MARCH 2014, Page 9
VMI Institute Report
Grant Makes VMI’s Herbarium
Accessible Once More
With the 2013 renovation of
Maury-Brooke Hall has come a
unique opportunity for VMI’s biology
department – the chance to pull its
long-mothballed collection of dried
plant materials, formally known as an
“herbarium,” out of storage and make
it accessible once again.
What’s more, plans are under way to
digitize the entire collection and have it
available online, so botanists and other
researchers from around the world
can study VMI’s collection without ever
having to leave their desks.
“[The herbarium] is a very valuable
resource,” said Col. Dick Rowe,
professor of biology, who served as
the herbarium’s caretaker from the
mid-1990s until Maj. Anne Alerding,
assistant professor of biology, took over
that role when she arrived in 2008. Alerding, who is a plant physiologist,
is now spearheading the digitization project.
“We have a lot of breadth – different species – but we don’t know
about the depth,” said Alerding. “For this to be a functional herbarium,
we need to know what’s in our collection.”
With that end in mind, the biology department has secured through
the dean’s office an Academic Enrichment and Support Grant in the
amount of $24,700 to support both the herbarium and the department’s
new three-bay greenhouse on top of the
Part of the grant money has already
been used to purchase an accordion-like
cabinet system that moves on tracks, so
the collection takes up as little space as
possible when not in use. The next step
will be to purchase a camera, computer,
and related equipment so a digital
database of items in the collection can be
created. Alerding is seeking work-study
funds to pay a cadet to undertake the
digitization project this summer.
“What the enrichment grant has done
is take us, in a very short period of
time, from a collection we were trying
to give away to almost a state-of-the-art
collection,” said Rowe. “We have jumped
light years. When this process is done,
it will be completely digitized, with a
Both Alerding and Rowe emphasized that the herbarium’s newfound
accessibility will render it a vital resource for those studying how plant
populations in an area have changed over time.
“If you’re going to be a biodiversity researcher, you need to have
access to collections,” Alerding noted.
“[The herbarium] is a valuable collection, especially because we
have specimens from the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s,” Rowe added. “We have
Maj. Anne Alerding and Col. Dick Rowe look at specimens
now stored in the herbarium’s new cabinet system. –
Photo by H. Lockwood McLaughlin.
Please see page 14
The roots of VMI’s herbarium go back at least to the 1930s, when
Col. Robert “Doc” Carroll, founder of VMI’s biology department, began
collecting plant specimens and preserving them for posterity. While
Carroll collected many of the specimens himself, he also accepted
donations from other biologists – and thus it is that the oldest known
specimen in VMI’s herbarium was collected in 1890 in the Bahamas,
and given to Carroll years later.
Building on Carroll’s work were Oscar Gupton and Fred Swope,
who were colleagues in the biology department in the 1970s and
1980s. Working together, the two men collected thousands of plant
specimens for the herbarium. At this point, no one knows exactly how
many specimens are in the collection, but when Col. Dick Rowe took
over management of the herbarium in the mid-1990s, Swope told him
that a good estimate would be 30,000.
By the mid-1990s, both Swope and Gupton had retired, and the
biology department was running out of space for the collection.
When Rowe arrived in 1991, the herbarium was in cabinets, but
those cabinets were stacked two deep, making half of the collection
unavailable. As the years passed, the space crunch became even more
acute. For several years, the collection was mothballed.
“We’d have lots of requests from researchers, ‘Do you have such
and such [a plant specimen]?” recalled Rowe. “I’d have to say, ‘I’m
sorry, the collection is unavailable.’ … We just had no space for
At one point, Rowe placed an inquiry with the College of William
& Mary, which has a herbarium of its own, seeking to find out if that
institution might provide a home for VMI’s collection. That year,
though, William & Mary’s science building was undergoing renovation,
so the VMI herbarium never left Lexington.
In hindsight, Rowe is grateful that the planned donation didn’t work
“It’s a pretty unique thing for a school our size to have an
herbarium,” he said.
According to Index Herbariorum, an online directory of herbaria
maintained by the New York Botanical Gardens, there are fewer than
2,800 active herbaria in the world today, including VMI’s.
Herbarium Founded by ‘Doc’ Carroll