Field of Science

What use is a library of dead plants?

What use if s library of dead plants?  When it comes right down to it, that's what an herbarium is. TPP curates one such collection of dead plants, and sooner or later every curator of an herbarium gets asked a similar question at one time or another, either out of genuine curiosity (rare) or because the asker is a Philistine (increasingly common).  This is often followed with some proposal to move or get rid of the collection to make way for something important.
TPP curates a smallish collection, 50,000+ specimens whose primary purpose is in support of teaching and conservation, and it contains some surprisingly important specimens dating back some 200 years, including irreplaceable information about the local flora. 

An ongoing project involves Master Naturalists doing some citizen science.  The idea is to document the flora of a nearby county park with a large area devoted to conservation.  How are you going to know how good of a job you are doing in conserving if you don’t have a baseline for comparison?  Unfortunately 150 years ago the idea of conservation was not a biological concept and my first predecessors were not collecting with an eye toward posterity.  They had no idea how important their collections would be, but if today biologists are so remiss, there is no excuse; it’s important.  In many cases the collection tells us what we are missing already, what formerly grew here. 
A big push is on to digitalize such collections so the data has more wide spread value and use. Someone asked, “Can we throw out the specimens after they have been photographed?” No! Try getting DNA from a photograph, even a high resolution one. And quite frankly even a high-res image isn't the same thing.  It’s interesting that modern students, at least some of them, remain interested and find the collection fascinating to work in.  Which is important too because botanists with TPP’s skill set are disappearing across the USA, as are botany departments, organismal botany courses, and botany majors. Citizen science is a  means of building support and interest among the general public while supporting conservation efforts.

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