Friday, April 20, 2012

Norton Brown Herbarium UMd - A Record of our World

John Peter Thompson looking at Persicaria perfoliata (P. perfoliatum), mile-a-minute vine, accession sheets from 1964 at Norton Brown Herbarium, College Park, Maryland. April 2012

               I had the great privilege to visit the Norton Brown herbarium located for the time being at the University of Maryland. The Norton Brown Collection is fortunate to actually have a home for we live in a time when archival collections are being discarded for reasons of space, cost and erroneous assumptions about the state and condition of the infrastructure of knowledge that supports our life styles and civilization. The Norton Brown Herbarium stands as a lonely sentinel against the idea that everything you need to know is on the internet.

               Just what is an herbarium? In one sense it is a library with pages, sheets, of information about the ecosystems and landscapes in which we live, breathe and feed ourselves. Because our actions and our ideas live through time, understanding change means story information about the past in the present so that we can communicate the changes to the future. An herbarium is a collection of pressed, dried plant specimens that are used by researchers to further understanding of the plant world - a world that provides food, fuel, fiber, feed, forage, flowers and forests for our use.

               The Norton-Brown Herbarium (MARY) located at the University of Maryland, College Park, was established by John Bitting Smith Norton (1872-1966) in 1901.[1] The Herbarium consists for the most part of "vascular plants of Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay regions of the mid Atlantic states, with additional collections from western North America and elsewhere (most notably Guam and China). Large collections of Polygonaceae subf. Eriogonoideae, Malvaceae and Marcgraviaceae are housed in the Herbarium."[2]

               So now we know what an herbarium is, why should we care that they are left for the most part underfunded and in many cases abandoned. Unlike Norton Brown, many systematic collections are being left to wither away uncared for. Administrators pushed by a taxpaying public that does not know what it is losing are "saving money" at the expense of tomorrow's storehouse of information. The identification of the majority of organisms (insects, plants, fungi and microorganisms) requiring expert skills for correct identification have not been categorized or given formal scientific names. The inability to identify (or obtain identifications of) species is a major component of the taxonomic impediment to management of a sustainable, resilient ecosystems. We don't fund the curation and support needed to maintain and enhance the functions of collections; we pretend there is nothing left to know when for the most part what we do not know about life on earth is larger than what we do know.

               Think about a visit to Norton Brown or to your local herbarium. Write the administrative decision maker and your local politicians and tell them you want them to not only continue to begrudgingly allow the collections to exist, but you want increased support. Work with non profits to find private partners who are willing to invest in the next generation's ability to make informed polity decision about the world of life in which they will live. We must start repairing and enhancing the infrastructure that supports education and policy; we must fund the collections of knowledge built yesterday so that tomorrow a new generation will have the information it needs to make beneficial life choices. 

[1] "Trained at Kansas State University by the famed agrostologist Albert S. Hitchcock, he arrived at the Maryland Agricultural College, then an all male student body, in the summer of 1901 and assumed a position with the Maryland Agricultural Experiment Station (known today as BARC) and the just formed Department of Botany. As the taxonomist for the State of Maryland, he replaced Frank Lamson-Scribner who was also employed by the U. S. Department of Agriculture... When Norton retired in 1942, he was succeeded by Russell G. Brown (1905-1996), a plant physiologist. With the arrival in the late 1960s of Drs. William L. Stern and James L. Reveal, the herbarium was revived. In 1973, Dr. C. Rose Broome was added to the staff. With the departure of Stern and Broome in the late 1970s, Dr. Steven R. Hill was hired as curator in 1979, and for five years the herbarium was properly curated and managed with Reveal serving at the Director of the Herbarium. In 1986, Dr. Hollis G. Bedell was appointed acting curator and held the position until late 1986. By 1981, the herbarium had grown to over 35,000 specimens and by 1988 some 60,000 sheets. Today, the herbarium contains some 70,000 sheets

Except for the brief period when Hill was curator, the Norton-Brown Herbarium, so named by the Board of Regents in 1982, received no budgeted funding, although in 1987, the University purchased ten herbarium cases which, coupled with several cases donated to the Herbarium by the Smithsonian Institution, allows the facility today to adequately house its collections. " [accessed April 13, 2012]

[2] Ibid.

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