Friday, November 9, 2012

You Just Might Be a Plant Nerd....

...when a trip to your local vascular plant and mycological herbarium is the most exciting thing that can happen to you in a week.

When the Fletcher Wildlife Garden volunteers were invited to tour the National Vascular Plants Herbarium and the National Mycological Herbarium, I jumped at the chance!

An herbarium is a collection of dried plant specimens that have been mounted onto paper, or sometimes preserved in alcohol, labelled with pertinent information and collected for scientific study. Properly preserved, herbaria can last for hundreds of years. The oldest herbaria date back to the 1600's.

In Ottawa, the plant and mycological herbaria  are housed in the William Saunders building, on the the Central Experimental Farm.  
The plant herbarium houses a million and a half species, representing 20% of the world's plant population and 61% of Canada's. The focus of the collection is on cultivated, agricultural plants. The oldest specimen in this collection dates to 1820.
We got to see some archival mounting action! (I deeply want to believe that these researchers have all kinds of corny [Ha!  Corny. Agricultural plant.  Get it?]  jokes about their job. There's got to be a cheeky one for how many botanists does it take to mount a plant specimen?) Anyway...

The researchers who work here do some really quite fascinating work. They collaborate with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to identify unknown plant specimens crossing the border, that may be invasive and are involved with issuing phyto-sanitary certificates to companies shipping foodstuffs and other plant based goods. They've also worked in the past with the RCMP in getting a conviction for growing marijuana by being able to identify the root of the plant. And our tour guide shared the story of when they assisted in a murder case where the victim was taken by car from a golf course to the forest and they were asked to identify the plant matter caught in the wheel rims of the car. They IDed over 50 species.
Next we headed to the fungal collection, where 350,000 specimens are housed including the John Dearness collection.
The collections are kept in a climate controlled environment to help preserve the specimens, and the smell of moth balls in the air was evident.
The herbaria are currently in the process of establishing an electronic database of the collections.  What a job that must be!
I loved these giant puffball specimens.
I was thrilled to have the opportunity to tour these facilities and have a peek inside a world that your average citizen rarely has the chance to see.  Now I think I might just have to get myself a plant press!


J.Garlough said...

Wow, that's crazy cool! Here I am signing mushroom ID books out of the library like a sucker when actual specimens are just down the street.

How did they preserve those mushroom samples? They just cut them then press them?

Amber said...

I think that mushroom sample was quite old. The process is pretty simple. Slice, press, dry and mount. With many mushrooms they preserve the whole specimen and keep them in boxes. The facility has dehydrators that they use for new specimens coming in. Really cool stuff!