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Feature   | Summer 2012

Herbaria a "Slice" of the Tree of Life

Purdue, Plants and Pioneers

Arthur Herbarium sign

The collection's original sign and photo of Joseph C. Arthur, first botanist of the Purdue Agricultural Experiment Station, are housed in the herbarium that bears his name.
(Purdue Agricultural Communication photo/Tom Campbell)

"This is a wonderful new space where these collections can be protected and appreciated as they deserve," says Peter Goldsbrough, head of the Department of Botany and Plant Pathology. "There are people all over the world who want to use this collection for their research, and we want to make it more available and visible for them."

The Kriebel Herbarium also received a large set of specimens last year from Eli Lilly and Company in Indianapolis, which was searching for a place to send herbarium pieces it no longer wished to keep.

"Lilly, as all pharmaceutical companies once did, relied on botanicals as its source for drugs," Goldsbrough says. "Most pharmaceutical research now uses other methods to identify new drugs today. This was an opportunity, because of the renovation and new space, to preserve the collection and add new items to our plant herbarium."

The Arthur Herbarium's rust collection, as one of the largest in the world, puts Purdue's herbaria on the map. Many of the items in the Arthur collection are "isotype specimens," meaning they are original, official specimens. Scientists will often refer to an isotype specimen when encountering an unknown or new species so that it can be categorized correctly.

Books contain descriptions of each species, but that isn't always enough. "Sometimes you want to compare the new specimen with the physical type specimen," says Greg Shaner, professor emeritus of botany and plant pathology who studied rust fungi in wheat and oats. "It's like the old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words."

The oldest specimen in the collection is also one of the most famous. The single leaf of Berberis ilicifolia (barberry) was collected in 1769 in Tierra del Fuego, South America, during Capt. James Cook's first voyage around the world. The specimen was sent to Purdue after it developed rust.

Glimpse into the Past
While the Arthur Herbarium is the larger and more prominent of the collections, the Kriebel Herbarium has a significant amount of history attached to it.

Besides the connection to Custer, the herbarium is a record of the plant life that has existed in Indiana.


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