The John T. Waterhouse Herbarium

Herbaria are collections of pieces, or whole individuals, of plants, fungi, lichens or algae that have been preserved so that their morphological features are maintained.  Mostly these are pressed and dried, but sometimes they may be dried without pressing (e.g. for fungal collections) or preserved in spirit.  Each specimen is tagged, named and labelled accurately with details of where, when and by whom it was collected and a description of the plant's habitat with details such as the soil, aspect and surrounding plant community. Carefully prepared and curated specimens can last indefinitely and there are many specimens in the world still extant from the eighteenth century. The oldest specimen in the John T. Waterhouse Herbarium is a fungus collected in the 1890's.

The John T. Waterhouse Herbarium is located in room 424 in the Bioscience Building.  It is an internationally registered herbarium which currently holds approximately 55, 000 specimens, mostly vascular plants and fungi, but also including algae, lichens, and non-vascular plants (e.g. mosses and liverworts).  Most of the specimens are Australian and of these the majority are from NSW, with a local emphasis on the Sydney Region, although parts of northern Australia are well represented.

The Herbarium was founded by Dr Mary M. Hindmarsh, Dr Alec Wood and Mr Don Blaxell as the University of New South Wales Herbarium in 1960 and  was housed in the then School of Botany at the old location at Ultimo.  At the time of its inception, the Herbarium consisted of its founders’ collections along with some prior collections.  In 1962 the School of Botany and the Herbarium moved from Ultimo to the newly built Biosciences Building at the Kensington campus.  In the same year, John Waterhouse joined the staff of the School as a lecturer, and also took up the position as the first Director of the Herbarium.  In 1980, John applied to the International Association of Plant Taxonomists for registration of the herbarium, as recognition of the importance of the collection and the work associated with it.  This was subsequently accepted and the herbarium was listed in the 1981 edition of Index Herbariorum under the acronym UNSW.  John was also successful in obtaining funds to expand and renovate the Herbarium but sadly never saw this happen; he died in April 1983 and the newly refurbished herbarium, opened in June 1983, was named the John T. Waterhouse Herbarium in his honour.

The Herbarium is an important resource for both research and teaching.  It is particularly essential for the identification of plants, and a common routine duty in the herbarium is checking the identification of 'unknown' plant specimens, where the unknown is matched with a named specimen.  Individual specimens may be cited by researchers in their publications as vouchers from which original data have been scored. Most usually this is morphological data, but molecular, chemical, histological, ecological and palynological data can be provided by herbarium specimens. The specimens also act as records which map the temporal and spatial distributions of organisms, which can be important for research into the spread of invasive species and for the changes in distributions as a result of urbanisation and climate change.   Research in the School of BEES which has utilised the Herbarium in recent years has covered such diverse areas as molecular systematics, mycorrhizal taxonomy, environmental studies, vegetation and land management (e.g. vegetation management , weed management, land use changes and previous vegetation, mining contamination), biogeography, aspects of ecology (e.g. global trends in plant ecology, rapid evolution in invasive species, plant facilitation), biodiversity, and arid zone studies.

The collection is available, by appointment within work hours, for use by staff and students of UNSW and also external researchers. Specimens are frequently requested for loan to other institutions for study.  Similarly, staff and students may request loans, through the Herbarium, of material from other herbaria.  All undergraduate students are allowed supervised access to the herbarium; those who may need unsupervised access in the course of their studies or research are given the training and induction to do so.   The database is not currently available online and access is restricted to Herbarium staff and volunteers, but information from the database may be requested through the Curator.

With the help of U Committee funds, a specimen database was designed and this was fully functional in 2005.  Databasing the backlog of older specimens was helped again through the support of the U Committee and currently there are around 9800 specimen records listed in the herbarium database. The Herbarium also holds a modest but important library which is useful for teaching and research purposes and is available to staff and students (John T. Waterhouse Herbarium Library Catalogue).  

There are 3 large trees of Waterhousea floribunda growing in the University grounds near the Biosciences Building. This plant was named in honour of John T. Waterhouse, reflecting his longstanding interest in both rainforests and the family Myrtaceae. The photograph to right is of a flowering shoot of Waterhousea floribunda.




Associate Professor Paul Adam

Room    422


Frank Hemmings

Room    424


phone     +61 2 9385 3274

fax          +61 2 9385 1558



Resources and Links

Resources of Australasian Herbaria - UNSW