In the past three posts, I’ve written about the rise and fall of wood specimen collections in the United States, xylotheques or wooden “book” collections, and collections focusing on tree ring research. Now I want to end my exploration of wood by taking a look at what is going on with these collections today. There are signs that at least some xylaria are heading in the direction of revitalization. This is despite evidence that the downward slide is not over, as a report from Australia indicates. A group of researchers recently wrote on how the xylarium at the Australian National University in Canberra, the nation’s capital, has gone from a working scientific collection to “heritage” status: dormant and unused (Dargavel et al., 2014). This xylarium consists of 8,400 wood samples, microscopic slides, wood panels, and artifacts that provide examples of how wood is used. It was founded in 1926 and employed in training forestry students. This paper recounts the growth of the collection, the problems peculiar to Australia with its rather autonomous states not always cooperating with this national institution, and what happened when a period of growth after World War II ended with a decline in interest in forestry to the point where there was no longer any qualified researcher to tend the collection. Since then, parts of it have been shuttled from one institution to another until it was finally put into storage in 2011. Recently, a “heritage assessment” was made of the collection, which noted its “historic, aesthetic and research significance” (p. 51) relating to its extent and completeness and its historic importance in documenting an important facet of the Australian landscape. The article ends with the question of how Australia could afford not to preserve this heritage.
On a more optimistic note, a recent issue of The Plant Press of the US National Herbarium has as its lead article, “Wood Anatomy Climbs Back to the Smithsonian” by Marcelo Pace (2017). In my first xylarium post I cited two articles from the 1970s by the wood anatomist William L. Stern (1973, 1976), who worked for several years in the Smithsonian xylarium, on how wood anatomy and xylaria in general were on the wane. Pace is bringing this research back to the Smithsonian. Through a series of teaching and mentoring relationships, his work is linked to Stern’s who had a student named Regis Miller. Miller had a long career at the Forest Products Laboratory in Wisconsin, now the largest xylarium in the US (see earlier post), where he mentored Veronica Angyalossy, presently on the faculty of the University of Sao Paulo where she taught Marcelo Pace. After outlining this nice generational story in science, Pace describes his own research on the stem anatomy of woody vines, lianas. He is interested in the particular features that give the vines both strengthen and flexibility. By the way, the following issue of The Plant Press reported on a new Smithsonian exhibit, “Objects of Wonder” that includes specimens from the xylarium.
Another indication of the health of the wood anatomy field is an article on how habitat and environment influences the evolution of wood structure. Also a good sign is the well-structured website/database called InsideWood hosted by the xylarium at North Carolina State University. From the homepage there are links to the database, articles, and other resources. The Forest Products Laboratory (FPL), while obviously focused on research to support the wood industry, does have the nation’s largest xylarium and also an impressive microscope slide collection used by the FPL’s Center for Wood Anatomy Research. It must be clear by now that I am hardly an expert on wood, yet it cheers me to see areas of research well supported, especially when they involve the plant world. An internet search will turn up many excellent websites related to wood collections around the world including those at Kew, which has a long history in economic botany tied to British imperial interests in the forests of India and other Asia areas, Oxford, where the collection began with the East India Company collection, and the Natural History Museum in Paris.
These are all wonderful sites to visit even if you are not terribly interested in identifying a piece of wood or studying its anatomy. As Alex Wiedenhoeft (2014) notes in his interesting chapter on curating xylaria, “wood is comparatively commonly collected by the non-botanical public. . . . Some collections compiled by wood enthusiasts rival or surpass the scientific quality, and even quantity of some institutional xylaria. And many institutions have benefited from the donation of such collections” (p. 127). In some cases, the collectors were interested in the forestry business, in others, the beauty of wood was the lure. There is an active International Wood Collectors Society many of whose members collect herbarium vouchers for their specimens, a true sign of scientific rigor.
To end this series of posts I’d like to mention the aspect of wood to which I am most partial, the bark. I thought of this today when I saw a tweet with a photo of rainbow eucalyptus bark. That reminded me of one of my favorite books, Bark: An Intimate Look at the World’s Trees, a collection of photos by Cédric Pollet (2010). It definitely highlights the aesthetic side of the subject. That in turn, brought to mind another of my favorites, Bark: A Field Guide to Trees of the Northeast (2011) by Michael Wojtech. It, too, is filled with photos but the purpose here is identification, so he often includes more than one image, showing bark from the same species on young and mature trees. I am not sure it has sharpened my identification skills, but it has definitely made me look at bark, and trees in general, more closely (see photo above). And to end, I’ll suggest a chart on wood rather than bark identification if you want to try to ID where your furniture came from.
Dargavel, J., Evans, P. D., & Dadswell, G. (2014). From science to heritage: the history of a wood collection. Historical Records of Australian Science, 25(1), 43–54.
Pace, M. (2017). Wood anatomy climbs back to the Smithsonian. Plant Press, 20(1), 1, 10.
Pollet, C. (2010). Bark: An Intimate Look at the World’s Trees. London, UK: Frances Lincoln.
Stern, W. L. (1973). The wood collection–what should be its future. Arnoldia, 33, 67–80.
Stern, W. L. (1976). Multiple uses of institutional wood collections. Curator, 19, 165–170.
Wiedenhoeft, A. C. (2014). Curating xylaria. In J. Salick, K. Konchar, & M. Nesbitt (Eds.), Curating Biocultural Collections: A Handbook (pp. 127–134). Richmond, UK: Kew Publishing.
Wojtech, M. (2011). Bark: A Field Guide to Trees of the Northeast. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.