The University Record, June 24, 1998
The Historical Record
By Patricia S. Whitesell
Did you know that the University has a herbarium which contains nearly two million plant specimens, and that some of the specimens are the earliest native plants ever collected for the state of Michigan and the University, dating back to 1837?
From the earliest days of the University, it has been a high priority to assemble natural history collections. In fact, one of the first actions taken by the Board of Regents when the Ann Arbor campus was founded in 1837 was the formation of a committee "on the Library, Philosophical Apparatus, and Cabinet of Natural History." The collections would play a significant role in research and instruction, particularly because field work was limited to local areas due to the constraints inherent in early modes of transportation.
Douglass Houghton, the state geologist who directed the first Geological Survey of Michigan in 1837-45, and his assistants, are credited with collecting the earliest plant specimens for the state. A legislative act specified that specimens be collected for the state plus 16 more of each species for the University and its numerous branches. The earliest specimens of Michigan plants were collected by
Thomas Nuttall during a collecting trip in 1810-11 that included Michigan, but the collection is lost. Many of Nuttall's discoveries are chronicled in his Genera of North American Plants, published in 1818.
By 1873, the Herbarium's specimens exceeded 36,000, and in 1878, Mark W. Harrington (who later became director of the Observatory) published a study of ferns in the Journal of the Linnean Society (16:25-37), which was the first research paper ever published that was based on the University's botanical collection.
Today, the University Herbarium, which is located in the North University Building, contains plant specimens from around the world. It is used intensively by researchers both here and abroad, either in Ann Arbor or on loan. The collections are organized by species, so the historical specimens are interspersed with the rest of the collection, and are still used for research.
Huge metal cabinets house the botanical specimens, which have been dried, pressed and mounted on large sheets of thick paper. Each specimen is affixed with glued paper strips or stitched right through the paper. Paper packets are provided with each plant, in which are placed any fragments that may come loose; these fragments are sometimes used for DNA analysis.
The University is fortunate to have in its collections Douglass Houghton's personal five-volume herbarium that he began in his youth in New York state, and his field diary. Houghton's collections and the other historical botanical specimens help to make the University's collection of Great Lakes plants one of the best in the world.