The New York Botanical Garden is packed with over 7.3 million specimens from all over the world. And when you've got that many plants, you need to get a little creative when it's time to take their picture. It's a high tech affair.
Popular Science recently profiled the NYBG archival process and explained that the garden used to be able to digitize just 20,000 to 30,0000 specimens per year. However, things have picked up significantly since it started using a light box that was originally designed for photographing jewelry. The box's uniform lighting makes it easy to get clear, natural pictures of the plants, and character recognition software helps the staff cut down on data entry. They're now processing about 100,000 specimens per year.
The system's so good that NYBG is doing imaging for third parties now, and is a regular recipient of National Science Foundation grant money. Its own collection includes everything from samples of local flora to a moss specimen collected by Charles Darwin in Chile over a century ago (below). Coupled with data about where the specimens were collected, scientists use the images to compare older plants with those of today and judge how things have changed over time as weather has evolved.
"As it turns out, there are a lot of possible uses for the data we didn't necessarily envision when we started," Barbara Thiers, director of the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium at NYBG, told PopSci. All else fails, they make really pretty wall hangings. [Popular Science]