Why do we collect plants?
People have been collecting plant specimens since the late 15th century when they were gathered as a reference for medicinal, herbal, or ceremonial uses. Today they are collected and placed in herbaria for scientific research, which includes the positive identification of each known species. These specimens also provide a record of when a plant was growing in a specific place for distributional studies, genetic material for the study of plant systematics, and even to assist forensic scientists when plant evidence is presented in criminal cases.
In West Tennessee there’s a special need to collect plant specimens, since over time comparatively little work has been done. Species richness, or how many different species can be found in a defined space, varies greatly across the 21 counties. I’m seeing too much contrast in plant diversity among the counties, and even after considering land development the species richness over all counties is low. More than 3,100 species have been documented from all of West Tennessee, but some counties report fewer than 300 species. This suggests many species are missing from the record, and that perhaps rare or even new species exist here.
(number of species/km² x 100)
NOTE: I’m currently gathering the data for each county, and will have it updated soon
KNOX COUNTY, EAST TENNESSEE (for comparison)
What is a herbarium?
A herbarium is a natural history collection of preserved plant specimens. These specimens are recorded and stored systematically for study and reference—much like a library. A herbarium is also the name given to a museum where these specimens are housed.
Below is a picture taken at the US National Herbarium located in the Smithsonian Institution.
There are three herbaria in West Tennessee: The University of Memphis Herbarium, which has been reopened after 30 years in storage, and two small herbaria at Rhodes College and the University of Tennessee Martin. These herbaria support researchers and West Tennessee communities by providing valuable information about the regional flora through their collections and the knowledge of their staff.
To learn more about how a herbarium operates and the value of plant collections, click the image below to watch a short video produced by the Botanical Research Institute of Texas.
How can I get involved?
Collecting plants in the field and submitting them to a herbarium
Helping out in a herbarium to preserve and document collected specimens
Using Notes From Nature at home to record label data for imaged specimens
If you’re new to plant collecting, see the COLLECTING section of this website for an overview of the process. You can also contact me through this website if you like, and we can set up a time to meet at the University of Memphis where I can go over the procedures of scientific collecting with you. I’m always willing to help out, and I keep an open invitation to anyone who would like to join me on a local collecting trip for first-hand experience.
If you’d like to volunteer at the University of Memphis Herbarium, we’d be more than happy to have you join us. When new specimens arrive they need to be mounted on archival paper, documented in the database, and filed away. There’s always a backlog of specimens, and lots of other little projects to be done around the herbarium to keep things going. To visit the herbarium for an orientation, just send a quick message to me saying you'd like to check it out and we'll set up a time for you to come in.