"A Search for Green Treasure": Update

January 31, 2010

In late October, the Duke herbarium threw open the doors of its new digs for members of the university community to see. There, visitors mingled among 400,000 pressed angiosperms, or flowering plants, that now fit neatly into tall storage cabinets loaded into movable, library-like carriages.

After three years in exile at a moldy off-site storage area and decades of semi-organized chaos, the new space, in the phytotron behind the French Family Science Center, is literally a breath of fresh air. The facility, renovated over the summer to house the collection, is temperature- and humidity-controlled, keeping away insects and mold, two major enemies of preserved plants.

When the herbarium was last in Duke Magazine, the chair of the botany department (now professor emeritus) Donald Stone issued a dire pronouncement. "We're overflowing right now," he said at the time, "which means that the collections can't be properly taken care of, nor can they be accessed readily by students and scientists, or shared with the community of scientists."

The collection, one of the largest of its kind, was then stored in 700 gray steel cabinets scattered throughout the Biological Sciences building. Kathleen Pryer Ph.D. '95, associate professor of biology, points out the marks still on the hallway floors from where the cabinets sat. Now director of the herbarium, Pryer has teamed up with curator Michael Windham to make other substantive changes.

Windham has computerized the collection's catalogue, though, as was the case in 1998, some plant identities remain unknown. Using a grant from the National Science Foundation (which also paid for the moving expenses), Windham had a researcher identify all of the genera, which will allow him to know more easily what plants he has.

A new classification system has been introduced as well and reflects the changing nature of botany. The herbarium is now being organized to aid researchers looking into plant DNA, still an evolving aspect of the field in 1998. Not all the plants have been entered, though. "We're still in the implementation phase," says Windham.

One thing hasn't changed: Sherri Herndon, who has worked preserving the plant samples for forty years, is still at it. When photographers for the magazine last visited, her office was so cramped that they had to stand on a sink to take her picture. Now, together with the specimens she works with every day, she has a much more spacious, and fertile, environment.