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									Herbaria a "Slice" of the Tree of Life

Purdue, Plants And Pioneers

By Brian Wallheimer

A few years ago Nick Harby was helping a botanist with a specimen in one of Purdue Agriculture's herbaria
when they came across one with a label that read "Black Hills W.T." that caught his attention.

The specimen had been collected in 1874 in present-day South Dakota, then known as the Wyoming Territory,
and was signed "Custer."

Harby filed the specimen away, but he couldn't stop thinking about it. Later that night, after a little research,
Harby discovered that the only Custer in the Black Hills during that time would have been George Armstrong
Custer, the 7th Cavalry general who made his famous last stand at the Battle of Little Big Horn two years later.

Harby raced back to the herbarium and spent the better part of a day sorting through and pulling about a dozen
specimens Custer collected during an expedition to the Black Hills to look for gold prospects.

"It didn't click in my head at first," says Harby, the herbaria assistant. "I find things in here all the time that I
didn't know we had. It's amazing."

Custer took Aris Donaldson as botanist on the trip, and his samples were sent back to John Coulter, a member
of Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone expeditions, to identify. Coulter was teaching at Hanover College. He took
the collection with him to Wabash College, which donated its herbarium to the New York Botanical Garden in
1987 with about 40 of the Custer specimens.

How the others came to rest at Purdue isn't clear, but Coulter's friends and colleagues included Charles
Barnes, professor of botany at Purdue, and J.C. Arthur, the Arthur Herbarium's namesake. Additionally, in the
late 1880s, Coulter's brother Stanley Coulter (Stanley Coulter Hall) became director of the biological
laboratories at Purdue.

Libraries for Plants
Purdue Agriculture's Department of Botany and Plant Pathology has two herbaria: the Joseph C. Arthur
Herbarium is one of the largest collections of rust fungi in the world, with about 100,000 specimens. The Ralph
M. Kriebel Herbarium contains about 75,000 vascular plants and 16,000 non-rust fungi.

The specimens—some more than a century old—are taped to large sheets of paper with tags that identify who
collected them, when and where. They're a sort of library for plants and fungi that researchers can use to
identify other plants or understand where the plants have lived.


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The plant repositories recently moved to a more modern space in Lilly Hall. The new area is climate-controlled
and has better fire-suppression systems necessary for insuring the collection. It also contains a work area
where Harby and others photograph and inventory the collections. Then they are posted online, giving the world
access to the resources.

"This is a wonderful new space where these collections can be protected and appreciated as they deserve,"
says Peter Goldsbrough, head of the Department of Botany and Plant Pathology. "There are people all over the
world who want to use this collection for their research, and we want to make it more available and visible for
them."

The Kriebel Herbarium also received a large set of specimens last year from Eli Lilly and Company in
Indianapolis, which was searching for a place to send herbarium pieces it no longer wished to keep.

"Lilly, as all pharmaceutical companies once did, relied on botanicals as its source for drugs," Goldsbrough
says. "Most pharmaceutical research now uses other methods to identify new drugs today. This was an
opportunity, because of the renovation and new space, to preserve the collection and add new items to our
plant herbarium."

The Arthur Herbarium's rust collection, as one of the largest in the world, puts Purdue's herbaria on the map.
Many of the items in the Arthur collection are "isotype specimens," meaning they are original, official
specimens. Scientists will often refer to an isotype specimen when encountering an unknown or new species so
that it can be categorized correctly.

Books contain descriptions of each species, but that isn't always enough. "Sometimes you want to compare the
new specimen with the physical type specimen," says Greg Shaner, professor emeritus of botany and plant
pathology who studied rust fungi in wheat and oats. "It's like the old saying that a picture is worth a thousand
words."

The oldest specimen in the collection is also one of the most famous. The single leaf of Berberis ilicifolia
(barberry) was collected in 1769 in Tierra del Fuego, South America, during Capt. James Cook's first voyage
around the world. The specimen was sent to Purdue after it developed rust.

Glimpse into the Past
While the Arthur Herbarium is the larger and more prominent of the collections, the Kriebel Herbarium has a
significant amount of history attached to it.

Besides the connection to Custer, the herbarium is a record of the plant life that has existed in Indiana.

"It's like a glimpse through time to see what was here in the past," says Michael Homoya, botanist/plant
ecologist in the Division of Nature Preserves with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. "It is a valuable
record of what we have in the state. It's valuable even as new specimens are introduced to see how plant life is
changing in the state." Homoya uses the Kriebel Herbarium in his efforts to maintain records of rare, threatened
and endangered plant species in the state.



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Looking through herbarium records, Homoya can track where plant species were found a century or more ago.
Comparing the records to the location of those plants today can tell him whether the species is still healthy and
active, or whether it is experiencing some sort of decline.

Sally Weeks, the dendrology laboratory manager in Purdue's Department of Forestry and Natural Resources,
has used the Kriebel Herbarium in her publications, especially Shrubs of Indiana, Their Identification and Uses,
a resource for the Master Gardeners program, nursery operators and anyone interested in plant life. "I have
used the herbarium a lot to identify things I'm seeing in the wild," she says.

"We, as botanists, like to know what was in the state of Indiana, where it was located and what it looked like,"
Weeks says. "It really gives you a picture of how our landscapes have changed, how humans have altered our
landscapes."

The herbaria also offer glimpses into Purdue's own past.

J.C. Arthur began the herbarium that bears his name. Arthur, a renowned mycologist in his day, was one of the
first Purdue faculty members and the first head of the Department of Botany and Plant Pathology.

In the 1880s, when Arthur started at Purdue, he had to supply his own specimens—some of the first teaching
tools for students in Purdue Agriculture—and they are still used to this day. Arthur's collection is the longest
continually supported Purdue Agricultural Experiment Station project in history.

"Having your own exclusive herbarium would have been important for a botanist back then in the same way that
slide collections were valuable instructional tools for faculty not that long ago," Goldsbrough says. "The
collections of materials would have been important both for teaching and research."

The Kriebel Herbarium gets its name from Ralph M. Kriebel—teacher, botanist and conservationist and mentee
of renowned botanist Charles C. Deam, who was himself mentored by Purdue's Stanley Coulter. Kriebel
worked for the Soil Conservation Service and later the Agricultural Extension Service at Purdue. When he died,
his herbarium of more than 10,000 specimens was donated to Purdue.

In that collection are the specimens of John Hussey, one of six original faculty members hired at Purdue in
1874.

"We still have all his specimens," Harby says. "So, if you look at them now, you're looking at the same things
the first Purdue students learned from all those years ago."

Sorting It All Out
Harby is still sorting and cataloging the specimens that have been a part of Purdue, Indiana, American and
world history. With the addition of the Lilly specimens, which Harby estimates at about 14,000, he'll be busy for
some time. He's not sure what gems he might dig up while reading the elaborate cursive description tags
attached to each page.

"This is Purdue's little slice of the tree of life," Harby says.



Purdue Agricultures                                                                                                           Story Link
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