William A. Haber arrived in Monteverde in July of 1973 with a doctoral thesis in mind. Initially studying glass-winged butterflies and their hostplants, he did not immediately expect to curate some of the most crucial insect and plant collections in the history of the region. His goal within the botanical community was to create one of the most thorough Costa Rican plant collections. His success produced four duplicate copies of this particular collection: One at the Missouri Botanical Garden, two currently at the National Museum of Costa Rica, and one now with us, inherited from Haber himself in 2009.
If Haber didn’t donate his personal collection to us, we wouldn’t have the extensive herbarium that we have today. With a plant collection that is double the age of UGACR, it is crucial for us to maintain and improve his legacy.
The collection that can be seen in the herbarium is currently a closet full of dry plant samples organized in old 80’s newspaper clips and manila folders. The newspaper has scribbled handwriting on the outside, informing us of its origin and collection number. The current project is to go through every specimen to make sure each is mounted in a professional way and has a thorough description.
Dr. Ann Willyard is a systematic botanist that teaches at Hendrix College in Arkansas. This is her first year coming down to UGACR with the study abroad program that has been coming here for many years. Her knowledge in the complex taxonomy of the ever-changing plant families is much needed. She brings a lighthearted tone to this particular work.
“The mounting part is more like an arts and crafts project than a science project,” Ann Willyard says. The students mount the plants using glue and then compiling the families together. Each dried plant sample is glued with a paper notation of who collected it, when and where. Any seeds or extra valuable plant material is placed in an envelope. The project goes from family to family, working its way all through the herbarium cabinets. When the project is finished, there will be a hearty collection of around three thousand plants, all pressed and organized together by family.
Resident Naturalist Riley Fortier is guiding the students through the whole process. He specializes in the study of tropical plants here and is taking initiative to mediate the process, along with Herbarium and Carbon Offset Coordinator Lucas Ramírez. After dedicating time to study and shadow our staff and researchers, Riley is turning into a Plant-O-Rama connoisseur and has been leading trainings on identification and plant components. His hand has been felt in the online community as he identifies species on more than one database.
“Not many people know what an herbarium is to begin with, so being able to directly help in the preservation of ours makes me really excited. I think the students have fun mounting the plants, and even artistic people enjoy it… It’s really nice to have all of that help, because we made a huge dent in the work thanks to those students.” – Riley Fortier
Riley is a protagonist for UGA Costa Rica’s growing citizen science program, branching out to facilitate the process of peer review and crowd-sourcing information. It’s a gratifying step in a long-term interest of his.
“In college, most of my interest was in plants just because we have so many trees in Oregon and our campus is a certified arboretum… But I think it all started in my middle school, Sunnyside Environmental School, where a large part of our curriculum was environmental science and service learning. We had a native plant garden right outside our school and one of the things we had to do was learn more of our native plants each year.” – Riley Fortier
Riley uses the Tropicos database from the Missouri Botanical Garden that sets the standard for botanical taxonomy and classification. The vast majority of the plants in the Missouri collection have been identified down to the species level, which is the most precise. In our collection, they are often only identified to the family level. Riley has to use the online database to identify each specimen down to the exact species name, referencing the standard that the Missouri Botanical Garden sets.
One of the challenging parts is incorporating the newest annotations and changes to scientific names, based on the most recent taxonomy. These annotations indicate when the species, genera, or even families have been changed or reclassified.
The samples that were previously in newspaper might last 15 or 20 more years, but using the grease paper to mount and store them correctly will preserve them for easily over a century. With only a handful of herbariums in Costa Rica, the preservation of a unique collection is the compelling aspect.
“Many schools who previously had herbariums had to get rid of them just because they didn’t have anybody maintaining them. Botanists are in short supply these days, so we’re pretty lucky to have one here” – Riley Fortier
The Hendrix students are taking full advantage of their lab time. Their project includes finding, pressing, drying, and mounting their own plant collection. Not only are they focused on plants, but they’re pushing their mounting skills to the next level with personal insect collections. The collections of these young scientists may also last for centuries to come!
Post and photos created by Photojournalism Intern Charles Austin Boll