Plant Talk

Telling the Story of the Quest to Preserve and Classify the World’s Plants

Posted in Inside our Collections , Plant Science on December 22, 2020, by Lawrence Kelly

Barbara M. Thiers, Ph.D., is Vice President and Patricia K. Holmgren Director of the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium. Lawrence M. Kelly, Ph.D., is Vice President of Science Administration and Susan E. Lynch Director of Graduate Studies at The New York Botanical Garden.

Photo of Barbara Thiers in the Steere Herbarium

Dr. Barbara M. Thiers examines specimens in NYBG’s Steere Herbarium.

With Herbarium: The Quest to Classify and Preserve the World’s Plants now available, and our January 8 online discussion with the author taking registrations, NYBG’s Barbara M. Thiers, Ph.D., sat down with a colleague to discuss the inspirations behind her book project, how working and overseeing the Steere Herbarium has shaped her perspective, and more.

Dr. Lawrence M. Kelly: How did your book project develop?

Dr. Barbara M. Thiers: I was already the Director of the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium before it occurred to me that I really knew nothing about the history of the type of institution to which I was devoting my career. And I realized that I wasn’t the only one in this position. Early in my tenure as Director, I attended a workshop about herbarium specimen digitization during which the workshop facilitator asked, as part of an ice-breaking exercise, for the participants to make a timeline of the important events in the history of herbaria. We were all stumped! Afterwards I tried to find sources of information to fill in the gaps in my knowledge, but none told the whole story of how herbaria have developed as a critical source of information about plant and fungal biodiversity.

During my almost 40 years at The New York Botanical Garden, it has been our tradition to give tours of the herbarium—we are not open to the public, but we like to create opportunities for those who are interested to see the treasures we hold. Frequently, someone would ask if I could recommend a book about herbaria, and I had nothing to suggest.

So, I decided to take on the task myself, hoping to create a reference that anyone interested in plants could enjoy but also one that my colleagues in other herbaria could share with their students, their administrators, and their own herbarium staff.

Dr. Kelly: What were some of the biggest surprises you encountered?

Dr. Thiers: I was surprised by the connections I found among the people who are important in herbarium history to other historical figures and events. At the turn of the 18th century, the English privateer William Dampier was the first person to make herbarium specimens on a government expedition. He was also an inspiration for the classic contemporary adventure novels Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels, and he introduced more than 1,000 words into the Oxford English Dictionary, including avocado, barbeque and tortilla.

The Bougainville expedition, which travelled around the world in the mid-1700s, was France’s first major effort to document exotic plants and animals. It resulted in more than 30,000 herbarium and other natural history specimens, among them the very popular flowering vine that bears the name of the expedition. The first collection of Bougainvillea was most likely by a woman named Jeanne Baret, who disguised herself as a man. The expedition also brought back glowing descriptions of a utopian society in Tahiti that fed the imaginations of Parisian intellectuals and contributed to the aspirations of the French Revolution.

Dr. Kelly: Do you think collectors 100 years ago could have imagined how specimens are being used now? What do you think they would find most interesting?

Dr. Thiers: I think it is safe to say that collectors a century ago could not have imagined many of the ways in which we use herbarium specimens now, since these have all developed during the course of my career. Our ability to obtain DNA from herbarium specimens has been of monumental importance, and as the technology has improved, we have been able to obtain DNA from a wider taxonomic and temporal range of specimens. Using the newest sequencing techniques, we are able to get far more information about gene function from the specimens.

Dr. Kelly: Can you speculate about how herbarium specimens might be used in the future, in ways they are not currently used?

Dr. Thiers: We are still in relatively early days of extracting genomic data from herbarium specimens, that is, determining which genes were turned on or off in a given plant based on DNA extracted from a specimen. We are also still at an early stage of using machine learning and artificial intelligence to interpret structural details of plants from specimen images. When we are able to combine genomic techniques with machine learning, we will have a powerful tool for understanding how plants develop the features that allow them to succeed in a particular habitat. These technological advances will help us predict which plants will thrive as environmental change takes place due to climate change or habitat degradation and may influence the future development of crop plants and revegetation efforts.

Dr. Kelly: How has working in and overseeing NYBG’s Steere Herbarium shaped your career and perspective?

Dr. Thiers: Having grown up in my father’s herbarium at San Francisco State University, I naively thought I knew pretty much everything about herbaria when I came to The New York Botanical Garden in 1981. However, the scope of activity and responsibility in the Steere Herbarium was far more than I could have imagined. The rate of acquisition of new specimens is high, both from our own expeditions and from gifts and exchanges involving other institutions. Our user base is large and diverse, and their need for specimens or data is constant. Also, the specimens, collected over three centuries, require continual maintenance to preserve them for future researchers to study.

The ongoing quest to not only perform our basic work but also expand the herbarium’s role in biodiversity research has been as compelling to me as conducting my own primary research. My career at the Botanical Garden spans the period of the introduction of computers into universal usage and the advent of the Internet. Adapting these technologies to serve our mission has been one of my long-term interests, resulting in our C.V. Starr Virtual Herbarium.

Perhaps my favorite part of the job has been the opportunity to get to know colleagues in herbaria all over the world, to visit many of their herbaria, and to collaborate with them on various projects. As Editor of Index Herbariorum, the online guide to the world’s approximately 3,300 herbaria, I’ve had the opportunity to take a global view of these institutions and how they have changed over time.

I’ve learned a lot from many people along the way. My mentor was Dr. Patricia K. Holmgren, Director of the Steere Herbarium for many years before me. She taught me the value of maintaining careful records of our work and of empowering staff to be full partners in the management of the collection. Dr. Jaquelyn Kallunki, Curator Emerita of the herbarium, taught me to think critically about herbarium tasks and how to increase efficiency. Former Garden President Gregory Long taught me how to talk and write about the herbarium in a way that would interest a general audience. I’ve been lucky to learn from all the creative and dedicated herbarium staff members who have worked with me over the years, many of whom have also devoted their careers to the Steere Herbarium.

Dr. Thiers will talk about her new book and the potential for herbaria to play an even greater role in plant research and conservation in a free webinar on Friday, January 8, 2021, at 11 a.m. Learn more and register here.

You can hear her recent interview on the podcast In Defense of Plants here.

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