Not anymore, as botany professor Melanie Link-Perez demonstrated on a recent morning, entering a biology lab and pulling out a showy specimen. Its big creamy flower sat among leathery leaves, clearly a magnolia. Turns out it was collected in 1993 from a 7-meter tall tree on Armstrong Atlantic State’s campus.
The magnolia is one of about 5,600 specimens that university students and professors have collected since 1969 when Francis Thorne began the herbarium, as such collections of dried plants are called.
Link-Perez found the dried plants in good condition physically, but disorganized and hard to access when she arrived at Armstrong a little more than a year ago. She’s been working on the collection ever since.
She specializes in a genus of neotropical ferns of which she’s named three species, and needed an herbarium to continue her research. The one at Armstrong is now linked with others around the world so Link-Perez and others can lend out specimens and borrow others.
The preserved plant matter lets scientists do things they couldn’t with written or photographic records, like study its structure under a microscope or extract DNA.
Link-Perez popped a delicate pink flower under a microscope where it suddenly looked robust, its bristly stigma curling toward the round ovary where its fruit develops.
“When you look through the scope it’s like exploring a whole different world,” she said.
This herbarium is small, even compared to the seven others in Georgia. The University of Georgia, for example, boasts almost a quarter million specimens. Still, even a small herbarium can be invaluable. There are thousands of dollars-worth of archival papers and other supplies in it, plus there’s the value of the time spent cataloging each plant. The irreplaceable part, though, is the history embedded in the plants.
Each specimen includes the date of collection, so researchers can track changes in phenomena such as when plants flower and when non-native plants appear in an area.
“One of the main uses is to investigate how plants respond to climate change,” Link-Perez said.
Research from other herbaria around the world shows some plants are flowering earlier in the spring than they used to, resulting in a mismatch between the emergence of pollinators and flowers.
“Another use is for monitoring the spread of invasives,” Link-Perez said.
The dried plants also tell a story of the students who worked on the collection over the years. Some names that appear repeatedly have piqued Link-Perez’s interest enough to follow up on them. She found that one student, Laurie Leaich, went on to get her doctorate and do award-winning work on fetal alcohol syndrome at the National Institutes of Health.
“I was curious about what happened to her after her time at Armstrong and wondered what she would think if she knew that her collections were a part of the herbarium and that they were valued and being examined and would be used as a resource into the future.” Link-Perez said.
The collection is changing the course of study for current student Hunter Seabolt, a senior majoring in biology who plans to attend graduate school for plant systematics. A class with Link-Perez sparked his interest in plants in general and the herbarium in particular.
Now he’s not only an enthusiastic collector for the herbarium, gathering more than 300 specimens to add to it, but he’s also helped organize the plants using their scientific classifications so that researchers can put their hands on the specimen they want quickly. The collection will be digitized for even easier exploration.
The herbarium has opened a new world for Seabolt. “Before I ended up working for Dr. Link-Perez all I knew was that plants were green and grew out of the ground,” he said.