Compton Herbarium
(NBG) Cape Town

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incorporating the

[Mission] [History] [Collections] [Facilitities] [Identification-Information Services] [Staff]

To provide the most comprehensive data bank and information centre on the winter-rainfall flora of South Africa, to increase the knowledge of an irreplaceable and economically important natural resource by continuing active and original research with internationally high credibility in plant systematics. The winter-rainfall region contains almost half the total plant species recorded in South Africa, and is known to have one of the highest biodiversity ratings in the world.


Founded in 1937 by Prof R.H. Compton, the second director of the National Botanical Gardens, and with the South African Museum Herbarium (SAM) incorporated in 1957 and the Stellenbosch Herbarium (STE) in 1996, the Compton Herbarium is now the second largest herbarium in southern Africa with about 750 000 specimens.

The South African Museum Herbarium (SAM), the oldest in Africa and one of the oldest in the southern hemisphere, originated when the visiting German collector, C.F. Ecklon, deposited 325 of his specimens in the museum in 1825. When the museum was reconstituted in 1855, Dr Ludwig Pappe took charge of the herbarium and is considered to be its founder. He was appointed as the first Colonial Botanist in 1858. On his death in 1863, his private collection, which included Carl Zeyher's main herbarium, was bought for the Cape Government Herbarium, which was housed in the same room as the Museum Herbarium in the Museum. Under Prof Peter MacOwan, as Colonial Botanist, the two collections gradually became merged and considerably increased. In 1910 the Cape Government ceded the so called "Cape Government Herbarium" to the Museum. It was housed from 1956 with the Compton Herbarium at Kirstenbosch and finally donated by the Trustees of the South African Museum to the National Botanical Institute in 1988.

The Stellenbosch Herbarium (STE) was founded in 1902 by Dr A Vera Duthie on her appointment to the Victoria College (now University of Stellenbosch). Due to lack of funds the University Council decided to hand the general herbarium over to the State and in 1960 it became known as the Governament Herbarium/Staatsherbarium, Stellenbosch. The District Herbarium was retained by the University (STEU). With the amalgamation of the state botanical interests in 1989 it became part of the new National Botanical Institute, but was only able to be combined with the NBG herbarium in 1996.


The collections are housed in a modern building built in 1996 in the research complex at the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden in Cape Town. The building is situated on the eastern slopes of Table Mountain just below some patches of fine afromontane forest with the mountain towering above it in the background.

The modern cupboards are of metal with magnetic sealed doors. There is filtered, forced-air ventilation -full air-conditioning being too expensive. The specimens are arranged following the system employed in the List of Southern African Plants based on PRECIS There are approximately 750 000 specimens covering mainly the winter-rainfall region of southern Africa, but there are also many valuable old specimens from around the world in SAM.

The collections consist of pteridophytes, gymnosperms and angiosperms only. The marine algal collections were recently donated to the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg (NU), the fungi to the National Mycological Herbarium in Pretoria (PREM) and the lichens and bryophytes to our sister herbarium, the National Herbarium in Pretoria (PRE).

For historical reasons the SAM collections, the oldest in the country, are kept separate from the general herbarium and are sent out separately on loan under the SAM label.

Plant Identification Service at the Compton Herbarium

Plant material (live or dried) from the following groups will be accepted for identification: Southern African ferns, cycads, cedars and flowering plants; cultivated exotics and weeds. The Compton Herbarium does not identify lower plant groups like mosses, algae, lichens or mushrooms (fungi).

What to bring

Only labelled, good quality specimens will be accepted for identification. A good specimen comprises a fair sample of the plant, its manner of growth, branching etc. and should include stems, leaves, flowers and/or fruits, and underground parts (for bulbous plants only). Accompanying labels (for identification) must state where the plant was collected. Any other useful information regarding the plant it represents e.g. habitat, flowering, fruiting, leafing, colouring, etc. will be useful.


Although graphic material cannot be identified to the same level of accuracy as with live/dried plant material, good quality graphic material will be accepted for identification subject to the same categories and rates per specimen as summarised below.

The conditions and charges for the service are summarised in the following categories

  1. Urgent identifications: Commercial & Life & death cases
    Rate: R40 per specimen
    Delivery time: Immediate attention will be given to these identifications.

  2. Standard identifications: Non-commercial
    Rate: R20 per specimen
    Delivery time: 30 days
    Clients: Researchers, students, private individuals, institutions, universities, conservationists.
    · Only fertile specimens will be considered for identification. Collectors will be charged for all specimens submitted.

  3. NBI Research Staff
    Rate, delivery time and conditions as in 2. Rates will be charged against the cost centre.

  4. Commercial ventures (EIA's, non-NBI projects and publications):
    Rate: R30 per specimen
    Delivery time: 30 days
    · We undertake to identify all specimens to the lowest possible rank.
    · Although we will try our best, immature, infertile or otherwise poor specimens might only be identified to family or genus level.
    · Collectors will be charged for all specimens submitted.

    Please note that all identifications are subject to availability of specialists in particular taxonomic groups. NBI may, with the client's agreement, contract out identifications to outside specialists where no in-house expertise is available in certain plant groups.

    These rates are subject to change.

Details of other facilities and services offered by the Herbarium


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