Herbaria for undergrads

Herbarium is a collection of pressed and dried plant specimens which provides a basis for plant naming (taxonomic) and biogeographical studies. But to me it is much more: the foundation, base, bedrock, and yes, heart of one’s life work or at least life-long interest in plants. All students of plants and botany inevitably end up sitting among cabinets full of pressed plant specimens at some, usually early point of time. The range of plant shapes and structures will likely inspire scientific questions reaching far beyond the pressed and dried plants, for example:

What evolutionary pressures lead to the amazing variety of colour and shape (morphology) and internal structure (anatomy) and to what reproductive strategies and goals (genetics)? Questions arise about interactions with other plants and other organisms – bacteria, fungi, insects, animals (ecology, pathology), and ultimately about environmental adaptation at the cellular level (physiology, biochemistry). To me the most puzzling plants are those which, even after decades in the dry herbarium state (anhydrobiosis) remain alive and can be revived by the addition of water - to continue on as if decades or centuries of water-less dormancy did not happen. Together with sister discipline cryobiology (dehydration by freezing), this science holds answers to the understanding of “life without water” and the ultimate survival of our human race.

Are there better ways than herbaria to preserve plants? Perhaps. Live collections of plants (botanical gardens) are ideal, but expensive to maintain. Some organisms such as algae, Cyanobacteria or fungal fruiting bodies do not preserve well in the dry state and need to be maintained as sub-cultured (repeatedly re-grown) living colonies. But classical herbaria are still required to remain as repositories of understanding plant distribution and taxonomy, now expanded to investigating evolutionary relationships at the DNA level. The DNA molecule appears quite resistant to damage and can be extracted even from old dry specimens for investigations of mutation rates. Old herbarium collections provide a baseline for studies of changes in plant distribution (biogeography) and flowering times due to climate change (phenology). Digital documentation is becoming widespread. Modern herbaria (ours included) are becoming catalysts for digital image contributions by interested amateurs via citizen science. The iNaturalist program is helping to accelerate the rate at which plant (and other organism) distribution data is being acquired. Our herbarium is particularly interested in filling the gaps in our knowledge regionally rare plants, unusual or remnant ecosystems (Lake Superior coastline, remnant old growth white pine Greenwood Lake reserve). Lastly, there is the huge “terra incognita” of the Northern boreal forests, canyons and lakeshores. The herbarium is hoping to develop relationships with regional aboriginal groups and particularly their youth, who are more likely to link their interest in digital technology with interest in nature. With our modest fundraising goal of $2,000 to be matched with other funds, we hope to hire an Aboriginal Youth Intern for Summer 2020, whose job will be to deepen the “germinating” relationship between Claude Garton Herbarium and the regional aboriginal communities.