Plant Imaging on a Flatbed Scanner: Creating a Digital Herbarium

Images by: Michael Ashley and Workshop Participants

This Imaging Technique Can Help You Create a Digital Herbarium of Plant Specimens

Herbariums and Traditional plant knowledge play an important role in the sustainability of lands and culture. Conventional methods of recording and describing flora employ drawing and logging coordinates, and taking samples to flatten and store in a herbarium, a controlled environment like a library or archive where samples are kept for safe-keeping.

Now that digital recording techniques are more accessible and user-friendly, there are a wide-range of techniques that can be used to record images and information about plants including 2-dimensional images shot with a camera, or 3-dimensional laser scanning which is great for documentation but can be cost-prohibitive and often preserves data in proprietary formats, making this method more at-risk in the long term. A digital herbarium could be a nice addition to a community archive with traditional knowledge considerations.

In 2014, we took a trip up to the Karuk Tribe in Orleans, California to share in a digital imaging workshop hosted at the Department of Natural Resources. During that workshop, we practiced imaging traditionally-pressed herbarium samples with handheld digital cameras, but we also introduced a new technique for scanning fresh specimens on a traditional flatbed scanner. This technique produces stunning images of samples at high resolution and it is fairly simple (and affordable!). We share our method with you today.

How to scan your specimens

Step 1: Collect your sample. Use good logging in the field to record the time, date, and coordinates of your sample. You can record notes and descriptions and take images of the plant in its natural environment, just as you would for any other recording event.

Step 2: Prepare your scanning station. Clean the glass of your scanner. Have your scanner connected and any softwares properly installed to prevent interruptions in your workflow.

Step 3: Lay your plant on the scanner, keeping the enclosure open so your specimen is not pressed flat. Add a color card and scale face down. If you want to include notes, you can also place a card with basic information onto the scanning surface.

Step 4: Reduce any background light or noise. You can do this by placing a black box over the top of your scanner and specimen -or- by scanning in a dark room with a screen or curtain between your computer and the scanner.

Step 5: Scan. Do a visual check of your scan making sure there were no complications.

Later you can do post-processing to get more accurate colors and add metadata to your images.

Later you can do post-processing to get more accurate colors and add metadata to your images.



This method works very well for plants that don’t secrete strong oils, pollen, or resins, or samples that will not scratch the surface of your scanner. You may not want to place flora on your scanner which could potentially damage your equipment.

A digital herbarium is not a good substitute for a physical herbarium if you have the resources to keep one. Join the discussion on

For examples of the types of media in a digital herbarium, check out Global Plants on JSTOR .


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