Plant Collections

Topics: Why make a collection; Voucher specimens; Collecting Ethics; How to make a collection; Field notes; Pressing the specimens; Label Preparation; Collection Grading

Why make a collection?

Making a good plant collection is time-consuming, but a well-made plant collection is of lasting benefit. It represents information that was captured at one point in time and made available for all time. People still study specimens collected in the 1500s. This means that your specimens might still be being studied in 2400 A.D., IF they are well made, for only well made collections will be kept for use by the Intermountain Herbarium.

The other benefit to making a collection, and identifying the plants in it, is that doing so will teach you more about plant diversity and the characteristics of different plant families that any number of brilliantly presented lectures. There is something about a plant that one has collected oneself that cannot be duplicated by a specimen made available in laboratory.

The second benefit explains why the plant collection is weighted so heavily in grading this course, but bear in mind the first as you go to kill a plant. Make sure you treat it in such a way that it does not die in vain.

Voucher specimens

A voucher specimen is one that documents what you found or worked with in a study. . Voucher specimens can be examined long after a study has been completed. They enable others to check your identifications and, if there are taxonomic changes affecting the species that you worked with, make it possible for subsequent workers to determine what your plants would be called according to the more recent taxonomic treatment. An ecological or environmental study that is not documented by specimens is of questionable validity. No one can prove that it is flawed because of misidentifications, but nor can it be proved that your identifications were correct. Collections for Botany 2410 are voucher specimens.

A good voucher specimen has:

         For features that cannot be preserved, make notes in your field book. For instance, did the branch come from a tree or shrub? How tall was the plant? What was the flower color in the field? (Flower color may change on drying).

         Where was it collected, preferably with latitude and longitude. In this course, latitude and longitude is MANDATORY information. You must also provide country, state, county, and then a verbal description of the location.

         Habitat information. There are two aspects to this, physical and biological. Physical includes elevation (an important factor here, not so important if you collect in North Dakota), slope, aspect, soil, moisture (for instance, whether the site is always wet (NOT whether it was pouring rain when you collected the plant). Biological includes what kind of plant community (open forest, opening in forest, closed forest, grassland, shrub-steppe, disturbed roadside (yes, that overlaps physical; biology frequently requires a judgement call). If you can name the associated species, great. If you cannot (yet), do not sweat it.

         Whether the collection is being made in connection with some specific project.

         Name of the collector(s) and date of collection.

Collecting ethics

1.      Have a reason for killing or damaging the plant. The validity of a reason varies with location.

2.      Have permission to collect in the area concerned.

3.      Determine whether there are enough plants to justify your action. In general, follow the 1 in 20 rule: Collect no more than one plant for every 20 present. Weeds, particularly noxious weeds, can be collected without limit, but minimize the disruption you cause. "Replace your divots".

4.      Make a good specimen for your purpose. "Good" means with all parts needed for your purpose and appropriate data.

Good collecting

Field notes

Write your field notes BEFORE starting to collect.

Train yourself to write neatly and coherently. Dream of the day when you have the opportunity to turn your field notebook over to someone else to type up your labels. You can look up lat, long, and elevation on a map later IF you have really good location notes.

You will be required to submit a copy of your field notes with your collection. I shall be looking for completeness. DO NOT RECOPY YOUR FIELD NOTES. Field notes are notes taken in the field. Recopied field notes will earn you 0 (zero, zilch) points. Later in life, your field notes could become a legal document. Think of them that way now.

Pressing the specimens


Well made specimens can be both valuable scientific resources and visually attractive. Make achieving both goals your aim, but recognize that some species will frustrate you. Some specimens will blacken soon after being collected, in others just the flower color changes, possibly from a vibrant red to a dull purple. Most species in our region make good specimens, but rule number 1 is that NO SPECIMEN CAN BE MADE TO LOOK BETTER AFTER IT IS HAS BEEN PRESSED. How do you make good specimens?

1.      Press your plants while they are still fresh.

2.      Clean off as much soil as possible from the roots.

3.      Lay the plant in the newsprint as you want it to look when dried. Take advantage of the space available, remembering that there will be a label attached in one corner. Show both sides of leaves and, if possible, expose the inner portions of a flower.

4.      Select appropriate material if the plant is too large to fit in the press. For trees and shrubs, aportion of a branch with leaves and flowers. If it flowers before leafing out, look and see if these is not some branch that is slightly ahead of the rest. For herbaceous plants, the flowers and upper leaves and some portion of the underground parts. Remember to add to your field notes observations that you cannot preserve such as the plant height or whether it was a tree of shrub.

5.      Bend the stem or branch if it is too long to fit the paper. If you clip off portions of the branch, leave a stub so that people can see that you have done so.

6.      If the plants are small, the specimen should contain several individuals (assuming the population is large enough to support collecting several).

7.      Do not leave bits hanging out of the press. They will not get pressed and will probably simply be broken off.

8.      Specimens look best if dried by having air move over them. The air temperature should be no more than 100F or thereabouts. In Utah, driving down the road with the plant press on a roof rack will often be very effective for drying plants. Placing the press over a heating vent is also effective.

9.      There are special techniques for pressing seaweeds. Basically, one puts the mounting paper in a pan of water and floats the seaweed onto the paper. Most seaweeds will glue themselves to the paper and make very attractive specimens. Red algae are particularly beautiful when pressed. Place wax paper or plastic between the seaweed and the newsprint or the seaweed will glue itself to the newsprint.

Preparing the label

There will be a computer program for you to use in the herbarium. Unless stated otherwise, use of the program is mandatory. This means that you should not leave doing your labels until the last minute because that is what other students will do.

At first, using the computer program will be frustrating. There are several reasons why I require its use:

1.      It will check your spelling of scientific names, add the authorities for the species, check that you put it in the right family, check that you spell county names correctly and do not place plants in counties that do not exist (e.g., Franklin County, Utah).

2.      Knowing the fields into which you have to enter data encourages better record keeping when collecting.

3.      If you collect several specimens from the same location enables you to use the "copy record" command, making label preparation much faster.

4.      The program will prepare a well-designed label for you, with all the bits of information in a very standard format.

5.      It is much easier to grade specimens if they all come in with the data placed in exactly the same format.

Two warnings

Collection grading

Making a good collection is time consuming. That is why contributes so much to your final grade, and why it is graded as carefully as it is. Each specimen and its label will be examined. The maximum possible number of points per specimen is 5. You start with 5, but lose points as indicated in the following guidelines. You may not resubmit any specimens for regrading, but you may submit up to 60 specimens. If you submit more than 30, your score will be based on your top 30. A maximum of 35 specimens will be graded.

1.      Identification. Is it correct? If it is not correct, how bad is the error? All points are lost if a quick check in the herbarium would have been enough to show you the error of your ways. If it is close, perhaps a very similar species, the point loss may be as low as 0.5 points. If involved a mistake in a character you should not misinterpret (e.g., position of ovary, the loss might be 3 points. This is a judgment call.

2.      You are supposed to have identified the plants in your collection by keying them out so, if your specimen does not have the parts required for keying, you will get no credit, even if the identification is correct. This is different from the policy in Range Plants Identification because the goals of the two courses differ. For instance, you cannot include Artemisia tridentata in your Bot. 420 collection because it does not flower until the fall.

3.      Your specimen should be complete. Herbaceous plants should show enough of the base and underground parts to indicate its longevity (annual or perennial), root type, etc. For large plants and woody plants, this information may be included on the label. For woody plants, the label should state whether it is a tree or a shrub. The deduction is 1 point.

4.      Field notes. Include a copy with your specimens. If too perfect (in other words, rewritten or written after the event), the loss will be 2 points.

5.      Spelling and typographical errors that have not been corrected (use pen or pencil). Varies from 0.5-2 points, depending on how many and how severe the problems are. NOTE: these errors mount up if you forget that you may have the same error on many labels because of the ease with which information can be copied from one label to the next.

Home Page | Intermountain Herbarium