Chinese Digital Plant Resources Project


  • Natural History Museum, London
  • Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, London
  • Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing


  • To enhance collections-based digital resources relevant to Chinese plant diversity in response to demands from stakeholders and specific feedback concerning existing resources: specifically, the dissemination of information on species of cultural, economic and scientific importance for which expertise is shared and complementary across Natural History Museum (NHM) and Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew (Kew).

Project details

At the NHM work was focused on two plant groups currently under intensive study by members of Botany Department staff: Solanaceae (nightshades) and ferns. Solanaceae contain many species of agricultural and medicinal importance, including the aubergine which is thought to have been domesticated in the southern part of China. Fern diversity in China is very high, and the NHM has rich collections that are in active use in several PhD projects in collaboration with Chinese institutions. The goal of the project was to provide complete collection information on all specimens held at NHM from these two taxonomic groups, and to provide for each specimen the geographical coordinates (georeferencing) to allow mapping and other detailed study.

More than 5000 individual specimens were databased and georeferenced (1394 Solanaceae and 3700 ferns); the fern collections from China were significantly richer than we had supposed, so there remain specimens from which data need to be digitised and made available. The project served, however, to highlight the scope, both in depth and breadth, of the NHM Chinese fern material – an unexpected consequence. Calculating geographical coordinates for each specimen was undertaken in two phases. First, the locality information recorded on these often very old collections was aligned with modern Chinese orthography and place names, and then gazetteers and maps were used to pinpoint localities. All but a very few of the 5000 specimens are georeferenced to at least the province level (often the only information available) and the digitally available information is presented using modern orthography and place names for ease of searching. This allows users to see all specimens from Yunnan or Sichuan for example, and to look for areas for future exploration or collaborative work. All type specimens were digitally imaged.

Labels in Chinese were translated by a Chinese PhD student, Ms. Li Wang, and she was able to update the identifications of ferns in her group of interest as part of her visit to NHM. Dr. Sandy Knapp visited China as part of the project, and examined, identified and databased specimens in the Solanaceae collections in Guilin (Guilin Botanical Garden, Chinese Academy of Sciences), Haikou (Hainan University) and Beijing (Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Sciences). New specimens collected as part of this and other trips to China during the project period (not all funded by the WCP) are all completely digital with exact coordinates taken in the field and are often accompanied by photographs of live plants.

As part of providing information about species of social and cultural use, several “species pages” were prepared for the NHM’s Species of the Day – an activity focusing attention on diversity during 2010, the International Year of Biodiversity (IYOB). Pages were prepared and have been posted for Mandragora caulescens (a Himalayan mandrake), Solanum melongena (the aubergine), Solanum dulcamara (woody nightshade) and Scopolia carniolica (and Eastern European plant used in Chinese medicine); pages have been prepared for Prezwalskia tangutica (Tibetan plateau endemic), Solanum insanum (the progenitor of the aubergine), Lycium barbarum (go ji) and Solanum lyratum (a Chinese woody nightshade), but have yet to be posted on-line.

All digital specimen information on ferns is available on the NHM website in the Botany Specimen Database; that for Solanaceae is available over the website Solanaceae Source. Data will continue to be added to both these resources as the collections are enhanced and enriched.

Herbarium at the Institute of Botany, Beijing.

Herbarium (plant specimen store) at the Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing. (photo S. Knapp).

Solanum praetermissum specimen

A specimen of the rare species, Solanum praetermissum from the Guilin Botanical Garden collection. (photo S. Knapp)