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Life Sciences Magazine

BYU's Herbarium

What happens behind locked doors at the Monte L. Bean Life Science Museum? I wondered this as Dr. Robert Johnson, an associate professor in the Department of Biology, admitted me up to the third floor. What I found there astonished me.Walking into the collection, I saw rows and rows of cabinets. As we went further into the collection’s depths, I discovered dozens of papers each containing a unique plant with a small identifying label. “This museum is more than displays,” Johnson explained. “Equally important are the collections which support all the research we do at the university—and national and international research.” Picture an elaborate baseball card collection. First, collectors search for baseball cards—some more common, some more rare. Once they find cards, they preserve them to retain their original condition. This is exactly what happens in the herbarium at BYU, but instead of baseball cards, collectors gather and preserve plants. Students—either in their classes, as volunteers, or as paid staff—work with Johnson to collect, mount, and database plants from all over the globe. What makes the BYU Stanley L. Welsh Herbarium different from a baseball card collection is that the collectors share their important work with the world.

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Humble Beginnings

In 1874 (during the time of the outlaw Jesse James and painter Claude Monet), Orson W. Howard started the first herbarium in Utah. BYU gained its own herbarium in 1921, inheriting several specimens from the 1874 collection. To become a registered herbarium, each collection must register under an acronym which cannot be changed later; BYU’s acronym is BRY for Brigham Young. From small beginnings, the Stanley L. Welsh Herbarium has grown into a nationally recognized collection. Today, BYU ranks 20th out of 646 herbariums in the nation and 65th out of 3,001 herbariums in the world for total amount of vascular plant specimen (meaning the collection does not include fungi). That impressive work continues as students and faculty participate in field studies to expand the collection.

Field Studies

Students in botany classes and on studies abroad work hard to find additional species. Johnson ensures that students in his BIO 235 botany class spend about half their time off campus in the field working with plants. Plus, students have several opportunities to travel. Students have visited Washington, California, and Bolivia in recent years to collect, research, and even find new species. (Imagine discovering a brand-new species and feeling the giddy excitement of choosing its name.) Students and faculty recently discovered a new species in Colorado and named the flower Lucia lentos for its light, bright blue color. However, because it is impossible for BYU students and faculty to cover the entire globe, BYU often partners with other institutions.

Global Partners

Utah is the fourth richest state in plant specimens, with many native plants other herbariums want. In other words, Utah is a jackpot for trading baseball cards. BYU constantly strives to supplement its collection with plants from all over the country and world; with over 3,000 herbariums in 176 countries, there are plenty of options for trading. Just as baseball card collectors may collect several of one card to trade with other collectors, BYU collects multiples of specimens to use in trading. This trading is mutually beneficial. BYU’s herbarium has sent over 6,000 specimens and received over 7,000 through the exchange program. BYU also offers loans and donations to other herbariums. Another herbarium may request to borrow a specimen in order to study it, similar to a collector borrowing a baseball card to admire it. Occasionally, BYU donates specimens to other herbariums or vice versa. Over 9,000 specimens have been gifted to BYU by outside botanists.

Herbarium Visits

Every so often students or faculty find a jackpot—a rare specimen that, like a rare baseball card, can be a valuable addition to their collection. Collectors from across the nation may request to visit the Monte L. Bean Life Science Museum to study these rare specimens.The BYU Herbarium also hosts Boy Scout groups, government agencies, elementary classes, and other universities. Anna Cunningham, a mounter at the herbarium, explains, “I have friends at other colleges that, when I mention where I work, are so jealous. I love that we can have field experience and hands-on work.”

Mounting Specimens

Once plants are collected they must be preserved, and students’ artistic skills come in handy. Each plant is mounted on cardstock paper with a label describing the specimen, where it was collected, who collected it, and the collecting university. Students mount plants in a delicate process involving tweezers and Elmer’s crafting glue. Johnson laughed as he suggested that our elementary art skills support the mounting process. “Don’t discount the things you learn in kindergarten,” he explains. “It seems so mundane to come and glue, but it’s very artistically satisfying.”

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Databasing the Collection

Johnson explains that the most important project at the herbarium is databasing information, which requires students and faculty to take pictures of the mounted plants and post them online for easy access. This is particularly important because the BYU Herbarium shares its collection for free online. In the next few years, students will be databasing as fast as they can. Currently, just under 30 percent of BYU’s collection has been databased, although it is impressive to note that 20 percent of those plants (almost 120,000) have been databased in the last five years. Martín Batalla says that while entering the collection online he occasionally marvels at the history of a specimen and its collector. “I wonder if they ever thought someone a hundred years later would be looking at their plant. You never know if a hundred years from now someone will look at your plant.” This exciting work of students and staff at the Stanley L. Welsh Herbarium will be remembered for years to come as the baseball card-like collection continues to flourish. Johnson explains, “This is one of those jobs where I can’t wait to get to work in the morning.”

What Can You Do?

You could be a collector remembered a hundred years from now. The Stanley L. Welsh Herbarium always accepts plant donations; even local donations are useful for trading with other herbariums. Please include where the item was collected, who collected it, and when. The BYU Herbarium also needs volunteers to help with mounting or databasing. If you would like to contribute in any way, contact Robert Johnson at robert_johnson@byu.edu.