Thursday, July 23, 2015

Stuck – in a Land of Flat Plants

Plant specimens waiting to be shelved for posterity.
Lucy Corrander says it’s time for the next stuck-foot gathering already!  I was caught by surprise, but I knew I would be “stuck” in the Rocky Mountain Herbarium, with my camera, so I made it a dual-purpose visit.  I wasn’t “stuck” as in “be or remain in a specified place or location, typically one perceived as tedious or unpleasant” (New Oxford American Dictionary).  I like being in the herbarium.  Rather I was “stuck” as directed (but not randomly ... sorry, Lucy)
“plant your foot firmly in a roughly random place and see what you can see without moving.  Best is when you plant both feet.”
Aven Nelson's vasculum and field books.
I planted both feet on a table in the prep room – yes, on top of it – so I could point the camera straight down on memorabilia of Aven Nelson, Father of Wyoming Botany.  Nelson came to Laramie, Wyoming Territory, as one of five faculty hired for the brand new university in 1887.  He was to teach English, but the Board of Trustees mistakenly hired two English professors; the better-qualified Mr. Smith got the job.  Nelson was asked to teach biology, botany, horticulture, agriculture and calisthenics, and to oversee the library.  He accepted.  After several years, his responsibilities narrowed to botany and horticulture, and finally just botany.  Largely self-taught, he had a long and illustrious career.  The Rocky Mountain Herbarium is generally considered to be his greatest contribution.
In the old days a botanist put collected plants in a vasculum while in the field.  Now we mostly use plastic bags.
Some readers may ask “What’s an herbarium?”  It’s a collection of preserved plants – specifically plants or plant parts that have been dug up or cut off, pressed, dried, and mounted on 11.5” x 16.5” archival paper, usually with water-based glue.  In the old days, plants were attached with thin strips of tape, or even sewn to the sheet.  A label contains information about where the plant was collected, habitat, collector and date, and anything else noteworthy.  People sometimes think there must be a protective cover, but not.  Yet when properly processed and stored, herbarium specimens last centuries.

The sheets are stored in folders in air-tight cabinets – organized by family, genus, species, and subspecies and variety if applicable.  There are 825,000 mounted specimens in the Rocky Mountain Herbarium.  Another 350,000 are still in newspapers, waiting to be processed.
Gray alder collected by Aven Nelson and Elias Nelson (not related) in Yellowstone Park in 1899.
Label from the gray alder specimen.  Elias was Aven Nelson's first graduate student.
Nelson's Yellowstone field book; gray alder entry is on the right.

This being summer, Wyoming field botanists are at work right now processing the day’s harvest (it’s 8 PM as I write).  Plant specimens are removed from plastic field bags, cleaned of dirt, and placed between sheets of newspaper – carefully arranged to show everything a future researcher might want to examine.  Collection data are recorded in a field book or digital device.  The specimen is added to a growing stack, alternating with corrugated cardboard.  This continues until all plants are in the press, then it's bound tightly with cord or straps, and set somewhere to dry.  Botanists in base camps with electricity can use a plant drier, where the heat of 100 watt light bulbs circulates through the cardboard, drying plants in several days or less.  The more transient may use the dashboard of their field vehicle parked into the sun, or tie the press to the vehicle roof if the weather is hot.
Tools of the trade (I didn't take this photo from the prep room table).
In the old days, plants were dried using felt blotters between specimens in the press.  Every day they had to be replaced with dry ones.  Keeping a supply of dry blotters on hand was a miserable job in wet weather:
"We sit for hours before a hot camp fire, with the sweat pouring down our face, to completely dry our papers and plants.  How I wish the plants dried at once, but often it takes several days and sometimes a week." (unknown collector, in A Wild Flower by any other Name by Karen Nilsson)
Leslie Goodding, Aven Nelson's 19-year old student assistant, pressing plants in Yellowstone Park in 1899.  It must be the end of the field season judging by his shoes (click on image to view).

Large batches of dried plants periodically arrive at the Rocky Mountain Herbarium to be added to the collection.  First they’re put in a deep freeze to kill any pests, then they’re added to the backlog of specimens waiting to be mounted.  When it’s their turn, collection data are entered into a database, and herbarium labels are printed.  Everything then goes to the prep room – where my feet were stuck.  It’s here that dried pressed plants and their labels are glued to sheets of paper.
Plant mounting station.
Newly-mounted plants are stacked with wax paper and felt sheets between specimens, and left to dry overnight.  Sand-filled sections of inner tubes are used as weights.
Though my feet were stuck, I could twist around far enough to see the clean-up area.

Why do we do this?  … because we can’t just say that a particular plant species grows in particular place, even if we are “experts.”  If we document our report with a specimen – deposited in a reputable accessible repository – all kinds of potential problems are avoided.  Everyone makes identification errors, even experts.  Plant names may revised with additional study – and our specimen can be used for such studies.  And on and on, as Vicky Funk of the US National Herbarium convincingly explains in 100 Uses for an Herbarium (Well at Least 72).
To my right I had a view of herbarium cabinets (above).  At the Rocky Mountain Herbarium, cabinets are on tracks that can be shifted to open up aisles, a system called … but wait!  Who is that man at the very end of the row, staring at me?!
His gaze was stern.
It was Aven Nelson, Father of Wyoming Botany, watching over his herbarium.

While I was staring back at Dr. Nelson, another botanist showed up.  Laurie asked why I was standing on the table.  When I explained, she chuckled and kindly posed for a photo.


  1. What an interesting post.
    Too funny - standing on the table - something I would do.

    1. Thanks, Gayle. Good that you too would stand on a table ... speaks to character! ;-)

  2. The 'Land of flat plants'! REally cool presentation of a herbarium; I noticed many people don't know what's that. And I have to say I never saw a plant vasculum; although I never work per se in a herbarium I did related work and I am quite familiar with the felted blotters and changing them every day. We use to collect in bags or carry the wooden press with us (even up on the mountain).

    1. Thanks, diversifolius! So you have used felt blotters. I always had alternatives so haven't tried them ... seems like a lot of work. Also, it's arid enough here that things dry fairly fast using the sun, fortunately

  3. A lovely post! Such an imagination! And the idea of you standing on a table in such a place!
    I am always amazed at how well-preserved herbarium "flat plants" seem to be, even retaining their colour. I never got beyond putting a plant between blotting paper in the pages of a book and placing more heavy books on top of it.
    I first came across the concept if a herbarium when researching lisianthus (Eustoma grandiflorum) for a horticulture essay - and seeing online a specimen from one of the explorers who headed west from the east coast of America.
    It's great for you to be able to see the actual specimens in the flesh.
    Nice one :)

    1. Thanks, squirrelbasket. I was interested to hear that you "used" a digital herbarium. Not as nice as real ones I agree, but such it's a great thing to be able to do! I look at online specimens collected by early explorers too ... really enjoy it, especially if collected somewhere I know.