First in a new series “Who’s Minding the Collection?”
By Christine Sellers
The Academy’s Botany Collection contains some of the most historically important and oldest plant specimens from North, Central, and South America, including plants collected on the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition, 1804-06.
The treasured herbarium contains more than 1.4 million specimens, including flowering plants, gymnosperms, ferns, mosses, fungi, algae, and fossils. The specimens are used by researchers around the world studying climate change, evolution, and other issues that affect people. Grants support digitization of the specimens so the data is available online.
In order to learn more about the Botany Collection, its remarkable historical ties, and the challenges of preserving plants in a museum setting, I spoke with the collection manager, Jordan Teisher.
I was drawn to the Academy because… I’m from Pennsylvania, so it felt like coming home. Professionally, I have a strong interest in natural history collections and the history of science.
My job at the Academy is… to manage the herbarium of the Botany Department, which contains almost 1.5 million specimens of plants, algae, fungi, lichens, and fossils. I also incorporate new specimens into the collection and create digital records for them in our database, and send loans, answer requests for information, and supervise students and volunteers.
I knew I was interested in botany when… I was in a high school A.P. Biology class. I had a fantastic and engaging teacher who showed me how complex and interesting plants are.
I have conducted research on… the systematics and evolution of grasses, which has been my main focus, but I’ve also dabbled in the taxonomy of aroids.
My favorite specimen in the Botany Collection is… a sedge collected during Captain Cook’s first expedition. It’s from New Zealand and was collected in 1769. It’s in remarkably good condition.
I think studying plants is cool because… there are a million reasons! The most inspiring to me, though, is that plants provide the means by which sunlight is converted to the energy we use to walk, play, work, and live, in general. Without them, there would be no us.
A surprising fact about plants that many people might not know is… that there are about 2,000 new species of plants described each year.
If I could grow any plant—commonplace or exotic—in my backyard, I’d choose… Franklinia alatamaha. It’s beautiful, extinct in the wild, charismatic, and has a great Philadelphia connection. Famous local father and son naturalists, John and William Bartram discovered the tree in Georgia and subsequently brought seeds back for cultivation. They named the tree after Benjamin Franklin.
What I find most enjoyable about working with plants is… their incredible diversity. I also appreciate the fact that plants don’t run away from you when you try to collect them; it makes the whole process of studying them much easier.
What I find most challenging about working with plants is… that in a museum setting dried plant specimens are extremely fragile and do not hold up well under lights. Dried plants’ colors fade quickly, and some of the older specimens can be damaged even with minimal handling.
If I could give one piece of advice to young people who are interested in studying botany, I’d tell them… to go outside and learn about your local plants. Identifying plants is a great skill to have, plus finding different species is fun, like a real-life Pokémon Go!
When I’m not working at the Academy, I like to… play volleyball and tennis, go hiking, and explore the city.
My favorite thing about the Academy is… the history. Looking through specimens collected by botanists in the 18th and 19th century is an awe-inspiring experience.
I hope to pursue future research on… grasses, since I’ve developed something of a soft spot for them. I also plan to work on the history of American botany.
For information about the Botany Collection, visit our website.
If you would like to support botany research and the collection, contact Monica Cawvey Gallagher, vice president of Institutional Advancement, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Better yet, donate now by clicking the blue box above.
Photos by: Mike Servedio/ANS