Do you know what an herbarium is?

A few months ago, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as an herbarium. And what I guessed was nothing like what it actually is. We went to the San Francisco Bay Area at the end of May for a few weeks. During that stay we had an opportunity to visit Stanford University’s Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve. I thought I knew where it was, and thought I had been there before, until I went. Turns out we used to regularly cycle (and sometimes drive) right around there, and I never had any idea what was there.

Our friend, Diane Renshaw, has been a docent there since 2008 and offered to take four of us on a little hike. She was a consulting ecologist with a lifelong interest (some might say obsession) with all aspects of the natural world.  I can’t wait till she someday visits us here. I’m positive my eyes would open more to what’s all around me.

I didn’t realize there’s a very nice Field Station on-site, which we quickly went through, including a large meeting room, office space, a kitchen (be aware that the fridge can be used for both food and for specimens, clearly indicate appropriately), and an herbarium. It also had a lot of picnic tables outside. I could imagine both meals for the students on field trips as well as outdoor parties for wealthy Stanford donors.

This granary tree just outside the field station caught my attention. Acorn woodpeckers busily bury their winter’s food supply, acorns, in the tree. Apparently there was so much rain earlier this year, some of those acorns sprouted in the trunk.

Below are scenes from the hike in gallery form before getting to the herbarium.

In answer to my question, a herbarium is a room or building that houses a systematically arranged collection of dried plants. According to Diane, “Herbaria are some of the oldest research tools that exist, dating back to the 16th century.  There are specimens collected personally by Darwin and other famous botanists still in herbaria around the world, and as you can imagine, herbarium specimens tell us a lot about plant distribution over time.  Unlike digital records, the physical specimens in herbaria can provide DNA samples, something you can’t get from a digital record.  Our collection at Stanford is quite modest compared to Harvard or Kew, e.g., but it’s a great local resource.”  

Here are just a few quick snapshots I took inside the herbarium. There were many more interesting things there, and we could have spent MUCH more time just exploring. It was fun to see it after having finished our Master Gardener class. I had more knowledge than before taking the class to better appreciate the herbarium.

When I told Diane that I wanted to write a short blog post mentioning the herbarium, she, unasked, went on a little plant nerd detour to find the type specimen of coffee for me. And, very kindly, described things for a lay person.

“Simplified explanation:  When a plant (or animal, or fossil, anything that ends up with a formal defined binomial scientific name) is first described in the literature, the collected specimen on which that description is based is designated the type specimen. Taxonomists and researchers can go look at that specimen for comparative purposes and decide if they have the same thing or perhaps they have a new, different species.

I thought it would be fun to look for the type specimen of Coffea arabica to see who collected it and where it came from.

With herbarium records widely digitized these days it was much easier to do this than it would have been 50 years, or even 10 years, ago.

I started at the GBIF (Global Biodiversity Information Facility) portal.  GBIF is an organization that is making scientific data of many sorts compatible and available on the internet.  

Starting at their search page I entered: “Coffea arabica L.”   The “L.” stands for Linnaeus, who first described the species, based on a specimen collected by someone else.

The results were interesting and confusing, not surprising given the long history and economic interest in this plant.  The GBIF search came up with two designated isotypes of coffee (isotype = collected at the same time and place as the type specimen) collected in 1884; both of those herbarium sheets are at the Natural History of London.  There is also a designated type specimen, collected later in 1927; that specimen is in the herbarium at the Missouri Botanical Garden.  

If I were a taxonomist I would now spend the rest of the day trying to figure out exactly what all this means, but I am most definitely not going to do that!  Instead, here are links so you can take a look at these venerable specimens — pretty amazing to be able to do this, I think — and perhaps compare your coffee plants with them.”

Thank you, Diane!

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