Tag Archive | herbarium

The Valdosta State University Herbarium

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Cabinets in the Valdosta State University Herbarium

The Valdosta State University Herbarium is a museum-quality collection preserving more than 65,000 dried plant specimens useful in research and teaching. The VSU Herbarium, a unit of the Biology Department of Valdosta State University and the second largest herbarium in Georgia, is a rich repository of data emphasizing the diverse flora of the coastal plain region of Georgia and, more generally, the flora of the southeastern United States. In addition to this geographic focus, the VSU Herbarium has taxonomic specialization beyond the southeastern region, with extensive holdings of sedges (Cyperaceae) and other graminoid families, and bryophytes (mosses).

Plant specimens in herbaria are the basis for the knowledge about where and when plants grow and their physical characteristics.  Herbarium specimens and associated data are standards for the application of plant names and are widely used by scientists as a basis for the descriptions and distributional maps in specialized literature related to plants. Consequently, they are an essential resource for anyone who needs plant names consistently and accurately derived. The herbarium is also employed extensively to document the locations of rare species and how their populations change over time. Data from herbaria are now being used to study shifts in the timing of reproductive patterns (flowering and fruiting) of plants relating to climate change.  Thus, herbarium specimens and data are useful to a variety of scientific researchers, not only botanists, but also ecologists, agricultural scientists and natural resource managers.  The VSU Herbarium is used intensively in research and teaching at Valdosta State University, and it provides materials used by researchers at other institutions through lending and exchange of specimens.

Although it originated in the 1930s as a teaching resource of several hundred specimens collected by Professor Beatrice Nevins, the VSU Herbarium was founded as a research collection in 1967 by Professor Wayne R. Faircloth.  In addition to Faircloth’s specimens, the VSU Herbarium includes significant collections of Charles Bryson, Richard Carter, Delzie Demaree, Robert Godfrey, Robert Kral, and Sidney McDaniel.  Since 1984, the VSU herbarium has more than doubled in size, growing at the rate of 1000-2000 specimens per year.  In 2001, the VSU Herbarium occupied new quarters with about 1500 sq. ft., more than twice the space of the old facility, and a modern dedicated climate control system with the capacity to maintain relative humidity below 60%.  Additional information about the VSU Herbarium can be found here. Through support from the National Science Foundation, all of accessions in the VSU Herbarium have been imaged, and we are currently building a database of label data from these specimens. Through a local collaborative effort with the VSU Odum Library, many of these images are currently available on-line at http://herb.valdosta.edu.

The VSU Herbarium needs your help in building this database!

–Richard Carter, Director of the Valdosta State University Herbarium

Why do we need so many collections of the same plant?!

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Figure from a paper by C. Lavoie and D. Lachance showing a shift toward earlier flowering time for coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara). Image used by permission of the Botanical Society of America.

When people first get a look inside of a herbarium cabinet they often ask: “why do you need so many specimens of the same plant species?” Well there are a few reasons for this. People who study plants don’t just want to see one example of a species. They may want to see multiple collections so that they can understand the variation in characters for the species. For example, the leaf shape may be highly variable so we would need to see different specimens to understand this. It may also be important to get an idea of all the places where a certain plant can be found. We would need several specimens from different locations to understand the geography. We may also want to know how characteristics of a plant, or its geographic distribution, might be changing over time. In this case, we would need collections from multiple years.

The change in when plants bloom (aka phenological shift) has received a lot of attention over the past few years. It is now well established that changes in the climate have caused many species to shift the timing of when the leaves emerge in the spring (leaf out) and when the flowers open. This shift has major implications. One example is that a plant might bloom before its pollinators are available. If pollination does not occur, this could result in the plant not being able to produce fruits and seeds, which are important for the future success of the species.

Herbarium specimens can be used in a relatively simple way to study phenological shifts.

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American Hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana) flowering in March 2007.

Using the date information provided on the specimen label, we can record the day of the year that different plant collections were made (e.g., collections showing flowers in bloom) and graph these values against the year. What is commonly found is that plants are blooming earlier as a response to a warmer climate. For example, the graphic at the right shows how a plant is blooming earlier. The collections made in the year 2000 bloomed several days earlier than the ones collected in 1920. The full article can be read here.

I am interested in knowing the date that plants were collected for a different reason.

For exotic species, or species that are relatively newly introduced into an area, it is valuable to know when they first arrived in a new place and how fast they are spreading. If we can locate the earliest museum records of a species in the United States for example, we can then trace its expansion to new areas over time using additional museum records (subsequent collections). We can then examine where the exotic species has spread and how fast. There are many factors that influence the spread of exotic species, but describing the basic aspects of their spread in space and time is a first important step in our efforts to understand this process.

The Notes From Nature projects asks citizen scientists to transcribe specimen labels in order to help record this kind of information that is important in ecological research. The date is a simple but extremely important piece of information. Phenological shifts and the spread of exotic species are two important issues that can be addressed using this information.

-Michael Denslow

What is an herbarium?

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Researchers working in the herbarium at Appalachian State University

An herbarium is a place that houses plant specimens. Many people expect that an herbarium will be filled with living plants. However, these plant specimens are pressed, dried and glued to sheets of paper. They are dead. The sheets of paper are typically stored inside of cabinets for safekeeping and organizational purposes. An herbarium is similar to a library in that both house artifacts (specimens or books) in a safe and organized way that allows them to be found and used by researchers. If plant specimens are stored properly they will last hundreds of years with little sign of degradation.

If you think about it, it makes sense to store plant specimens in this way (as dead samples). Logistically you can fit and care for many more pressed specimens than living plants in the collection. In addition, an herbarium often contains plants from all over the world including plants from diverse habitats such as deserts and alpine tundra. It would be tough to grow all of these different plants in one place.

Herbaria are sometimes part of natural history museums, associated with botanic gardens or academic institutions. The largest herbarium collections in the world are housed in Paris and New York. These large collections contain millions of specimens. However most herbarium collections are much smaller. There are more than 3500 herbaria scattered across the world. In fact, you likely have a local herbarium that contains specimens of the plants that occur in your area. To learn more about the herbaria in your area you can search Index Herbariorum, a global directory of herbaria.

-Michael Denslow

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