Bringing Botany Back - Who's In?

Pete Croatto, Contributing Editor

May 15, 2011

3 Min Read
Bringing Botany Back - Who's In?

In this world of 4G and CMS and other high-tech acronyms, a voucher specimen can actually play a big role in making sure that a manufacturer gets the right botanical ingredients while strengthening its record-keeping system.

Let's have the people with scientific degrees explain.

From the study,"Standard operating procedure for the collection and preparation of voucher plant specimens for use in the nutraceutical industry" (Anal Bioanal Chem(2007) 389:13–17)

A voucher specimen is a botanical reference material that is associated with a specific lot or batch of biomass, and, as such, serves to document the authenticity of the bulk material, either for commercial or for research purposes. The voucher must be representative of the biomass used, i.e., it must have been collected from the same population or area under cultivation as the biomass. Moreover, it must be collected at the same time: if a voucher is collected from, putatively, the same population as a lot of biomass, but in a different season or year, the chances of accidentally collecting a voucher from a similar species are drastically increased. Each unique acquisition of a lot of biomass therefore requires that a separate, representative voucher specimen be preserved for that lot.

…[It] includes all available aboveground portions of a representative specimen of a particular plant population, properly dried and affixed to a herbarium sheet. It is vital that characteristic parts of the plant (i.e., parts that are necessary for its botanical identification, often including flowers or occasionally fruits) be a part of the herbarium specimen. If desired, other retained materials from the same lot of material (e.g., whole or powdered root or other biomass), in appropriate containers, may accompany the herbarium sheet, and be considered part of the voucher specimen. Such samples can provide information on the material’s microscopic, organoleptic, and chemical characteristics and thereby contribute to the accuracy of characterization of bulk materials to be used in the herb and natural product industry.

(An example, courtesy of ethnobotanist Trish Flaster and her Boulder, CO-based ethnobotanical consulting firm, Botanical Liaisons, is posted below.)

Simply put, a voucher specimen covers your behind.  Let's say a positive study is released on a botanical. If that study contains the botanical's voucher number, a manufacturer knows exactly what to buy. Unfortunately, Flaster says, only 30 percent of studies in natural products journals provide that information.

Manufacturers, Flaster says, receive bags of herbs, which are not in their original form (i.e., powdered). "How you know what you have? You can't always go by smell." Additionally, companies "need to have a reference collection of every species you use for standard operations and procedures," she says. "You have to have something to compare it to incoming materials."

In that instance, a manufacturer needs a reference specimen. If an expert does not collect the voucher specimen, the existing documentation can be reviewed by a botanical specialist, who then validates it with an annotation label. It's now a legally binding document, says Flaster. 

Getting a voucher specimen can be problematic says Flaster—"most people won't know what it is"—but a grower can press a botanical on an herbarium sheet and send it to a manufacturer, who can get the sample confirmed by a third-party specialist. Or the specialist can offer validation at the scene.

Why more natural products companies don't use voucher specimens perplexes Flaster, who is working with VIRGO on hosting a workshop on botanical identification and the GMPs for laboratories and other relevant parties. "Here's a botanical industry without botany," she quips. 

About the Author(s)

Pete Croatto

Contributing Editor

Pete Croatto is a freelance writer in Ithaca, New York. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Grantland,, VICE Sports, and Publishers Weekly. 

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