Taxon and the Flora of Madeira

Map of Madeira, 1904, Edward Stanford; David Rumsey Historical Map Collection

This series of posts deals with the articles found in the systematic botany journal Taxon that deal with topics beyond conventional taxonomic treatments.  Among my favorites are those with an historical slant, like a recent one dealing with the plant collections of Richard Thomas Lowe (1802-1874) on the island of Madeira (Mesquita et al., 2022).  To put his work in context Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander visited there and made collections in 1768, early in James Cook’s first voyage around the world.  Francis Masson also did so a decade later.  Lowe was the next botanist to make significant collections on Madeira and the other islands of its archipelago, but his work was not confined to a brief visit.  He lived on Madeira from 1826 until 1852, much of that time as a clergyman.  He spent the rest of his life in England, but returned to Madeira for several months almost yearly.  When he died in a shipwreck in 1874, he was still working on his flora of Madeira that was published in several volumes. 

The Taxon paper covers the authors’ research on 2,280 of Lowe’s specimens that they were able to georeference, most now at the herbaria of the Natural History Museum, London and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.  Positional uncertainty was noted.  Lowe’s locale descriptions varied in specificity but more than half rated as very high or high.  During his years of collecting, he had managed to visit most parts of the island, though not surprisingly, areas with steep slopes, of which there are many, were not visited.  His later work often involved returning to areas where he could find plant groups that posed taxonomic problems.  He was someone who came to know his research area well as is revealed in his writings.  His specimens were from 1350 locations and represented about 800 different taxa.  Lowe visited many locations a number of times, including at different times of the year.  He sent duplicates to several other botanists with exchanges of information on many taxa.  His correspondents included William Jackson Hooker, John Henslow, Robert Brown, Augustin de Candolle, and Philip Webb.  The researchers conclude:  “As a result of Lowe’s sustained and systematic approach, he is the single most prolific contributor to the study of Madeira’s endemic flora (p. 876).” 

Lowe’s work is an important contribution to biodiversity research because oceanic islands like Madeira have high proportions of endemic species and provide examples of rapid evolutionary radiations.  Also, because of the island’s size, populations are relatively low for many species, so having a historical record of occurrence in the past is helpful for present-day conservation efforts.  The fact that there were areas that Lowe found too remote or impossible to explore, including the many areas of cliffs, mean that these are good places in which to search for new species.  Equipment for scaling rock faces has improved, and even drones can be employed in survey work.   

There is much more to the article than I can recount in this post.  The number and content of the figures indicate how much analysis went into this paper and thus how much it says about Lowe’s contributions.  Maps are key, including the first figure, a topographic map with place names for Madeira and indicating just how much elevation variability exists there.  Next are more detailed historical maps and then a series of maps showing where Lowe’s georeferenced specimens were collected noting first locations, then precision of locations, followed by vegetation zones, and slope.  For slope, there is also a bar graph showing the relationship between slope and the amount of area at that slope. 

Then comes my two favorite graphics, or at least the ones I found most telling.  Figure 9 shows six maps of the island representing the itineraries for extended trips in six different years ranging from 1827 to 1860, including two Lowe made when he was no longer living there.  These are color-coded to show the months when each location was visited.  This is a good example of a well-designed graphic, as is figure 10, a graph that tracks with a line the number of specimens collected each year.  Then for each year it also gives bars indicating the percent of specimens from the six most common families on the island.  In most years, Lowe collected in all these families, but there are indications that, as mentioned in the text, he was focused on particular groups at certain points.  For example, in 1872, near the end of his collecting, Poaceae and Lamiaceae specimens were particularly well-collected.  Not coincidently they were the two families that had yet to be published in A Manual Flora of Madeira, which was left unfinished at the time of his death in a shipwreck that occurred when he was again bound for Madeira. 

I had never heard of Richard Lowe before I read this article, but it pains me that his flora was left unfinished.  The researchers who produced this work used the extensive data they generated from painstaking georeferencing and analysis to create not only a work of science but of history.  They created a portrait of a botanist and of work that will inform biodiversity research in the future and also support further study of the history of botany in Madeira.  They used specimen data and also delved deeply into Lowe’s correspondence and notes in a beautiful example of bioinformatics meeting the digital humanities.


Mesquita, S., Carine, M., Castel-Branco, C., & Menezes de Sequeira, M. (2022). Documenting the flora of a diversity hotspot: Richard Thomas Lowe (1802–1874) and his botanical exploration of Madeira island. TAXON, 71(4), 876–891.

Taxon and Digitization

Madhuca longifolia from Singapore, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

This series of posts is looking at articles that have appeared in Taxon and deal with broader issues than the journal’s main fare of taxonomic treatments.  A timely article appeared a few months ago measuring how effective digital specimen images are in taxonomic research (Phang et al., 2022).  This study grew out of the COVID pandemic when access to collections was almost nonexistent in many parts of the world.  The authors were working on the genus Madhuca (Sapotaceae) for the Flora of Singapore.  Two were based in Scotland and one in Singapore, but all had the same access problem.  In this report they evaluated images of Madhuca collections from both Singapore and the adjacent Malaysian state of Johore.  The images were found in a number of JSTOR Global Plants and herbarium databases.  Another major source was the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh’s Sapotaceae Resource Centre (SRC) database, which also stores specimen and field images taken by researchers, often of material not otherwise available online. 

The overall result of the study was that while specimen images were valuable research tools, they could not provide all the information needed for a thorough taxonomic analysis.  In many cases, micro-morphological characters could not be seen clearly in digital images, even at high resolution, and these are precisely the characters often needed in defining the boundaries among species.  To provide quantitative results, the researchers rated the images as of high, medium, or low utility.  For the high ranking, an image needed to capture at least 5 qualitative and 3 quantitative macro-molecular characters.  Medium needed to meet the first criterion but not the second, and low had to have 4 qualitative characters. 

The report provides in-depth analysis of the results that I’ll just briefly recap here.  Not surprisingly, the specimen images found in herbarium databases ranked more highly than those in the SRC that were taken by researchers.  It wasn’t always a matter of the image quality that was the problem, but the absence of a ruler tool, like the one found in JSTOR Global Plants, or at least a measurement bar as a standard.  The authors also reported:  “Of the 219 specimen images examined, 125 (comprising 103 researcher images and 22 institutional images) had macromorphological characteristics hidden from view due to the low resolution of the image, the way the specimen had been mounted onto the herbarium sheet or had portions placed in an unopened capsule on the sheet” (p. 1068).  Herbarium databases varied in terms of the image resolution available.  Better quality images could probably be obtained by contacting the institution, but this often wasn’t possible during COVID, and in any case, would add steps to the taxonomist’s work. 

Other findings were that fruit and seed measurements were difficult for all images, with very few fruiting specimens available.  This was in part because there were usually only a few specimens for each species under study, a reminder of the crying need for continued collection, particularly in biodiverse areas with many species having either small populations or limited ranges.  Over all, the taxonomists were only able to identify 22% of the Madhuca species from researcher images, that number rose to 34% with institutional ones, and to 94% with physical examination of the specimen when the Singapore herbarium was again accessible.  This last figure resulted not only from microscopic examination of specimens, but from being able to closely examine flowers and fruits and open fragment packets.  The major message of the study is that online resources are very valuable for taxonomic investigations, but don’t come close to replacing specimens themselves.

It’s important to remember that there are many uses for online collections that don’t necessarily require such close study.  Virtual access is sufficient for many uses, especially when the access is through an information-rich database that’s easy to use.  Usability was the focus of a post on the Natural Sciences Collection Association website written by Teagan Reinert and Karen Bacon of the National University of Ireland, Galway.  It is a brief, but valuable recap of what determines a database’s rating anywhere from “very easy” to “usable but frustrating.”  It articulates what many of us experience subliminally as we search for specimens. 

To take the frustrating end of the spectrum first, there are sites that may have long loading time, low-quality images, return many irrelevant results, or “just don’t work.”  Sometimes a keyword search is handy, but the advanced search should be easy to find, and it’s great if searches by date range or cultivated species are easy to do.  Databases like those of New York Botanical Garden or the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh are given high marks because all the basic information on a specimen is shown without having to click further or open several screens.  The latter is particularly cumbersome if many specimens need to be accessed.  As for images, good quality is definitely a plus; also useful is an easy way to tell if there are differently sized images available.  For each image it should be clear what the license status is, such as public domain or creative commons license.  I find this very helpful, as is the last suggestion in the post:  “How the image or specimen data should be cited should be stated very clearly on the website either on its own easily accessed or clear labelled page, or on the specimen’s landing page. . . . But that information can sometimes be hidden in Frequently Asked Questions or on the bottom of a page that isn’t entirely relevant.”  Amen.


Phang, A., Atkins, H., & Wilkie, P. (2022). The effectiveness and limitations of digital images for taxonomic research. TAXON, 71(5), 1063–1076.

Taxon and the Flora of Brazil

Title page of first part of Flora Brasiliensis (1840-1906), Biodiversity Heritage Library

I belong to the International Association for Plant Taxonomy (IAPT) not because I am a plant taxonomist, but because I want to learn about the field.  Its journal Taxon is particularly helpful in this regard, though I can’t say that I read it cover to cover.  The articles I find most interesting take a broad view of the field, delve into its history, or deal with nomenclatural issues.  In this series of posts, I’ll highlight a few recent items I found particularly informative, beginning with one having a hefty 980 contributors, the Brazil Flora Group (2022).  The author list is shorter, but still lengthy, and suggests the massive collaboration underlying the creation of a Brazilian flora.

The impetus for the project began in response to the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (GSPC), adopted in 2002 by the parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity.  The plan’s first target was to publish a list of the world’s plants by 2010, with plants broadly defined as including algae and fungi.  In 2010 Brazil published an online “List of the Species of the Brazilian Flora” and a “Catalogue of Brazilian Plants and Fungi,” which documented 40,989 species of algae, fungi, and plants.  By that time the second target of an online World Flora by 2020 was looming.  Since Brazil is a large country with great biodiversity, these tasks were themselves correspondingly massive, especially since the last Flora Brasiliensis was published from 1840-1906 and ran to 15 volumes, documenting 19,629 species in Brazil. 

An online information system was created for the Brazilian flora species list, and it was further developed for the task of constructing an online flora.  Between 2010 and 2015, 430 specialists were involved in adding new species to the list, updating determinations, and contributing descriptive data.  In the following five years, 554 more taxonomists joined the project, then called Brazilian Flora 2020.  The Taxon paper is essentially a review of the results of this work, including what it revealed about future needs in discovering and protecting Brazil’s biodiversity and supporting the taxonomic work necessary to accomplish these goals.  Meanwhile there was another project called “Plants of Brazil: Historic Rescue and a Virtual Herbarium for Knowledge and Conservation of the Brazilian Flora—Reflora.”   It’s aim was to develop a virtual herbarium that included specimens not only from the large collection at the Rio de Janeiro Botanic Garden, but also from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and the National Museum of Natural History, Paris.  These are among the many European institutions with significant collections of tropical plant specimens because of their former colonial enterprises.  The Reflora infrastructure made it possible to upload images, curate specimen records with updated identifications, and add geographic and distribution data.  As this work progressed specimens from many more collections were added so that researchers now have access to millions of specimens through the Reflora Virtual Herbarium

As a result of this work, the Brazil Flora Group was able to report that by December 31, 2020 there were 46,975 known algae, fungi, and plants in Brazil, with 19,669 endemics.    These include 6,320 fungi, 4,993 algae, 1,610 bryophytes, 1,403 ferns and lycophytes, 114 gymnosperms, and 35,549 angiosperms.  This is hardly a complete count; some areas are under collected.  The most substantial collections have come from the Cerrado and also the Atlantic Rainforest, an area that has suffered from overdevelopment with loss of native vegetation.  Regions like the Caatinga and Pantanal are less well sampled.  There was also great disparity in the rates of increase in different types of species.  Amazingly, there was a 75% rise in the number of known fungal species between 2010 and 2020, an indication of the fungal richness yet to be discovered.  Not coincidentally the largest mycological collections are in the three states where the greatest number of mycologists are located.  Angiosperm numbers, on the other hand, only increased by 7%.  Interestingly, the number of known species in the heavily sampled Brazilian Atlantic Rainforest and Cerrado actually deceased between 2015 and 2020.  Yes, new species were named, but identification of synonymies and deletion of erroneous records more than offset this increase.

The article, as befits the massive size of the project it describes, is filled with data and insights.  The Brazil Flora Group focused on a number of areas that need attention if future GSPC targets are to be met.  One major issue is the need to build a stronger taxonomic infrastructure in the country, concomitant with its biodiversity.  With almost 1,000 taxonomists involved in the flora, expertise from around the world has been marshalled and will continue to support Brazil’s efforts, but it is no substitute for expertise within the country.  What is called the “taxonomic impediment,” lack of facilities and taxonomists, is a worldwide problem, as is the second area of concern: georeferencing.  Only about half the occurrence records in the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) have coordinates and only a third of these have uncertainty information, which is essential for spatial analyses.  Geographic data are particularly important in conservation efforts.  As was mentioned earlier, also of concern is the issue of under-sampled areas, and along with this, species and families that have been neglected taxonomically.  So there is much work to do, but still, this report is also a celebration of wonderful accomplishments.


Group, T. B. F., Gomes-da-Silva, J., Filardi, F. L. R., Barbosa, M. R. V., Baumgratz, J. F. A., Bicudo, C. E. M., Cavalcanti, T. B., Coelho, M. A. N., Costa, A. F., Costa, D. P., Dalcin, E. C., Labiak, P., Lima, H. C., Lohmann, L. G., Maia, L. C., Mansano, V. F., Menezes, M., Morim, M. P., Moura, C. W. N., … Zuntini, A. R. (2022). Brazilian Flora 2020: Leveraging the power of a collaborative scientific network. TAXON, 71(1), 178–198.

Herbarium Stories: Ukraine

A broken window in the Schmalhausen & Rogowicz Memorial Herbaria Room of the National Herbarium of Ukraine (Mosyakin and Shiyan, 2022)

So far the herbarium stories I’ve told in this series of posts are about discovering hidden collections and bringing more order and attention to them.  The story in this post is about an orderly collection that has been thrown into disorder.  The National Herbarium of Ukraine (KW) at the M.G. Kholodny Institute of Botany in Kyiv was hit by a Russian missile strike on October 10, 2022.  The specimens themselves were spared damage as were the staff members, but windows were broken, debris strewn around, walls and ceilings crumbled.  The staff worked to return things as close to normal as they could:  boarding up windows, cleaning up fallen plaster, getting things back into some semblance of order.  In fact, there were even plans to begin some restoration work in November, but by that time it was clear that materials and tools wouldn’t be available for the foreseeable future. 

As with so much of the devastation in Ukraine, this was an obvious attack on a civilian target.  You can’t get much more nonmilitant than an herbarium.  The same was true for the entire area surround the Kholdny Institute:  university buildings, museums, the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, and other facilities.  All this is outlined in an article by Sergei Mosyakin of the Institute of Botany and Natalia Shiyan of the National Herbarium.  They include photographs of the interior and exterior damage.  The trauma of the attack is palpable in their descriptions.  As with any such destruction, they kept discovering new problems, such as a leaky roof with the first rain after the bombing. 

It is apparent from the herbarium’s website, and from the information on Index Herbariorum as of this post, Ukraine has a sizable botanical infrastructure, with 26 active herbaria, though the activity has slowed to a trickle since the war began.  There are no loans being exchanged, though if possible curators will send digital images.  The herbarium at Karazin University in Kharkiv had been hit on March 3, 2022 also with infrastructure damage, but no harm to personnel.  Across Ukraine, scientific endeavors of all kinds have been seriously impacted by the war, mirroring what has happened to all aspects of Ukrainian life.  Yet botanists are still attempting to protect their collections, so this is a story of hope as well as devastation.

The National Herbarium, which celebrated its hundredth anniversary in 2021, holds over two and a quarter million specimens, the largest collection in Eastern Europe.  Some specimens date to the 18th century.  Obviously, there is an impressive collection of Ukrainian plants, with others from around the world, particularly from countries in the former Soviet Union.  It was an active collection too.  In the ten years before the war, there were a hundred thousand accessions.  One of the great things about investigating the herbarium world, is that, as I’ve mentioned in the earlier posts in this series, it increases geographical awareness.  Unfortunately, war has a similar effect.  I am now much more aware of the countries surrounding Ukraine, because of the large-scale movement of refugees across its borders, and the areas of support and threat that lie there.  The present situation in Ukraine is a reminder that herbaria in many parts of the world have precarious existences.  This is also true of collections in Europe and North America, where a few herbaria continue to be threatened with extinction, but in some parts of the world, the threatened collections can make up the majority.

There was a recent article in Plant Systematics and Evolution about a survey of Balkan Peninsula herbaria (Jogan & Bacic, 2020).  The authors sent out a survey to each of the area’s 57 herbaria listed in Index Herbariorum to assess their activity and resources.  Over 50% responded and the results were quite discouraging.  Now almost every herbarium administrator feels overworked and coping with insufficient resources, but the circumstances seem particularly severe in the Balkans.  Even something as basic as pest control doesn’t meet minimal standards in many cases, and two thirds of facilities have no air conditioning.  There are very low rates of specimen exchanges and loans.  Databases are often not accessible to the public, and many collections are largely undigitized.  This speaks to a weakened botanical community that includes notable institutions such as the Budapest Herbarium with a significant historical collection among its over 2 million specimens.  Geographically, these areas have long fascinated botanists like John Sibthorp who traveled there twice at the end of the 18th century (Harris, . 

It is easy to find stories on the web about what is going on at the Kew or Missouri Botanical Garden herbaria, but it’s important to remember that there are about 3,250 active herbaria according to Index Herbariorum.  Each one is a jewel, each one containing a history of plant life at particular places and times.  No specimens are really replaceable.  Yes, an herbarium that has been damaged such as the one at Berlin-Dahlem in World War II can be partially restored by the gifting of duplicates that had been sent to other institutions, but then these institutions are less rich (Hiepko, 1987).  Those in the herbarium world are making their institutions more public-facing so people outside the botanical world become aware of the scientific and cultural importance of their collections.  However, I think they also have an obligation to communicate with and about institutions that have too long been undervalued, no matter where in the world they may be.


Harris, S. (2007). The Magnificent Flora Graeca: How the Mediterranean Came to the English Garden. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hiepko, P. (1987). The collections of the Botanical Museum Berlin-Dahlem and their history. Englera, 7, 219–252.

Jogan, N., & Bačič, M. (2020). Balkan herbaria: Do we have to worry about them? Plant Systematics and Evolution, 306(2), 12.

Mosyakin, S. L., & Shiyan, N. M. (2022). The M.G. Kholodny Institute of Botany and the National Herbarium of Ukraine (KW), Kyiv: Damage due to the missile strikes on 10 October 2022. Ukrainian Botanical Journal, 79(5), 339–342.

Herbarium Stories: Galls

A. Gall specimens stored in clear plastic folders within a 2-ring binder. B. Gall specimen stored in a cardboard box with no lid. C. Gall specimens stored in an insect drawer. SMNS, Stuttgart (Mertz et al., 2022)

Humans like to organize information into categories to make it easier to deal with.  The problem with the living world is that it’s unruly; some things just defy being put into neat boxes.  Among these are galls, plant structures, often on leaves or stems, formed in response to invasion by another organism.  This is frequently an insect, but other culprits include mites, nematodes, fungi, bacteria, and even parasitic plants.  Usually galls are stored within entomology collections, and thus by the insect species involved.  But any herbarium collection is likely to contain galls, whether they are noted in the label description are not

A recent article describes efforts at the State Museum of Natural History in Stuttgart, Germany to deal with the ecological complexity of galls and also to begin to bring greater order to its 1000-2000 specimen gall collection, most of which was unsorted and kept in three large metal cabinets (Mertz et al., 2022).  Some were on herbarium sheets, many were in paper or plastic envelopes, but there were also specimens in albums, file folders, boxes, and newspapers.  In addition there was an early 19th century collection in drawers, and some galls were in the dried insect collection pinned next to the insects that emerged from them.  The last time the collection had been studied was in 1995, and it had never been completely catalogued.  Every natural history collection is overflowing with specimens, many crying for needed attention, but it makes sense that if no one had been interested in it in nearly 30 years, it would not be on anyone’s priority list. 

It’s thanks to the renewed interest in specimens as sources of biodiversity data that collections like this are now being examined and organized.  Galls, precisely because of their classification complexities, are of more interest at present.  Not only are they objects of botanical and entomological interest, but ecological as well.  The authors of this paper decided to systematically organize the 490 specimens collected in the home state of the institution, Baden-Württemberg, and assess the suitability of the different storage options they encountered.  There was single bound album made in the 1970s with browned and cracking Scotch tape holding down the galls:  not a good option.  Some specimens were in boxes, good for large or oddly shaped items, but not great for saving space.  The galls collected in the 19th century were in insect drawers, which were orderly and kept the specimens safe but again, space hogs. 

Envelopes, on the other hand, provided efficient use of space.  The paper ones kept the specimens secure, but they had to be opened for examination:  time consuming and could lead to damage.  Plastic envelopes allowed visibility, though some deteriorate rapidly.  The same holds for a set of specimens kept on paper in plastic sleeves and stored in a binder.  Finally there were the specimens stored on herbarium sheets.  Interestingly, they were not all of standard size, but they kept the specimens safe, unless they were attached with the dreaded Scotch tape.  It is not surprising that when the team evaluated the storage methods, albums and binders with plastic folders were not deemed viable.  Boxes were only considered appropriate for large items, often the case with galls on fungi. Pinning to trays was superior when drawer space was ample.  Herbarium sheets were optimal for digitization and host plant identification, though not appropriate for large galls.  Also, sheets required “appropriate infrastructure,“ meaning herbarium cabinets, which were different from those usually found in entomology departments.  Envelopes were the best option if space is at a premium.  These recommendations all make sense, and provide a guide for those facing an update of gall collections. 

There were other interesting findings.  Aside from the 19th century collections, no organisms were associated with the other galls studied.  As the authors note:  “It is often possible to determine the gall inducer from the appearance of the gall, but it is preferable to store galls along with their inhabitants. (p. 7)”  Insects were identified as the cause of 72% of the gall specimens.  Because oak galls are conspicuous on leaves and easily collected, they were well-represented.  Though galls were collected throughout the year, August, September, and October were the most common months.  Again, oaks come into play, because this is when their galls would be most obvious on fallen leaves.

In terms of future directions for this work, the article ends with lessons learned including the difficulties in digitization, updating species determinations, georeferencing specimens, and dealing with old place names and other outdated terminology.  The authors added:  “The ultimate arrangement of the gall collection is yet to be determined.  One possibility is to organize galls by host plant, which would facilitate research at the ecological level (p. 9).”  This presents another issue.  Who will identify the host plants?  Where should such a collection be housed:  in the entomology department or in the herbarium?  After all, many herbaria already have lichen collections that are made up of two biological kingdoms, why not have some plants and animals stored together as well?  Or just to put it out there, perhaps in an ecology collection?  Maybe this will be the wave of the future, and a way to get ecologists to become more interested in the specifics of the organisms encountered in their work.  It is at least an option worth considering, especially in institutions like the Stuttgart museum that house multiple collections dealing with many forms of life.


Mertz, A.-K., Awad, J., Wendt, I., Dalitz, C., & Krogmann, L. (2022). Curation and digitization of insect galls in the collection of the State Museum of Natural History Stuttgart. Integrative Systematics: Stuttgart Contributions to Natural History, 5(2), 193–202.

Herbarium Stories: Texas

Heliopsis helianthoides collected by Barton Warnock Nov. 4, 1983; photo by Bill Ward

In the last post, I admitted to knowing little about New Zealand geography, and I am afraid the same is true of Texas.  I recently rediscovered a blog post I’d saved years ago.  It was written in 2010 for the Native Plant Society of Texas by Bill Ward, a retired geologist, who obviously had a broad interest in nature.  He lived in Boerne, north of San Antonio, and his wife had brought home a pile of herbarium specimens from the nearby Cibolo Nature Center where she volunteered.  The staff thought she might be able to use them in “Nature Boxes” that volunteers took to elementary schools.  Obviously they were considered disposable, though not really appropriate for the boxes.  When Ward examined them, he recognized the collector’s name:  Barton Warnock who had taught botany at Sul Ross State University in what is called the Trans-Pecos region of Texas, mountainous land of the Chihuahua Desert west of the Pecos River on the other side of the state from San Antonio. 

After his retirement in the early 1980s, Warnock spent many years collecting plants for “ranch herbaria,” which he set up for many large Trans-Pecos ranches.  He thought ranch families and managers should know and appreciate what was growing on their land.  The 130 specimens Ward was examining had labels with Warnock’s name and that of “Pamela Bevier Las Encinas Ranch, Kendall County,” where Boerne is located.  They were collected in 1983-1984, so Warnock must have surveyed at least one ranch outside of the Trans-Pecos.  Needless to say, Ward was anxious to find out more about these specimens.  Like most, they give tantalizing information that is not quite enough.  Who was Pamela Bevier and where was Las Encinas Ranch?  Through friends, Ward was able to identify Bevier as owner and operator of the ranch from 1979 to 1995 when the new owner changed its name.  Bevier lived in New York and San Antonio, where she was a public health researcher at the University of Texas Science Center. 

Further hunting led Ward to a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department botanist Jason Singhurst whose wife turned out to be Bevier’s niece.  Ward learned that Bevier once lived in Alpine, Texas the site of Sul Ross State University and was good friends with the Warnocks, obviously good enough to persuade Barton to travel east and create an herbarium for the ranch.  Ultimately, Ward arranged for the specimens to be given to the Billie L. Turner Plant Resources Center at the University of Texas, Austin so they could document what was growing at the ranch in the 1980s.

Another Texas story involves the E.L. Reed Herbarium at Texas Tech University in the more northerly part of the state, at Lubbock.  Founded in the early years of what was then Texas Technical College, the herbarium was little used from the 1990s on until Matt Johnson joined the university as herbarium director in 2017.  His first job was to clean and organize the facility and in the process a collection from Guadalupe Mountains National Park was unearthed.  While this was going on, Jonena Hearst, the science program manager for the park was trying to track down specimens that had been collected there.  By law, specimens gathered at national parks are National Park Service property.  Researchers are allowed to take them to their home institutions for study, but the material is supposed to be returned.  Each year national parks are to survey the institutions to track the material. 

Over the years, this system has not been carefully attended to because it is difficult to keep track of the many specimens and institutions involved.  If a researcher dies or loses interest in a project, the specimens can be misplaced or even thrown away.  In her survey, Hearst was only able to locate about 30% of the material from the park.  That’s why she was very pleased when she called Johnson at Texas Tech to ask about 120 specimens that should have been there.  She learned that they had many more than that, and when the collection was digitized, the number turned out to be about 5,000.  Texas Tech professor and herbarium director David Northington and a master’s student Tony Burgess collected in the park from 1971-1977, soon after it was founded.  Here was a wonderful record of what was growing there at the time, especially since Burgess visited remote locations and took detailed notes, which meant that the specimens could be georeferenced. 

A plan was developed to designate certain institutions as repositories for park collections, not just botanical, but zoological, mineralogical, and paleontological material.  They had to be research institutions that were active in the field, with curators to maintain the collections and to provide access to interested researchers.  The E.L. Reed Herbarium fit the bill for botanical collections.  So an agreement was signed officially making it the repository for plant specimens from Guadalupe Mountains National Park.  After collectors have completed their research, specimens must be sent to Texas Tech, which can loan them to other researchers and extract DNA from them.  Not only will this make Hearst’s job a little easier, it also ensures that the collection, available through the Texas Oklahoma Regional Consortium of Herbaria (TORCH) database, will be accessible in the future.

Herbarium Story: Veronica

Veronica, collected in Dec. 1922 by H.L. Darton, [Cultivated] Lawrence, New Zealand. CC BY 4.0. Te Papa

As became clear in the last series of posts (1,2,3,4) on my herbarium “home” at the University of South Carolina, every plant collection is replete with stories.  Discovering them is an exhilarating experience that may play out over a period of time as the story’s elements are pieced together.  The digitization of collections is one way many stories are now being unearthed as was the case described in a blog post from the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.  The herbarium staff held an informal “botany blitz” for two weeks during which they devoted themselves to tackling some of the unsorted material that’s a staple of most collections.  Among the finds was a folder labeled Veronica hartiana, but digging failed to come up with any information on this species, so it must never have been published.   

The New Zealand species of Veronica used to belong to a separate genus called Hebe, but these plants were found to be monophyletic with Veronica; hebe is still the common name and also the name of over 800 cultivars.  The six specimens in the folder in question were collected by Henry Darton in 1922-1923 and annotated by Donald Petrie.  Darton taught at the local high school in Lawrence, on New Zealand’s South Island.  He and his friend Henry Hart were plant collectors and breeders who had a nursery where they grew many native species.  Donald Petrie was a Scottish botanist who spent nearly 50 years in New Zealand, working a school inspector for the state of Otago that includes Lawrence.  He named a species of Veronica for Darton, and from the evidence in the folder planned to name one for Hart as well. 

Heidi Meudt, who wrote the blog post, is a curator at the herbarium and went on to investigate this story further.  Scientists and historians have much in common.  Both groups want to answer questions, and in a case like this both science and history are involved.  Petrie noted on the specimen that it had a prostrate growth habit and designated it Veronica hartiana sp. Nov.  He added that “It certainly came from the Chatham Islands and was first grown by a solicitor in Timaru to whom it was sent by Mr. Cox.”  Meudt found that Felix Cox, a sheep farmer, lived in the Chatham Islands, over 600 miles east of New Zealand, and sent many specimens to botanists.  Timaru is on the South Island, a few hours north of Lawrence, so it is likely that the solicitor, who probably was a horticultural enthusiast, had contact with Darton. 

Checking further, Meudt discovered a 1941 letter from Erica Baillie, secretary of the New Zealand Alpine Rock Garden Society.  It accompanied a hebe specimen identified as Veronica chathamica that was “absolutely prostrate.”  She asked that it be identified, noting that someone named Baker said that Captain Hooper of the Amokura brought it back from one of the outlying Chatham Islands.  Meudt points out that two decades after Petrie’s notes, the plant was being cultivated by Baillie, who lived in Wellington on the North Island, so it had gotten around.  The fact that it was prostrate suggests what was identified as Veronica chathamica might be the same or similar to what Petrie proposed as Veronica hartiana

More digging revealed that from 1907 to 1921, George Hooper was captain of the Amokura, a training vessel for young men who wanted to become sailors.  He was interested in natural history and there are several of his plant specimens in the herbarium.  At the end of her post, Meudt summarizes:  “We still don’t know for sure if Veronica ‘Hartii’ is the same as V. chathamica, but these specimens seem to fit well within the variation seen in the specimens in the V. chathamica box at Te Papa, and they match most of the characters in other botanist’s descriptions of V. chathamica.”  She thinks that perhaps more information about the plant will come out of the Darton Hart Project aimed at recreating some of the gardens at Lawrence. 

This is definitely a New Zealand story from start to finish and suggests how herbarium specimens can provide windows into the way plants move around and become part of human culture, of horticulture.  It also reveals how people in diverse walks of life:  a sheep farmer, a ship’s captain, a lawyer, and a school teacher all contributed to the movement and cultivation of this species.  And Meudt was able to document this with specimens.  It would be difficult to ferret out all the stories lurking in herbarium cabinets, but it’s nice to see ones like this come to light.  Meudt not only took the time to investigate but then cared enough to document her work in this fascinating post.  What I didn’t mention is that she also gives a good description of what cultivars are and how they are named. 

I have to admit that I also learned a lot from digging into this story.  My knowledge of New Zealand geography was almost nil.  Yes, I knew there was a North and a South Island but I didn’t know that the Chatham Islands are a NZ Territory.  I had heard of Otago, but didn’t know it was region of New Zealand or that the country is divided into regions, not states.  As always, specimens have ended up making me a slightly more educated person, not only in terms of botany, but in this case, history, geography, and horticulture.

At A.C. Moore Herbarium: Materiality of Specimens

Celtis laevigata var. laevigata collected by Henry Ravenel along the Santee Canal in April. Henry William Ravenel Collection at A.C. Moore Herbarium, University of South Carolina, Columbia

During the pandemic, I became interested in digital medieval manuscripts after reading a blog post by a researcher studying the digitization of manuscripts at Cambridge University and being unable to access the manuscripts themselves (Haaren, 2020).  I began comparing this digitization process to that of herbarium specimens.  “Materiality” is a term much used in the manuscript world for the look and feel of parchment or paper and the way documents are damaged, annotated, amended over time.  It struck me that such issues also pertain to herbarium specimens, but it’s not something that’s often a matter of focus.  Botanists are interested in the information on sheets:  what the plant itself can tell them and what else they can learn from the label, determination slips, and other notations. 

What I want to argue here is that materiality can have at least a subliminal effect on how specimens are viewed and handled.  I want to use as a study case a number of specimens from the herbarium I’ve been highlighting in this series of posts (1,2,3), that of the A.C. Moore Herbarium (USCH) at the University of South Carolina, Columbia.  As I mentioned earlier, it holds the collection of the 19th-century botanist and planter Henry William Ravenel (1817-1887).  Ravenel was born into a family of planters in South Carolina’s low country relatively near the coast.  In the 1840s, he moved to the southwest part of the state, to the town of Aiken, and bought a plantation there.  Of course, the American Civil War is the elephant in this room.  Before then, he was successful in large part because he owned 80 slaves who worked his land, giving him time to devote to plants and fungi.  By 1860, he had published five volumes of fungal exsiccati and had a wide correspondence with the likes of Asa Gray, George Engelmann, and Edward Tuckerman.

Convinced of the confederate cause, Ravenel sunk all his money into war bonds and was thus left in dire financial straits after the war, with no slaves to farm his land and no one willing to buy it at anywhere near its previous value.  He turned to botany, no longer as just a beloved avocation but as a source of income.  His journals and letters, which have all been transcribed and are available online and cross-referenced with his specimens, record his efforts.  After the war, he was able to resume correspondence with his former botanical colleagues.  He wrote to them asking for advice:  would there be an interest in southern specimens (not really in the post-war era), was there a market for the volumes of his exsiccati (Tuckerman was able to sell some of them and also bought some of his books), what about starting a nursery (nurseryman Thomas Meehan in Philadelphia sent him stock and gave him $50 in start-up money that didn’t need to be repaid). 

Ravenel did cobble together a livelihood and a botanical support group.  He was sent by the federal government to collect plants in Texas in 1869, prepared large cuttings of southern trees for Charles Sprague Sargent in Massachusetts, and traded specimens with the likes of Alvan Chapman in Florida, Stephen Olney in Rhode Island Delaware, and Moses Curtis in the Appalachian regions of the Carolinas (Haygood, 1987).  I can’t go into any more of his background, but you can learn about him on the Plants and Planter website.  Now I want to get to the materiality of Ravenel’s specimens by looking at a couple of them.  As was common in the 19th century, most were mounted on thin paper, now discolored.  After Ravenel’s death, a cousin bought the flowering plant collection from his widow and contributed it to Converse College, in Spartanburg, SC (now Converse University).  The college transferred the collection to USCH in 2004, when its conservation was begun.

There are a variety of sheets in any one folder.  In some cases, the original sheets are themselves mounted on heavier sheets (see image in earlier post); in many cases the original paper is cut around the plant, creating a collage that includes the original label and later determinations, some made in the 1930s when the collection was obviously given attention.  The grasses, for example, were sent for annotation to Mary Agnes Chase at the US Department of Agriculture.  There are also specimens that were apparently easier to remove from damaged mounts and pasted to new sheets.  The original labels are also included, and their darkened paper stands out against the white background (see above).

These remounted specimens, which make up most of the Ravenel collection, are what got me thinking about the materiality of the Ravenel collection.  They look so different from the few older sheets that are extant.  All the plants are from the same period, yet the ones on new sheets look so much fresher.  I think there is also a tendency to handle them with less reverence because the paper is not fragile, there is little reminder of their age.  This got me thinking about the folders in the main collections.  Most of the specimens are from the 20th century, with a good number from the 21st.  However, the specimens from the 1930s and 1940s are often on thin and yellowed paper.  Going through a folder, I think there is a subconscious assessment made in handling each sheet:  delicate, old and fragile; recent, tough and vibrant; or somewhere in between.  These are obviously aesthetic assessments, but they are also practical ones in terms of how the sheets are handled.  They may not require the care in handling a medieval manuscript does—or maybe they do.  Plant material is more fragile than the paper on which it is mounted and paper is more fragile than parchment.  Materiality does matter.

Note: I am very grateful to John Nelson and Herrick Brown for their very helpful commentaries and corrections on this series of posts.


Haaren, S. van. (2020, May 25). Physical distancing from manuscripts and the presence of the digital facsimile. Cambridge Medieval Graduate Students.

Haygood, T. M. (1987). Henry William Ravenel, 1814-1887: South Carolina Scientist in the Civil War Era. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.

At A.C. Moore Herbarium: Ecology

Diphasiastrum digitatum collected by Ronald Chicone, Jr. at Saluda Shoals Park, SC on Novemeber 5, 2000. A.C. Moore Herbarium, University of South Carolina, Columbia

The human brain has a problem with complexity; it can easily be overloaded, which is why simplification and classification are so important in human learning.  This helps to explain why a herbarium sheet usually displays a specimen, or maybe specimens, of a single species.  The plant is spread out so as many observable characteristics as possible are clearly displayed, and since only one species is involved, it makes the sheet easy to put into a single category, a particular species folder.  The same convention of solitude is found in botanical illustration even from the few early illustrations extant on papyrus (Griebeler, 2022).  However, to state the obvious, plants don’t grow this way.  A reminder of this is apparent on an unusual specimen from the A.C. Moore Herbarium (USCH) at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, the institution that is the subject of this series of posts.

The sheet in question is labeled and filed as Diphasiastrum digitatum (USCH0073424) formerly Lycopodium digitatum, a fern ally (see above).  What makes it so eye-catching is that distributed over the sheet are several leaves: one each of maple, oak, and elm.  These are listed on the label as among the species present in this hardwood forest habitat.  Such references are common on labels, but including specimens of the associated species is not.  The leaves are unlabeled, nor are leaves of all the trees mentioned on the label included.  Still, it’s a sheet that catches the eye, and also serves as a reminder that no plant is ever really alone on a sheet.

This Diphasiastrum was collected in 2000 by Ron Chicone, Jr.  A search of the USCH database turned many other specimens collected by him, though none as species-diverse as the Diphasiatrum.  A search of SERNEC, the database for the SouthEast Regional Network of Expertise and Collections, revealed many more of his specimens.  LinkedIn provided the information that Ronald Chicone, Jr. graduated from Coastal Carolina University and since then has held several positions, including one as herbarium staff at the University of South Florida.  He is now a land management specialist for the Brevard County Environmentally Endangered Lands Program in Florida.  So Chicone has spent his career looking at plants in ecological contexts, just as this specimen suggests. 

This fits well into Mason Heberling’s (2022) argument that plant collections have been underused by ecologists for many kinds of studies, including of seasonal and geographical variations in plant traits.  Now botanists are also looking at the roots of herbarium specimens to identify a species’ fungal partners and have successfully extracted DNA from many of them (Heberling & Burke, 2019).  Also, the soil on roots can harbor algae, yet another organism in a vascular plant’s ecosystem—and a reason to leave a little soil on a specimen’s roots (Parker, Schanen & Renner, 1976), though this is considered by some to be haphazard specimen preparation.

Also being investigated is insect damage to specimens’ leaves using a grid system to calculate the extent of eaten areas (Meineke et al., 2019), and it’s not uncommon to find dead insects on a specimen.  Years ago, D.R. Whitehead (1976) wrote an article entitled, “Collecting Beetles in Exotic Places: The Herbarium,” in which he argued that a plant collection was a good place to look for new beetle species.  There is also research on new species of tiny snails first found on plant specimens (Miquel & Bungartz, 2017).  At USCH, researchers have recently begun microscopic examination of invertebrates lurking on algae specimens.  So herbaria can be sources of many kinds of biodiversity beyond the plant world and can contribute to ecological studies on multispecies interactions, including those involving plant pathogens.  

Despite this, I don’t see Chicone’s approach as becoming common, though it does suggest the surprises that can be found in any herbarium.  He was just out of college when he made this collection, so he was relatively new to the world of botany and perhaps therefore less concerned with its traditions and constraints.  Yet, he was hardly a neophyte because the collection number for this specimen is 236.  He probably didn’t mount it, but he must have tucked those leaves into the newspaper in which he pressed the plant.  This means that someone at USCH thought enough of the inclusion to mount the leaves, rather than tossing them out as irrelevant.  So the mounter was also party to this innovation/anomaly.

I am hardly recommending that adding in associated species become standard herbarium practice, though it might be nice if specimens were crossed-reference with those collected at the same time and place.  What I do think is important about this sheet is its role as a reminder that there are many unspoken do’s and don’ts that botanists absorb while working in an herbarium, and it is good to be aware of these.  They are constraints that make botany more organized, and also perhaps more canalized. 

Note: I am very grateful to John Nelson and Herrick Brown for their very helpful commentaries and corrections on this series of posts.


Griebeler, A. (2022). Production and design of early illustrated herbals. Word & Image, 38(2), 104–122.

Heberling, J. M. (2022). Herbaria as big data sources of plant traits. International Journal of Plant Sciences, 183(2), 87–118.

Heberling, J. M., & Burke, D. J. (2019). Utilizing herbarium specimens to quantify historical mycorrhizal communities. Applications in Plant Sciences, 7(4), 1–11.

Meineke, E. K., Classen, A. T., Sanders, N. J., & Davies, T. J. (2019). Herbarium specimens reveal increasing herbivory over the past century. Journal of Ecology, 107(1), 105–117.

Miquel, S. E., & Bungartz, F. (2017). Snails found among herbarium specimens of Galapagos lichens and bryophytes, with the description of Scolodonta rinae (Gastropoda: Scolodontidae), a new species of carnivorous micro-mollusk. International Journal of Malacology, 173–186.

Whitehead, D. R. (1976). Collecting beetles in exotic places: The herbarium. The Coleopterists Bulletin, 30(3), 249–250.

At A.C. Moore Herbarium: Aesthetics

Limnobium spongia collected by Alvan Chapman in Apalachicola, FL. Henry William Ravenel Collection at A.C. Moore Herbarium, University of South Carolina, Columbia

In this series of posts, I’m focusing on the holdings of the A.C. Moore Herbarium (USCH) at the University of South Carolina.  Here I want to discuss the beauty I come upon among the specimens.  Aesthetically pleasing plants are replete in any herbarium, but since almost all are hidden away most of the time, this beauty goes unappreciated, as does art in the vast warehouses of museums like the Met and the Louvre.  The great thing about volunteering in an herbarium is that I get an opportunity to come upon gorgeous specimens on a regular basis.  Recently, I was hunting for something in the mounting room and saw a Passiflora sheet collected by John Nelson, curator emeritus.  Now Nelson did get help from the plant here; the delicacy of its flower is hard to beat.  Carl Linnaeus also had a lovely example that is now the lectotype for the species Passiflora caerulea

The herbarium holds the specimens of Henry William Ravenel (1814-1887) a nineteenth-century South Carolina botanist.  This collection of slightly more than 6000 specimens was entrusted to the care of the herbarium by Converse College (now University) in Spartanburg, SC.   The college had received the plants from Ravenel’s cousin who had bought them from his widow (Haygood, 1987).  Most of the specimens have been remounted, but in some cases the plants couldn’t be easily removed from the original mount, so the specimen and its paper were attached to a new sheet.  In every case, all labels, notes, and determinations were also remounted.  A specimen I find particularly attractive is a American frogbit Limnobium spongia (HWR-00048010) collected by Alvan Wentworth Chapman in Apalachicola, Florida (see above).  The combination of the form of the leaves and bending of the stems with the texture of the paper makes is so appealing.  The subtlety of the colors of the plant and that of the paper is also attractive. 

In general, the Ravenel specimens are treasures because they not only give evidence of what was growing in the 19th century in South Carolina and other parts of the South, as well as more broadly, since Ravenel exchanged specimens with many botanists.  There are also some notes with interesting information on locale or habitat.  Ravenel’s journals and correspondence have been digitized and transcribed.  They are available on the Plants and Planter website along with all his specimens and even maps, so it is easy to search for information on particular collectors or collection events.  Obviously the University of South Carolina appreciates the collection and has worked with other institutions to maximize its availability to both botanists and historians.

But even for recent collections of species that aren’t that photogenic, an expert mounter can make something wonderful from it.  Take another Nelson specimen, this one of southern bog clubmoss Lycopodiella appressum (USCH0073992, see below).  There are any number of aesthetic theories and definitions of what makes something beautiful.  Among the qualities often mentioned elegance as one, and the Passiflora fits the bill there.  Another is symmetry, and with Lycopodiella the mounter has taken this aesthetic quality and created something eye-catching from rather mundane material.  But there’s more than aesthetics involved in this sheet, there is also a good use of space, to make sure all parts of both plants are displayed.  Some students of beauty think that too much symmetry can be boring, and that an interplay of symmetry and asymmetry is more pleasing as is apparent here.  For this specimen the obvious symmetry is enlivened by the asymmetry of the crossed branches. 

Lycopodiella appressum collected by John Nelson at the headwaters of Sandy Run, SC on June 23, 1989. A.C. Moore Herbarium, University of South Carolina, Columbia

As with any artwork, it takes time to appreciate all this sheet has to offer, and usually botanists tend to push aesthetics aside and focus on the information in a beautifully mounted plant.  This makes perfect sense, specimens are first and foremost scientific objects stored for research and educational purposes.  However, it doesn’t hurt to spend a moment from time to time just to soak in the beauty, because, as I have argued before (see earlier post), aesthetics is an intrinsic part of botanical inquiry.  In the last post, I discussed the difficulties of collecting, but put less emphasis on the thrills, which is rarely mentioned on labels.  John Nelson has described to me the moment when he discovered a new species of hedge-nettle Stachys caroliniana:  it was a holiday weekend, he was at the beach with his family, and he decided to do a little botanizing.  And there it was.  Needless to say none of this made it into the article he wrote with Douglas Rayner (2014) describing the species.  Elation simply is not part of scientific prose, explaining why scientists are considered a rather stuffy lot.  John Nelson would not be described as stuffy.  It is alleged that for many years he dressed as the masked botanical superhero Plantman for various occasions, but he denies any such involvement, adding that since Plantman is real, no one needs dress up like him. 

Nelson will admit to bringing a “Vivat Linnaeus” banner with him when he leads field trips, either for his students or other groups.  He also began the tradition which continues under the present curator, Herrick Brown (also a banner wielder), of saying “Vivat” whenever entering one of the rabbit warren of rooms that make up the herbarium.  Anyone in the room knows to answer “Linnaeus.”  This is more than just a quaint tribute to the father of modern botany, it also has a practical purpose.  The rooms are filled with cabinets, that it’s good to know where a fellow human may be lurking and not come upon them unannounced and scaring both parties.  Such customs makes the A.C. Moore Herbarium a happy, if crowded, space for doing and enjoying botany, as is testified to by the number of volunteers and students who work there, and often return for a visit long after they’ve moved on. 

Note: I am very grateful to John Nelson and Herrick Brown for their very helpful commentaries and corrections on this series of posts.


Haygood, T. M. (1987). Henry William Ravenel, 1814-1887: South Carolina Scientist in the Civil War Era. Birmingham: University of Alabama Press.

Nelson, J. B., & Rayner, D. A. (2014). A new hedge-nettle (Stachys: Lamiaceae) from South Carolina, USA. Journal of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas, 8(2), 431–440.