Why UBC Herbarium’s vast genetic library is more important than ever

Close-up of lichen Cladina mitis. UBC's herbarium contains plants, fungus and alga. Photo: UBC Herbarium.

The UBC Herbarium, established in 1916, holds more than 695,000 dried alga, fungus and plant specimens. Although herbaria may have a certain Victorian connotation, curator Linda Jennings explains how climate change and DNA sequencing are making the collection invaluable to research.

What is the herbarium like nowadays?

Traditionally, only specialists would access the herbarium, now we have artists, historians and a wider range of scientist using our collections. This means we need to make the collections more accessible to users who may not have an understanding of cataloguing and taxonomy.

Why keep these types of collections?

It gives you a window into the past and answers to our future. Looking at some collections we can see trends, like flowers opening earlier and fruiting times decreasing due to global climate change. This can have a large impact on our understanding of crop species and their cycles. Dried specimens also enable researchers to extract DNA from a very small sampling. When you go to most museums, you can’t cut off pieces of furniture or cloth from their collections—but with careful oversight, we can.

How has technology affected the way you collect specimens?

Many specimens were collected from the 40s to the 70s. But in the 80s collecting decreased, and not just at UBC. Many natural history collections faced challenges, and the science of taxonomy and cladistics seemed like a long-gone era. You need space to house all these specimens and people didn’t think it was important. Then we had the DNA sequencing revolution and suddenly collections became important again because they could provide genetic information.

Is there a specimen in the collection that is especially interesting?

One specimen that stands out when thinking about the importance of natural history collections and DNA, is the British Columbia rose (Rosa x engelmannii subsp. britannicae-columbiae) discovered by enthobotanist Walter Lewis (BA 61, DSc’12). This specimen was collected in British Columbia over 60 years ago, and was thought to be a common rose (Rosa woodsii). But the collector had his doubts—it just looked odd. DNA testing showed it’s a new hybrid species. As Memory Elvin-Lewis (BA’52, DSc’12), microbiologist, ethnobotanist and wife of Walter Lewis, said: One must “have patience for technology to catch up to you and your discovery.”

What are your plans for the UBC herbarium?

We need a full inventory of our collection. Some items were databased in the 1980s—for example, all African ferns were entered into the database. I obtained a grant through the Irving K. Barber BC History of Digitization project and over five years scanned all our vascular plants since 1920. We have over 600,000 online records. But there’s more to be done. We need volunteers to help out, to bring in plant specimens, to help mount them. People think everything has been collected, but that’s not true. Consider mosses! There could be new species growing on the side of your limestone building.

The UBC Herbarium is part of the Beaty Biodiversity Museum. View our gallery of selected specimens or follow @pressedplants.

2017 Herbarium

When you go to most museums, you can’t cut off pieces of furniture or cloth from their collections—but with careful oversight, we can.

Geoff Gilliard