Seeking Plants in Seattle: Burke Herbarium

1 Herbariumorg

Sign from the A.C. Moore Herbarium, University of Carolina, Columbia on a cabinet in the Burke Herbarium, University of Washington.

Last month, I went to the History of Science meeting in Seattle.  I was only there for a few days, but I did manage to visit a herbarium.  It’s part of the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Washington’s (UW) campus, but it’s located at some distance from the museum on UW’s sprawling campus.  I was greeted by the herbarium collections manager, David Giblin, and felt right at home.  Though with 660,000 specimens it is five times larger than the A. C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina where I volunteer, it is as packed with metal cases of different vintages and also stuffed with books, posters, mounting tables, and all the other trappings of an active collection.

I arrived at a good time because Giblin, and the curator of the herbarium, Richard Olmstead, also a professor of botany at UW, were celebrating the publication of the new edition of Flora of the Pacific Northwest: An Illustrated Manual, updating the 1973 volume by C. Leo Hitchcock and Arthur Cronquist.  This was a massive revision involving two other editors, Ben Legler and Peter Zika.  Over 1000 new illustrations were added, and Giblin and his colleagues would now like to see a companion volume of illustrations, including both these and all those from the first edition.  Considering images as particularly important to botanists, he thinks this would be a valuable resource.

Over the 16 years Giblin has been at the herbarium, he has worked on several NSF-funded projects to digitize portions of the collection, including specimens collected in the 1990s on the Russian-owned Kuril Islands as part of a collaborative project of US, Russian, and Japanese scientists.  Portions of the herbarium were databased and imaged through NSF’s Thematic Collection Networks, including one on macroalgae and the other on macrofungi.  The herbarium also works on state and federal contracts, and augments its income with the publication of plant guides:  one on the Alpine Flowers of Mount Rainier and another on the plants of the Olympic Mountains.  With Seattle’s large population including many avid hikers, these have sold well.  In addition, the herbarium staff has produced a Washington Wildflowers app available for both iOS and Android.  It has excellent photographs of the plants, and more of these are available on Burke’s Image Collection website with over 68,000 photographs.  They are organized into three categories:  vascular plants, macrofungi, and lichenized fungi, but this is much more than an image gallery.  For each species there’s information on its characteristics and range.  Even if you aren’t living in Washington, it’s fun to see what plants call it home.

These initiatives indicate the dynamism of the herbarium.  Sure there are the constraints of space and funding that almost all collections face.  More than half of the specimens still need to be digitized, and Giblin and I discussed the time-consuming task of georeferencing older sheets.  Still, he is excited about the possibilities opened up by technology such as the cell phone and Google maps to lure new users to herbarium data, and new contributors to it as well through citizen science initiatives.  I enjoyed our discussion because Giblin, though cautious about the future, seemed to be looking forward to working on new projects and keeping Burke vibrant.  As I was leaving, I saw something else that reminded me of my herbarium home at USC:  one of its bumper stickers pasted to a cabinet (see above).  It’s a reminder of how prescient the USC curator John Nelson was in procuring the URL during the very early days of the internet.

After leaving the herbarium, I headed further into the UW campus.  Giblin suggested I visit the graduate library, which is a beautiful neo-gothic building with a lovely reading room decorated with botanical carvings (see below).  I found a cafeteria for lunch, then visited the art museum, the Henry Art Gallery, and the campus bookstore.  Finally I headed to the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, to see if any of the herbarium collection was on view—and it was.  Of course, many of the exhibits deal with animals: dioramas and dinosaur fossils.  Since this is also a cultural collection, they have impressive exhibits on the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest, with particularly striking wood carvings.  But close to the entrance there is an interesting display of plant specimens, with information on where they were collected and why they are so important.   The exhibit focuses on plants collected on an expedition to Argentina, suggesting the breadth of the Burke Collection.  On their website there’s also a post on a graduate of the UW botany Ph.D. program, Ana Bedoya Ovalle, who returned to Columbia to collect more specimens and continue her research.

1 Carving

Wood carving in the graduate library reading room at the University of Washington.

From the museum, I walked toward the Seattle Light Rail station so I could get back to my hotel.  I hardly need to add that it was raining at the time.  I passed Rainier Vista, where on a clear day you can see that mountain in the distance.  This is a very nice campus feature, but one I could only imagine.  I also crossed what is termed “Red Square” because of its red brick work, and down a mall lined on both sides with a variety of gymnosperms.  I had had a great visit to UW, and on my next trip to Seattle, I hope to venture further, and perhaps get a little closer to Mount Rainier.


Hitchcock, C. L., & Cronquist, A. (1973). Flora of the Pacific Northwest: An Illustrated Manual (1st ed.). Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.

Hitchcock, C. L., & Cronquist, A. (2018). Flora of the Pacific Northwest: An Illustrated Manual. (D. Giblin, B. Legler, P. Zika, & R. Olmstead, Eds.) (2nd ed.). Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.

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