Mounting Botanical Specimens

One of the things I mentioned in my last post was a trip to the James F. Matthews Center for Biodiversity to pick up specimens that needed to be mounted. Many of you have expressed interest in this task so I figured I would document and discuss some of the process.

Basic set up

Mounting for me at home is fairly easy since I have a studio space. Above you see the basic set up: the plant, a tub of slightly watered down glue, some brushes, a small bowl of water, and to the right a piece of paper on cardboard. To my left out of view is a box of a few handy tools such as small scissors, tweezers, linen tape, some tissues, and a stiff brush for cleaning up dirt. And, of course, the essential radio. Now I know that my artist friends are going to ask what type of glue? We use Ph neutral PVA made by Lineco.

making decisions

So here is the first specimen. Opening the paper up is like opening a gift because I never know what is going to be inside. This is a grass and, as you can see, there are several pieces here and they will not all fit on the paper so decisions have to be made. The most important part of any specimen is the flowers and fruit so I will choose the piece that has the most of those structures. There are also lots of root clumps so it will be important to show that. All the specimens contain the stems and some leaves.

placing the specimen

Here is the piece I decided should be mounted. It shows a good clump of roots, three flowering/fruiting structures, and leaves and stems. I put it on the paper to make sure it fits and then I will need to brush the dirt off the paper and remove the dirt from the roots. It is very important when deciding the place and position of the plant to remember that other things will be put on the paper such as the scientific label, accessioning number, and other information needed for the database. So space is needed in the lower right and left corners and the upper left corner because that is where this information will be placed.

cleaned roots and pouch

Above you will see a stiff brush that was used to brush the dry mud off the specimen’s root clump. There were also some lovely flowering/fruiting structures on the other plants not selected so I cut off two of those and made a side pouch which will also be mounted with the plant. If possible, it is always good to include some additional flowering/fruit structures in a protective pouch because, especially in this type of specimen, they can fall off the mounted specimen if not careful. I have circled the roots and additional structures in red so they stand out easily against the busy newspaper background.

Glue is applied carefully to the larger parts of the specimen and then carefully laid on the paper. The paper used is also a very particular paper especially made for this purpose. It is an archival paper measuring 11.5″ x 16.5 inches.

mounted specimen: Secale cereale

Above is the finished specimen. Notice the pouch off to the side and the scientific label. The label always goes on the bottom right and contains information such as the name of the plant, where it was collected, a description of the surroundings, the date, and who collected the specimen.

Sambucus

Sometimes I get very lucky and a specimen is pretty much ready just the way it was pressed like this Sambucus. These flowers are very delicate and, if you look for the red circles, you will see some flowers have fallen off. I will collect these and make a pouch for them as was done with the grass.

mounted Sambucus

Here is the mounted Sambucus. I marked the pouch with a red x (not really, just in this presentation) and there is also a red arrow pointing to something that I call a bridge though I am sure there is a more technical name. These are made out of archival linen tape. You cut pieces very thinly then wet them ever so slightly with water (this is one of the functions of the small bowl of water with the small brush. The other function is to clean up excess glue that may have gotten on the plant in the process of mounting it). The bridge is to anchor a part of the plant that will not stick to the paper with the glue, such as a woody stem. If you look at the leaf above the pouch you will see that it looks lighter. That is because this is the other side of the leaf. When mounting, you want to try to show both sides so it is always a good idea to turn one leaf over if none have naturally positioned themselves that way.

weighted specimen

The last thing to show is what happens after the plant is mounted. It is covered with wax paper and small weights, which are actually pieces of hardware. Weights are placed to make sure the plant stays put while the glue sets. The plants sit out for a least a day then will be accessioned into the collection.

Almost a Normal Week, kind of sort of

Like most people, I have lost track of how long we have been living an altered life style. But last week I had what almost resembled what I would have considered a normal week at one point.  So I will recap it here as a reminder that, with adjustments and care, we can sort of move forward a bit.

Podolsky Prayer for Justice and Peace
Prayer for Justice and Peace, 2020, Mixed media on paper mounted on canvas, 3′ x 6′, Hickory Museum of Art Raise Your Voice Project

Monday – I installed my piece Prayer for Justice and Peace on the Raise Your Voice community mural at the Hickory Museum of Art.  The mural is a 75 foot long, 9 feet high piece of canvas installed in the museum’s main gallery. They invited people to submit their ideas on social justice. They graciously accepted my proposal but I choose to work on my section at home on a large sheet of paper (6 feet x 3 feet) and then mount it on the canvas when it was complete. So on Monday, I went to install my section.  It was a wonderful experience and I felt very safe the way they arranged for every person participating to be there at different times.  Of course I wore a mask as did the gallery manger. The other pieces installed were extremely powerful but museum policy is that I can only share my own work at this time. When the museum photographs the project, then I will be able to share their links. (Note – since this post was written a time lapsed version of Phase 2 of the mural installation is now available here)

20200810_082121
Getting near the end of the tomato harvest this year

Tuesday – Tomato harvest day. At 6:45 a.m. I headed over to my friend’s “garden” which consists of 350 tomato plants and an odd assortment of okra, cucumber, and who knows what else that he decided to plant this year.  After all, he is cutting back (so he says). Now this is a man who spent his entire life farming.  He is now 92 and growing things is what keeps him going so his daughter and I talked him into planting a few tomato plants this year. Of course this was before we knew about a pandemic and our idea of a few plants was maybe 50 tomato plants and a few other odds and ends.  Well so much for plans. In his mind, what he planted is scaled back from whatever he did at another point in his life. Everything is relative.

Wednesday – I had a Zoom meeting with artist friends from the Plastic Club, an historic artist club from my old home town. We were going over the details of a program I will be presenting. I am still of the opinion that, on the whole, more good things are coming out of this goofy situation than bad things.  Lots of new ideas, ways of approaching things that I think will be useful when this is far behind us. But what is most interesting about this Zoom meeting is that not only have I connected with many people I have not seen in quite awhile but have managed to make new artist friends. Wonderful!

Thursday – not really memorable. I seem to recall being aggravated by something that I now cannot remember so that goes to show it was not worth being aggravated over to begin with. Note taken for future.

The great herbarium trade off
The Great Herbarium Exchange

Friday – I had an appointment to go to the herbarium where I volunteer in order to pick up work to bring home.  Right before everything shut down, the herbarium was given an enormous amount of collected plant specimens that needed mounting. Having the plants sit around waiting to be mounted is not a great thing so these arrangements were made. I was not allowed in the building so the staff brought everything out to my car. It was really wonderful to see “the gang” at the herbarium – Lenny, Stefanie, and Dr. Jim Matthews, who the herbarium is named after. The herbarium is one of my earliest social encounters in North Carolina and will always hold a dear place in my heart. I have posted other articles on collecting specimens that you may have read. The only mishap out of this was that the glue we use spilled on the floor of the back of my car. Oh well!

Saturday – we steamed cleaned the carpets. I am not fond of our carpets but since we live in an apartment I have little choice. After we had done the entire apartment we realized the plug was faulty. Of course, I still worried over this after-the-fact event. Anyway, the carpet is greatly improved and we have decided to hire someone in the future.

Sunday – Today we had an earthquake.  Like I said, it was almost a normal week.

Observation is better than your smart phone

Nightshade
Solanum carolinense (a.k.a. Carolina Horse Nettle)

When I used to walk around my old neighborhood looking for sidewalk weeds, one that I came upon often was Carolina Horse Nettle (Solanum carolinense) and Eastern Black Nightshade (Solanum ptycanthum). These plants, though pretty, are considered nasty weeds by many gardeners and home owners. Adding aid to that general consensus are the facts that they are also prickly to touch and poisonous.  Anyway, I always thought they were very pretty flowers and spent a great deal of time studying the flower’s star shape and how the color of the stamens and pistils contrasted nicely with the petals and how they protruded added more interest to the overall flower shape.

 

Fast forward a few years and I found myself working as a farm hand in North Carolina helping to farm, mainly, tomatoes.  When you tend to approximately 2,000 tomato plants you kind of get familiar with them.  One day I noticed that the flowers of the tomato plants had a very familiar look.

 

Tomato
Tomato plant

I saw the same star shape as the nightshades plants mentioned above and the same type of protrusion of the stamens and pistils.  Because there were several waste fields around where I farmed, it was not difficult to pluck and few flowers from each plant and compare them up close to one another.   When I went home, I looked in my field guides and learned that Tomatoes are also in the genus Solanum.  As the summer went on and I watched some of the other crops flower and fruit, I saw a few other versions of this same flower on plants like potatoes and bell peppers.  My point is this:  observation is a far better tool than calling something up on a smart phone, which you will probably forget two seconds later.   This is why drawing is also a valuable exercise to really learn what something looks like.  So put away your smart phone. Use your eyes, nose, and ears and maybe even a pencil and pad of paper to learn about nature in a truly meaningful and unforgettable way.

Below are the photos above with a few others views so you can see a side by side comparison.

Basic Plant Identification: Part 2

Star of Bethlehem
What am I?? My key number is 6 – 2 – 3

It has been a while since I have seen this flower and I could not remember what it was.  Since it was plentiful I dug one up and examined it.  The base reminded me of an onion type plant:  white, bulb like, with thin green leaves coming from the base. But the flower was not typical of onions which are more like a puff ball. If you ever grew chives and let them go to flower, then this will sound familiar to you.

So I decided to key out the plant and fortunately, this was a very easy one to do.  Using my Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide that I discussed in an earlier post, I had to look up three characteristics of this plant and apply the appropriate “key” number for each characteristic. 

key
Key from Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide

First, what is the type of flower.  This type of flower is “regular”, meaning it is radically symmetrical. If you cut the flower in half, each half would look the same. Think of a young child’s drawing of a flower with a center and petals coming off the center. Because this flower has six petal, the key tells me to assign a number “6”.

Next they ask what is the plant type.  It is a wildflower but this category also asks about the plant leaves. They are not opposite or whorled as discussed in part 1.   The leaves seem to be growing out of the bottom of the plant. These are called basal leaves. Another great example of basal leaves is our friend the dandelion. Next time one creeps up in your yard, take a look at the leaves growing out of the bottom. The key above tells me to assign my second number which is a “2”.

The last characteristic the key asks about is the type of leaves. They are not toothed or lobed like the henbit or purple dead nettle in part 1.  They are entire (no teeth or lobes) like the ginger leaves of a previous post .  So the key tells me to assign another number “2”

key 2
Key descriptions from Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide

So my three number key is “6 – 2 – 2” .  Now I find that number.  The key number gives me several other choices. Fortunately, there are not that many with this particular plant. The first description under that key number asks if the leaves are narrow. Since they are, I go to the descriptions under “narrow leaves” and it gives me a choice of flower colors. I go to the choice that says ‘white, pink, or greenish flowers’ and then look at that page. On that page, a number of flowers are depicted and my flower was among them. It is a Star of Bethlehem:  Ornithogalum umbellatum.  Now at the beginning of this post, I mentioned that when I pulled the plant the base reminded me of something onion related. Well, our Star of Bethlehem is part of the Lily family (Liliaceae) and so are onions.

 

Basic Plant Identification: Part 1

Henbit and purple nettle
To the left, Purple Dead Nettle (Lamium purpureum) and to the right, Henbit (Lamium amlexicaule)

A few weeks ago when I was talking about my love of sidewalk weeds and identifying plants, some of you had written to me saying you wanted to learn more.  In my last post on this topic we talked about some characteristics of plants but I was unable to show examples due to the time of year and the slim pickings of available plant life.

So let’s start with the photograph at the top of this page. These plants seem to look almost the same at a quick glance and many times people either mistake the one for the other or do not realize at all they are entirely different plants.  They are common lawn “weeds” so you have probably seem them before. They are in the same family (Lamiaceae) and the same genus (Lamium)  but are different species.   As I mentioned before, it is often difficult to be able to key a plant down to the species. If you (as an amateur like myself) get to the genus that is pretty good but if you can actually just look at a plant and identify the family, that is excellent.

Henbit
Example of “opposite” arrangement of leaves

For these plants, lets start with the leaves.  The example above is called opposite leaves because the leaves are directly across from each other along the stem.  The example below show leaves that are called whorled because the leaves surround the stem (think of it as lots of opposite leaves together rather than just two).

Whorlled leaves
Example of “whorled” arrangement of leaves

Another characteristic of leaves that is important are the edges of the leaves. The examples we have here (see below for a close up) fall into the category of toothed edges because the edges of the leaves have little teeth (as opposed to being smooth).  In out last post  on this topic, we looked at wild ginger leaves that had a smooth edge and that was called an entire leave.

toothed or lobed edges
Examples of “toothed” edges of leaves

Here is another characteristic to look for: the shape of the stem. Notice in the close up below that the stem is square (I just am showing one but both these plants have a square stem).

square stem
Square stem

So now you know what a Toothed leave is.  You also know two very important characteristics (opposite or whorled leaves and square stems) of a very common plant family: Lamiaceae.  Why should you care? Well, the family Lamiaceae is more commonly known as the mint family.  Next time you tend to your basil, oregano, thyme, or rosemary plants take a look at the position of the leaves and feel the stem.  Now there are other characteristics that make these plants part of the mint family. It is important to know that because there are also other plants with opposite leaves and square stems that are not part of the mint family and perhaps we can look at those characteristics another time.  But for now, pat yourself on the back for getting to know the members or your herb garden on a different level.

Identifying Plants by Keying

If you have read my other posts on collecting weeds and wild plants, then the term keying may sound familiar so here is my long promised attempt at explaining that process. You may wonder, why not just snap a picture and run it through an app on your phone?  Part of the fun of keying is like solving a puzzle.  Also, if someone is really interested in botany, just learning the name of something really does not teach anything about the characteristics of a plant. Since keying can become quite involved, what I will do is give a general explanation for the mildly curious. Perhaps some point in the future, I will go into greater detail about plant characteristics; and with it being January, the examples I can provide at the moment are pretty slim pickins!

keys
A sampling of plant key guides

First, lets talk about the types of key guides that are available.  There is the professional key (which I do not own) and those for amateurs, like the ones pictured above.  Different guides use different systems for identification but the one thing they all have in common is the need to identify certain characteristics of the plant in question. It is of the most importance that whatever guide you choose, that the time is taken to read the introduction to the guide and directions on how to use it.

So keeping with general information, listed below are some of the most basic characteristics you will need to know to begin using whatever key guide you choose.

  • If it is an herbaceous or woody plant – example: a woody plant means a shrub, there are also vines (which can be woody or non woody but generally are just classified as vines in a key), and herbaceous plants which are other flowering plants like our friends the weeds and other wildflowers.  These keys do not include trees or grasses (both of which also flower) because those types of plants are a whole different ball of wax.
  • Characteristics of flower/fruit/seed – this includes the number of parts, if is regular or irregular. Parts of a flower include the petals, sepals, female & male parts (pistil & stamen), and if the flower is regular or irregular (in a very basic sense this has to do with the shape of the flower).
  • Characteristics of leaves – this includes the position of the leaves, what the edges look like, the overall shape, and if it is simple or compound.  The wild ginger leaf on the right is considered entire because the edges are smooth.

Entire

After the basic characteristics of the plant have been determined, depending on the key, you will either be guided through the book with a group of symbols and compare your specimen with additional plant characteristics until you reach something that looks like your plant. Alternately is a system where a number is assigned to each characteristic and the group of numbers helps to guide you through the key until you come to something that resemble your plant. Each of these systems are great fun and you may choose to use just one type of key or several.  I use several but my favorite is the one that uses a number system (I will pause here to let those of you who know me laugh hysterically because you know my aversion to anything to do with numbers).

Equipment
Useful tools for keying include a ruler, tweezers, a jewelers loop, and pencil/notepad

The system with the numbers is called the Newcomb system and I like it because it goes into great detail as to exactly what the plant looks like. However, the Newcomb system was written for the Northeastern US/Canada.  This does not mean it is not useful elsewhere because you can still track a plant to at least the family or genus. This was the first key I ever used and in the beginning there were many of days that I wanted to toss it across the room. But with increased understanding of what I was looking at and practice, I now find it to be quite easy. If you are only mildly interested in this process, I would recommend one of the guides that uses symbols such as the ones in the Finders series (these are the ones in the top right of my key guide photo).

This is where I will stop my description on keying because to go further would require better examples than I can collect at this time. Also, some readers may just have wanted their curiosity satisfied and I hope this has served that purpose. At some point in the future, when I can get better samples to photograph, perhaps I can go into some more detail on plant characteristics for those who are curious. But for now, That’s all folks!

For the Love of Weeds ~ part 2

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.

Plant Press
A plant press

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.

Specimen
A mounted specimen with label. The plant is Clematis virginiana.

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! 

Field work 2The 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).

 

 

 

 

For the Love of Weeds

weeds
Dandelion (Taraxacum), Chickweed (Stellaria), Woodsorrell (Oxalis)

I always wondered about the plants that grow along the highway embankments and in the sidewalk cracks and curb sides.  What are these things and how do they survive in what seem to be very hostile conditions?   I like plants and flowers as much as the next person and I have had my garden plot full of colorful annual flowers, then an extensive herb garden, then a more extensive native plant garden and, somewhere mixed with the native plant garden, a weed garden.  Yes, I grew (on purpose) weeds.

So the topic of weeds inevitably brings up the question: What is a weed? I think Merriam-Webster has one of the better definitions: a plant that is not valued where it is growing and is usually of vigorous growth.  I have come across many descriptions that call weeds “of little value“, and claim they are “dangerous to other plants“.  From a natural history point of view, such descriptions could be applied to many highly prized plants and are not necessarily true of a number of things we call weeds.

weed guides
Two of my favorite books!

My interest in weeds started, as previously mentioned, out of curiosity then grew into an obsession.  I would go out for my after dinner walk and scan the sidewalk for weeds, pluck them up (nobody seemed to care about them) and then take them home to key them out, which is something I will explain in another post. After I attempted to identify and press the weeds I would paste them in a small scrapbook with the name, date, and where it was collected.  During one period of time I did not have much chance to tend to my native plant garden so I made a conscious decision to let the weeds grow among the other plants and see what came up.

I am not a keeper of things and I hate clutter.  This habit made for an easy relocation but it also was the cause of my tossing my weed book*. I remember having it in my hand and at the very last minute adding it to the trash can.  It is the only thing I am sorry I did not keep. Oddly, when I moved I ended up in a volunteer position collecting wild plants and since weeds are also wild plants, I got to continue my practice.  I will discuss this volunteer job along with plant identification in my next post.  (*A few people mentioned this to me in comments and emails so I need to clarify that the weed book I tossed was the scrapbook of weeds I collected, not the guides pictured above, I still have those!).