The idea of having a university herbarium was conceived from the founding of the University of South Florida in 1956, by the university’s first president John S. Allen. An investment banker from New York and a close personal friend to John Allen, George R. Cooley, helped establish the herbarium at is original location at Chinsegut Hill manor house in 1958, just two years after the university was founded. It was Cooley’s hope “that the University of South Florida [would] become the acknowledged depositary of all knowledge of vegetation of [Florida] so that scientists, teachers, students, and the public […] [would] expect the University to know everything about its vegetation” and would be world renowned. James D. Ray Jr. was the first director of the herbarium and he was hired in 1951, and later became the Dean of the College of Natural Sciences. After spending two years at Chinsegut Hill, the collection was moved to the Tampa campus, specifically the Administration Building, where 19,432 collected specimens occupied two rooms there. The herbarium had such a large collection only two years after its founding in part due to George Cooley and James D. Ray, who bolstered the effort of building up the herbarium by collecting thousands of specimens during their tenures there.
The curator hired in 1960 was a woman named Olga K. Lakela, who was originally from Finland. Under her stewardship, the collection moved from the Administration Building to the Life Sciences building in 1961, where it occupied ten rooms. After Olga Lakela, Robert W. Long became curator in 1962, and subsequently became director in 1965. Lakela and Long jointly published A Flora of Tropical Florida in 1971 about the flora species of Collier, Miami-Dade, and Monroe counties of Florida. The Atlas of Florida Vascular Plants, another notable work by the three USF Herbarium curators Richard Wunderlin, Bruce F. Hansen, and Edwin L. Bridges, was published in 1996 and provided “data and other details for all vascular plants native or naturalized in Florida." Richard Wunderlin also published the Guide to the Vascular Plants of Florida in 1998, which had similar content to the Atlas.
USF’s Herbarium has undergone many changes throughout its existence, one of the most significant being the integration of technology to distribute its resources. For example, in 2003 “digitization of the herbarium’s collections was initiated as a component of the Atlas, providing images and searchable data of the vascular plant specimens." Furthermore, in 2016 the online website for the herbarium was changed to the Atlas of Florida Plants. It is remarkable to see the evolution of the USF Herbarium from its foundation as a core institution of the university from the very beginning to modernizing the collection and making it more accessible to a wider audience online.