Herbarium houses scads of plants

by Betsy Graca

Inside a dark, concrete room filled with giant lockers, there exists approximately 900,000 plant specimens ranging from fungi and lichen to colorful flowers.

The University Herbarium, part of the Bell Museum of Natural History, has specimens from all over the globe, dating back hundreds of years.

Of 700 registered herbariums, the Bell Museum’s is the 13th-largest, Dr. Anita Cholewa, curator of vascular plants, said.

“We take plants for granted because they aren’t cuddly things that smile back at us,” she said. “But they represent history.”

For example, one specimen, commonly known as Whitlow Grass, was collected by Joseph Nicollet on one of his expeditions during the 1830s.

Visitors to the collection include artists looking for subjects, law enforcement officers in need of plant identification and doctors interested in poisonous plants ingested by patients, Dr. George Weiblen, curator of the tropical plants, said.

Plant biology serves medicine, agriculture, nature conservation and industry through discoveries of new chemicals and materials, Weiblen said.

“There’s a lot more to the study of plants than meets the eye,” he said.

Similar to trading baseball cards, the 150-year-old herbarium trades species with others like it.

The collection is so extensive, it even includes drug specimens such as marijuana, cocaine and poppy seeds.

The drug plants are under lock and key, Cholewa said, but even so, they’re already dead.

Dr. Imke Schmitt, curator of the lichen specimens, said new species are discovered all the time.

Hundreds of boxes full of unidentified lichens line the walls of the lichen herbarium. These were collected by Schmitt’s predecessor, Dr. Clifford Wetmore, who was with the University for 35 years.

Schmitt said lichens can be found in extreme environments, such as Antarctica or the desert.

“They’re sensitive because they’re slow-growing and need a constant climate,” she said.

When pollution was particularly bad in the 1960s and 1970s, lichens totally disappeared in certain areas, Schmitt said.

They’re indicators of pollution levels and they determine the healthiness of the environment, she said.

While not everyone at the herbarium has had a calling to study plants, other interesting quirks come into play at the plant library.

Justin Lehmen, a fisheries and wildlife studies first-year who works at the herbarium, said the specimens sent to the University from all over the world are packaged in newspapers.

One of the plants was wrapped in a Polish newspaper, and while Lehman said he couldn’t read the foreign articles, it was nonetheless unique.

Lehmen often remounts the specimens onto paper, how they are presented.

“It’s kind of cool to think someone was sitting here doing the same thing I am over a hundred years ago,” he said.

Plant biologists don’t sit in labs all day under a microscope. Many travel around the world to collect specimens for their research.

Wendy Clement, a plant biology graduate student, travels to Papua New Guinea with Weiblen for her research on the mulberry family species, most often found in tropical climates.

She said researchers can hire field assistants who are familiar with the locations.

“They know the forest like it’s their back yard,” she said.

Weiblen said wilderness is becoming increasingly difficult to find because human activities are going global – replacing wild forests with biodiesel plantations, among other things, he said.

“We’re one of the last generations to still journey to these frontiers,” he said.