Monday, June 30, 2014

Mount Holyoke's Herbarium: Plants of the Past

Hello good readers! My name is Kimberly, and I will be writing to you from the Archives & Special Collections this summer. I am a class of 2016 Studio Art major who loves to get her hands on books and paper. I will be bringing you tales from “The Treasure Room,” as the Special Collections were once called, of rare books, odd objects, and other treasures every few weeks this summer.

Did you know we have an herbarium at Mount Holyoke? An herbarium is a collection of dried plants. The plants are usually pressed, mounted on paper, labeled, and organized by taxonomy. “Herbarium” can refer to a collection bound into a book or to cabinets full of millions of specimens, and anything in between. An herbarium could be a small book of pretty pressed flowers, or a carefully curated scientific collection.

The making of herbaria was once a common practice at Mount Holyoke. Mary Lyon herself kept an herbarium, which became the nucleus around which the college built its collection. Students collected plants for their botany classes, which were a required part of the curriculum from 1837-38 to 1897-98. They gathered and pressed plants for their own personal herbaria books and for the college collection. Collecting plant specimens was an approved activity during the daily walks required of all students in the early days of Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. Botany professors Lydia Shattuck and Henrietta Hooker made substantial additions to the herbarium. Emily Dickinson (a non-graduate of the Class of 1849) kept an herbarium, which is now at Harvard’s Houghton Library and can be viewed online. The herbarium was a regular part of coursework until about 1905.

In 1917 the original collection was lost when Williston Hall, the art and science building, burned down. Professor Alma Stokey, who served the botany department from 1908 to 1942, developed a new herbarium with three focuses: New England flora, plants of economic importance, and a collection of ferns and fern allies, which were Professor Stokey’s specialty. She reached out to students, alumni, professors, and other colleges for plant specimens to form the new collection. Professor Stokey also made quite a few contributions of her own, travelling all over the world to collect fern specimens and making exchanges with other institutions. The new herbarium continued to grow, despite getting less and less attention from classes. Oberlin College, Professor Stokey’s alma mater, donated over 700 specimens in 1934-35, and, in 1938-39, 1200 new specimens were added, with many of the plants being remounted and relabeled. One thousand more plants were added by Professor Ethel Eltinge in 1963-64. Despite the college’s long dedication to its herbarium, the collection was essentially forgotten in the 1970s, when the biology department was focused on new equipment and short on space.

The Mount Holyoke College herbarium still has much to show us. It is both a part of our college history and a window into plant life of the past. Herbaria can offer insight into the lives of particular plant populations over time and sometimes contain plants that no longer grow in a particular area. They provide an opportunity to examine plants from near and far in person.

These old plants will see some light again soon in an upcoming archives exhibit in the display cases around LITS. If you are curious to see these items sooner, take a look at Hannah Louisa Plimpton Peet Hartwell’s herbarium in our digital collections, or come in to the Archives in Dwight Hall and take a look at Lydia Shattuck’s herbarium, or the herbaria of Elizabeth A. Smith (a non-graduate of the Class of 1849), Francis L. McMaster (Class of 1861), and Anna R. Leonard (Class of 1869). Smith College and UMass Amherst also have herbaria that you can visit.

Images from the herbarium of Hannah Louisa Plimpton Peet Hartwell

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