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When you hear the word herbarium, you might think herb garden. Not so.

Instead, think of an herbarium as a kind of library of preserved plants. But instead of shelves upon shelves of books, an herbarium contains cabinets upon cabinets of dried and labeled plant specimens. Unlike most books in a library, which can be repurchased or duplicated, each herbarium specimen is truly unique. It is a representative of plant biodiversity at a particular place and time in the history of life on earth.

A new exhibit in Perkins Library explores the beauty and importance of herbaria in furthering our understanding of the natural world and highlights our own “hidden library” of plants right here on campus—the Duke Herbarium.

Close-up of the flowers of Physaria, commonly known as twinpod or bladderpod.

Close-up of the flowers of Physaria, commonly known as twinpod or bladderpod.

The Duke Herbarium, located in the Biological Sciences Building next to the French Family Science Center, is one of the largest herbaria in the United States and the second largest at a private U.S. university (after Harvard). With more than 800,000 specimens of vascular plants, bryophytes, algae, lichens, and fungi, the Duke Herbarium is a unique and irreplaceable resource used by local, national, and international scientific communities.

The role of herbaria in housing and protecting plant specimens is invaluable. Herbaria are where biologists turn to identify plant species, check the validity of a newly described species, track how a species has changed over time, and even analyze how entire landscapes have been altered. Herbarium specimens can yield information to help us better protect our planet. This is especially important today, when humans have a greater impact on the environment and plants are exposed to conditions they never would have encountered just a century ago.

Botanical Treasures from Duke’s Hidden Library examines the work of the Duke Herbarium, explains how plant specimens are collected, and highlights some surprising stories from the field, like how Duke biologists recently named a newly discovered genus of ferns after Lady Gaga!

The exhibit was curated by Layne Huiet, Senior Research Scientist and Vascular Plants Collections Manager, Duke Herbarium; Tiff Shao T’12 (Biology), Associate in Research, Duke Herbarium; Anne Johnson T’13 (Biology); and Kathleen Pryer, Professor of Biology and Director of the Duke Herbarium.

For more information, visit the exhibit website, or check out the website of the Duke Herbarium.

Trillium sulcatum, or Southern Red Trillium. The Duke Herbarium houses over 800,000 plant specimens.

Trillium sulcatum, or Southern Red Trillium. The Duke Herbarium houses over 800,000 plant specimens.

 

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