The Herbarium: Intern vs. Polygonaceae

Prologue:
My internship is counted for credit with Chatham, so I have to do some sort of check-in with an advisor at my university.  I chose my academic advisor, Dr. J, because she is very cool and she is a botanist.  I write a weekly e-mail to her and usually limit my word count–I’m sure she has better things to do than read an overly long and detailed e-mail from me.  For the purposes of the blog, I will post the e-mail and then add other thoughts or comments at the end in a postscript as I see fit.

September 8th, 2017
Dear Dr. J,

My first week of the internship has gone very well.  I was introduced to the herbarium on Tuesday, which contains hundreds of thousands of specimens from around the world, by Bonnie Isaac, the collection manager.  The herbarium is really an organized library of plant specimens kept in row upon row of tall metal cabinets.  Some of the families are represented by collections from distant countries, while other families are a mix of local and global collections.

Bonnie brought in some specimens that she collected in the field and had pressed in simple plant presses squeezed together with red nylon web belts.  She set two of these presses on make-shift drying boxes powered by ceramic heaters as she explained her current project.  She is attempting to collect plants in the same location as some of the historically collected local specimens.  Her aim is to collect the same specimens as well as invasive plants and then return in ten year intervals to track changes in local plant populations.

I was given the daunting task of organizing the family Polygonaceae.  The first cabinet of the family contains specimens from North America and others from other regions, each region with its own color folder (North America’s is manilla).  Each folder contains anywhere from one or two to a dozen specimens from a single genus.  If the genus is represented by only one or two specimens, then a folder may contain two or three genera.  I dug in.  With a Flora of North America guide handy, I sorted through the North American specimens to check that the scientific name was currently accepted or if it was synonymous with a different species.  Sorting and organizing for hours on end may not seem like fun, but I really enjoyed myself.  Some specimens were from the late 19th century and others were collected by Bonnie in western states.  I found one particular specimen, Coccoloba uvifera, collected in the Florida Keys near where I had worked a few years ago.  The sea grape is an interesting plant with papery leaves that some people used as postcards to send themselves while on vacation.

I think that I am really going to enjoy this internship experience.

Regards,
Aaron S. Young

Coccoloba uvifera collected on Upper Matecumbe Key in Florida.  They are commonly called sea grapes even though they aren’t closely related to grapes and don’t make edible grape-like berries.

Postscript:
As I handled the plant specimens I was overly cautious about tilting the paper–I didn’t want the plant to accidentally slide off or anything.  It was quite nerve-wracking at first to handle specimens, some of which are more than 120 years old and others that were collected in remote locations such as the arctic circle.  After a while that feeling fades away.  I’m still careful with specimens, but I don’t feel as though I’m holding a platter full of champagne glasses.  The dried specimens tend to be quite rigid and the adhesives–glued strips of paper or globs of glue–that keep them down are really secure.  I would probably have to tear the plant from the paper to get it off.

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