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Penn State’s Herbarium Houses Centuries Of Dead Plants & History

When most people think of Penn State, popular and iconic moments come to mind. Between well-known classrooms and unforgettable football games, many campus spaces are overlooked, and smaller spaces often get lost in the shuffle.

With that said, it’s time we take a look at one of Penn State’s greenest locations.

Located in Whitmore Laboratory’s basement is Penn State’s herbarium. Now, you are probably wondering, “What is a herbarium?” A herbarium, in simple terms, is “a library of dead plants.” It is a place where dried plants are housed and are later used for collection and research purposes.

Sarah Chamberlain, the curator of Pennsylvania’s Agricultural College (PAC) herbarium at Penn State, has spearheaded the program since 2015. Chamberlain takes care of the 107,000 specimens and seed collection right in the heart of campus.

“Part of my job is taking care of the specimens. One of our big projects is to create digital images of the whole collection,” Chamberlain said. “That is where all-natural history collections are going.”

Chamberlain’s work with the herbarium is also partnered with the National Science Foundation to image about 65,000 Pennsylvania specimens. Working within the NSF project helps digitally distribute around 60% of Penn State’s collection. Each imaged specimen will be geo-referenced, providing information on where they originated from.

The remaining 32,000 specimens from North America and Northern Mexico will be imaged with another grant the herbarium secured.

Imaging lightboxes are used for digital uploads.

“Once we get these images done, we will have 90% of our collection online in a searchable database that people from all over the world can access,” Chamberlain said. “That’s basically what I want to see as my legacy. Have everything imaged for users.”

Chamberlain not only directly works with the specimens but hosts workshops and herbarium tours for departments throughout University Park. From art classes to biology courses, the herbarium can be used for many educational purposes.

Chamberlain has hosted identification-based workshops, poisonous plants segments, and more.

“I have connected with about 10 different departments,” Chamberlain said. “It is amazing how pervasive plants are at Penn State…lots of departments have things going on that resemble botany.”

Years ago, Penn State had a botany program where students could receive a degree in the study of plants and their biological structure. The program no longer exists, but students still study topics in that vein.

Before any of these programs existed at Penn State, Evan Pugh, the first university president, kickstarted the herbarium’s notorious collection. In 1859, Pugh came from Germany with about 3,000 specimens and took the role of Penn State’s first president. When Pugh arrived in Bellefonte, he placed the specimens on a horse and buggy to be delivered to State College. To this day, the herbarium is home to some of Pugh’s specimens.

Pugh believed that the agricultural college curriculum had students not only complete their studies but work in the field. The house built near the pond and the Hintz Family Alumni Center was built by Pugh and the students that attended Penn State.

Another aspect Pugh was adamant on was the access students would have to an in-depth herbarium. With Pugh being the first curator, Chamberlain is now the seventh curator within the college.

Large cabinets in the herbarium hold aged specimens from all over the world.

The folders are color-coded by where the specimens were collected. The tan folders are Pennsylvania specimens, the red folders are North America and Northern Mexico, the orange folders represent Asia and Europe, the green folders are Latin America, the yellow folders for arboretum specimens, and the blue folders hold cultivated specimens.

Chamberlain has direct access to specimens from 1856 to the present. When pressing and drying a plant, they are able to hold its shape, form, and color for hundreds of years.

“There is an art to pressing specimens,” Chamberlain said. “There is a way and guideline to mount a specimen. The way some people do it is so artistic.”

When pressing a specimen, most people have it press for up to six hours. Once the specimen is flat but not dry, they are able to mold the specimen to a specific shape.

Above is the process of pressing and drying a specimen.

The herbarium’s seed collection comes from Penn State Mount Alto. When the school’s herbarium was shut down, the entire collection was sent up here.

In a normal semester, Chamberlain will welcome two biology student interns into the herbarium. This semester, she has four interns to help image each specimen into the database. Chamberlain says that the herbarium is “open to all students and wants to spread the word.”

For research students, the herbarium is a crucial place to verify and voucher specimens for any kind of research. The herbarium provides a number of services for research students.

“My goal is to have people who are writing research grants put a line item into voucher their specimens,” Chamberlain said.

Graduate student Elizabeth Kelly says that bringing plant specimens to the herbarium makes research not only easier but more accessible.

“Having those vouchers means you can come back to that same plant and get that same DNA or seeds instead of losing that specimen forever to obscurity or research,” Kelly said. “Having it here, in a library, guarantees preservation.”

Any student who is interested in or is studying plant science has the opportunity to voucher their plant specimens at the herbarium.

If you would like to get involved with Penn State’s herbarium, keep an eye out for Chamberlain’s future workshops, or stop down in Whitmore Laboratory’s basement.

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About the Author

Larkin Richards

Larkin is a third-year majoring in broadcast journalism. The only words that leave her mouth are "yinz" and "dippy eggs." Luckily, her writing has much more substance than that. As a Steelers and Pirates fan, sports can become a hot debate. Share your thoughts on dogs (specifically Boston Terriers) with her at: [email protected]

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