Remote Research: Herbarium at Home

Throughout the world, closures and lockdowns aimed to stop the spread of COVID-19 have disrupted many people’s lives and work. As a global institution, the Missouri Botanical Garden does research around the world, making travel restrictions a major hindrance. The “stay at home” order means staff has lost access to the Garden’s herbarium and labs, too.

But of course, they’ve adapted. Some are using the time to catch up on data analysis. Others are completing manuscripts, which communicate the findings of their work, and floras, a descriptive list of plants in a particular region. And in more remote locations, like protected sites in Madagascar, conservation efforts go on.

“None of us are running out of stuff we can do,” says Jim Miller , Senior Vice President of Science and Conservation.  “Everybody’s got a laptop, we’re all able to work.”

Critical conservation work isn’t achieved just by venturing into wild, remote areas to locate rarely-seen species. It starts with identifying areas of high conservation value, where protecting landscapes can save many threatened species. Often, that can be done using samples from a herbarium, a collection of preserved plant specimens and related data used for scientific study.

With 7.5 million specimens, the Missouri Botanical Garden’s herbarium is among the largest in the world. It serves as a global database of plants and its specimens are crucial tools for research and conservation work. Maintaining this essential database requires a team of experts taking on tasks starting with receiving material and ending with mounting and filing specimens. Plant mounting, the last, critical step, is done by a group of dedicated staff who carefully unwrap delicate plants wrapped in newspapers and carefully adhere them to heavy sheets of paper. This transforms loose plant material into neatly arranged specimens that can be easily and safely handled, stored, and studied for centuries.

“Mounting specimens is a small, but essential step for ensuring their accessibility and long-term preservation,” says Jim Solomon, curator of the Herbarium. 

When the stay-at-home order went into place, Solomon made a commitment to find a way to make it possible to everyone on his team to continue working from home.

“I thought it was important that each person felt that they were contributing to the essential functions of the science program, even if they were not at the Garden.”

Jim Solmon, Herbarium Curator 

The work flow for planting mounting is essentially the same on or off site, Solomon explained, so research staff  packed up boxes of unmounted specimens with labels and supplies ⁠—mounting paper, glue, drying boards and dental floss⁠—and sent them home with the team before the Garden closed. 

“I was very excited,” Plant Mounter Team Lead Sally Bommarito says. 

Typically, plant specimens can’t be taken home, which had Bommarito worrying how her team would continue their workload while they couldn’t access the Garden. The call from Solomon was a welcome surprise. 

“Jim Solomon is an awesome boss. This was his idea, and I really appreciate that,” she said.

Quickly, her team got to work.  There were some challenges, like adjusting to working in spaces that are much smaller than they’re used to, but the team has all adapted. And while they aren’t able to keep up with their typical large quote of each staff member mounting 40 specimens a day, they have been able to use the time to catch up on specimens that take a little extra time to process, mostly grasses. 

It’s been a smooth transition and the team checks in with each other almost every day. Bommarito even gets to see her colleagues through the window when they come to pick up more specimens from her front porch. But as soon as they can, they will go back to processing specimens at the Garden. Bommarito looks forward to that day. 

“I just miss being in the room with my team,” Bommarito says.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted every facet of our lives, the Garden’s critical work conserving plant life goes on. These efforts would not be possible without your support. Consider helping us continue our mission in these uncertain times by becoming a member or making a donation.

Catherine Martin
Public Information Officer

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