Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.

Herbarium plants its roots in BioMed Center

New location offers cleaner space for plants, historical archive of specimens

Perhaps the most visually striking feature of the the University Herbarium is its angular, zigzagging  glass wall that projects into a second-floor hallway of the BioMedical Center.

The herbarium — a collection of over 100,000 specimens of dried and pressed plants, algae, mosses and fungi — opened its doors last week to a small group of students, as well as some members of the larger community, for a tour of the space and an in-depth discussion of the collection’s significance.

Established in 1869, the herbarium has grown and relocated, most recently in 2012 from the basement of the Arnold Laboratory on Waterman Street to its sleek and spacious current home on Meeting Street.

The herbarium is much better off in its new home, said Collections Manager Tim Whitfeld, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, who led the tour. The damp and moldy conditions of the Arnold Lab basement threatened the fragile specimens, some of which are well over 100 years old, he said.

Moisture and insects are serious hazards for any herbarium, and the University is careful to protect against these threats when it adds new specimens, Whitfeld told the group of visitors in the space’s prep room. While some botanists treat specimens with chemical pesticides, University botanists freeze specimens for several days before introducing them into the collection. Freezing new specimens is quite effective, Whitfeld added.

The expansive collection is housed in metal cabinets that fill a climate-controlled room behind a second set of glass doors. Visitors will immediately notice the air in the room is dry and considerably cooler than the rest of the building. The specimens are organized by geographic origin, Whitfeld said, opening a cabinet to show the tour group a thick folder of specimens mounted on archival paper. This organizational system means moving through the collection is like “walking through an evolutionary history of botanical diversity,” Whitfeld said.

An herbarium gives biologists the ability to study a much larger and more diverse set of vegetative specimens than a greenhouse does, Whitfeld said. For example, Brown’s collection contains samples from rare plants with origins across the world, as well as some specimens that are now extinct.

The collection constitutes a valuable source of both morphological and molecular data, and DNA is often extracted from the collection’s specimens for analysis and related research, Whitfeld said.

In addition to providing useful biological information, the herbarium acts as a historical record of environmental changes. This change can be observed around the University itself, Whitfeld said. To illustrate this point, he had visitors inspect a set of shrub and flower specimens collected in the late 19th century from Cat Swamp — a swamp Whitfeld said used to exist where there is now a developed residential neighborhood in Providence’s East Side.

Whitfeld encouraged the group to explore the social and historical significance of keeping a tangible record of such environmental changes by discussing sets of specimens in smaller groups.

Whitfeld added that the physical collection is continually expanding due to contributions from students and faculty, including Whitfeld himself.

One of the continuing initiatives at the herbarium is the effort to digitize the entire collection by taking photographs of every specimen. These images are uploaded to an active public database that will ultimately include 1.3 million specimens, with as many as 40,000 of these coming from Brown. The online collection ­— the Consortium of Northeastern Herbaria — contains specimens from 65 member institutions, according to the database’s website.


Powered by SNworks Solutions by The State News
All Content © 2024 The Brown Daily Herald, Inc.