October 2, 2017
Last week, I continued to sort through various Polygonaceae family members. I ran across several from arctic regions including Koenigia islandica, whose name suggests a warmer climate than the Alaskan archipelago where it is native. Another, Oxyria digyna, is a unique little plant that can be found both in the arctic regions of the north and in alpine habitats further south. This makes sense as the two habitats are similar, yet the plant can be seen exhibiting different growth forms between the two habitats. Arctic plants are more likely to reproduce asexually and alpine plants tend to produce more seed. Perhaps this difference is related to the number of pollinators available in Arctic vs. alpine regions in California and Colorado.
I met one of the mounters on Thursday. Bonnie walked me down to the lower herbarium—the collection is kept in two rooms on two separate floors—to meet Helen and witness the mounting process. Helen stood at a table with a paintbrush in her hand hunched over a specimen sheet. An AM/FM radio tuned to WQED station was blasting classic music just loud enough to disturb the neighbors (if they were any). Helen is an 85-year old retired jeweler and has been working with the herbarium for many years. A flat school lunch tray held a pool of diluted Elmer’s glue which Helen dabbed onto thin strips of adhesive paper. These strips held the pressed plant to the specimen paper. She also dabbed some glue on loose ends of the plant and pressed these against the paper. Helen is meticulous. She carefully glues down every bit of plant so that a strong gust of wind would fail to loosen even a leaf. She showed me the appropriate way to lay the leaves—so that at least one leaf underside would show. Her attention to detail as well as the pace at which she worked were impressive.
Helen told me that she got her start as a volunteer and that eventually she was asked to work for pay a few days per week at the museum. The mounting process seemed fairly straightforward, but it does require a certain level of diligence. Helen would take the loose bits of leaf, stem, and seed that were dislodged from the specimen and pack them into a miniature envelope. The envelope was then attached to the appropriate specimen paper. Helen remarked that saving these small pieces is important. Her dedication to the herbarium is something that I admire.
Having volunteers and personnel with particular skills, such as Helen, is important to institutions like the museum and herbarium. Helen may not have the skills required to collect and identify specimens, but she can provide for the herbarium by mounting collected specimens. After sifting through specimens that she may have mounted, I’m glad that I had the chance to meet Helen and witness her skills in use.
Postscript: Helen’s technique is commonly seen in many of the specimens at the museum, but I have also seen other ways of fashioning specimens to herbarium paper (a heavy duty paper 11 x 16 inches). Wire poking through the paper can be an effective fastener and may be good for an artistic use of pressed plants in temporary displays. The type of glue used varies, however, thicker hot-glue may be too unyielding for a specimen and cause stems and leaves to crack. Elmer’s and paper strips seem like a good option and are easy to find and cheap to purchase.