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Cambridge University Herbarium

Herbarium drawers

Cambridge University Herbarium houses many internationally significant plant collections and is disproportionately rich in type specimens for its size. The University Herbarium holds valuable historical collections dating from the early 18th century and an outstanding collection of British and Irish flora, which includes 300 years of continuous collecting in Cambridgeshire. These collections continue to drive research on a broad range of topics including conservation, evolution and genomics, environmental change and the social and cultural effects of natural history collection in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Many of the historical specimens were collected by leading botanical explorers and originate from all over the world. Of these, several share their origins with material held by other University of Cambridge institutions. For example, material collected on the Beagle and Challenger expeditions are also held at the Museum of Zoology; correspondence, notebooks and published works of historical figures from Charles Darwin to Oliver Rackham are held by the University Library; anthropological materials from Alfred Haddon’s Torres Strait expedition are in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

Visit our Research page to learn more about how our collections are being used today and contact us to discuss future collaborations.


Today, the University Herbarium holds around 1.1 million plant specimens gathered together on a single site, the result of nearly three centuries of donations, bequests and purchases. Many specimens were received from influential botanists, who collected material themselves or received it from other collectors in their networks. These collections are frequently rich in type specimens and are also valuable sources of information about the historical figures who collected and curated them.

It is important to note that the collector’s name recorded on an herbarium sheet does not always reflect the person who collected that specimen from the wild. This is especially true of our historic collections: many collectors - typically wealthy European gentlemen - relied on indigenous people, servants, enslaved people, and women to collect specimens for them. But these people were rarely - if ever - recognised for their important contributions. There are increasing efforts across natural history collections to give individuals the recognition they deserve but, since their names were rarely recorded, this can be a challenging task.

Learn more about some of the individuals whose work is represented in the University Herbarium.


The University Herbarium houses specimens from all over the world. The bulk of our flowering plants are organised geographically and are separated into three groups: British and Irish specimens, European specimens, and World (i.e. non-European) specimens.

United Kingdom and Ireland

Containing about 300,000 specimens, these collections represent almost all the vascular plant taxa native to the British Isles. Peter Sell (Assistant Curator 1972 – 1997) and Gina Murrell’s (Assistant Curator 2002-2012) work on the British and Irish flora held in the University Herbarium culminated in the 5 volume Flora of Great Britain and Ireland (1996-2018). This work provides a definitive account of the native species, naturalised species, frequent garden escapes and casuals found in the British Isles. Also featured in our collection is the working set of specimens used by Augustine Henry (1857-1930) in the preparation of The Trees of Great Britain and Ireland (Elwes and Henry, 1906-1913), which he coauthored with Henry John Elwes.


The University Herbarium holds about 250,000 vascular plant specimens from mainland Europe. Charles Cardale Babington's work on the British Flora frequently referenced European Floras, and during his time many European specimens were procured in the form of exsiccata, a system of plant exchange between collectors. In the 20th century, the European collections were an important resource for Flora Europaea, originally published in six volumes between 1964 and 1993.


Most of the World collections are arranged according to Bentham and Hooker’s Genera Plantarum (1862-1883), a carryover from the late 19th Century when the entire herbarium was organised this way by then curator Isaac Henry Burkill (1870-1965). Because many of our World specimens were collected during the height of British and European colonial activity, they are also valuable historical resources. They can provide information about cultures and species that were casualties of aggressive colonial policies and shed light on the political and social dynamics of the period.



Angiosperms (flowering plants) make up the majority of collections in the University Herbarium. In adddtion, we maintain collections of other plant groups - gymnosperms, pteridophytes, and bryophytes - as well as some non-plant groups - fungi and algae.


A large portion of our aglae collection came from the married couple John Edward Gray (1800-1875) and Maria Emma Gray (1787-1876), who bequeathed their 3,000 specimen collection to the University of Cambridge. Another female algologist represented in our collections is Mary Philadelphia Merrifield (1804-1889). Having initially made a name for herself as an art historian, Merrifield turned her attention to algae while preparing her book A Sketch of the Natural History of Brighton (1864). The Herbarium holds some of Merrifield’s algal research notes, correspondence, specimens as well as hundreds of exquisite watercolour illustrations of algae.


Our herbarium holds over 80,000 bryophyte specimens and includes the major collections of William Edward Nicholson (30,000 packets), Tom Laflin (20,000 packets) and Harold Leslie Keer Whitehouse.


The Herbarium’s pteridophytes come from all over the world and many were collected by natural historians in the 19th century. One of our most important fern collections is a set of 41 specimens collected by Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) in Borneo. 33 different species, 22 genera and 17 fern families are represented in this small set and three of the specimens are types. Many were found within the collection of John Lindley (1799-1865) and had not been studied since the collection was purchased by the University of Cambridge in 1866.


The University Herbarium’s fungal specimens hold great potential for research. The collection includes some known type specimens, including those cited by the mycologist E.J.H. Corner (1906-1996) in his book Boletus in Malaysia (1972).


Our gymnosperm collection contains material from all over the world and consists of dried cones and herbarium sheets. We have specimens from two collectors who were instrumental in bringing now familiar North American gymnosperms to the UK - David Douglas (1799-1834) and William Lobb (1809-1864). In addition to Lobb and Douglas, we have gymnosperm material collected by many of the same figures who contributed to our (much larger) flowering plant collections (see Collectors). We also hold a working set of specimens used by Augustine Henry (1857-1930) in the preparation of The Trees of Great Britain and Ireland (1906-1913), the seven-volume work he co-authored with Henry John Elwes.