Where the Herbaria: Colleges and Universities

I volunteer in the A.C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina’s main campus in Columbia.  It houses over 125,000 specimens, with the majority from within the state, though all parts of the world are represented.  Kept in separate cabinets is the Ravenel Collection, previously located at Converse College.  Henry Ravenel was a South Carolina plantation owner and botanist, who before the Civil War studied and collected plants mainly out of interest, but after the war found it necessary to try to make money from his botanical expertise.  Portions of his journals have been published (Childs, 1947), and more recently a National Endowment for the Humanities grant funded the transcription and digitization of his writings as well as his specimens.  This was a collaborative project of the herbarium along with USC’s Caroliniana Library, and the Clemson University Library.  The result is a great website with wonderful search features.  All this happened well before I arrived on the scene, but I do get to work with Ravenel specimens as well as many collected by the long-time herbarium curator John Nelson who is in the process of retiring, though he is still very actively involved.  I also work with Herrick Brown, the assistant curator, who leads the digitization efforts at USC, which is part of the SERNEC collection network and thus involved in iDigBio.

There are herbaria in educational institutions that are much larger than USC, such as Harvard University and the University of California Berkeley, and much smaller such as Salem College in North Carolina and West Virginia Wesleyan College.  However, they all have education as a major component of their mission.  Some, like the last two mentioned, focus on undergraduates, while others, such as the first two, serve a variety of students ranging up to postdocs.  The great thing about these collections is that they are onsite where classroom and laboratory learning is also taking place.  The herbarium is a readily available resource, and this means not just access to the collection but to the curators who work with it as well.  John Nelson has taught courses where students mount and label the specimens they’ve collected on field trips, and these have been added to the herbarium.  In the process of transcribing labels, I’ve encountered many of these, a history of the students whose lives have been touched by the plants that they’ve touched.

Then there are the student workers who are so vital to a herbarium’s digitization efforts.  They are a lot faster than I am at imaging specimens, and working with the plants has led some of them to become more interested in databases, ecology, systematics, or all of the above.  The USC herbarium is excruciatingly overcrowded, with metal cabinets of various types and origins filling a rabbit warren of rooms.  Other institutions have a little more space and thus can more easily host open houses and other events where students, alumni, master gardeners, and those simply interested in plants can visit and learn more about the collection.  On Twitter I follow the University of Tennessee Herbarium (@UTKHerbarium) that has an active program with many events to capture students’ attention.  Last spring I visited the Massey Herbarium (@Massey Herbarium) at Virginia Tech [see photo below] where a new curator, Jordan Metzgar, has already instituted several innovative programs to draw not only VT students into research projects, but also activities for the community, including a contest where youngsters were challenged to make Lego models of plants.  The contestants were then invited to the herbarium, thus bringing a new group of children and parents into a world most of them didn’t know existed.

2 VT Herbarium

Massey Herbarium at Virginia Tech

This kind of energy is needed to move academic herbaria into the future.  Many administrators consider collections as space hogs in locations that could be used to house more labs, dorms, or in the case of the University of Louisiana-Monroe’s entire natural history collection, a new sports facility.  The 450,000 specimens of ULM’s herbarium are going over 300 miles away to the Botanical Research Institute of Texas.  Yes, all those specimens are being preserved, but they are no longer easily available to students and faculty.  The collection holds 99% of Louisiana’s vascular flora.  Now those plants won’t be in Louisiana.  They are still available, but the sense of place will not be as strong.  Researchers can rely on loans, trips to BRIT, or online access to obtain the data they need, but students are in a different position.  Within a few years, the campus population will no longer remember that there was a natural history collection at the university.

But to end on a more positive note, there are institutions that gave up their herbaria in the past and are now creating new collections.  John Nelson at USC has been sending duplicate specimens to Oberlin College in Ohio.  It once had 200,000 specimens, but they were sold off to Ohio State and Miami Universities.  Now a young biology professor, Mike Moore, has begun a new collection, starting with specimens he had collected for his research.  Students at Oberlin are again being introduced to what a specimen looks like and what information it holds.  Stanford University also disposed of its Dudley Herbarium, sending the specimens to the California Academy of Sciences, but now a new one, the Oakmead Herbarium, has been founded at Stanford’s Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve.  The present interest in biodiversity and climate change will hopefully grow in the future, and more institutions will see the value of dedicating space, personnel, and financial resources to this vital part of biology education.

Note:  I would like to thank all the people at the institutions I’ve visited for sharing their expertise with me.


Childs, A. R. (Ed.). (1947). The Private Journal of Henry William Ravenel 1859-1887). Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.

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