Louis F. Henderson had a passion for plants. The young Portland high school teacher spent his weekends hopping freight trains bound for eastern or southern Oregon to collect plants. Recalling trips he took in the 1880s, he later wrote, “My regular plan during the spring, while I was still teaching, was to rush home on Friday afternoons, hastily change into working clothes and then jump a train. I would travel till daylight was breaking…, work all day collecting, and then board the first night train…for home.”
By horse, train, or foot, Henderson returned from his wild forays with plant presses bulging with botanical booty—and many species new to science. Field guides to local plants had not yet been written for the Pacific Northwest. But those who would write those guides would owe much to Henderson and dozens of other 19th-century plant explorers whose collections and natural history notes became the foundation of the Oregon State University Herbarium.
As the world’s largest collection of Oregon plants, algae, and fungi, the OSU Herbarium now contains more than 400,000 specimens and is still growing. But the herbarium is much more than a collection of pressed plants, explained its director, Aaron Liston, a professor in OSU’s botany and plant pathology department. “An herbarium is like a library—a huge reservoir of information,” he said.
The oldest specimens in the OSU Herbarium go back about 140 years. Some record plants that have vanished from the state, others document newly arrived invaders. Each specimen is pressed, dried, and labeled with the date and location it was collected and notes about its habitat and other species found close by.
“In many cases we have dozens of examples of one species of plant, collected from different locations through the decades,” Liston said. “This helps us document variation within any given plant species and also track the decline or spread of species over time.”
Among the collections are 2,300 “type specimens,” or reference plants that botanists use for their official descriptions in plant identification guides. Images of many of these, along with their official description in the scientific literature, are now accessible online to scientists around the world as part of the OSU Library’s digital assets collection.
If the OSU Herbarium is like a library of plant specimens, the Oregon Flora Project could be considered the library’s catalogue. The Oregon Flora Project has been using the Herbarium collection to develop a new complete plant guide, or flora, for Oregon.
The Oregon Flora Project was the dream of Scott Sundberg, an OSU botanist who died of cancer in 2004. His spouse, Linda Hardison, has taken on direction of the huge, mostly volunteer effort to bring this multifaceted project to fruition.
Hardison and her team are developing a Web tool kit, where professionals and amateurs can generate maps of plant distributions, locate photos of most plant species, and identify almost any uncultivated plant you could find in Oregon. They have developed a searchable Rare Plant Guide with fact sheets on 110 of Oregon’s imperiled plants and will soon roll out an online photo gallery with field photos coupled with Herbarium specimen photos and with up-to-date nomenclature.
“There is currently no modern, comprehensive plant guide for Oregon, nor any centralized information about plant distribution,” explained Hardison. “We are developing these for everyone, from ecologists, land use planners, and scientists to gardeners, hikers, and plant enthusiasts.”
Back at the OSU Herbarium, curator Richard Halse uses the plant collection to help people solve botanical mysteries. “I get packages full of wilted weeds or hay samples sent to me from people all over the state. They all want to know, ‘What is this plant?’ Sometimes they just send me photographs,” Halse said. “I’ve had to identify partially digested plant fragments from the stomach of a dead horse, or from the rumen of a sick cow, and even from dead geese and ducks.”
“Out here in Extension county offices, we really depend upon Halse’s identification skills,” said Brian Tuck, an OSU Extension agronomist in Wasco County. “Growers need quick answers sometimes. Halse can examine a sample of crop seed and tell the grower what kinds of weeds will sprout and even maybe where the weeds came from.”
Tom Cook agrees. “Richard Halse is the guy we all go to when we are stumped,” said Cook, OSU’s turf grass specialist. “When I get weed specimens that I can’t identify, from golf courses or home owners’ lawns, I send them to Richard. So far, he has never failed me.”
Where does Halse go when he needs answers? He goes to the library catalogue: the Oregon Flora Project where the OSU Herbarium data and other botanical reports on Oregon plants are combined in a searchable database.
“If we get plants in that I’ve never seen before in Oregon, I run a search using their database and make maps of all the places the plant has ever been recorded in Oregon through history,” said Halse. “People can go online and find out what the plant looks like, when it blooms, and where it has been found over time.”
Researchers of all stripes depend on the knowledge collected in the herbarium. OSU range ecologist Jeff Miller studies the biodiversity of butterflies and moths in Oregon. “If I collect a caterpillar on a plant, I might bring the plant into the Herbarium and ask Richard to verify its identity,” said Miller. He uses the online Oregon Flora Project to generate maps of where a particular plant occurs, then he heads out to those areas to search for the insect species associated with that plant. These records of plants and insects collected over time become so-called legacy data that ecologists use to measure environmental change.
Restoration ecologists need a snapshot of Oregon’s ecological past. “Seeing past and present distributions of both native and introduced plant species are useful in understanding how large dams can affect common streamside species,” explained Linda Ashkenas, an aquatic ecologist in OSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. She and her colleague Stan Gregory used maps generated through the Oregon Flora Project to assist The Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to make recommendations for future dam operations in the Upper Willamette Basin.
The Herbarium has even helped unravel cultural mysteries of local plants. Ecologist Jesse Ford and her colleagues collected plants in partnership with the King Island Iñupiat people in a remote region of western Alaska. Specimens in the OSU Herbarium helped the researchers to identify and document some of the botanical knowledge important to the King Islanders.
Even fungi make it into the collection. OSU plant diagnostician Melodie Putnam identifies fungal plant pathogens and often submits them to the OSU Herbarium to become part of the biological record.
And that biological record continues to grow. Within the next few years, the Oregon Flora Project will unveil its new book, the Flora of Oregon, in paper and digital formats. “Hundreds of Oregon botanists, citizen scientists, and students have contributed and are still contributing to the Oregon Flora,” said Hardison. “We are transforming science-based knowledge and making it really accessible, whether you are a researcher or a gardener.”