Botanical and mycological collections

In the first half of the 19th century, botany held a special place in the "Natural Cabinet". The first three directors of the collections, C. Chr. Gmelin (1785-1837), A. Braun (1837-1846) and M. Seubert (1846-1878) were well-known botanists who also left behind large collections (herbarias). Other herbaria came into the state collections through donations or purchases. The Schimper collection is said to have included around “500 rather thick packages”.

What is botany?

In 1753 the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus published his work "Species Plantarum" and established the binomial system (genus and species) for naming plants. Since then, every new plant species has had to be described and published in a recognized scientific journal or book. Today, at the International Botanical Congress, rules for plant nomenclature will be established.

Specimens of plants and fungi collected in the field are brought to the Museum of Natural History in an almost constant stream. They are the raw material, the building blocks of botanical knowledge. Pressed between sheets of paper and accompanied by field notes, they are waiting to be identified, catalogued, classified and analyzed.

Experts in systematics document and group organisms in a way that reflects their evolutionary relationships, using a variety of techniques to learn the basic characteristics of a studied plant, from simple measurements of plant parts and shapes to more sophisticated microscopic, biochemical and molecular approaches. Then they can assign the plant to a specific taxonomic group based on its similarity to others.

Ethnobotanists and ethnomycologists investigate how people all over the world use plants and fungi, e.g. as food, medicine, for utensils, construction, clothing, etc. This was also one of the reasons why Margravine Karoline Luise founded the botanical collection and the botanical garden in Karlsruhe Intense efforts are being made to discover and exploit the potential in plants before their genetic resources are lost to extinction.

What is a herbarium?

Dried and pressed plants and mushrooms are archived in a herbarium. Each specimen is mounted on a herbarium sheet and provided with a label on which, in addition to the species name, the date of discovery, the place of discovery and the collector are noted, and in some cases also the use. All major herbaria worldwide are registered in the "Index Herbariorum". The international abbreviation of the Herbarium Karlsruhe is KR. Herbarium plants have a very long shelf life if they are stored dry and free from insects. The oldest documents in Karlsruhe come from the founding period of the collection under Margravine Karoline Luise and are more than 250 years old.

However, the herbaria were not in good condition around 1900, as can be seen from correspondence with the Botanical Museum in Berlin-Dahlem. Therefore, from around 1888 onwards, real teachers Oehler, teachers Kneucker and seminar director Leutz tried to organize Schimper's collections. After 1905, A. Kneucker looked after the collections as a part-time curator, which he continued to manage after his retirement. The "Badisches Landesherbar" may have been his work. However, it was destroyed during the first air raid on Karlsruhe in 1942. The herbaria Kneucker (approx. 800 extensive bundles), Schimper and Zeyher burned outsourced in the castle.

After the war, the remains of the collection formed the basis for the reconstruction of today's vascular plant herbarium. In addition, important herbaria came to Karlsruhe through donations or purchases. The names Jauch, Loesch, Machule, Müller, Kraiss and Stoll should be mentioned here. The Herbar Döll is of particular importance, because, as has now been found, it contains a large part of all the plant collections stored in the natural history cabinet up to 1875. These collections were sold around 1875 by the then Grand Duke to Döll - at that time chief librarian of the Grand Ducal Library and thus director of the natural history cabinet. The collection, which was then called "Herbar Döll", then came to the Baden Botanical Association (later the Baden Association for Natural History) in Freiburg, from the association to the University of Freiburg, and then again in 1962 as a gift to the Natural History Museum. Contrary to all fears, the most valuable part of the collection was not burned during the war in 1942 because the collection was not in Karlsruhe at the time.

The botany team at the Natural History Museum is currently preparing the historical collection for digitization. So far, almost no receipts and data have been digitally recorded. Only about 1% of the approximately 150,000 dried plants in the herbarium's historical collection have been digitized to date. New treasures are constantly being discovered, such as the Sponheim rarity Saxifraga rosacea subsp. sponhemica (C.C.Gmel.) D.A.Webb, one from C.C. Gmelin discovered Saxifrage species.

Evidence dating back to 1703 has now been discovered. The labels of the two newly discovered specimens (Pedicularis lapponica and Perdicularis sceptrum-carolinum, two species of lice herb) bear three different handwritings. But on both the origin is indicated with "ex. Lapponia 1703 – from Lapland 1703". Of course, the botany team thought of a connection to Linnaeus, since such old evidence from northern Scandinavia can only come from Swedish botanists. The Swede Carl von Linné was one of the most important natural scientists, who laid the foundations of modern botanical and zoological systematics with his work. However, the evidence is even older – Carl von Linné was not born until 1707. The botanist Olof Johannis Rudbeck (1660-1740) was the first botanist to collect in the far north. However, the material from his Lapland expedition (1695) was burned in Uppsala in 1702. However, one of Rudbeck's students was none other than Linnaeus.

At first we suspected that Linné himself might have sent the material as a gift to Margravine Karoline Luise, with whom he was in correspondence. However, this is not documented. One of the handwritings on the labels comes from Carl Christian Gmelin (1762-1837), the first director of the Karlsruhe Natural History Cabinet, who must have edited the documents. And here is the most likely explanation: Gmelin had to relocate the entire collection of the Natural History Cabinet to Ansbach in 1794 to protect it from an imminent invasion by French troops. During his time in Ansbach from 1794 to 1797, he continued his botanical studies at the University of Erlangen under Johann Christian Daniel von Schreber (1739–1810), who himself was a student of Linnaeus and had numerous specimens from Linnaeus' herbarium in his own collection. As is still common in science today, Schreber and Gmelin exchanged herbarium specimens. This is even verifiable: Schreber's herbarium was later bought by the Bavarian royal family and formed the basis of the Bavarian state herbarium founded in 1813. Among this material from Schreber is also a duplicate of the saxifrage Saxifraga rosacea subso described by Gmelin. sponhemica. The very old specimens from Scandinavia, which are now stored in Karlsruhe, came with great certainty from Schreber, and thus from Linné's herbarium, since Schreber himself did not collect in Lapland.

None of the handwriting on the labels is by Linnaeus himself, as confirmed by the Linnean Society in London. However, this is not surprising, since Linné himself usually wrote nothing on his receipts except for a few numbers. In addition, the covers were unfortunately removed from the original sheets in the 1960s by the taxidermist at the time and re-glued. The notes, mainly from Gmelin, were cut out and pasted onto the new sheets. Nevertheless, it can be assumed that the evidence very likely comes from Linnaeus's herbarium. A specimen from the collection of this most important researcher is considered a very special treasure in botany.

The plant collections of the Natural History Museum in Karlsruhe, especially the recently "rediscovered" Gmelin collection from the early 19th century, are among the oldest and most important collections in Germany. So far, only about five specimens of plants from Carl von Linné's herbarium are known to be in collections in Germany. Further research into the material in Karlsruhe will certainly bring even more high-quality finds to light.

In the last few decades, the collection of moss by G. Philippi (approx. 60,000 capsules) has been greatly expanded. The corresponding data entered the work "Die Moose Baden Württembergs". The peat mosses, which were processed in connection with the paleoecological research work in bogs by A. Holzer, also form a special focus (more than 15,000 capsules). A key result is the book published by Weissdorn-Verlag in 2010: "The Peat Moss of Southwest Germany and the Neighboring Areas".

The lichens in Karlsruhe were looked after by H. Schindler on a voluntary basis for many years. Since 2002, this collection has been expanded by the director (2001-2008) and lichen specialist V. Wirth.

The mycological collections only gained importance in the recent past with the appointment of the mycologist M. Scholler. He is also in charge of the algae collection, which mainly includes items from the 19th century.Today the botanical and mycological collections in the KR contain more than 580.000 specimens. This makes the collection one of the largest herbaria in Germany.

Many collections come from SW Germany, but especially older covers come from all over the world, including large parts of Europe, Asia, East Africa and South America. Great importance is attached to the collection of receipts by the company's own staff, since precise knowledge of the location is of particular importance.

The herbarium contains about 300,000 ferns and flowering plants, mosses (about 110,000 specimens), a lichen herbarium with about 60,000 specimens, a collection of algae (about 4,000 specimens). Fungi, which occupy a special position in botany, also belong to the herbarium. More than 110,000 documents have been recorded here to date.

The Herbarium KR is irreplaceable for is used for investigations into plant systematics, vegetation science, plant geography, nature conservation and ethnobotanical / ethnomycological investigations, and forms the basis for precise distribution maps, red lists, and exact identification of plant and fungal material.

Ethnobotany and Ethnomycology

Plants provide humanity with our most basic resources—food, medicines, fiber, building materials, and a range of other economically valuable products and essential services. However, habitat destruction, overharvesting of plants, the spread of invasive species, climate change and other human activities are having tremendous adverse impacts on plants and their ecosystems. As many plant species new to science are discovered each year, many are undoubtedly still awaiting discovery, and many are lost forever before we have a chance to find and study them and realize their potential. Many others that have been identified but have not yet been studied for their useful properties using modern methods are threatened with extinction. Perhaps never before in human history has there been a more urgent need to discover, understand, conserve and sustainably use the plant resources vital to human existence.

Ethnobotany and ethnomycology deal with the use of plants and fungi by humans. Ethnobotany and ethnomycology simply mean the study of plants and fungi used by people in different parts of the world, be it the Amazon Basin, the Himalayas, the Caucasus or the Black Forest.

Our work at the SMNK aims to discover and use the potential of plants and to conserve these resources. In this way we contribute to the discovery of new plant products. At the same time, we work with Indigenous and local communities to protect biodiversity-rich areas while preserving and reviving traditional knowledge of crops for the benefit of these communities and the well-being of humanity. All research by SMNK scientists is carried out with respect and strict safeguards for the rights of host countries under the provisions of CITES, the Convention on Biological Diversity and in particular the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit-Sharing.

Although the idea of scientific ethnobotany was first proposed by the botanist John William Harshberger in the early 20th century, the works of Pedanius Dioscorides e.g. "De Materia Medica" on the medicinal and culinary properties of over 600 Mediterranean plant sites represent ethnobotanical works. The European botanical knowledge expanded drastically after the "New World" was "discovered". This increase in knowledge can be largely attributed to the substantial influx of new crops from the Americas, including crops such as potatoes, peanuts, avocados, and tomatoes.

From the 18th century onwards, botanical collections and gardens were often created, as was the case with the Margravine Karoline Luise in Karlsruhe, who created the botanical garden and the natural history cabinet, which today forms the basis of the SMNK. The founders and directors of the gardens and collections sent out botanists to collect plants to add to their collections.

The first modern ethnobotanist was Leopold Glück, a German doctor working in Sarajevo in the late 19th century. His work on the traditional medicinal use of plants by rural people in Bosnia (1896) can be considered the first modern ethnobotanical work.

The focus of ethnobotanical studies, and the involvement of local stakeholders, have changed greatly over the last few decades. On the scientific side, research has moved from simple inventories of mostly medicinal plants, to detailed quantitative studies, often focusing on all useful plants. More importantly however, research has finally moved away from colonial-style investigations to modern ethnobotany based on the principles of the Protocol of Nagoya. The ratification of the “Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization to the Convention on Biological Diversity”, has brought a huge boost to the recognition of the rights of indigenous and local communities, giving rise to new opportunities, and lots of challenges for the ethnobotanical community. 

Although the ratification of the "Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and Fair and Equitable Participation in the Benefits from their Use in the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)" ( has brought a boost to the recognition of the rights of indigenous and local communities, their participation in ethnobiology research often is still fragmentary. In this scenario, Covid-19 might be an incentive to change that and give local participants the role they deserve - to not only be participants, but investigators, and co-authors. Rather than sending (mostly) Western students and researchers around the globe, Covid-19 might finally force the ethnobiology community to focus on training local community researchers, so that they can conduct interviews in their own communities, and to fully participate in data analysis and publication.

The Nagoya Protocol clearly assigns the property rights of traditional knowledge to the respective knowledge holders. The main objective of the protocol is "the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources, including by appropriate access to genetic resources and by appropriate transfer of relevant technologies, taking into account all rights over those resources and technologies, and by appropriate funding, thereby contributing to the conservation of biological diversity and sustainable use of its components ", including that "traditional knowledge associated with genetic resources held by indigenous and local communities is accessed with the prior and informed consent or approval and involvement of these indigenous and local communities and that mutually agreed terms have been established. Any community work is performed under the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and Equitable distribution of benefits from their use, and that the right of use and ownership of any traditional knowledge of all informants remains with them, and that any use of the information except for scientific publication, requires the additional consent of the traditional owners, and consensus on access to benefits derived possibly later use.

After implementation of the CBD, many research institutions around the globe set up “Internal Review Boards (IRB)” to screen research proposals involving human “subjects.” However, based on the stipulations of the Nagoya Protocol, a simple “ethics approval” by a researcher’s IRB is not sufficient to allow publication. Many journals do, in fact, require in addition written evidence that local law, as well as community regulations were followed. In the former case, a research permit number, or an indication which entity granted the permit to do research, should be provided. In case of the latter, an indication of how permits from local and indigenous communities or participants were obtained should be included.

Normally, Free Prior Informed Consent (FPIC) is required for any research. The concept of FPIC is, however, problematic for two reasons: On the one hand, many journals are not content with oral FPIC, as practiced, especially in ethnobiological studies. On the other hand, in many research settings, a request for written FPIC creates distrust among participants, because signing papers is simply not common, and the content of a FPIC disclosure might be hard to understand. Under such circumstances, the best choice for researchers is to provide a statement on what kind of FPIC they obtained, and to state if they followed a specific code of ethics. For ethnobiological research, the current standard is the International Society of Ethnobiology Code of Ethics. It should be noted that under the Nagoya Protocol, FPIC does not only refer to consent from community leaders, but from each individual participant in the research. In addition, it does have to include arrangements about benefit sharing, as well as recognition of the intellectual property rights of the respective participants and their communities.

In globalized science, the knowledge that our counterparts share with us must be protected so that it cannot be appropriated by actors who did not participate in the original study, for both scientific and commercial purposes, and the benefits of the research must include the repatriation of the data obtained. Covid-19 could be a trigger to finally achieve this.

Ethnobotanists should take their stake through proactive steps for shaping the future, including: a) Highlighting the possible contributions of local communities and their less understood wild and cultivated natural foods and eco-pharmacological environments for resilience of local and global food and health systems; b) airing voices of disadvantaged communities for equitable rights in benefit sharing; c) designing customized action frameworks for capacity building for local stakeholders; and, d) partnering for ethnobiology informatics platforms for informed decision making. Although many of these actions might be deemed overly time-consuming and an unnecessary drain on scarce resources, they remain necessary contributions for co-designing the future of changing socio-cultural environments and human relationships to natural resources in the wake of the post-Covid-19 pandemic.