Published: Dec. 13, 2018

From duckweed to sequoias: MSU Herbarium preserves diversity of plant life

Contact(s): Val Osowski College of Natural Science office: (517) 432-4561

For more than 150 years, the Michigan State University Herbarium has been preserving and classifying plant life ranging from the tiniest specimens to the giants of the plant kingdom.

The herbarium was founded in 1863 with a 20,000-specimen personal collection donated by Michigan physician Dennis Cooley, but didn’t begin to grow until after the arrival of William James Beal — of MSU’s Beal Gardens fame — in 1883. In addition to bringing his own collection of 2,000 specimens, Beal spent much of his time acquiring specimens through purchases and exchanges.

Today, under the direction of Alan Prather, associate professor of plant biology, the herbarium’s collection stands at more than 540,000 specimens ranging from lichens, to vascular plants, to plants native to Michigan. It’s considered one of the top herbaria in the United States and is among the 25 largest university-based herbaria in the country. 

MSU faculty and students are not the only ones who have access to these collections 

“Scientists from all over the world use our specimens,” said Prather, who has served as director since he joined the MSU faculty more than 20 years ago. 

The collections have been used to support biodiversity studies, monitor threatened and endangered plant populations, study potential new species or track the spread of invasive plants. Loans and exchanges are also available by request to recognized institutions.

One of the unique aspects of the MSU Herbarium is its internationally renowned lichen collection—one of the largest and most comprehensive in the country.

“It’s unusual for an herbarium to have such a focus on lichens,” Prather said. 

The lichen collection was primarily built by former faculty member Henry Imshaug and his graduate students. In addition, over the past 20 years, Alan Fryday, MSU Herbarium assistant curator, has described about 50 new species of lichens with collaborators from around the globe—which raises the number of lichen specimens to 120,000. 

The herbarium is also well known for its extensive Michigan native plants collection, which contains more than 90,000 specimens including almost 20,000 lichens from Michigan—thanks in part to Douglass Houghton, the state’s first geologist.

“When Houghton did his first geological survey in Michigan in the late 1830s, he traveled with a botanist who made collections as they went across the state,” Prather said. “Because of these specimens, we have a good record of the flora going back almost 200 years. That’s fantastic.”

Located in the Plant Biology Laboratories building on the MSU campus, the herbarium is in close proximity to classrooms and research labs.

“This makes it easier for researchers to access the specimens, and for us to play a bigger role in teaching — especially in the laboratories,” Prather said. “It’s been instrumental in integrating the department and the herbarium.”

The herbarium is also accessible to the general public. It hosts tours for local school children, members of the community, MSU students and students from other universities.

“We are grateful for this long line of directors and curators who have been active in research and have helped develop the herbarium over time,” Prather said. “Their contributions have provided a legacy that has allowed us to succeed.”

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