AN HERBARIUM IS a collection of carefully preserved plants, a means of documenting where plants grow and recording details about their morphology (the physical properties of the plant’s structure). For botanists, ecologists and even pharmaceutical researchers, it is a library of past and present data that will inform the future.
For plant lovers, an herbarium is a diary of our planet’s biodiversity, each carefully prepared and mounted specimen a love letter to, and from, nature. Like when a pressed leaf of redbud hazel (Disanthus cercidifolius), a shrub that’s prized for its crimson fall color, becomes a Valentine.
The Otis Douglas Hyde Herbarium is a collection of cultivated plants found in the University of Washington Botanic Gardens (UWBG), along with plants growing in regional gardens, like Bellevue Botanical Garden, Heronswood and the Elisabeth Miller Botanical Garden, among others. The Hyde Herbarium also is home to a collection documenting noxious weeds of Washington. Each carefully prepared specimen is as unique and beautiful as the plant it portrays — even the weeds.
Along with UWBG staff and local plantspeople, students and community volunteers collect the plants, then meticulously press, dry and mount each collection before entering characteristics about the plant, including where and when it was collected, into the Herbarium database. Volunteers gather every other Tuesday to prepare and file specimens, and, when they’re caught up on their “official” work, they create botanical notecards.
Every piece, whether it’s a part of the formal Herbarium collection or a charming notecard, is prepared in the same way, using acid-free paper and archival glue. Ray Larson is curator of living collections at UWBG. “There is definitely an art to getting the leaves glued down and the flowers arranged,” he says. “Specimens are crafted to last for at least 100 years.”
In addition to collecting and maintaining the Herbarium collection, the Hyde provides free plant identification services to the public and assists students, faculty and staff with research. Herbarium staff can direct those with questions to the appropriate resources and help them navigate specimens (subject to COVID-19 safety restrictions).
Many parts of the university and UWBG have been hard hit by budget cuts in the aftermath of the year we’ve just been through. It takes money and human resources to maintain and staff the Herbarium. “An herbarium is a living thing,” says Larson. “The collection is kept in a special climate-controlled room to protect the material and keep insects from getting in and wreaking havoc. We can’t just forget about it for a few years and come back later.”
Hyde Herbarium operations largely rely on public donations. Now you can support the work and in return receive one-of-a-kind Herbarium notecards. Each card is roughly 4½-by-5¾ inches, blank inside and protected by a plastic sleeve, and each includes a matching envelope. Cards are available in sets of five with a $25 donation. Full-sized Herbarium specimens are available with a $200 donation (framed) or a $75 donation (unframed). Visit the Hyde Herbarium page on the UWBG website for more information and details about how to contact the manager for currently available notecards and specimens.
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