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Forgotten inheritance

Locked up in a series of metal vaults in the basement of the biology department of the University of Namur lurks a well hidden treasure.

The herbarium of the university is more than 150 years old and numbers no fewer than 60,000 plant samples, but has lain undisturbed and unregarded for many years.

Now, however, that is all due to change, thanks to The Society of Naturalists of Namur and Luxembourg.

Delicate process

The society — founded 60 years ago at the university — has decided to open the herbarium and catalogue the forgotten samples: a prelude to their plans to make the collection available to the world via an internet database.

Under the leadership of president Philippe Martin and Jean Margot (the former head of research at the university’s botany department), the society will have its work cut out for itself.

First, it will have to mount or remount many of the collections aged samples: a long and delicate process, before they can even start to collate the information for their database.

The society has the added problem that no inventory of the Namur herbarium has even been made. No one even knows exactly how many specimens it contains, let alone which collectors have contributed to it or the regions it covers.

Out of extinction?

One of the most exciting finds is of a sample of The Brome of the Ardennes, Bromus bromoideus, collected by naturalist Fr Auguste Bellynck in 1852.

The plant — a grass species endemic to Belgium — became extinct around 1935 and has recently been the subject of an initiative by the European Native Seed Conservation Network to bring it out of extinction.

The initiative involves producing seedlings from seeds held in botanic gardens and seed banks around Europe. Scientists hope to find seeds of other extinct species in the collection.

Plant evolution studies

Among other samples known to rest in the herbarium’s vaults are antique samples rated for their historic, as well as botanic value.

These include plants collected by notable botanists, such as François Crépin, the first director of the Belgian National Botanic Garden, as well as Fr Bellynck (the author of numerous 19th century books on flora of the region).

The Namur herbarium does not just contain specimens of local plants, however, and one hope is that this project could save Belgian researchers from journeying to the other side of the planet to pick rare plants.

Scientists also hope that the DNA which lies dormant in this archive could reveal information on plant evolution.

Internet database

The painstaking cataloguing and restoration work will be overseen by a scientific committee composed of the University of Namur’s current head of biology, professor Pierre Van Cutsem, Philippe Martin and an independent expert.

Ultimately, the herbarium will be opened to the public via an internet gateway, as other collections have been — for example, through the EU-funded Biological Collection Access Service for Europe (BioCASE) system, which contains data from more than 30 other botanic gardens, museums and gene banks around the world.

Because so little is known about the contents of the Namur herbarium, even the scientific committee does not know how long the project will take to complete, but with so many potential treasures within the collection, it promises to be an interesting time.

27 July 2006

Antoinette Minet works for the University of Namur (Facultés Universitaires Notre-Dame de la Paix), where she writes short articles and press-releases, mostly in French.

A UK expat living in Belgium, Victoria Welch is a research scientist and science writer and author by profession. She is published in science journals plus technical and science books.

[Copyright Expatica 2006]