Yesterday I spoke of my love of weeds and mentioned that I am involved with collecting wild plants for an organization. So I will talk a bit about this today.
Where I live, the county is steward to an herbarium, which is a collection of wild plants that are preserved for the purpose of research. I am a member of an organization called Central Carolina Master Naturalists, a group that is trained in different areas of natural history then does volunteer work in a particular field or fields. My main area of interest is botany and I volunteer with the herbarium.
One of the most welcoming feelings I had after moving here was going to the herbarium and seeing a plant press tagged with my name for me to use. Let me take a moment to address something very important: there is protocol for collecting wild plants. Though I was collecting “weeds” like I used to which were plentiful, I was also collecting other specimens so I had to follow some rules. First, I had to have permission, which came from the herbarium itself. As a scientific entity, I could collect for them as long as they approved of me doing so. Second,if it was an endangered plant, it could not be collected at all. I simply took a photograph of it and logged information about it. The other thing is there has to be at least ten visible specimens of what you are collecting so there is assurance of not removing something that is not prolific.
So as to the actual collecting itself, you need to try to get as much of the plant as possible which means preferably something in flower (also something that had gone to fruit or seed is good) a few leaves, and roots. The specimen is then spritzed with water and put into a plastic bag and sealed to maintain the moisture. Then the location has to be recorded and now this is done with GPS coordinates as they are the most accurate. Other conditions are noted: the surrounding landscape, other plants in the area, any information added is useful.
When I got the plants home, I had to position them in the press so they would dry out in a way that when they were mounted, different parts of the plant could be studied. Then, if I did not know the plant (and most times I did not), I had to key it out. Keying involves looking at very specific aspects of a plant such as flower parts, arrangement and type of leaves, and a variety of other physical attributes of the plant. Different guides have different criteria for keying but these aspects are pretty universal. I was going to talk more about keying in this post but it is so involved, I have since decided to devote a whole post to just that topic so that will come over the next few days. The name of the plant is added to the notes taken while in the field and placed with the plant in the press. When the press got filled up, I brought it to the herbarium where the plant ID was verified (or corrected) by a botanist, mounted, labeled, accessioned, scanned, and filed. To the right is a plant I collected and I am happy to have learned that this particular plant had not been collected in the county in 50 years. So there is my contribution to local science!
The herbarium is part of a larger resource center containing a variety of natural history items and scientific data collection so there are several projects that go on. Some of the other things I have helped with are forest assessments, moth nights, and endangered species counts. The photograph on the left is one such event where we were preparing to start a count for the Schweinitz’s sunflower (Helianthus schweinitzii).
I will end this post with a brief statement on use of botanical names vs. common names. I know it can be really annoying to be talking about a plant and some showoff has to throw out the Latin name but I cannot stress how important and useful it is. When I first started to collect, my field partner was talking about a Tamarack and I said that I knew of a similar tree called a Larch. Neither of us knew what the other meant but as it turned out, we were both talking about the exact same tree (Larix laricina).