Impressions of working in the Herbarium

I have been working at The Ohio State University Herbarium in the Department of Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology (EEOB) since May 2015. This particular unit is known for its vast collection of botanical specimens. A quick stroll through the herbarium paints a picture of its deep reserve of information. This stroll both begins and ends with my workplace, the herbarium preparation room, where my co-workers and I mount pressed plants as our student job.

Workplace to process plant specimens in the herbarium

Workplace to process plant specimens in the herbarium

For us, a typical work day starts by preparing all the necessary utensils or equipment. First I lay out a sheet of plexiglass as the working surface. Then I prepare a suitable ratio of Elmer’s glue (used for wood, paper, etc.) with water, and the brushes that I’ll need for the day. There’s a cabinet that includes the specimens that I and other assistants work from. One day we work with simpler, more sturdy specimens with wide leaves, like those of the Asteraceae (the daisy family) or Solanaceae (the potato family) – families of plants that I learned well while working here. Other days we work with grasses, the Poaceae, that are harder to mount as there are many thin surfaces to attach to the mounting paper. This will then be kept in a bin for up to 48 hours to dry, after which it will be taken out, sorted out, and given an accession number.  Additional work such as taping and sewing is done by volunteers. Finally the specimens are stored for posterity in the herbarium’s collection.

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What is interesting about these dry plants is that each specimen was brought to the herbarium for a particular purpose. Each specimen has its own story. Although the action of mounting the plants requires attentive handling and an affinity for aesthetics and composition, the heart of the process really lies in the plant’s journey to the OSU herbarium. Some of the plants we mount are fifty or even hundred years older than us. Others come from remote parts of the world that we had never heard of and, at times, we resort to a discussion of geography and history with the herbarium staff to satisfy our curiosity.

To think that many of these plants crossed oceans to be stored for dozens or hundreds of years is quite humbling. They are the fruits of botanists who travel the world to catalogue and annotate their findings on a piece of archival paper. The information contained in the collected specimen is crucial to the progress of research. That’s why scientists go through such lengths to collect more data.

A small perk of working with old specimens is that they often come wrapped in a newspaper from their time of collection. It’s interesting to see the age of the dried plants and to gain an appreciation of their historical context. Once, I opened a bundle wrapped in a Ugandan newspaper so old that the images were added manually before being printed, instead of being inserted digitally. I then wondered how far technology has progressed. The newspapers also tell other stories, for example the news items, prices of products, etc., 50 or even 100 years ago. So, there is another kind of history in a herbarium collection.

Quirks aside, there are some more serious undertones to the practice of mounting plants. Truthfully, I feel like it is a declining practice. With the growing emphasis on molecular biology in research facilities, the value placed on plant preservation or mounting is dwindling. Although understandable, as genetic analyses can be more lucrative, it’s a shame that plant collecting and mounting is losing attention.

There will always be demand for mounted specimens as they are reflections of botanical history. They give researchers eyes-on contact with their subject of botanical research. Familiarity with the plant of study is paramount to creating quality research. Furthermore, the practice of plant collecting underlies botanical methods laid out by the famous Swedish naturalist, Carl Linnaeus, from the start.

Plant mounting connects the botanical community. It’s a reliable way of building relationships between universities while building on the communal body of knowledge. We just have to make sure not to lose sight of its importance. Students like me who work in such facilities have also built up relationships with one another and with the staff of the unit as well as the volunteers who come once a week to help in this process of preserving biodiversity.

Plant mounting makes the botanical community grow tighter. It’s a practice that has been used for hundreds of years, and will continue to be used well into the future.

I learned a lot not only about botany but also history and geography while working in The Ohio State University Herbarium.


About the Author: Martin Stuessy is an undergraduate senior at The Ohio State University, majoring in Philosophy.

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