Cauliflory in the living collections

Today I visited the Teaching Plant Collection in the Biological Sciences Greenhouse. It was wonderful being surrounded by fruiting papaya trees, towering Amorphophallus leaves, millions of maidenhair ferns, and other wonders! 

One of my favorites was this blooming cacao tree (Theobroma cacao). Yes, the chocolate tree! This species is cauliflorous, meaning the flowers sprout directly from the stem. This is a rare sight in western Virginia. The eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) is one of the few local examples of this phenomenon. 

Before you get too hungry, know that any fruits will take months to mature. You would then have to remove the seeds from the fruits and process them by fermentation, drying, roasting, and grinding to produce chocolate!

Botanical illustrations in the collection

Today I have been looking at illustrations in the Flora of Virginia and discovered that some of these illustrations were prepared using Massey Herbarium specimens. Lara Call Gastinger made this line drawing of American basswood (Tilia americana) using a loan of our material! If you have the Flora of Virginia, you can check out the Ilex collina, Juglans nigra, Juglans cinerea, and Sanicula smallii illustrations to see more Massey Herbarium art!

Caring for the collection

Natural history collections can last for hundreds of years but they need care and attention along the way. We recently installed a data logger to monitor the temperature, humidity, and light intensity in the herbarium. Humidity is an especially big threat to plant specimens.

This graph shows the humidity (blue line), light intensity (green line), and temperature (black line) in the herbarium over the last couple months. You can start to pick up on patterns pretty quickly: the big spike in light intensity most days is from turning on the room lights. You can pick out weekends and collecting days by noticing where the light intensity doesn't spike. 

I labelled a couple of the spikes in maroon on the graph. Around June 20, you can see the humidity sharply increase and the temperature drop. This was caused by a broken water pipe leaking in the collection. (Fortunately no specimens were damaged!) And on July 14 you can see the humidity and temperature increase because of a broken air handler in the building.

Data like these let us ensure the herbarium is properly curated and pinpoint possible problems before they damage specimens.

Finding the Hartford fern

Last week Massey Herbarium staff ventured to the Jefferson National Forest in search of Montgomery County's only population of Hartford fern (Lygodium palmatum). Curator Jordan Metzgar and retired curator Tom Wieboldt re-located this small population on a rainy afternoon. 

All plants at the site were sterile and the population seems to be decreasing in size since it was first observed in the 1980s. 

Hartford fern has a well-deserved reputation for its beauty. This splendor also led to it being one of the first plants protected by law in 1869!