US National Arboretum


Floral and Nursery Plants Research Unit

U.S. National Seed Herbarium


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

Fig. 1. Botanist moving the open-face compactors in which the U.S. National Seed Herbarium is stored.

Botanist examining seed samples in glass vials.

Fig. 2. Botanist examining seed samples in glass vials.

The U.S. National Seed Herbarium is the world's largest, most comprehensive 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 USDA worldwide Plant Introduction (PI) program. Viable seed lots of important crop species and their relatives are stored in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Agricultural Research Service (ARS), National Plant Germplasm System (NPGS). This program has introduced more than 590,000 accessions, most of them as 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 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, and in 2007 the herbarium and its compactor unit were transferred to the U.S. National Arboretum.

The U.S. National Seed Herbarium contains approximately 125,000 seed-and-fruit samples of approximately 395 families, approximately 3,000 genera, and more than 27,000 species. Many of the 500 service identifications 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 ask for identification of poisonous seeds and fruits.

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Last Updated   January 16, 2014 7:36 AM

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