Trout lily sample

Growing our Library of Botanical Knowledge

Clear scientific data is crucial in restoring and protecting land—especially data about a site’s plant life.  Just as E. Lucy Braun collected and pressed plants in her botanical studies, our field team collects specimens to document plant communities.

The project began to take shape when Butler University’s Friesner Herbarium donated five cabinets to CILTI. These cabinets are housed in the Daugherty House at Oliver’s Woods. Here we have devoted one wing of the house specifically to our herbarium, a collection of dried plants that are systematically arranged for reference. Our herbarium serves as an ever-expanding repository of plant information.

Grace collecting in the field

An herbarium offers a time-honored way of preserving both plants and botanical knowledge. For centuries, people have collected plant specimens, mounted them on rigid paper, and filed them in cabinets where they can be used as a catalog of local flora. Herbaria can even help us learn more about climate change, conservation, and habitat loss, as larger, older collections can contain specimens that don’t exist anymore.

We can reference and potentially contribute to the Consortium of Midwest Herbaria, a massive digital herbarium. Through observation and research like DNA testing, it’s possible to see similarities and changes in plants from the very same places where E. Lucy Braun collected some of her specimens. 

Many of CILTI’s specimens come straight out of Oliver’s Woods—but some are collected farther afield. CILTI has received a research and collecting permit from the DNR Division of Nature Preserves. This specific permit grants the stewardship team permission, with special conditions, to remove specimens from all of CILTI’s state-dedicated nature preserves. The permit is very important and we would not be able to collect from dedicated preserves without it, as it is illegal to remove anything from a state-dedicated nature preserve

Preserving the specimens involves collecting, identifying, pressing, and mounting plant material. 

Sometimes people use plastic bags, pencil boxes, and lunch tins to collect specimens. One tool is made specially for the collection of vascular plants: a vasculum. A vasculum helps maintain the plant in a cool, humid environment until it can be pressed. Typically it is a flattened cylindrical metal case with a lengthwise opening.

Dutchman’s breeches

When identifying a specimen, the stewardship team will include information like the coordinates, habitat type, and nearby plants. On the mounting sheet, they will label the specimen with the plant’s collection number, scientific name, common name(s), family, date, and names of the people who collected and officially identified the plant.

Pressing can take the form of a “sandwich” of cardboard and paper held tightly together with straps to flatten and dry the collected plant. You can buy a plant press whose dimensions are slightly larger than an official mounting sheet. The standard U.S. herbarium sheet is 11 ¾ by 16 ½ inches, made of acid-free paper.  In a pinch, you can even press plants in the pages of a heavy book and leave them there to dry. 

The entire process is educational because it requires looking closely at plants’ features and behaviors. The herbarium promises to be a key teaching tool for understanding native and invasive plant species. 

This growing library of knowledge will inform conservation efforts now and into the future, just as E. Lucy Braun’s specimens are still an invaluable resource nearly a century later. 

Grace van Kan

White River Steward

Grace grew up roaming the woods, creeks and wetlands around the Chesapeake Bay watershed. From an early trout-raising project to a “gap year” spent restoring coral reefs in Thailand, her interest in aquatic conservation has only grown. Now she cares for several riverine nature preserves as CILTI’s White River Steward.