Library of Leaves

Reed Herbarium gives botanists a glimpse into the past—and the future.

By Randall S. Barton | December 1, 2015

On the second floor of the biology building is a narrow room lined on one side with wooden cabinets. The location is hardly exotic, but it represents a botanical treasure— the nearly 10,000 specimens of the Reed College Herbarium.

Affixing dried plants to archival paper labeled in India ink may seem a relic of the Victorian era, but the herbarium offers timeless benefits to researchers. Many of its specimens are unique to the Pacific Northwest; each one has been identified, photographed, and entered into a vast digital system. In many ways, the herbarium becomes more valuable as it ages.

In Portland’s founding days, collectors gathered plant specimens that had been introduced into the area accidentally—arriving as ballast in the holds of ships or attached to shipments in railcars. Such specimens tell the story of flora that have disappeared from the landscape, as well as ones that have gained a foothold. Botanists can investigate the traits of successful invaders, versus the plants that didn’t establish.

Herbaria also demonstrate dramatic shifts in flowering time, indicating patterns of climate change and other human impacts on flora.

The Reed Herbarium began with a gift of nearly 1,600 specimens of Pacific Northwest flora dating from 1848 to 1909. The identity of the original donor was shrouded in mystery for many years, until some sleuthing by Vernon Marttala ’70 revealed that the handwriting on the labels matched that of Louis Henderson—a neighbor of Thomas Lamb Eliot, the Unitarian minister who urged Amanda and Simeon to establish the college.

Over the years other gifts trickled in: a collection of forest flora from a retired forest service worker; specimens Prof. David French ’39 [anthropology 1947-88] collected while researching botanical materials used by Native Americans. Prof. Bert Brehm [biology 1962-93] organized the collection when he came to the college. As funds became available, he secured a room to house it in the biology building. 

“At one time there were probably hundreds of small herbaria like this in the country,” Prof. Brehm says. “They’re slowly being condensed, with the smaller ones being folded into larger ones.”

Students doing theses involving native plants mount specimens of the plants they are working on, which are stored in the herbarium as vouchers. Rachel Cox ’84, for example, studied how Native Americans used suffocants, horticultural death agents, to harvest fish. After soaking the plants and crushing them, they would allow the juice to flow downstream and collect the fish as they floated to the surface. Anyone wanting to replicate or expand upon that research can use the voucher to determine exactly which plants were used.

Many of the things for which plants are utilized pertain only to limited groups. Certain species are good for wood, others for medicines or foods or crop improvements. 

“In things like bio-prospecting for medicines, the diversity of compounds is what is ultimately going to yield the things that are most useful to us,” explains Prof. Keith Karoly [biology 1994-], director of the Reed College Herbarium. “The only way to wade through that diversity is to have some system of naming, some way of recognizing that you’re dealing with an entity that may be different from what people have studied before, which might make it worthy of investigation. Recognizing those distinctions allows you to know where you want to target your investigation for practical purposes.”

Every spring Karoly teaches a class on plant evolution focusing on plant diversity in the Pacific Northwest. Many plants being studied are not in bloom as the class commences, but the herbarium gives students an opportunity to study and recognize them by their characteristics before getting out in the field. Students working on independent projects involving flora in the Reed Canyon use the herbarium to identify whether the plant has been here since the college was founded or has been previously identified in the region. Keying a plant digitally is not as effective as pulling out the specimen sheet and studying it under a dissecting microscope.

“You might want to know what the characteristics are on the underside of the leaf, and the photograph doesn’t show you that,” Brehm explains. “Another possibility is studying the specimens for their internal chemistry. If you can get a small amount of plant material off the side, you can do a DNA analysis, which gives you an extraordinary amount of information about that system.”

Researchers are able to call up digitized files to discover whether a certain plant, for example, always occurs in places with ultramafic rock. Conversely they could call up locations containing such rock and see if that plant is growing there.

Though Reed’s collection is digitized and available online, researchers from other institutions frequently request mounted specimens, which fosters a collegial relationship between institutions.

“Maintaining the herbarium is a matter of prestige,” Karoly says. “As a resource it gives us a kind of connectivity, not unlike our nuclear reactor.”

As a student Vernon Marttala ’70 was passionate about biology and the Reed Herbarium. After graduating from Reed, he earned a master’s in biology from the New York Botanical Society and returned to Portland, where he botanized with professionals, collected plant specimens, and published papers. Reed’s herbarium was not the only one to which he was devoted, but the fever of first love cannot happen twice, and before he died in August he insured that his beloved herbarium would benefit from his legacy.

The Reed Herbarium already contained more than 800 specimens that he had collected. But when Vernon passed away, Karoly agreed to store his large, personal collection until the estate could be sorted out. Many of the specimens are not mounted or labeled, and the entire collection must first be fumigated to prevent animal pests or fungi from damaging the larger collection.

Vernon’s financial bequest to the herbarium could be used to help fund the process of fumigation, curation, and accession— all of which are likely to be undertaken by the Portland State University Herbarium, which has the necessary resources. As Vernon was also a board member and volunteer at the PSU herbarium, the bulk of his personal collection of more than 8,000 plants will probably end up there. But Karoly has expressed his preference that any part of the collection that relates to Vernon’s time at Reed or the biology of the campus comes to the Reed Herbarium.

See more about the Herbarium!

Tags: Academics, Research, Professors, Reed History, Alumni, Climate, Sustainability, Environmental