Centuries-Old Plant Collection Now Online — A Treasure Trove For Researchers Close to 800,000 records from about a dozen plant collections or "herbaria" are being digitized, allowing researchers broad access to data on plant species collected and preserved in past centuries.
NPR logo

Centuries-Old Plant Collection Now Online — A Treasure Trove For Researchers

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/641310268/644085251" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Centuries-Old Plant Collection Now Online — A Treasure Trove For Researchers

Centuries-Old Plant Collection Now Online — A Treasure Trove For Researchers

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/641310268/644085251" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

For centuries, scientists and amateur botanists scoured the country to document and preserve plant species. Their findings were prized like fine art. Now there's a new effort to digitize these collections, a treasure trove for researchers. From member station WHYY in Philadelphia, Susan Phillips reports.

SUSAN PHILLIPS, BYLINE: On the fifth floor of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, in a cool, windowless room that smells a little pungent...

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR CREAKING)

PHILLIPS: ...Tall, metal cabinets store some of the most famous dead plants in the world.

RICK MCCOURT: This is called Grindelia squarrosa. And it was collected...

PHILLIPS: Rick McCourt is the botany curator here. And he reads the notes scribbled around this dried and pressed pretty, yellow flower.

MCCOURT: And so it says prairies in the camp near the old Maha (ph) village - that's a Native American village - September 17, 1804.

PHILLIPS: Members of the Lewis and Clark expedition collected this medicinal flower. This herbarium, like a library for plants, is the oldest in North America. McCourt says it has more than a million dried plants collected by explorers, botanists and citizen scientists over the past 400 years.

MCCOURT: I almost think of it like any collector - like, you know, baseball trading cards. I mean, it was a competitive game to see if you could describe a lot of new species. And there were different levels of vanity associated with it.

PHILLIPS: These collections are difficult to access. But now there's a massive effort to photograph and make available online hundreds of thousands of plants housed in about a dozen institutions on the East Coast. It's called the Mid-Atlantic Megalopolis project. McCourt says hundreds of years of plant data could answer questions about conservation, climate change and development.

MCCOURT: Like, how has the environment changed? What plants occur where? Do they occur someplace differently now than they used to? Are they banished or gone from an area?

PHILLIPS: He says it might even raise the possibility of using plant DNA to bring back extinct species.

MCCOURT: That's more like a "Jurassic Park" dream. But DNA is DNA. Who knows?

PHILLIPS: At Muhlenberg College, ecologist Rich Niesenbaum just finished adding its plant collection to the database. He's using it to track down a rare and possibly endangered plant called the flat-stemmed pond weed. But going by the centuries-old handwritten notes isn't easy.

RICH NIESENBAUM: It's a grass - an aquatic grass growing in Cedar Creek south of Fairview Street.

PHILLIPS: The notes also mention a quarry. And there's only one in Allentown, so he's pretty confident he knows where to go.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNDERGROWTH RUSTLING)

PHILLIPS: We head to Cedar Creek, where thickets of reeds and cattails line the banks.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNDERGROWTH RUSTLING)

PHILLIPS: There's a lot of poison ivy here.

NEISENBAUM: I don't see any grass down in here.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNDERGROWTH RUSTLING)

PHILLIPS: Crowding out everything else are invasive species like Japanese knotweed and stiltgrass, one reason why some of these native plants are endangered. But then he does spot the rare grass.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

NEISENBAUM: All right. I'm getting in the creek.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

NEISENBAUM: Oh, that's refreshing. Yeah, I think we'll take this back to the lab and take a look at it.

PHILLIPS: But does it surprise you to even find it here?

NEISENBAUM: Yeah. I'm surprised. I mean, that's exciting because, you know, as a plant hunter - right? - we spend a lot more time hunting and looking than actually finding.

PHILLIPS: Niesenbaum says he'll grow it in the lab to make sure it's a match. If so, it will be added to the database, minus the exact location. Because the plant's at risk of being extinct, that will be kept a secret. For NPR News, I'm Susan Phillips in Philadelphia.

Copyright © 2018 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.