Specimens: Curators’ Choices

Mrs. Thring’s specimen of Centaurea montana, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

When herbarium curators select specimens to display, either virtually or physically, what kinds of specimens do they choose?  They might pick out “beautiful” specimens.  Clare Drinkell, a botanist at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew posted one with the comment:   “Sometimes a beautifully pressed specimen just stops me in my tracks.  Mrs Thring’s Centaurea montana collected in Switzerland ‘between the years 1845 and 1855.’”   Jo Wilbraham, curator of algae at the Natural History Museum, London also has a good eye, posting an “elaborately pressed” specimen of the seaweed Mesogloia vermiculata, collected by Edward George in 1895 on the Isle of Man.  When she was asked what was the “most exotic” specimen in the collection of over a million, she “immediately retrieved a folder of Claudea elegans,” including a specimen collected in Australia by the Irish botanist William Henry Harvey

Curators also have an eye for the unusual which explains why Wilbraham posted a very long specimen of Alaria that fills seven sheets—and still required folding the specimen.  It was again collected by Edward George, this time while he was on vacation in Whitby in 1866.  She adds: “Probably the largest specimen in Algae @NHM_Botany. . . . Imagining him trying to press this in a local guest house.”  Also displayed by many curators are their collections’ oldest specimens.  The very active herbarium at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville started a flurry of Tweets when it announced:  “What are your oldest #specimens? We used to think ours was a 𝘏𝘢𝘮𝘢𝘮𝘦𝘭𝘪𝘴 𝘷𝘪𝘳𝘨𝘪𝘯𝘪𝘢𝘯𝘢 collected in Ohio in 1836, but yesterday a student found this 𝘛𝘩𝘶𝘪𝘥𝘪𝘶𝘮 𝘱𝘩𝘪𝘭𝘪𝘣𝘦𝘳𝘵𝘪𝘪 collected in Germany in 1819!”  The herbarium at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Madrid countered with a specimen of Buffonia tenuifolia from 1789.  Then the State Herbarium of South Australia presented a fern Leptopteris hymenophylloides collected in 1768 in New Zealand on Captain James Cook’s first around-the-world voyage.  However, all were silenced when the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh Tweeted about  a 1697 Stoebe cutting from South Africa.

An announcement from the Marie-Victorin Herbarium at the Montreal Botanical Garden began with the statement:  “Digitization of biological collections has numerous advantages, including making discoveries of remarkable material hidden away within them!”  It went on to describe a find made by a volunteer entering label data:  a specimen of Carex longerostrata collected in 1779 on the Kamchatka Peninsula by David Nelson during Capt. James Cook’s third voyage. Until then, the oldest known specimens in the herbarium were collected by Andrew Holmes in Montreal in the early 1820s.  As the article notes:  “The Marie-Victorin Herbarium just got 40 years older!”  Earlier, the specimen had been in the collection from the National Museum of Natural History in Paris.  Digitization also led to the discovery of surprisingly old specimens in the herbarium of Claude Bernard University in Lyon.  It houses the massive collection of Roland Bonaparte (1858-1924), a great-grandnephew of Napoleon I.  All 760,000 of his specimens have recently been digitized, leading to the discovery of plants from 1799, and what the herbarium described as “a real surprise.” 

In all these announcements, there is a sense of  the thrill of finding something new and out of the ordinary.  It is one of the reasons I love herbaria; they are full of such wonders, and digitization is definitely bringing many of them to light, while also making them available for a much broader audience to appreciate.  Of course there are some unpleasant discoveries including what are termed “curation crimes,” with Scotch tape being among the most common.  At RBGE the tip of a very long leaf that wouldn’t fit on the front, was taped to the backLaura Jennings at Kew was distressed to find an inflorescence so covered in glue that it couldn’t be identified.  She also retweeted Brittany Sutherland’s crime-watch post on a pine specimen filed in an Illicium folder; her remark:  “This is why people are not allowed to reshelve their own library books.” 

The University of Reading’s complaint was the use of a ballpoint pen and a felt tip marker on a label, but with the comment that the specimen was “well-pressed.”  I was told by a curator of the Sloane collection that even a few of its stately pages were annotated with ballpoint pen.  Other crimes have also been reported by the NHM, including one where the statute of limitations may very well have run out.  At least two sheets from the herbarium of Miss C. M. Cautley have large gaps where specimens have obviously been cut out, paper and all.  These are included in a project called LoveLincsPlants where specimens collected in Lincolnshire were sent to NHM to be digitized and become part of the museum’s collection, but with a website for this collection so that in one way it retains its identity.  In addition, the project involves continued collecting to document the Lincolnshire area as it changes over time.

I’ll end not so much with a crime but a misadventure that the perpetrator readily admitted to.  Yvette Harvey, a skilled botanist and able curator of the Royal Horticulture Society’s herbarium, attempted to press hyacinth specimens.  She reported:  “First attempt at pressing hyacinths into blotting paper…. epic fail no. 1… specimens turned to mush and drying room had a rather exotic fragrance.”  The next day:  “Second attempt… 34 new specimens pressed in parchment and swapped cardboard corrugates for aluminum ones…. epic failure no. 2….. specimens turned to mush, drying room had an intoxicating aroma and I spent a morning removing mould from the corrugate.”  Harvey then decided to admire hyacinths from a distance.

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