herbs

The plants in the herbarium are studied and filed in cabinets where they can be researched and observed.

Every university has places that some students may not know about, but IUP has one in particular.

What many students might not know is that there is an herbarium located right on IUP’s campus in room 212C of Weyandt Hall, and its contents have far more importance than one might expect.

It is known as the A.G. Shields Herbarium, named after the original curator and former IUP biology department faculty member of the same name, and was officially dedicated in 1973. There have been a handful of different curators since 1973, and the current curator is IUP biology professor Michael Tyree.

“An herbarium is a collection of preserved plants that are usually dried, pressed and identified,” Tyree said.

The herbarium collections are used for teaching, research and even for public use. Those interested in visiting the A.G. Shields Herbarium can schedule an appointment on the IUP webpage dedicated to the herbarium by following the link there.

The collection process of the four existing collections of the IUP herbarium started about five years ago, and the total specimen count has grown to an estimation of about 15,000 specimens. The main collection was recently completed and consists of around 10,000 specimens in total.

Not only is the collection of these specimens important, but a large part of the success of any herbarium is the careful storage and upkeep of those specimens and of the space they are kept in.

“As curator, my primary job is to maintain the collection,” Tyree said.

“This involves acquiring new specimens to add to the collection either by collecting or trading with other herbarium, but also includes protecting the existing collection from degradation. Mold and pests are the biggest threats. Additionally, my role is to make the collection available so it can be used by students, scientists and the public.”

Most of the herbarium consists of plants from the Western Pennsylvanian regions, the majority of them having being collected by faculty and IUP students.

The herbarium also has some trading connections with other universities in North America and exchanges specimens with those universities occasionally.

The herbarium recently acquired a collection from Honduras, which has just started being inventoried.

The specimens in the herbarium include information about where and when they were collected. That information is vital to projects such as the reconstruction of geographic plant distributions. This means that the specimens in the herbarium can be used to look at where the plants used to grow historically, which can be important information for historians, geologists, ecologists and biologists, among other professionals who could put this information to use.

“[The specimens] have been used to investigate regional adaptions that occur in subpopulations of species, or changes over time that occur within species,” Tyree said.

“One example [of this investigation process] is older specimens that have been compared to newer ones to determine if the number of stomata (pores on the leaves used for gas exchange) have changed with rising atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations.

“[These comparisons] have shown that as CO2 increases, the number of stomata have steadily declined in some species.”

Investigations like the example mentioned above are vital to scientists researching species distribution and adaptation in relation to global climate change trends.

Studying information from the past helps scientists better understand how elevated levels of greenhouse gasses, rising atmospheric temperature and climate change as a whole might affect various species in the present and in the future.

The curator of the IUP herbarium is looking to begin a new project that will change the way the specimens housed in the herbarium are accessed and utilized.

“One of our next projects is to begin digitizing the collection to make it publicly available,” Tyree said. “This will take a few years once we get started, but that is the ultimate way to get this information into the hands of people.”

Although visiting a room full of dried plants may not sound exciting to some, others are invigorated by the possibilities that the valuable stores of information in the IUP herbarium offer.

Herbaria have priceless significance, not only for the science of botany, but for a variety of students, educators and professionals across the sciences and beyond, from botany to climatology to genetics.

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