- Dark S, Stein ED, Bram D, Osuna J, Monteferante J, Longcore T, Grossinger R, Beller E. 2011. Historical ecology of the Ballona Creek Watershed. Southern California Coastal Water Research Project – Technical Repot #671. https://www.ballonahe.org/downloads/non_geo_data/ballona_report[email].pdf
- Grossinger R, Stein ED, Cayce K, Askevold R, Dark S, Whipple A. 2011. Historical wetlands of the Southern California Coast: An atlas of US coast survey T-sheets, 1851-1889. Coastal Conservatory. http://ftp.sccwrp.org/pub/download/DOCUMENTS/TechnicalReports/589_SoCalTsheetAtlas.pdf
- USDA, NCRS. 2020. The PLANTS Database. Juncus oxymeris Englm. National Plant Data Team, Greensboro, NC 27401 USA. Accessed 25 February 2020. https://plants.sc.egov.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=JUOX.
- Wikipedia. Greater Los Angeles. Accessed 25 February 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greater_Los_Angeles
- Zika PF. 2015. Juncus oxymeris, in Jepson Flora Project (eds.) Jepson eFlora, Revision 3. Accessed 25 February, 2020. https://ucjeps.berkeley.edu/eflora/eflora_display.php?tid=29699
It can be hard to imagine Greater Los Angeles as anything other than the bustling, vibrant, hot, and smoggy metropolis that it currently is. The massive LA metropolitan area is home to some 12.8 million people packed into a sprawling 4,850 square miles dominated by roads, buildings, suburban developments, apartment complexes, and parking lots. But what did it used to look like? Without herbarium specimens, we may have never known.
We may not know in detail what flora and fauna inhabited this lush valley when it was home to Tongva and Chumash tribes prior to the 1550s, but colonial expansion takes time. Western botanists documented plant life in LA basin ecosystems as early as the 1800s, bequeathing us hints of previous ecosystems that are long since buried or past.
Take, for example, this historical specimen of pointed rush (Juncus oxymeris) collected in 1889 by Scottish-American doctor and botanist Anstruther Davidson.
Like many of its kin, pointed rush is a denizen of wetland places (classified as a “facultative wetland” species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), preferring damp meadows and swales across the western United States (USDA, NCRS 2020; Zika 2015). This is hardly habitat one may associate with LA’s palm trees and oak-lined hills, yet historically, much of the LA basin was wet meadows and marshes (Dark et al. 2011; Grossinger et al. 2011) fed by the ocean and the once free-flowing Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers. With urbanization and taming of these once mighty (and often flooding) rivers into concrete channels, alluvial floodplains diminished and wetlands were drained, leaving little habitat for water-dependent species like the pointed rush.
Indeed, there are few reports of pointed rush in the Greater LA area since these early collections. A handful of specimens were collected in the nearby Orange County Saddleback region in the late 1920s to early 1930s, but since then, collections of this species have only been made in the surrounding region, largely in hilly meadows and creeksides far removed from the bustle of the city.
The historical record provided by herbarium specimens is truly irreplaceable. Without these collections, we would have only a dim understanding of the history of life in urbanized areas.
As several herbaria in the CAP network reach their imaging goals, many are beginning to transcribe information from these images into the data portal. (You could help us with this as well...just see our previous blog post!).
One question we hear from many transcribers is: "what are those words after the plant's scientific name?"
The words and (sometimes odd) punctuation after plant scientific names can indeed be confusing, but they provide important information about how the plant is being identified. We call this the species "authorship" or "author citation," and it documents who originally discovered, described, and named this species--or potentially, who re-named the species. In the Ambrosia salsola example above, the author in the parentheses originally named a certain species, but then Strother & B. G. Baldwin gathered more data and determined that this species should be Ambrosia salsola instead of whatever it was previously. This process of determining accurate and useful names for plant taxa is called taxonomy. The words following the scientific names of plant species are the abbreviated names of taxonomists.
Not knowing this, sometimes when transcribers see labels like this, they ask "is this specimen supposed to be gray?"
A. Gray is the standard abbreviation for Asa Gray, one of the most influential American botanists in history. Originally trained in medicine in New York, Gray found that plants were his true passion early in his twenties, and he began what was to become a long and illustrious career in botany. At the age of 28, he was hired as a professor of botany at the University of Michigan, but when funding dwindled, he was appointed as a professor of natural history at Harvard University in 1842, where he worked for over 40 years. Gray traveled to herbarium collections around the world, studying plants that had been collected in North America and naming scores of species. His skill as a botanist was so indispensable that Harvard wouldn't let him retire; it took him several years before he could resign!
Gray authored many foundational works during his career, from textbooks to floras, including the original Flora of North America, which he wrote with longtime colleague John Torrey. Much of what we know about the plants of North America stem from the works of Asa Gray. What better way to remember his contributions than to see his name on thousands of plant specimens?
Many ecosystems—and the diverse plant communities within them—are imperiled in California, raising an important question: what can a concerned citizen do?
No, this isn't a post about donating money, reducing waste, or calling your representatives (all important actions!), we're talking about empowering science, particularly that which examines the effects of anthropogenic change on Earth's biodiversity.
You don't need to be a trained scientist to help advance science. In fact, you can contribute to California botany and change biology from the comfort of your own home using Notes from Nature, a user-friendly website that enables you to view high-resolution images of plant specimens and transcribe data from the specimen labels.
The transcribed data are quality-checked and imported directly into the CCH2 portal (cch2.org), where they are instantly available for education and research, such as studies that examine how a warming climate has impacted plant flowering times, or predict how climate change may affect plant species' spatial distributions. Without these critical data in a digital format (i.e., typed into the computer by volunteers like you), such research is severely impeded.
The California Phenology Network is uploading thousands of herbarium specimen images to Notes from Nature for transcribing, and we need your help to get 'er done!
Did we mention it's super simple to get involved? Here's how you can make a difference:
2. If you want to track your work and earn badges, create an account by clicking REGISTER in the top right
corner of the page.
3. Select a project from the home page. (Pick us, please! You can find the California Phenology Network by looking for the orange poppy).
4. On the project homepage, select an "expedition" from one of the buttons below "Get Started".
5. Read the tutorial for instructions on how to transcribe specimen labels and get started! More help can
be found by clicking the Field Guide tab on the right side of the page, or by clicking any of the links
labeled NEED SOME HELP WITH THIS TASK?
6. Spread the word, be curious, and ask questions! We want to hear what YOU think about these
specimens and the project.
Although he didn't have a GPS handy, Hrusa's description leads us to a fairly specific place on the landscape. The text of the label says "Beach at mouth of San Jose Creek (Monastery Beach) approx. 2 mi. S of Carmel along Hwy. 1. Colony on flat at actual mouth of San Jose Creek." From this information, we can determine the approximate latitude and longitude (with an appropriate approximation of the error of that estimation) of the plant's location. The process of determining geographic coordinates of a specimen from the provided text is called georeferencing.
Georeferencing is an important task. Without georeferenced coordinates, it is difficult to visualize plant collections on a map or create spatial models. The CAP TCN aims to georeference hundreds of thousands of herbarium specimen records using a variety of tools in our data portal (cch2.org). Interested in learning more? Visit our georeferencing page for helpful resources.
Thanks to collectors like Fred Hrusa, we have a better idea of plant distributions over time and space, even on Christmas day.
As you peruse the ever-increasing gallery of herbarium specimens on our portal (cch2.org), you might be struck with an obvious question: how do you mount a dried plant specimen to a sheet of paper? For some plants, the answer seems obvious, but not all plants squish flat in a plant press. What about things like cacti...and whatever this is?
(For the record, this is a Protea, native to South Africa and cultivated in California).
After being collected, pressed, and dried, plant specimens are mounted to sheets of sturdy, acid-free paper using several methods, each with advantages and disadvantages. In early years of herbarium history, the primary method of mounting herbarium specimens was to hand-sew them to the paper. (Yes, that means getting out your needle, linen thread, and a thimble). This method is still used in many herbaria, especially for bulky items like fruits and cones, because of its durability and the fact that it introduces few additional chemicals or adhesives to the specimen. Nevertheless, as you can imagine, sewing is no quick and easy task.
There are other ways that plants have occasionally been mounted in a pinch, including with cellophane tape and plastic wrap, but these do not produce lasting, archival-quality specimens, so they are often re-mounted when they are discovered.
Regardless of the adhesive used, mounting specimens is a blend of science and art. Important structures such as flowers and fruits must be clearly displayed for identification and measurement, leaves must be splayed out to show their full shapes, and there must be room on the specimen for the data-rich label and future annotations. At the same time, well-mounted specimens can embody the life and beauty of the plants they display, and most mounters work hard to produce specimens of high aesthetic quality. Some are more creative than others (see the arrangement of the aquatic plant shown below!), but all resulting specimens are vital snapshots of plant diversity in space and time.
For more information about how plant specimens are mounted, see these resources:
If you've been on Twitter during this holiday season, you might have caught wind of the #plantsgiving challenge: a friendly competition to see who can feature the most plant species on their Thanksgiving table. The record currently stands at 66 plant species in one meal (!).
The diversity of plants used for human food is dazzling--from wheat, apples, and carrots to thyme, bay leaves, and black pepper--but this variety scarcely compares to uncultivated diversity. Today, we give thanks not only for the plant species on our Thanksgiving tables, but also the evolutionary relatives of these species, particularly those found in California. Here are a few fun examples:
Mashed potatoes - Solanum
Despite being a staple of many Eurasian diets, potatoes originated from the Americas (the specimen on the left was collected from Bolivia!) and were spread widely in cultivation. The potatoes we eat are the species Solanum tuberosum. Interestingly, this plant genus, Solanum, is an enormous group of over 1500 species, including the species that give us tomatoes and eggplants. Outside of cultivation, Solanum species are widespread and often weedy. Take for example the California native shown above and to the right, Solanum americanum (American black nightshade). This species thrives in disturbed places and has become a frequent weed in tropical and subtropical places across the globe. Far from mild nature of the potatoes we eat, American black nightshade is, like many of its relatives, poisonous at certain times in its development, but don't let that stop you from dipping into the mashed potatoes! The poison found in nightshade plants, called solanine, doesn't reach dangerous levels in mature tubers (aka potatoes) of Solanum tuberosum.
Green beans - Phaseolus
Pumpkin pie - Cucurbita
Don't leave without dessert! The last genus for today includes the famous pumpkin. Whether for carving, artful decoration, pie, or lattes, the pumpkin is a staple of autumn festivities in the U.S. The pumpkin genus, Cucurbita, contains several species of gourds and melons, each with a distinctive fleshy fruit called a pepo. Fittingly, Cucurbita pepo is the species of pumpkin we generally consume during the fall season. (Cultivars of C. pepo are also responsible for zucchini, acorn squash, and summer squash, but let's leave the wonders of artificial selection to a future blog post.)
The specimen on the left is a pumpkin (C. pepo) that escaped cultivation due to flooding, deemed a waif by the collector. On the right is an established California native, Cucurbita palmata, also known as coyote melon or coyote gourd. This species occurs in southern California, especially in hot, arid areas. As demonstrated above, C. palmata shares similar morphology and habit to the familiar pumpkin; its stiff-haired vines and tendrils crawl across the ground, and it produces coarse, hairy leaves and the distinctive pepo fruit. Unfortunately, coyote melon does not share the rich, tasty flavor of our beloved field pumpkins, but that doesn't stop a variety of moth species from feasting on the plant, despite its distasteful hairs.
What species do you find on your Thanksgiving table, and do these species have native relatives in your area? Answers to these questions and many more are aided by our knowledge of biodiversity from herbarium specimens.
What do the following specimens have in common?
Both were collected by U.S. veterans. In honor of Veterans Day, today we highlight two of the many influential botanists who served in the U.S. Armed Forces.
At the time when he collected the specimen on the left, Donovan Stewart Correll (1908-1983) was the head of the Botany Department of the Texas Research Foundation, where he and many collaborators authored the Manual of the Vascular Plants of Texas. Sixteen years earlier, however, his life had been much different. In 1943, he was exploring the cold, subarctic forests of Canada with the Alaska Military Highway Expedition. For two years afterward, he served as a gunnery officer for the U.S. Navy at the close of World War II. Don Correll never seemed to slow down--and neither did his wife, Dr. Helen B. Correll. The Drs. Correll cataloged orchids of Guatemala, aquatic plants in the southeast U.S., and the magnificent tropical flora of the Bahama Archipelago.
The specimen on the right is only one of the over 30,000 collected by Reid Venable Moran (1916-2010), a world expert on the well-known succulent family, Crassulaceae. Moran enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1942 and was promptly shot down over Yugoslavia--which gave him more time to do botany. After being rescued and while waiting in northern Africa to be shipped home, Moran collected African plants and visited the Botanical Garden and Laboratory at the University of Algiers. Like Correll, Moran was an active botanist and explorer for the rest of his life, making notable discoveries across Baja California and the many unique and threatened islands off the coast of California and Mexico. During his career, Moran worked at both the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden and the San Diego Natural History Museum, both of which are part of the California Phenology Network! Thousands of Moran's specimens--as well as many others--are being digitized through the California Phenology Network and made available online: cch2.org. His travels and those of thousands of other botanists are being preserved and disseminated through this digitization effort.
We are grateful for the service of these botanical leaders, both to science and to the United States.
References / Further reading:
What defines a poppy?
How do we know exactly which characteristics—size, leaf shape, number of hairs, etc.—constitute a member of a specific plant species?
This may seem like a philosophical question, but, for plant taxa, the answer is quite practical. When a botanist names a taxon—that is, they publish a description of the new species along with evidence for its separation from similar species—the botanist bases their description off of a type specimen. This specimen is the epitome of the species, the holy grail of that species' characteristics. In future work, scientists can refer back to this specimen to understand what characteristics are necessary for a plant to be assigned that particular taxonomic name.
There are over 34,000 type specimens represented in the CCH2 data portal (cch2.org). Not all of these represent different taxa; there are many kinds of types defined in the International Code of Nomenclature (an easy-to-read version in chapter 7 of this monograph), so there can be several types for one taxon. Below is the type specimen of black milkvetch (Astragalus funereus), an imperiled member of the pea family that is endemic to the Mojave desert. Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden houses this and many other type specimens in their collection, many of which are being digitized as part of the California Phenology Network,
Did you catch the collection date? 1907! Like this one, many type specimens are quite old; however, new species are being described every year, bringing new type specimens into the fold.
The collector of this specimen is also the person who named the species, Marcus E. Jones. Jones published many plant names during his lifetime, and he is especially well-known for his work on milkvetch (Astragalus). His original description of Astragalus funereus was published in Contributions to Western Botany in 1908, only a year after the type specimen was collected.
(P.S. Did you know that hundreds, if not thousands, of original species descriptions can be viewed online through the Biodiversity Heritage Library? Check it out!)
Type specimens are incredibly valuable to science. Like original paintings by master artists, they serve as vital baselines for future work and verification of past work. Therefore, their preservation and study is a high priority for herbaria across the world. The California Phenology Network is proud to play a part in making type specimen data available for research and promoting protection of these important pieces of history.
Hitchcock AS. 1921. The type concept in systematic botany. American Journal of Botany 8(5):251-255.
One of many answers to this question is that specimens hold stories; lots of them. Behind every clump of grass carefully strapped to paper, for every bouquet of leaves and flowers delicately arranged and glued into place, there are people, places, events, and discoveries: tales that revolve around real people's lives and stories from before human history.
The purpose of this new blog is twofold: to tell stories of the present and stories of the past. Here we present practical information like news, updates, and event announcements, but here we also think deeply about the historical treasures we zealously curate. Here we hope you find content that is both useful and inspiring, a little science and a little art.
Here we tell stories.