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The Art of Plants

Herbarium Sheet

January 1, 2013

The preservation of plants is more than just a beautiful art form. Perfected by Academy botanists, this process of collecting, pressing, storing, and labeling each specimen not only maintains the vibrant beauty of flowers and leaves, but also it is important to science. This January, the Academy is holding free behind-the-scenes tours of our Botany Collection. View some of our fascinating, world-renowned specimens to discover the science behind the art.

The Academy houses about 1.5 million botanical specimens, ranging from fungi, lichens, algae, mosses, ferns, and pressed flowering plants, to fruits, seeds, grasses, and even fossilized plants. With so many different kinds of organisms, it’s important to correctly categorize, label, and store each of the specimens for further research and study. Patience and precision are essential to this process. The drying of a botanical specimen alone can take up to a month!

Alina Freire-Fierro, the Academy’s collection manager of botany, is an expert in the art of preserving rare, useful, or downright strange botanical specimens so that they retain data that is useful to scientists throughout the world. Often older specimens will need repairs, she explains. The paper could be browning, the adhesive is no longer holding the specimen, or the label needs to be refreshed and updated. After repairs, the samples are scanned into a digital image catalog and stored online. This process of scanning and imaging makes the specimens accessible to scientists all over the world.

Freire-Fierro explains that preserved plants are critical to interpreting our environment. Many scientists will use these botanical specimens to understand extinct or endangered species, as well as to compare how plant growth and distribution has changed over time. Scientists will also study the color, shape, and bloom time for each plant. Then they will compare this data to other specimens from different times or areas. Slowly, they will build a collective understanding of the lives of plants and figure out what factors are impacting their growth.

“When writing about plants, you need real proof of documentation,” Freire-Fierro says.

These historical and global plant “documents” hold the key to unlocking many ecological mysteries about our world. Botanists can access DNA samples from specimens more than 300 years old and discover the conditions and climates of that time.

“You use specimens to study relationships between plants and our daily lives. Everything, it all comes from plants,” notes Freire-Fierro.

This January, turn your winter blues to green with the beauty and wonder of botany! Join us for our behind-the-scenes tours Thursdays through Mondays at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. These free tours, open to visitors ages 8 and up, offer a one-of-a-kind opportunity to see some of our diverse collection not shown in the museum’s exhibit halls––North American fossils, mosses, flowers, useful plants (like the cacao bean), and the research tools that botanists use every day. Bring your questions for our botanists!