||Jim Solomon, curator of the herbarium, manages the storage, care and use of the Garden's collection. His research interests focus on the flora of the Bolivian Andes and studies of members of Vitaceae, the grape family, and Cactaceae, the cactus family.
Photo: Trent Foltz
Secret of the Specimen Shelves
Jim Solomon holds out a spreadsheet that enumerates the herbarium's inventory. Year by year, column by column, the numbers increase: two million, three million, four, five. The Garden's vast collection of pressed, dried plants, mounted for permanent storage and reference, is one of the two largest in the United States, and also the fastest growing. In a typical month, the Garden adds about 10,000 new specimens to its collection. In one particularly active year, it received 190,000. They come from all over the world, from Garden researchers and colleagues at other institutions.
The value of this huge collection is incalculable. "All we know about most of the world's organisms is a name, a description and samples in a collection," says Solomon. "Specimens are the raw data for our concepts about plants. They are an archive of natural history - as significant to our understanding of the natural world as cultural artifacts are to human history."
But the specimens are not the end point of the herbarium, they are really the beginning, says Solomon. "All kinds of scientists ask questions of the herbarium - and the questions today are more diverse than ever. People in search of heavy-metal deposits have examined plants that accumulate these substances. Also, visiting entomologists have correlated our plants with species of insects. A hundred years from now, people will ask questions we can't imagine today. Our collection will be ready for them."