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Feature   | Summer 2012

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Discovering Custer's Last Plants from Black Hills Expedition
Plants from historic expeditions in Purdue herbaria
Plants collected by Norman Borlaug in Herbaria

Herbaria a "Slice" of the Tree of Life

Purdue, Plants and Pioneers

A few years ago Nick Harby was helping a botanist with a specimen in one of Purdue Agriculture's herbaria when they came across one with a label that read "Black Hills W.T." that caught his attention.

The specimen had been collected in 1874 in present-day South Dakota, then known as the Wyoming Territory, and was signed "Custer."

Harby filed the specimen away, but he couldn't stop thinking about it. Later that night, after a little research, Harby discovered that the only Custer in the Black Hills during that time would have been George Armstrong Custer, the 7th Cavalry general who made his famous last stand at the Battle of Little Big Horn two years later.

Nick Harby, Purdue herbaria
History’s great expeditions to explore new lands included the collection of native plants. While cataloging specimens for Purdue’s herbaria, Nick Harby discovered plants from famous expeditions, such as Custer’s to the Black Hills. (Purdue Agricultural Communication photo/Tom Campbell)

Harby raced back to the herbarium and spent the better part of a day sorting through and pulling about a dozen specimens Custer collected during an expedition to the Black Hills to look for gold prospects.

"It didn't click in my head at first," says Harby, the herbaria assistant. "I find things in here all the time that I didn't know we had. It's amazing."

Custer took Aris Donaldson as botanist on the trip, and his samples were sent back to John Coulter, a member of Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone expeditions, to identify. Coulter was teaching at Hanover College. He took the collection with him to Wabash College, which donated its herbarium to the New York Botanical Garden in 1987 with about 40 of the Custer specimens.

How the others came to rest at Purdue isn't clear, but Coulter's friends and colleagues included Charles Barnes, professor of botany at Purdue, and J.C. Arthur, the Arthur Herbarium's namesake. Additionally, in the late 1880s, Coulter's brother Stanley Coulter (Stanley Coulter Hall) became director of the biological laboratories at Purdue.

Libraries for Plants
Purdue Agriculture's Department of Botany and Plant Pathology has two herbaria: the Joseph C. Arthur Herbarium is one of the largest collections of rust fungi in the world, with about 100,000 specimens. The Ralph M. Kriebel Herbarium contains about 75,000 vascular plants and 16,000 non-rust fungi.

The specimens—some more than a century old—are taped to large sheets of paper with tags that identify who collected them, when and where. They're a sort of library for plants and fungi that researchers can use to identify other plants or understand where the plants have lived.

The plant repositories recently moved to a more modern space in Lilly Hall. The new area is climate-controlled and has better fire-suppression systems necessary for insuring the collection. It also contains a work area where Harby and others photograph and inventory the collections. Then they are posted online, giving the world access to the resources.


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