Can you even do botany in the winter? There are no flowers or leaves to distinguish plants and most things are covered in snow!
This is true, but winter gives us a chance to look more closely at the foundations of plants and trees without the distractions of color or camouflage of green. The bare branches of trees define their overall shape and stature clearly, and many may be known just by this. Other shrubs and trees can be identified by their branching patterns, bud shapes and placement, stem colours etc., and even herbaceous plants have parts that show through the winter and help us figure out their names (e.g. seed pods, bracts, spines).
There are guidebooks and keys specifically for winter botany, and the internet hosts a lot of great sites describing the tricks and techniques for identifying plants in the winter, just search for “winter botany”. Here are several books we have in the Herbarium, with a page from one that would help with the birches in the photo above!
As important as herbaria are to science, I think they are also important in a different kind of way.
At UNB, we have an entire room filled with cabinets which are stuffed with specimens. Not all of them are as pretty as the rose specimen pictured below, but I find that each one is a little slice of beauty. Whether it’s the arrangement of the parts on the sheet to show off all the parts of the plant, how carefully they have been labelled, the way the colours have or have not changed with drying, the age of the specimen; something almost always makes me stop to look.
Someone collected, pressed and dried this plant, looked carefully at it to identify it correctly, recorded details about the where and when and why it was collected, selected archival materials and arranged it aesthetically, and filed it in the herbarium to preserve it forever.
So, while we should be inviting students of botany, environmental studies or forestry to visit our collections, I think these treasuries would also be enjoyed by teachers, artists, writers, historians, etc. I have also seen preserved plants, plant prints and scientific style specimens sold on Etsy and admired on social media sites like Pinterest, and hung in board rooms and hotel lobbies.
High resolution scans of many of our specimens are available to view on our website: www.unbherbarium.ca.
Our group of botanists met in the parking lot of the Seaside Baptist Church in Chance Harbour around 10:00 am, got organized and ventured off down the trail to the Lighthouse. Carli Leroux works with the Nature Trust and was our guide for the outing, which was intended as an inventory of the plant species contained in the Preserve. The plants collected have been properly catalogued and are housed in the Connell Memorial Herbarium at the University of New Brunswick. They are referred to as the Belding’s Reef Nature Preserve collection.
We decided to move as a group with each person collecting a different group of plants: shrubs, grasses, sedges, trees, flowering vascular plants, and ferns. The trail meanders through 4 different habitats : mixed forest, shrubby forest edge, coastal edge, and rocky seeps. Our path was a circuitous route following the designated trail going to the lighthouse and then returning on a power line trail back to the starting point.
We found there was not a lot of diversity in any of the designated plant collecting groups in these habitats. However, one of the highlights was finding Sagina nodosa var. borealis. This plant is not a plant common in New Brunswick and has been reported only from coastal habitats.
Another remarkable find was the large patch of Myrica pensylvanica ( photo below) commonly known as bayberry. This not rare in New Brunswick but is found more often on the shores of Northumberland Strait. The patch we found was 1.5 meters in height and covered a large area on the top of the rocky ledges.
The vistas from the trail were eye candy and could be called “sights for sore eyes”. We did enjoy the outing and got a good sample of what is common on the Fundy coast of New Brunswick.
You might think that working in a herbarium, a place crammed full of dead plants, would be a bit dull, but the stories that accompany those plants can be really interesting. Each collection was made by an explorer and each specimen caught that person’s eye for a reason. My favourite part of working in the herbarium is solving the puzzles that come up from time to time. One of our recent accomplishments has been putting together the bits and pieces of information we had about a collection that had been stored in the herbarium for many years.
We had boxes and boxes of pressed arctic specimens, cryptically labelled with abbreviations and dating from 1944. The labels were mainly scraps of paper with a date, some roman numerals and the initials A.R.A.T. Some were identified, some were partially identified and some were unknown species. We knew who A.R.A.T. was: Dr. A.R.A. Taylor had taught biology at UNB from 1946 to 1987. He had been responsible for “resurrecting” the herbarium from many years in storage in the Old Arts Building when he started here (Young, 1986). The arctic plants turned out to be part of his personal collection, picked up incidentally during a Geodetic Survey of Canada expedition led by T.H. Manning along the northeast coast of Hudson Bay. Taylor collected, pressed and dried approximately 800 plants on that trip!
In 2010 volunteer David Smith started by tallying all of the information he could glean from the scraps of paper. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Mills and some students began trying to track down more information about the expedition. They eventually found T.H.Manning’s account of the trip published in “Explorations on the East Coast of Hudson Bay” (Manning, T.H. 1947). From this and some partial maps, we generated an itinerary of their travels and linked that to the site numbers and locale details found on the labels.
Dr. Mary Young has spent the past 5 years resourcefully working her way through the collection, confirming the identities of the specimens, or, in fact, identifying them from scratch. This was generally not an easy task, given that the specimens were over 68 years old! Some were in quite rough shape and some had disintegrated entirely. The specimens were then mounted and databased and filed into our main collection. Thanks to all of these efforts, this collection has found a home in the Herbarium and will soon be available to researchers around the world, contributing to our ecological knowledge of the arctic.
We have been so fortunate to have such a dedicated group of volunteers ! I want to thank you all for showing up each week and helping us process all the piles of specimens that need work. From species identification workshops through databasing, mounting and filing, their hours of effort maintain the herbarium as a useful scientific resource.
Thanks to Elizabeth and Gart who organize our monthly plant identification workshops, Eileen and Karla who make art out of science, and Beverly and Clay who have stuck with the databasing despite so many technical glitches!
It seems like the end of term just now, as Karla is off home to Mexico and Beverly is off to survey birds over the summer. It looks like it will be fairly quiet here over the summer, but I hope to see familiar faces and new collections in the fall!
Feel free to drop by the herbarium on Wednesdays over the summer !