In September I spent a week at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. I participated in planning meetings for a project called Herbaria 3.0, which I’ll describe in the last post in this series. But first I want to delve into some of the plants and people I met along the way. On my first day in Gothenburg, I caught up with two members of our group. Terry Hodge is a graduate student in the horticultural program at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where his research deals with tomato breeding. Dawn Sanders is a senior lecturer in the Department of Pedagogical, Curricular and Professional Studies at the University of Gothenburg and the lead researcher on a project called “Beyond Plant Blindness: Seeing the Importance of Plants for a Sustainable World.” This was an interdisciplinary endeavor focusing on student teachers’ perceptions of plants and on finding ways to foster appreciation of the importance of plants for a sustainable world.
One aspect of the project involved the Gothenburg Botanical Garden where we headed to meet Claes Gustafsson, the curator at the University’s herbarium which is housed adjacent to the garden. The collection has about 1.6 million specimens, though as with most large herbaria, the exact number is still unknown. The type specimens have been scanned and digitized as part of the Global Plants Initiative and are available on the web through JSTOR Global Plants and also at Sweden’s Virtual Herbarium. The herbarium also includes specimens from one of the most noted botanists at Gothenburg, Carl Skottsberg (1880-1963), who founded the herbarium and who collected in Antarctica and South America as well as in the Pacific, including on the Hawaiian Islands and on Easter Island.
Dawn Sanders asked Claus if he had any good plant stories to share about the specimens in the collection, since the focus of our project is on stories that link plants and people. It only took Claus a minute to decide on what he wanted to show us. He produced a specimen of a tree in the sandalwood family, Santalum fernandezianum F.PH., which is now extinct but was collected in 1908 by Skottsberg on Más Afuera, one of the Juan Fernandez Islands, where Robinson Crusoe was set (see photo above). The tree was native to these islands off the coast of Chile, and this specimen is from the last known tree of that species. It was the only one left on the island and none have been found since. Claus showed us the article Skottsberg wrote about his visit and about the tree; he was also able to find the original photograph used in the article, and a slice of wood taken from a dead branch of the tree (See photo below). The wood, with the species name scrawled in pencil across it, has a label attached and still retains a little of the sandalwood scent even though the hook protruding from it suggests it hung in Skottsberg’s office for many years. Claus mentioned that Skottsberg was well known among Hawaiian botanists because of his work on those islands, and I have found a book he wrote that was translated into English, The Natural History of Juan Fernandez and Easter Island. We left thinking that the sad story of the Juan Fernandez sandalwood would definitely be highlighted in our project. Discovering a story like this is what I love about visiting a herbarium. And I’m sure that Claus could have shared many more if we had had the time.
After our meeting, we stayed at the garden to see parts of an art installation done by Bryndis Snaebjörnsdóttir and Mark Wilson. There were three separate elements, in three different areas of the garden. Unfortunately, we arrived at the tail end of the exhibit, and one part had already been dismantled. It was an eight-meter long tapestry depicting a scanning electron microscope (SEM) picture of a Stipa pennata seed, a long graceful structure adapted to be wind dispersed. I would have loved to have seen this work because it was made from an image constructed with 26 separate scanning electron microscope (SEM) scans. At the reception building was the second part of the exhibit, a series of SEM scans of the seeds of 14 other species. In the background of each was a grayed-out photo of the plant itself, and beneath the scan, a description of the plant written by a long-time Gothenburg gardener. The artists’ aim was to help the viewer see plants in a different way, to focus on the seed when usually the adult plant is what’s most apparent. To further illustrate the connection between the two, the exhibit also included pots where seeds of each species were grown, some more successfully than others. The exhibit’s third part was further into the garden, and on the way we passed the garden’s café where Dawn introduced us to the Swedish custom of Fika, or an afternoon snack, of which we all approved. That readied us for the climb to a wooden shelter where two photographs of a field of wild flowers including Stipa pennata had been printed on Plexiglas and mounted in the open areas of the shelter (see photo below). Outside there was also a patch of the grass growing so a visitor could experience the same plant in different ways.
This garden tour was a wonderful way to prepare for the work on our project. We had experienced plants in many different ways—as dried specimens, as art, and as living beings. The visit also gave us a taste of what Dawn’s plant blindness project was aiming to achieve, and what our project could add to that effort. In my next post, I will write about another biology educator at the University of Gothenburg and our discussion of herbarium specimens.