Herbaria and More

4 Platanthera psycodes

Platanthera psycodes collected in 1838, University of Michigan Herbarium

Since the cosponsor of the Digital Data in Biodiversity Research Conference (see last post), along with iDigBio, was the University of Michigan, it’s not surprising that there was a trip to its Research Museums Center south of the main campus. Along with a reception, there were tours of the various zoological, paleontological, archaeological, and botanical collections housed there. Naturally, I went on the herbarium tour offered by three botanists who work with the collection: Christopher Dick the director, Richard Rabeler collection manager, and Anton Reznicek curator. As with many large plant collections, the UM staff can only estimate its size: about 1.8 million specimens. Digitization efforts are making for more accurate estimates, but also unearthing more specimens. The herbarium is actively involved in iDigBio and the national digitization effort with more than 560,000 of its sheets digitized. Since the Research Museums Center is a converted warehouse, the herbarium has room to grow, a valuable resource for the future. The herbarium is strong in Michigan plants, including collections from 1837-1838 for a survey of natural resources made at the time Michigan gained statehood (see figure above). Many of these have habitat information, making them valuable in environmental change studies. There is also a large collection amassed by Harley Harris Bartlett, who led the UM Department of Botany from 1927-1944. He used his considerable wealth to fund explorations in the tropics, and so there are a significant number of specimens from these areas, including many wood specimens from Sumatra that are now being digitized. They are particularly important because of the dramatic changes logging has wrought in Sumatra and also because the labels include the names of the trees recorded in the indigenous language.

On my way home from Michigan, I took a rather roundabout route so I could visit the Cornell University herbarium. I wanted to go there primarily because Cornell was the long-time home campus for the botanist/horticulturalist/agronomist, Liberty Hyde Bailey (1863-1959). Bailey had incredible energy and drive during his entire life and became the first dean of Cornell’s agricultural college (Dorf, 1956). He served on Theodore Roosevelt’s National Commission on Country Life which recommended the formation of the 4-H movement, agricultural extension programs, and rural electrification. Bailey retired from the deanship in 1913 when he reached 60 and spent the next 35 years writing on agricultural and horticultural topics as well as studying the taxonomy of palms on which he published extensively.

As the herbarium’s collections manager Anna Stalter explained, Bailey left his extensive herbarium and book collection to Cornell which explains why a third of the specimens are cultivated plants. This makes it interesting horticulturally and associated materials increase its value. Bailey collected seed and plant catalogues from the late nineteenth century through the first half of the twentieth. The herbarium librarian Peter Fraissinet pulled out a selection that were fascinating historical documents. He also showed me an extensive card catalogue maintained for almost 60 years by Bailey’s daughter and assistant Ethel Zoe Bailey. There was a card for each plant variety, noting the catalogue and years it was offered. Researchers interested in heirloom plants and plant lineages still consult it.   Fraissinet also showed me some rare volumes Bailey had collected, including the oldest book in the library, an Italian translation from 1575 of Nicolas Monardes’s work on Mexican plants that includes the first known image of tobacco (see figure below). I’ve read about this treasure, but it was a thrill to see it as well as a German translation of Pietro Matthioli’s commentaries from 1678.

4a Tobacco from Monardes

Tobacco plant pictured in Monardes’s 16th-century work on Mexican plants. Bailey Hortorium Library, Cornell University

Obviously one day was not enough time to even glance at most Cornell botanical treasures, but I did get to see a few of the massive palm pods Bailey collected and was also introduced to a totally different aspect of botany at the Cornell herbarium, its plant anatomy slide collection. Curator Kevin Nixon and senior research associate Maria Gandolfo are heading the NSF-funded project called CUPAC: Cornell University Plant Anatomy Collection. The goal is to digitize the information on 200,000 slides and to image a significant portion of them, at least one from each set of serial sections, often using more than one power of magnification. They also hope to include slides from other institutions’ collections as a way to preserve and make broadly accessible a valuable research tool for future botanists. There are already many images available on their website, and in the future they hope to link the records to the relevant literature. So this is yet another government-funded digital asset available to all researchers, and also I might add, to artists as well since many of the images are stunning and include not only slides but peels of fossil plant structures.

When I left the herbarium I walked through the Cornell Botanic Gardens where living collections complement the horticultural specimens in the herbarium. It’s wonderful to have the two resources so close to each other. And close by is the plant pathology herbarium, still another treasure, but one I had to leave for the future. As my father always said on road trips: “You have to leave something for next time.” On this trip, I had seen a lot, from living plant collections, to personal collections representing place (see post), to herbaria, and the digital future (see 1, 2). I can’t wait to get on the road again.


Dorf, P. (1956). Liberty Hyde Bailey: An Informal Biography. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

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