by Alison

As a child growing up in southwest Florida, I was always sorry to miss out on pressing and preserving brightly colored fall leaves. Perhaps this explains my decision to participate in founding the Eden Hall Ecological Observatory’s Herbarium project.

(WP Fraser Herbarium)

What is a herbarium? In quick and easy terms, it’s a plant library. Preserved plant specimens are identified, pressed, and catalogued according to very specific guidelines. Carnegie Museum has a herbarium! Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden in Miami has an incredible example of a herbarium, with many specimens available for viewing online. However, the most famous herbarium is Kew Royal Botanic Gardens, in London. Kew quite literally wrote the book on herbarium protocol, which outlines methods and materials for sampling, preserving, mounting and cataloguing specimens.

Why are herbariums valuable? Herbariums are utilized to catalog and preserve herbaceous matter, ensuring that they are available for viewing to future generations. With biologists estimating a 50% loss of biodiversity among mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish largely due to anthropogenic activity, it is easy to imagine that these losses extend well into the world of plants.

At Chatham University’s Eden Hall Campus, the Eden Hall Ecological Obervatory Herbarium Committee plans to identify, sample, preserve and catalog plants found on Eden Hall Campus. However, prior to sampling, it is important to establish strict guidelines: What parts of the plant are sampled? Are there seed pods? Do we include those? How are specimens mounted without compromising the structure of the sample? Sarah Daugherty is head of the committee working to write the Eden Hall Ecological Observatory’s Herbarium Protocol, ensuring that guidelines exist so that future students can contribute to maintaining an orderly and consistent herbarium catalog. Over time, the herbarium will allow student ecologists to view Eden Hall campus as it was in its earliest days.

One of my very favorite ways in which scientific data is conveyed to the public is through citizen science programs. Citizen science programs engage non-scientist volunteers in helping to gather or aggregate scientific data. In addition to educating citizens, these programs help scientists and their organizations to expand the scope of their research exponentially. Many hands make light work. My favorite example of citizen science exists at Notes from Nature’s transcription program. Citizen scientists are able to view scans of “analog” herbarium pages, meaning that they exist in herbarium collections, but have not yet been digitized. The website leads the viewer through a series of questions, in which one answers a series of questions by reading the information on the specimen sheet. It is incredibly interesting to see these preserved specimens, along with the handwriting of the scientist who identified and preserved them. Through Notes from Nature, citizen scientists are able to help wherever they may be- I just transcribed a few pages, myself.

Herbariums are an important visual aid in communicating sustainability, both presently, and in the future. In addition to documenting attributes of these plants in scientific research, and through photographs, it is thrilling to have an actual, pressed, tangible plant, somehow reminiscent of the phrase “putting a face to the name.”


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