Chico State’s herbarium provides a window to the future
by Taran March | Illustration by Francie Divine
Students rushing to class in Holt Hall might wonder about the modest sign above a set of doors in a ground-floor corridor. The single word, “Herbarium,” seems both strange and familiar. They may have passed it a dozen times, thinking, “What’s an herbarium?” Or they may be one of the dedicated volunteers who pass through the doors to spend a few hours working at one of the long wooden lab tables.
Behind those doors is the Chico State Herbarium, which houses Northern California’s largest collection of preserved plant specimens—some 109,000—collected over the course of 120 years. Each specimen bears a label that captures a moment of human curiosity: What are you? Why are you here? This documentary information can be used as reference for comparison and identification.
Botanists also consider individual plant species in the broader context of their surroundings, designating ranges and ecosystems of plant communities. One such, the California Floristic Province, encompasses nearly all of Northern California and includes plant life that is found nowhere else in the world.
“The California Floristic Province is a biodiversity hot spot, and the herbarium collection is part of it,” says Colleen Hatfield, herbarium director and assistant professor of biological sciences at CSU, Chico. “The herbarium is the only collection north of Sacramento and east of the Coast Range.”
Botany, one of the natural sciences that seek to understand life on Earth, can be traced back to Paleolithic times, when hunter-gatherers passed along their plant lore from generation to generation. As early as 10,000 years ago, when plants and animals were first domesticated and oral traditions also were tamed into written language, records of plants showed up among the first scribblings of our ancestors.
Taking the long view, “modern” botany began in 350 BC, when Theophrastus, a student of Socrates, put stylus to wax tablet and documented his curiosity about plants. This was followed up in the first century AD by Greek physician Pedanius Dioscorides, who wrote De Materia Medica Libre, a compendium of botanical information, particularly the curative properties of plants, found in scrolls from ancient Egypt, China, and India.
All this ancient knowledge, reproduced and extended during the Middle Ages in herbals (lists of plants describing their characteristics and properties), was derived from arguably the oldest known human activity: interacting with our physical environment. Prior to fieldwork in the modern academic sense, with its implication of separate, scholarly work done at a desk, studying any of the natural sciences required people to walk out into nature and try to make sense of it. Picking sprigs and samples of the millions of growing things around them, early botanists examined the structures and functions of plants, and how they interacted with their surroundings. These physical keepsakes were dried, pressed, and preserved as a way to jog the collector’s memory about where a specimen was gathered as well as support conclusions about the plant and, by extension, the world. They also served as footprints for other botanists to follow as they pursued their own investigations.
Enter the microscope during the late 1590s. Scientists suddenly had startling access to a new world beyond the one perceived by their own eyes. Plant anatomy quickly grew into its own branch of botany, and the first scientifically controlled experiments in plant physiology were performed. These pursuits would eventually lead to new sciences such as plant biochemistry, cell theory, and molecular biology, which explores life, especially genetic puzzles, at its most fundamental level.
Behind this steady progress of thought, though, remain the picking, pressing, and pondering, the fruits of which continue to be preserved in herbaria throughout the world. Herbaria serve as both legacies of human endeavor in nature and solidly practical resources for advancing knowledge in the present day.
More than a stamp collection
Barbara Castro (MS, Botany, ’89), a small, dark-haired woman who speaks at the measured pace of someone used to thinking a lot, is a botanist for the California State Department of Water Resources’ Northern Region. Her territory stretches from Sacramento to the Oregon border, and in that realm, she oversees the department’s interactions with local plant populations during large-scale projects to move water around the state. She delineates wetlands, monitors revegetation plans, performs field studies, and serves as “a resource support for colleagues and novices.” The only plant person on her team, she uses the Chico State Herbarium as a “pre-field tool” to review species she’s likely to encounter, as well as to differentiate weeds from native species or confirm the identity of a rare species or a specimen she finds in its juvenile or late stage of development.
For Castro, the herbarium is as necessary as the car she uses to crisscross her territory. When asked how her work would be affected if the herbarium closed, she considers quietly for a few moments before concluding we’re talking about the impossible. Certainly the unthinkable.
“It won’t happen,” she predicts, staring thoughtfully out the window. We’re sitting at one of the lab counters in the herbarium; behind us loom the banks of cabinets holding the pressed and labeled specimens. Seeing my look of polite surprise, she elaborates. “The herbarium is used for real work, for ongoing conservation and land management,” says Castro. “Agencies like mine are putting environmental clauses into their mission statements. They are starting to recognize that you need to have people knowledgeable about how the world works.”
Without the Chico State Herbarium, botanists like Castro would have to drive to the Jepson Herbarium at the University of California, Berkeley. “That would take a lot of resources—gas and staff time—and since that’s not likely, there would be a lot more uncertainty,” says Castro. “There would be more estimated identifications, which would weaken conclusions. It would slow the speed that work could be done under deadline. It would take a longer time to get the report out. Or projects would proceed without a sound basis from the plant side.” We are both silent, imagining what “proceed without a sound basis” might look like in a landscape.
“It’s easy to see the herbarium as a stamp collection,” she adds with a sad smile. “There’s a characterization that it has no practical use, the process is just tallying, and the specimens just sit there. People think herbaria are old and irrelevant, but how they function now is different from how they functioned 100 years ago. They’re less archival. And though it’s easy to put big words into mission statements, it’s not so easy to maintain our link in a big network of resources, which the herbarium is.”
All for one
Among the biggest networks envisioned by scientists is the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), which, upon completion in 2016, will operate a continental-scale scientific infrastructure to enable research and education about ecological change. At the request of the National Science Foundation, the National Research Council identified seven “Grand Challenges” for NEON to focus on, three of which—biodiversity, land use, and invasive species—are directly supported by the information collected in herbaria. The Chico State Herbarium is working on completing its own online database to make it available to organizations like NEON, as well as universities throughout the state.
At the moment, the herbarium relies on volunteers and one valiant student intern to do this. The University provides the space to house the collection and pays to keep the lights on, but money for equipment, including a camera to photograph specimens for the database and additional storage “compactors” (large metal cabinets that store the specimen folders) that will house the backlog of specimens more effectively in the existing space, must come from outside contributions.
Since the University stopped contributing to herbarium funding in 2009, the Friends of the Chico State Herbarium (FOH) has scraped together—through workshops, subscriptions, and other fundraising schemes—the means to buy basic supplies and pay Herbarium Curator Lawrence Janeway to maintain the collection and attend to research requests one day a week.
“We function like a booster club, except we boost the herbarium instead of a football team,” says Linnea Hansen, for most of her career a botanist for Plumas National Forest before downshifting into part-time teaching at Shasta College. She also serves on the FOH board of directors. Capable and observant, Hansen has the cheerful buoyancy of the born curious. Partly as a new challenge, she’s undertaken publicity and arranging workshops for FOH and finds the positive public response to them gratifying. The monthly Saturday workshops are a mix of technical (“Introduction to Lichen Identification”) and general-interest (“The Wild Dessert: Preparing Food from Native Plants”).
“The workshops originally began as a way to fill in our knowledge gaps, what botanists can learn from each other,” says Hansen. “But we realized that there was money in hosting them, offering information that was no longer taught at the University. As molecular biology has gained more interest, the University sees botany as a shrinking field. But we’re still discovering new plant species in Northern California. With every passing year, what we have here becomes more valuable.”
Stories behind the names
Herbarium Curator Lawrence Janeway (MS, Botany, ’91) has worked there in one capacity or another since 1985, when as a graduate student he handled incoming specimens, maintained files, and mailed out specimens under the direction of Kingsley Stern, who was curator at the time. For most of each week, Janeway works as acting district botanist for the Feather River Ranger District of Plumas National Forest, but he spends one day at the herbarium taking care of the collection and sharing his expertise, which is substantial. Although he’s now paid for this, much of his work over the years, including his work as curator, has been done voluntarily. To date, he’s personally contributed 11,087 specimens to the collection.
“I’ve always been drawn to naming species,” says Janeway, eyes alert behind round glasses. “There are so many different stories that can go into the simple process of naming something.” He supports his comment with an example, an early specimen collected and mounted by a student in 1891, when the University was three years old and known as the Northern Branch State Normal School of California. I admire the handwritten label, beautiful copperplate lettering in fading ink, and picture a serious Victorian woman in a long skirt and white blouse, carefully applying this finishing touch. There is indeed a story here.
Jumping forward to the present, he shows me a research paper, “Calliscirpus, a New Genus for Two Narrow Endemics of the California Floristic Province,” written by a Canadian botanist and published by the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in England. The Chico State Herbarium was involved in this discovery, thanks in part to a specimen collected by Janeway himself. “The glory of seeing your name in print,” he jokes, flipping through the pages to a thick column of source citations and pointing to the words “Janeway 6344 (CHSC).” “This is a paper about whether the species is really two species,” he explains. “Is it a variation, or is it really different?” The supporting specimen, which he mailed away to the paper’s author, helped prove the latter.
When asked about herbarium priorities, Janeway replies that space is the main issue. “For the compactors, we need to install rails first.” He nods at the counter where we’re sitting. “If this sink goes, then there’s possibly asbestos abatement, that’s $3,000 alone. Maybe more asbestos when we take up the floor tiles to place the rails.” I ask if the herbarium is on its own for raising the funds to pay for this, and he nods again.
“There are backlog cases in another office for processed stuff waiting to be filed,” he says. “If we don’t get more space soon, I might have to tell other institutions to take them.”
Currently the herbarium is open only on Fridays, but more information is available online using the search term “Chico State Herbarium.” The site includes a link to the Consortium of California Herbaria specimen database as well as published articles, a calendar of upcoming events, and other useful resources.
About the author
Taran March is the managing editor of Quality Digest, an online business daily. She lives in Paradise.
Stalking the Wild Coyote Mint
On a routine rare-plant survey in Paradise, Barbara Castro and Lawrence Janeway were walking back to the car, still scanning the ground. Janeway, 100 feet away, called out, “Have you ever seen bracts like these?”
In fact, Castro had seen them, the night before in the Chico State Herbarium as she leafed through Flora Buttensis, a list of local plants in an unassuming red folder, compiled by Mary Sue Taylor in 1983 for the local chapter of the California Native Plant Society. Castro was refreshing her memory of the species they’d likely see the next day, one of which was windowpane coyote mint.
“I remember the excitement in Lawrence’s voice,” she says. “As I walk over, I’m picturing the line drawing I saw in the folder. This plant is the rarest of the rare. The last time a specimen had been added to an herbarium was in the 1800s. The candelabra shape with the windowpane bracts are diagnostic. There are no lookalikes on this one.”
Sure enough, it was Monardella venosa (see photo of plant at right). Moments like that happen rarely in a botanist’s career. To this day, Janeway’s face lights up as he recalls this Eureka moment (pictured at right).
Fewer students are charting a career course in botany. This is due, in part, to research trends, which follow a funding trail carved out by industry and public interest. These days, many natural history collections like the Chico State Herbarium get by on the occasional grant and the goodwill of volunteers.
Chico State senior Emily Meigs is an exception to the rule. She will earn a bachelor of science in plant biology next year and is an herbarium intern.
Meigs is currently working with the herbarium and the CSU, Chico Research Foundation on a georeferencing project, entering coordinates from herbarium plant specimens into an online database and mapping program. The project is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation in coordination with the Consortium of California Herbaria.
“I want to do more than just make things pretty,” she adds, referring to her side interest in landscape design. “I’ve been involved with the herbarium for about a year and a half now. Though many students (and some faculty) don’t even know it’s there, I go in pretty much every Friday, even when I don’t need to, because I love the atmosphere and listening to the various professional botanists who come by.”
Other herbarium regulars include Lowell Ahart (BA, Biological Sciences, ’61). Now 74, Ahart has collected and mounted plants for decades. A retired rancher, he’s an elusive legend around the herbarium. “I enjoy creating a little knowledge, and I like to do a super-good job on all the steps in making an herbarium specimen,” he says. “I took a plant taxonomy class in 1960 and have collected ever since. My collection number is 18,546 today.”
Although Ahart has mentored several students, he says none have gone on to become collectors. This hasn’t slowed him down, however. “I discovered the False Indigo last year in Bidwell Park, a new plant for Butte County,” he says with quiet pride. “Nice.”
There’s an uncomfortable bit of number crunching that measures an ecosystem’s resources against its resident users. Called “carrying capacity,” it’s a tool biologists use to study populations and habitat. If an ecosystem’s resources are stretched beyond their ability to support the population using them, the population declines, and the balance is restored. In nature, that generally means famine and disease. As a clever species prone to engineering solutions, we humans have exceeded the Earth’s carrying capacity by 100 times, says Colleen Hatfield, who has been the herbarium’s director since 2011.
“I know we have a valuable resource,” she says. “But there’s no money to keep it moving forward.” Leaning toward me, she says, “I need to make you care, and not only care, but take action. With funding, the herbarium could reach out to a major audience, create a digital collection online, bring this knowledge into university classrooms and K–12.”
It is an archive, a legacy of the human footprint.
What prevents that from happening, I wonder. Hatfield’s fervor is persuasive. “It’s not sexy,” she says. She indicates a framed, pressed specimen hanging on the wall behind her, artistically rendered by Lowell Ahart, master of the craft. “It’s not studying brain neurons. It is an archive, a legacy of the human footprint.”
Hatfield adds that the less flashy study of botany is just as important to the future of humanity as other scientific disciplines: “Plants are the foundation of the food web. I tell students, ‘They are the foundation of everything you think is cool.’ ”
I trot out my stock question: What if the herbarium were to close? Hatfield shakes her head, a slight, emphatic move. “It would be a loss of an important piece of the puzzle at a time when we need it the most,” she says. “We are facing mass extinctions in our future. There are extinct species already in the collection, and more that are here will fall into that category.” She glances at her watch and stands. “Our grandchildren will be living on a completely different planet.”
To help keep the herbarium open, consider attending a workshop or sending a donation (checks payable to CSU, Chico University Foundation) to the Chico State Herbarium, California State University, Chico, Chico, CA 95928-9924.
(BA, Information and Communication Studies, ’80) illustrated the New Yorker’s 2012 election cover.
(BA, Chemistry, ’71) is helping design Disney’s newest theme park in Shanghai.
(BA, Communication Design, ’92) runs The Sustainable Kitchen, a cooking school/farm tour program.