1. The scarcity of reliable long-term phenological data has severely hindered the study of the responses of species to climate change. Biological collections in herbaria and museums are potential sources of long-term data for such study, but their use for this purpose needs independent validation. Here we report a rigorous test of the validity of using herbarium specimens for phenological studies, by comparing relationships between climate and time of peak flowering derived from herbarium records and from direct field-based observations, for the terrestrial orchid Ophrys sphegodes.
2. We examined herbarium specimens of O. sphegodes collected between 1848 and 1958, and recorded peak flowering time directly in one population of O. sphegodes between 1975 and 2006. The response of flowering time to variation in mean spring temperature (March–May) was virtually identical in both sets of data, even though they covered different periods of time which differ in extent of anthropogenic temperature change. In both cases flowering was advanced by c. 6 days per °C rise in average spring temperature.
3. The proportion of variation in flowering time explained by spring temperature was lower in the herbarium record than in direct field observations. It is likely that some of the additional variation was due to geographical variation in collection site, as flowering was significantly earlier at more westerly sites, which have had warmer springs, over their range of 3.44° of longitude.
4. Predictions of peak flowering time based on the herbarium data corresponded closely with observed peak flowering times in the field, indicating that flowering response to temperature had not altered between the two separate periods over which the herbarium and field data were collected.
5. Synthesis. These results provide the first direct validation of the use of herbarium collections to examine the relationships between phenology and climate when field-based observational data are not available.