. Type specimens are the collections that aid in new discoveries and are considered of great importance by botanists and taxonomists. Researchers should examine the types of names to confirm their identity.

As a priority, the Indian Virtual Herbarium has digitized information with images of 29,615 type specimens on its platform. The herbarium provides information on plants in different categories such as cryptogams (spore plants). Phanerogams (seed plants). Both groups are further divided into two categories which include genders; specimen and type specimens.

“The virtual herbarium provides unique images free of charge. To access the digital herbarium, simply enter the scientific name of a plant or use an advanced search function. It could be used not only by taxonomists but also by naturalist, ecologist, molecular biologist, amateur botanist,” Mr Bharati said. The scientist added that the virtual database is mobile-friendly and users can easily access the details.