NU’s longest-serving faculty member, Lauren Howard, reflects on the creation of a treasured plant specimen collection
NORWICH RECORD | Fall 2021
Herbaria are repositories of dried plant specimens used to document native flora, species ranges, frequency, and diseases. They are even being used today in genetic research.
When I arrived as a young biology faculty member in 1976, there were just a few herbarium specimens in our department, some of them local plants dating back to the 1890s. In 1980, I organized the Norwich University Herbarium and registered it with the Index Herbariorum, enabling it to become internationally recognized. Early on, I visited the Pringle Herbarium at the University of Vermont, where I was allowed to select several hundred duplicate specimens that were available, many of them collected by famous botanists. Our collection at Norwich has now grown to over 15,400 specimens, mostly collected by over 500 Norwich students who took Plant Taxonomy, Dendrology & Silvics or conducted independent-study research projects with me over the past 40 years. When a recent private donation of 3,600 specimens to the Norwich University Herbarium is worked up, the collection will top 19,000 specimens. There are also many thousand student specimens still waiting to be processed.
Our herbarium has been used extensively for teaching, providing plant specimens for students to identify in botany classes. (You can imagine how helpful a teaching aid this is following the first hard frost of fall or during the long, snow-covered months of the “spring” semester.) As global warming has become a major threat, stressing plants near the edges of their ranges, many states are currently involved in computer mapping from herbarium specimens. The Norwich herbarium has also been utilized and cited in guides, such as the New Flora of Vermont, published by the New York Botanical Garden Press. Although most of our specimens come from central Vermont, New England, New York, and New Jersey, ours is a diverse collection representing 192 plant families and thou-sands of species. We have specimens from all over the United States, including Florida, Texas, California, Washington, Michigan, and Kansas.
There are about 3,100 herbaria worldwide and 15 in New England with plant collections of 10,000 or more. Of these, Norwich currently has the tenth largest herbarium (soon to be the ninth largest) and is the second largest in Vermont after the Pringle Herbarium at the University of Vermont. This next semester, which will be my last teaching at Norwich, I plan to start working up our recently acquired Tinkham collection. After I retire, I hope to be able to continue work in the herbarium, entering the thousands of student specimens I have not yet had time to process. Their work will endure, preserving snapshots of our wonderous natural world for future students and scientists to study.
Prof. Lauren D. Howard, PhD is a fellow of the Vermont Academy of Arts and Sciences.He has taught at Norwich for 46 years and will retire at the end of the 2021–22 academic year.