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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

U.S. National Arboretum Herbarium

Plants: U.S. National Arboretum Herbarium

U.S. National Arboretum Herbarium

By Frederick G. Meyer
Location U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, U.S. National Arboretum, 3501 New York Avenue, NE, Washington, DC 20002-1958
Loans To recognized research institutions and scientists


8,000 volumes; 9,000 reprints
Number of


2,400 (botanical and horticultural)


Mark A. Hershkovitz, Phone: (202) 245-4550, fax: (202) 245-4579, e-mail, curator and specialist in phytogeography and systematics of Caryophyllales

Kevin Conrad, Phone: (202) 245-4513, fax: (202) 245-4575 , e-mail, horticulturist and collections manager

Frederick G. Meyer (retired), specialist in herbals, flora of North America, woody cultivated plants in southeastern United States

Thomas S. Elias (director of Arboretum), specialist in trees of North America

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Content The U.S. National Arboretum Herbarium is a facility for research on the systematics, nomenclature, and history of cultivated plants. Worldwide in scope, it serves as a national repository for voucher material of wild and cultivated progenitors of plants related to agriculture, including plants used for food, forage, industrial, medicinal, and drug purposes; ornamentals; weeds; and forest trees. The herbarium also contains named cultivars, hybrids, and other elite materials covering a wide diversity of cultivated plants worldwide--azaleas to zoysia, beets to magnolias, lilies to economic legumes, and cotton, wheat, alfalfa, carrots, holly, crepe myrtle, African violets, and a host of others.
The herbarium contains about 600,000 specimens that are filed into compactors (fig. 20). The reference material of cultivated plants numbers between 60,000 and 70,000 specimens. The general herbarium contains an extensive reference collection of the native flora of the United States and Canada and also material from Japan, China, South America, Africa, Australia, and other areas of the world. Documented material is filed in systematic order by family (fig. 21).

Figure 20. Compactors that house the herbarium at the U.S. National Arboretum
Figure 21. Herbarium specimens are filed in systematic order by family
Figure 20. Compactors that
house the herbarium at the
U.S. National Arboretum
Figure 21. Herbarium speci-
mens are filed in systematic
order by family
One of the aims of the herbarium has always been to document germplasm materials sent to the United States by U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) plant explorers as a permanent legacy of the history and development of American agriculture. As to content, the present USDA herbarium dates from about 1900, based on collections of cultivated plants obtained as seeds and plants from many parts of the world by USDA plant explorers N.E. Hansen and M.A. Carleton from Russia, by the worldwide contacts of W.T. Swingle, by J.N. Rose from Mexico, by David Fairchild from many parts of the tropics, by F.N. Meyer from China, Turkestan, and the Near East, by P.H Dorsett from China and Japan, by Wilson Popenoe from Latin America, and by many others. More recent plant explorers whose collections are represented in the herbarium are D.S. Correll (Latin America), W. Koelz (Iran, Afghanistan, India), H.S. Gentry (Mexico, Middle East), J.L. Creech (Japan), T.R. Dudley (China, Peru), and F.G. Meyer (Europe, Ethiopia, Japan, southeastern United States).
A major acquisition was the 19th century herbarium of Isaac C. Martindale, purchased in 1964 from the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science. The Martindale herbarium contains about 60,000 specimens and is represented by over 700 collectors. The collection is rich in historic material of the 19th century, including types, from many parts of the world, particularly North America and Europe. U.S. collectors represented in the Martindale herbarium include C.F. and R.M. Austin, M.E. Bebb, H.N. Bolander, William M. Canby, Alvan Chapman, George Englemann, Asa Gray, E.L. Greene, Marcus E. Jones, F. Lindheimer, E.J. Palmer, S.B. Parish, C.F. Parker, C.C. Parry, Zina Pitcher, C.G. Pringle, J.H. Redfield, J. Reverchon, J.T. Rothrock, Ferdinand Rugel, and others. The collections of Rugel are important as the earliest made by a resident botanist of the southeastern United States.
Material from Europe is represented by a large number of collectors, many well known, including G. Gaudin, who wrote a flora of Switzerland in the 1830's; John Stuart Mill, famous logician, economist, and sometimes botanist; W.D.J. Koch, J.E. Planchon, A. de St. Hilaire, C.F. Hochstetter, and George Bentham. A few European collections date from the late 18th century. Also represented is a fine set of specimens collected by E.G. Post from the Middle East and another by C.F. Cheeseman from New Zealand; both collections form the basis of a flora of their respective regions.
The Carlton R. Ball willow collection, bequeathed in 1958, contains 25,000 herbarium specimens plus 700 reprints, books, notes, and bibliographic files on the genus Salix. Ball, a USDA agronomist for many years, was the leading authority on North American willows. The herbarium also contains material donated by various workers to document taxonomic research projects, including Acer, Manihot, Juniperus, Pinus, and grass hybrids. The Macay nut collection, consisting of several hundred jars of nuts, was started in the early 20th century and represents an important reference collection of nut varieties grown in the United States.
Background The earliest herbarium in the USDA dates from 1868, when the U.S. National Herbarium of the Smithsonian Institution was transferred to the USDA. During the 1880's and 1890's, the herbarium was staffed by George Vasey, William E. Stafford, and Frederick V. Coville, who were the principal botanists at that time. On July 1, 1896, this herbarium and all of its contents were returned officially to the custody of the Smithsonian Institution under Frederick V. Coville, then chief botanist of USDA and honorary curator of the National Herbarium until his death in 1937. Between 1896 and 1934, the USDA was without an official herbarium. Nevertheless, during these 38 years various individuals within the Department were preparing herbarium specimens of nursery plants, as well as material of plant introductions sent to the United States from foreign countries under the Office of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction, organized in 1898. (See list of collectors mentioned under Content.)
The present herbarium of the U.S. National Arboretum was formally organized in 1934 by B.Y. Morrison, then principal horticulturist, Division of Plant Introduction and Exploration, USDA. This was the first official herbarium of the USDA unrelated to the National Herbarium of 1868 and the Smithsonian Institution. For many years Morrison was chief of the Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction Office and first director of the National Arboretum. Under his leadership, the herbarium grew rapidly in the 1930's and 1940's. From its original quarters in the old agriculture building in downtown Washington, DC, the herbarium was moved to the Department's research facility at Beltsville, MD, in the late 1930's.
In 1951, the herbarium officially became part of the U.S. National Arboretum. In 1959, the herbarium was moved from Beltsville to a temporary storage area at the National Arboretum. Permanent quarters were established in the two-floor wing of the new Arboretum Administration Building in 1964. From its founding in 1934, the principal curators of the herbarium have been W. Andrew Archer to 1959, Gabriel Edwin from 1959 to 1963, Frederick G. Meyer from 1963 to 1991, and Theodore R. Dudley from 1991 to 1994.
During World War II, the herbarium had a staff of 17 botanists, many of whom were in South America collecting wild rubber (Hevea) and quinine (Cinchona) for the war effort. Botanists actively associated with the herbarium at that time included S.F. Blake, W. Andrew Archer, F.R. Fosberg, Joseph Ewan, Rogers McVaugh, F.J. Hermann, and C.H. Muller.
Most of the 5,000 identifications of plants requested each year are submitted by government agencies, experiment stations, educational institutions, botanic gardens, embassies, garden clubs, farmers, and the general public. Federal Government and other researchers submit identification requests for ongoing research projects. Normally material is submitted as dried, pressed specimens or as fresh material by mail or by hand delivery to the herbarium technician or head curator. The curator makes the identification and sends the results to the requesting person or agency. Identification may take minutes, but often the material must be compared with other material in the herbarium to ensure accuracy. Requests for identification should be submitted to: Curator of the Herbarium, U.S. National Arboretum, U.S. Department of Agriculture, 3501 New York Ave., NE, Washington, DC 20002-1958.
Research Research at the U.S. National Arboretum Herbarium centers on the nomenclature and taxonomy of cultivated plants. Research topics normally apply to specific plant groups, some of which are of economic importance to humans. From 1940 to 1965, a major project was the multiauthored Contributions Toward a Flora of Nevada, issued in 50 parts, under the general direction of W. Andrew Archer. Other research projects have covered Betula, Coffea, Fothergilla, Hamamelis, Ilex, Koelreuteria, Magnolia, Malus, Rhododendron (subgenus Azalea), and Viburnum.

1941 Issued first volume of geographical guide to floras of the world
1942 Published monograph on Central American oak trees of the genus Quercus
1953 Published descriptive list of Glenn Dale azalea cultivars, a new class of hardy azaleas
1961 Issued first descriptive list of bamboos cultivated in the United States
1961 Issued second volume of geographical guide to floras of the world
1962 Monographed the soybean genus Glycine
1964 Acquired Isaac C. Martindale herbarium
1965 Terminated series on contributions toward flora of Nevada
1965 Published first flora of Japan in English
1976 Monographed the genus Koelreuteria
1976 Rediscovered Betula uber, a species from Virginia thought to be extinct
1983 Published comprehensive account on the flora of Staten Island, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina
1986 Completed manuscript on the great herbal of Leonhart Fuchs (1501-66)
1994 Published catalog of cultivated woody plants of the southeastern United States

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Last Modified: 2/6/2002