The Chrysler Herbarium is housed within the Biological Sciences building at Rutgers. Descending a back staircase, you begin to feel as though you are seeking plants at their source, at the root. Once at your destination, the unassuming door could be any classroom door–or, it could be the gateway to a wealth of knowledge amassed over centuries–only opening it will tell. Lauren Spitz, collections manager, was there to open it for us. “This is not the ideal location for the herbarium. There is a boiler room right next door, which can affect the temperature,” she explains as she unlocks the door. A 100-yr old steam pipe runs through the space, making it difficult to maintain the 68 degrees fahrenheit with low humidity that the specimens require for proper preservation. “We are looking for a new location but it hasn’t happened yet,” she adds. In her voice there is hopefulness laced with concern.
The room has a laboratory feel. It is cool and crowded, with tiled floors and bulky rows of grey cabinets at once muting and reflecting the florescent light. It is enveloped by quiet. There are large tables and a glass case housing odds and ends…a fern fossil, old books. A sign-in book logs visitors, and a quick glance reveals the latest groups to pay a visit. Unfamiliar with herbaria, I wonder what business could bring you to these depths.
As we wait for Dr. Lena Struwe to join us, Lauren discusses the current threats to the flora of the world, including biodiversity loss and deforestation. She relates the story of a scientist who decided to use his own money for land preservation in South America after returning to his study area to find it clear-cut. The mountain forest was a biodiversity hot-spot, and it was all for sale. These are common narratives in our day, making the appreciation, protection, and study of plants all the more crucial. An herbarium exists for these purposes, and as a result is instrumental in many scientific endeavors, including conservation and ecology.
The Chrysler Herbarium is the last internationally recognized herbarium in New Jersey, housing approximately 120,000 plant, lichen, moss, and algal specimens. Over the years many have contributed to its holdings, which have grown through the acquisition of private collections as well as through exchanges. It was not always so extensive.
In the late 1800s, Nathaniel Lord Britton began to collect plants in our region and published A preliminary catalogue to the flora of New Jersey in 1881. These catalogues were distributed to “every amateur and professional botanist in New Jersey and the surrounding parts of other states as far as known”¹ and included blank pages for recipients to record information with the purpose of returning the updated or corrected catalogues to Britton the following year. “It is hoped to obtain in this manner all that is at present known about the geographical and geological distribution, and frequency of occurrence of all the plants growing wild within the State,”¹ he wrote. By 1889 Britton was able to publish the completed work and had collected well over 5,000 mounted sheets, with 10,000 specimens. He put particular emphasis on the importance of having dried, preserved plant specimens to serve as documentation, and in his book, Catalogue of plants found in New Jersey, he writes:
It has been my endeavor to accumulate an herbarium which should contain as nearly as possible a complete representation of our plants in so far as they can be illustrated by dried and mounted specimens, and to serve as a voucher for the correctness of the work.²
The herbarium houses these specimens which Britton so carefully collected and prepared. They are all well over a century old and all remarkably preserved. Among the species Britton collected is Stiff Goldenrod (L. Solidago rigida), gathered at Little Snake Hill, NJ in the year 1879, and later in New Brunswick, NJ in 1892. Handling the aged specimen is akin to opening a time capsule. What was once a living, wild thing is not lost to the ages, but rather filed and preserved for posterity. Its placement in the herbarium allows it to be publicly accessible as a shared heritage. Otherwise intact, the colors had long since lost their luster, which is why it is important to note the characteristics of the plant in the collection data. Data attached to a specimen should also include information such as the collectors name, taxon, date of collection, habitat, and details on where the plant individual was located. This informs future research and without such data, specimens are practically useless.
“Lists of plants made from published statements alone are from their very nature no addition to knowledge,”² N.L Britton wrote in his 1889 work. Dr. Lena Struwe, director of the Chrysler Herbarium, would agree. When I asked her where and why this curious idea of collecting, drying, mounting, and recording plant specimens originated, she was happy to explain, “It arose from the apothecary tradition, the origins of herbaria spring from the collection of specimens for medicinal uses.” Struwe has co-authored an article in the Journal of Medicinally Active Plants, which echoes the sentiments of Britton on the critical importance of a voucher specimen to knowledge and scientific study. It discusses the great diversity of flora as well as the variability within a particular species and how having a specimen enables the tracking of changes in anatomy, morphology, and distribution across dates, distances, and decades.
Herbaria have thus been invaluable to ecologists in understanding critical issues such as climate change. Noted naturalist Thoreau collected around 900 voucher specimens for his own herbarium during the late 1800s, allowing scientists to map distribution of species and compare it to today. Mapping this movement helps to predict and model where the species might go as temperatures warm. In a separate study which Dr. Struwe participated in, ballast (sand, soil, or rocks used as ship weights) dumps were looked at as possible vectors for non-native plant species. Discarded ballast heaps were popular spots for botanists to collect specimens during the late 19th century since many of them contained such free-loading foreign flora. Their location on these heaps was documented on the voucher specimens which were subsequently housed at the Chrysler Herbarium. Since these ballast-blooming plants were often the first recorded populations of non-natives in the region, and later specimens reflect collection from a much wider distribution, it “provides evidence that the ballast heaps may have served as the point of entry for species still persisting in the local flora.”³ This kind of knowledge would not otherwise be available.
Preparing a voucher specimen and placing it in an herbarium adds to an accumulated knowledge base, and its uses may not necessarily be known when the plant is brought in. Just as Thoreau and Britton had no idea that their specimens would be used to understand climate change or to determine the spread of invasive species, ways the specimens might serve the scientific community exist in the realm of possible worlds. Among the current uses are cytological studies, phylogenetics, foods and spices, as well as phytochemical and medicinal uses. Rather than stashing valuable information away solely for private use, adding it to herbaria opens the specimen up to the public for the boundless benefit of others.
In an effort to be even more accessible, the herbarium is currently working to digitize its holdings. The first live and online flora will include 1/2 of the endangered and all of the invasive species, and the herbarium’s holdings will be included in the recently announced World Flora project. The project’s aim is to raise awareness about the plight of plants globally and inspire action through education.
Both Dr. Lena Struwe and Lauren Spitz will participate in Botany 2012 this year with an educational model of their own design, also with the aim of inspiring. They shared the abstract, which mentions an impairment they refer to as ‘plant blindness’. Lauren explained that “plants are invisible to many people in their everyday lives,” and went on to tell how the project engaged students in a floristic survey of Rutgers New Brunswick campuses, including its parking lots and lawns. The surprising result was that over 10% of New Jersey’s total plant biodiversity was found right there in New Brunswick.
Lauren related how after participating in the survey, students could suddenly see, and how they began to notice and appreciate the plants in their surroundings. This made me think back to her story of clear-cuts, to my underwhelmed feeling when I stepped into the herbarium ignorant of its purpose. Without knowledge, it is hard to appreciate and so easy to take for granted.
I asked Lauren if she had a favorite specimen. Her eyes lit up and she produced an aquatic algae. “I just love this one. I think it’s really cool”, she said. It sat suspended on paper, its otherworldliness apparent in the flowy deep green of its appendages. Suddenly I felt the uses of the herbarium explode exponentially in my head. “It’s art!” I exclaimed. “An artist could come here and be inspired by plants they have never seen before or never would.” I asked if an artist could visit the herbarium, and was assured that anyone could.
“We serve the public,” Dr. Lena Struwe said, with a smile.
In fact they do.
Both the director and collections manager explained the preservation methods used in an herbarium as well as the preparation of specimens which is not included in this article. If you would like to learn more about these topics, a useful document can be found here.
1. Britton, N. L. (1881). A preliminary catalogue of the flora of New Jersey. New Brunswick, NJ: Office of the Survey. Retrieved May 14, 2012, from Biodiversity Heritage Library.
2. Britton, N. L. (1889). Catalogue of plants found in New Jersey (Vol. II, pp. 30-32). Trenton, NJ: John L. Murphy Publishing Company.
3. Eisenman, S. H. E. Clennon, K. Dulatas, & L. Struwe. (2006). Ballast dumps from the late 1800’s and the introduction of non-native species to the eastern United States. Botany 2006 conference, Chico, CA, 28 July-3 Aug, 2006. Poster