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TWU Faculty Restore Herbarium

7/14/03


DENTON — Biologists at Texas Woman’s University are making new — or rather, old — discoveries every day as they refurbish the university’s herbarium.

Essentially left untouched for more than a half-century, Dr. Camelia Maier, assistant professor of biology, and biology laboratory instructor Reta Smiddy Foreman are carefully inventorying and sorting herbarium specimens. The process will take about two years. But when it’s complete, botanists will have a window into the early 20th century in Texas.

“The earliest specimens date to 1903 and latest come from the late 1940s,” said Dr. Maier. “Approximately three-quarters of the specimens were collected in Tarrant, Denton, Travis and Brewster counties.” The collections also includes 12 flats of flowering plants from Iceland, as well as plants from Long Island, Michigan, Mexico, Scotland and Jamaica.

The herbarium was started shortly after Texas Woman’s University (then called the Girls Industrial College) was established by the Texas Legislature in 1901. Contributors to the collection included professors, students and recognized private collectors, such as Albert Ruth from the Lake Worth area, Travis County’s B.C. Tharp and Barton C. Warnock of the Big Bend region. Mary S. Young, one of the first recognized Texas female botanists, also contributed to TWU’s herbarium.

But in the late 1940s, additions to the collection stopped. “We can only speculate why,” said Ms. Foreman.

“During the war years, herbarium paper was more difficult to acquire. And also about that time, professors who were involved with the project retired.”

Without a curator, nothing happened with the herbarium. The last plant specimen was added to the collection in 1947.

During the remodeling of the old science building in 1976, Ms. Foreman discovered two large metal cases tucked into an unused closet. The contents of the cases were the herbarium.

“The cases were tagged and moved to an old dorm for storage until the renovation was completed in 1978,” said Ms. Foreman. After the renovation, the cases were returned to the old science building. But, again, the herbarium sat almost untouched for another 20 years.

A public exhibit of some of the specimens was held in 2001 for TWU’s centennial, about the time Dr. Maier and Ms. Foreman undertook the project of restoring the herbarium. Financial contributions from the Native Plant Society-Trinity Forks Chapter and the TWU Department of Biology have helped with the restoration project.

Still, Dr. Maier estimates, it will take another two years to complete restoration of the herbarium.

Given their age, the specimens are fragile and require careful handling. Some require remounting, and others require re-identification. “They used the old nomenclature when the specimens were collected,” Dr. Maier said. The Botanical Research Institute and Native Plant Society have been helpful in re-identifying many of the plants, she said.

Many specimens have yet to be identified and cataloged. Numerous specimens — most likely collected by students — lay sandwiched between newspaper pages from the 1930s and 1940s, waiting to be mounted and cataloged. Notes scribbled on the newspaper margins indicate when and from where the plants were taken.

“We have several endangered species in the collection. We may even have extinct plant species,” added Dr. Maier.

Aside from cataloging the plants, Dr. Maier and Ms. Foreman also are collecting information on the collectors. Many, such as Mr. Ruth and Dr. Young, are well known. Others are a mystery because only initials or partial names are recorded with the specimen.

“I’d love to meet some of the ladies who added to the collection while they were students here,” said Ms. Foreman. Some of those former students apparently continued to submit plants to the collection after they left the university.

Once the restoration project is complete, TWU plans to make the herbarium available to researchers through specimen loans and an online database. New specimens will be added to the 800-piece collection at that time, too.

Dr. Susan Burke, an assistant visiting professor of library science, already has offered to donate some of her collection to TWU. “I collect lichens,” said Dr. Burke. “I plan to give them some of mine — predominately ones I collected around this area.”

Persons interested in getting a peek at the collection can visit TWU’s Blagg-Huey Library, located off Bell Avenue and Administration Drive. Several specimens are on display on the library’s ground floor.

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For Further Information Contact:

Roy Kron
Director of News and Information
Tel: (940) 898-3456
e-mail: rkron@twu.edu