Green Pages

National Herbarium

s4012635A collection realised by collaboration.

By B. Naqqi Manco, Senior Conservation Officer, Turks & Caicos National Trust

Photos Courtesy TCI National Trust and Board of Trustees, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

When I was in university, a friend of mine – recognising my love of plants – brought me an African violet as a gift. Its source unknown, she’d been slowly destroying it for lack of water, light, and nutrients for most of the year, and by the time it came to me it was little more than a tragic, feeble ghost; most of its leaves were crispy and flowers were a distant memory. The dusty little kindling-in-a-plastic-pot quickly languished and expired, and while I appreciated the thought, this instance had to be one of the least pleasant gifts I had ever received. So one would think that recently receiving a pile of ten boxes packed full of dry, dead plants would be no cause to celebrate . . . but indeed it was.

On August 6, 2008, I received a call from the National Trust office in Providenciales. Administrative Officer Shirmay Llewellyn told me to expect ten parcels on the TCI Ferry that afternoon. The DHL delivery staff had called me the previous evening to tell me I had parcels from the UK, so I was pretty sure I knew what they contained. Upon their arrival the flat boxes, neatly wrapped in waxed brown paper, revealed their contents with the logo of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and labels reading “Dried (dead) plant specimens for scientific study.”


When I got the boxes to the Middle Caicos Conservation Centre – their new home – they were carefully unwrapped. Inside each box were long manila folders of neatly stacked card paper sheets, bundled with twine, each sheet bearing a dried, pressed plant specimen. Ahead of me were the tasks of deciding on a sorting scheme (would it be alphabetical or taxonomic?) and the organisation of the sheets into our herbarium cabinet. There were several important considerations to make here, most notably ease of use. These plant specimens were the foundation for the national herbarium collection of the Turks & Caicos Islands.

An herbarium is not a facility with which most people are familiar; far fewer have ever been inside one. An herbarium can be described as a museum or library of plant specimens. Plant specimens are taken to verify the presence of a certain plant in a particular place, to describe new species, to document populations’ spread or decline, and to provide data for always-increasing information needs. Most plant specimens consist of a whole small plant, or a part of a larger plant, pressed and dried. These specimens are often fixed to specially-sized sheets with archival glue or thread stitches, but are sometimes housed loosely. However an herbarium chooses to treat the specimens, the majority of the responsibility for the collection’s usefulness is on the collector.

I made my first herbarium collections as many amateur botanists or plant enthusiasts would – by pressing a leaf or flower in a telephone book and hoping to someday show it to someone who may know what it was. In university, I learned that the collection itself must be augmented with data, including my name, the collection date, specific notes on location, and descriptions of features that may not be observable when the plant is pressed and dried (colour of parts, textures, scents, growth habits, and associated species).

I put this basic knowledge to use a great deal during my first year with the National Trust as Darwin Biodiversity Initiative project officer in 2000. Using a wooden-framed plant press held together with buckled nylon webbing straps, stacked with cardboard ventilators and old newspaper, we began the enormous task of documenting the Turks & Caicos Islands’ entire plant diversity by collecting specimens. Not just any old branch or twig would do – a specimen needs to show as much identification information as possible, so we always try to include the branching pattern, flowers and fruits – even the whole plant if it is small enough. Pressing one leaf is not sufficient – identifying one leaf can be compared to clipping a single lowercase “a” out of a newspaper article and asking someone to identify from what newspaper it came: remotely possible for a specialist expert, but impractical. Collectors always include a collection number on all of their specimens; each new collection gets a new number. Having collection numbers in the hundreds or thousands is common; collections in the ten thousands and above usually signify a very well-seasoned botanist.

These hundreds or thousands of collections are usually collected in multiples. International convention dictates that anyone collecting specimens should collect (with permission from both the country and the landowner) one collection for their own use, and one each for any major herbariums that work in that region. Our team always collects three specimens – one for our national collection, one for Fairchild Tropical Botanic Gardens in Miami, and one for the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew (UK). The National Trust extends this convention to any researchers who work with us.

Fairchild Tropical Botanic Gardens has long been considered the West Indies regional herbarium, and they house important historic collections from the Bahamas Archipelago (including the Turks & Caicos) that formed the basis for the Flora of the Bahama Archipelago written by Donovan Correll, the late keeper of the Fairchild Gardens herbarium. This massive book, the foremost plant identification book for the Turks & Caicos, is based on the much earlier Bahama Flora by Millspaugh and Britton, botanists who worked in the region in the late 1800s onward. We occasionally visit Fairchild Gardens to study their collections and compare our current collections to historic specimens.

The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew near London has the largest herbarium collection in the world – over seven million specimens in numerous multi-storey buildings. They have a number of important historic collections from the Turks & Caicos Islands, including the type specimen of the national flower, Turks & Caicos heather (Limonium bahamense). A type specimen is the first collection of a plant species from which it is originally described (in botanical Latin) and named. I clearly remember the reverent wonder I had as I opened the red folder (signifying a type specimen) in Kew’s Plumbago Family section, and seeing the plant, originally named Sattice bahamensis having been collected from “Grand Turks, Brahamas [sic] Islands” according to the elegantly fountain-penned label (with the offending “r” later stricken out). It amazed me that this specimen, collected in 1887, could look just like those I had collected just a few years before.

I did not travel all the way to Kew Gardens just to see the red-covered type specimen of our national flower (though it’s as good an excuse as any to visit the spectacular place!). I was sent there in summer of 2003 to be fully indoctrinated with everything I ever wanted to know about collecting plant specimens on their International Diploma Course in Herbarium Techniques and Management. The class was limited to 12 students, and represented herbarium staff from Minnesota (USA), Fiji, the Falkland Islands, the British Virgin Islands, St. Lucia, Russia, Ecuador, Brazil, Botswana, Papua New Guinea, and Cameroon. The unseasonably hot London summer suited the majority of the class’s tropical participants well, but our Falklands Islands colleague, used to 100 mile-per-hour freezing gales, had a particularly rough time with the unusual heat wave!

The sunny weather made for a trouble-free outdoors experience throughout the course, and in addition to classroom work, we explored the herbariums of Oxford University and the British Museum, the Chelsea Physic Gardens, and Kew’s sister facility Wakehurst Place and its Millennium Seed Bank. During the course, we were schooled in techniques all the way from collection to curation, including pest management (flour moths and tobacco beetles can destroy herbarium specimens), imagery (both photography and electronic scanning of specimens), and botanical Latin and taxonomy (so we could correctly identify and name plants).

s4012639Several major projects included making collections and labels for several UK plants, holding a mock trial about the issues of bio-piracy and genetic resources, and the design of an herbarium facility for a fictional island. We learned that herbarium collections can also include carpological collections (dried or preserved whole fruit and large seeds), spirit collections (plant parts preserved in alcohol or other preservative liquids to conserve three-dimensional features that pressing would destroy), and cultural collections (products made from plants around the world, including a very creepy historic collection of dried olives from the tomb of none other than King Tutankhamen himself!). The education equipped us with the knowledge and confidence to prepare and manage herbarium collections for our home institutions.

Upon returning, I was asked to finalise design plans for the Middle Caicos Conservation Centre. I was fortunate in the class to be the only one of the students whose base institution did not already have an herbarium. I could learn not only from the class lessons, but from the experiences of others, before setting forth to design ours. I knew that the Conservation Centre’s available space would not allow for a full herbarium room in the first phase of development, but I factored important concerns – climate control, pest control, and work areas – into the design. When the Conservation Centre’s laboratory was suitably finished, a large herbarium cabinet installed, and the building air conditioned, we were ready to house specimens.

At first, we only intended to house outgoing specimens – pressed plants and seed collections on their way to Kew for procurement and disbursal – until we had an appropriate next-phase facility especially to house our specimens. But a call from Martin Hamilton, Kew’s UK Overseas Territories Programme Director, changed our course. The UK Overseas Territory Programme was expanding, and their space was shrinking . . . the specimens they were storing for us were in the way of new incoming collections, and would have to be shipped to us as soon as possible. Middle Caicos Conservation Centre staff members Jannay Arthur and Judnel “Flash” Blaise were given crash-courses in handling of specimens, and we excitedly awaited the specimens.

The parcels arrived mostly in good condition. One had been subjected to a thorough soaking of one corner somewhere towards the middle of its journey, so a number of specimens had to be carefully dried (water, fire, and insect damage are the most significant threats to herbarium specimens).  We selected an organisational system that would be alphabetical by family, genus, and species, and filed the specimens into the cabinet. Now that we had them in place, what was the next step?

Not long before the specimens arrived, a new set of freshly pressed specimens was brought to the Conservation Centre by a botanical research team. Several of the specimens had not been positively identified. Now, we had another tool to identify them. By discerning what botanical family the mystery specimens most likely were by their characteristics, we could look through the family folders and match like with like. We could also compare the differences in the specimens that were collected from different islands or habitats. This identification role of an herbarium can come in very handy to a number of non-botanical industries.

The other industries that use herbarium specimens are numerous. They are used by medical and pharmaceutical engineers when working with plant extracts – over 80% of our modern medicines are of plant origin. They are used increasingly in the field of genetic engineering – genes from some plants have made animals change colour when exposed to certain chemicals. They are used by architects for structural inspiration, zoologists for animal diet research, and poison control centres for identification of compounds in people who have been poisoned. Most surprising of all, they are used by crime investigators. A prized Florida racehorse poisoned just before a race by something it ate had its stomach contents analysed and the offending plants were identified as a species that did not grow in that part of the state, but was common on the land of a more northern rival competitor, against whom charges were brought. A murder victim’s fingernail scrapings included exotic plant tissues identified to a particular rock garden at an apartment complex, and the killer was caught.

We hope that our own national herbarium will never have to be used to solve any grisly crimes, but it will be there as a tool for that use, and others, if needed. Most likely, it will be used by researchers studying plant genetics and population changes. As plants are studied more, some different species are identified as varieties of the same species; other single species are split into two or more species due to marked differences. Botanists will frequently put a “det” (determination) slip on a specimen, reaffirming the species name on the label, updating it to a newer name, or renaming it in disagreement with its original assignation. In October 2004, I had the opportunity to travel to Kew’s herbarium to make determinations on numerous specimens collected here (later, one of the plants I determined would be re-determined by a family specialist at Kew).

In June 2007, I visited Fairchild Gardens in Miami along with our Kew colleagues. There, we sorted through specimens collected in TCI in 2001 whose collector had since moved on to another institution. While there, we also compared a number of our collections with those in Fairchild’s herbarium, and I made numerous notes on the page margins of my copy of Flora of the Bahama Archipelago. I searched the collections for plants I had never seen in TCI, to be sure they had been collected here. Many were, but others had been misnamed by place. One collection, noted in the book, stood out as unlikely to me – but that specimen was a single collection of an air plant, the stiff-leaved wild pine Tillandsia fasiculata, and it was housed at the New York Botanical Garden, not Fairchild. But, as luck would have it, that particular specimen was on loan to Fairchild for a student researching that species. I met the student, and we reviewed the specimen – collected around Minorca in North Caicos in 1904, the only specimen of this species ever collected in TCI where no others of its species have ever been seen. The specimen was a young, infertile plant – exceptionally difficult to identify – but through the wonders of microscopic technology we observed, by the shape of the minuscule waxy scales on the leaves, that this plant had been misidentified by its collector. The plant was actually “scorn-the-ground” Tillandsia utriculata, which is very common in TCI. The collector was none other than Millspaugh, one of the fathers of Caribbean botany.  Feeling quite cheeky, I added my own less-than-elegantly penned det slip to the blotchy, yellowed card paper of the 104-year-old specimen, reading “Tillandsia utriculata, BN Manco: Turks and Caicos National Trust @ Fairchild Gardens, 8 June 2007.” This simple manoeuvre struck the stiff-leaved wild pine from the list of Turks & Caicos plants . . . unless it is found and positively identified, which is unlikely as it prefers much damper habitats with standing fresh water.

With reassurances from the herbarium manager that it was indeed not cheeky but the very essence of the dynamics of an herbarium, I walked away feeling that I’d helped someone else in the future. I’ve since even put some new det slips on specimens I had identified in my less experienced days, and continue to use our new national herbarium collection to hone my plant identification skills and teach others these skills as well.  Hopefully, in another hundred years, someone will catch one of my mistakes and feel just as cheeky sticking their own determination to it in the Turks & Caicos National Herbarium Collection.

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