Virtual Herbarium
K-12 Educational Materials
Site Map

Home > Resources > The Art and Scinece of Preserving Plants


The Art and Science of Preserving Plants
     by Herbarium Natural Science Technician Carol Ann McCormick
     (Reprinted from North Carolina Botanical Garden Newsletter, Vol. 29, No. 5


      Since both art and science enter into preparing an herbarium specimen, a good specimen is both beautiful to look
at and a mine of information, while a poor one gives little pleasure to artist or scientist.

     An herbarium specimen has two parts: the preserved plant, and the label. Most anyone can imagine the challenge
of arranging blossoms without crumpling the petals, preserving the shape of the leaves or ensuring the seedpod is intact. However, few people recognize that equal care should be taken with the information written on the label that is affixed, along with the plant, to the final sheet. Each plant in an herbarium is unique, and providing accurate, detailed information can place it in its ecological, temporal, geographical and geological contexts.

     The art of the label is difficult to achieve. Most beginners assume that "who, what, where and when" suffice. But because this information is being written for someone in the future, perhaps 100 years hence, difficulties may arise when details that seem obvious today ¾ abbreviations, nicknames, local knowledge ¾ become impenetrable within years.

     The UNC Herbarium contains thousands of specimens from the 1800s, and they can be as useful to scientists as specimens collected last year provided their labels can be properly interpreted.

    One herbarium sheet, dated 1940, says a plant's location was "by the Tin Can on campus." Fortunately, the late Mary Felton, long-time Chapel Hill resident and Assistant Herbarium Curator for 29 years, knew that the "Tin Can" was the campus athletic facility and noted its approximate location on a current map. The person who collected that speciman, "HRT," knew who he was, but only those familiar with botany at UNC in the 1940s would immediately recognize the initials of Dr. Henry Roland Totten.

    Noting the date a plant was collected seems easy enough, but few collectors bother to put the century on a label. The UNC Herbarium now has specimens spanning three centuries, and you are advised to avoid the wrath of Herbarium staff by writing out "2001" instead of "'01" on any labels you may be preparing!

    The following examples illustrate the art and science of preparing herbarium labels.

Herbarium accession number: 20383
Scientific name: Scleria oligantha Ell.
Collector: W. W. Ashe
Collection Date: June 10 - July 6, 1898
Location: On or near the coast of North Carolina

     W. W. Ashe, while an excellent botanist and important figure in forestry, was not in the habit of writing detailed labels. A diligent researcher may be able to pinpoint this plant's location by examining Ashe's field notebooks in the UNC Herbarium.

Herbarium accession number: 113912
Scientific name: Stellaria media (L.) Cyrillo
Collectors: Harry E. Ahles with George Ramseur
Collection Date: April 27, 1957
Location: railroad right-of-way, junction US Rt. 117 and NC Rt. 403 in Faison, Duplin County, NC

     Yes, one could no doubt find the location for this plant, if the roads haven't changed too much in the past 40 years. The basics are covered.

Herbarium accession number: 565364
Scientific name: Stellaria pubera Michx.
Collector: Claire Newell
Collection Date: May 27, 1992
Location: Linville Gorge Wilderness Vegetation Study Plot 11; UTM Zone 17, N3965647, E-418567; East-facing upper-slope near Sitting Bull Trail, Linville Gorge Wilderness; Carya glabra/Ageratina forest; diverse ground flora; 1189m; Burke County, NC

    Perhaps a little too much information for most purposes, but including UTM (Universal Transverse Mercator) coordinates (or latitude/longitude, or Global Positioning Satellite coordinates) is very useful since they do not change over time.

Herbarium accession number: 78808
Scientific name: Senecio aureus
Collector: H.R.T.
Collection Date: May 10, 1930
Location: Near Hendersonville, N.C.; Called "Jack-screw" in the mountains and said to be a cure for rheumatism when used in the following way: "Soak roots in whiskey; drink enough to get "warmed up" and keep drinking along so as to stay "warmed up" for three or four days; and then taper off with about three drinks a day for as long as the rheumatism remains."

    Dr. Rogers McVaugh, Research Professor of Botany, urged his students to include on the label anything about the plant that could not be observed when it was dried and mounted: total height, petal and fruit color (which may change radically upon drying), odor, toxicity, growth habit, etc. Details like this are time-consuming to record in the field and then to transcribe onto a label, but such information can be invaluable. My all-time favorite label [shown above], while lacking in some areas (abbreviated name, sketchy location), is memorable for just such a detail.

Plant Information Center
About PIC | Project Staff | Advisory Panel | Research Activities | Partners | Permissions
Funding provided in part by
Institute of Museum and Library Services
Plant Information Center is produced
in conjunction with Botnet