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Feature   | Summer 2012

Herbaria a "Slice" of the Tree of Life

Purdue, Plants and Pioneers


One of the first photo-capable microscopes used by early Purdue scientists is also housed at the herbarium. (Purdue Agricultural Communication photos/Tom Campbell)
"It's like a glimpse through time to see what was here in the past," says Michael Homoya, botanist/plant ecologist in the Division of Nature Preserves with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. "It is a valuable record of what we have in the state. It's valuable even as new specimens are introduced to see how plant life is changing in the state."

Homoya uses the Kriebel Herbarium in his efforts to maintain records of rare, threatened and endangered plant species in the state.

Looking through herbarium records, Homoya can track where plant species were found a century or more ago. Comparing the records to the location of those plants today can tell him whether the species is still healthy and active, or whether it is experiencing some sort of decline.

Sally Weeks, the dendrology laboratory manager in Purdue's Department of Forestry and Natural Resources, has used the Kriebel Herbarium in her publications, especially Shrubs of Indiana, Their Identification and Uses, a resource for the Master Gardeners program, nursery operators and anyone interested in plant life. "I have used the herbarium a lot to identify things I'm seeing in the wild," she says.

"We, as botanists, like to know what was in the state of Indiana, where it was located and what it looked like," Weeks says. "It really gives you a picture of how our landscapes have changed, how humans have altered our landscapes."

The herbaria also offer glimpses into Purdue's own past.

J.C. Arthur began the herbarium that bears his name. Arthur, a renowned mycologist in his day, was one of the first Purdue faculty members and the first head of the Department of Botany and Plant Pathology.

In the 1880s, when Arthur started at Purdue, he had to supply his own specimens—some of the first teaching tools for students in Purdue Agriculture—and they are still used to this day. Arthur's collection is the longest continually supported Purdue Agricultural Experiment Station project in history.

"Having your own exclusive herbarium would have been important for a botanist back then in the same way that slide collections were valuable instructional tools for faculty not that long ago," Goldsbrough says. "The collections of materials would have been important both for teaching and research."

The Kriebel Herbarium gets its name from Ralph M. Kriebel—teacher, botanist and conservationist and mentee of renowned botanist Charles C. Deam, who was himself mentored by Purdue's Stanley Coulter. Kriebel worked for the Soil Conservation Service and later the Agricultural Extension Service at Purdue. When he died, his herbarium of more than 10,000 specimens was donated to Purdue.

In that collection are the specimens of John Hussey, one of six original faculty members hired at Purdue in 1874.

"We still have all his specimens," Harby says. "So, if you look at them now, you're looking at the same things the first Purdue students learned from all those years ago."

Sorting It All Out

Harby is still sorting and cataloging the specimens that have been a part of Purdue, Indiana, American and world history. With the addition of the Lilly specimens, which Harby estimates at about 14,000, he'll be busy for some time. He's not sure what gems he might dig up while reading the elaborate cursive description tags attached to each page.

"This is Purdue's little slice of the tree of life," Harby says.

Discovering Custer's Last Plants from Black Hills Expedition

Plants from historic expeditions in Purdue herbaria
Plants collected by Norman Borlaug in Herbaria


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