On Saturday, May 10, we were back up on Mt. Tam with the MMWD, documenting and collecting plants. A number of people asked me: what happens to our specimens after today? So, here, I present to you… the life of a specimen.
After all the work in the field (collecting, pressing in a field press, transferring to a plant press), there is still a lot of work back at the Academy to turn a collection into an herbarium specimen!
Once all the plant collections have been put in the plant press, they head to the Academy where they spend a week in the dryer. The dryer does exactly that - dries the specimens out so they don’t mold later. The presses are tightened after a day or so in the dryer, since the plants lose a lot of bulk once they start to dry, and the presses end up getting loose.
After a week in the dryer, the presses are given a big change in climate - into the freezer for a week! The freezer is kept at around -5° F. Freezing the specimens ensures that any insects or other living things we wouldn’t want in our herbarium are dead. There are often quite a few other interesting specimens from other research departments in the freezer as well!
After a chilly week in the freezer, the plants can finally be moved to the Botany department. As the presses are unpacked, each specimen is checked against a spreadsheet of all the data collected that particular day on Mt. Tam - that way we make sure all specimens are accounted for, have the correct collection numbers, and have the species name given to them in the field. The specimens themselves are also examined to make sure they fully dried.
Once we know that we have all the specimens and all the associated information is on the newspaper, the ID of each specimen is verified by a Botany staff member. When we have a confirmed ID, a label can be produced for that particular specimen, which includes all the relevant information: when and where it was collected, who it was collected by, and all the other data we collect as well - habitat, number of plants, etc.
Each label is then inserted into the newspaper holding its corresponding specimen. When specimens and labels are matched, they then can be mounted together on an herbarium sheet. A group of volunteer mounters work with the Mt. Tam specimens, gluing them carefully (and usually quite artistically!) onto the herbarium sheet, gluing the label, and adding a fragment packet to hold any little pieces of the plant that may have gotten loose. You can see the fragment packet to the right of the specimen below.
After being mounted, a specimen is ready to become part of the herbarium collections! The specimen is given a barcode, the information about the specimen is databased, and then the specimen is filed in the herbarium, first by family, then by location.
So… from the mountain, it usually takes about a month (or more, depending on how busy things are for citizen science and for Botany!) for a specimen to go through the full cycle and become part of the research collection. After that, it could still have other exciting adventures: having its DNA extracted for population genetics research, being loaned out to a researcher at another institution who wants to study it, having its label updated if the genus or species name changes… the life of a specimen goes on as long as the herbarium exists!