BRIT herbarium an evolving database of the ‘history of plant life on the planet’

Posted Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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The botanical surprises arrive by the hundreds every week, sent by everyone from curious schoolkids, to backyard naturalists, to compulsive plant collectors and field researchers working in remote corners of the globe.

Each new plant sample at the Botanical Research Institute of Texas Herbarium represents another sown seed in its effort to record the “history of plant life on the planet,” said botanist Amanda Neill, director of the herbarium, which holds 1,050,000 dried and pressed specimens.

The new arrivals serve as botanical markers charting the retreat of endangered plants and the advance of invasive species and even the onset of climate change signaled by a plant that blooms earlier than it did 100 years ago, Neill said.

Pressed between sheets of newspaper from around the world, the specimens — ranging from spiny desert cactus to lush tropical flowers — are first placed in driers and then frozen for four days at 40 below to insure that the ride is over for hitchhiking insects.

BRIT volunteers then carefully glue the specimens to archival paper along with field notes regarding who, where, when, and under what circumstances a plant was collected, said Neill, who has gathered 3,740 specimens from Texas, Jamaica, Peru, Ecuador, Costa Rica and Belize in her 15-year botanical career.

Art and science

The mounted results are a simple yet striking blend of art and science that can last for hundreds of years. Orchids gathered more than 100 years ago retain their delicate hues, and decades-old bluebonnets still pop with color.

The new additions, about 20,000 a year, join a preserved global garden of more than 53,000 species of wild and cultivated plants inside the climate-controlled BRIT facility, the largest independent herbarium in the United States.

The repository serves as a reference for plant life, said botanist Tiana Rehman, the herbarium collection manager.

“What’s exciting is that new species are not being found in South America, but inside our metal cabinets,” she said.

“Discoveries rarely happen in the field; the discovery happens in the herbarium. You can’t have a discovery without comparative material,” Rehman said.

Native plants from Texas account for about a quarter of the collection, and about 30 percent came from the U.S., Neill said.

“The value of a large collection is that three bluebonnets is great but 200 bluebonnets is a lot better if you are trying to learn something about distribution over time,” Neill said.

BRIT, a nonprofit organization, was incorporated in 1987 when SMU decided to eliminate its herbarium with 450,000 plant specimens and a library of 75,000 botanical volumes.

“SMU considered sending the collection to Missouri or New York, but powerful local philanthropists stepped in and said let’s keep this collection in Texas,” Neill said.

First housed in a turn-of-the-century warehouse, BRIT moved into state-of-the-art environmentally sensitive campus adjacent to the Fort Worth Botanic Gardens in 2011. The building features a “living roof” of plants from the Fort Worth prairie and is surrounded by a landscape of native flora.

‘Stamp in time’

The herbarium is a “super source” for Dotty Woodson of the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service when she can’t immediately identify a plant that someone might have discovered in a pasture or a hike in the wilds.

She recently heard from an American developer seeking a highway construction contract in New Guinea.

“He’s wanting to know what impact the construction will have on plant species. He called and said he needed to talk to an expert, I told him he needed to talk to BRIT not me; they did an assessment of the plants in parts of New Guinea.”

“It’s a great resource, not just in Fort Worth or in Texas but all over the world,” Woodson said.

Botanist Jason Singhurst of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department said the BRIT herbarium is an valuable resource for tracking plants that are rare, threatened or a species of concern in Texas.

“The historic collections there provides a stamp in time. There’s a plant that hasn’t been seen since the 1880s and they have a collection of it from near Benbrook. We would hope someday, someone finds another one. If we didn’t know they were there, we wouldn’t be keeping an eye for it,” he said.

Fittingly, the herbarium’s oldest specimen is from the forget-me-not family and was collected in 1791 by Thaddeus Haenke, a Czech scientist and well-traveled explorer who gathered it somewhere in Mexico, Neil said.

“Who knows, what was considered Mexico then could have been right here on the Fort Worth prairie,” she said.

“People send us plants because they want to know what it is. And then we mount it and put it in the herbarium,” Neil said. “That can amount to a kind of fame. Your name could be rubbing right up against Thaddeus Haenke or Ferdinand Lindheimer, the father of Texas botany,” she said.

Lindheimer, a German-born amateur naturalist and newspaperman who settled in New Braunfels in the 1850s, was the first person to collect plants in Central Texas, Neil said. He’s credited with the discovery of several hundred plant species, including a milkweed, a loco weed, a mimosa, a prickly pear and a rock daisy, according to the Handbook of Texas.

Digitizing collection

Seeing Lindheimer’s specimens requires a visit to the herbarium, but BRIT is working to globalize its reach by digitizing high-resolution photos of the collection, said Jason Best, director of biodiversity informatics.

Since 2005, about 11,000 images have been added to the BRIT Digital Herbarium, including ongoing work on flora collections for Tarrant and Denton counties, he said. Of the 5,000 Texas plant species, 2,450 are represented in the digital collection.

“You can zoom way in and see the individual hairs on a leaf,” Best said. “It’s a multimedium merger of hundreds of years of herbarium science and preparing it for the next 100 years.”

The digital project is limited by funding, and so far the best sources have been people interested in particular plants and Native Plant Societies of Texas, Neill said.

One plant lover underwrote the digitization of the herbarium’s virtual collection of 902 Texas ferns, she said.

“We love digitizing a group of ‘related’ plants, as they are filed all together in the same cabinet and we don’t have to go hunting for them. Would someone like to support the digitization of the oaks of Texas? The sunflowers? The violets? Pick your favorite plant — or the favorite plant of a loved one — and come talk to us,” she said.

Social connection

Unhappy with the low number of plants from Kendall County represented in the herbarium, the 75 members of the Boerne chapter of the native plant society decided to do something about it.

The group is funding the cost of an intern to digitize the county’s collection, and a team is gathering more specimens, said member Donna Taylor.

“The folks here are very familiar with what’s in Kendall County, but having a reference online will help other people realize what is here,” she said.

That sort of connection to a region’s plant life is what Rehman finds most fascinating about the herbarium.

“The specimens impart social history. We have specimens that were collected in ‘Indian Country,’ It makes you wonder what that botanist was going through. Why were they there? Were they carrying guns with them? What kind of entourage did they have?” she said.

“Nobody can know everything that is in the herbarium. It requires a whole world of botanists to interpret what we have. They have value now, but we have no idea of their significance in the future.”

Steve Campbell, 817-390-7981 Twitter: @stevecamp

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