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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

U.S. National Seed Herbarium

Seeds: U.S. National Seed Herbarium

U.S. National Seed Herbarium

By Joseph H. Kirkbride, Jr., and Charles R. Gunn


U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, Systematic Botany and Mycology Laboratory, BARC-West, 10300 Baltimore Boulevard, Building 011A, Room 324, Beltsville, MD 20705-2350




5,000 volumes

Number of

120,000 seed and fruit samples; 390 families; 13,000 genera; 27,000 species




Joseph H. Kirkbride, Jr.
Phone: (301) 504-9447, fax: (301) 504-5810

Home page


The U.S. National Seed Herbarium is the world's largest taxonomic seed collection. Its director provides research material and rapid identifications of isolated seeds and fruits of economically important plants. Since its inception, the U.S. National Seed Herbarium has been closely associated with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) worldwide Plant Introduction (PI) Program. Viable seed lots of important crop species and their relatives are stored in the National Plant Germplasm System (NPGS) of the USDA, Agricultural Research Service (ARS). This program has introduced more than 590,000 accessions, most of them seeds.

The first recorded PI for which a seed sample was kept was a cultivar of cabbage received from Russia in February 1898 (PI 3). PI samples were kept in a temporary fashion until 1908, when Homer C. Skeels, Office of Taxonomic and Range Investigations, U.S. Bureau of Plant Industry, established the seed herbarium. He continued to curate and expand it until his death in 1934. Subsequently, Paul Russell took over management of the seed herbarium and enlarged it into a major taxonomic collection. Following his retirement in 1960, he continued as curator until his death in 1964. Between 1960 and 1964, Eugene Griffth was responsible for managing the herbarium and adding new accessions. Charles R. Gunn, the first professionally trained seed taxonomist in charge of the herbarium, was director from 1965 until his retirement in 1992. Joseph H. Kirkbride, Jr., was appointed director following Gunn's retirement.

Prior to 1965, the primary activities associated with the U.S. National Seed Herbarium were identifications of specimens and accessioning of samples. In 1965, the emphasis was expanded to include research and documentation. With this change the seed herbarium was converted from a museum-type collection into a research collection. The container series for different sizes of seeds and fruits were reduced from 6 to 2, all samples were checked, and the number of herbarium cases increased to 34. Procedures for documenting the seed and fruit samples were established with the advent of a card control system, which was later computerized. Many samples are vouchered by herbarium specimens deposited in the U.S. National Herbarium (of the Smithsonian Institution) and the U.S. National Arboretum Herbarium (of ARS). In 1992, the collection was transferred to an open-faced compactor unit of five carriages with 1,512 pigeonholes (figs. 22 and 23).

Figure 22. Scientist moving the open-face compactors in which the U.S. National Seed Herbarium is stored Figure 23. Scientist examining seed samples stored in glass vials

Figure 22. Scientist moving
the open-face compactors
in which the U.S. National
Seed Herbarium is stored

Figure 23. Scientist
examining seed samples
stored in glass vials

The Systematic Botany and Mycology Laboratory (SBML) is also responsible for vascular plant nomenclature for ARS and ARS's Germplasm Resources Information Network (GRIN), as well as for the identification of vascular plants, especially crops from the PI program and weeds. John H. Wiersema handles nomenclature and studies the systematics of water lilies, Cabombaceae and Nymphaeaceae. In addition to his seed and fruit identifications, Joseph H. Kirkbride, Jr., identifies legume plants and works on the systematics of birdsfoot trefoil (Lotus, Fabaceae), cucumbers and melons (Cucumis, Cucurbitaceae), and neotropical Rubiaceae.


Many of the 500 identifications made each year are derived from PI accessions. Identifications are also made for inspectors of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, ARS scientists, the National Seed Testing Standardization Laboratory, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Smithsonian Institution, U.S. Customs and other law-enforcement agencies, state seed laboratories, and foreign departments of agriculture. The public often asks for identification of poisonous seeds and fruits.


GRIN is the centralized database for more than 450,000 germplasm accessions still active in NPGS. A broad range of data is stored for each accession: passport, taxonomic, descriptor, observation, evaluation, and inventory data. The taxonomic data provide the framework of the database and are the principal reason for accessing it. Included in the taxonomic data are about 13,000 accepted and 4,000 synonymous generic names covering all accepted vascular plant genera, 33,000 accepted and 17,000 synonymous specific and infraspecific names, 8,500 common names, 58,000 distribution records, and 105,000 taxonomic reference citations. Approximately 9,150 accepted specific and infraspecific names are attached to viable germplasm accessions. The remainder of the accepted specific and infraspecific names are included because they are economically important germplasm relatives, weeds, timbers, drug sources, erosion controllers, and so forth. GRIN can be accessed through the Internet via the World Wide Web (click on the link above), through Gopher at <>, through TELNET, or through FTP at <>.

Descriptive data are now kept in Description Language for Taxonomy (DELTA) format, the internationally recognized standard for exchange of descriptive data, using the DELTA software system of Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Australia. Morphological and macrodistributional DELTA data sets are available for all genera of Fabaceae for seed and fruit characters and for Cucumis and Cucumella for a broad range of vegetative and reproductive characters. The data sets may be requested from the director.


The first complete study of the seeds and fruits of legumes (Fabaceae), including 149 genera of subfamily Caesalpinioideae, 58 genera of subfamily Mimosoideae, and 455 genera of subfamily Faboideae, was recently completed. The results will be available in printed form and as a computer database with video images for interactive identification of specimens or data querying. This will continue a tradition, started in 1973 with the seeds and fruits of Papaveraceae and Fumariaceae, of presenting results in formats for interactive use on computers.

A revision is under way of the checklist of vascular plants important to agriculture. A number of plants not included previously are being added, resulting in a significant expansion of the list. In addition, an in-depth nomenclatural study of the economically important members of the rose family (Rosaceae) is planned. This will include many important northern temperate fruit, nut, and ornamental plants such as almonds, apples, blackberries, hawthorns, peaches, roses, and strawberries. A biosystematic monograph of the trefoils (Fabaceae: Lotus) is also being prepared. This genus of approximately 175 species includes agricultural species, such as L. corniculatus, and ornamental species.



Revised the ryegrasses (Poaceae: Lolium)

Identified deadly poisonous Abrus precatorius seeds in jewelry, causing U.S. Food and Drug Administration to stop importation, interstate movement, and sale of these seeds


Identified seeds using an interactive computer


Made service identifications of papaveraceous seeds and fruits using an interactive computer


Circumscribed alfalfa (Medicago sativa) subspecies by legume-flower characters


Published checklist of approximately 3,000 vascular plants important to agriculture


Revised vetches of North America (Fabaceae: Vicia)


Described seeds and fruits of Papaveraceae and Fumariaceae


Published vascular flora of Washington County, MI


Published nomenclator of all legume (Fabaceae) genera


Described seeds and fruits of subfamily Mimosoideae (Fabaceae)


Published revised checklist of about 3,300 vascular plants important to agriculture


Revised Australian Paniceae (Poaceae)


Monographed the neotropical water lilies (Nymphaceae: Nymphaea subgenus Hydrocallis)


Described disseminules of Federal noxious weeds


Revised New World genera of Paniceae (Poaceae)


Published nomenclator of legume (Fabaceae) species important to agriculture


Described seeds and fruits of subfamily Caesalpinioideae (Fabaceae)


Revised Old World genera of Paniceae (Poaceae)


Published families and genera of seed plants recognized by ARS


Monographed cucumbers and melons (Cucurbitaceae: Cucumis)


Revised the genus Cucumella (Cucurbitaceae)

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Last Modified: 2/6/2002