Curating the plant specimens of the Thorne collection

Last year the RSABG herbarium was awarded an NSF grant to process the backlog of unaccessioned specimens from Professor Robert Thorne’s botanical collecting around the world.

Thorne, emeritus curator and professor, retired after a distinguished career at RSABG. The specimens in question have been held at an off-site storage facility; they urgently need to be processed and placed in the herbarium to be properly cared for and, as importantly, to be available for researchers to study. As of this year 4,000 of an estimated total of 10,000 specimens have been prepped and are ready to be mounted.

Most of the specimens date from the late 1950s to the early 1980s, meaning that these plants have spent many years subjected to unregulated temperatures, possible insect pests and acid from the newspaper which the plants were pressed (acid out-gassing from the paper can lead to degradation of the plant material).

On September 17, 2010, the herbarium staff led an in-service training session for herbarium volunteers to inform them about the travels and relevance of Thorne’s collections for research and science. The presentation was given by Joy England, curatorial assistant. Herbarium Administrative Curator Sula Vanderplank demonstrated how to use the new sewing frame created by David Gish, Tuesday morning herbarium volunteer. On occasion the best way to prepare a herbarium specimen is to sew it to the mounting paper--who knew?

Also, Chuck Brasch demonstrated his new technique to mount extremely fragile specimens. Herbarium staff and volunteers have given the method the monikier of  “The C. Frederic Brasch Method.”

Thorne was present and happily answered questions about his travels and adventures while collecting plants all over the world.

Following the presentation, the herbarium volunteers and staff presented Sula Vanderplank with a farewell best wishes and gifts as she embarks on a journey to earn her Ph.D. at the University California, Riverside. We all wish her well, although we don’t yet really have to say goodbye as she will still be around conducting externally funded projects through the garden.

The herbarium volunteers are assigned to a day of the week and teams from different days may well not be acquainted. However, they are all very well acquainted with the important task of mounting dried dead plants to archival museum quality paper to add immeasurable value to our fantastic natural history and research collection.

On Monday morning the volunteers actively took to Thorne’s collections and began the undaunted challenge using the techniques learned from the in-service training session. Mounting the remaining 10,000 specimens will be a challenge to conquer but with the knowledge learned and techniques practiced, the herbarium volunteers are now fully equipped to tackle Dr. Thorne’s collections.