“Botany: the science in which plants are known by their aliases.”

I mentioned in a post a while back that one of my new projects was sorting out Ludlow’s Herbarium. After a period of being out of the office, travelling around visiting other museums and conferences, I have finally been able to get this project underway.

I wasn’t as excited about it as I have been about others; plants really aren’t my favourite thing. I think they’re amazing organisms and very fascinating, but I don’t get much joy from folder upon folder of dried and mounted specimens. I’m happy to say that a bit of time immersed in Ludlow’s herbarium has been good for me. This project has been, and continues to be, a study in classification and taxonomy, and how that applies (and why it’s important) to museums and their collections.

I began by looking though all the herbarium boxes that had been brought in from Shrewsbury. They had already been frozen to minimise pest threat. The folders in each box were arranged by family (using an outdated system) so I went through, making a note of each family in the order they appeared, and in which box. Once I had a definitive list of the families I needed to organise, I started my search for a stable and accepted system by which to organise the herbarium. The plan was to use that to amalgamate Ludlow’s existing herbarium with that from Shrewsbury.

Luckily I have a friend who works at Kew and he was able to offer some guidance. Before I go into detail, I will provide some background to the kingdom of plantae. It’s a tricky little thing. Plantae can be described and broken down in several ways. Instead of providing a comprehensive and strictly scientific break-down of the group, however, I’ll try to give an overview.

The kingdom can be split into non-vascular and vascular plants (this is no longer used in scientific nomenclature but I use it here to help explain). The former includes (some, especially green) algae and bryophytes (which in turn include mosses, liverworts and hornworts). ‘Non-vascular’ traditionally refers to land plants without a vascular system (xylem and phloem). ‘Vascular’ plants are those which do have lignified tissues for conducting water, minerals and photosynthetic products through the plant. These are sometimes called ‘higher plants’ and include: pteridophyta (ferns, horsetails and fern allies), gymnosperms (conifers, cycads, Ginko and gnetophyta) and angiosperms (flowering plants). The reason I have explained it using the terms ‘vascular’ and ‘non-vascular’, is because I am only organising the vascular divisions.

Since there are so many different divisions within plants, the systems that herbaria are organised by vary accordingly. Within each division, there are different systems. One must simply choose one that’s appropriate per group: it needs to be as stable as possible, in line with contemporary research and, hopefully, easy to follow. As I mentioned earlier, my friend at Kew (Lee Davies, take a bow) helped advise me on the system Kew are currently using for their flowering plants. It’s called the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group III system (APGIII), and was published in 2009. It handily presents a linear sequence of families for “curators who wish to arrange their collections systematically rather than alphabetically”. Each family is assigned a number based on its position on the phylogenetic tree; the specimens are then sorted into this numerical order and filed. By applying this to both the Ludlow and Shrewsbury herbaria, I will end up with a large, consistently organised collection following a recognised system.

Once I had figured this out and assigned the APGIII numbers to the families in our collection, I had to do the same thing for the other groups (gymnosperms, ferns and fern allies). Each one uses a different system, and the family numbers had to be assigned accordingly.

I now have a spreadsheet listing every family in the herbarium (of vascular plants) along with the relevant classification system used, the corresponding family number from said system, the location of our specimens and four days. My next task is to physically sort the material from two locations into one unified and standardised collection. As I go, I will have to label each herbarium folder, adding the new family number as well as any changes (e.g. if the family is no longer accepted and a given genus is now within a ‘new’ family). I will also have to keep a record of the Shrewsbury specimens for audit purposes, noting all the details for each specimen sheet (names, dates and numbers) in a table. I will have to do this separately for the Ludlow material also, since they still need to be photographed; we also need to add the new family numbers to the database and therefore need a list.

I still have a lot of work to do, but now that I have an up-to-date and, hopefully, robust system, I shouldn’t encounter too many problems. I hope.  Here are some more images of herbarium specimens.

2 thoughts on ““Botany: the science in which plants are known by their aliases.”

    • Ours are as well; I chose wisely. Some of them, especially the ferns, are lovely and could easily be hung on the wall (were it not for the fact that they’d crumble and fall off).

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