Australia's Virtual Herbarium

Flora information on-line

unlocking data and information
on plants, algae and fungi

Council of Heads of Australian Herbaria
November 2000


A universally accessible, integrated, Australia flora information system

See also: Background paper on the HISCOM site

Business objective

Completion of Australia's Virtual Herbarium as a cooperative electronic flora information system that improves the sharing of data and information in Australian herbaria, effectively an electronic Australian Flora, a one-stop source of current information on the plants, algae and fungi of the megadiverse Australian continent.

Business impetus

Since the early 1980s the Australian herbaria have been seeking more efficient ways of providing access to their collective data and information traditionally provided as individual herbaria.

This strategic statement maps a course over the three years from 2000 to 2002 for projecting data and information on the Australian plants, algae and fungi electronically in an integrate way.

Australia's Virtual Herbarium will provide a distributed electronic network of regional, state and national floras, and manuals on individual plant groups.


This Strategic Statement is the HISCOM2000 update
of HISCOM Strategic Plan v.2.e-f (1998)

Status and Completion Dates are based on existing levels of resourcing

Building an electronic Australian Flora

Herbaria have long provided information about plants, algae and fungi. The oldest Australian herbaria, in Melbourne and Sydney, were founded in the mid 1800s.

Australian plant systematists have produced thousands of authoritative publications on these organisms, including scientific papers and floras and other semi-popular handbooks founded on the cooperation and extensive resources of the Australian herbaria.

The Flora of Australia, published by ABRS in cooperation with the Australian herbaria and botanists, is a key project in the long tradition of Australia-wide research in Australian plant classification. This internationally recognised publication is underpinned by collection data and information outputs in the Australian herbaria.

The ease of computer storage of data and information, and the World Wide Web, providing sophisticated remote access to these data, are ideally suited to projecting this important knowledge base to a wider client base. Organisations and individuals now have unsurpassed opportunity for accessing these data.

Australia's Virtual Herbarium provides the opportunity to deliver descriptions of the flora dynamically linked to data and information from across the continent, a distributed on-line cooperative Australian Flora. As new observations are confirmed and recorded in databases, they can be released without the long delays inherent in traditional hardcopy publication.

Some future challenges for accurate portrayal of Australia's plant, algal and fungal biodiversity

Australia's Virtual Herbarium: linking a continent's dispersed data on plants

Since the mid 1970s Australian herbaria have been involved cooperatively in digitisation of their data on plants, algae and fungi through initiatives at the State, Commonwealth and individual level. Underpinning this has been the development of a specimen data interchange standard (HISPID3).

The Herbarium Information Systems Committee (HISCOM) was established in 1995 by the Council of Heads of Australian Herbaria (CHAH) to accelerate the cooperative development of storage, maintenance and dissemination of plant, algal and fungal data and information in Australian government herbaria.

Australia's Virtual Herbarium concept and prototype arose from this active working group. It is accessed via an interactive Web interface replicated at each herbarium site, linked to the information systems of each Australian herbarium. Most data will be stored at custodial sites, though there will be shared resources (mainly taxonomic tools), such as the scientific names database (Australian Plant Names Index) with global links, and a Type Photos Database.

The specimen distribution mapper, at present integrating locality data of all Acacia species in (at present) 6 of the 8 main Australian herbaria, demonstrates the great potential of the system and the need for a major effort to

Potentially beneficiaries are from five groups: land managers and environmental decision-makers; community groups; plant systematists (herbaria and universities); scientists from other disciplines; and the public and education sectors.

Above: Representation of Australia's Virtual Herbarium, showing the distributed linked data sets and the burgeoning Web-projected electronic floras of individual herbaria and Australia's Virtual Herbarium.

The changing knowledge base on Australian plants

Australian botany is still in the discovery phase. Scientific names of plants, algae and fungi continue to change with new discoveries and as knowledge of our species continues to increase, even in the better known groups and regions. Australia's Virtual Herbarium has the potential to improve the identification of the gaps in knowledge of our vast continent.

Data already assembled in Australian herbaria in ongoing core programmes

Above: Locations around Australia (left) of the main Herbaria participating in Australia's Virtual Herbarium, whose 2400 specimen records populate the on-line distribution map of common mulga Acacia aneura.

Towards electronic Floras: components from the Australian herbaria
and the prototype of Australia's Virtual Herbarium

A wide range of activity that will contribute to Australia's Virtual Herbarium is already taking place in Australian herbaria:

Above: Species fact sheets, one of the illustrated components of State electronic Floras
Example: WA Herbarium's FloraBase

Above: Species lists for States, administrative and biological regions, plant groups, etc. Example: National Herbarium of NSW's PlantNet

Above: Interactive identification tools (on CD or via the Web)
Example: Australian National Herbarium / ABRS collaborative CD

Above: Species distribution mappers linked live to maintained and growing databases
Example: Australia's Virtual Herbarium mapper developed collaboratively by State Herbarium of SA with HISCOM (sample page)

Australia's Virtual Herbarium: a longterm cooperative project

The requirements of Australia's Virtual Herbarium are long-term both as to sourcing of data and information and as to commitment to its aims. It is not a once in a lifetime production. The Australian Government Herbaria are particularly suited to tackling this project, having existed in each State for many decades, the earliest from the mid 1800s. The most recent is the Tasmanian Herbarium, established in the 1960s, but with roots back to the prior century. The herbaria have had a long history of cooperation to meet the common goal of advancing knowledge of the plants, algae and fungi of this megadiverse continent.

Partners in Australia's Virtual Herbarium
Queensland Herbarium, Brisbane (BRI) On-line 2001
Autralian National Herbarium, Canberra (CANB) On-line
Herbarium of the Northern Tettitory, Darwin (DNA) On-line 2001
Tasmanian Herbarium, Hobart (HO) On-line 2001
National Herbarium of Victoria, Melbourne (MEL) On-line
National Herbarium of New South Wales, Sydney (NSW) On-line
Western Australian Herbarium, Perth (PERTH) On-line
Australian Biological Resources Study, Canberra (ABRS) On-line

Produced by the Herbarium Information Systems Committee (HISCOM), advisory and working group of the Council of Heads of Australian Herbaria (CHAH).

Chair of CHAH: Dr Laurie Haegi, Manager, State Herbarium of South Australia,
Plant Biodiversity Centre, Hackney Road, Hackney SA 5069
Ph. 08 82229308, Fx 08 82229353, email:

CHAH Web site:
HISCOM Web site: