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Photos by Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
Dr. Collin Hobbs, assistant biology professor at Huntington University, demonstrates how a plant press is used to preserve specimens for the herbarium.

Huntington University herbarium yields dried treasures

The herbarium includes this mountain laurel, collected June 12, 1951, in New Jersey.

For 30 years, the herbarium sat untouched.

Down several flights of stairs, hidden in the backroom of what is now a Huntington University student lounge, the rows and rows of documentation went unnoticed by most students and staff.

The pressed plants, bits of leaves and sticks of yore were crammed away in carefully collected folders, organized by species.

But when assistant biology professor Collin Hobbs discovered the hidden treasure – which also happens to be one of the oldest and largest herbariums at any Christian college in the Midwest – he had to check it out.

The herbarium, recently added to a prestigious national registry, was begun in 1903 by Fred Loew, a Huntington University graduate.

Loew’s goal was to get every plant species from Huntington County researched and registered within the herbarium.

“If he didn’t get it, he was very close,” Hobbs said.

The collection includes more than 12,000 specimens.

At first, Hobbs tried to downplay his role in bringing the dead plants back to life – figuratively, of course.

“I started here in August, and I knew it existed, but it had sat untouched for a long time,” he said. “At that point, I didn’t have a plan for what to do with it.”

And he’s not shy about calling the herbarium what it is.

“It’s a big library of flat, dead plants.”

But talking about the opportunities it holds for students flips a switch.

“There are specimens in here from the 1880s that we can take DNA from and use it to study the movement of plants. A grad student could do that,” he said.

For example, by pulling samples of morning glories from herbariums around the world, a student could determine where the plant has grown during the past century or more, he said.

Furthermore, it is evidence that the plants existed – far more concrete proof than a digital image or old photograph, he said.

The collection was recently added to The New York Botanical Garden’s Index Herbariorum, a directory allowing researchers from around the world to contact Hobbs or the university to learn more about the collection.

New registrants must demonstrate that their collection is large, accessible to scientists and actively managed. Usually 5,000 specimens is the minimum to be eligible for the registry, according to the website.

The world’s herbariums contain an estimated 350 million specimens, the website said.

Learning lesson

Last semester, Hobbs began the process of incorporating the herbarium into his courses.

He challenged his botany students to spend some time searching for specimens at the university’s Thornhill Nature Preserve.

With Hobbs’ help – and the collection of centuries-old, but well-documented, herbarium entries – students began their hunt.

Junior Kristen Springer was among them.

Springer, who is studying chemistry and biology at Huntington University, said the herbarium, and her interest in collecting samples of plants, is more of a hobby than anything else.

With her 16 classmates, she set out in the fall to find the perfect specimen for her assignment. Her discovery was an ageratina altissima, commonly called white snakeroot.

Though she didn’t know about much about the plant before she found it near a pond in the nature preserve, Springer began to study its origin, and with it, learned an interesting piece of history.

White snakeroot is a poisonous perennial herb, native to eastern North America.

The plant contains a toxin called tremetol; when it is consumed by cattle, it contaminates the animal’s milk and meat. If consumed in large enough quantities, it can be poisonous to humans.

In her research, Springer also learned that “milk sickness,” caused by drinking too much of the contaminated milk, killed thousands of European Americans in the early 19th century – and was possibly the cause of death of Abraham Lincoln’s mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, in 1818.

It’s lessons like this that Hobbs enjoys sharing with his students, and it’s what he hopes will keep them interested in preserving history – like the Huntington University graduates before them.

jcrothers@jg.net

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