Monday, February 28, 2011

Tour the Duke Herbarium

Passiflora specimen, courtesy of Duke Herbarium

By Kathleen M. Pryer

Just what makes an oak an oak or a pine a pine? Until recently, it was based upon what we could see about a plant. For centuries, botanists and plant collectors have searched for plants in remote and isolated jungles, in urban waste lots and along railroad tracks, in order to document the diversity and distribution of the earth's flora.

The dried plant specimens are stored and studied in herbaria, which can be thought of as a library of plant life. As we lose natural habitats across the world, herbaria provide a record of plant life, and they serve as a repository of precious genetic information. Herbaria hold the tools for our understanding of the plant world.

Each herbarium specimen is key to understanding plant relationships, geographic distributions and economic usefulness. More recently, genetic and molecular studies using herbarium specimens have allowed us to see plants at an entirely different level. This refinement in our understanding of how plants may be related is a dramatic story in the botanical world.

Some early herbaria were established in Europe in the early 1600s, a time of great exploration. New plants were being found at such a rate that botanical gardens could not keep pace by growing living examples of every new species found. Representatives of many known (and even undescribed) species of plants can be found in herbaria today, carefully mounted on sheets of archival quality paper, labeled with important collection information about them, and stored on shelves in cabinets in climate-controlled rooms.

All in all, the quiet herbarium holds a fascinating story. At the Duke University Herbarium you can see 800,000 diverse specimens of algae, fungi, lichens, mosses and vascular plants. These include samples of rare passionflowers discovered in the 1970s by Duke scientists working in Costa Rica, grasses from the 1890s Biltmore Estate, and Amborella, a small shrub found only on the island of New Caledonia in the South Pacific.

Duke Gardens is offering a tour of the Duke Herbarium on March 4 from 3 to 4:30 p.m. You will have the opportunity to see the collection, hear from a botanist who studies and manages it and learn about the amazing work being done across the globe. For information or to register, please call 668-1707 or e-mail

Sarah P. Duke Gardens creates and nurtures an environment in the heart of Duke University for learning, inspiration and enjoyment through excellence in horticulture. The Gardens is at 420 Anderson St.

Kathleen M. Pryer is director of the Duke Herbarium and an associate professor of biology at Duke. This column first ran in the Durham Herald-Sun on Feb. 19.

For more Duke Gardens classes and special events, please see this previous post.
Adiantum specimen, courtesy of Duke Herbarium

No comments:

Post a Comment