The University Record, May 21, 2001

Herbarium’s vast fungi collections continuing to mushroom

By Joanne Nesbit
News and Information Services

The fungi collection even includes this 1922 etching by Max Brödel on the pore surface of Ganoderma applanatum. The piece was donated by Howard A. Kelly of Johns Hopkins University in 1928. Photos by Marcia L. Ledford, U-M Photo Services
’Tis the season—mushroom season, that is. It’s time to collect morels and other delectable fungi for feasting. But there is no specific season to collect the fungi studied in the Herbarium. Nor is any geographic area ignored.

The Herbarium, established in 1921, includes some collections dating from the founding of the U-M in 1837, a time when the University had no faculty or students but did have a collection of plants given to it by the state Legislature.

The Herbarium’s fungi collection has grown enormously since the beginning of the 20th century through active collecting and gifts. Specimens include plant rusts, earth tongues, insect parasites, freshwater and marine fungi, fleshy fungi from Idaho and Oregon, and even truffles and false truffles from the Pacific Northwest.

The collection numbers approximately 280,000 specimens—among the five largest in North America.

Recently added to that number were more than 7,000 dried specimens of Alaskan mushrooms donated by that state’s Wells-Kempton Herbarium. The Alaskan herbarium and its collection are the result of nearly 45 years of work by Phyllis E. Kempton and Virginia Wells.

The two found that although mushrooms in other parts of the world were classified, very little was known about the mushrooms of Alaska. The pair set out to rectify that finding. Twice a week during the summer months, the women searched parks, trails and campgrounds near Anchorage, collecting mushrooms and writing a brief description in the field and a more detailed description in the evening. During the winter months, Kempton used a microscope to further describe the dried specimens.

Eventually, the pair traveled the entire state identifying mushrooms, building up the only mycological library in Alaska and establishing the Wells-Kempton Herbarium.

The two mycologists worked as research assistants to U-M’s Alexander H. Smith, who published several papers on new species of mushrooms based on the pair’s material from Alaska.

That material now resides in the U-M Herbarium under the direction of Robert Fogel, professor of biology and curator of fungi.