Thursday 25 April 2019

Herbarium Day for Somerset botanists

Jeanne Webb demonstrates pressing of specimens.
Image: G. Lavender
As regular readers will know, we are always keen on this blog - and across BSBI more generally - to big up anything to do with herbaria. Indeed our President Chris Metherell has made promoting herbaria rather a theme of his presidency! Check out the BSBI herbarium page set up by Chris.

So it was a pleasure to receive the below account by West Country botanists Graham Lavender and Simon Leach about the first meeting of the 2019 summer programme for the Somerset Rare Plants Group (SRPG). They showed exceptionally good taste by visiting their local herbarium!

Over to Graham and Simon:

"SRPG's summer programme started on 1st April with a meeting at the Somerset County Herbarium (TTN). This herbarium is based on material brought together originally by the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society and stored in the museum at Taunton Castle. It is now housed at the Somerset Heritage Centre, Taunton, and under the day-to-day care of the South West Heritage Trust.

Herbarium pressed specimen of
Taraxicum oxoniense
Image: G. Lavender
"The herbarium has five SRPG members who volunteer once a week to curate the collection; in recent months they have been busy re-organising the specimens to bring them into line with modern taxonomy and nomenclature, and with families, genera and species now ordered according to the 3rd edition of Clive Stace’s New Flora of the British Isles (2010). They have also been repairing old sheets, putting sheets in new folders, and mounting and adding large numbers of specimens that have been donated by botanists currently working in the county. Four members of the herbarium team were on hand to give guided tours of the collection.

There has been much work done recently on Somerset’s dandelion (Taraxacum) flora, and the herbarium now houses more than 350 sheets of dandelions, accounting for about 140 of the 150-odd species so far recorded in the county. This collection is of increasing regional and national importance, and includes some fine specimens of a number of taxa rarely collected in Britain such as Taraxacum subericinum, T. pachylobum and T. pietii-oosterveldii.

"The focus of this first ‘herbarium day’ was indeed Taraxacum, and after an introduction by Simon Leach (joint County Recorder for South Somerset VC5), there was a talk on dandelion taxonomy and identification by Graham Lavender – concentrating on the various ‘sections’ into which dandelions are grouped to aid identification". [Ed.: check out the crib notes on the various Taraxacum sections in the Plant Crib to find out which characters you need to look for when putting dandelions into sections.]

Liz McDonnell showing
Taunton Herbarium specimens
Image: G. Lavender

"Members then had an opportunity to peruse the herbarium collection of dandelions. After lunch, a visit to the grounds of the Somerset Heritage Centre (and nearby waste ground) provided plenty of fresh material for us to work on. We learnt about how to spot a ‘good specimen’, how to collect it, and (back indoors) Jeanne Webb explained how to prepare specimens for pressing and drying". [Ed.: there's a really useful guide, by the legendary Arthur Chater, to pressing and drying herbarium specimens - download your free copy from the Herbarium webpage!]

"We took several plants through the relevant keys, including not only the ‘sectional’ key at the front of the BSBI Handbook on Taraxacum, but also the detailed ‘Plant Crib 3’ keys available on the BSBI website. We were introduced to dandelion terminology too, where terms like ‘ligule’ and ‘bract’, for example, do not refer to the same structures as they do in most other plants. Several attendees took away plants for working on at home.

Chris Metherell gets up close and personal
with eyebright specimens in the
Natural History Museum's herbarium
Image: J. Mitchley
"Numbers are limited for any meeting at the herbarium, and it has already been necessary by popular demand to put a draft entry in the SRPG 2020 programme for a second visit, possibly to concentrate on another group, e.g. grasses or sedges. At our winter meetings we have regularly been given short updates on the herbarium, but this was the first time that members had been given an opportunity to see it ‘in the flesh’. With thanks to the South West Heritage Trust for providing our meeting venue and for allowing us privileged ‘behind-the-scenes’ access to what is becoming an increasingly valuable and interesting collection".

A second visit by popular demand? Proof, if it were needed, that herbaria are wonderful places to which all botanists will flock, given half a chance! If you'd like to follow in SRPG's footsteps and arrange a visit to your local herbarium, you'll find a regularly updated contacts list on the Herbarium page. You'll also find many other herbarium-related articles, resources, links, images... so do check it out!

P.S. When I showed this draft blogpost to BSBI President Chris Metherell, he said: "Another great example of how useful herbaria can be for botanists of all abilities. Herbaria are at risk in the 21st century and it could be a case of 'use it or lose it' for some local collections so it's fantastic to see one being used in such a positive fashion. More herbarium experiences please!"

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