Field of Science

Herbarium fun and games

An energetic and interested student has elected to learn about plant taxonomy and herbarium collections first hand by doing some specimen curation in our university herbarium collection.  Oh, the things you find; the things you learn.  It all starts innocently enough.  Give them a folder of old specimens, and old here means 150 year-old specimens, ones that were obtained from European botanists of the time in trade for North American specimens, a common enough practice.  Except for some reason these were never incorporated into the collection as a whole, and they’ve been just hanging around for a century and a half, and now the paper the specimens are mounted on is rapidly deteriorating, so the specimens, mostly still in good shape, need to be remounted on modern acid-free paper.  This part is easy enough.  But to add these specimens into the collection several things need to be done.  First you look to see if the species is already in the collection, and if so, then you add it to the correct species folder, filed in a genus folder alphabetically arranged within its family, which themselves are numerically arranged such that related families are placed close to each other, at least in the view of plant taxonomists of 100 years ago.  Hey, it’s just a filing system, so let’s not go crazy about a few odd placements, but some families have ceased to exist, and some families have been merged, and some have been fragmented.  Sometimes it's hard to decide how much should be updated.  OK, back to the problem at hand.  Now if you have to add a species to the list, you must make a label for a new species folder, and since those are printed on archival gummed labels, 20 to a page, you add the species name to a list until enough are accumulated.  Of course in 150 years, a lot can change, so you must check to see if this species still has this name or if now this name is a synonym of another species name.  Fortunately several databases exist for looking up plant names, e.g., here. 
Then you check this specimen against specimens already in the collection, or against some image files, to see if visually it looks like the plant was identified correctly in the first place.  So in this instance, the old specimen had an invalid name that is a synonym for Anemone numerosa, European wood anemone, which is most certainly a correct ID.  This species was in our species list, but that seemed a bit strange, so checking the three specimens already filed there, some more problems were encountered; they weren’t the same plant!  North American specimens, initially so named are now called Anemone quinquefolia, which also was in the species list.  So these N. American specimens were moved to the correct species folder and the old folder was now ready for the old European species.  But in the process one of the A. quinquefolia specimens from about 110 years ago was also obviously misidentified, but this was an easy one because it was Isopyrum biternatum, false rue anemone, except now this species is placed in the genus Enemion, which really messes with TPP’s memory banks, but you add a new genus label and a new species label to the list to relabel their folders.  So did you get all that?  Everything that was necessary to solve filing this one specimen!  Whew.  The very next old specimen is labeled Anemone sylvatica, and no such species exists or has ever existed.  Did the collector mean sylvestris instead of sylvatica?  This will take some more problem solving.  This is how it goes at times: mis-named, mis-filed, mis-identified, but this is how you learn. By solving the problems.  Now TPP only needs another 10 students with the same aptitude and interest.


BrianO said...

Dearest Phactor,

as it is a post about plant taxonomy, I feel that I should point out that the european wood anemone is Anemone nemorosa ...not numerosa.
"nemorosa" = growing in woods.

thanks for another interesting post,


The Phytophactor said...

Guess you can "count" on BrianO to catch those mistakes!

Hollis said...

all too familiar :( but a great post, made me chuckle!