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NMSU welcomes visitors to oldest herbarium in New Mexico

Have you ever pressed flowers in a book? You might have tucked away a special rose here or there to preserve a sweet memory, but your collection is unlikely to rival the one at New Mexico State University, where researchers have gathered and catalogued thousands of pressed plant specimens dating back more than 100 years.

Former NMSU Herbarium curator Patrick Alexander and new curator Lillis Urban examine plant specimens from the university?s collection ? some of which date back to the late 1800s. (Photo by Isabel Rodriguez)

The two specimens are from a species of oak that grows in the Sierra Madre of Chihuahua, Mexico. The one of the left was collected in 1989, the one on the right in 1887. (Courtesy photo)

The university is home to the oldest herbarium in the state, with a cache of more than 73,000 pressed plants dating back to the late 1800s, many of which were first described by NMSU researchers. The collection is housed inside the Biology Annex in the College of Arts and Sciences on the NMSU campus and consists mostly of specimens from southern New Mexico, but also contains specimens from other states. The herbarium is open to the public by appointment.

?If people know of the herbarium, they probably think of it as a plant museum,? said Patrick Alexander, former curator of the NMSU herbarium. ?A lot of people think of museums as a static place where you put things and they just stay there ? that?s not what an herbarium is about. We?re constantly using the plants for research. We?re always getting new specimens in, having new research done that changes our understanding of which species these specimens represent.?

Alexander personally collected about 500 specimens from 2004, as a graduate student, to June 2014 when he left the university. In 2013 he took over as curator from Professor Donovan Bailey, who now serves as director of the herbarium. This summer Alexander left the herbarium in the hands of Lillis Urban, who has taken over as curator ? a position funded by the College of Arts and Sciences.

Urban, who as a graduate student contributed to the collection of the mustard plant family, completed her doctorate at NMSU. She pointed out that the herbarium serves multiple purposes for researchers with all kinds of backgrounds ? history, agriculture, ecology and even health. She said she?s met students on campus who don?t know that the herbarium exists, even though it?s a resource they can access. The same was true for her when she was an undergraduate.

?I was interested in plants my whole life,? she said. ?It was clear I would study botany, but I didn?t know herbaria existed until I went to get my master?s (at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland). I didn?t know there were collections like these.?

Some of the most important plants in NMSU?s herbarium are the type specimens ? samples that are designated as a permanent reference for new species. Those are stored separately from the main collection.

?The herbarium helps us understand if and how distribution of a plant has changed over time,? Urban explained. ?It can help frame questions for research and investigate answers to those questions.?

Former chemistry and botany professor Elmer Ottis Wooton started what is currently known as the NMSU Department of Biology Herbarium back in 1890. With his graduate student Paul Stanley, Wooten documented some of the first specimens in the collection.

?What?s amazing is they really do last a long time,? Urban said of the plant specimens. ?I?ve worked in collections where I?ve seen specimens from the 1600s.?

Comparisons between specimens collected nearly 100 years apart appear remarkably similar due to the process used to preserve the plants along with the help of a dry desert climate.

After collection, the specimens are mounted onto high-grade, acid-free paper with Elmer?s Glue, pressed and dried over a heat source. There are no chemicals added. Researchers then add notations to the plants including details such as where they were found, a description about how to get to the site and an overview of the ecology and geology there. Each collector has a unique collection number, and that information is also included on the affixed label and in the database.

?That additional information has increased a lot over the years,? Alexander said. ?Earlier it would just say something like ?Organ Mountains,? but we?ve been adding substantially to the label. We have specimens going back before the herbarium was founded.?

With about three other large herbaria in the state, Alexander said New Mexico?s various collections contain about 4,000 species of plants ? totaling about 300,000 specimens in the state.

?We have a lot fewer specimens and a poorer understanding of our flora than a lot of other parts of the U.S.,? he said. ?Arizona has a couple million. We?re not nearly as densely sampled as other places; the plus-side of that for botanists is there are a lot more plant species waiting to be discovered than other areas that have been more heavily explored. You can go still go to a lot of parts of New Mexico where there?s probably never been a botanist ? it?s fun.?

The NMSU is open to the public and can also be accessed online. To schedule an appointment, contact Urban at urban@nmsu.edu. To learn more about the herbarium, visit http://biology-web.nmsu.edu/~herbarium/.