As I’ve mentioned a number of times, I volunteer at the A.C. Moore Herbarium (USCH) at the University of South Carolina, Columbia. I am writing this series of posts during Thanksgiving week in part to let the people at the herbarium know how grateful I am for all I learn from them. From my years of volunteering here and in New York, I know that developing good volunteer requires a lot of work. They need training, retraining, reminding, herding, and positive reinforcement by the professionals who have many other things to do. The herbarium’s curator is Herrick Brown who has years of experience managing and digitizing this collection, and has also worked for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) and the Smithsonian. He took over three years ago when John B. Nelson became curator emeritus. Like many retired botanists, Nelson continues to work in the herbarium and collect specimens (over 44,000). Both men are patient and generous in sharing their knowledge, especially about Southern species, and have taught me a great deal about the history of botany. Plus they make the herbarium a joyous place, along with Amanda Harmon the herbarium manager, Csilla Czako, the data manager, and a band of volunteers both students and master gardeners.
Nelson was the one who suggested I write a blog post about what doesn’t get recorded on specimen labels to remind people of the amount of work involved in wrangling plants and the difficulties encountered in the field. This is a very good point. Rarely are specimen sheets sweat-stained. It’s easy to forget that a plant collected in a South Carolina swamp in July was harvested by a botanist who was perspiring profusely, persecuted by mosquitos, and in danger of encountering a venomous snake. There is a plant called coastal doghobble Leucothoe axillaris that Mark Catesby dealt with over 300 years ago in The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands. It can still grow in thick stands that are difficult to get through, even for a hunting dog. Added to that is the South Carolina summer heat and humidity; hydration is essential, and water is heavy to carry.
Botanists’ logs or journals may make note of some problems, but environmental conditions are so much a part of the job that they are often ignored. Even if the temperature is moderate and the insects in abeyance, collecting is still work: taking notes including geographic coordinates, making sure the specimens are labeled, hauling them around. There is also the disappointment if the particular object of a foray doesn’t appear or is past its prime. I could go on, but this might get depressing. So I’ll also mention the thrill of finding something unexpected and in full bloom, or sitting under a tree with a cool breeze providing the perfect respite.
I want to mention a case where the difficulties slipped onto a specimen label for the fern Botrychium virginianum (USCH0075490, see above). I found the sheet pictured above on the same day that Nelson gave me the idea for this post. The label is enlarged so you can see clearly the cross-out on the first line: “The day started in the wrong direction.” Ann Darr and Albert Pittman both worked for the SCDNR and were conducting a survey of mafic areas, those with igneous rock, in Pickens County in the northwest part of the state where the Piedmont meets the Blue Ridge Escarpment. I would assume Darr wrote the label since her collection number is recorded, and Brown has pointed out to me another one of her witty labels.1 However, I don’t know if she later regretted being so blunt, or if Pittman or someone else crossed it out. However, I’m glad it is still legible. After all, the precise details about the mistake are given in the next line, and it is easy to see how a mistake was made: mistaking Little Caesar for Caesar.2
No one is perfect, and it is nice to see such candor, tinged with humor, on a label. It would have seemed a shame not to note an error that made the day a little (or a lot?) more difficult. It would have been especially annoying at the start: all fired up for collecting and then having to go back to square one. Keep in mind, this was not flat land. As the labels notes, their access to the collection site was “by way of the Foothills Trail: Sassafras Mountain to Chimneytop Gap.” This fern was collected in August so a trip to the mountains might have been a nice respite from the heat of Columbia where DNR is headquartered. Still, no one wants to make a mistake, especially when they are not alone. Yet having collecting partners is a good idea because of some of the challenges I’ve already mentioned.
John Nelson can also write labels that tell more than need be to set the stage. When he was collecting out West, he mentioned the presence of a “Gentleman’s Club” near the collecting site. On another label for a plant found closer to home, a narrowleaf silkgrass plant (Pityopsis graminifolia USCH0051476), he wrote: “Corollas bright yellow, plants silvery, offering a vaguely cheerful aspect to an otherwise sad landscape, weedy and pathetic . . . “ There is poetry here and a reminder of the aesthetic aspects of collecting, something that will come up in the next post. It’s also a reminder that there is a lot to learn about people as well as plants while sifting through specimens and reading labels.
1. USCH0017120: “We parked our vehicle on private land to get to Peach Orchard Mountain. Believe it or not the gentleman’s name is “Tony Orlando.” Bert was already asking Tony if he knew “Dawn.” I wanted to tie a yellow ribbon around Bert’s head.” Brown told me that he had to look up “Tony Orlando” on the web to figure out what was going on here.
2. Comment from Brown: “One is pizza, the other an Emperor.”
Acknowledgement: I want to thank Herrick Brown and John Nelson for their careful reading of this series of posts and their thoughtful, if sometimes irrelevant, comments.
5 thoughts on “At A.C. Moore Herbarium: Collecting”
Had a good set of chuckles with today’s blog and recalled mosquitos, biting flies, the feral hog i ran into on the Big Island once while looking for plants, the odd snarling dawg, snakes, trembling bogs, bottomless pits & poison ivy. Also a reminder – by extension of what it must have been like to mix ones own ink & write on a heaving ship back ‘in the day’ … AND the anguish of specimens lost to mold and insects… THANKS for this reminder and of the marvelous sense of humor that carries one thru.
Abi, Thanks for taking the time to send this. I’ve passed it on the sources of the humor.
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