Evolution of a Herbarium

by Travis MacClendon

L. peruviana, the FLEPPC Category I plant
that ignited my "need for names" gene.
Photo by Matthew Merritt.
What is it?
In the early '90s I walked out of my apartment in Melbourne, Fl and became transfixed by a display of gorgeous yellow flowers in the nearby shrubbery. My immediate thought was, “what are those things?!”

Let me digress. I believe that some people are born with a “need for names” gene, myself among them. I simply cannot see an unfamiliar star, beetle, or snowfall without feeling compelled to know its name. It never ceases. “What is it?” is practically my mantra. It often takes me twice as long as others to read a book or article because I am constantly accessing my smart phone to look things up using Google and/or Bing. And thank you, thank you STEM for that Droid, which has freed me of the burden of toting paper, pencil, and an unabridged dictionary.

Compulsory tools for the "name needer"
and "botanizer" in each of you.
Back to Melbourne… That afternoon I purchased Walter Kingsley Taylor's little masterpiece of 1992, “The Guide to Florida Wildflowers”.  After some discovery effort within those exciting pages, LO! There it was. I was so pleased. I had found and identified Ludwigia peruviana (Peruvian primrosewillow), a showy tropical alien. The resulting rush of adrenaline is still with me some 21 years later.

Getting Involved
One's knowledge builds. I joined the Conradina Chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society and eventually rose to a hectic year or two as President. For a while I was Vice President of Finance for the State, a position I held for a record setting seven years as I recall. Basically, nobody else wanted the job. I have a story to tell about all of this, but, in the interest of staying on-topic, I’ll hold back. Just ask me sometime.

Botanizing (going out into the field to find and key out plants) became a passion. I was sooooooo lucky to have the legendary Margaret Hames as my mentor, in addition to the companionship of Bill and Shirley Hills, an incomparable couple. I spent many happy hours in the great outdoors with these true experts and wonderful friends just tramping earth, making lists, and learning how to use that big book without pictures, “Guide to the Vascular Plants of Florida” by Wunderlin and Hansen: first memorize the glossary, then go to page 1.

At some point, Karen (my beautiful wife) and I met the brainy Suzanne Kennedy of the Brevard County Natural Resources Department. She was the speaker at a Conradina meeting. The subject was, you guessed it, herbariums. She was starting one for the County and wanted volunteers to help collect plants. Right after the presentation, I went straight to Suzanne and said, “me, me, pick me,” or words to that effect.

Learning the Ropes
With her patient teaching and that of a talented and experienced botanical drifter named Jim Tear, Karen and I began collecting and mounting specimens for the Brevard County Herbarium. We collected three specimens of each plant, one as a voucher specimen for the University of South Florida, a “gratis” specimen for Fairchild Tropical Gardens, and one for the Brevard County Herbarium.

Proof positive of P. leucarpum in Calhoun
In the year 2005, some 320 specimens behind us, Karen and I precipitously up and moved to Calhoun County in Florida’s panhandle. One of the reasons we picked that very low density population county (more people went to Karen's church than lived in Calhoun County) was that only 800 or so plants had ever been formally vouchered there. Based on serious empirical evidence, that left maybe 400 or more plants to be discovered. And FYI, if a plant has never been formally vouchered at an accredited herbarium, science says it doesn't exist. For example, you and I know that Phoradendron leucarpum (oak mistletoe) exists all over the place, but it had never been collected in Calhoun County.

Early on, our new house hardly furnished, we asked the Director of the University of Florida’s Extension Service in Blountstown what he thought about having  his office sponsor our voluntary efforts to create a herbarium in Calhoun County.. He enthusiastically replied, “Great! Terrific!! How much money do you need? Let's do it!” Then, before I could respond, he said, “What’s a herbarium?” Anyhow, we all happily agreed to work together to make it happen, and have enjoyed a pleasant camaraderie with the folks in that office ever since, including its current Director, Judy Ludlow, and her able assistants (Peggy and Whitney).

A standard metal herbarium cabinet will ensure
that the collection outlasts the collector.
Setting Up Shop
After we’d determined we would start a herbarium, it made sense to acquire an air tight, bug tight (the curator's worst nightmare), humidity-controlled (if possible), rain, fungus, wind, and ungulate proof storage unit for our collections - in short, a herbarium cabinet. At the time, all we had was an old wooden cabinet (not so hot for a plant collection… we keep supplies in it now) so we had to spring for a bona fide herbarium cabinet, all 1000 pounds of it at about $1.50 a pound (includes shipping).

Then there was the issue of supplies. We rounded up what we had access to locally, and purchased the remainder of what we needed from on-line biological supply houses. Once our order arrived, we were in business. Our inventory included:
Plant press with press straps
  • Plant press , 12” x 18”– eventually ended up with 3
  • Plant press straps, 2 per press
  • Plant press ventilators, 12 x 18, maybe 8 dozen
  • Plant press driers, 12 x 18, several dozen
  • Unprinted newsprint, 12 x 17 when folded, several dozen
  • Polyurethane foam, 12 x 18, several for pressing mean plants
  • Rag Mounting Cards, 11.5 x 16.5, several dozen
  • Fragment folders, 2.25 x 3.5 several dozen
  • Printed label paper, 8.5 x 11, 100 or so
  • Botanical glue
  • Gummed cloth tape, 0.5 inch, 200 yards, 1 roll
  • Drione insecticide dust for use against the horrors
  • Moth balls for use against the horrors
  • Desiccant for use against the insidious fungus
  • GPS (my Droid) –  calculate lat longs to WGS 1984 Spheroid for each specimen
  • Clipboard, data form for labels etc for field work
  • Plastic bags, trowels, clippers etc for collecting specimen
  • Binoculars (optional – good for birds)
As you may imagine, we developed different techniques for preparing, mounting, and collecting specimens as we became more experienced. These advanced approaches were ultimately facilitated with the use of a paper cutter and a loupe (hand lens, shown left).

Dr. Loran Anderson, Travis and Karen
MacClendon out collecting specimens.
Modus Operandi
Allow me to briefly itemize the process through which our plant specimens are prepared:
  1. Collect two (sometimes three) representative samples of foliage, preferably with fruit and/or flower. Usually the plant is not harmed. Acceptable specimens are limited to vascular plants (no bryophytes, fungi, or gremlins) found growing free and wild. Items found growing in a nursery pot at the local hardware store do not qualify, regardless of how neglected they are.
  2. Place the specimen between folded newsprint between 2 driers which are between 2 ventilators, and then into the press. For thorny, stout, or unbending plants use foam to assist in taming their “meanness” (plant characteristic as described by Dr. Loran Anderson ). Tighten plant press straps to flatten the specimens with just about all the strength you can muster. I can generally get between 12 and 15 specimens in one press - maybe more, but Karen won’t allow it, and if she catches me I’m in trouble.
  3. Dry specimens until crispy. During the summer, our barn can reach well over 100°F, so one week with the fan is usually enough. During the cooler winter months, this part takes a bit longer. And don't get me started on how to dry cactus.
  4. Mount one dried specimen artfully on a museum grade (acid-free) mounting card, along with appropriate label, accession number, and fragment folder.
  5. Concurrent with the curing and mounting process, create a line item in a database for the specimen. Our database has 15 fields, including items like scientific and common name, citation, latitude and longitude of where the specimen was collected, description of the plant and habitat, whether it is native or alien, et cetera.
  6. From the database, create labels for the specimen(s) recipient(s). We have up to three recipients: our own herbarium (Calhoun County Herbarium), a voucher specimen to the University of South Florida Atlas of Florida Vascular Plants, and the Godfrey Museum of Florida State University.
  7. Mail one unmounted specimen, label included, to USF.
  8. If the specimen has never been collected in Calhoun County, give one unmounted specimen, label included, to Dr. Loran Anderson of FSU.
  9. Take a high resolution photograph of the mounted specimen for loading onto the Calhoun County Herbarium website.
His and Her Chores
There is a certain division of labor that has evolved between Karen and I:
  • Karen collects the specimens and places them in collecting bags.
  • I record data and get the GPS coordinates for each specimen.
  • Both of us sort collected specimens, make appropriate notations, and place them in the dryer (a table in front of a fan).
  • I enter all data into the database, create labels and accession numbers.
  • Karen mounts each specimen when it is dry with its corresponding data and accession number labels.
  • I create a cover letter and list of specimens attached (along with their unique specimen numbers) for mailing to USF.
  • I file the mounted and photographed specimens alphabetically by family, genus, and species in our Herbarium. Karen doesn't like to mess with these because of the herbicide/moth ball business.
  • We both give Dr. Loran Anderson appropriate specimens at meetings of the Magnolia Chapter of the FNPS or on botanizing outings.
Karen MacClendon (left) watching and learning from Dr. George Wilder (center),
and Dr. Loran Anderson (right). All of them have made significant contributions
to to the Calhoun County Herbarium. (Thanks!).
The Calhoun County Herbarium would most certainly be something less than it is without the happy and able assistance of Dr. Loran Anderson of Tallahassee, Bill and Marcia Boothe of Bristol, Fl., and Dr. George Wilder of Naples, Fl. They know plants!!

Travis and Karen
That's about it. I could wax on and on but this gives you an idea. It is truly a labor of love. We get out in the countryside all over Calhoun County. It keeps us active. We've made many new landowner-type friends and perhaps encountered only 1 or 2 edgy types. Then there was that guard at the water plant who thought we were saboteurs…

Does your county have a herbarium? No? Then create one. It has most certainly been a satisfying, fun, and useful hobby for us. Still not sure how? No problem. Come up for a visit, go collecting, take our $2 herbarium tour, then eat cake (byoc).
Edited and posted by Laurie Sheldon


Hobo Botanist said…
Great article! I love herbariums, they are a great way to help one identify (verify) plants. In addition, one can travel back in time and see collections from important botanists such as J.K. Small, if not William Bartram himself. When collecting, don't forget to obtain written permits from the land owner before collecting. For Endangered or Commercially exploited species, one needs a permit from FL. Dept. of Agri. and Consumer Services Div. of Plant Industry. Permit numbers should be on the label. Coincidentally, never collect plants, whether listed or not, if it would endanger their population. My rule of thumb is less than 5% of the plant, or 5% of the plant population.
Thanks! Travis and I put a good bit of time into it, so I'm glad you enjoyed it. Also, I appreciate your reminder not to run around snipping and pasting indiscriminately. I hope that readers heed your advice. It would be awful if someone was arrested for acting on an inspiration to start a herbarium based on this article.
Hobo Botanist said…
Not to mention the loss of a rare plant!

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