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Keeping track of our plants on the natural lands

For centuries (Wikipedia says since the 15th century!), botanists have created records of plants by collecting and preserving dry specimens. These collections are stored in what is called an herbarium (plural: herbaria), which are often housed at universities, botanical gardens, and other large institutions where they can be accessed for scientific research.

Jill Weber is the curator of the COA herbarium and a local botanist who lectures on botany at COA.

Herbaria are treasure troves of data including DNA, the plant’s size and shape, phenology, habitat, and location of collection. Researchers across many disciplines (botany, ecology, anthropology, climate science, taxonomy, agronomy...too many to list fully) use their collections in their studies. For example, in 2007, agricultural scientists used DNA from herbarium specimens to conclude the source of the original outbreak of citrus bacterial canker – a major issue for orange growers – was Florida in 1911.

Solidago purberula – common name: Downy goldenrod; collected on Cadillac Mountain in 1969

We do not study citrus diseases at the Preserve, but we still have a direct need for an herbarium. We are in the process of surveying the vascular plants on all 1,400 acres of our natural lands. We are making a big, detailed plant list and a ‘voucher’ of each species will be kept in the College of the Atlantic’s (COA) herbarium. Once a voucher is entered into COA’s herbarium it will always be available for reference, so in 100 years if the identification of a particular species found at Little Long Pond is in question, someone can double check it. This evidence is the gold standard for plant surveys and this single act of keeping a reference collection to back up our survey instantly maximizes its credibility.

The Preserve is grateful to have a local herbarium with which to work. The herbarium at COA is a cooperative project of the college and Acadia National Park and it is housed in the Davis Center for Human Ecology (the new building) on COA’s Bar Harbor campus. It maintains a collection of over 15,000 specimens documenting the vegetation of the Acadia National Park region and beyond, including plants from the natural lands of the Preserve.

Plant presses being used during a recent survey at LLP. The plant is put in between sheets of newspaper, which are in between layers of cardboard, and the press is tightened down to squash the plant flat. The plant is dehydrated and preserved that way.

The goal at the Preserve is to collect one specimen for every species we find on the natural lands. Rare plants are not collected but photographed instead. The process is simple and goes like this: first we conduct a plant survey on the natural lands and find a species new to our list. Then we collect the plant in the field and put it in a ‘plant press’ (see photo). Then we bring pressed plants to the COA herbarium where students mount (glue onto special paper), photograph (digitized for remote use), freeze, and store them. Freezing kills any bugs and eggs that may be living in/on the plant which, over time, could destroy them. The plants are stored alphabetically by botanical name, starting by family. The materials (acid free paper), formats (paper dimensions, layout of notes), and storage procedures are universal among herbaria, and they used for a common goal: keep the plants available for study for as long as possible.

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