Miami University's herbarium: Just call it a tomb for 675,000 plants

Field Trip: Taking you inside Tri-State classrooms

OXFORD, Ohio – Tucked away in the corner of Upham Hall’s first floor lies a room that, aside from the peculiar scent of mothballs and glue, first appears to be a normal biology lab. Hidden behind the large metal door in the back of the room, however, are the catacombs.

“The plants in it are dead. A lot of people don’t realize that. Everything here is dead,” said R. James Hickey, the assistant curator of Miami University’s herbarium.

It’s a tomb for plants. The hundreds of large metal cabinets, which fill up three floors underneath Upham Hall, contain thousands of dried and preserved plant specimens. Some of the oldest specimens date as far back as the 1790s.

Miami University’s collection of plant specimens, the Willard Sherman Turrell Herbarium, is the largest herbarium in Ohio. The collection is continuing to grow, and many of the specimens are being added into an online database in order to make their information available to researchers and classrooms across the globe.

“We have about 675,000 specimens in the collection from all over the world,” said Michael Vincent, the curator of Miami’s herbarium.

The herbarium sends and receives specimens from institutions in several other countries, such as Russia and Argentina. The herbarium is involved with over 50 exchange programs worldwide, including a partnership with the New York Botanical Gardens, which makes it one of the country’s most active herbaria.

“Miami is really blessed because we have such a large collection,” said Hickey. “We’re really in the big leagues.”

Miami University’s herbarium is one of 25 herbaria involved in two major projects funded by the National Science Foundation. It received a $29,000 grant to collect information on vascular plant specimens into an online database, and $37,000 for its work with fungal specimens. According to a 2012 press release, the National Science Foundation hopes to make currently inaccessible “dark data” available to the general public through the grants made by its Advancing Digitalization of Biological Collections program.

“There’s a really big push in the university community right now to make biological information available,” Vincent said. “Hundreds of thousands, if not millions of these specimens will be available online as a result of this grant.”

Organizing data for thousands of plants is not an easy job. Vincent currently has 12 undergraduates and two graduate students working at the herbarium to help him with the vascular plant project, which is set to be complete in June 2014. Many of these workers are freshman botany majors at Miami.

“I need work done, but secondly I also want to hire people who will learn something from doing it. It’s sort of like training them as botanists,” Vincent said. The undergraduates work around ten hours a week, and are paid about $8 an hour.

“It’s almost like an apprenticeship,” Hickey said.

The herbarium obtains its specimens through field collection, donations, exchange programs and purchases. Once the plants are collected, they’re sent through a series of steps before they’re ready to be put into the database and filed into the cabinets. Most undergraduate workers are only involved in the earlier steps of the process, but they still get to be hands-on with the plants.

“I do the peasant work,” said Ryan Hickey, a freshman botany major and the son of R. James Hickey. “Pretty much, I glue specimens to paper so people who are doing actual science can look at them.”

The plants are mounted to acid-free paper using a combination of glue and water. These plants are paired with a card containing information on the species, where it was collected, when it was collected and who collected it. This information card is also glued to the acid-free paper, and a barcode sticker is placed on the top corner of the paper. Though it may be tedious, Ryan Hickey said the process helps him to learn more about the plants as he works.

“I’ve gotten a lot more familiar with the families and family names,” he said. “I’ve mounted specimens that are over a hundred years old. It’s a good place to learn.”

Rebekah Mohn is also a freshman botany major who helps with mounting specimens.

“I like being able to work with the plants. It’s easy to pick up the information when you’re working,” she said.

After being mounted, the plant is placed into a light box, which emanates an extremely bright light. A herbarium employee takes a picture of the plant and scans the barcode to connect the plant’s image to the physical specimen in the archives.

“It makes the color of the plant true, which is important when comparing it to other specimens,” said Brody Betsch, a freshman botany major who images plants in the herbarium.

After being imaged, the plant’s data is entered into the system and the specimen

is filed into the proper cabinet based on the species name.

In 1984, the herbarium housed around 200,000 specimens. Now, because of the herbarium’s increased involvement with exchange programs and the field research done by Vincent and Hickey, Miami University is home to over 600,000 plant specimens, as well as several fungi, wood sample and fossil collections.

R. James Hickey attributes the herbarium’s growth and success to Vincent’s work. Hickey and Vincent have both been working at Miami since 1984.

“When we came here, it was a small collection, but thanks to him it was transformed into a world-class herbarium,” Hickey said. “Any honors that go to the herbarium are due to him, truly. He’s an amazing person.”

“He’s going to keel over dead in this place before he retires,” said Kevin Bisbing, who graduated from Miami in 2013 with a degree in Botany and now works as Vincent’s assistant. “I don’t have the encyclopedic knowledge that Mike does. He knows instantly where everything is.”

“That’s what happens with old age,” Vincent replied. After working in the herbarium for 31 years, Vincent has a vast knowledge of plants that surprises even his own workers.

“Personally, I think that everyone ought to know everything about all aspects of life,” said Vincent. “There’s a tremendous amount of information on North American biodiversity that’s locked away in these collections. It helps educate people about biodiversity but also the effects of their decisions on biodiversity.”

Betsch agrees that the information contained in the herbarium is important for everyone to understand.

“I don’t think people understand how important plants are,” he said. “I think the online database will help with that.”

While the herbarium employees may have a greater knowledge and appreciation of plants than the average college student, Bisbing said he hopes that their passion for even the simple things in life will reflect upon other people.

“We don’t get a lot of students passing through here, but we’re always open,” said Bisbing. “We have plenty of really fabulous, outlandish and loud specimens, but the best ones are the ones that you don’t expect.”

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