The gathering included the University of Wyoming trustees as well as staff, faculty, volunteers and students working at the Rocky Mountain Herbarium. All eyes were on UW student, Madison Dale, as she carefully took the plant specimen from its holding spot, pressed between sheets of newspaper since 1993. Next she carefully placed the brittle plant on its permanent resting place where it will be preserved for years to come. She used glue to secure the specimen and the description label. Once done, the crowd erupted in applause.
Acting director of the herbarium, Dr. Greg Brown, said they asked Dale to slow down since, according to Brown, she can take a plant specimen from newsprint to permanent mounting in record time.
“Madison does amazing work,” Brown said. “She prepares the specimens so well and so quickly that we had to ask her to slow down with this one.”
What makes this plant so special was that it is the one millionth specimen prepared at the Rocky Mountain Herbarium.
Think of the herbarium as a library but, instead of holding books, it houses plants. The herbarium currently takes up the entire third floor of the Aven Nelson building on the University of Wyoming campus. As space becomes available, the herbarium will expand to other floors of the building. More space is needed since, of the 686 herbariums in the U.S., the Rocky Mountain Herbarium is the 14th largest. Of the 3,024 herbariums in the world, it is ranked the 56th largest.
“We are the largest herbarium between St. Louis and Berkeley,” Brown said. “If we were a football team, we would be in the big league. This herbarium is the unknown crown jewel of Wyoming.”
The pressed plant specially selected for the honor of being the one-millionth specimen is the Wyoming state flower: Indian paintbrush, or Castilleja linariifolia. This specimen was collected by Ernie Nelson, herbarium manger since 1978, from the Salt River and Wyoming Ranges. It was found along Gooseberry Spring when Nelson and long-time herbarium director, Ron Hartman, collected 17,446 specimens from that area for the U.S. Forest Service in 1992-1993.
Hartman, who passed away in 2018, served as curator of the herbarium starting in 1977. He retired five years ago and that was when Brown took over as acting director.
“At that time we had a tremendous number of specimens pressed and in need of mounting,” Brown said. “Ron had a goal of documenting as much of the Rocky Mountain flora as possible, not only from Wyoming but the surrounding states. Because of all the collecting efforts, we had a tremendous backlog of samples needing to be mounted.”
The thousands of specimens, referred to as “overburden” by the herbarium staff and volunteers, are kept in cardboard boxes stacked on top of the collection cabinets. Thanks to Laramie’s low humidity, the specimens are in good condition but a fire or insect infestation could change that in the blink of an eye.
Since taking charge of the herbarium, Brown made it a priority to reduce the overburden and get the specimens properly preserved. Also, thanks to a National Science Foundation grant, the herbarium has expanded into the digital age. Instead of physically visiting the herbarium to look at specimens, researchers and others just wanting to bone up on their plant identification can go on-line to view high resolution photographs of many of the specimens. In fact, the herbarium is second in the national for the number of specimens that can be viewed on-line.
At a recent botanist’s gathering, Brown said one of the researchers told him that the Rocky Mountain Herbarium has the “best website on the planet” for viewing Rocky Mountain flora.
“There are botanists across the state who tell me they go to the website nearly every day to look up a plant,” Brown said. “Since they can’t come into the herbarium themselves, they find the website very valuable.”
Not only is this “library of plants” available for state researchers, Brown said they get requests every week from researchers around the country for plant samples or loans to help further other research efforts.
For those wanting to get an up-close view of the one-millionth specimen, the herbarium is hosting the Millionth Specimen Event on April 23 and 24 with a featured speaker. Those not wanting to wait, though, can view the specimen on-line. Just type in “1000000” in the accession number field at the website: rmh.uwyo.edu.