Dried but Not Forgotten: UMD Herbarium Offers Clues Into Earth's Evolving Environment

Dried but Not Forgotten: UMD Herbarium Offers Clues Into Earth's Evolving Environment

Without fossils, paleontologists would never have discovered that dinosaurs once roamed the earth, how the Tyrannosaurus rex stalked its prey or that the Brontosaurus weighed more than 230 tons. Similarly, pressed, dried plant specimens can provide scientists with important information about where certain plants grow and how they've evolved over time – crucial clues for studying climate change and the overall health of the environment.

This type of research is being done right on campus at the University of Maryland's herbarium – a collection of catalogued, preserved plant specimens – which boasts roughly 87,000 specimens of flowering and cone-bearing plants, algae, mosses, liverworts, lichen and fungi.
 
"We pride ourselves on being the best collection for Maryland. It is super valuable," says Dr. Tanja Schuster, curator of the Norton-Brown Herbarium at UMD.

Established in 1901, the Norton-Brown Herbarium has recently seen a revival of sorts after very nearly being lost to the university for good.  The large filing cabinets stacked with rows upon rows of pressed plants were housed in a classroom inside the HJ Patterson building for several decades, where they were largely under lock and key, inaccessible to researchers, students and general plant enthusiasts. 

Due to space constraints inside HJ Patterson, there was talk of moving UMD's collection to be part of another herbarium – either at Towson University or the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. – or simply disposing of it.

That's when Dr. Maile Neel, an associate professor in the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture (PSLA), and former PSLA chair Dr. William Kenworthy decided to take on the responsibility of managing the herbarium.  

"It really would be a complete tragedy if Maryland's land-grant institution didn't have a repository for the state's flora," says Neel, who now serves as director of the Norton-Brown Herbarium.

In 2011, the herbarium moved into a space inside the Research Greenhouse Complex (RGC) on campus where it remains today. Schuster was hired as curator in July of 2012 and since then, has been trying to breathe new life into the collection of dried plants. She has been hosting workshops, putting up displays and in general, trying to spread the word that the herbarium is still around and more active than it has been in decades.

"We've had so many visitors already," said Schuster. "Our main goal is to be approachable and accessible to researchers, students and the public."

People around the world can now access a steadily growing number of the University of Maryland's collection through the new digital herbarium where pictures and attending information of roughly 5,000 plant specimens are currently available in a searchable database. Researchers on campus are using the online resource to help track migration patterns of the monarch butterfly by studying the stages of development in milkweed, which the butterflies use as a host plant and nectar source.

Most of the specimens in the Norton-Brown Herbarium were collected from areas in Maryland, but it also houses samples from other areas of the country and across the globe, some of which have been preserved for 112 years.

Looking forward, Schuster and Neel are hoping to increase awareness of the herbarium both on campus and online and to secure funds to keep it a permanent part of the University of Maryland's future.

"It's often very difficult to explain to people why we need this facility and information," says Neel. "If we want to know anything about changes in the environment, conservation, rare or endangered species, we need to have the information found in a herbarium. It is a historical record."

For more information on the Nortown-Brown Herbarium, visit http://www.nbh.psla.umd.edu.

March 5, 2013


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Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, is an alumnus of UMD's College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences.