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Natural History Museum’s Plant Collection Growing, Evolving since 1920

Published: 12/03/2019

By: Carla Nelson

The John D. Freeman Herbarium of the Auburn University Natural History Museum houses around 85,000 unique plant, lichen, fungi and bryophyte specimens, the oldest dating back to 1840. Collections Manager Curtis Hansen has helped grow the collection for the last 20 years.

Hansen said he fell in love with the study of botany as an undergrad at the University of Utah and then earned a Master’s of Botany from Brigham Young University as well as a Master’s of Biological Sciences from Auburn University.

The first herbarium at Auburn University began with the founding of the university in 1859, but these collections succumbed to fire, twice – once in 1887 and again in 1920. The growth of the current collection dates back to 1920. The Freeman Herbarium was named after late 1960s to mid-1990s curator John D. Freeman.

The herbarium is always growing and working to increase the diversity of the plant specimens. Approximately 60 percent of the collection is derived from Alabama and the southeastern United States, but one way the herbarium works to diversify the collection is through exchange programs with herbaria throughout the world. This is how the herbarium has accumulated many specimens older than 1920.

The Freeman Herbarium exchanges specimens with other institutions including  the Natural History Museum in Vienna, Austria; the Australian National Herbarium in Canberra, Australia; as well as herbaria in California and Wyoming.

“If a student is interested in a particular group, such as sunflowers, it’s neat to see what we have in Alabama and the southeast, but to actually understand the family you have to look at it globally,” Hansen explained. “So, if we can have broader representation from around the world that helps students to understand what’s going on with the biology and the life history and it expands their understanding.”

Hansen estimates that the Freeman Herbarium at the Natural History Museum brings in approximately 1,000 to 1,200 new plant specimens each year.

“My goal is hopefully in the next 10 years to hit 100,000 in the collection,” he said. “That starts to move us from a small to medium university herbarium to a pretty good size as far as total numbers go.”

Part of Hansen’s job as collections manager includes research, publishing papers, and the day-to-day operations of the herbarium, but he said one aspect he enjoys most is having the opportunity to go out in the field and collect plant specimens.

“Alabama is probably the fifth or sixth most diverse plant state within the United States,” Hansen said. “I feel we’ve got a stewardship to protect that diversity. That’s one reason we need to maintain these collections. Any question in biology really begins with a specimen, whether it’s a plant collection or a snake, bird or fish, it begins with a specimen in hand.”

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