Last update: November 2, 2010 12:18:52 PM E-mail Print





L. van den Berg

Grootfontein Agricultural Development Institute, Private Bag X529, Middelburg EC, 5900

E-mail: Loraine van den Berg



In 1992 South Africa ratified the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity (UNCBD).  This Convention aims to conserve biological diversity throughout the world.  Article 9 of the Convention states that each signatory country shall establish and maintain facilities for the ex-situ conservation of flora.  The South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) has established a network of botanical gardens and herbaria throughout the country in adherence to the UNCBD.  The False Upper Karoo, however, is literally a black hole with regards to the diversity of flora that occurs in this area.  This poses a big problem in the agricultural sector in this area, as people who are not aware of the plant diversity around them, are usually in no position to make optimum use of their environment.


Founded in 1925 the Grootfontein Herbarium today houses more than 6 000 specimens of more than 1 000 plant species.  A herbarium is a collection of plants that is stored, catalogued and arranged systematically for study by various stakeholders (The vPlants Project, 2006).  A collection of plants is of vital reference when one needs to identify and classify plants and is therefore of immense practical use and of fundamental importance to science (Funk, 2002; Funk, 2003).  Beyond their scientific importance, herbarium collections offer many benefits to society by providing data or reference materials for critical endeavors such as agriculture, human health, biosecurity, forensics, control of invasive species, conservation biology, natural resources, and land management (SHC, 2004). 


Herbaria (and especially the one at Grootfontein) maintain large amounts of botanical information and throughout the world this information is increasingly held in a computerised format to allow for easy access and utilisation (e.g. eFloraSA, ARC Electronic Herbarium).  Electronic keys and field guides, two modern solutions for identifying plants, have been available since computers began processing data on morphological characteristics (Pankhurst, 1991; Edwards & Morse, 1995; Stevenson et al., 2003).  Digitising information about plant species and making it available to the broader public firstly requires digital images and information, and then effective retrieval and mobile computing mechanisms for accessing this information.  The Grootfontein Herbarium is therefore used as reference point to compile an electronic herbarium of the flora occurring in the False Upper Karoo.  This electronic facility contains plant images, plant descriptions, biophysical characteristics, habitat and utilisation information, as well as associated bibliographic files, for individual species.  The main aim is to foster and broaden the Herbarium’s usage by providing users with efficient, easy-to-use electronic data access.



This digitisation project commenced in August 2008 and will run until 2011.  Samples and specimens of grasses, forbs, dwarf shrubs and trees are being collected mainly in the False Upper Karoo in the Nama Karoo Biome, but in the future other geographical regions will also be included.  The False Upper Karoo extends in a belt from the Eastern Cape interior, through most of the central Karoo and Namaqualand.  This narrow portion includes arid grassland and karroid shrub communities.  Patches of arid grassland are found southwards along the most arid margin of the Nama Karoo Biome. 


Currently the available information relevant to individual plant species is being digitised through plant photography and information collection.  Plant photography includes photos of seeds, flowers, leaves, fruit, stems and roots to provide optimal visual information for identification.  The plant specimen information is collected by using standardised fact sheets to ensure that all necessary information is collected consistently, irrespective of the sampler.  These fact sheets include information regarding the location, plant features, habitat, as well as palatability and grazing value, for each plant specimen.  This information will be made available to all stakeholders through an interactive Grootfontein Herbarium Manager database.  This database will also be linked to various national and international databases, such as those of SANBI and Agricultural Geo-referenced Information System (AGIS).


A small subset of output formats will be provided in the Grootfontein Herbarium Manager, allowing users to generate specimen labels and information leaflets on different species (Figure 1).  Within this system it would also be possible to use different types of searches to identify and obtain information for unidentified specimens sent to the Herbarium.



Since August 2008 a total of 47 species have been photographed and documented.  This number will increase drastically in 2009 with the availability of newly acquired photographic equipment.  The software for the Grootfontein Herbarium Manager will also be made available during 2009, ensuring that information is captured for each specimen.  Figure 1 shows an example of an information sheet that is currently available for Eriocephalus ericoides.  These information sheets will be one of the outputs of the Grootfontein Herbarium Manager.















Species author:

(L.f.) Druce





Kapok bush








General habitat description:

  Grows almost everywhere




Sun / Shade:


Soil type:

All soil types




Land form:

Grows almost everywhere

Soil disturbance:

None / medium






Medicinal use:

  When sheep graze the flowerheads their lips turn black








General plant description:

  Woody shrub




Annual / Perennial:


Growth form:

Dwarf shrub





0.2 - 1 m

Flower colour:

Greenish purple




Calyx shape:


Flower arrangement:

Daisy-head spike




Leaf shape:


Leaf margin:





Leaf tip:


Leaf arrangement:





Seed shape:

Hidden in a ball of fluff

Fruit type:










Collection number:

L 0002

Grootfontein Herbarium ref nr:






Loraine van den Berg

Collection date:





 Figure 1.  Information sheet for Eriocephalus ericoides



Digital herbarium and plant species information has provided an excellent opportunity to make previously inaccessible information available to the general public.  The digitisation of specimens housed at the Grootfontein Herbarium would positively contribute to the current information available with regards to the diversity of flora in the False Upper Karoo.



Edwards, M. & Morse, D.R., 1995. The potential for computer-aided identification in biodiversity research. Trends Ecol. Evol. 10: 153 – 158.

Funk, V.A.,  2002.  The importance of herbaria.  Plant Science Bulletin.  49: 94 – 96.

Funk, V.A.,  2003.  100 uses for a herbarium: well at least 72.  ASPT Newsletter. 17: 17 – 19.

Pankhurst, R. J., 1991. Practical Taxonomic Computing. Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge.

SHC (Society of Herbarium Curators), 2004.  Uniting herbaria across the nation and around the world:  The importance of herbaria.  American Society of Plant Taxonomists Position Statement.  Website:

Stevenson, R. D., Haber, W. A. & Morris, R. A., 2003. Electronic field guides and user communities in the eco-informatics revolution. Cons. Ecol. 7: 3. Website: vol7/iss1/art3

The vPlants Project, 2006.  A virtual herbarium of the Chicago region.  Herbarium collections.  Website:




Grootfontein Agric 9 (1)