Botanica

Scientific sections

Botany

DID YOU KNOW

at the MRSN you can enjoy natural wonders likely to disappear anytime soon?

Among the plants on the IUNC (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) red list of threatened species, one inhabits the French-Italian Maritime Alps.

What is it? Why might it go extinct?

Let's start with Why

Piedmont, the region with the highest floristic diversity in Italy, numbers quite a few species threatened with extinction, due to environmental change brought on by the current socioeconomic system and the consequent land degradation.

Let's see what it is

It is a “glacial relict”, survived by developing adaptation to shallow fissures on vertical siliceous walls.

It has been deemed to be a mythical and fictional entity for decades; as a matter of fact, no one could find it until 1823.

It is an extremely delicate and rare being, which grows from 1950 to 3200 meters above sea level.

Here is the astonishing Saxifraga florulenta Moretti!

Etymology of the binomial nomenclature

Saxifraga, from sáxum = rock + frángo = to break.
Its roots grow into cracks of rocks and break them apart.

Florulenta = flowery

Moretti = Discovered at Colle della Finestra, it was first described by Giuseppe Moretti in the work Tentativo diretto ad illustrare la sinonimia delle specie del genere saxifraga indigene del suolo italiano, in Giornale di fisica, chimica e storia naturale, vol. 6, Pavia, 1823, pp. 460-466.

Common name: Saxifraga dell'Argentera; in French Saxifrage à nombreuses fleurs, Saxifrage à mille fleurs, or Saxifrage du Mercantour

Conservation concern:

  • declared symbol plant of Piedmont by the Italian Botanical Society (Garbari F., 2019);
  • recognised as an endangered species in Italy (IUCN Italian Committee, Rossi, 2013)
  • under absolute protection in Piedmont (Regional Law 32/1982);
  • LC (least concern) in France (IUCN, French Committee, 2018)
Foto di una Saxifraga, eletta pianta simbolo del Piemonte dalla Società Botanica Italiana
Photo by Foto di Marziano Pascale
Photo by Foto di Marziano Pascale

Fun Fact

It was believed to be extinct, but it was found on the steep rocks of Rocca dell'Argentera, at about 2500 m a.s.l., by the mountaineer and botanist Paolo Ballada of Saint Robert, while climbing Gelas pick, in 1864.

He was also able to find it, in 1865, on the slopes of Monte Orosa (Lourousa ravine), a site today included in the Cima Argentera group, at about 10 km north-west of the previous position.

Saint-Robert engaged the botanical enthusiasts by listing a few peculiarities of this plant, wondering how it had managed to survive the ice ages.

After a rather slow growth process lasting 30 to 75 years, during which the plant lives in the form of a basal rosette, it blooms and disperses its seeds once in a lifetime.

The MRSN holds the specimen of Saxifraga Florulenta collected by Saint Robert in the Maritime Alps in 1865.

Mappa di diffusione della Saxifraga
Distribution map (International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) 2011. Saxifraga florulenta. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2022-2

+95.000

Specimens, including dried plants and scientific images

31.000

Dried specimens of spontaneous flora of Piedmont

36.900

Specimens of vascular plants, fungi, lichens, bryophytes (2,584 from Piedmont)

22.610

Specimens of spermatophytes (World Flora plus 8,980 Campanulaceae from Piedmont and Valle d'Aosta

3.500

Specimens of the spermatoteca-carpoteca (seeds and fruits) (3D)

36.900

samples from the xylotheque (wood) (3d)

3,000 specimens of pteridophytes (2D); 50 mushroom specimens (2D); 30 seaweed specimens (3D); 5,400 lichens (3D); 4,651 bryophytes (4,303 from Val Sangone);

What do the MRSN’s botany collections encompass?

The collections encompass an estimated 95,000 dried specimens and scientific images.

Which specimens of dried plants does the collections include?

The collections includes seed plants, ferns, mosses, lichens, mushrooms, and algae, some mounted on herbarium specimen vouchers, some stored as three-dimensional elements.

The specimens are representative of spontaneous and cultivated flora from all over the world, some from collections in the field, some from donations, international exchanges and purchases.

The collections have been registered in the world index of herbaria as Herbarium MRSN since 1984.

Le collezioni di vegetali essiccati

Which collections the Herbarium is made up of?

a) Collections not subject to grow over time

  • Abbà – Piedmont (about 10,000 specimens of vascular plants)
  • Sella – Europe (2,539 specimens – 1,129 from Piedmont – of vascular plants)
  • Bono (Consolata Mission Institute) – Flora from all over the world (about 8,000 specimens: vascular plants, fungi, lichens, bryophytes)
  • Chartreuse Herbarium 1899 – France (634 specimens of vascular plants)
  • Lanza – Italy (9,852 specimens –163 from Piedmont – of vascular plants)
  • Val Sangone – Piedmont (5,275 specimens of vascular plants)
  • Herbaria of Piedmontese botanists (A. Soldano, M. Pascale: more than 3,200 specimens of vascular plants)
  • Donation from the protected areas of the Piedmont Po (2,324 specimens of vascular plants)
  • Donation from "Don Bosco" Museum of Natural History and Scientific Equipment – Valsalice High School, Turin (about 3,500 specimens of vascular plants)

b) Collections subject to grow over time

  • Piedmont –Valle d'Aosta Collection (about 5,000 specimens of vascular plant collected in Piedmont and Valle d'Aosta);
  • World vascular plants Herbarium (about 13,000 specimens from the five continents and other regions of Italy);
  • Smaller collections of Bryophytes, Lichens, Mushrooms, Algae, fruits, seeds, and woods as in the diagram:
Infografica delle collezioni compongono l'Erbario del Museo

The scientific images collection

The scientific image collection includes thousands of slides, digital images, stereoscopic photos and images taken in the field while participating in research studies.

As far as dissemination and detailed analysis are concerned, a rich and complex archive of botanical images is essential as well.

La collezione di immagini scientifiche

Collina Torinese and Ostellino collections

The former Natural Park of the Turin Hills (now named Piedmont Po Protected Areas) consists of two areas (Special Natural Reserve of Bosco del Vaj and Superga Hill Natural Park): 875 hectares as a part of the network of the Turin Po Protected Areas.
In April 2021, the Park Authority donated two collections to the MRSN:

1. The Turin Hills’ collection
Botanists and park rangers have been engaged in plant collecting in the hills surronding Turin from the 1990s until 2010.
Roberto Pascal, former employee of the Park, came up with the idea of creating a herbarium by implementing a project of cross-border collaboration (Alcotra Interreg IIIA Programme), aimed at studying Flora and habitats in the south-western Alps. A vegetation types map of the protected area and floristic cartographies as outputs.

2. The Ostellino herbarium of the Garzaia di Valenza Nature Reserve
Curated by Ippolito Ostellino, the collection encompasses specimens from the Garzaia di Valenza Nature Reserve (Piedmont).

Reorganising, cataloguing and preserving both the collections
During the summer and autumn 2021, the staff of the MRSN Botanical Section, supported by trainees from the School of Natural Sciences of the University of Turin, fulfilled the task of re-organising and cataloguing the herbarium specimens (exsiccata) from both the collections, making them accessible for consultation.

Brother Giacinto Abbà's herbarium:

Flora of Piedmont and...
The collection, acquired by the MRSN in 1989, was implemented by Abbà himself by donating another 10,350 specimens from Piedmont, Valle d'Aosta and Liguria.

...exotic plants
The collection is enriched by species originating from other continents that were being naturalised in Piedmont.

Abbà Collections: a "virtual" unification
As Abbà's collections are housed in different institutions, it was necessary to bring them together in a Catalogue including:

• the Herbarium of the Department of Life Sciences and Systems Biology of the University of Turin (4,000 specimens);

• 9,800 specimens from the Civic Museum of Archaeology and Natural Sciences F. Eusebio of Alba;

• 330 specimens from the Craveri Civic Museum of Natural History of Bra.

Alfonso and Ada Sella herbarium

Donation of the Sella family to the MRSN in 2005: 2,539 specimens collected in Italy, France, and Croatia.

A passion for herbaria
Alfonso and Ada Sella, as botany enthusiasts, collected, dried, and prepared herbarium specimens that inspired educational books and artistic compositions.
The output of their efforts is the impressive "scientific herbarium" of European spontaneous flora, collected from 1954 to 1984.

The donation
After Alfonso Sella’s passing (2001), the family donated the herbarium to the MRSN, to be preserved, made accessible for consultation and used to foster botanical culture, especially of the younger generations.
The herbarium encompasses 2,539 herbarium specimen vouchers: 1 Algae; 2 Briophyta; 67 Pteridophyta; 9 Gymnospermae; 2,460 Angiospermae.

Grace and flimsiness
The ivory-coloured herbarium specimen vouchers are embellished with a thin frame and a pre-printed sepia card, filled in with neat handwriting. The specimens are secured with transparent adhesive tapes and protected by tissue papers.

Lanza Herbarium

Benedetto Lanza, Florentine doctor and naturalist, devoted his life to zoology. He mainly studied reptiles and bats.
He also created a herbarium with specimens gathered during collecting expeditions, both in Italy and abroad, or obtained through exchange programmes.
The most significant part of the herbarium, acquired by the MRSN, is accessible to researchers.

What is the herbarium made up of?

  • 10,446 specimens: 51 thallophytes, 543 pteridophytes, 9,852 spermatophytes.

The specimens, collected between 1980 and 2009, represent more than 3,500 different entities.

  • herbarium specimen vouchers of the late 19th century, outcome of exchanges with the Gothenburg Museum of Natural History.

What are the "cornerstones"?
Pteridophytes
and specimens from Tuscany, Sardinia, and Corsica above all.

Do the specimens also come from abroad?
Quite a number of specimens are from Sweden, Spain, and France, but also from collecting expeditions in Australia, India, Tunisia, and Saudi Arabia.

World flora Spermatophyte herbarium

13,000 specimens from all over the world (constantly improving).

Exsiccata Exchanges – Flora from five continents
To further improve the Herbarium's collections, exchanges with international scientific institutions have been undertaken since 1986.
The collection also includes 3,559 specimens from the Rea Herbarium, purchased in 1987.

Exotic specimens
Exotic specimens are being used as the reference for comparison, as defining, identifying and distinguishing species is not a straightforward task. Some of them, although originating from other continents, are distributed throughout Italy (with the exception of Piedmont and Valle d'Aosta) since they grow in parks, botanical gardens, etc.
The collection encompasses two holotypes (reference specimens for the description of a new taxon) of Crassulaceae, collected by the succulents specialist Lorenzo Gallo, who discovered two unknown entities in southern France in 2022.

From the Pampas
As a result of collaboration between the MRSN and some South American universities, more than a thousand specimens were acquired in the late 1980s from the Argentine districts of La Rioja, Mendoza and the Pampean region. The collection includes a significant number of xerophilous species (which are adaptive to increasing wind speeds), and thorny shrubs.

Bono Herbarium (Consolata Missions Institute)

Due to the drive of Father Giuseppe Bono, a part of the Consolata Missions Institute herbarium has housed in the MRSN since 2009.
It has been divided as follows:

  • material from Venezuela and Africa, donated and entrusted to the Tropical Herbarium of Florence;
  • other non-European collections, plus some from Europe and Italy, donated and entrusted to the MRSN.

The collection also encompasses a batch of specimens collected by Father Bono in the Maritime Alps (Piedmont and Liguria), Valsesia and Sardinia in the second half of the 1900s.
The total 8,000 specimens are currently being studied and classified.

The Bryophyte herbarium

The Bryophyte herbarium encompasses 4,651 specimens, acquired both by international exchanges programmes (mainly with Canada) and collection campaigns in Piedmont.
The herbarium of the Rea Botanical Garden, which includes the collection from the 1970s carried out in Val Sangone and on the moraine hill of Rivoli-Avigliana (Susa Valley), was purchased by the MRSN in 1987.
The botanists René Schumacker and Zedněk Soldán dealt with a demanding set of identification, arrangement, and cataloging in order to recover and improve the collection.

Collections on the field – Sangone Valley herbarium
Persistence of rare species in Piedmont: a high plant diversity index.
In 2002 and 2003, in partnership with the biologist Luca Miserere, the MRSN ascertained the presence (or absence) of species listed on the Italian and European Red Lists of threatened species. As a number of them were found and new ones identified, the richness of the plant diversity of the entire area was reasserted.
The collection was increased by adding 556 specimens.

Under the microscope
A "microscopic" iconographic kit: hundreds of details of liverworts, mosses, and sphagnum moss.
Most of the specimens from collections “in the field” were photographed under a stereo microscope before being dried.
An archive of almost 900 detailed images of leaves and reproductive organs was thus obtained. Some of the photos were included in the iconographic set of the Catalogue of the Bryophytes of Val Sangone, published by the Museum in 2005.

Campanulaceae herbarium

A plant family with worldwide distribution

The Campanulaceae
Over 1,700 specimens; more than twenty years of scientific research.
The collection of specimens belonging to this family started in the early 1990s. The MRSN project "Campanulaceae: biosystematic, taxonomic, and chorological studies", aimed at identifying endangered species of the Italian flora.
73 entities of European origin are registered in the collection.
Other collections of the MRSN Herbarium include specimens of this family.

44 species in Piedmont and Valle d'Aosta; over 1,200 specimens from the western Italian Alps
The collecting expeditions were aimed at analysing the distribution of Campanulaceae in Piedmont and Valle d'Aosta; 44 specimens belonging to 6 genera (Campanula, Phyteuma, Adenophora, Jasione, Legousia and Trachelium) are documented in the MRSN’s collections.
The collection encompasses 1,200 samples (around 300 from Valle d'Aosta).

Plant diversity: analysing pollen and seeds
Herbarium samples were used to analyse pollen; seeds were collected from fruiting specimens, then partially stored in the spermatheca.
The support of the Regional Parks’ staff has been crucial in collecting the specimens.

Fruits and Seeds collection
Number: 3,500 specimens
Size: from tenths of millimeter to tens of centimetres

What is the collection purpose?

  • identify critical species and complete learning material (floristic and systematic surveys);
  • comply with the requests of ornithologists, entomologists, paleobotanists, and archaeologists;
  • forensic investigations.

What is it made up of?

  • 1,361 specimens from the Rea herbarium;
  • about thousand specimens from live seeds exchanges with the Rea Botanic Garden.

Where do they come from?

  • from plants grown in botanic gardens around the world;
  • from the Western Alps (specimens collected in the wild).

The diversity of Piedmont and Valle d'Aosta flora is documented by more than 300 specimens of fruits and seeds of different families, exotic species included.
Due to the increase in the number of Campanulaceae specimens, MRSN staff and partners have implemented the collection of seeds (over 400) of species of this family.

Fossil seeds
The spermatotheque holds 58 fossil fruit and seed specimens found in Piedmont, mainly from clay outcrops rich in plant remains, along the Stura di Lanzo stream. They are evidence of Pliocene forest flora (3 million years ago), with species that are today extinct or present outside Europe only (for instance, conifers of the genus Glyptostrobus).

Lichen herbarium

Over 5,200 specimens from all over the world

From the Western Alps to Argentina
The MRSN's collection of lichenised fungi consists of 5,246 specimens collected by the Museum's staff and its partners, or donated and exchanged with European and non-European institutions.

Piedmont and Valle d'Aosta
The purchase of the Rea Botanic Garden herbarium (1987) brought 202 samples (138 from Val Sangone, Piedmont) to the MRSN.
Further 400 specimens are from Piedmont and just under 200 from Valle d’Aosta.

Greenland, Canada, Iceland, and Svalbard archipelago
The collection from the high latitudes of the northern hemisphere includes 100 specimens from Greenland, as many from Canada, 30 from the Svalbard archipelago, and 20 from northern Iceland.
The support of professional lichenologists was crucial for the successful identification of a large number of specimens.

Lichens from different continents: an open exhibition
Specimens were displayed in several temporary exhibitions, such as 'Lichens' (1995), in which plant-like organisms were brought to the attention of visitors from a biological, physiological and ecological perspective, as well as for their use in pharmacopoeia. To enrich the collection, a campaign was undertaken by Enzo Aimo of the Italian Lichenological Society in Argentina in 1994: 210 specimens, mainly from the Rio Negro province (north-western Patagonia, at the foot of the Andes), were incorporated into the MRSN Herbarium since then.

Valsesia
In 2012, Gianfranco Rotti, a research associate of the Calderini Museum in Varallo Sesia, donated his collection of rupicolous lichens (3,600 classified and labelled specimens) to the MRSN. The collection provides evidence of the richness of the lichen flora in Valsesia.

Piedmont and Valle d’Aosta Herbarium

7,800 specimens
The collection, which started with the establishment of the Botany Section (1983), records the floristic researches carried out by both MRSN staff and research partners over the years. Collecting expeditions to under-explored areas (Canavese, Lanzo Valleys, Soana Valley, Waldensian Valleys) contributed to the in-depth analysis of systematic groups and exotic specimens.

The Stura di Demonte Valley (CN)
The outcome of decades of collecting expeditions in the Sura Valley is an outstanding collection of 2,300 specimens.
Field research and previous studies forming the botanical literature of the area will be published soon in the Catalogue of Species held at the MRSN and other institutions.

Chartreuse Herbarium 1899

Brothers of the Holy Family of Belley

The herbarium was created in 1899, on the Chartreuse Mountains, by a member of the Brothers of the Holy Family of Belley, whose aim, as a teacher, was to help students discover the plants of the region and improve their capability to properly identify, collect and use spontaneous plants.

Prize giving ceremony at the Universal Exhibition in Paris (1900)
The 5 volumes of the herbarium were presented at the Universal Exhibition of Paris, in 1900.
The collective school work was rewarded for the quality and richness of topics treated.
In the early 20th century, the Brothers of the Holy Family brought it to Piedmont for safekeeping in the archives of Villa Brea, in Chieri.
In 1992, it was donated to the MRSN to be preserved and made it accessible to the public and researchers.

634 specimens of dried plants
The herbarium encompasses 634 dried plants and 21 photographic prints of the Chartreuse Mountains.
Any voucher has a specimen mounted on, which is identified by: botanical name, spatio-temporal coordinates of the finding, notes about its use in the pharmacopoeia of the time.

Valsalice herbarium

In 2023 the Museum of Natural History and Scientific Equipment "Don Bosco" of Valsalice high school (Turin) donated to the MRSN a collection of some 3,500 herbarium specimen vouchers of vascular plants dating from the latter half of the 1800s to the early decades of the 1900s.
Quite a few specimens were collected by the soldier and mountaineer Count Paolo Ballada of Saint Robert on the Maritime Alps and the Gran Sasso Massif.
The collection is currently being studied.

INSIGHT

Paolo Ballada di Saint Robert

Count Paolo Ballada of Saint Robert (Verzuolo, 1815 ~ Turin, 1888), a soldier and mountaineer, left the army in 1857, with the rank of lieutenant colonel, to devote himself to science. His studies on ballistics and artillery, natural sciences, hypsometry, thermodynamics, and mechanics are documented by an impressive track record of publications. He had a keen interest in astronomy and literature as well.

In August 1863, Saint Robert, his brother Giacinto, Quintino Sella from Biella, and the Calabrian-Napolitan Giovanni Barracco, member of the Parliament, participated in the first known expedition of Italian mountaineers to the Monviso peak. The adventure was followed, a few months later, by the constitution of the Club Alpino Italiano (Alpine Italian Club).

In the field of natural sciences, Saint Robert developed a passion for botany and entomology: while ascending Cima dei Gelas – first to summit it, in 1864 – he ascertained the presence of Saxifraga florulenta Moretti, which was thought to be extinct.

Inside the tower he had built in Castagnole delle Lanze (now open to visitors), he set up a zoological museum. The ambitious undertaking, a further demonstration of his fascination for small animals, earned him the nickname 'l Cunt di babi (the Count of toads).

A few years after his passing, both the herbarium and the entomological collection were donated (1897) to the 'Don Bosco Museum of Natural History and Scientific Equipment' of the “Valsalice” Salesian High School in Turin.

Since 2023, the herbarium has been stored at the MRSN. It is currently being studied.

As a member of the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, the Reale Accademia delle Scienze in Turin, the Società Italiana delle Scienze dei XL in Modena, and the Regio Istituto Lombardo, St. Robert was honoured with the grand cross of the order of merit of Savoy. The St. Robert peak (2917 m) and the pass of the same name to the west of the Gelas mountain were named in his honour.

He was one of the first scientists to be concerned about glacier melting: as early as 1883, he stated that man is the main responsible for the glaciers retreat.

BOTANICAL ANECDOTE

Prominent roles: Augusto Gras and Paolo Ballada of Saint Robert
Where and when: while climbing the Ovarda Tower, August 1872
Deuteragonists: Giovanni Strüver and Michele Lessona

Saint Robert had stuck a note, bearing the words: “To my friend Gras, S. Robert”, on a leaf of Carlina acanthifolia. The flower was so unpleasant in Gras' eyes that he described it as a “deformed plant with a filthy top part, in the shape of a Medusa's head”, with a disproportionately large receptacle, no stem, resembling “a wedding bed without feet; the wedding takes place with no splendour, no pageantry, no colour... Among the plants able to make plebs’ flesh creep, the over-mentioned Carlina species must be definitely included”.

Gras started wondering about the meaning of that note: could it have been hiding a riddle, perhaps something mysterious? Quite likely – he brooded over – since Saint Robert was a men of “nothing is left to chance”, not even an innocent prank.

When they met again, on their climb up, Saint Robert gave Gras a bouquet of the much more eye-catching Lychnis Flos Jovis Lamck, thus revealing the mystery: with the first flower, the Count had meant to portray the 'punning, mocking, biting ironies' typical of Augustus Gras' character, whereas the bouquet symbolised the 'feeling of firm and loyal friendship' that bound the two naturalist-explorers (Gras A. in Saint Robert P. B. et al., 18731).

Dettagli di una Carlina acanthifolia, fotografia di Maria Grazia
Carlina acanthifolia All. (Photo by Maria Grazia Lobba on https://www.actaplantarum.org/).
Immagine di una Lychnis flos-jovis, fotografia di Giuliano Salvai
Lychnis flos-jovis (L.) Desr. (Photo by Giuliano Salvai on https://www.actaplantarum.org/)

INFORMATIONS

Fabrizio Longo: +39 0114326348
fabrizio.longo@regione.piemonte.it

Alessandra Pepe: +39 011 4325642
alessandra.pepe@regione.piemonte.it

How many things can one learn about the natural world? Find it all out at the Regional Museum of Natural Sciences!