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Botanical Legacy

Mueller's Botanical Legacy

Arriving by ship in 1847 the German pharmacist and botanist scooped up a piece of seaweed as he came to shore. This delicate, branching seaweed is housed within the Herbarium collection, and is one of many specimens collected by Mueller as he began to meticulously observe the native plants of Australia.


In the era of great polymaths, he was appointed the first director of the botanical gardens in Melbourne and began what is now the National Herbarium collection. This is the largest herbarium in the country and one of the top 30 in the world. The herbarium collection includes native plants collected by Sir Joseph Banks on the first Cook expedition, and one of its most venerable specimens is a moss (Fontinalis squamosa), collected in Germany in the late 1500s.


Mueller's many exploratory trips, collections and publishing have contributed to a great botanical legacy. He named many hundreds of plants species, over 200 of which grow in the RBGV living collections.

Some of the plants that Mueller named and filed in the Herbarium have been collected from the Gardens and are included in "Mueller's Botanical Legacy' Lantern. These plants can be found growing in the garden bed in front of the Herbarium.

Mueller's Female Collectors – 19th Century Citizen Scientists


Mueller's contributions cannot be dislodged from his colonial past. As one story goes he was responsible for introducing Blackberry to ensure a lost and hungry traveller might find nourishment along the water courses.


As a redeemable act, he provided the opportunity for women to push the boundaries of normative behaviour in the 19th century. He mentored a band of female explorers and amateur scientific collectors who provided new plant specimens from across the Australian continent. Mueller was, of course, lauded as a great man of science, while the contributions of these great women to the history of Australian botany, and to the Herbarium collection itself, remained long-obscured.


Over 200 women collected for Mueller, sending specimens from vast swathes of the continent. The famous Scott sisters are included amongst Mueller's accomplished naturalists and collectors, and were the first professional female scientific illustrators in the country. Their love of nature and tremendous illustration skills enabled them to distinguish themselves in the male-dominated world of science.


Handwritten notes give an insight into the exchanges that took place between Mueller and his female collectors, while 42 species were named after them in acknowledgement of their discovery, such as Myoporum bateae (named for Mary Bate), Boronia barkeriana (named for Mrs Barker) Conostylis bealiana (named for Amy Beal), Dampiera scottiana (named for Harriet Scott), Xanthosia atkinsoniana (named for Louisa Atkinson).


I have included examples of some of the species collected by these women in the 'Mueller's Female Collectors – 19th Century Citizen Scientists' Lantern. These plants can be found growing in the Australian Forest Walk at Melbourne Gardens.

Female collectors

The Conservation Collection – Rare and Threatened Plants

The Victorian Rare and Threatened Collection is a group of six beds at Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne where, as the name suggests, vulnerable plants are growing. Many of these species have been grown from seed that has been collected for the Victorian Conservation Seedbank and are represented by specimens in the Herbarium collection. 

There is a lot of conservation work going on behind the scenes at RBGV and the seedbank is a fascinating part of it. The process of seed storage is meticulous. Once seed has been collected from a target species it is cleaned to remove any excess material, and x-rayed to indicate potential viability, before germination tests record its optimal germination conditions. All of this data is linked to the precious seeds that are put into deep-freeze storage, protected and treasured. 


The seedbank project has been valued more highly after recent bushfires. Those working with the seedbank describe supplying seed to regenerate the endangered Nematolepis wilsonii after its entire population was burnt out as a career highlight. Some precious samples of plants insured by the Victorian Conservation Seedbank are included in the 'Rare and Threatened' Lantern and can be found growing in the The Victorian Rare and Threatened Collection.

Conservation Collection

Plant Genomics – Decoding Diversity

For millions of years, acacias (wattles) have grown in Australia and have evolved to cope with all of its extreme environments. Many species have evolved to be resistant to fire, salinity, drought, alkalinity and disease. Acacia belongs to the same plant family as peas and pulses. Their nitrogen-fixing properties have the potential to reduce the use of inorganic nitrogen fertilisers for farming.


Acacia seeds also contain as much as 25% more protein than common cereals; they have been a staple food for Aboriginal peoples for thousands of years and have the potential to play an important role in more sustainable food futures. The quick-growing plants can also be useful in land remediation.


The Genomics for Australian Plants (GAP) project aims to explain the genetic relationships between all Australian flowering plants by sequencing the genome – an organism's set of genetic instructions – of key species. The Golden Wattle is one of the first to have its genome sequenced.


Several RBGV Science staff have been contributing to the GAP project to support the conservation of Australia's unique flora by improving our understanding of species' diversity. The GAP initiative aims to develop resources to enable better conservation, use and understanding of Australia's unique plant diversity. Each of the plant samples used for molecular analysis corresponds to a herbarium specimen, which allows a link between the DNA data and an actual plant. It's a great example of collaborative science to improve conservation outcomes, and the use of herbarium specimens is crucial to this work.

Acacia and Persoonia (Geebung) are currently included in this work. There are close to 800 Acacia plants growing in Melbourne and Cranbourne Gardens, and almost 30 Persoonia plants. Cuttings from some of these plants are included in the 'Plant genomics – decoding diversity' lantern.


Ferns for the Future – Victorian Conservation Collection


Fern-fever was a Victorian era craze for ferns, known as 'Pteridomania' (pronounced teridomania). Its story is entangled with the development of the Wardian Case – a precurser to the terrarium that could reliably move live plants across the globe, in ships, for the first time.


Fern collecting became an adventurer's treasure hunt. Fern motifs began to appear on decorative items from pottery to gravestones. The obsession gripped the era's amateur botanists, especially the 'ladies', and these botanical enthusiasms were included among the efforts of Mueller's female collectors.


Although the Herbarium's fern collection helps to tell these rich and compelling narratives of history, the contemporary endeavours in fern science are equally fascinating. The Herbarium is currently developing a conservation spore bank (alongside its seed bank). Fern propagation is possible from collected spores, and the bank is a keep-safe against decline in fern populations.


RBGV Botanist Daniel Ohlsen is currently undertaking field collection of Victorian ferns. These ferns will be cultivated in order to collect the spores for the conservation spore bank. In the past, classification was based on morphology – how the ferns looked and were described. Ohlsen has added DNA analysis to this mix. Thirty-five of the species being collected from the wild for the spore bank also grow in the RBGV fern collection, and some of these appear in the 'Ferns for the Future – Victorian Conservation Collection' lantern. These plants can be found growing in Fern Gully.

Ferns for the Future

Plants and Medicine – The Origins of Herbaria

The origins of herbaria date back to the 1500s in Italy and are intricately linked with the practice of medicine and pharmacology. Collections began as a way to teach students how to identify plants known for their medicinal qualities. The pressed specimens became a reference library that was a continually evolving resource.


Medicinal botanical books of the time were incredibly rare and expensive, and often included crude illustrations that, although artistic, were without the detail needed to differentiate one species from another. The pressed botanical specimens, on the other hand, could be as useful for identification a century later as they were when they were collected.


Ferdinand von Mueller trained as a pharmacist and arrived in Australia with valuable hand-painted books of herbals in Latin and German that are still housed within Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria's library today. He was aware of the importance of preserved specimens for accurate botanical records and insisted on building the Herbarium as part of his tenure. Mueller's pressings, along with the purchase of his friend and colleague Otto Wilhelm Sonder's personal herbarium collection, forms the basis of Victoria's scientifically and historically important collection.


A medicinal herb garden would often accompany any medical scientific institution as a source of pharmaceuticals and education. The herb garden within Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne has continued this tradition and was the source for a fragrant collection of medicinal plants included in the 'Plants and Medicine – the origins of Herbaria' lantern.

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