Online database brings herbarium into homes

21,000 plant specimens | University’s collection helps visitors identify plants and accepts specimens of regional flora

There’s no one named Herb in the University of Lethbridge herbarium.

But there is something named Zygophyllaceae larrea tridentata and something else named Pinaceae pseudotsuga menziesii.

And so much more.

The general public will soon be able to see the university’s entire dried plant collection without leaving their home computer.

Photos of 21,000 plant specimens are being digitized and will be available online, complete with scientific name, location, collection time, phenology and habitat.

Though larger herbaria in Calgary and Edmonton are also planning to digitize, U of L herbarium curator John Bain said the Lethbridge collection will be the first one finished. It will then connect with other herbaria as part of an international resource.

“For anybody that wants to identify a plant, the herbarium becomes a critical tool,” said Bain.

Books and field guides might suffice for the layman, but access to the actual plant is important for professional botanists, consultants and people doing vegetation surveys, he added.

“The digitizing of the herbarium represents recognition that it’s an important resource and should be more accessible to people so they can make more of it.”

Digitization will give the public a quick method of access, but the actual plant specimens, called vouchers, will still be available to the public, as always, by appointment.

U of L instructor Joanne Golden, a botanist, is one of the people who can guide visitors in herbarium use. The dried samples are labelled and stored on campus.

“They’re very fragile, so we’ll show you how to handle a stack of herbarium specimens, and yes, you’re welcome to access them,” she said as she deftly removed poplar vouchers from a grey metal filing cabinet.

“We want people to access the collection. There’s no point in having a collection without it being a working collection,” she added.

The technical definition of a herbarium is simply a collection of dried plants systematically arranged. The U of L collection was initiated by former curator Job Kuijt, said Bain.

“He understood that having a reference collection of the local flora, for teaching and for any kind of local research, was critical,” Bain said.

Kuijt asked other herbaria for duplicates within their collection, and he responded in kind with his own duplicate samples from an extensive collection of flora from Waterton Lakes National Park.

“It makes sense. You collect a lot locally and you end up with a lot of the same thing,” Bain said.

“It becomes kind of like trading stamps or baseball cards. You say I’ll give you 10 of these if you give me something that I don’t have.”

Kuijt’s Waterton collection is significant because of the diversity within park boundaries. Bain said the region has great botanical interest within North America and the highest level of biodiversity in the province.

The park was designated as a World Biosphere Reserve in 1979 and a World Heritage Site in 1995, largely because of that biodiversity.

Golden said the herbarium continues to grow as botanists, students and those interested in regional flora provide specimens. Samples are also occasionally bequeathed to the university. The U of L collection mostly comprises Alberta flora, but it also has vouchers from the federal agriculture department collection and some from Manitoba and other locales.

Anyone can collect specimens acceptable to the herbarium, Golden added.

“It does not have to be collected by a botanist. If you want to collect plants, we’ll show you how to collect them, how to press them for the maximum amount of information and we can offer you space to come and identify them.”

Collectors should make notes on where and when the plant was found, the type of soil and habitat and any other information thought relevant to its identification and location.

“When you press it, you try to press it so you can see the front of the leaf and the back of the leaf,” Golden said.

“Press your sample with as much information as the researcher would need in order to identify a particular plant.”

Golden said the university receives occasional requests to identify particular plants. The digital database may help people in these efforts, and often university botanists can identify plants from photos.

She enjoys the interest people show in Alberta flora.

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