By Aaliyah Motala
As you enter through the double doors, you are hit with the comforting musky smell of old paper with the slight tinge of camphor. Centuries of memories lie within sheets in large air-sealed cupboards; memories of people who no longer exist but carry on in these preserved plants and the people who look at the plants. These preserved, or rather, pressed plants are kept in a herbarium.
A herbarium is more like a library. However, instead of finding books, you would find dried pressed plants that have been meticulously and systematically stored, curated and categorized so that scientists may find and reference the plants for research.
In preparation for successful “hunting” for species of conservation concern for the upcoming field season, the Custodians of Rare and Endangered Wildflowers (CREW) programme’s KZN team spent a few days at Bews herbarium examining specimens of threatened species in particular to obtain images and key information such as localities, flowering times, habitat and plant description. The Bews Herbarium and CREW team have been working with each other for the past decade and have a strong, friendly relationship.
The numerous and well-curated cupboards at the Bews Herbarium
Bews Herbarium, also known as the Natal University (NU) Herbarium, was founded in 1910 and currently houses approximately 150 000 specimens at University of KwaZulu-Natal (Pietermaritzburg campus). The herbarium is named after Prof John Bews, a Scottish born South African botanist. In 1909, John Bews was appointed professor of botany and geology at the newly established Natal University College in Pietermaritzburg, He carried out significant research on the vegetation around Pietermaritzburg publishing several articles and books such as “Grasses and grasslands of South Africa” and “An introduction to the flora of Natal and Zululand”.
His book, “Plant forms and their evolution in South Africa” placed him as one of the leading plant ecologists of the world. Due to the groundbreaking research that John Bews had carried out at the time in such a rich, diverse area; it is only fitting that the herbarium be named after such an influential botanist.
This is the fifth largest herbarium in South Africa but the largest herbarium in KZN. Bews herbarium contains well-documented flora of the KZN Midlands and Drakensberg Alpine Region while focusing on collections of a few families: Asteraceae (daisies), Cyperaceae (sedges), Fabaceae (legumes), Orchidaceae (orchids), Poaceae (grasses) as well as ferns. The herbarium houses large special collections of South African marine macro-algae, ethnobotanical specimens and invasive alien weed collections.
Lerato Molekoa (CREW) working with a few specimens at the Bews Herbarium
In 2009, Dr Benny Bytebier became the herbarium’s curator and consequently, introduced the internationally used Botanical Research and Herbarium Management System (BRAHMS) software while working towards making Bews herbarium the first Virtual South African Herbarium thereby allowing herbarium access to a larger community in the near future. Dr Bytebier facilitated and continues to assist other South African herbaria to migrate to BRAHMS and more recently, integrating the Killick Herbarium collection into the Bews Herbarium.
Having obtained funding from the Natural Science Collections Facility (NSCF), Dr Bytebier is working towards building herbarium skills while ensuring the collection of the 180 000 specimens are available online under a single coordinating center.
The Bews Herbarium has a peaceful ambiance with its ever-helpful and friendly team, having allowed us access to BRAHMS, their well-curated collection, and ample working space. On behalf of the CREW team, I’d like to extend my sincere appreciation to Dr Benny Bytebier, Dr Christina Potgieter, Ms Prudence Magwaza, Mr Dean Philips and the NSCF funded staff Ms Simone Chetty, Ms Tanya Mathe and Mr Sifiso Mbgxati for assisting us and allowing CREW to disrupt their peace and quiet for a few hours.