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Collections Close-Up: Herbarium Highlights

Late rain and sporadic sunshine are lighting up the local landscape with green growth and bright blooms, raising spirits for the oncoming spring. This month’s Close-Up highlights a slightly less vivid but no less delightful collection of plants – a collection of preserved grasses, complete with identifications by their collector, beloved naturalist and conservationist Randy Morgan.

Herbarium specimen of California canary grass

At first glance, the graceful blades and intricate flowers are captivating for their beauty alone, as in specimens like this California Canary grass (Phalaris californica). After all, another specimen in this collection represents a plant that so charmed Californias that it was designated the state grass. Not only are they beautiful, they’re informative – each specimen is carefully arranged to make visible important features such as the roots, blades, and flowers. The subtle distinctions between grass species in a field might blend together, but laid out on the herbarium sheet (or for that matter, conveyed via botanical illustration) the various parts of the plants can be easier to see.

This arrangement of significant features is a critical component of a quality herbarium specimen. The scientists who use herbaria (the plural of herbarium, or collections of plants preserved and labeled for reference, a practice which is more than 700 years old) such as these need to be able to see as many diagnostic features and as much of the plant as possible for use in understanding the identities of specimens, their classification, and their relationships to one another. This is harder with some plants than others – while grasses aren’t as difficult to capture on the herbarium sheet as, say, rattan palms, – at 103 cm, the above specimen didn’t quite fit on the herbarium sheet. Although this sheet is a petite 8.5 by 11 inches, at 103 cm this specimen still wouldn’t have been close to fitting on today’s standard herbarium sheets of 11 by 16 inches.

Thankfully, Morgan noted the height of the specimen on the label. The more than seventy specimens also have, at least, the general location name of where they were collected, their common name, scientific name, and collector listed. Quality herbarium specimens are fixed to archival paper and accompanied by labels that include this key information. It is preferable to have any other associated information like collection number or i.d., description of the plant and any collecting notes. Specimens in herbaria that meet these qualifications are called voucher specimens. 

Not only is this information important for science, it’s important for collections management as well. As we strive to enhance the accessibility of our collections, the level of data a specimen or set of specimens has helps us make decisions about what to prioritize for the time-consuming process of digitization. The time spent is well worth it – the enormous increase in access to specimens brought on by digitization has not only accelerated the current possibilities of plant science but also created new opportunities for how we think about pressing issues like the future of botanical biodiversity.

Of course, digitization efforts connect us to more than just the scientific value of pressed plants. Who can be surprised, when herbarium specimens readily embody the intersection of science and art cherished by nature enthusiasts everywhere. One such fan was the poet Emily Dickson, whose enchanting collection of preserved flora, collected during a period when the formal study of science was inaccessible to many women, can now be accessed by anyone with an internet connection.

This collection of grasses is also dear to us for a different kind of connection – that of our institution’s relationship with Randall Morgan. Often known as Randy or R, Morgan was a pillar of the local natural history community. And though he passed away a few years ago, his influence on the natural world and those who celebrate it in Santa Cruz is evident from the the Sandhills that his activism helped to save, to the local chapter of the California Native Plant Society that he helped found, to this very Museum where he worked as a taxidermist to pay for studying linguistics at UC Santa Cruz. 

UCSC’s Norris Center for Natural History, the primary steward of Morgan’s collections, details in their vivid biographical rundown, Morgan’s love of nature began with birds and buoyed him through his life as a largely self taught naturalist. Even without formal training, his passionate observation of the world around led him to many achievements, including the discovery of new species, and his collection of plant voucher specimens that serves as the foundation of our understanding of plant biodiversity in the Santa Cruz Mountains. His story is inspiring in part because, like so many of those featured in the Norris Center-led exhibit Santa Cruz County Naturalists, it expands the notion of who can be a naturalist.

It’s inspiring to have this collection then, as a snapshot of the plant communities of California in the 1970s, but also as a window into Morgan’s dedicated observations of the natural world. As the Norris Center director Chris Lay mentions in the CNPS’s Randall Morgan memorial “When I look at plants I’ll be very satisfied if I can just tell you the species name. But Randy, he recognizes the diversity within the construct we call a species.”

For a deeper dive into the legacy of collector Randall Morgan, keep an eye on our April calendar for our next Collections Close-Up event.


A selection of native and non-native grasses collected by Randall Morgan in Soquel, CA.

Collections September 2019: California’s Stately Grass

photo of a collected sample of purple needlegrass from Soquel, CA

Grass gets a lot of attention for being green, but in California it can be gold, blue or even purple! While rolling golden hills are synonymous with many mental pictures of California, that gilded landscape is overrun by non-native species. In fact, the grasslands that cover almost a fifth of the state are dominated by plants from elsewhere. Despite this, California’s grasslands remain a biodiversity hotspot, with an immense variety of native grasses coexisting with other flora and fauna. One such species is the star of September’s close up: purple needlegrass or Stipa pulchra, California’s State Grass.

A perennial bunchgrass, purple needlegrass grows as a dense clump with tall stems that can reach higher than three feet. When it flowers in spring, these stems are topped by wispy, branching flowers. These give rise to the striking purple and red-tinged fruit or grain for which the plant is named. The grass then produces seeds that are pointed in shape with twisting bristles which act as a self-sowing mechanism, helping them to self-bury in the bare earth around the base of the mature clumped plants. Their far-reaching roots can dig down an impressive 15 feet or more into the soil, supporting the plants over a lifetime that can extend beyond 100 years.

While we’ve learned a lot about these plants, some things are still hard to know – like how widespread purple needlegrass actually was before the disruption of California’s native ecosystems. Beginning around 250 years ago, early colonists brought various changes, ranging from accidental arrivals like seeds caught in clothing to intentional alterations like the planting of new grasses for grazing cattle. In many cases this led to the introduction of non-native grasses that out-competed locals like purple needlegrass.

As we strive to understand our environment, its changes and challenges, it is critical to document species through observation and collection. This individual specimen is a window in time to the hillsides of Soquel in 1976, where it was collected by the late Randy Morgan. Beloved naturalist and teacher, Morgan was a life-long champion of Santa Cruz’s rich biodiversity heritage.

Purple needlegrass itself promotes biodiversity in a number of ways! For example, the seeds it produces, up to a whopping 227 pounds per acre, feeds a host of grassland animals. The grass itself is foraged by native ungulates like tule elk, mule deer, and pronghorns. The clumped shape of bunch grasses creates space for a whole slew of flowering plants and pollinators. Those deep reaching roots help fight erosion, maintain soil moisture, and support the growth of young oak seedlings.

Some of these same attributes that support a rich and interconnected community are also part of what makes purple needlegrass fire resilient, a hot topic in the minds of Californians everywhere. The grass’ clumping nature creates a discontinuous fuel pattern in the path of a fire. The long, water—grabbing roots of these grasses means they dry out later in the summer, making them less likely to burn during during large portions of fire season. Sadly, these benefits are often overwhelmed by the widespread presence of continuous golden carpets of shallow-rooted, invasive grasses that dry out earlier in the year than many indigenous species.

Grasses are only one of the many ingredients in the making of a California fire. For a rich discussion of fire ecology across the history and future of California, check our our upcoming panel discussion, California on Fire on September 19th. To dig in to California’s native plant communities, check out the local California Native Plant Society or garden with us at the Museum’s twice monthly Saturdays in the Soil. And now through the end of September, check out the fine details and striking hues of our preserved purple needlegrass, on display at this month’s Collections Close-Up exhibit.